Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Characters of the Camino

One of the great parts of the camino, besides twenty consecutive days of tunafish sandwiches for lunch, was meeting so many interesting people. I wrote about them as time went on, and present you with my compiled list. Of course, it was impossible to record the name and information of every single one of the hundreds of people I met. For those whom I did include, I hope that this list is a fair portrayal, and if you are one of the people on these lists and want to add or subtract something, leave a message after the beep, and I will surely correct it.

The order I present these caminoskis is the order that I met them in. Let's begin.

Guillom – I doubt I spelled his name correctly, but is of French origin. Guillom is from Belgium, the French speaking part, and we first met on day 3 in Zizur Menor. While I sat in the common kitchen eating a sandwich, he recognized my Hopkins 4k jersey. For those who do not know, the Hopkins 4k is an annual bicycle ride from Baltimore to San Francisco raising awareness and funds “in the fight against cancer” organized by students of the university which I took part in the summer of 2006. Guillom, it turns out, had a friend who also did this trip in 2005. His English was impeccable, which I later learned was because he had just finished his MBA at Wharton, the business school for the University of Pennsylvania, paid for by a Fulbright. He is the only person I have ever met who has been backpacking in Antarctica, and also speaks great Italian since he lived there for nine years. Guillom has curly hair and started in Le Puy, which is in the middle of France.

Peter – A 61 year old British gardener living in San Francisco who also began in Le Puy. The first day we met we found a common interest that led to hours of stimulating conversation – a scathing skepticism over the two major candidates for president. Peter is very politically astute and suggested some wonderful websites offering relatively unbiased media coverage, including Amy Goodman's “Democracy Now”, and “Z Mag”. We also shared many tips about nutrition and health on the camino. Peter scared me when he told me about a pilgrim he met who came to the camino without having trained and soonafter fractured his knees. He told me about how he trained, and I was amazed to learn that for the majority of time, Peter did not stay in the sometimes very cheap “albergues” (a hostal for pilgrims...basically a room with anywhere from 4-100 beds in it), but slept in a tent which he brought with him. We disagreed over the best way to consume water. While Peter thought that one should drink all their aquatic intake for several hours in one massive chugathon, I opted to keep a camelback and sip when my body felt the moment was right. About two weeks later, Peter converted to my system. Booya. Who's the water master? Me. Below is a picture of Peter on the right.

Josey – 60something French teacher from Canada and the mother of a 21 year old aspiring screenwriter she adopted from Mexico. She was also amazingly energetic and had a funny tendency to speak her thoughts as they were occurring, and usually I was not sure if she was talking to me, or just talking in general. When I bumped into Annie, another character found below, in Astorga, she told me that Jose had woken up in the middle of the night and said she was having an intense internal pain near her stomach. She was taken to the hospital, and Annie suspected it may have been an ailing appendix. I thought I would not see Jose again. I was wrong...I saw her about a week later, and she told me that it was in fact a kidney stone.

(Dr.) Brian “Flat Feet” Fitzgerald – Brian graduated from Princeton University with a degree in History (I think) about seven years ago. He spent the following year in India on a Fulbright scholarship proposing to further study the not-so-well-known correspondence between Tolstoy and Ghandi. He visited Ghandi's ashram, witnessed a goat sacrifice, and observed a ceremony of fire worshipers, among many other things. After, he spent a year in Cambridge, England auditing classes and bumming around before returning to the USA to begin teaching English and Middle East History at his old high school, Regis, a Jesuit school in Manhattan, known for its $0.00 tuition. Ironically, or perhaps by the grand hand of Zeus, the Vice Principal of Regis, one of Brian's colleagues, Anthony Day, has just become the Head of Upper School at my old jesuit high school, Loyola Blakefield. Brian has now begun the first year of his PhD at Oxford University in intellectual history. Ask him for the details. Also, I bummed a book from Brian called “The Professor and the Madman” about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary.

