I can’t rightly title this piece “Camino” or “Santiago de Compostela” because I didn’t do anything to earn the applause at the top of the Praza do Obradoiro. If you’re familiar at all with the lore surrounding the Way of St. James, be aware upfront that I skipped the 480ish mile walk and the blistered feet of el Camino and flew right ahead to its endpoint, Santiago de Compostela.
But if you’re interested in personal journeys and moments of reflections, maybe my story will still appeal to you?
I was in the middle of my first trimester of pregnancy so I didn’t come to Santiago de Compostela completely unscathed. I may have arrived by airplane instead of completing the journey on foot, but this post is still about paths and caminos in more ways than one.
Let’s go to the beginning.
I was in my hotel room in Andalusia in the dead heat of summer trying to figure out what to do now with my life.
Newly arrived for my spouse’s job, I was unemployed, in an unfamiliar country, unable to speak the local language yet, and barely (just barely) informed that I was pregnant. Even though at this point I was pretty accomplished at traveling and being new to an area, both working and studying internationally too, moving to Spain and being pregnant felt all at once more like – beeeeeep! – flat lining endings than the blessed beginnings they were.
Cue my friend Monica with an accidental placebo of sorts.
She was presenting at a sociolinguistics conference that fall several hours north of me. The university in Santiago de Compostel…would I like to join?
Well, if I can’t stay active in academia, I thought, perhaps I can at least keep one toe in the pool. I’ll surround myself with other people’s research.
Oh, and cherry on top of this Santiago sundae, would I like to join Monica in Oviedo to visit her family home and grandpa’s city? A quick trip to a place I was only temporarily visiting? Why, yes, yes of course, I know how to do that sort of travel. Now how do we make this work?
Although I would later learn there was a camino starting in Sevilla, la Via de Plata (what a solo pregnant travel story that would have made, eh?) flying the hour and a half up to mountainous northern Spain would be the easiest method.
I booked the tickets a month later and waited for a reunion with my friend and a chance at normalcy, both seeing someone I knew in a domain I understood (an academic conference) and a trip. Things started to feel a little doom and gloomy when at the last minute I had to delay my trip by a few days and reschedule my flight to accommodate a pregnancy urgency. And then I also had to shell out the big bucks for a cab to the AirBnB once I arrived. A taxi ride may not seem like much, but to someone who prided themselves on traveling cheap and figuring out local public transportation, this really signaled how the move/pregnancy had gotten me feeling insecure.
On the plus side, a taxi ride introduced me to the local Galician language, because, you know (well, I didn’t), Santiago is part of Galicia, the northwestern corner of Spain with its own Celtic history and culture. The cab driver asked if I spoke Spanish, to which I replied I did not, and then began a phone call in Galician which I can only guess was about gambling or races because of all the numbers he and his speaker-phone friend were rattling off to each other. My first thought was, this is Spanish being spoken with a Russian accent. Monica corrected me later on it being its own language, Galician.
See? I was learning new things already. Travel blasé = 0, Travel prowess = 1.
My crude Spanish was enough to get me around, though, and after getting the key to the AirBnB from the bartender in the cafe below, I relaxed and welcomed Monica to our temporary home and began the aforementioned friend/academia/travel time.
Beyond all the loveliness of getting to see your friend and have a bunch of one-on-one time for long conversations about life, work, and language, what other things transpired in Santiago?
Well, that feeling of what do I do now with my life didn’t quite escape me.
I had a large chunk of hours during the day to explore the little city by myself while Monica prepared her presentation, but that just meant more time to remember I was sort of aimless, no career path, no handle on the local language, no budding community to feel a part of.
At the academic conference I networked and sat in on interesting presentations that filled me with more questions than answers, a really satisfying feeling as an academic… until you realize you have no where to put that energy because you’re no longer a part of that world.
Among my many walks and quiet contemplation in the city, though, I also enjoyed small successes and enjoyed little insights I hadn’t really allowed myself holed up in my dusty hotel room in Andalusia.
I hadn’t planned or researched anything about the city of Santiago or the culture, just as my confusion shows at what language was being spoken in the cab the first night. But I also was introduced to a sort of slow, uncalculated travel, accidentally wandering into a quiet park where I sat in the sunshine, or walking to the cathedral at the end of el Camino and witnessing the applause for walkers with all their gear who had just completed something and could revel in the enjoyment of recent accomplishment.
I felt like most of my accomplishments were far behind me. But being with a friend and talking through things and traveling together showed me most of all what I lacked was a sense of community and purpose through that community. Pregnancy, no job, no friends, these were unknowns.
But with Monica, I got to walk around a beautiful town where bagpipes are played outside the cathedral, brujas are taking off through the air in gift shops and on the backs of cars, and giant incense containers are waving out their holy fumes.
I also got to enjoy food and drink and make merry. Our conference ended (or did it start with?) a queimada, something I wouldn’t have experienced had I just popped into Santiago on my own or stayed put in southern Spain.
To end the mix and mingle of the conference’s dinner, the hotel dimmed the lights of the courtyard, blasted spooky music, and woosh-ed dry ice fog across the floor. A robed gentleman wheeled his cart of ingredients out and set fire to the cauldron of booze inside. He read his Galician spell outloud, elements in the charm including things like “the useless belly of an unmarried woman” that made some of the conference goers chuckle. (Since this particular spell was written in 1967, we can’t quite blame the misogyny on medieval authors, now can we? but alright, let’s get back to the scene). After inviting up several spectators to take part in the spell mixing, Monica included, mixing the flaming brew to completion, he ladled the very pungent liquor concoction out and we toasted and sipped to cast out the bad spirits of the night.
