Camino Plunder

There is a scallop shell on my desk. It is real. It is the size of a man’s palm. It is smooth and shiny and white, but it has a dark stripe and that is why I chose it. It has what looks like a nibble taken from its bottom edge, no doubt from me throwing my bag on the ground at the end of a long day. It has a hole at the top with a length of now-soft hemp string running through it.

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Pilgrims used to collect their shells, their conchas, upon arrival to the coast of Spain, to prove they had walked to the end of the earth. But now, pilgrims buy them for a pittance anywhere they want along the way, as souvenirs.

I don’t have many souvenirs from the camino. My legs refused to carry much beyond what I needed. But this concha was my first of a few trinkets.

Right before I got it, two days before the first day of walking, I was on the quiet bus from Pamplona to St. Jean Pied de Port, winding backwards up the camino, into the mountains, and when we got off, it was misty and cool. We wandered into town and found ourselves at the pilgrims’ office, and after receiving my credencial and a list of all the albergues on the way, I took this concha from a cardboard box on a shelf against the wall and dropped one euro into a donation bowl. I tied it to my backpack like all pilgrims do, to identify themselves and for the entire walk, it clinked against trekking poles and wine bottles and snagged on socks hung out to dry.

When we were leaving Estella a week later, when we came to the wine fountain, it was the concha I filled and drank from. That’s when I learned it had a lot of tiny holes in it and would have been better as a colander.

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The day before that, in Estella, I received my second souvenir, and this is also a concha, albeit a tiny metal one meant as a necklace charm. One of the hospitaleros at the donativo was a fat man in a yellow t-shirt, and he had long white hair that was braided tightly straight down his neck (I later saw that he asked pilgrims to redo it for him every morning). He was from Salt Lake City, and when I checked in, he and I smiled at each other’s familiar accents. I asked how long he was going to be volunteering at the albergue, and he said 15 days, after which he’d return home to retirement and his family.

He asked me what I did and I said I played piano, and he lept over to a shelf and rummaged behind some books to retrieve his phone from its charger.

“My granddaughter is a musician too!” he said. “She plays piano!”

“No way!” I said.

“Yeah! Let me show you some of her portraits. She’s gorgeous, and she’s famous.”

“Really? What’s her name?”

“Lily!” He was scrolling through his pictures.

“Lily… what’s her last name?”

“Look! This is her.”

He showed me a photo of a little girl who couldn’t have been more than two. She had bright, joyful eyes and someone’s arms were supporting her as she sat on a piano bench, hands groping up toward the keys.

“Oh, she’s beautiful!”

“Her career is really taking off.”

“Do you have more photos?”

“Oh, yeah. Here’s this one. She’s playing Mozart here.”

“Oh, I can tell.”

“Can you?”

“Sure. So, she likes the classics?”

“Yeah. She’s a purist. But she can play in any style.”

He played a video of her pounding the keys and screaming with delight. I should say she was mushing the keys, the way kids do when they aren’t strong or specific enough to produce anything distinct.

That night, someone took a guitar down from its wall mount and gave it to me, and Igor, Stephan, Magdalena, and others whose names I’ve forgotten ate lots of spaghetti and I played Yellow Submarine for the first of many times on the guitar. That was the song that gave me a thumb blister the next day.

Once the sun set the wind picked up. When we came in from dinner and music, the hospitalero gave Magdalena and me the little charms.

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And leaving Estella on the seventh day, right before that wine fountain, we passed an ironworker on the edge of town. He had a shop and a forge set up on the path and he sold iron chandeliers and iron sculptures and iron tools. He had fires burning around the property and dogs that could have been strays or pets. And I bought yet another concha, this one heavy and iron, for three euros.

I think that day was the last day I saw Igor, my first friend of the camino, for a while. He emailed me later to say he had gone home to Bilbao with foot problems, back in Basque Country. I was sad and resigned myself to not seeing him again.

But then on the tenth day–was it really only three days later?–he emailed and asked where I was. I told him I was walking to Najera that day. It was a long, hot, lonely, fast walk and I splurged on a private albergue that was a few euros more than the municipal. I was walking around town, gaping at the caves in the red cliffs behind the old monastery, when I saw Ted from England outside a bar. I hadn’t seen him in a day or two and sat down with him.

And then Igor came from around the corner!

“Igor, what are you doing here? I thought you were in Bilbao!” I said after we hugged.

“I was, but then I took the bus here this morning.”

“How are your feet?”

“Fine! I have different shoes.”

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That night the three of us went to dinner, and Igor said, “I have something for you.” He produced a… a…

“What is it?” I asked.

