Tag Archives: languages

Patient Hospitaleros

A quick update on where we’re at – we are just finishing our stretch in Castille and Leon and are at a hostel tonight in Villafranca del Bierzo before the climb tomorrow to O’Cebreiro and Galicia.

I love beakfast. It’s my favorite meal of the day.

I have been impressed with the seemingly limitless patience of the folks who run the hostels – called “albergues” – along the Camino. The “hospitaleros” (and hospitaleras) face an unending stream of smelly pilgrims coming through day after day with dirty boots, oozing blisters and, for the most part, lousy Spanish. And all of us seem to expect the unique Camino experience every night – enough tasty food, clean bathrooms and showers, and comfortable beds.

In the little town of Zarinaquiguie, maybe 10 km from Pamplona, I found myself in the position of speaking the best Spanish in the hostel for most of the evening. A sort-of language savant showed up later who spoke French, Spanish, German, English and even a little Basque, though she was proof that just because you can speak a dozen languages doesn’t mean you should. She commandeered the evening’s dinner conversation with little interest in anyone else, and though she spoke perfect French, she failed to accurately interpret our Quebecois and French companions’ eye rolls – something I’ve always thought transcended spoken languages the world over.

What’s not to love about loin and white coffee for beakfast?

Anyway, back to my story – before she arrived, a German pilgrim asked me if I knew what was for dinner, and if it was fish, could I tell the chef he wanted something else? I grabbed the Basque chef as he buzzed around the dining room getting the table ready for dinner and told him that one of his guests doesn’t eat “fishermen.” Without batting an eye, he knew what I meant, and Frederick got a heaping plate of spaghetti, while the rest of us had salty bowls of baccalau. The chef genuinely seemed to enjoy serving us, so when we were finished, I made sure to tell him that the salad, the lentils, the soup and the fish were all “very, very beautiful.” He graciously smiled at me and bowed slightly before zipping back into the kitchen.

A few nights ago, in Mansilla de las Mulas, just before Leon, our servers weren’t quite as understanding. We’d amassed a large group for dinner, and a continuous stream of quid pro quo drink buying throughout the afternoon made us louder than normal. We’ve met and been walking at roughly the same rate as a very cool Quebecois couple who started their camino deep in the French countryside a month and some 800 km before us in Le Puy. The husband, Daniel, is quiet even in his native Quebecois-French. But at dinner time, he enjoys rousting entire restaurants to toast the Camino, toast the servers, toast our fellow pilgrims at the dinner table in their native tongues. It seems to be his way to show appreciation. That, and he freely doles out sublime foot massages. “I mass your feet?” he offers. “I’m a very good masser.”

Though I’m sure they appreciate it in some measure, the hospitaleros always seems to feel a little uneasy in the spotlight. Perhaps they were a little on edge when we asked them (in Spanish), “What…is…the soup?” Our server spit back something that sounded like “hegetales,” which should have been easy enough to translate into “vegetables,” but our minds were elsewhere and we didn’t make the connection.

“What…is…vegetables?” I asked in Spanish.

“Vegetables are vegetables, you idiot. Carrots, onions, cabbage, potatoes…Vegetables.” I have no idea if this is actually what she said to me, but I let my imagination run a bit as it slowly sunk in that it was vegetable soup she was talking about. I’m just trying to imagine how an American in a town of a few thousand people in the United States might respond to a bunch of foreigners yelling demands at her in four languages, interspersed with shouts of “Sante!” and “Salud” and “Proust!” and “K Pis!” (Apologies to our Dutch and Finnish friends – I should have asked them to write down their respective toasts.) My estimation is that an American waitress, even one who depends on tips, would quickly lose patience with us.

