On a typical day on the path you’ll pass the same people multiple times. Everyone has their pace, but everyone stops from time to time. Maybe for a photo, a stone in a shoe, a blister inspection, a water refill. I stop every morning for half an hour. I stopped this evening to make a little water cup for a kitten that was clearly hungry and thirsty but way too scared of me to come when I was there. I left her some cheese too. When people pass they say “Buen Camino” That’s the default. It’s what the internet tells us to say. I don’t like it much. It’s used so automatically that it has lost all meaning. Like “Have a nice day!” It’s fine from someone not walking Camino to someone who is. But I’m after something a bit more engaged.
The Codex Calixtinus is a twelfth century Lonely Planet Guide for The Camino. It tells you which rivers will kill your horse, where you are likely to get jumped by robbers who are dressed up as pilgrims. It tells you which cities are important, where the dead saints are buried, where to eat. It’s a mine of superhelpful very very out of date information. Right now I’m approaching Burgos: “This country is full of royal treasure, of gold and silver, fabrics and the strongest horses, and flush with bread, wine, fish, milk and honey. It is however lacking in firewood and the people are evil and vicious.” There we go. Forewarned is forearmed. They paint good murals:
But their graffiti needs work:
The Codex Calixtinus has solved the “Buen Camino” saccharine problem for me. “Ultreya,” it suggests as a pilgrim greeting. “Ultreya et suseia – Santiago”. This has the immediate advantage of being ancient and being born on this path. It’s also much deeper than “Have a nice Camino.” It means a mixture of things. “Onwards!” and simultaneously “Go beyond!” Stretch your usual boundaries, physically and mentally. The journey doesn’t end in Santiago. Go beyond. The response “et suseia” is “and upwards!” To the heights. To the gods! To the height of what you can be! Ultreya et suseia, Santiago.
I’ve been trying it as I go. Mostly my enthusiastic “Ultreya” is met with a pause, and then an efficiently morphed “Buen Camino” from someone who is not native Spanish but pretending. “Buen Camino” also kind of means “Go away and leave me alone, I’m doing the basics. You’ve had human contact. Now exit my space.” But I keep trying. “Ultreya!”
Sometimes people have come upon me later and asked me about it. “What was that you said?” It’s written on all the monuments to the dead pilgrims – heart attacks or road accidents mostly. I can refer to them. Onwards! Inwards! Up and beyond!
Once, gloriously, there was a high five moment. I said “Ultreya,” to the hairy good looking Spanish guy who passed. Beaming he responded “et suseia” and then we both simultaneously said “Santiago!” We didn’t high five. We should have. But we both wanted to make out like it was just an ordinary moment. Because it really really ought to be. It’s just BETTER than obediently mouthing Spanish niceties whilst walking past graffiti saying “This is not Spain.”
It’s mostly road flanking at the moment, this bit of the way. We trudge in a strung out line past grapes and sunflowers and fallow fields on the left and past trucks and trucks and trucks on the right. Ever west. This isn’t France where it was maize and cows and goats and sheep. There is very little livestock here. It’s mostly just grapes, which I’m not complaining about. Yum.
The sun is still shining. That’s a blessing. And we will go onwards and we will go upwards, and some of us will fall off and others will not. It inevitably starts to feel like a community when the same faces come staggering into the hostels at the end of every day wondering what’s in store for our tired bodies this time. I just told a noisy table full of Americans that I didn’t want to join them, earning the nickname “Antisocial Joe”. It’s affectionately given but it’s also a tactic by the group to absorb the loner. I’ll probably have to go do the basics. I might be flanking them for a few days.
Everybody ends every day walking like very very old men, slowly and deliberately showering, massaging our feet, swearing a bit, getting some wine, and looking at the maps for the next day. Finally I’m ahead of the Korean supergroup, and the predominant language is Spanish. I have a small nucleus of French people who I chat to. And that big pile of Americans. I haven’t met a Brit on the path yet. I wonder if I will. I wonder if I want to – too familiar perhaps. We will see. Meantime, Ultreya!