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.
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.
Simone de Beauvoir called it “a small person … an alter ego usually more sly … and more clever than the individual.” Leonardo da Vinci said it “has dealings with human intelligence and sometimes displays an intelligence of its own.” Sophocles said that having one was to be “chained to a madman.
(Their homelessness: Pastor Mark Driscoll said, “Therefore, if you are single you must remember that your penis is homeless and needs a home”)
You see them being drawn in movies (shout out to Superbad), and unfortunately sometimes in real life, as I did teaching English in art classes in Ibiza.
Yes, people also talk about vaginas. But not as much as those penises.
The visualization of the penis is widespread. I love street art, and I love graffiti – especially if It’s clever.
But the penis graffiti, man, it is everywhere. This summer while I was traveling, I witnessed penises drawn in every country I visited (Spain, Morocco, Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Turkey).
It’s like an every present big brother police state, genital style.
You turn a corner looking for that bakery you say on trip advisor. PENIS. You are taking your morning walk through the medina. PENIS. You are walking up the mountain to catch the village at sunrise. PENIS.
You get to Santiago de Compostela, a block from the cathedral. PENIS. Watch the video below for proof that I saw tons of penises.
The penis obsession is not just for the American youth or the Spanish youth. Nor is it an obsession of the hypersexualized male. It is an obsession of society that started when… well… Adam? As in Adam and Eve? Probably.
So, why the penis? What does our genital police state signify?
When it comes to sexual anatomy, some of these myths have to do with seeing a vagina as something more sacred, erotic and gentle than a penis. A penis on the other hand is seen as a symbol of enabling dominant power. At best. At worst, it is seen as a violent weapon with larger-than-life powers. (This is despite that male genitals are perhaps the most sensitive of all human body parts.)
So, that’s great. As if there wasn’t enough problems with sexual assault and male domination, we now get to have physical reminders of that everywhere we turn. Because it’s not enough to have a penis. No, no. You must also draw one every time you leave your house.
But we have to inquire, are all of the penis graffiti merely representing a harmless cultural symbol? Hiding sexuality and policing it is dangerous, but we must ask ourselves, what purpose is all of the graffiti serving? Is it educating in a positive way? Is it giving sex positive expectations of what a penis is?
Or, is it reminding half of the world that they are subordinate? Is it showing young boys that without a big dick you are weak, nothing? That penises and a mainstream view of masculinity are the same?
Or, is it drawn by some bored kid who wanted to do something “outrageous?”
Most likely, all of the above. But a critical look at the obsession with the penis is necessary. The patriarchy sure won’t go home without being kicked out!
Just as the bathrooms signs brought me great joy, reading what previous pilgrims had written brought me a sense of being part of a greater community of people. In accordance with my philosophy that laughter can solve anything, when you walk for hours in the burning sun a bit of humor is exactly what you need.
Below are photos of my favorite graffiti I saw along the French route from Burgos to Santiago de Compostela.
What were your favorite graffiti? Tweet at me @yasminesoyyo!
As someone with an undeniably small bladder, I am the butt of jokes, the object of surprise, and the point of concern for people who are convinced I am over-hydrated, have an over-active bladder, or even diabetes.
As far as I’m concerned none of the above are issues. It’s just who I am.
That being said, my bladder issues mean that I see my fair share of bathrooms. Actually, I’ve probably spent most of my life either waiting for a bathroom, in a bathroom, or thinking about either of those.
That’s why I’ve learned to appreciate the minute details about them. A lavender soap, soft toilet paper, aesthetically-pleasing vintage wallpaper, and even the caliber of entertainment the books often on a table nearby the toilet provide are all points of appreciation.
While walking the camino, I would choose to do my business outside as much as possible (check out an upcoming post for more information), but if I was forced to use the toilet, or the institutionalization of urination, I was pleasantly surprised to find very creative signs indicating the bathrooms (They were gender normative, but we can’t win them all).
These signs provided the entertainment and enjoyment as I was waiting for the bathroom. They have also inspired me to continue to be looking for creative signs and humorous depictions of our moments on the toilet.
Where have you seen the best bathroom signs? Tweet at me @yasminesoyyo!
If European country sides are hosts to small villages every few kilometers, walking the 500 plus kilometers from Burgos to Santiago de Compostela on the French route of the Camino de Santiago means you walk through many of them.
They follow the typical pattern of a European village: houses bundled together in a logical pattern, a church, a school, a restaurant or bar, close to a water source and all surrounded by farmland or forest. Walking the camino, the pilgrims get a glimpse of how the same structure of a village can look unique depending on the civilization(s) that has reigned there. Windows don’t look the same in Hontanas as they do Hospital de Órbigo, doors change height and width and materials go from wood and brick to straw and mud.
The historical heritage of the Spanish towns still doesn’t manage to make them drastically different, as there were elements that unified them all. Hence the purpose of this post.
In Spain, villages no longer serve the purpose they once did. The changes that industrialization brought ushered in migration to the cities for different kinds of work, much as it did in most of the world. Ruth Behar writes, “The late industrialization of Spain kept people in the villages until the end of the 1960s and 1970s, but from then on the movement to urban centers grew in strength and numbers, and became irreversible.”
