Friday, December 5, 2008


Here are some random photos from a weekend trip to London a few weeks ago. Since most of you know London better than I do, I don't need to sell you on it. We went to a couple shows (Aida and Wicked), visited a few museums and ate some great food. I'm looking forward to going back this weekend.

Las Islas Canarias

After I finished the pilgrimage, I went to the Canary Islands for a few days to recover. I visited the two islands closest to Africa, Lanzarote and Fuerteventura. They are two of the least populated islands, so good weather and beaches are probably the main attractions. Lanzarote also has an amazing national park called Timanfaya. The park consists of almost thirty volcanoes that create an almost other-worldly landscape. NASA came to the park to test equipment before they landed on the moon because supposedly Timanfaya is as moon-like as it gets on Earth. It is also so hot in some places that you can only visit on camels.

Before I went to Fuerteventura, I got online and looked for the cheapest hotel I could find close to the beaches. Most of the hotels on that island are all-inclusive and, for that reason, all-the-way-out-of-my-budget. I decided to stay at the one hotel I could find in a town called Corallejo. It was literally the most disgusting place I have ever slept. It made my grungiest apartment in the DR look like a polished royal residence. There was no water or electricity or sheets. I was sitting on my bed when a couple burst into my room by mistake because my lock didn’t work either. Then it hit me that this hotel may or may not be a house of ill-repute. So, I left as quickly as I could to find a new place. Unfortunately, that was the only hotel in that town so I spent most of the night wandering around the streets of Corallejo. I eventually found a little restaurant called Da Uli that my travel book recommended with this description: “You won’t pay much more than 5 Euros for a full meal here, but the food is worth one million dollars.” Truer words were never spoken. It was run by an Italian man who spent his time cooking whatever he felt like on that particular day. I don’t know how much I ate that night (I was there for several hours watching three football games) but it wasn’t enough. It was one of those magic dining experiences that changes your whole perspective on life. Needless to say, the meal made up for the trouble at my hotel.

Thursday, December 4, 2008


The Botafumeiro is one of the coolest parts of the Pilgrims' Mass. It is a giant "incensory" or "smoke expeller" in Gallego. It is 1.6 meters in height and it weights 80 kilograms. As you'll see in the video, a group of clergymen use a pulley system to swing it across the transept of the cathedral. It's sort of like the circus, but for pilgrims.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Por Fin, Santiago

I started the final day of the pilgrimage in Sarria, about 115 kilometers from Santiago. Considering the distance I had covered in the previous seven days, 115 kilometers seemed like a cakewalk - a really cold, beautiful, green, rural cakewalk. Galicia looks a lot more like the English countryside than the plains of Castilla y León. Spain’s diversity is one of the main reasons I love this country so much. Each region has its own climate, its own cultural traditions, and, in several cases, its own language. I hope that diversity has come through in the pictures I’ve posted on this blog.

In late October, Galicia is wet and cold, but it is also gorgeous. It seems like there are mountains and rivers everywhere, and there are more cows than people. The morning I was crossing these mountains, there was thick fog filling the valleys like soup. Above the fog the sky was blue and the sky was shinning, but in the valleys there were times I couldn’t see twenty feet ahead of me and it was cold. Did I mention that it was cold? The hair on my hands and my face froze and I had frozen snot under my nose (think Dumb and Dumber - I thought about it and it kept me laughing all morning). As I carved my way through this fog, I made a couple stops. Portomarín was my favorite of these fog-stops. It was already an important stop along the Camino in the eleventh century. During the twelfth century, the entire city was dismantled by doña Urraca, queen of Castilla y León, as she tried to stop the advance of her husband Alfonso el Batallador, king of Aragón. You can still see the markings her troops made on the Church of San Nicolás so that they would be able to reconstruct it after the war had finished.

After passing through dozens of little farming towns, I finally made it to a hill called el Monte do Gozo where you can see the city and Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela for the first time. During the middle ages, pilgrims fell on their knees, sang hymns and gave thanks for the protection they had received along the Camino. I didn’t see any modern pilgrims following suit, but I could tell they were equally moved in their own way. I was there at sunset and it was one of the great moments of the pilgrimage for me. As I looked out over the city and saw the towers of the Cathedral, I felt like I had accomplished something worthwhile.

It took me over an hour to finish the final five kilometers of the pilgrimage and arrive at the city center. When I finally found a hotel with a free room, I showered, put on some clean clothes and headed for the Plaza del Obradoiro, the heart of old Santiago. I bought something to eat in the square and then I just sat there for a long time and looked up at the cathedral. It is an impressive building and it must have been overwhelming for medieval pilgrims who had spent months on the road dreaming of it. Although the current façade dates from the first half of the eighteenth century, the previous one, which boasted the famous Pórtico de la Gloria, must have been equally impressive.

