Camino de Santiago

© Bruce Nichols - 2004

Camino #5
The Long Road Home

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My last Camino update was sent from Ponferrada, Spain on the first of May. I was hoping to find my Canadian friends and then try to get back to the states. I was partly successful in those aims though my ultimate return to the US would have to wait till the 15th of the month as I had originally arranged. Things did not always go as I was envisioning them. But as with much of this journey, I seemed to get what I needed rather than what I wanted. And my last two weeks in Spain and France were no exception.

The day after my last message I began my quest to find my friend Derek and the group he was leading along the last 100 miles of the Camino. My recollection of their schedule had them in Leon on the first or second of May and then in Villafranca from where they would begin their walk. So my walk on the second would take me to the Ave. Fenix alburgue in Villafranca where I hope the two Canadian girls I had met on my first time through that town would be able to offer some information about my friends.

Getting back on the Camino and walking again along the route I had traveled 8 or 9 days before was an interesting experience. I was off once again at first light threading my way through the narrow streets and out through the park along the river. As I walked I was amazed at some of the things that would jump out at me – funny recollections of things seen before that bubbled up from my memory when re-visited. In addition to the usual scenery and town landmarks a bunch of almost forgotten details made a second impression as I walked along. In a shop a set of bright red bolt cutters reminded me that I had looked into the same window when I passed before. The same happened when I passed a narrow nondescript alleyway peered into on both passages. A banana peel dropped from the side of a bridge lay black and slowly decaying into the grass where it had settled. And there were new things also, things missed on the first time around - the patterned rows of young grape vines climbing up a hillside to merge with the sky, a pond filled with the spring croaks of frogs, and new blossoms burst open along the Camino.

At 11 am I arrived at Ave. Finix and found Naia and Mandolin. Here I learned that Derek and troupe had been there two nights previous. I had been wrong about the date of their arrival. So I was in a bit of a quandary. I’d already walked about 24 kilometers and it was still another 20 to Ruitelan where I guessed they had spent the last night and another 10 uphill kilometers beyond that to O Cebreiro the hilltop village they would probably pass through sometime during the day. If I had arrived in Villafranca 15 minutes earlier, I could have had a ride all the way to O Cebreiro with one of the staff who was ferrying packs up to the top for some of the previous nights guests that preferred to do the long 3000 ft climb without carrying the extra weight. After chatting with the Canadian girls, I decided it might be possible to hitchhike up to O Cebreiro and possibly catch Derek’s group before they continued down the mountain.

I walked through town and started up the road with hopes of getting a ride. But that was not to be. Traffic was very light and the road both narrow and bordered for much of its length with Jersey type concrete barriers that made it almost impossible for a vehicle to stop safely. So I just kept on walking occasionally putting out my thumb and wondering if that even was the Spanish sign for wanting a ride. As the day and I marched on, my hope of finding Derek began to wane.

Eventually I arrived in Ruitelan, back at the Pequeño Patola where Carlos had treated me so well on my first visit. I reintroduced myself and inquired if Derek and friends had been there the night before and when they might have left. From Louis and Carlos in a combination of English and Spanish I learned that they had indeed spent the previous night there and had left after breakfast. How far they intended to walk that day or where they were planning to spend the night were not known. I next asked if there was anyone in the small village who might be able to drive me up to O Cebreiro. It seemed that my only hope or catching them would be to get at least that far and then see what happened. After some discussion Louis agreed to drive me the 6 or 7 miles up the mountain and he also knew what the support vehicle Derek was driving looked like. But O Cebreiro was as far as he could take me since he had other things to do back at the alburgue for the new guests who were already arriving.

