The way of Saint James reviewWritten by Sergi Colom Mas
The way of Saint James was the perfect excuse to gather more than fifteen people in the last meeting. I’m very happy to see how people respond to this activity. We learned about modern pilgrims, their reasons and feelings on the hiking trail. We could learn about Pere's experience on the Camino and we knew he has a preference for sport challenges.
But the conversation last Wednesday led to another interesting topic which was “life coincidences”. Pere told us about Jaret Murphy and his brother Sam, who got lost and walked througt Menàrguens and had a beautiful anecdote. But if it weren’t because Pere helped them with the “alberguero” in Osca, now we wouldn’t know about this story.
So here is the full text from Jarret Murphy. Maybe we can invite him one day as a guest.
A Series of Coincidences in Spain
The day Sam (my brother) and I walked into Huesca was our twenty-first on Pilgrimage and the last we would walk together for some time. Sam had been suffering from severe blisters and other ailments and had decided that he would take a break and meet me later, closer to Santiago de Compostela. For Sam, as we arrived at the Albergue, it was to be the end of one last long day carrying his pack. However, finding the place locked up with no one in sight and a paper tacked on the door instructing Pilgrim’s to call a number or email an address for assistance, it was just another twist in the ever turning Camino experience and we would have to schlep our packs a few more kilometers that day. Being Americanos without mobile service in Europe, we walked off further on hoping to find wifi somewhere so that we could email the address listed, not knowing that the most unusual thing was about to happen: a fellow Peregrino would be walking up to the Albergue not long after we left it!
In three weeks on Pilgrimage we had only seen four other Pilgrims on two occasions (all at albergues and in pairs of two) and not once someone else actually walking along the Way. It had been a quiet but not altogether uneventful time wondering along in Catalonia and Aragon: we lost our way quite a few times, most especially from Barcelona to Montserrat and in Catalonia in general. I have dubbed the stretch from Barcelona to Jaca the “Catalonian Scavenger-Hunt-for-Signs Way,” because it was slow going at times as yellow arrows and signs were not abundant and we would often have to search the four corners of an intersection to be sure we walked in the right direction. We would sometimes walk for a while not sure we were going the right way and then be relieved when we finally saw another arrow perhaps a kilometer down the road. There were sections that had excellent signage, such as around San Cugat or Cervera or even Tàrrega. By the time we reached Balaguer it had been perhaps a week since we had lost our way (not withstanding the occasional uncertainty at intersections) and perhaps we were lulled into a false sense of not having to work as hard to find yellow arrows and of knowing we were going the right way.
There was great signage leading into Balaguer, all the way to the old city across the Riu Segre. In fact, coming from Tàrrega the day before, the Way was well marked through all the little towns and villages (Tournabous, through L’Antic Portal in La Fuliola with a stop at the Bar there with a very welcoming proprietor, on to the turn west at Boldù toward Linyola, north out of Linyola after we had a great evening of dinner and watching Barça on a big TV, etc.). We were a little worn out the day we walked into Balaguer, not because we had tramped extra distances being lost but because we had set up our tents in the dark beside a corn field, off to the side along the road, on a grassy spot about 4km north of Linyola, tried to sleep through a terrifying torrential rain storm with lightning striking so close that there was no discernable difference between flash and bang and the light was still visible through shut eyelids (and, as I nervously crouched in my tent sleepless, I thought: “This is not how I want to go out!”). We survived the night. The morning was a gloriously beautiful one, with the light perfect across the rural landscape, and all the myriad size snails covered the grass and corn and we gratefully flung huge worms (brought out of hiding by the storm) as far as we could with our walking sticks, as we trampled our muddy way to Balaguer. So, we were worn out and after having lunch in a diner (a place we would call a “greasy spoon” in the United States) across the street from Esglesiade St. Domènech, we walked over the bridge, enjoyed the beautiful setting along the Segre River and stopped at a café in Plaça del Mercadal for a good rest before carrying on. It was still early in the day at that point and we had only 16 kilometers or so to Algerri, where I assured Sam we would sleep in an albergue that night.
Well, somehow we followed the wrong series of arrows out of Plaça del Mercadal. Really, we did not know that there would be more than one way out of Balaguer: in Tàrrega we had already come to and passed the major split between the two Catalonian Routes (through Lleida to Zaragosa and Logroño or via Huesca to the Aragon Way). We took the split towards Huesca, of course. Out of the Plaça we only saw one series of arrows and naturally followed them (although we did see a sign, devoid of arrows, pointing up hill towards Castelló de Farfanya: looking back now, that was the way we should have gone).
Soon we found ourselves on a road that more or less followed Riu Segre to the ruins of Santa Maria de Les Franqueses (Monestir Cistercenc), which we thought perhaps was one of those scenic secondary routes that took Pilgrims to historic sites and then would lead back to the main route. It wasn’t until we trudged across of small bridge over Riu de Farfanya on Carrer Raval, after nearly 12 kilometers and found ourselves on the outskirts of a town, that we began to think seriously about whether or not we were actually headed in the right direction. This was not a town we should have come to; we found ourselves in a town called Menàrguens.