Perhaps it worked. At the end of the dinner, sitting at a table full of other female academics whose accomplishments were much more notable than mine, but also arrived at the conference as mere attendees than presentees, I allowed my pregnancy to enter the discussion. From there I bravely navigated new waters, both vocally rejoicing and revealing insecurities about my new state while brushing off some of my first judgmental comments and also finding a brief doorway into some shared experience of motherhood I hadn’t been privy to before.
Finally, the bad spirits warded off for the night, Monica and I returned to our flat.
Now, how to get to Oviedo from here? What was the next leg of this journey? No train. No inexpensive air travel. No personal vehicle. So that leaves?
Ugh. Bus. ugh.
At three-ish (four-ish?) months pregnant, I had become a connoisseur of motion sickness. A six hour drive through mountains did not appeal. Luckily, our bus of choice was well equipped for comfy travel. Monica and I had large assigned seats with movie screens in front of us, a pit stop at a road cafe halfway through, and smooth sailing for the first 5 hours of highway driving. The issue, really, reared at the end when we exited said highway and started winding through mountain roads, making stops at little towns going through round-about after round-about once inside each one.
A little tip if someone you know experiences motion sickness the way I do (which is all in the head, a whirling vortex between your eyes and no where near your stomach): don’t talk to them, don’t touch them, don’t even ask them how they feel. Just let them sit there, curled up or sprawled out, concentrating it away on their own. Try surrounding them with your supportive silence instead. Thanks to Monica for being such a quick learner and friend through my probably rude, garbled protestations to her concern. But 45 minutes later, were were there in Asturias in the beautiful town of Oviedo.
It was a shot trip but with Monica it felt the place where the trepidations that I had come cloaked in really started to loosen from my shoulders. Once again, my malaise from my sudden summer of upheavals had left me unmotivated to research or prepare myself for anything in this town. I gave the thankless job of tour guide to Monica and she was a gem of a friend and went with it.
Ah, Oviedo, the SIDRE (cider) CAPITAL of Spain (and if it isn’t the capital, take me to the actual one where I can further die of happiness). Aside from the green mountains and beautiful old churches to explore, there was also an entire street to sit and sip cider at.
If you consider yourself even the tiny bit delighted at the prospect of throwing back a cider or two (which means alcoholic and not served hot if you’re anywhere outside of the U.S.) Goscona street is definitely for you. The touristy avenue was lined with restaurants dedicated to the serving and drinking sidra and Monica carefully took my arm to guide me through the wet spots where so much cider had spilled out on the walkway.
See, the serving is just as important as the drinking. When the carafe was ordered, Monica warned me not to be afraid of getting a little messy. To aerate and get those delicious bubbles into your glass, the server lifts the bottle high above their head, holds the glass down past their waste, and pours a narrow cider stream, resulting in much spilled cider on the floor, but a temporarily bubbly drink. The drinker’s job then? To chug that cider as fast as it’s handed back to you so you can fully enjoy the aerated effect.
My time in Oviedo was short, and all too soon I was getting on a bus to ride over to the Asturias airport. Cue the last leg of this trip.
I should have taken the bus slowly shuddering dead in the middle of the street at 5 am as a sign, but I really wasn’t ready for the day of mini-disasters and delays that lay ahead. I’d suffered another bad night of insomnia and trundling myself through airport setback after airport setback did not register in my zombie-ish state. But, despite the stalled engine, we did get to the airport on time. In fact, I was through security so quickly I even had time to buy a 2 euro bottle of sidra for Cody in the gift-shop just opening up next to the gate at 6 am.
But, inexplicably, as we were lined up to board, an announcement rang out through the inadequately volumed speakers: any passengers connecting in Madrid to their final destination couldn’t board this flight. Confused and irritated, over half of us walked through the secure zone and back to the ticket windows where we had to be reassigned to another flight and go through security again (but with very accommodating security officers: What about that bottle of cider I just bought? “Is it open?” No. “Still in the duty free bag?” Yes. “Go ahead with your 2 euro bottle.”). No explanation was offered on that weird delay.
So I opted for a flight to Barcelona which should have gotten me to Madrid in time for my flight to Jerez. Except, there was a delay on that tarmac so I just barely made it from one airport to the other. As soon as we were deboarded, I ran. I ran and for the first time hoped I looked pregnant in case that helped anyone feel a little more charitable towards me and getting me home.
The plane was still there, the gate was still open, but they had already given away my ticket. Awesome. The flights to Jerez were either done for the day or filled up. There was no offer of transferring me to another airline to complete the journey. The next and only possibility? Fly to Sevilla and take an hour taxi ride to the Jerez airport. Because that’s where my ticket was to.
What did this equate to? A journey that began by waking up at 4am in Monica’s apartment that should have seen me into my own bed for an afternoon nap by 2:30pm, had me not even arriving to the Jerez airport until 7 pm. Welcome to European budget airlines. Sometimes they’re an awesome option. Sometimes you deal with this. But I don’t actually blame them. No, I should have known you can’t just choose to go to Santiago de Compostela by the easiest route, it’ll still make you sort out a journey on the other end.
Anyhoo, thanks to Galicia and Asturias for being such beautiful welcoming regions and thanks to my lovely host Monica for showing me around a place she loves. If you’ve never thought about visiting the northern coast of Spain, let the sidra, queimadas, and green mountains be reason enough.
|Mode||To and from||Overnights||Accommodation|
|Air, Bus||Jerez to Santiago de Compostela to Oviedo to Jerez||Santiago de Compostela, Oviedo||AirBnB, Monica’s apartment|
|Transportation||Useful phrases on this trip
|Taxi||Good evening, my name is _____. Do you have a key for me?||Buenas noches, mi nombre es ____. ¿Tienes una llave para mí?|
|Bus||Can I take this bottle of cider through security?||¿Puedo llevar esta botella de sidra por control de seguridad?|