Sweet Birthday Extravaganza Week

In our family, Birthdays are not limited to just one day a year. Our kid’s birthdays are all during the school year. It didn’t seem fair to have them go to school on their special day, only to be feted with a few hours to celebrate them after we got home from work that evening.

A full week of planned activities was a much better solution. The birthday boy or girl would get to choose their favorite foods for dinner in that week. Slumber parties and kids parties would be included. Daily gifts and fun breakfast foods. And usually something unusual, an activity planned for the whole family surrounded around the interests of the birthday kid. One year we flew the whole family up to San Juan island in a float plane to go whale watching, in pursuit of the whale we adopted for our eldest, Ryan, for his 12th birthday. And we found Double Stuff – that baby orca and his pod. Ryan loves animals. An incredible day none if us ever forgot.

With Covid, we haven’t seen our kids back in the US, in quite some time. All our pent up celebrations with them will have to wait. And our own birthdays in the past year have been much more subdued by Covid restrictions and closures. So the grand gestures, and advance planning of the past has fallen by the wayside.

This week is my Birthday. In any other year, Jeff would have a dinner planned with family or friends, a surprise trip to somewhere I had been dreaming to going, and little gifts each day with notes at breakfast. But this year? I wasn’t sure what it might look like, after the past 18 months and cases rising rapidly in our area. We have also been preoccupied with other pursuits.

As I should have suspected, Jeff just adapted. My special week might be a smaller and quieter celebration this year. Our family would be absent. But he made sure I felt the birthday love, nonetheless.

Jeff knows I have a soft spot to learning how things work. Most people go on a winery tour to sample the wine. I go to watch their operation. Others will ask about vintages, and when the wine tasting begins. I ask questions about the speed of their corking machine and their yield per hectare. On one of our trips in the US, we toured a car factory, just to watch them work, and to marvel at the industrial engineering and continuous process improvement. We’ve been the only people we know interested in detouring to coal power plant, or a copper mines while on vacation. Our children expect this. Jeff and I are a match made in heaven.

For my kickoff birthday event this year, on Saturday he took me to O Endredo do Abelleiro – an apiary and living museum for bees. ‘Colmenar’ is the Gallego word for it. I was thrilled! And the owners of the museum seemed as surprised to see us in the middle of a pandemic, as I was to be there. ‘You’re from where?’ I imagine, even in a normal year, the number of American visitors are quite limited.

This operation sits near the dam 10 km due south of Arzua. The man who runs it is 85 years old, but it was his daughter who took us on a tour, explaining everything. Once she discovered we only have inglés and a little Spanish, she did her very best to give is as much information as possible on the intimate workings of a bee hive, the lifecycle of bees, and the sweet results of their work.

Jeff knows I’m a fan of the bee. And we all should be. As Amparo explained, No bees, no food. No food, no humans. Her father has been keeping bees in the area his whole life. He and his family love bees. And you can tell as you explore their operation.

We learned all about how bee societies, and how their hives operate. And how traditional methods of beekeeping have evolved in Galicia. Colmenares come in three types: the one made from cork trees, wood stumps, or the boxes we think of in the US.

We learned that bees swarm when a new queen is born, and the old queen peels off 60% of the hive to establish a new home. And that it’s the ladies who run the show in a beehive. The males, or drones, are just there to perform one function, procreation. The females have the stingers, do all the work, and supply all the food and hive defense.

We toured her father’s workshop, where he makes the comb racks by hand. Jeff had a little tool envy.

For €60 a year they’ll let you name a hive, give you two litres of honey, and provide you and your family with unlimited tours and training on bee keeping. A bargain.

Of course, you exit through the gift shop and we bought some of their wares. Bees wax candles, soap, and royal jelly. Interesting – I had forgotten that Mead (the medieval drink) is made from honey. During my purchases, I told Amparo that we were interested in bee keeping in conjunction with our lavender crop. She was very interested in our plans. Next Spring she said they would be happy to help educate us and to get us started. Her father has hives in many farms in the area. They love it when new people develop an interest, since global bee populations are in rapid decline.

It was a fun, and impressive few hours. And a beautiful drive down from Arzua. We had the entire place to ourselves, but if you’re ever in the area it’s an interesting afternoon. Great for kids.

A sweet way to kick off a pandemic Birthday Extravaganza.

A Small Price

It will surprise my European friends, but my first trip outside the US didn’t occur until I was 19. The blissful first summer of my freshman year of college. I had left home and gotten myself a proper college roommate – before moving in with a dude. But she and I remained close friends. And when she wanted an adventure that summer, I tagged along.

