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PostWalking the Camino, 17 Teenagers in Tow (Silvia Ribelles de la Vega, USA, 11/15/22 10:11 am)
I hope this email finds you well, in great health and high spirits. I would like to share my experience with 17 teenagers along the Camino last June.
My sons attend a Jesuit high school here in Southern California. Two years ago, I offered to plan a pilgrimage to Santiago for the students and also act as chaperone. I said I would do it for free, and they accepted readily. They were absolutely excited with the prospect.
Strangely enough, none of the Spanish teachers volunteered to be one of the adults to go along, so thankfully one of the theology teachers and his daughter, who works in Campus Ministry, accepted to join. Without their leadership, the trip would have never happened.
Since I was jobless last year, I had plenty of time to plan the route, find local guides who spoke English, look for a bus service, write a short text for each day and place we visited... It was a lot of work, but I did it with gusto. More than that: with true excitement.
The school task was more bureaucratic: they chose the lucky 17 students who ended up going on the trip, made reservations for the hotels I had chosen, and booked the flights. They were extremely helpful in that sense. I have not one complaint. Very much to the contrary. It was nice that they gave me carte blanche for everything else in that sense.
The "pilgrimage" was actually a hybrid: we walked for 100 kms (60 miles), between Lugo and Santiago, which is the minimum you have to walk to attain the pilgrim certificate (called "Compostela"). The rest was covered by bus. We started in Santo Domingo de la Calzada and, following the Roman Road that communicated Asturica Augusta with the French border, and later became the Camino de Santiago, we visited Atapuerca, Burgos, León, Astorga, and Lugo. At this point we left the bus and walked to Santiago de Compostela over 5 days. We then got back on the bus at Santiago and continued on to visit Oviedo, Covadonga, Bilbao, Loyola and Madrid. In other words, we took a trip in history and art dating back one million years, to post-war industrialization and Frank Gehry, and (almost) everything in between.
A lot of the students had never left the US. On our first day in Spain, after a 12-hour flight, and a three-hour bus ride, we went for a walk before sunset along the streets of Santo Domingo de la Calzada to stretch our legs before hitting the bed for some rest. Just seeing those faces when we turned a corner, and they saw, jaws dropped, the baroque tower of the cathedral, was enough payment for all my hard work. Some of them even gasped. It was their first European cathedral ever. Not even Las Vegas has a casino with one!
But you want to know how the actual walking went. Well, we had three Eagle Scouts among the students, so their idea of walking was very different from that of taking in nature, meditating and finding your inner self. Forget that! We covered 20 to 30 kms a day. It took them 2 to 3 hours to finish. By the time we, the adults, made it to the "albergue" [hostel], they had been there for 2 or 3 hours, ready to hit the town, no matter how small, all showered and refreshed. All we wanted, the adults, was to collapse on a bed and take a hot bath (something impossible since we were staying in 13-euro-per-night hostels with communal showers and communal bedrooms). Those who did not complete the 20-30 km day in 3 hours as if they were being followed by a pack of wolves with the rabies, would stop on the way and take photos, sit down for a snack at a bar, but always, always making sure we, the adults, were as far away as possible from them. We would only, if we were lucky, see the dust they raised as they walked far ahead of us.
Every night we had dinner together after walking, as a group. They were always hungry and always tired, but in high spirits. At Melide we had octopus. They all tried it (except for one vegan student), and most of them liked it and ordered it later on. Croquetas were a big favorite, as was tortilla de patata and chicken milanesa with fries, fried eggs and salad. Those who had taken Spanish ordered paella, as their book said it was the typical dish in Spain. I told them they were doing that at their own risk, and that they would probably get "arroz con cosas" instead. But who am I to tell a 17-year-old what to order when they are starving? I was lucky I came back not missing any fingers.
When we arrived in Santiago, we attended the Pilgrims mass. We were lucky enough to witness the flying of the Botafumeiro, which they found amazing. After mass, we took our pilgrim passports and received the official certificate. They were all so happy and proud of themselves. That is something they will never forget. I got each one of them a pin with the Cross of Santiago to wear on their gowns when they graduate from high school. When I told them they can also have a shell in their coat of arms if they ever decide to have one, they looked at me in disbelief, as if it was an old fairy tale of some kind. But I was dead serious.
I got all kinds of compliments at hotels, restaurants and from tour guides. They all commented on how well behaved, polite and attentive the students were. I could not be more proud of them.
Some of my friends and relatives told me I was crazy to take such a large group of young students to Spain, and on a pilgrimage, too. Sometimes I wondered, too, what the heck was I doing in Spain, by myself, with 17 kids (none of them my own). But the gratitude I received from the kids themselves, from the parents, from the school administrators was enough to answer that question. Now the school offers the pilgrimage as part of the international program. And that makes me happy, too.
JE comments: Silvia, I am in awe of your dedication. Shepherding students around a foreign locale is a 24-hour job. You make St James proud!
Arroz con cosas--rice with "stuff": I'm going to remember that exquisite dish.