In the end, the vegetable soup was delicious, just the salty broth of vegetables I needed. Things ended on a bit of a sour note, when one of our fellow Americans went on tirade against a Dutch guy who, as I understood it, asked her simply (in perfect English, as all the Dutch seem to speak) whether she didn’t mind the weight of carrying her iPad. After leveling an inappropriate response about how pilgrims’ supplies have evolved over the centuries, she stormed off. The Dutch didn’t speak French, and most of our other companions speak very little English, so in an effort to ease the tension, Daniel toasted the Dutch guy a few times and said, “I am love you,” and “You my friend. You my best friend.”

Thankfully, it seems the Dutch were forgiving, as they seemed to harbor no ill will this morning, probably thanks to Daniel’s efforts. I suppose even an attempt in a common language has the potential to heal wounds.

Wearing in the boots: Roncesvalles through Pamplona

We left our pristine hostel attached to a stunning 12th century church in Roncesvalles. The signpost at the edge of town says Santiago de Compostela is 790 kilometers away, though by foot it should be a bit shorter.

After crossing the Pyrenees the day before, we spent much of our second day ambling through pine forests and in and out of sleepy farm towns in the Basque countryside. The island of Euskadi (Basque Country) straddling the mountains is fascinating, in part because it’s so tough to find out much about the people who live here. A language resembling neither French nor Spanish in any discernible way presents the first barrier. I get the impression that there’s a secrecy to the culture, a pride that depends little on what others outside think. But this is just a gut feeling, as I’ve done little primary research.

Adding to the air of mystery is an undercurrent of witchcraft and mythology. I’ll try to look up the story about the statue to the right welcoming pilgrims into Roncesvalles.

Aches and pains have started to pop up that either weren’t an issue or were masked by adrenalin and excitement. Still, it’s a privilege to watch the landscape change with each step. After lunch, we climbed through the rather ugly industrial town of Zubiri to one of the countless hillside villages paved in cobblestones with walls lined in rose bushes in full bloom. Often you can smell the villages before you see them.

We spent the night in Larrasoana. Just a few days in, we’ve picked up on a bit of frustration with the pilgrims, which is understandable. In general, we’ve found most of us are pretty respectful, but mob mentality takes over a bit and we can be a selfish lot, descending in huge groups on tiny towns, demanding dinner and beds and then taking off the next day. So I’m a bit resigned to the idea that most of the people we meet will be fellow travelers not locals, with a few momentary exceptions here and there.

Let’s start with the travelers. Speaking English makes walking the Camino easy (and traveling in general, I suppose). But Anne-Claire’s French has opened us up to a larger swath of pilgrims. We had the good fortune to sit next to Patrick from Paris and Claude from Quebec at dinner. Claude speaks English, so we had a nice mélange of that and French and enjoyed sharing a meal with them. They both start from Le Puy in France about a month ago. They’d walked together their first three days, then had been separated until just a few days ago, when they ran into each other at a tiny stopover on the way over the Pyrenees called Orisson.

They passed us on the trail the next morning when we’d stopped for breakfast. This is how the Camino goes, I’m told – you see people, make flickering connections and only providence will allow you to meet again.

Much of the rest of the day was spent hiking up to, through and past Pamplona. After the countryside, the bustle of the town’s cars and people were a little overwhelming to us, so we didn’t linger too long, though once again, I was impressed at how beautiful Pamplona is – parks, monuments and a festive atmosphere beg for another visit.

We stopped for lunch in a suburb 5 km outside of town, only to realize we had little cash and were headed to an even smaller town up in the hills for the night. Even what the guidebook calls an “affluent dormitory community of Pamplona” didn’t have an ATM, so Anne-Claire walked a few kilometers to remedy the problem.

We arrived that night in a tiny town that was little more than the hostel and a massive church to find a near-empty hostel (one of the benefits of going just a bit farther each night than the guide suggests). The two other occupants

were none other than Patrick and Claude. We laughed off the day’s toils and shared a bit about our families over beers and the ham and chorizo that Patrick always keeps in his pack, before embarking on a tedious dinner, thanks to a few late-arriving guests. I’m striving to keep snark and cynicism out of this blog, so if you want to hear the story, perhaps we can share a few beers (and some cured meats) in person.

