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Three men, a map, and an arrow to nowhere

The Roman road: part two

Michael and I walked for hours on the Roman road without seeing anyone else except a Spanish shepherd, his flock, and three scruffy dogs. We both had to squeeze to the edge of the dry, dirt road to make way for the sheep, which passed us as one moving huddle.


Michael and I reached an umarked turnoff, which did not make the way to Reliegos clear. We weren’t sure where we were. We had passed a narrow canal, as marked on our guidebook map, but discovered that the map showed the canal, plus a nearby prison and highway intersection, in the wrong place. This was the first time that my Camino maps had failed me.


Two male pilgrims, the same middle-aged man from Wisconsin we had met earlier and a fit man in his twenties, approached us. We all wondered in which direction our destination, Reliegos, was.


“This map sucks,” said the young one, Andrew, a Malaysian lawyer who lived in London, Eng. I looked at the map, baffled by its array of thin lines and small squares, then let Michael and the other two haggle over the options. Watching the three men hunched over a tiny map, I thought: How ironic. This group consultation is defying the stereotype of males never asking for directions.


Michael and I kept going in bright sun, expecting to see a town over the next rise. Across the dried flatness, we could see one over to the left and behind us. Arrows and signs seemed to identify it as Reliegos. But someone had used white paint to cover the arrows on the road. We found out later that this was due to a turf war between two neighbouring towns, one trying to reroute Camino pilgrims to bypass the competition.

Roman road Albergue Gil lowres

Albergue Gil in Reliegos (Michael Romo photo)

When we arrived in the next town, we assumed that it must be the larger centre of Mansilla, 7.6 kilometres beyond Reliegos, but indeed, this burg was Reliegos. Michael and I plopped ourselves down under an umbrella at a table outside Albergue Gil’s restaurant, and he treated me to a beer, which I ordered with lemon flavouring.


“Ah, that tastes good,” said Michael. “And it’s great to be in the shade.” The wind picked up, feeling lovely and vibrant after our hot day of walking. When Andrew and the Korean (I don’t remember his name) arrived, Michael treated them to a beer too. These three men were the only pilgrims I had encountered all day on the Roman road. Clinking glass beer mugs, we toasted the road and ourselves, a mini-tribe on this shared path.


“We did it!” I said, feeling like a pioneer or conquering hero.


“My Camino comrades,” said Michael.

Group of four on the Roman Road low-res

The four conquerors of the Roman road


“You inspired me,” said the Korean to Michael. “This morning, I was going to stay in the last town but seeing you two leave made me want to push on.” I credited Michael for also inspiring me.


“I’m glad you were with me or I would have been afraid I was going the wrong way,” Michael told me. A laudable admission, I thought.


We all considered it odd that no other pilgrims had come this way, particularly since the guidebook identified the Roman road as the preferred route. They must have taken the bus or train to León, we figured, which was about another 26 kilometres ahead.


A trio of Canadians appeared—middle-aged Steve, his brother-in-law Mike, and Mike’s 10-year-old son Reece—who I had seen off and on the Camino since I started. But they soon left in a taxi for Mansilla since Steve’s leg was sore and needed medical attention.


Michael, Andrew, the Korean scientist, and I shared dinner and wine at the same table outside the albergue. I had stuffed red peppers with seafood and so-called “Cuban rice”: white rice with tomato sauce and a fried egg. Michael and I agreed that this was definitely not a Cuban meal. We all shared travel tales, Camino highlights, and stories of our work and education. Andrew, who was walking 40 kilometres a day on The Way, normally trained weekly in tae kwon do with an Olympic athlete.

three amigos in religios lowres

With Michael and the Korean scientist from Wisconsin

Fate, decisions, and route choices had brought the four of us together; I could have joined the three Canadians in a cab, but chose not to. To me, our small grouping felt complete. As someone who always likes to look at things symbolically, I said to my dinner mates: “In Jungian terms, four represents unity and wholeness.”


Silence. No one responded. Guess this wasn’t an artsy crowd for sharing such observations. Reminded me of my family dinner table in childhood.


Eager talk resumed. We joked that Andrew should send John Brierley, our guidebook author, a note on his legal letterhead saying that his maps were wrong. Apparently, the one for the previous day had been incorrect too.


“What’s the lesson here?” I said to Michael. “Don’t believe everything you read.” These errors made me glad that I had not used maps too much on the Camino. So far, my trust system had worked well.


Past dusk, it grew so windy that the restaurant owner closed the umbrella that was over us. As Michael chatted with him in Spanish, we learned that this business had been in his family for three generations. This restaurant was evidently a popular social spot for locals. Men and women hung out inside and on the street around us as several dogs tried to beg scraps from us. I wallowed in the relaxed, welcoming atmosphere, a treat after the trial of non-stop walking in the heat.


