This is the second installment of ‘Camino Vignettes’, stories about my time walking the Camino de Santiago. You can find the first installment here. You can also read about my general overview of the Camino here.
There were several times on the Camino de Santiago that I found myself in what I’ll refer to as ‘special cultural situations’.
I arrived for the night in Pamplona on a Saturday, so I got a chance to experience a small taste of Spanish nightlife (‘small taste’ because I was in bed by 11 pm and, for anyone who knows, Spanish nightlife doesn’t truly begin until after midnight). The very next day, in Puente La Reina, as I explored the town, I saw a crowd gathering around the entrance to a small art museum. On the door I found a poster advertising a guitar concert. I looked at the date and time and realized that it was scheduled for that exact time. I walked in and was treated to a performance by a Basque classical guitarist. In another instance, while out for dinner and drinks in the town of Estella, a medieval festival, with costumes and horses and all, was being celebrated just beyond our table.
I say ‘I found myself’ in these situations because the best way I can describe it is that I simply stumbled upon them. There was no schedule or forethought put into their discovery other than the need to get to the next stop on the Camino. These moments were incidental, but they really did a lot to enhance an already incredible opportunity. The events I’ve noted here took place early on in the Camino, within the first week, which did a lot to amplify those first days. The entire Camino was such a blessing, and these moments were blessings upon blessing.
Of all of these ‘stumbled upon blessings’ that happened in the first week, the most memorable would have to be the two hours or so I spent in the town of Viana.
While walking the Camino, a pilgrim passes through cities and towns of many different sizes. I glanced at my guide that morning and, seeing the town of Viana, I didn’t think much. I expected to pass through a mid-sized town. I’d possibly stop for lunch, as one does in many other similar locales along the Way. Nothing more.
Upon arriving in Viana, though, I was greeted with an unexpected sight. It was Wednesday, a little after noon, and there were hundreds of people walking around the streets. Many were wearing white shirts with red scarves around their necks. Clearly the town was having a celebration of sorts.
I wasn’t in a big hurry to leave after seeing the excitement of the city. I got a recommendation from a local man for pinxchos, which are a typical food for the Basque region. I took the recommendation and for about 5€, I enjoyed what was one of the best small meals I had in all of my time on the Camino. After eating, I walked out of the bar/restaurant with the intention of leaving. If I would have left town immediately after this meal, I would still have had good things to say about Viana. There was still more to come, though.
I started following the arrows of the Camino that directed me out of the town. They led into the city square, but my path was obstructed by a city worker with a sledgehammer. He was pounding a piece of wood into the ground that created a barrier, blocking off a side street from the square. I was slightly confused, but I figured I could find another way out of the town.
When I walked to the other side of the city square to a different side street, the city worker came over to that side and began to build a barrier similar to the one he had been constructing on the other side. Now I really wasn’t sure what was going on.
Considering that I was wearing a backpack and did not have on a white shirt or scarf, I clearly stood out among the crowd. I was also likely wearing a confused look. One of the locals, a man who was there with his children, spoke a bit of English. With a combination of his decent English and my terrible Spanish, he was able to explain to me that they were celebrating the town’s festival. The barriers were there as protection because, at 2:00, a cannon was going to sound, signaling the release of a bull into the city square. Five minutes later, another cannon would sound and another bull would be released. This would happen every five minutes until 2:30 when they would round up the bulls into the city’s bullfighting ring.
If you are familiar with the San Fermin Festival and the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona (which I missed by only a week or so myself that year), it’s a similar concept. Those who are brave enough (is brave the right word?) jump down into the square from their perches on the barriers when the bulls approach, running away and jumping back up the barriers when they attract the attention of the bulls.
I wasn’t going anywhere. This was something I had to see.
(As a side note, I’m not going to address whether the cultural significance of bullfighting outweighs its brutality. I will simply say that I am glad I saw this festival.)
My new friend gave me advice as to where to stand so as to get the best photos.
I wanted to continue on because I wanted to get to Logroño that night. I bid my friend adieu and went on my way out of the city with a big smile on my face. I couldn’t believe what I had just seen.
