Waking up in Santiago feels pretty darn good. It takes a moment to realize, however, that you’re in a room by yourself and you have nowhere to walk.
My body shifts into healing mode the moment I arrive. I typically feel sorer on the first day in Santiago than I do the whole trip.
I set my alarm for 7am, not because I had to walk any further, but because it was time to get my Compostela. This is the ancient document that proves you completed the pilgrimage. The stamps you collected along the way act as proof that you didn’t skip 100 miles by bus.
In the old days, Catholics believed that walking the Camino cut your time in purgatory by half. It even used to take the place of prison time in some circumstances. In those days, you’d receive a scallop shell to prove you walked the Camino, and then, you’d walk home. Because how else would you get there?
In the Before Times (this is what I call the time before Covid), the Camino was so busy during its high season that it used to take hours to get your certificate, if you managed to get it at all. But, the Camino organization came up with it a new brilliant system to keep you from missing out on your day. Line up at 8am, receive a number like at a deli counter, and return when it’s your time to wait in line. I imagine it came in great use when the Camino reopened with social distancing.
I knew two things from my past experiences: get there by 7:30 and to get food and coffee for the wait. I recalled an open cafe from 2017 and ducked inside for a chocolate croissant and a quick espresso. I took the croissant for my wait in line.
“That was smart!” the woman behind me in line said when she saw my breakfast.
“I learned my lesson two years ago. I’ll hold your spot if you want to go grab one!”
She ignored my question, but rambled on with passion. “How long do you think they’ll make us wait here? I hear it’s supposed to rain. Haven’t we been through enough after walking this far?”
Oh no. What had I done? Clearly by opening myself up to conversation, I’d unleashed something inside her.
“It’s actually supposed to be quite quick!” I assured her. For the next half hour, she called out to anyone who looked like they were cutting (they weren’t), and kept questioning the group what was taking so long. She considered asking someone in the building for a manager and at one point yelled at a mail carrier walking next door. You can take the Karen out of the US but you can’t take the US out of Karen.
I felt for her, though. So much panic. Hadn’t the Camino helped with that at all?
At 8am sharp, a nice volunteer handed out numbers. Anyone up to number 50 could wait in line, the rest could go away and track their progress on their phones or wait in a side chapel to get out of the rain. Karen was 51.
They suggested the side waiting room to her and she nearly set on fire. “Where are they making us go? I’m not being forced into some side room! When will they let us leave?!” I calmly tried to explain that it was optional–this entire hullabaloo was very optional–but she insisted on staying. I stopped engaging. I thought that walking hundreds of miles would break down someone’s entitlement, but perhaps her transformation would come in time.
When I made it to the front of the line, I gave my name and passport to the person behind the desk and received my third Compostela. I saw Karen come in behind me and ask a lot of frantic questions to the poor volunteer. I snuck out of the room before she could call me over for more assistance I wouldn’t be able to give.
I meandered back through the city, taking in every familiar corner, stone, and steeple where I’d already set down so many memories. That’s where I bought my mom a gift in 2008, that’s where the twins I’d hiked with in 2009 sat on the stone wall to watch the sunset, that’s the fancy hotel that I plan to stay in one day when I have more money. So much of it was already a part of me.
I rounded the corner to my hotel and a Hemingway-type man was leaning in the doorway with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. He was chatting with the hotel owner in Spanish but I could tell he was from the south based on his accent.
“Are you from the US, I asked?”
“Used to be. Not from anywhere now,” he answered, in an appropriately cryptic manner. “You get your compostela?”
I explained that it didn’t take long with the new system, especially compared to the old days, which, as I guessed, he was familiar with.
“I used to walk the Camino. I did many times. Now I just stay. Sometimes I leave, but mostly, I stay,” he grumbled, not helping clarify anything. Cool cool.
I nodded my head in an understanding way (though I did not understand) and shuffled slowly toward the steps. I explained I was meeting some friends and would see them both later. Hemingway went back to the door frame with his cigarette and picked up a conversation with the woman behind the bar once again. Maybe that will be me someday.
I didn’t have complicated plans for the day, but I did have a few things to check off my list–laundry, Indian food, hug the pilgrim, drinks with Camino family, pants.
Let me explain the Indian food and hugging the pilgrim. And the pants. First, the food. In 2017, after completing the 500-mile walk with my friend Christina, we were desperate for spices. Spanish food is incredible, but after five weeks of chorizo, potatoes, and olive oil, visions of curry keep you up at night. Christina is also a vegetarian, which meant that she ate bread, cheese, and potatoes for five weeks.
Not only had we found an Indian restaurant in Santiago, but we also found one run by an incredibly kind family that made us feel deeply welcomed. I promised I’d return every time I was in town.