I tried to determine what my next move would be once I got to the top of the mountain. My best guess was that Derek and company would have stopped for lunch and then moved on. My options seemed to be stay the night there and try to catch up in the morning or push on immediately and hope to find them before nightfall. I put my thoughts on hold and decided to wait till O Cebreiro to make a decision. And then a most amazing thing happened. When we pulled into the small village that is mostly a touristy Camino stop, Carlos jumped out of the car to check a small parking area on the chance that the car might be there. In two minutes he was back saying that yes, Derek’s car was in O Cebreiro and two minutes after that I was meeting the first of the group of 11 that were the Canadian Perigrinos. My relief was overwhelmed by an incredibly warm welcome from my new found friends. Vivica and Donna showed me the way to the local alburgue where I found a bunk in the same room with most of the group. Over the next hour or so I slowly met the others who were out wandering about the village and finally had a warm reunion with Derek who I met on the path between the hostel and the village.

For the next two days I enjoyed the warm companionship of the group that I had originally intended to walk with when I first responded to Derek’s Camino trip back in the fall of 2003. They welcomed me immediately into their circle and I got to experience a second Camino – one that moved at a somewhat slower pace and was filled with companionship on the trail, shared meals and breaks, and the wonderful gift of being able to communicate in English. We shared a fine meal in O Cebreiro the first night followed by a spectacular sunset from the top of the hill above the village.

The group gathered in the morning at 8 in a circle for inspiration, prayer, and a loose plan for the day. I shared the Peace is Every Step poem of Thich Nhat Hanh. Crystal, one of the women in the group also offered a verse from TNH to which I knew some music and sang. It seemed a fitting way to start this new phase of my Camino experience.

After a month on my own, I was amazed at how quickly I integrated into this group, though I think it was probably more a function of the wonderful mix of personalities and the easy and comfortable attitude of all. Derek with the help of Lucile, a Dutch woman who has helped co-lead his excursions on the Camino, made the experience all the richer both through thoughtful organization and a zest for both life and travel that was contagious. I continued to spend my first hour or so in the morning alone to have time for my routine of prayer, song, and meditation. I would leave a little earlier than the others and then slow down and wait to be caught. In two days I felt very close to my new comrades on the Camino and marveled at the depth of some of these connections.

But I was feeling, as I had on the trail to Finisterre, the need to head for home and with much reluctance I decided to leave the group after two days and see if I could return to the states. I was quite frustrated in these arrangements by the difficulty I was having contacting British Airways to inquire about my flight. On the internet I had found phone numbers in Spain, France, England, and the US but, try as I might, I could not seem to get through to inquire about changing my flight. So, on the morning of the 5th, in Sarria, I said goodbye to my new found friends all of whom had come to the train station both to check on their future travel plans and to bid me farewell. There were hugs all around and as the train pulled out I looked back in through the station window to catch a final glimpse before I rolled away.

That 11 AM departure was the start of about 30 hours of continuous travel back across Spain crisscrossing the Camino at first then heading north to the French border town of Hendaye on the Bay of Biscay where I arrived at 7 in the evening. At a little after 9 I boarded another train that would have me in Paris at around 7 the next morning. The hours rattled by. I starred out the window, dozed a little, and wondered what I would learn when I finally got to the airport.

When the train finally arrived in Paris, I collected my pack from the overhead rack, tried to stretch the kinks out of my back and legs and stepped down onto the crowed platform and started walking into the station to see how I might get to the airport. And there on the platform came one of the biggest and most welcome surprises – coincidences – of my journey.

When I first arrived in France and took the overnight train to Bayonne to begin my walk, I had met a woman on the train to St. Jean who had also taken the overnight train from Paris, though she was in a sleeper and I in the second class seating area. We rode together on the local train into St. Jean sharing our excitement about beginning the Camino and discussing the different routes to Roncevalles. Angelina was born in the Philippines, had lived in the US and was married to a German military officer. Together with another pilgrim we had walked from the station in St. Jean to the pilgrim’s office to collect our “credential”. It was there we were told about the poor conditions on the high route and discouraged from going that way. Angelina and the other woman left the office first and I thought I might find them and walk a bit before continuing on my own. As I related in my first message, I wound up on the high route and thought that would be the last I saw of Angelina who I knew would be much slower than I.

