by Gina Cornejo
Gina’s essay appears in episode 34 of The Dirty Spoon Radio Hour.
It’s a darkness that swirls with a caramel hue. Shadows move smooth as warm milk in my daily café con leche and again I wake up in a new bed, next to a new bedmate, moments away from wandering
on a new road,
in a new day,
with new hopes of new warm milk to swirl into my café.
I am a pilgrim walking west toward the city of legend and myth, Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Un peregrino walking the sacred Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage that leads you to the fabled catedral of Saint James – our disciple hero, Santiago – in the Old Town of Santiago de Compostela, Espana.
This 9th century Christian tradition of walking “The Way of Saint James” is layered with biblical significance, divine inquiry, stamina of the body and mind and steeped in historical wonderment that you are walking hundreds of miles in the literal footsteps of Kings and thieves – the holy and the damned.
I begin at the “foot of the pass,” an ancient town otherwise known as Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, in south-western France, at a humbling ground elevation of 557 feet from what my guidebook indicates. On foot I will walk, hike, or crawl if the terrain requires it of me, 789.1 kilometers, roughly 500 hundred miles. I’m rounding up a measly 10 miles because I am bound to get lost. Aren’t we all?
Tomorrow, I take my first steps of my pilgrimage.
Last night, in my slim single bed at the private albergue, or refuge for us pilgrims, in an anxiety fueled fury of motionless existential amplification, a light sweat clings my skin to the interior of my REI sleeping sack. My eyes flutter to all the dark corners of the cold and crumbling gray bricks that hold me and three other pilgrims; Briney, Jermemy, and Hannah, the three kind Kiwis I met just yesterday on the train from Paris to Bayonne and the bus from Bayonne to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, where we all now slumber. I whisper, no one in particular, or maybe to the haunts of pilgrim past, “I will walk the Camino de Santiago. This is where people have come to die.” Dramatic, sure. Truthful, sure, yes. Bottom-line: I am goose-pimpled and electric.
On the morning of my Day 1 I boldly choose to embark upon the treacherous and magnificent Napoleon Route which is anticipatory of a weather shift this afternoon. Large drops of rain, hail, lightning, thrusting wind gusts and all I can mutter is, “Well, onwards. Ultreia,” as the old pilgrim adage goes. A “Godspeed” to get us moving in a forward motion. This path of storybook grandeur is not to be missed with climbs to a glorious height of 4, 757 feet into and through the Pyrenees in hopes that our weary bones reach the country of Spain by nightfall.
It is now Day 22. Seasoned by a variety of inclement weather, intimate conversations with fellow peregrinos, and even more intimate sleeping arrangements with strangers from far flung Australia, South Korea, South Africa and Portland, I can proudly say I am in full pilgrimage mode. I declined an offer of a late afternoon cocktail from the couple that shares the bottom bunk beds beside me. “Thank you, but, no, I’m good.” Nothing personal. A nap. I take a nap instead.
Cheerful couple. Dave and Linda from California. Catholics. I only say Catholics because I’ve been told, by them, three times now, that they’ve invited the monks over to their home for dinner on several occasions and that they are intimately familiar with the Vespers services, the traditional prayers, aaaaaaand the “how to’s” to chat it up with the monks…so, to me, in my fallen-from-grace-yet-optimistic-about-a-rebound ignorance, that truly makes them Catholics. Not better or sincerely devout, just focused. Focused on faith. Acting with a discipline that intrigues me greatly. I mean, shit, I’ve never chatted with a monk. So…
“Some will have a tiny nip of wine with dinner,” she discreetly discloses to me, her fingertips press gently on my forearms. Our little secret says her body language, eyebrows raised and chin inwardly pointing down on a diagonal as she dishes more, “…and we discuss books they’ve read recently, or gardening.” They, Dave and Linda, I quickly assess have the angelic temperament to entertain monks, children under 4, and anyone exiting a Chicago DMV with patience and whimsy. I then quickly self assess and accept my fate of never dining with a monk since all my initial topics of conversation skew off onto the dank pathways of curious oddities. My only hope would be to extract details of underbelly catacombs, scandalous Biblical secrets, anything currently circulating on YouTube, and the general topics of 90’s R&B artists, and the intricacies and possible pitfalls of an open marriage. Ya know, the important things.