Where would we go on this first foray into foreign climes to experience another culture, so vastly different from our own? Canada! Yes, that exotic place 6 hours north. Back then, we didn’t even need a passport, just a driving license and a smile at the border crossing. Gud-day! Oh wait – that’s Australia. You can see just how naive we were back then. Traveling teenage rubes.

We drove up along the coast through the old growth Hoh rain forest of the Olympic Península of Washington State, in my roommate’s quintessential 80’s car, the TansAm. All the way to the town of Port Angeles on the Straight of Juan de Fuca. (Hmm… I never noticed we had so many Spanish names in the NW of the US before.) The straight is the waterway that separates the US from Canada in the NW corner of the country. Then we took a night ferry across to Vancouver Island. Camping would be the preferred level of our students traveling budget. If there was a Four Season on our itinerary it would be The Four Seasons Campground.

Landing in Victoria Harbor with the Parliament Building and the famous Empress Hotel lit up like something in a movie, we knew we weren’t in ‘America’ anymore. My first thought was ‘Someday I’m gonna be rich and stay in a suite in that iconic hotel, and drink champagne.’ Which I have done and it was fine. Jeff will tell you they have first-rate bed linens. But back then it seemed like a place reserved for movie stars and royalty. Wow! We were wide eyed as we drove by, on our way to the provincial campground.

Over the next few days, we saw all the sights – museums, aquarium, Buschart Gardens, the stunning coastline, before heading up to the little town of Sydney to catch the San Juan Islands ferry (again, Spanish) through the archipelago to Orcas Island. But these were pre-internet days in 1985. For a ferry ride, you just turned up and got in line, hoping to get on the boat. No reservations. No view into the schedule, unless you were a frequent rider and you had it down. If you missed this one, you got on the next one.

Arriving up to Sidney, on the east coast of Vancouver Island, we found we had quite literally missed the last boat. Oh well, we thought, we’ll just camp. But the campgrounds were all full. Eek. So we headed to the tourist office in town. It was just closing up. The woman was locking the door. Gulp. It would be getting dark soon.

The quite old, very smartly dressed lady who worked there took pity on two stranded college girls from the US. She told us we could come home with her and camp in her front yard for the night. She would have let us stay in her house but she was in the middle of a family reunion and all her children and grandchildren were home from all over Canada.

Following her home, the house sat up on a bluff overlooking the sea. It was an enormous Victorian with a wide front porch. I remember the hydrangeas were huge. They’ve been a favorite flower ever since. The family came out to greet us and welcomed us without hesitation to their table. We stayed up late into the evening, sitting on their living room floor – there were no more seats because there were so many family members – eating homemade blackberry pie and listening to them tell funny family stories from their wonderful childhood living on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The woman’s husband, who must have been well over 90 yrs old at the time, told us all the story of coming across Canada to British Columbia with his family in a covered wagon when he was 3 yrs old. Amazing.

Be our Guest

I hadn’t thought of that trip in decades. The warm embrace of that family. It’s why Canadians hold a special place in my heart. Taking in two kids, strangers, who had nowhere else to go. Not until the other night, sitting here at our little farm listening to stories did those memories come flooding back. Tales from a young Belgian woman traveling alone on the Camino. Over Spaghetti and fresh mangos, she regaled us of her Camino adventure, staring in Le Puy – more than 800km before St Jean Pied de Port in France. And her other adventures in South America and the South Pacific, right before the pandemic.

Not that my friend and mine’s adventure in Canada was anything compared to this girl’s. She is truly fearless. But it’s a reminder that challenging circumstance can lead to opportunity. And that if you leave yourself open, you can experience small, yet remarkable moments in life. Those that leave an indelible imprint.

Living on the Camino Frances during this time, and opening ourselves up by providing a helping hand to Pilgrims means we aren’t just giving, we’re getting much more in return. The pandemic, far from dividing us, has actually brought us together. In life, we become part of each other’s stories. And the price of a spaghetti dinner and a little vino, is a small price to become part of someone else’s.

The Happy Camper

After a soft launch yesterday, we are open for Pilgrims. Turns out it only takes 24 hours to go from reading a news story about No room at the inn for Peregrinos, groggy and tired, to opening a campground on the Camino Franes. No kidding.

I informed Jeff of the desperate situation and lack of beds on the Camino yesterday when he awoke. We were at Decathalon (like REI in the US) in Lugo, 10 minutes before they opened. Twenty minutes later we walked out with ten tents and ten sleeping pads. On the way home Jeff imparted his game plan to me.

My first task was to send him the svg file for my cafe logo so he could 3D print me a stamp for their pilgrim’s passports upon check in. I laughed.

Jeff rendered me a Pilgrim Stamp in about an hour

‘Well, if we’re gonna do this thing. We should do it right.’ Was his rationale.

We got home and Jeff went out to the barn and started rummaging. Soon we had a tarp strung up over a metal structure that had just sat there since we moved in.