A jazz pianist living in a mountain village outside of Madrid. I don't recall his name, but he very recently, at the age of 31, committed himself to music after 10 years of working as a sociologist, the subject he had studied in college. Just outside of Pamplona we watched the finals in men's basketball for the Olympics between the USA and España. España had a really great team, and I was amazed how close the match was. I honestly expected a blow out because Team USA was absolutely stacked – Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Duwayne Wade, Chris Paul, Carmello Anthony, Chris Bosh, Dwight Howard, Devon Williams, etc. etc...are you kidding me? While I think this dream team would never stand a chance against the true dream team (Jordan, Bird, Magic), it was still quite a sight to behold.

Francesco & Anna – A recently wed young Italian couple I met on day 3 and walked with for about a week. Anna was very charismatic and animated, Frank too. Frank taught me a cool new hand shake where you pound (bump fists), and then turn your wrist right while the fists are connected. Amazing! Frank is an engineer, and they both had really big backpacks. Frank reminded me of my friend from school Joe who is half Italian. Joe, are you reading this, amici miei?

Hille – A very beautiful Danish modern dancer with a dislocated hip that just healed. She was having trouble with her feet when we met, and later she had to considerably reduce her pace to nurse her ailing legs. She was a very nice person to speak with for the brief time we shared, and her hurt foot, and the hurt feet and legs of the majority of the pilgrims, reminded me how lucky I was to avoid significant pains, although by the end of day 35 I was definitely ready to stop.

The name of the old man below is Miguel Mantines, and the only reason I know is because he handed me a scrap of paper after we took this photo. He does this project where he grabs pilgrim passing through his village off the street, and takes them into his shed. You don't know what to expect when he opens the door. It could be anything. But it's just wall to wall photographs. Miguel then asks you how old you think he is. You guess 70, partly to be polite, but partly because you think its true. Then he tells you he's 91, and you excitedly take a photo with him and promise to print and send it to him as soon as you can. Here's my pic with Miguel.

Cousin of the person who penned the big red cultural & historical guide to the camino. He broke his leg last year when attempting the camino from his front door in Paris all the way to Santiago. He made it pretty far, but was pushing the pace for his age (late 50's early 60's) and ignored the pain that made him consider slowing down. After recovering from the broken leg, this man became a “hospitalero” in France at a git (French residence for pilgrims, the equivalent of an Albergue), which is the person who signs in pilgrims when they need a bed. Everyday for the two weeks hospitaleroing, this man went on training hikes to prepare to face the camino again. He seemed to be doing fine when I saw him last, although I never knew if he made it all the way or not since I saw him last around day 16. This man is an American who just retired as the head of an international NGO based in Paris which organizes volunteers to take care of the elderly. He earned his PhD in something like medieval Florentine decorative art pieces (a rough estimate), and afterwards had a hard time landing a job in academia.

Jose & Boiullom – I call them 5:30 couple because they were always the first pilgrims awake at 5:30am. In camino culture, all of the pilgrims usually sleep in a large room together with lots of beds. Like summer camp. I noticed that when everybody is sleeping together, they are sharing a certain energy, a certain sacred space. And when the first person awakes and begins preparing to walk, they have disrupted this large exchange of energy because their body is no longer relaxed. It now embarks upon the tense process of preparation, of rustling bags, digging around for a sock, whispering messages to one's partner or friend. And so gradually all arise. They are also recently married. He is from Spain, and she from Argentina Boiullom is a kinesiologist, and her husband was a very lucky man who enjoyed daily massages and excellent advice in promoting flexibility and well-tended muscles.

Lily – 52 year old Italian woman from Parma. First met her on day 3. She gave me an incredible massage, and then bobbled my head around in her hands like it was a teatherball before snapping it to the left, and then to the right. We bumped into each other a lot along the way. In the monastery at Sahagun, she showed me this special bowl of water which she bangs with a special stick, and then twirls around the brim of the bowl, which causes not only a hypnotic droning sound, but also causes the water inside to start jumping, as if it were boiling. She invited me to stay in Parma for a few days after my sister's wedding, and seemed rather enthused with the idea of my meeting her 18 year old daughter.

