Of all my experiences on the Camino, one day in particular stands out as the most memorable and most joyful. It was, at the start, a relatively unremarkable day. The walk out of Astorga was gentle and not especially demanding. About five kilometers in we stopped at a cafe along the path for breakfast, and though I had the same thing I had almost every other day on the Camino (café con leche and tortilla), it never tasted as good as it did that day.
We came to our intended destination just a bit before 2:00, the traditional Spanish lunch hour. As we entered the small town of Rabanal del Camino, my friends and I began our usual discussion of which albergue we might consider for the evening. I initially suggested one located just as the path entered town, but my friend noted there was a place just a bit further on that served afternoon tea. Charmed by the very thought, we made our way there. It is often a humbling experience to look back on the chance events that lead us to moments in life of such significance and meaning. A simple note in our guidebook led us to what was a highlight experience of the entire journey.
Upon arrival at the albergue, we were greeted by two women who we quickly learned were from Ireland. The albergue was run by a pilgrim association based in England, and these women were hospitaleras, volunteers who came for a few weeks to help run the albergue. It was their ministry to welcome pilgrims— to welcome us. Their joy and kindness was palpable and made all the difference as we entered into that space. We dropped off our packs and headed out for lunch, mindful of the invitation to return for afternoon tea at 4:00.
Rabanal del Camino is an exceptionally charming little place on a mountain with a population of about 50. Thus, it did not take long to find a place to eat, which in hindsight was the best meal I had on the entire journey. My companions and I left with full stomachs and very full spirits and returned to the albergue, walking through the gates just before 4:00 as the hospitaleras were bringing out tea and treats. I took a seat at the table and was introduced to Jacobo, a fellow pilgrim staying at the albergue that night. As he drank wine straight from a bottle, he shared that he was from Mexico and had started in St. Jean Pied de Port over the French border. He had no set schedule and walked each day until he felt like stopping. He preferred to sleep outside along the path but would find a bed in an albergue for a night when we felt his odor was bad enough to warrant a shower. Soon came Gustavo, a man from Chile who we had walked near and seen many times in our first few days but would not see again after we left Rabanal. A young woman from San Francisco, whose name I never learned, joined us soon after, and then came a very kind German couple from Kiel, who had walked a considerable distance and were delighted to find an albergue with space for them to pitch their tent and sleep outside. An older couple from Hungary came by for a moment but didn’t linger long. Then came an older man with a bicycle. His gait was extremely labored and unsteady, and with each step we around the table held our collective breath fearing he would fall. He sat down with us and told us he was from Italy, from Pavia in the north. He couldn’t walk well at all, he said, but he could still bike. He had biked part of the Camino every year since 2008. He was 67.
Mexican, Chilean, Americans, Germans, Irish, Italians, Hungarians, we were all gathered around the table for afternoon tea— a most un-Spanish activity. There was no single common language. Many spoke English or Spanish. At one point, I spoke with the man from Pavia in Italian and translated into Spanish wondering if I had completely mingled the two languages together. We did not all share a common language, but we shared something special around that table. It was more than just the shared experience of walking (or biking!) the Camino. All that divided us melted away. We were pilgrims—fellow humans on the journey. Strangers became friends.
Just across from the entrance to our albergue, truly just a stone’s throw from the gate, was an old church where a small group of monks offered their daily round of prayer. The times for vespers and compline were posted in the albergue, and I was delighted to join for both. The church building was old and in a general state of disrepair. A statue of Santiago sat along the north wall. It was tacky, yet I loved it all the same. There were just three monks present that evening. They offered their evening sacrifice of prayer and praise with great enthusiasm and devotion. It seemed the building was held up by not much more than the prayers of those three monks. At the end of Compline, one of them extended his hands over us pilgrims, offered us a blessing, and asperged us with blessed water. It was the perfect ending to a most memorable day.
I will always cherish that day in Rabanal del Camino. I came to the Camino for experiences like that. The interesting, and perhaps somewhat ironic, thing is that the subsequent 24 hours were, without a doubt, the worst of my entire Camino. That night in Rabanal I hardly slept an hour, and the next day an emerging shin splint left me in extreme pain as I slowly navigated a significant downhill portion of the path. The joys of the Camino lived right alongside the pains, struggles, and worst moments, and here the Camino confronted me with a reality we face again and again in life. The next day on the mountain was hard and painful and undeniably a low point, but what I remember— what I choose to hold in my heart— is Rabanal—a delicious lunch, new friends gathered around the table, the chant of monks, afternoon tea.