Yet this decision to leave was difficult. In addition to the excitement I had just seen, I knew the celebration would continue well into the night and that it would probably be a lot of fun. I walked very slowly out of the city to give myself time if I decided to change my mind about leaving. I even turned back a few times to look, considering further whether I should head back and spend the night there. I jokingly thought at the moment that, if that had been the city of Sodom, I looked back with such longing that I would have turned to a pillar of salt (Genesis 19). However, I had a strong feeling that I should keep going to my planned destination. There was really nothing that was going to stop me from staying there, but there was something in me that told me that I needed to keep going.
I remember asking myself at the moment, given such a strong desire to stay, ‘Why do I feel like I need to leave?’ It’s not that I felt it would be immoral to stay, but I couldn’t deny the pull to leave.
These are the things one feels while on the Camino. In addition to following physical arrows, many pilgrims get used to considering thoughts deeply and taking ‘internal urges’ seriously. Although I don’t want to over-spiritualize it, I believe this feeling itself was an arrow, in the figurative sense, guiding me to the next destination. I felt compelled to leave, even though a large part of me wanted to stay.
Ultimately, I continued on to Logroño.
Looking back now at this event as a whole, I can say I learned four distinct lessons.
The first lesson is that life is full of moments that don’t entirely make sense while we’re encountering them. It’s only with the benefit of hindsight do we realize their purpose, if we ever do realize it. Sometimes, the purpose remains a mystery to us. At other times, we get a later glimpse that allows us to understand better why things played out the way they did. I believe that this is one of those times. There were other people I was to meet, and I likely wouldn’t have met them if I had stayed.
The second is the lesson of how we spend our time and how the choices we make impact us. If we are doing something, it means we aren’t doing something else. This may seem obvious, but how often do we seriously consider this when we think about how we spend our time? Being with one individual or group means not being with another. Doing ‘this’ means not doing ‘that’. There are only so many hours in each day, and there are only so many days in our lives. Beyond our obvious responsibilities, in choices good or bad, in pursuits worthwhile or trivial, how we spend our time is up to us. Even our responsibilities can be fulfilled or ignored in how we choose to use our time.
Third, staying that night in Viana wouldn’t necessarily have been wrong, but it would have prevented me from receiving some of the future blessings of memories and friendships. We have to open our hands to receive what is to come, even if we genuinely like whatever it is that we’re currently holding. This letting go is not always pleasant, but it is often necessary. Much like our time, there is only so much we can hold. Grasping one thing often means not being able to hold another. If there are things that I’m clinging to, even if they aren’t harmful in themselves, I can’t take hold of that which is to come in the future without letting go in the present.
The last lesson is more of a reminder: God is good. I knew this well before this episode in Viana, and I was reminded of it numerous times throughout the weeks on the Camino that were to come. It was a continual theme of the Camino for me. Still, when I think about Viana and the blessings that I received during those days, I’m reminded once more.
There’s a tunnel just outside of Santiago de Compostela, the inside of which is painted white. Pilgrims write messages, quotes, phrases, etc. on the wall of this tunnel. I got to it on the day I walked into Santiago. I spent time looking at and reflecting on the various writings. When I considered what I would write myself, there was really only one thing I could think to say.
Staying in Viana that night could have changed my entire experience on the Camino. It can be fun, for a time, to play ‘What if?’ or to consider alternate realities. However, I refuse to dwell on that for too long. Everything happened the way it did. I have a great memory of Viana. I also have great memories of events that happened afterward and friendships that may not have formed had I chosen differently.
I don’t know what would have happened had I stayed. I can’t know. So much of life is about the choices we make that lead us in one direction and not another. Each of us has to live with the uncertainty of what our reality would be had we made some different choices along the way. This is true of decisions both good and bad. Staying could have changed everything, or it could have changed nothing. I’ll never know.
So the question is, do I think I made the right choice in leaving Viana? I’m sitting here writing about a positive memory with many more behind. I’d say it was a good decision.
A pilgrimage is an intensely personal journey, but it is not one that a pilgrim undertakes alone. I don’t want to ‘talk’ into a vacuum. I want to hear other voices, too. What I’m trying to say is, I want feedback! Have I spoken something to you? Is there something you think I should know? Do you have a question about something I said? Please leave a comment or contact me at Pilgrim.Brett@gmail.com
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