Conrado – One of a handful of Brazilians I met who at first struck me with his dramatic limp. Perhaps it was more of a hobble. He did cook a delicious Brazilian desert consisting of powdered chocolate, butter, and condensed milk which should boil for two minutes before consuming with a spoon, or for showering with, if that's how you roll.

The old Belgian man – This man was definitely older than 72 years old, and he walked all the way from Belgium! Let me repeat, from Belgium to Spain! Over 72 years old. I encountered him many times on the track, and he walked faster than most. That's him below showing off his full credencial, a document all pilgrims must carry to prove they are not just random people looking for a cheap place to sleep

Gori & Arigatas – This young German couple met in an ashram in India. Gori, the guy, spoke excellent Spanish because he had traveled through Central and South America where he raved about magical experiences with a cactus-derived hallucinogen called Ayahuasca. Gori is also a teacher of Reiky (sp?), spriritual energy exercises from Japan. Arigatas is a yoga teacher, and every night, would meditate for a very very long time, just sitting and facing the wall on her bed.

Simon – German from the south, 19, who hiked from his home starting on June 3rd. He took a vow of silence for several days. I wrote about him in detail in an entry about coincidences.

Agi & Olaf – 22 year old German couple. Both are musicians and artists – definitely one of those “all over each other” couples – she showers him with kisses.

Paolo – A 22 yr old Italian who was also part of this large group of about 7 I walked with for about 6 days. He gave me a pair of black “lotto” socks after I lost a pair, which was kind of a big deal since I only had two pairs.

Dennis – My chess opponent who reminded me of Harry Potter. He was very good and took me a very long time to beat.

Alexandra Loewe – A Paris-based self-declared multi-media artist. She studied art before moving to the USA for five years working at an advertising agency in NYC, Chicago, and San Francisco, traveling throughout the states in her free time in the more obscures locales – Idaho, the Dakotas, Iowa. Though her salary was very comfortable, Alex felt her creativity rescinding, getting snubbed by the demands of her work. Beyond just being an artist, she asks very provocative questions, challenging human categorizations, stereotypes, and expectations.

Andrea Fever – These are, in fact, two people. “Fever”is just a nickname for Mary, I think her name was. Both are beauticians from San Francisco with marvelous energy. It was very refreshing to spend two days with them. Andrea is an online entrepreneur as well, and he taught me a lot about business opportunities on the internet which I may end up exploring once I get to Lebanon.

Ani – 28 year old red-head German who just finished studying homeopathic medicine. We sludged and sang through a torrential downpour in the maseta, an arid region of wheatfields in the middle of the camino. The next day was to be the longest, a 37km stretch with very few towns along the way. I thought we would walk this section together. But when I woke up at 6:30, to my total surprise, she was nowhere to be found. I thought she had ditched me, but when I reached the destination and found her, it turned out she had woken up at 4:30 am because she was so antsy, and began walking. She taught me how to properly clean and drain my blister, and even let me use some of her “essence of lavender” (did you know such a thing existed? I laughed when she pulled out the vile and declared its name with a straight face...but it actually works really well!) to dull the pain. Below: Ani and her foot.

Jon Mitchell – An Irish civil engineer who works on roads. He drew a Pavement Construction Diagrem in my notebook at my request. And here is what a road looks like:
Top Level – wearing coarse (typically 2 inches thick)

Second Level – binding coarse

Third Level – base coarse

Fourth Level – sub-base (typically clean gravel)

Fifth Level – subgrade (native material)

*Thickness depends on traffic volumes.

*Mostly made with Bitumen materials, which are derived from OIL.