‘They’ll need a place to gather to eat. And two tables will fit under here. So we can comply with the Covid measures. Like all the other places.’

But where was he getting these tables? Turns out there is a ton of stuff in that barn and the multiple sheds on the property. Some of which we have never opened the doors. Then we needed chairs. The sheds didn’t disappoint. It seems a bird has been nesting in one of the chairs.

Is it elegant? No. I am not a fan of the big blue tarp. Will it keep pilgrims dry so they don’t have to huddle in their tents in the rain? Yes, it will. Jeff crated a windbreak on the west side. As I wiped down the table and chairs, he tied it down with 100 meters of rope. The Barnim Bailey Circus had a less secure big top.

We made a trip into town for supplies. The spare fridge in the barn is full of drinks. I can keep our customers happy with snacks and beverages. Almost like a real cafe.

Everyone gets water upon check in

We have a station by the door to ‘check them in’. I figure we need to have all the stuff real Albergue’s have. The book to record their details: Name, passport, telephone. Especially for contact tracing – should it be necessary. I have my newly printed stamp 😉 and a thermometer to take temperatures (like they do in better hotels these Covid days). And the requisite litre of hand sanitizer.

Socially distanced Pilgrim Covid pods. aka ⛺️😉

I am pretty sure we are good to go. We were not considering doing anything like this 48 hours ago. But I do have plans for my own food truck next March. And an Eco-Albergue (fully sustainable) was in our longer term plans. I guess tents can’t be any more ‘Eco’.

‘Think of it in start-up terms.’ Jeff told me. ‘This is your MVP (minimum viable product). We’ll learn a ton from this experience. And help people in the process. It’s kind of amazing we can do this and stand it up this quickly. We can ask Pilgrims for feedback and suggestions, and record their feedback. It will save us on making costly mistakes later. It’s gonna be awesome. And it’s taken minimal effort.’

He is right. An invaluable experience. I’m excited about all the possibilities. Gotta go – Pilgrims are at the gate!

Camino Capacity – Update on the Update

I’m sitting up in the dark at 5:30am. Jeff is still snoring away. I envy him. I am wide awake. Not sure why.

Outside I can see and hear Pilgrims walking by. Not really see them, just their head lamps. They are up early to already be just an hour out from Melide. It means they’ve been walking at least 2 hours already. And now I know why.

Due to the explosion of Covid again, capacity in Albergues is lowered to just 30%. So finding a bed has become something of a Hunger Games exercise. Early Birds get the worms, and all that. Watching the numbers of 800-1000 Pilgrims arriving in Santiago a day, and with towns like Portomarin or Palas de Rei with a capacity of 1300-1400 beds, yet only allowed to offer 30% of those to Pilgrims, the math simply doesn’t add up. A large majority will never find a bed.

Pilgrims are now sleeping in the parks or on the street. Even the town halls are struggling as they can’t offer emergency shelter at anything more than 30% capacity. People are starting to walk all night so they can find a bed first thing when the Albergue opens the following day. Not ideal. One couple walked all day from Sarria to Portomarin only to discover there was nowhere to lay their heads. They continued on another 25k to Palas through the night. Misery.

And if any one tests positive, there are limited spaces to put infected Pilgrims for quarantine, without taking more beds out of the very limited supply.

There is a call for the community to step up. I’ll ask Jeff when he wakes up. We have space to offer up. But it’s scary if the Peregrino isn’t vaccinated, sleeping in the guest room. We will have to see how they are managing it.

Plenty of space for a few tents 🤔 spaced very far apart. Covid safety first.

In the past week, when our gate has been open, many Pilgrims have been coming inside, looking around. We’ve been sort of surprised by their boldness. But now I know why. They need shelter. If, for no other reason than the flat lawn to pitch a tent. Perhaps we should offer that up.

It may be a bit of nothing, but we could do our part in some small way to help out. Before Jeff wakes up I’ll make a sign and head out to the barn to look for our tents. It’s going to start raining tomorrow, and something will be better than nothing for tired Pilgrims who have been walking all night, with no guarantee of a bed in Melide or even Arzua. When sleeping rough in a wet sleeping bag on the trail is the only alternative. And if I know Jeff, he’ll head to Decathlon and cover our front yard with even more tents.

On the Camino, there is always a debate on what makes a true Pilgrim. Is suffering necessary to get the full experience? If the answer is Yes, this Xacabeo year with Covid will produce a bumper crop of true Pilgrims. And perhaps our role this year is to try to find a way to ease that suffering, just a little bit.

What to Know Before You Go

Pilgrim Covid Update: I know many people are planning a late summer or fall Camino. Some who will be traveling from other countries, like the US and Canada. But our situation in Spain, and in Galicia specifically, is rapidly evolving so I thought I would provide an update.