“It’s, um, it’s a thing.” Indeed, he couldn’t have described it better.

It was a plastic thing the size of a coin with the Bilbao football club’s seal on one side and a photo of one of its players, Muniain, who had apparently at some point had had something to do with the scoring of 240 points, pale and smiling with one dimple behind a pane of plastic. It was the kind of thing you’d find in a cereal box. A tiny cereal box. It was nothing.

“You can keep it,” said Igor. I was laughing hard.

“This is beautiful!”

“You think he’s beautiful?”

It’s beautiful! So beautiful!”

“This team is good because they don’t… what’s the word when they take people from other places?”

“Recruit,” said Ted.

“Yes, they don’t recruit and all the players are from Bilbao. It’s yours.”

“Thank you.”

We spent the dinner discussing football and I put the thing in my wallet and for the next month, every time I tried paying with change, the thing would fall into my hand with the rest of my coins.

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On the 18th day, I arrived in Villarmentero de Campos, where my albergue had a piano. I hadn’t touched a piano in three weeks and I wouldn’t for another three. After the communal dinner, it took only the faintest suggestion from a guy named Gleb from Portland (who walked 40 kilometers a day because he was addicted to endorphins) to go to the corner and start playing and singing. My fingers relaxed and strengthened as they reunited with an instrument I understood.

Dinner became drinks and drinks became a sing-a-long. One of the hospitaleras played a guitar but we couldn’t play at the same time, the piano was so out of tune. When it was my turn, I played Yellow Submarine, and Coldplay, and Despacito, and Bruce Springsteen and Jon Fullbright and Josh Pyke, and Gleb requested lots of songs from the Decemberists. He kept complimenting me and offering me wine, but the real gentleman was the person who, in the middle of a song, put a necklace over my head and clapped me on the shoulder. I kept right on playing and at the end of the song, asked who gave it to me. I think it was another hospitalero who was smiling in the back of the room.

The necklace string was white and now it’s dirty because I didn’t take it off the rest of the trip, even though it got tangled with my other necklace. It has a plastic medal of the Immaculate Conception on it.

On the 22nd day, I made it to the end of the Meseta: I reached Leon. I was leaving my albergue–or was he the one leaving and I was passing the entrance?–when I ran into Ted! Ted had been ahead of me but had taken a couple days in Leon, and we caught up over coffees in a plaza.

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Ted asked what I was going to do in Leon, and I told him that the first thing I needed to do was find a purse, or a tote bag, because mine was falling apart and I needed something to carry my groceries and book in around town.

“Like this one,” I said, tugging at the yellow grocery bag on his armrest.

He reached into the bag and pulled out an identical one in a plastic wrapper.

“Here you go!” he said.

The yellow bags are the work of a man I must have missed, somewhere on the Meseta, who hands them out to pilgrims so they can refuse plastic bags from supermarkets. As the camino grows more and more popular, there is more and more of a push to advocate for recycling and being considerate to the environment. As an #ecoperegrina, I too now know that reciclar es el camino.

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The piece of rock is from Astorga, from my tour guide Amador, on the 25th day. That is the rock he picked off the Roman theatre. That rock, he told me is over two thousand years old. But I talked about that already.

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The day before we reached Santiago de Compostela, on the 35th day, Laurynas, Warren, Stacey, Sarah, lots of Germans, and I met a Hungarian man in the forest under a tent selling bracelets and necklaces. Behind the tent a woman was wrapped in a blanket, by a fire yawning into a cup of tea. A soft, gray donkey with placid eyes was tied to a post and pilgrims were petting him.

The necklaces all had clay medallions with simple pictures etched in white of crosses, conchas, yin-yang, the moon, and a donkey.

“I make them every day and fire them for three hours at night,” he said. “We are walking the camino and this is how we make money. And we have two donkeys, and this is one of them. This is Chewie.”

We pet Chewie, and the man gave us carrots to feed him. Chewie took the carrots and then he gnawed on our hands and backpacks. Hence, Chewie.

“I’m thinking about starting a donkey taxi between Santiago and Finisterre,” said the man. “So people can have help moving their things, but go slower. And you know, be with a donkey.”

I bought a necklace and added it to the St. Christopher medal I came to Spain with, the concha, and the Immaculate Conception around my neck. The clay was smooth but uneven, and the fingerprint of the artist is discernible in the light.

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And lastly, the shell. I had planned to pick out a shell for each person in my family and for all my close friends, but on the 41st day, in Finisterre, I just forgot. I did pick this up on the beach and put it in my pocket though, where it got chipped. I know it looks just like the shells we have here, but that’s what I brought back from the coast.

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