As for the pilgrim–there are many traditions when you reach Santiago. Typically, you walk right into the cathedral, walk up behind the altar and hug–yes, hug–a gold and jewel-covered St. James. There’s even a little step so you can get a good snug. Afterward, you can go into the area below the altar and say a prayer for where they believe he was found. I like to respect the rituals of ancient places, so these two things bring me peace. I keep thinking about how non-Covid friendly the hugging ritual is. If Ben and I are able to go back next year, I truly hope that ritual has returned. Man, do I need a good hug from a trusty old golden statue.
As for the pants–there’s no exciting story here–I wanted a pair of jeans and a cardigan for the trip home. I bought them at a Zara. That’s it.
I packed up my dirty clothing in a plastic bag and headed back outside in the late morning to The Pilgrim House, a new center opened by former pilgrims who wanted to provide a place to rest and reflect after finishing your hike.
I cannot reiterate how special this place is. After spending weeks in the world of pilgrimage, arriving in Santiago can be incredibly overwhelming and lonely. The small center gives you a place to hide from the city noise and tourism and just sit in silence with a journal or some pilgrim company.
They also had a washing machine. I dropped off my clothing and left a donation in the box after chatting with the Pilgrim House owner. If I had one thing I’d do one the Camino someday–other than opening an incredible albergue–it would be to open up a center like this one for people to rest after their walk and maintain the pilgrim mindset. More and more of them are popping up in the area.
The afternoon moved too quickly. I ate at my favorite Indian restaurant, took photos with my Camino family, and headed to the same Italian restaurant I’d also eaten at with Christina in 2017. It still had the same wifi password saved in my phone.
Before I knew it, the sun was already starting to shift into a deep orange. Tomorrow I’d have to leave this place. Days without walking go so quickly. How do you slow them down?
At 6pm, a small underground bar opened called Modus Vivendi. Friends, if you ever find yourself in Santiago, please go here. The place looks like it belongs in 1960s NYC. The space is half-cave, half-wooden pub and the wall decor makes absolutely no sense in the best way possible. They’re all lined with vintage beer cans, nonsensical decor, and framed photos of bar patrons all in the same strange pose.
The bar also had all the locally made beers–a trend that’s coming up in Spain pretty quickly. Mine was made with water from the local river! I thought back to my craft beer bartender in Porto and wondered if they’d be open when I went back down before my flight.
The bartender–who was somewhere between annoyed with this random influx of pilgrims and generally enchanted by our weirdness and love for one another. Every time someone else from our family walked in the door, we cheered!
We had the run of the place for nearly four hours–Santiago doesn’t pick up the pace until at least 11pm. We told stories, sang songs, drank schnapps, and when the time came, started to say goodbye. I was the first one to leave. It was coming on midnight and I didn’t want to be too drunk to enjoy my soft hotel bed, and I’d be headed in the wrong direction if I had another drink.
When I said I had to go, I didn’t realize the weight of my words until I saw tears in the eyes of some of my friends. This was, quite possibly, the last time we’d ever all be in the same room together. How is that possible? I depended on these people. I loved them. How was I supposed to simply walk away?
Before my emotions took over, I gave long hugs and walked outside to take a deep breath. The streets were nearly empty and the rain was starting to clear up. Everything looked clean and ready for the next day’s worth of hopeful pilgrims.
Turning into the main plaza, emotion overcame me. I’d come so far and worked so hard to be here–again. And now I had to say goodbye. In 2008, when I studied the Camino at my college, I remember the day I drove into the city on a bus. I laid back on my seat, staring up at the clouds going by while listening to Simon & Garfunkel. At 21, I was far more into trusting my strange gut feelings that I am today. I felt like I was about to encounter something powerful. I fell in love with Santiago de Compostela before I ever hiked the Camino.
Walking there was worth all the blisters, hills, and angry dogs. It was worth the snoring, the insomnia, the uncomfortable bunk beds, and the early mornings. It was worth saying goodbye in an airport and turbulence and squirreling money away for months.
This is a city where people from all cultures come together with one common purpose. They may not believe in the hike for the same reasons, but those differences don’t matter. We all want the same thing–to see one another arrive in Santiago. To cheer each other on, to have a drink and hear about what it’s like to live in their country, to debate, to discuss, to be honest. To inspire, to confuse, to question, and to give one another the space to be themselves without all the filters we’ve picked up at home.
I don’t know if the Catholics were right or if the pre-Christina tribes were right. But there is something special about this place, even if it only special because the people that go there. Or maybe Santiago de Compostela (St. James of the Field of Stars) is actually linked to the heavens in some way. Who am I to decide either way?
I turned around in a circle to make a quick video of the moment. There is a man singing an operatic tune somewhere in the distance.
Walking back to my hotel room, I said goodbye, and started my trek home. Tomorrow it was time to go back to Porto.