Much like France is doing now, requiring a Covid certificate – proof of negative PCR test in the last 48 hours (tough to do while walking the Camino), or certificate showing the disease has been passed, or the vaccination certificate issued or certified by the EU – Galicia is now requiring these to enter any hotel, nightlife, or restaurant/cafe in areas where contagion is deemed to be at high. Palas de Rei was high last week. This week, Melide and Arzua are in the high category. It changed rapidly. As I eluded to before, Covid infections have steadily been coming our way since the major outbreak in Sarria two weeks ago.

Last weekend, 7 Pilgrims were quarantined in Palas de Rei – with 6 of them having a positive PCR test. The eighth of their group was notified, after flying from Mallorca to join her college friends for a Camino at Sarria, that a close contact on the island was positive. Over two days of walking she became sicker and sicker, and by Palas de Rei she had to be transported to the hospital in Santiago. Her friends are all still quarantined in a hostel in Palas, just down the road from us.

The good news is that the one who was hospitalized is going to be OK. Her friends stuck in Palas are all passing the disease together with no further hospitalizations required, so far. A doctor is attending them from our local health centre on a daily basis on-site, and food is being brought to them and left outside their doors. The townspeople even donated games and books so they don’t get bored. Because, well, it’s Lugo. So, of course they did. This community never fails to step up. And the cost of their ten day quarantine is being borne by the Xunta de Galicia’s Covid insurance for Pilgrims. This is a program developed by the Ministry of Tourism to kickstart the rebirth of the Camino during the Xacabeo year, and provides assurances to Pilgrims that it is still safe to make the pilgrimage. All medical and housing expenses for quarantine will be taken care of by the Xunta.

Xacobeo 2021-2022: Anti-Covid Insurance in Galicia

To revitalize tourism and the presence of pilgrims in the middle of the Jacobean year, the Xunta de Galicia will launch a “covid insurance” from the second quarter of the year.

 This insurance will be applied to those pilgrims who have the bad luck of contracting Covid-19 in Galician territory during their Camino.

Galician Covid insurance will cover all medical, surgical, pharmaceutical and hospital costs. In the event that it is not necessary to go to the hospital, it will cover the unforeseen expenses that arise to those who must keep quarantine by medical prescription, both of the affected person and of their close contacts.

The maximum coverage will be 30 days and the Xunta de Galicia will allocate a total of 1.2 million for this covid insurance.

This past week the Ministers of Tourism met up for all the Spanish regions covering the routes of the various Caminos throughout Spain, including Andalucia. At the meeting, Galicia encouraged them all to adopt similar Pilgrim Insurance programs to provide Pilgrims with the peace of mind, no matter where they choose to start their walk, or where they are from. But, if you notice there are caveats to the Galician Program. In the case of the pilgrims in Palas, the girl from Mallorca who infected her friends would not be covered, since she contracted Covid in Mallorca and brought it with her to Galicia. But her college friends from Madrid, whom she infected between Sarria and Palas de Rei, would be covered. But not to worry, she is on Spanish National Health so for her there is no additional costs and the health care is excellent.

More importantly, for those traveling to Spain for their Caminos this Xacabeo year, please ensure you bring proof of vaccination or an infection certificate. I would recommend taking a photo of this document for backup. If it’s lost, getting another one so far from home, that can be used to access hostels, refugios, or even restaurants in Galicia as the contagion situation evolves rapidly, might become a problem. Jeff’s and mine are on our phones with the QR code, and the photos are accepted everywhere here. So it will save you a big hassle if you do this. In our area we can not go into any eating or drinking establishments (or stay in a hotel) without showing it.

And make sure to purchase good travel insurance. Just in case. If you are planning to come to Spain without being vaccinated – sooo not recommended – you will have had to have a negative PCR test and comply with all the travel restrictions that have been laid out by the Spanish government. But, once you’ve done that, if you are unvaccinated you’ll likely encounter some situations locally in Spain, and be forced to get tested again. You can do this at most farmacias without a prescription, if they haven’t given out their allotment of antigen tests for the town’s population. But the tests have to be done early morning and taken to the farmacia for processing by 10am. The results will be available within 24 hours and will be texted to your phone. While this is pretty quick, when you’re trying to walk a Camino it will not be convenient. So I would recommend getting vaccinated and coming with the full course recorded via an official vaccine certificate. Much, much easier.

Hopefully, by September this fifth wave will have broken as more and more young people are getting vaccinated. Sergas starts the vaccination of the 20-29 age group tomorrow in Santiago, and next week in the rest of Galicia. So by the end of August teenagers will begin getting the jab, too. A safe September Camino sounds just about right.