Early the next morning, Helen, Javi and Ann (my Spanish family) met up with me outside the Cathedral. I was thrilled to see them again. They have really spoiled me while I have been in Spain and it was great to be able to share part of the Camino with them. After I picked up my official pilgrim’s certificate (La Compostelana), we went to the Pilgrims’ Mass in the cathedral. During the mass, they announced the pilgrims who had arrived that day and I was the only one from the United Sates. Then, as part of the mass, the archbishop gave a inspiring sermon about looking after others. He said that God speaks to each of us in a different way, whether it be through books, music, nature or other people. That inspiration, according to the archbishop, always encourages us to lift and bless others. I was just waiting for him to say “when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.” After the Mass, we headed out to the coast to Finisterre, the most westerly point in Spain. During the Middle Ages, pilgrims would come out to Finisterre after they had been to Santiago. They would burn their clothes, bathe in the ocean and dive for a scallop shell (the symbol of the pilgrimage) to prove to people back home that they had in fact completed the pilgrimage. Although I didn’t do any of these things, it was definitely worth coming out along la Costa de la Muerte to see the fishing villages, eat some great seafood, and watch the sunset over the ocean.

So, there you have it. That was my experience on the Camino de Santiago. Eight days and eight-hundred kilometers. It was so much more challenging and rewarding than I had imagined it would be. I loved it.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

El Bierzo, Yellow Arrows and the Sticky-Fingered Queen

As I have described in earlier posts, there are yellow arrows all along the Camino that point the pilgrims towards Santiago. Most of the time it is easy to follow them, but when you enter some of the bigger cities, it is harder to know if you are headed the right direction. Sometimes the paint is faded. Some pilgrims’ hostels use them to lure you to their establishment. I don’t know how many times I got lost, but the morning I left Ponferrada sticks out in my mind above all of the others. After peddling around the city center for a half hour trying to find a yellow arrow, I finally gave up and decided to just follow the first pilgrims I could find. The first man I found looked as if he had started the Camino in the twelfth century, but he seemed to be walking with a purpose so I followed at a distance. After a few minutes, it became clear that he was as lost as I was. At a stop light I pulled up next to him and suggested that we stop at a newspaper stand to ask for directions. The man at the newspaper stand made a vague hand gesture and told us to “follow that road.” We tried that, but it didn’t seem to be taking us anywhere so we stopped and asked for directions again. After this scenario repeated itself forty-billion times (take that Meikel), the old devotee of Santiago raised his pack as high as he could over his head and then threw it at the ground as if it were the roads fault that he was lost. Then he and shouted, “Pero, es que no hay ni una p#$* señal!” (It’s just that there are no (expletive) signs!) I roared with laughter (in my head of course). We eventually found a road, not the Camino, unfortunately, and we parted ways. I spent most of that day riding my bike across El Bierzo looking for a little yellow road to get me back on track. At the time, it was pretty frustrating. Looking back on it now, however, I’m grateful it happened. I got to meet lots of interesting people and I couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day for a long bike ride.

Like so many other experiences I had on the Camino, this day I spent chasing yellow arrows increased my gratitude for the gospel. As I crossed El Bierzo, I felt like I was experiencing Lehi’s dream for myself. These little yellow arrows are like the iron rod for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. They have been painted along the road to help the pilgrims arrive safely, but each individual has to decide how closely he or she will follow them. It is easy to lose your way. You might try a shortcut and discover that it has taken you into “forbidden paths” and that you are lost. Big cities require special care. There is lots of noise and traffic, and if you aren’t paying close attention, you might not see the yellow arrows or you might follow a counterfeit arrow to a hostel where you had never planned to stop. If you leave the Camino, it can take time to find your way back, not because the arrows have disappeared, but because you have separated yourself from them. I am very grateful for all of the little yellow arrows we have in the gospel: the Gift of the Holy Ghost, the scriptures, prayer, prophets and apostles, priesthood leaders, families, the temple, etc. Like my pilgrim friend, there are so many people who feel frustrated by a perceived lack of directions. As members of the Church, we don’t have to feel that way. We all have access to divine guidance that will never lead us astray.

Returning to El Bierzo, I finally found the Camino once again in Villafranca. From there I made the climb up a second mountain range to O Cebreiro, the gateway of Galicia. O Cebreiro is one of the oldest stops along the Camino. It also is associated with one of the great miracles of the pilgrimage. Towards the end of the thirteenth century, a farmer from the area went up to O Cebreiro to hear mass during a fierce storm. Although the priest looked down upon the farmer, the sacrament was transformed into Christ’s actual blood and flesh in recognition of the farmer’s sacrifice. When Isabel passed through O Cebreiro in 1488, she tried to take away the holy cup that had held the Savior’s blood, but they say that her horses refused to move until she returned it to the sanctuary. After hearing this story, I decided not to steal anything from the church as a souvenir.