You know when you’re coming back into the U.S. and at customs have to swear you haven’t been around livestock abroad? You check “no,” but really, you have flashbacks of dodging poop. To seeing curious calves first thing in the morning as the sun comes up over Galicia and stopping randomly to laugh as you see a cow licking another’s back.
Those flashbacks make you feel guilty for lying. After all, you didn’t just come into contact. You were in the thick of it. In fact, one of the eight things all Camino towns had in common was the poignant odor of manure.
You heard about Moroccan camels and goats, you saw Phi Phi’s biggest legend, you know the wildlife of my Ibiza home and when I killed chicks. But, what about the cows? How could I forget the cows? I didn’t forget, my appreciation was just delayed.
Throughout the 500 kilometers of the Camino that Kimberly (see here for her beautiful piece on her experience walking) and I did from Burgos to Santiago de Compostela along the French route last June-July, I had never been closer to farms.
Many of the paths of the Camino went through farmer’s land. Sometimes, the towns were so small (maybe two or three houses) that the pilgrims’ route, farmland, and their private property were indistinguishable.
Just like camels, they have darling eye lashes. Their gazes are captivating and their gestures often human-like.
Sometimes they saw us walking and would stop for a moment to check things out. Realizing we weren’t going to hurt them, they carried on about their business.
I particularly liked a little one who watched us intently.
Sometimes, they were naughty.
We were sitting by an albergue chatting with friends in Laguna de Castilla, just before O Cebreiro, when this couple in the photo above were leading their cows to roam.
One precocious male cow decided to go against the herd and came walking towards us. The woman screamed and ran up, whacking a stick at the ground, and often at him, to veer him in the right direction.
Other times, like in the photo above, the caretakers were more gentle. It was around 8:30am when we watched this woman guide her calves.
When they weren’t in fields or watching us from the inside of a barn, they were sharing the road with us.
Being guided by a local farmer, they changed locations on the same paths that the pilgrims used to complete their camino. It wasn’t until these moments that I realized how large they were. My suburban life had shielded me from the wonders of these mammals.
They moved quickly and intently, coming close but never too close. “Mooooove along,” they must have been thinking (Oh, Allison!).
According to Spain’s National Statistical Institute’s 2009 census, there are almost 6 million heads of cattle in the country. That’ a lot of cows. Because the majority of the Camino passes through rural areas, it makes sense that cows became such an integral part of our experience.