The pilgrim can sense these changes, as many of the towns were outright abandoned save the church, albergue and bar to cater to tourism. The generations are undeniably older. Some abandoned villages are even prompting a movement of “repopulation,” where people who have lost everything in the economic crisis, or people who are afraid of seeing their grandparent’s villages disappear return to the rural village to bring new economic opportunities and community life (In Calzadilla de La Cueza, a frighteningly empty town, we met a couple from the Canary Island who owned a grocery store called Tienda “Los Canarios” and were thrilled to meet people from all over the world who walked the camino. They were one of five or six families in the town).
The mass influx of tourism with the heightened popularity is undoubtedly positively contributing to the economic situation of these towns (and pilgrims have been of economic interest for centuries, although other issues of sustainable tourism and preservation of heritage are of serious concern. The New York Times reported in 2014 that over 240,000 pilgrims were expected to complete the camino that year, a stark difference from the 423 that completed it in 1984.
One would assume that due to the thousands of European, North American, South Americans, and Asian tourists who walk through their towns, the people would become accustomed to strange behavior, accents, or at least be less impressed by our presence. But this didn’t appear to be the case.
Some elderly men and women greeted us with warm smiles and were genuinely curious about where we were from and why was it that we decided to walk to the camino. Others, you sensed, were so thrilled to be sharing their native lands with foreigners and were proud to be showing it off.
Whether it was the province of Burgos, Palencia or Leon (Castilla y Leon), or the towns of Galicia, the towns themselves were different, but people are people (elderly are elderly) no matter where you are. The towns we visited had the following 8 elements in common:
Everyone stares. And they aren’t ashamed. Sometimes I wondered if people had ever seen a girl before.
Everyone is a man
This is an exaggeration. But sometimes it felt like it. Especially when they were staring.
The men were always drinking alcohol This is also an exaggeration. Sometimes they were working. Sometimes they were slaughtering their livestock. But it sure felt like it when everyone was a man and everyone was always staring.
The women will be working
The bars full of men drinking were almost consistently staffed by women waiting on them, and often flirting.
The bars will be playing Top 40s without fail
Sometimes it feels wrong see a 87-year-old man drinking while “Lean On” or “El Perdon” plays in the background.
The men will yell loudly or ask questions
Whenever people complain about people from the United States being loud, I silently (and sometimes not so silently) ask if they’ve ever been to Spain. I love the volume and the openness.
The men will catcall you
If they’re not speaking loudly to each other or asking you questions, they will be not-so-discreetly commenting on your appearance. They will either directly or indirectly throw you a backhanded compliment. On one occasion in Palencia, Kimberly and I walked into a bar. A man looked at me in the eyes and said, “you are beautiful….but very sweaty.” People seemed to be affected by the sweat. Walking through Ponferrada we passed by a group of men eating lunch and we heard them say – too loud to only be talking to each other – “those girls are beautiful but so sweaty.” WELL YEAH, WE’VE BEEN WALKING FOR HOURS.
Smells like manure
One Italian pilgrim complained about the poop all over the trails in many towns. She looked at a fellow pilgrim from Madrid and exclaimed, “I’m sorry about that, but that poop is disgusting. We clean that up in Italy.”
The villages may have shifted due to industrialization and migration, the aesthetics may separate them, but there are a string of occurrences in each that remind you you are on the camino. In the same New York Times article mentioned earlier, it reports,
“The Spanish authorities “must strike a balance between developing tourism and maintaining the tradition of the Camino,” warned Lijia Zhang, a Beijing-based writer, who spent two weeks walking in August. “Otherwise it will lose its soul, and therefore its appeal, before too long”
As long as elderly Spanish men sit in bars, listen to Top 40s music, drink, catcall the pilgrims and order from young, female waitresses, all while the manure stench permeates your nostrils (had to throw that one in), the camino won’t lose it’s raw and honest charm.
Sometimes they are for the livestock to drink from, and sometimes no one knows why they are there.
There are (often multiple) water fountains in every town along the camino.
This is amazing, and it will save your life. And now you don’t have to ask restaurants to give you some. But if you still have to, they were always polite and friendly about it.
BBVA isn’t found in every Spanish town. In fact, ATMs aren’t in every town.
The crisis brought a slew of bank closings and you won’t always be able to find yours. Often, you might not even find a bank. Stock up on cash, and get out enough to hold you for 3-4 if necessary.
Albergues are strict, and you have to follow their rules.
I didn’t realize I would be told to go to bed by 11:00pm or be kicked out by 8:00am.
The reason why you get places early, is so you don’t miss out.
There were a few occasions when we would arrive too late at a town and miss out on space at a donation-based albergue or free community dinner with a limited number of spots. That’s the only reason someone would ever convince me to get somewhere early (no, not even the heat).
There are abandoned shoes left everywhere.
All I was thinking was, what are these people wearing now? And, did they bring multiple pairs, just for this purpose?
Spanish towns don’t care if they leave construction tools on sidewalks unattended.
We were often scared the chainsaws would go out of whack like they do in cartoons and movies.
Yes, I read the blogs. I read all of the information, and clearly thought it didn’t apply to me. When after the first day I already formed fist-sized blisters on the bottom of my feet, I realized that no, cotton socks aren’t a good idea, and you’re no exception!
What did you see or do on the camino that you didn’t expect?