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Three men, a map, and an arrow to nowhere »« Self-acceptance on the Camino: Are we following a misguided ideal?

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
1 comment »
  • January 13, 2014 at 7:48 pmMiriam R. Mattila

    WOW, Booya

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