After talking over our options (and we were not about to walk 12 kilometers back to Balaguer), we chose to walk on to see where the yellow arrows would take us. Contrary to what we had hoped, they led us straight through the town heading southwest. When we saw a road sign giving the short distance to Lleida, we stopped and pulled out what maps we had (none of them very good) and figured out that we must be on an alternative Camino route to Lleida! We were on our second day out of Tàrrega, where we had decidedly taken the split towards Huesca, and here we were accidentally heading towards the other route! We gave voice to the possibility of just taking the other route and just as quickly dismissed that noise. Sam said we should go back to one of the two bars we had passed and ask for directions. That was the only sensible thing to do. Sam’s preference was the first one, Café Lo Sindicat, which I had scarcely noticed, and so we went there. This proved to be an unforgettable decision.
As we walked through the foyer area and up the half flight of stairs to the inner door into the bar, I was a little unsure about the place. When we opened the door we saw a long room with a bar on the far right and two older gentlemen sitting at the farthest table before the back window. But, it was seeing the approachable woman behind the bar that made the place more welcoming. Still completely sure of how to go about explaining how we were lost, we ordered two cans of soda and sat down for a few minutes while we continued to look at maps and checked to see if there was wifi (which there wasn’t). So, I did my best to explain our situation to the proprietress in a terrible mix of Spanish and Catalán and the old men helped her to interpret my linguistic shortcomings. No doubt, we were the first Peregrinos to walk into her bar and say (or attempt to say): “Yes, we are trying to walk to Algerri. No, we do not want to go to Lleida. We actually do want to go towards Algerri.” She was a little bit surprised, but was quite patient and went to her desktop behind the bar and pulled up an online map and zoomed in and showed us how we could go, as I scribbled down notes. Just seeing the map–a good map–solidified in my mind the exact direction we needed to go, with a general geography. We had instructions on which road to take leaving north out of Menàrguens and that we should cross the main road that edged the northern boundary of town and keep going. We were supposed to walk through the town of Albesa along the way and Sam and I thought we might find a place to stop for the night there. The details, mind you, were only as good as I could translate the patiently slowed-down Catalán I was hearing. In other words, I lost a lot of detail and didn’t have the words with which to clarify.
Helping us find our way was not all that the wonderful proprietress of Café Lo Sindicat did for us: she refused to take any money for the sodas and she gave each of us two huge golden apples from her garden out back: simple, amazing gestures. After the up and down we had had the last two days: the previous great afternoon/evening in Linyola watching Fútbol to excitedly waiting out the night’s lightning storm camped out beside a corn field to the beautiful morning and a great afternoon in Plaça del Mercadal in Balaguer to tolerating bugs swarming around our heads along the Segre River route and then being lost in Menàrguens, the kindness shown to us at that point in time was profound, will never be forgotten and made the whole experience of being lost worthwhile.
We walked north out of the center of Menàrguens on the road that I was sure was the right one, but as soon as we arrived at the main northern boundary road we could see to our left that there was a main interchange with another paved road heading northwest. If we were indeed on the right road then we should just cross the road and continue straight on the dirt road going north, or we could walk up the road to the busy interchange and take the road heading northwest. We chose to just cross the road straight ahead. This proved to be another memorable choice.
The rationale for just going straight was that if this was the right road then perfect and if it wasn’t, the other road should run parallel more or less and we could cross over at the next convenient crossing. As we walked slightly uphill on that dirt road, we began to realize that Albesa wasn’t just a short jaunt over parallel but was actually quite further away (this can be explained by us not realizing that the other road actually wends west for a bit before heading north). So, by the time we had walked up the farm road a few kilometers it was evident that we would not make it to Algerri before dark, let alone Albesa. We would have to camp out again! Fortunately, as it was dusk we found some huge roughly smooth rocks off to the left of the road on a bit of higher ground that were perfect for small tents. Despite the fact that we were camping out for the second night in a row, it was a wonderful night on those rocks, with colorful sunset and sunrise over farmland.
Giving up on Albesa, we decided to just figure our way in the right general direction towards Algerri, which led us to a dead end at one point, but we found our way to the Algerri-Balaguer Canal, followed along the paths along it and finally made it to the Camí d’Albesa, by which we walked into Algerri. After what should have been about 12 kilometers turned into about 14, coupled with the last two crazy days, we opted to call it a day and stayed the night at the Municipal Albergue, which we naturally had all to ourselves. We had a great opportunity to catch up on laundry and chill and I caught an awesome sunset above the town at the ruins of the castle. Sure, we had lost a day in the whole deal, but were thankful for the experience of being helped by the lady at Café Lo Sindicat.