But on my first stop in Ruitelan at Carlos’ fine hostel, after settling my things in the bunkroom, I walked into the dining room to find Angelina seated at the table. It turned out she had gotten sick in the first few days of her walk and then taken a bus to jump ahead. We had a pleasant reunion, trading experiences and a hug and marveling at the fact that we had actually met again. I left early the next morning and once again assumed I would not see Angelina again.

Now as I walked along the platform, jostling among the many people getting of the train, I looked up and incredibly there was Angelina. Once again she had been on the same train in a sleeping compartment while I huddled on a bench seat in second class. I don’t know who was more surprised. We walked up to each other, hugged, shared a few brief words on our adventures since Ruitelan and then finally dragged out our cameras. I had regretted not taking a photo on the occasion of our second meeting and here, absolutely out of the blue, we were together again. I don’t pretend to know the reason for these three meetings but there is a very strong feeling that they had somehow been arranged by forces both much greater and more subtle than I could fathom. One more hug and I turned and walked into the station. I felt I had just encountered my “angel” of the Camino and thought it a good sign for the fulfillment of my desire to get back to the US. But on that account I was mistaken.

I got directions to the airport bus which involved a short walk to another train station and then a rush hour bus ride out to Charles DeGaulle Airport – perhaps my least favorite airport in the world. It sprawls around in a confusing tangle of roads and buildings with three separate terminals, a TGV railroad station, poor pedestrian access, and just an air of confusion. I missed my bus stop, got off at another and found I could not walk back but had to wait for a shuttle bus. The shuttle to Terminal 1 is bus #5, the shuttle to Terminal 3 is bus #1, and the shuttle to Terminal 2 is bus #3. Now, does this make any sense at all? I finally got aboard the right bus found the right bus stop and walked into the terminal only to find that there was no way that British Airways would change my bargain basement ticket. The only option if I wanted to return early was to spend about $1000 for a new one-way ticket, something I was entirely unprepared to do.

I now needed to figure out how I was going to spend the next 9 days. One possibility was to head back to Spain and try to find my Canadian friends again. This was a tempting option since I felt such deep connections with this group. Another idea that had been in my mind earlier in the journey was to head for Plum Village near Bordeaux where Thich Nhat Hanh the Vietnamese Buddhist Monk and teacher heads a small community and where I had been before. I decided to head first for Plum Village which was closer. If for some reason I could not stay there, I would go back to Spain.

I checked on trains from the Airport but found that there was an earlier one from Montparnasse in Paris that I could probably connect with via the Airport bus. I would need to make additional connections to get to St. Foy la Grande the closest station to Plum Village. While on the Camino I had gotten directions from their website just incase I had an opportunity to visit.

The trip by bus into Paris can take anywhere from 30 minutes to forever depending on the traffic and my ride that morning (it was still morning) was definitely tending toward the latter time frame. I did not make the train I wanted but once again this turned into a blessing in disguise since the next train made a stop in Libourne a much closer connecting point than Bordeaux. The woman who sold me my ticket, once she knew my final destination, gave me everything I needed to get to St. Foy.

While I waited for the TGV to depart I tried calling Plum Village to let them know I was coming. As with my attempts to contact the airlines, I had no success whatever getting through. I would just have to show up and see what happened. At about 6 in the evening, after over 30 hours of almost continuous traveling, I finally got down from the train in St. Foy and began to wonder how I would get the final miles to Plum Village. At this point I knew that I needed to take the D18 road but was not quite sure of the direction or distance. Because I had been there before I thought I would recognize the surrounding landscape once I got there. It took asking in two bars before I connected with someone who could help and would call a cab for me. I walked back to the train station and waited for my ride. When the cab arrived I inquired about the distance (20 kilometers) and the price (30 to 35 Euros or about $40). This seemed a lot but I didn’t have many options.

