Paella, Paella, Paella!

paellaStella, Stella, Stella!  Oh, oops, wait, that’s from a movie. Never mind. Back to the paella. Spain is a great country for paella. If you like paella, that is. I have to confess I’m not a huge fan, especially since the ones I encountered were mostly seafood versions. And, no, I don’t like seafood…unless it’s in a Japanese restaurant in the form of sushi.

So I had high hopes for this dish, a homemade vegetarian paella, served up by our hosts at La Casa Magica in Villatuerta. While I wasn’t overwhelmed by it, the dish was certainly flavorful, the veggies fresh, and it was quite filling. I selectively dug out the rice and veggies I like most and made a meal out of that, along with the ubiquitous bread that was everywhere with every meal (or so it seemed).

The most enjoyable part of the dinner, as with most evenings, was the company that we enjoyed surrounded by citizens of a variety of nations from as close as France and as far away as Asia. There was Henry and Alba, originally from Venezuela but now residing in Canada, Amy from South Korea, Essa from Finland (Essa seemed to be rather fond of Amy, but it didn’t seem she was reciprocating), and the trio from Killarney in Ireland, among others.

We had already met “Ireland” (as we called them) along the trail thanks to the decorative ribbons on my backpack. Being that I travel most frequently with Lindblad Expeditions, I have a multitude of their blue and yellow ribbons (which they provide to better identify your luggage during group airport transfers) and are – I’m told – based on the flag of Sweden where Lars Eric Lindblad (Sven Olaf’s father) was born. It turns out they’re also the colors of Killarney, Ireland, and “Ireland” wondered if perhaps I hailed from their hometown. Alas, I do not, although I am of Irish descent. (My mother’s family immigrated to the U.S. during the great potato famine in the mid-1800s). While one of her relatives has done a genealogy, I don’t remember most of the details so I can’t say whether we might actually be from Killarney. Too bad I’m not, for the young-ish male third of “Ireland” was quite handsome.

Yes, we really did refer to people by their country (or town). it was easier to remember. And, being a horror writer, it reminded me of the movie “Zombieland” where the characters referred to each other by their hometowns (like Columbus and Tallahassee) lest they become too familiar with and attached to one another. Not that I was expecting the zombie apocalypse to occur while we were on the Camino, but I certainly had ample opportunity to let my mind wander while walking, concocting all sorts of scenarios for future horror stories. Like, what if that paella dish – easily two feet across – had been a zombie’s dream: brain paella. Hmm Hmm Good.

Reflections upon an Unfinished Camino

Foot_ForBlogIt’s been a little over a week since I had to return home early from Spain, cutting short my pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago. It would be terrific to still be walking with my friend, Xina Uhl, who is now within 100 kilometers of Santiago de Compostela but there is no way I could have kept up with her 20+ kilometer a day pace nor withstood the increasing pain in my left foot. And my foot still likes to remind me of that with random stabs of pain and bizarre tingling sensations. X-rays were inconclusive because, according to the podiatrist, stress fractures can take more than two weeks to show themselves. At the very least the foot is severely sprained and the doctor said I could not have continued to walk on it without exacerbating the damage. (That was my fear: had I kept going – would I have found myself somewhere along the Camino, unable to walk and not near a major city, encountering even more difficulty trying to get out?) That is why I chose to turn around in Burgos, which was still close enough to return to Barcelona on a single six hour train ride. As it was, between the non-existent customer service of Norwegian Air and the unreachable customer service of CheapoAir (the ticket reseller I had purchased the Norwegian Air ticket), resulted in my having to buy an entirely new plane ticket to get back to the U.S. (My complaints to the two companies are still outstanding.)

But I refuse to let my injury and outbound frustrations darken my experience upon the Camino. The Spanish countryside is beautiful and the people are extremely friendly and helpful, a bonus Xina and I discovered early on: from the hostel receptionist who kept the doors open past closing time because our Barcelona-Pamplona train was delayed to the several people in the small towns and villages who ran out of their houses to let us know we were going the wrong way when they saw us miss the route markers. Then there was Barbara, the Hungarian woman who co-owns Corazon Puro in Viskarret who steered us to our next destination (the San Nicolas albergue in Larrasoana) – for which we’re ever grateful, because we not only met so many other wonderful peregrinos there but because we later heard how horrible the municipal albergue in Larrasoana is. (I’ll save further comments on the various albergues for later.)

In Obanos we asked an older gentleman to point us in right direction. He didn’t just point; he walked us to the edge of town, chatting as best we could in our mangled Spanglish. In Villatuerta, at La Casa Magica, the receptionist extinguished the incense burning in the lobby when my friend explained that I am allergic to it (and can get serious migraines) and then walked me up to the rooms via the back way to allow time for the incense smell to dissipate. In Los Arcos, the owner (we think he was the owner) of Casa de Austria made wire art of our names while we sat, chatting and enjoying a drink in the common room. name_art

My two favorite hosts: Alicia, who runs the small Divina Pastora albergue, and Tony, the receptionist at Hotel Alda Entrearcos, both in Burgos. Alicia I can best describe as a woman who is confident and secure in her faith and her duties to care for the peregrinos who pass through her doors. She played her guitar and sang for us in the morning (“Buenos Dias Maria”) as a gentle wakeup call. And, upon our leaving that last morning and seeing how upset I was about having to quit and return home, she gave me a big hug and told me she’d see me next year or the year after when I return. Tony was equally gracious, although I didn’t find that out until later. I had stayed at his hotel my second of the three nights in Burgos as a break from the constant socializing within the albergues and was then surprised to see him walk past me in the Burgos train station. He recognized me instantly and said hello, seeming quite surprised that I wasn’t back on the pilgrim trail. When I explained the situation to him, he insisted on buying me a cup of tea. We sat and chatted for awhile, and I learned that he and his wife had emigrated from Romania, looking for better job opportunities, and are happy to be raising a five-year-old daughter named Christina in Spain. The two work in a couple different hotels and commute back and forth. As we parted ways, he walked me up to the train platform and made sure I got on the right train to Barcelona.

It is kindnesses like these that make me look forward to returning some day to finish the Camino. While Xina is getting close to the finish line without me, I know that I have a couple friends and relatives who would like to do the Camino in the future. It will be a pleasure to share the experience with them.