‘Ma Petite Soeur’

A long day of bus travel, after a short ride in the French family’s camper, took us from Merzouga to Ourzazate, a former fort town in eastern Morocco, recently made famous as a backdrop for numerous films including parts of Gladiator and Star Wars. Somehow, we managed to navigate the confusing separation between the main town and the area where most of the housing options lie. Hotel Nadia had an attractive description in the Lonely Planet and the price was low, so we headed there.

For less than $30, we found a perfect oasis for two road-weary travelers, complete with breakfast and a chilly courtyard pool. A lot of the sites around Ouarzazate are spread out, so we bargained with Hassan, the owner of the hotel, to go out and see the Kasbah where Gladiator was filmed. He also threw in a stop at Atlas Film Studios, which houses a huge collection of memorabilia from a host of movies. Apparently, sometimes it’s cheaper for moviemakers to hire locals or fly in planes full of extras of whatever ethnicity needed for certain films than it is to actually build the set and shoot the movie in a place like Hollywood. On the way out to the Kasbah, Hassan told us that Brad Pitt became a local hero when he paid to have electricity brought to a village involved in the filming of Babel.

Hassan and a woman named Melika who was staying at the hotel joined us for the tour of the hilltop Kasbah, with its stunning views of the valleys around it. Melika is a nurse from Rabat and was in town for a wedding. She liked Anne-Claire so much, she bought a beautiful white shirt for her ‘petite soeur’ (little sister).

We shared a terrific lunch at Hassan’s friend’s restaurant at the base of the hill, during which Hassan invited us to a meal later that day of baddaz, a fine-grained couscous made from corn that was served with a cornucopia of vegetables and some goat meat. Melika and Hassan helped us learn a few more Arabic words and phrases, delighting in both our successes and miserable failures as we tried to catch the subtle differences in pronunciation and pick up the range of new sounds required for Arabic.

It was a great last night in Morocco. So much of this beautiful country has become touristy for just that reason: The people, their traditions, and the land are all exquisitely unique. Beauty here abounds.

On this last day in Morocco, we experienced both the pragmatic opportunism and the generous hospitality that I suppose are present in every country. Like everyone else, Hassan has to feed his family, and we provided a source of income for him. But at the end of the day (literally, in fact), he didn’t have to invite us for dinner.

It’s a lesson we learn over and over as travelers – you’ll find what you’re looking for in the cultures you visit, whether it’s the salesman who’s learned English only to sell you a rug, or the gracious hostess who delights in seeing a white-skinned American drink Berber tea, try to make pastries, or struggle with a foreign language just for the pleasure of the exchange.

A Few Pictures from the Road

We just arrived in Niger safely after a bit of a detour. As I mentioned earlier, we decided to fly from Bamako to Niamey for about the same cost as what it would have been to buy a visa for Burkina Faso and spend time there. Our Air Mali flight was ahead of schedule when the red hardpan I remember so well from my first flight to Africa seven years ago came into view. We flew over the stadium and saw the old Peace Corps office nearby.

Unfortunately, we also were watching a wall of dust descend on the area at the same time. After circling around for 15 minutes – you could feel the pilot’s hesitation – they finally decided to go on to Ouagadougou, the closest airport and where most of the plane’s passengers were headed anyway. Fortunately, when we landed, they found us a flight on a new African airline called Asky, and we eventually did make it to Niger, just a few hours late.

Unfortunately, I didn’t take pictures of the storm, but I did get the river after what was a massive storm. The temperature dropped to around 75 degrees F, which for Niger is right around freezing.

I’m also posting a few other amusing pictures. The first is the bush taxi apprentice, who, like the guard at the gates of Oz, popped his head back to collect our money.

The second – well, I’m not one to criticize anyone trying to speak or write in a foreign language. But I also know that the best way to learn is with a good sense of humor. This placard was on our Air Mali flight. Number 4 is particularly good.