I dumped my pack in the back seat and got into the front and then watched the meter spin up the cost as we drove out into the lush wine country of Bergerac. The meter was nearing 30 when I recognized a landmark and was wondering if I should have the cab stop at the intersection a few K short of Plum Village and just walk the last bit. In almost the same moment we rounded a corner and approached two monks who were out for an afternoon walk. I told the driver to stop and let me out. The meter was at 29.50. I gave the driver 30 and when I tried to give him a bit more, he refused. I introduced myself to the monks, both Vietnamese and one of whom spoke English and began to walk along with them.

We talked a bit about Plum Village, my previous visit and also my visit to the Deer Park facility in California in February. But mostly we just walked - I relieved to be close to my destination, they just enjoying their evening walk. When we came to the intersection I remembered they encouraged me to go with them along a slightly longer route that would lead past a new piece of property recently acquired by the community.

Eventually we found our way to Upper Hamlet, one of four enclaves. This is where I had stayed on my earlier visit in 1998 and where the male monastics make their home. Much was the same as I had remembered though there had been some new additions and improvements. One of the gatas or sayings often used in both sitting and walking meditation in Plum Village are the words, “I have arrived, I am home.” It had been my intention when leaving Spain to “go home”. Though I had not arrived at the destination I had set out for, I felt I had been directed to the place I needed to be for a while.

The day I arrived, Thursday May 6, was the day before the end of a large retreat. There were about 700 retreatants spread around the various facilities and at the time of my arrival most of the monks were busy with the ongoing program. I was directed to the kitchen, offered some food to eat and told someone would be with me soon. The first message Plum Village had for me was posted on the back of the door that led into the dining room. It read, “Old misfortunes entirely swept way. Fresh opportunities in abundance.” After my experience at the end of the Camino – finding the “door of pardon” in the cathedral and the strong sense of the closure of a period of my life as I walked on to Finisterre, this message seemed a confirmation of all that I had been experiencing and feeling. I knew I was in the right place.

For the next 8 days I rested, met new friends, renewed acquaintances with a couple of people I had encountered in Deer Park in February, and got to spend two days listening to the profound words of Thich Nhat Hanh, a teacher that I hold in the highest regard.

The first of those talks took place on the day after my arrival, which was the last day of the French retreat. The talk was about birth and death – how we tend to see these events as a beginning and ending when the reality is that they are simply transitions. “Birth is not a new existence, just a new manifestation - Just as a cloud does not come from nothing and go to nothing... Reality transcends the concepts of Being and non-Being.”

At the end of the French retreat the community was treated to 4 “lazy days” in a row. No specific schedule other than meals and a very relaxed and quite time. This proved to be just the right thing for me. I had come down with a cold, perhaps acquired during the long hours confined to train cars with an assortment of fellow travelers. And rest was a welcome balm. I found some English books to read (a biography of the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, and a travelogue written by an Indian grad student about a trip by truck across western China and Tibet.) I read, rested a lot, enjoyed the wholesome vegetarian menu after a month of living on cheese sandwiches and chocolate, and walked the beautiful green countryside around Plum Village.

Over the next week I made some new friends, recognized a few faces from previous stays at Deer Park in California and Maple Forest Monastery in Vermont, and enjoyed the quiet ocean of peace that blankets Plum Village. Wyn and Khan were a Vietnamese couple from Australia who had arrived about two weeks before I had and were planning a long stay at Plum Village. Wyn had seen me folding origami cranes and wanted to learn how to make them so I offered a couple of lessons. They had been among the first boat refugees out of Vietnam at the end of the war in the mid 70’s and told me of being adrift on a disabled and sinking boat overloaded with people and far from shore. They were fortunately rescued by a Japanese freighter and wound up in Australia. Since they were the first group to arrive in that country, they were welcomed, offered housing and opportunities and eventually became Australian citizens. But they also said that the transition had been hard and that it took years before they really began to feel that their new country was home.

Another fellow, Adrian, from Switzerland, lent me a pair of scissors so I could trim my rather wild beard.