The four of us stayed talking until past 10 p.m. It was still light. Contentedly, I later padded off to a private room in the same albergue, shared with two middle-aged women, both teachers in Arizona. Rather than the Roman road, they had taken the path to the left, seeing only six other pilgrims all day. I lay awake on a top bunk bed, feeling energized by the talk and camaraderie. Another day on the Camino—only two more weeks to Santiago.


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January 21, 2014 at 4:18 pm Comments (2)

The Roman road: Cuban intrigue fills an historic route

Part 1

The Roman Road low-res

The lure of the open road . . . (Michael Romo photo)

Crowds of mostly twenty-something males were drinking and partying in the narrow streets when I left Sahagun at 6:30 a.m. (June 16: day 20). With a few girlfriends sprinkled in the mix, they were still celebrating the previous night’s bullfights. Raucous, raspy music invaded part of a block that I walked through, where several street vendors were selling loaves of bread and cooking sausages on portable stoves in the middle of the road.


As I approached a cluster of drunken, cleancut young men on my way out of town, I feared possible harassment or assault, so common in India’s cities. But these men mostly just smiled and said hello. Phew. I wondered if my pilgrim status, so obvious with my backpack, walking sticks, and floppy scallop shell, garnered more respect or admiration than I might otherwise have received.


Soon relieved to be out of town and back on The Way, I watched the sun come up against a pink-blue sky, stretching shadows across the long grass. There were almost no other pilgrims around. Sparrows landed on the pavement of the vacant highway. I reveled in the peace and solitude.


After walking about 10 kilometres, I arrived at the small village of Hermanillos, planning to stop there for the day. It was not even 10 a.m. but I already felt tired, having taken no rest days since Pamplona, more than two weeks earlier.


As the lone pilgrim at a small open-air restaurant, I enjoyed freshly squeezed orange juice and chatted with the owner in my meagre Spanish. Yet it seemed eerie not to encounter any other pilgrims. Where was everyone?


Within minutes, a middle-aged pilgrim from southern California, Michael Romo, arrived and sat at a table across from me. While he drank a coffee, we talked openly about our plans for the day, our respective spouses, and our Camino experience. I invited him to join me at my table, sensing that he was friendly and “safe.”


By the time we had finished breakfast, Michael offered to walk the next section of The Way with me, a 17-kilometre open stretch known as “the Roman road.” Another middle-aged pilgrim, a Korean who lived in Wisconsin, sat down at the same patio and talked briefly to us. Like me, he had planned to stay in Hermanillos.

Me on the Roman road low-res

I’m about to start down the Roman road (Michael Romo photo).

I felt pulled: stay or go? Michael’s warmth and knowledge of the route—he had thoroughly researched the Roman history of the Camino—won out. Rather than spend a day alone in what was beginning to feel like a ghost town, I would appreciate the friendly company of this former director of a teachers’ association who spoke fluent Spanish. Besides, it sounded as if we walked at the same pace.


So, we set out together. Michael was thrilled to be walking this portion of the path, which was 2,000 years old. Armour-clad Roman legionnaires had once covered the same terrain that we were walking; I couldn’t conceive of them working in clunky, heavy metal wear for days and weeks in Spain’s smothering sun. Dusty and dry now under moderate sunshine, the rough road had many loose pebbles and rocks. It seemed unimaginable that this region had once been marshy, Michael said, and that the Romans had transported stones to the area to construct this same road.

sheep low-res

Michael Romo and I on the Roman road (photo courtesy of a local shepherd)

I learned that Michael had grown up in New York City, speaking Spanish as a child. He was walking the Camino to honour the memory of his Cuban father, Miguel Fèlix Romo, who had always loved Spain; Michael’s family ancestry hailed from Spain’s Basque region. He has dedicated his Camino-themed blog to his dad, who died in 2009 at age 76.

Michael’s dad, as a railway captain in Cuba, had grown horrified by the corruption and atrocities of the Batista regime in the 1940s and 1950s. He had told Michael that under Batista, if a U.S. company wanted a certain piece of land in Cuba where campesinos or peasants were living, for instance, the peasants were simply killed.


Before Castro took power in January 1959 (the same month and year I was born), each trade or employment group in Cuba secretly supported its own cadre of revolutionaries against Batista, according to Michael’s father. They helped smuggle arms from Key West to Cuba to support Castro. His dad had fought on Castro’s behalf.


“It took me twenty years to find out all of this,” Michael told me. “My dad didn’t want to tell me for a long time. He thought there might be repercussions.”


Once Castro came to power, Michael’s dad said that Cuba’s new leader had one of his own contemporaries, a key guerrilla leader, murdered. He also put others in jail. When Michael’s dad had requested their release, this action put him on a death list. He had to leave Cuba, and went to the United States. Michael and I both agreed that many westerners tend to glamourize and over-idealize the Cuban revolution.

To be continued next week


January 9, 2014 at 11:49 am Comment (1)