Alas, I am not – nor will ever be – suited to host a monk for dinner.
She, Linda, can’t sleep since Klaus from Germany, is sleeping next to her bottom bunk near the entrance of the alburgue San Antonio de Padua here in the town of Villar de Mazarife. Thus her invitation to grab a cocktail and get far away from his snoring raucous. But he, Klaus from Germany, he doesn’t sleep sleep – he’s more of a rattler, a rumbler, a silver topped tumbler. His sleep penetrates the steel bars of the bunks. Each bolt, each hinge vibrates due to his full-bodied comatose cacophony. I’ve slept near Klauss before on my journey. I am privy to his nighttime routine and tousles. It was somewhere in between Day 13 and Day 17 that we became acquainted as nearby bedmates…and it was a clamorous calamity. My earplugs, alpaca hat, and fleece hood couldn’t manage to muffle his voluminous slumber.
At the impromptu cocktail happy hour there was a discussion of a 4AM start. Dave and Linda in full recognition that a peaceful sleep would not be occurring tonight, decided to concoct a pre-dawn getaway. Anyone who wanted in on the game was welcome to rendezvous with them in the shadows of a sleepless hush.
The 4AM start has commenced.
They, The Californians, now strap on their mini headlamps extra early this morning. As the cocks begin their daybreak lullaby in the open patch of scorched grass and hay underneath the main window toward the front of the albergue there is a sleepy collective consciousness that whispers to us all: Onward. Ultreia. This morning the cocks actually manage to coo tenderly, barely being heard over Klaus.
These, the true early morning miners, the ambitious peregrinos that actually enjoy seizing the day when it still remains dipped in its’ nightgown, dig and dive into their rucksacks, rustling out the day’s rations: a 2-week old tenderized Power Bar, a bag of sawdust, I mean, a bag of mixed nuts, and a tooth-chipping wedge of manchego bought 3 days and 6 towns ago.
They stuff sleeping sacks and loose toothbrushes into the depths of the unknown of their backpacks, the only true companion on this journey – aside from God, if one subscribes to Him, of course. Zippers zip up, zip open, zip down, zip shut. Pants on. Shirt on. Hat on. Cinch. Jacket on. Zipperzip. Socks on. Shoes on. (long yawn) Wait! Hey, you dropped this. Shh! (whispers) Sorry. (whispers ) Thanks. Where’s the…? The thingy? Oh, k. (whispers) Thanks.
No need to shush the 4AM bunch. All footsteps hold respect and all miners’ lights don’t intend to startle the dreamers.
Light on. Door open. Door close. Silence.
Yawwwwwwnn. Flushhhhhhhhhhhhh. Water
on. Water off. Door open. Door close. Light
off. Cough. Sneeze. Grumble. Sigh. Huff.
Acceptance. Patience. Acceptance. Patience.
A 4 AM start is planned. It holds deep-rooted motivation and purpose. 4AM is not my sweet spot. I only begin early this particular morning because I’m damn hungry. Very strange since the night prior we were presented the most top-notch homemade dinner we weary walking fools have devoured in this unsuspecting alburgue just 12 steps off to the right of the dusty wild ribbon of road.