Dean – The American from Arlington, VA in his 50's getting his m

asters at Hopkins. He has an amazing business idea which I am convinced will change the world. I don't want to give it away here, but all I will say is that it builds on the idea of micro-loans and will be a tool to allow the formation of micro-endowments for children. This idea was inspired by his daughter, who after seeing Al Gore's documentary “An Inconvenient Truth”, saw nightmares and wanted to help improve the environment, so Dean helped her invest some money and then they went around all of the retirement homes in their town and installed fluorescent light bulbs. When he finished college as a creative writing major, Dean, through a contact of his father's who worked in the State Department, worked as a patrolman of the Sinai penninsula between Israel and Egypt in the 60's/70's for three years. Dean is also a slam poet who writes about racism, inspired by his upbringing in Texas where he still sees racism flooding the streets when he visits today. He has a popular twitter site you should check out.

Erik & Rebecca – A young couple from New Zealand. New Zealand! They definitely won the award for furthest distance traveled to walk the camino. Their intention, of course, was not to come to Europe only for the walk. It turns out that Erik is a junior doctor, aiming towards pediatrics, who worked in a hospital in Ireland for five months pooling capital, while Rebecca, a high school chemistry and math teacher, worked as a secretary/receptionist. Both were extremely intelligent and told me many interesting facts about New Zealand, including:

1. Did you know that the distance from Australia to New Zealand is the same as the distance from England to Turkey? Wow!

2. There are no dangerous animals in New Zealand (with the exception of a small spider somewhere). This is really significant because NZ is so close to Australia, which is basically the world's capital for deadly animal encounters.

Next stop for Erik and Rebecca is a national park outside of Madrid where they will participate as teachers in an English immersion program for Spanish business executives through an organization called Vaughantown.

El Roncador Alemanski ("The German Snorer")– An early 60's German optometrist who chain smokes and snores incredibly loud, even without sleeping, who wanders about aimlessly.

Jon C-Tape – 32 year old black bearded British musician. Jon has a habit which one on the camino can only describe as absolutely amazing. In the large rooms with many beds where pilgrims sleep, if there is a loud snorer, and that person is nearby, then you kiss your chances of a good night's sleep goodbye. Snorers abound, and I've got nothing against them personally, but I think when they share a room with non-snorers, they should be very considerate of not disturbing the sleep of others. If any enthusiastic snoring did take place in the room, Jon hopped out of bed with his flashlight, shined it in the face of the perpetrator, woke them up, and said, “Hey. You're snoring very loud. It is hard to sleep.” Surprisingly, the perpetrator responded with heaps of apologies. On occasions when Jon and I did not share a room, I had to adopt this practice for the sake of sleep. I admit, the first few times were very difficult. I returned to bed feeling very guilty, “They have no control over it. If they could stop it they would, but they can't. Who am I to disturb them,” I would ask myself. But eventually I got over it. The need for sleep transcended these questions of politeness and propriety. Jon also shared his music with me. He sells his music to distributors, who pass on his music to filmmakers, commercials, and anyone else who needs music of this sort. He has been very successful financially from what I gathered, earning over 25,000 pounds from a single son in one year, which rounds out to about $50,000. He told me about how he does it, and after listening to his music, I was inspired to invest in producing my own music which is not as hard as it might seem. When I was walking back from Finisterra to Santiago, I bumped into Jon. We had both said goodbye to the respective groups we had been walking with, and I really did not expect to bump into him one last time and wish him a proper farewell. It was a bittersweet moment, which abound on the camino.

Veronica – mid 20's from Budapest. She spent a good amount of time living in the states, in the “heartland” (as Obama calls it) in Nebraska. She was an exchange student, and traveled throughout the western regions, including Hawaii. She worked at an English-language bookstore in Budapest before working in administration at Central European University (CEU) where two of my friends, Zach from HIA and Derrick from DIS, are attending right now.