Finally there was Phap Lu’u a novice monk who had grown up in Newtown, Connecticut just a few miles from my home in Shelton. He was tall and lean and in his mid 20’s, a Dartmouth graduate, who had been a cross-country runner. He had approached me when he learned I was also from Connecticut and we had several good talks about home, Plum Village and our respective spiritual journeys. On Sunday the 9th I had passed him in a phone booth making a call and later noticed that someone had written on the message board that it was Mother’s day, something I had forgotten. I called my mother because of that note and later discovered that Phap Lu’u had written it after calling his mother (he had been talking to her when I passed him), also not realizing that it was Mother’s Day till she thanked him for calling on that occasion. Before I left he asked me to hand carry a letter to his mom and also gave me a little money to buy her some flowers – a delivery I will make in a few days. He gave me a second letter to deliver to an uncle in Shelton who, it turns out, I already know if only very casually - perhaps another indication that my arrival at Plum Village was not entirely by chance.

There would be one more gathering with Thich Nhat Hanh on the day before my departure. He gave an incredible talk about our tendency to run around in circles searching for things outside ourselves that we already possess inside. He emphasized the need to live in the moment and to truly appreciate the incredible miracle of simply being alive. “The day you lay down to die,” he said, “you cannot bargain for another day. Today, this day is available. If you are lucky, tomorrow also.” His words seemed to go right to the heart of a number of issues that I had been thinking about both on the Camino and since my arrival in Plum Village. After the talk I mentioned to Phap Lu’u that it seemed that Thay had been speaking directly to me. It was interesting that in a discussion group later in the afternoon several others made the same comment.

On the 14th of May I packed my bags and took a noontime train into Bordeaux. One of my roommates who was also leaving to return to his home in Germany showed me where the hostel in town was located and I checked in for the night so I could catch an early morning train directly to the airport. I spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the streets of Bordeaux a beautiful and busy city of broad thoroughfares and narrow streets all bordered by bright off-white stone buildings.

I returned to the hostel and crawled into bed at about 9 and slept fitfully knowing I had to get up at 5 to get to the station for my train. The door to the hostel was supposed to open at 5 and the woman who checked me in in the afternoon said there might be coffee and cereal (breakfast was included in the hostel cost but was not officially started till 7). But no one was around. I ate a yogurt I had purchased the day before and, at 5:30, tried the front door, which was locked and required a key to open. I went to the rear entrance which was also locked but which had a twist knob that freed the door. I exited the hostel only to find myself in a closed courtyard. Near the street there was a gate but it too was locked and I finally had to climb up onto a garbage bin and scale the wall to get to the street. But finally I was on my way.

Over the next 30 hours I traveled by train to Paris, plane to London, another plane to Kennedy airport in New York. From there a subway took me into New York City where at midnight I walked about 7 blocks down 42nd Street in a thunderstorm with lightening sending bright flashes down into the concrete canyons of Manhattan as I walked to Grand Central Station.

I caught the last train of the night to Connecticut and at 3:30 am on Sunday morning stepped down onto the platform in Stratford and began the 10-mile walk to my home in Shelton. It seemed a most fitting way to conclude my journey. The pavement was still wet from the passing storm and the last few scattered drops of rain made dark ripples on the puddles as I set out. But as I walked through the dark streets, the sky began to clear and a few stars shown dimly overhead.

By 4:30 a little light began to show in the east and birdsong slowly started to echo out of the surrounding trees. I walked out of my day and night of travel and into a new day. In the last mile I turned aside from the roads and followed a dirt track up through green woods and then down the backside of the hill to arrive at the south boundary of the property that had been my grandfather’s dairy farm. Then across those now overgrown pastures through tall wet grass that soaked my shoes, socks, and pants up to my knees, finally emerging on the state highway directly across from my driveway and the short uphill walk to my backdoor. A journey completed, another just begun.

I am reminded of the lines from T S Elliot:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Blessings to all,

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page revised - 07/04/2004
All text and photos © Bruce Nichols