The rest of the way to Huesca the yellow arrows and signs were plentiful enough that we did not become lost, although as always there were those few times we had to search for a minute to be sure of the right path. With a rest day in Berbegal and not pushing it, it was on the eighth day out of Menàrguens that we reached Huesca and the locked up albergue.
Not quite two hours had passed when we returned to the albergue, after buying groceries at a Lidl about 1km away and stopping at two bars for internet (the first not being helpful). We had some food after I sent the email in the best Spanish I could muster (which I hoped didn’t come off as too abrupt or direct) and after hanging out there for an hour, and not receiving a reply, we decided to return to the albergue. Our hopes were not high that anyone would be there but we were surprised to find the door open and one gentleman just arriving. As we stepped inside, we found an old gentleman at a desk in the office to the left with a Peregrino standing before him!
Fortunately our fellow Pilgrim spoke English and was able to act as translator for us, as the gentleman just arriving turned out to be the person whose email account was the one listed: with the old gentleman there already, he was questioning why he had been summoned. After some time, all knew the situation: our fellow Peregrino had walked up about an hour after we had gone and called the number at about the same time I sent the email. All in all, the two gentlemen were hospitable and commented on how there were more Americans on Pilgrimage now more than ever and asked if we had seen “the movie,” which according to them was the reason for the influx of American Pilgrims. Although, looking at the albergue’s register/comment book later, about three to four Americans a year on average passed through Huesca, or, at the least, wrote a comment. Either most didn’t write anything or, perhaps, practically none came through before?
After we were checked in, were given a brief tour of the great modern facilities and took two bunks out of the dozen or so in the larger room (we figured we’d give our fellow Pilgrim his own space in the smaller room with four bunks). It, perhaps, sounds odd, but we were not used to having anyone else in the albergues at the end of the day and I, for one, was not completely certain how to go about interacting with our fellow Camino-goer. Our previous two encounters with fellow Pilgrims had gone off smoothly, but with a lack of communication, due to the fact that we had no language of fluency in common with the first couple we shared a room with at Montserrat and we scarcely saw the German friends the night in Tàrrega who were headed towards Lleida. It was he who started the conversation that would go down as one of the most memorable on the entire journey!
After the usual exchange of names (our nationalities already made known), we asked Pére where exactly he was from in Catalonya. This is when and where any social awkwardness was squashed and everything changed. The conversation went something like this:
“Where are you from?” I asked Pére.
“A small town in Catalonya.”
“You wouldn’t know it. It’s not on the Camino.”
Considering now many times we had ended up places not on the Camino, I asked: “What town exactly?”
“It’s a place called Menàrguens.”
“We know where that is!” and Sam and I stood there surprised.
“No, really?” Pére says, not visibly showing that he fully believed us.
As Pére says this, Sam whips out his Pilgrim Passport and echoes out, “Really!” and shows him the stamp from Café Lo Sindicat and adds, “We’ve been there!”
Not a second passes between Pére looking at the stamp, any doubt washing from his face and his exclaiming, “No way!!” as he emphatically throws down the passport with both hands onto the long table there in front of us.
While this is happening, I pull out my phone (aka camera) and without a break say, “Check this out,” and show him the picture of the Café Lo Sindicat sign and the one of the lady behind the bar.
With this Pére lets out another emphatic, “No Way!!”
We go on to tell our story of how we ended up in Menàrguens.
And the three of us are instantly friends at that point.
Pére asks us if we are up to going out to have dinner. This is the first time we were invited to hang out with someone on the Camino and there was no question we were going out. The ensuing meal and beers afterwards made up one of the best nights we had on the Camino, just hanging out with our new friend Pére from Menàrguens.
In the morning, Pére was ready to leave by 8am and we had a coffee with him before he walked on to Sarsamarcuello that day. I could have gone with him, but did not want to leave Sam until he had gotten on his train towards Germany and Sam needed a rest day. The old gentleman ok’d our staying an extra night through translation from Pére when we checked in (saying something to the effect of, if you are not feeling well tomorrow (wink, wink) you may stay on). Nonetheless, I would follow directly in Pére’s footsteps the next day.
For the remaining forty-seven days on Pilgrimage and months after, I would think back to this unbelievable coincidence as one of a few epic series of events that took place on the Way. What we did not know then and until long after we had all returned to everyday life was that that was not the end of the story. As if the coincidence of meeting Pére from Menàrguens in Huesca eight days after having gotten lost in his hometown wasn’t enough, it turns out that,when we camped out on those huge roughly smooth rocks by that field about 4km north of Menàrguens, we were camping on Pére’s father’s land!
At the time when we were busy being lost in Menàrguens and went a whole day out of our way in the process, I did not mind. The whole thing was an adventure that we could talk about and perhaps write about later. The series of unbelievable coincidence smacks of fate or destiny or the divine or that we were meant to end up in Menàrguens that day. I am forever thankful we followed the wrong set of yellow arrows out of Balaguer!
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