Omri – Means “life” in Arabic, and was my first true friend from Israel. In the army (a mandatory duty for all young Israeli men and women), he served as a Human Resources Officer between 2004-2007, during the 06 Israel-Hezbollah war. Of course, when we first really got to talking Rabanal, I prodded right away into his opinion about a two state solution with Palestine. Omri admitted he was not very into politics, and held a belief that it would be very difficult to split Jerusalem as the capital of two separate nations. After army service and before coming to the camino, Omri worked for ten months in Barcelona, where he perfected his Spanish. He worked first in a mall at a store specializing in products, minerals, etc. from the Dead Sea. Then he bartended for the rest of the time. He told me a very funny fact when we were talking on the road one day. There is a program called Birthright Israel that organizes a two-week trip throughout Israel for Jews throughout the world who wish to visit their homeland. Part of the program is spending four days with someone from the Israeli army. Accounts I have heard from Birthrighters is that the time with the soldiers is especially powerful. I was very lucky to have the chance to talk with Omri about his take on it, and was very surprised by what his response. “Of course we talk to them about the military situation and what we have to deal with, what we do, and how we work,” he explained. But also, it is an incredible opportunity to make love to an American girl. In fact, he said, you were ridiculed by your fellow soldiers if you failed int his duty. Omri did not want to do the camino alone, so he posted a message on an Israeli travel website (if you did not know, Israelis are very avid travelers and ravers), and got a very strong response from a girl named Mayaan who eventually joined him. We had many fantastic conversations, one of which he detailed his experience in the Israeli army, which he described as one of the most human armies in the world (about fifty people immediately pop into my head who would absolutely disagree with this statement...albeit none of them are from Israel). Army service in Israel is mandatory with very few exceptions, and as a human resources officer, Omri specifically oversaw ensuring soldiers felt relatively at home, comfortable, and happy. Omri is the man. He will enter Tel Aviv University in this coming semester to study film. Let's see what kind of collaborations he and I will embark upon.

Mayaan - Omri's travel partner from Israel who is one of the few Israelis to avoid military service because she has an allergy to bread and glutton. We got to know each other in Rabanal, where I heard her lovely voice sing Beatles songs. Mayaan entered university right after high school to study medicine, but decided it wasn't for her and took time off. Now she will reenter university in Tel Aviv, in the building next to Omri's, to study Psychology. She has a great habit of talking a lot, which means it is impossible to get bored with her. She is also a great cook, and has very strict rules about what makes a good salad and a bad salad. And she's one hell of a lettuce shredder.

The Polish girls - Two very nice, ultra religious Polish girls whom I overheard reading from the Bible in their native tongue. I asked if they would teach me how to read Polish as we walked, and they agreed. Then they taught me a song, and it goes like this:

Ognew posool nas

Ognew rospal nas

Ognew oomotzni nas

Ognew roseshli nas

Then, I taught them a verse to an Armenian song called "Tzayn Door Ov Fida". Here's a video of them singing it while we walk!

The Public Fornicator - It's true. I could not finish this list without mentioning my brief, and absolutely disturbing, encounter with a public fornicator. It happened in Reimasol at a very quaint and serene Albergue in a tiny town with a small bridge passing over a little brook. I had arrived rather early and my qi was not flowing with this place because 1) none of my friends were there, 2) the Roncador Allemanski was there and I don't like sharing rooms with him 3) I still had energy for walking which I chose not to use because I felt pressured into stopping because so many pilgrims said this Albergue was "absolutely amazing". I went to the bathroom and approached the only vacant urinal in the room. The other was occupied by a man. I did my business. Stared at the wall. Then, something struck my peripheral vision. I dared not turn my head, but I did shift my attention to my left periphery, where a rapid, repetitive hand motion from the man next to me compelled me to quickly finish my business and leave the bathroom. I was eager to write that day, and took my journal into a field and wrote. I looked back towards the Albergue and saw the man again, this time in a far less discreet position. His pants and underpants were bunched up at his ankles, and his right hand wheeled and dealed his you-know-what. "Yo! What the hell are you doing!" He quickly pulled up his pants and ran off. I never saw him again, and quickly packed up my own things and walked on to the next town where I found my friends and shared this wonderful story.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

A day-by-day account of the author's five-hundred-mile solitary pilgrimage on foot to Saint James's legendary burial place in Spain includes his reflections on religious sensibility and other observations along the way. UP.
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