The starter was a local squash and garlic puree adorned with crisp herb croutons. I mean, holy shit, right? Bricks of bread worth kissing stacked high in sturdy baskets. Regional olive oil filled full in thick glass vases. Regional vino tinto never fully emptied from our cups. Next, a seemingly simple Spanish ensalada mixta of crunchy lechuga, tomate quarters, potent, meaty olives grown in the nearby fields, sliver-thin sliced red cebollas, crowned with chunks of plain tuna. Salt-and-pepper to taste. A tease of a balsamic drizzle. Uuuuuuggghhhhhhh. . . que rico! A vat – A VAT I TELL YOU – of a blissfully simmered mixed seafood paella for our main course. The finale, you ask? A freshly whipped lemon yogurt dashed with grated zest nestled within a sugar rim as the dessert digestif. A lullaby poured into our vasos – the regional red wine humming its full-bellied notes and or a large bowl of café con leche to set you right to dream.[a long, almost aching sigh, for that meal, in reverence, in seduction]
The chef, ALL HAIL THE CHEF! cooking and smoking over the food preparation. Obviously! Obviously. His long, whispy white ponytail of wisdom and epic chef-ery. With whimsy he cooked – NO! – divinely manifested our evening of culinary satisfaction. No hairnet. His rules. Thick fingers of a proud farmer deep dipping into each pot, curiously unsanitary, but brilliance IS brilliance. With a brisk flare, he popped my orange Fanta and poured me my beverage. Ay, this guru of gastronomy. He even gave me ice in a glass after my day of walking. Ice. Ice in a glass. . .pure luxury. What chivalry, my saintly chain-smoking chef.
Therefore, breakfast was beckoning. . .
Yogurt. Plain. Honey. Combed.
Bread. Toasted. Café. Strong.
Milk. Warm. Jugo. Fresh.
Cheese. Sliced. Jamon. Sliced. Eggs. Soft
boiled. Salt. Pepper. Silence. Chewing.
Perfection in the dining room.
And to that I say,
“Well, onwards. Ultreia.”
Today, Day 23, at the tail end of a slog of over 17 miles hiking into Astorga, beyond baked under the Spanish sol, I found myself shuffling in stride with a key player on my Camino stage, Klaus from Germany. His white hair glowing in an echo of halos forming a holy union with the shimmer from his sweat and the sun and the Holy Spirit that I believed for a heat- induced moment he could be the cherub gatekeeper of deep knowledge to be gained as my Camino continues to unfold. We amble alongside each other toward the last resting spot in town, St. Javier Albergue de Peregrinos. A gem of a location nearby the Catedral St. Marta and the legendary Palacio Episcopal – Gaudi. Also, this place is blessed with a strong WIFI signal. We nab the final beds available.
To this day, when I enter a church I whisper a private and potent, “Gracias a Dios,” for the divine gift that was bestowed upon me that day when Klaus was given a bed on the ground floor and I was given sleeping quarters on the third floor, in the attic. The heavy wood staircase and thick bodies of sunburned pilgrims between us provided for a respite from his apnea.
I slept past 4AM.
I ate a breakfast at my leisure of hard croissants, salted butter, individually wrapped white cheese and a bitter cafecito that softened the multigrain digestive cookies that were left out overnight. Not as extravagant as the previous feast that was provided in Villar de Mazarife, pero, asi es la vida, such as life.
Mil gracias a Dios y
You can find more of Gina’s original writing and performances on their website ginacornejo.com and on Instagram @ginawilltravel and @dirtylaundry_avl
Original artwork by Claire Winkler
About the Author
Americana Peruana writer, solo performer, storyteller, singer and actor, Gina Cornejo aims for a pinnacle of honesty to be revealed by curating private autobiographical moments for the potential of our collective healing. For 17 years, she claimed Chicago as her artistic home.
Currently living in Asheville, North Carolina, she will be the first artist-in-residence at Story Parlor for the month of July. In collaboration with WNC-based Stewart/Owen Dance, the trio curated “DIRTY LAUNDRY the film,” an ambitious original autobiographical script written and performed by Cornejo during their January artist-in-residence with the Wortham Center for the Performing Arts. This film, paired with live spoken word and an immersive theatrical flare, will unapologetically disclose the irreverent unraveling of Cornejo within her marriage and divorce. Cornejo recently produced a deviously detailed solo show, “when sugar was sugar was sugar,” within the First Draft Residency program at Revolve gallery. Also, a Covid-crafted stage production and short film of her pandemic-born original solo piece, “Atmosphere,” was a part of a greater evening-length work, “Still: Life,” produced by Stewart Owen Dance (Wortham Center for the Performing Arts). Cornejo is committed to amplifying the performanced-based arts community in Asheville. She serves on the Core Advisory Board of Revolve, Story Parlor, and Trillium Arts.