Barbara “Bo” Jensen
The cab driver was confused. He had peppered me with questions all the way from the airport, down the steep hills to the old part of Bilbao in Spain, shaking his head and trying to dissuade me from hiking the northern coastal route of the Camino de Santiago. “Montañas,” he had told me repeatedly, each time shifting his inflection, as if this would help me understand.
Now, I gave him forty euros for a twenty-eight-euro ride. “For luck,” I told him.
I turned from the cab and immediately walked toward the front door of the wrong hotel. He honked; I looked back, and he pointed emphatically. I turned toward the right door, waving, as he drove away, shaking his head.
It didn’t look like much, an old wooden door with hazy glass in the window. Inside, I maneuvered awkwardly up narrow stairs to the second floor, my large pack filling the tight, wood-paneled stairway. At the top of the stairs, I found an antique wooden front desk, L-shaped, buried in paperwork, with keys on hooks and little mail slots on the wall behind.
“Welcome!” I was immediately greeted by a middle-aged woman with dark curly hair and a permanently bemused expression. I introduced myself and she found my reservation. “I am Begoña,” she replied in return. Begoña said most women in Bilbao share this popular name, which makes it easy to address people on the street. “Try it! You’ll see!” We both laughed.
My room at the end of the hall looked exactly like the online photos: aging, rundown, and absolutely charming, with a view out the floor-to-ceiling windows of the Teatro Arriaga across the street. Cool summer air flowed through the long unscreened windows, gently fluttering the gauzy curtains. I stood my backpack next to the writing table in the corner, then sat in the wooden chair and pulled off my hiking boots, my socks. The balcony just below my window was filled with pots exploding with flowers, including begonias. I could see the river past the Plaza de Teatro.
I ran a hot bath, knowing I would not have another for months. As I soaked in the steaming water, I thought about the many begonias in Bilbao: the blooms growing around lampposts and on balconies, the women like exuberant flowers gracing the city. The small fishing village of Begoña that had been absorbed as a district within Bilbao in 1925. I wanted to step inside the Gothic-style Basilica de Nuestra Señora Begoña, the early sixteenth-century cathedral of the local patron saint: Our Lady of Begoña. I considered this idea of a patron saint, someone to watch over me.
I had arrived in the Basque region, Bizkaia in the native tongue, fiercely independent people with a long tradition as sailors and navigators. Voyagers who were immensely grateful for returning from the Atlantic Ocean into the Cantabrian Sea, known in the west as the Bay of Biscay; navigating up the Nervión River, they offered thanks to Our Lady for their safe return as soon as they could see the high steeple on the hill.
Begoña comes from a Basque word meaning “at the foot of the mountain.” The begonia flower symbolizes specific communications, entreaties, including the traveler’s gratitude, giving thanks for a favor or assistance. It can also mean a warning of upcoming misfortunes or challenges, including those dark thoughts that can distract us from our joy.
For now, nothing could distract me from it. I set out into the neighborhood and found a small café with an excellent soup: sopa pescada con mar. In the rich, rusty-brown broth floated scallops and mussels in the shell, and an entire, enormous prawn, all caught locally. Who knew shrimp legs were delicious? I still couldn’t bring myself to eat the head. I feasted at my outdoor table with its white tablecloth, relaxing in the wide, lively alley behind the hotel, where several restaurants’ late-night customers held court over bottles of wine, others laughing softly and intimately, as neighbors walked through on their way home. Looking up, I smiled: begonias on balconies, geraniums, zinnias; soft lamps glowed through flowing window drapes, warm and inviting, in apartments above the restaurant lights. I felt drowsy and content, the very air weaving itself through my romantic musings as I smelled the sea now and then, carried faintly on gentle breezes.
Returning to my hotel, I wished Begoña buenas noches and fell asleep in my bed to the sounds of laughter and footsteps, trains and motorbikes, and one lone saxophone playing Spanish melodies somewhere, all below me in the street. Dreaming within a dream.
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In the morning, I set off to find coffee and a bus to Irun. As I wandered the same streets from last night, here marched Begoña, calling, “Hola!” like a hug. “What do you look for?” When I said coffee, she took me back to the bar next to the hotel, even as I protested that it was closed. “Oh, he’s nice, you’ll see,” she answered, and knocked on the door. Raul opened the door to Begoña’s rapid-fire explanation that I was una peregrina searching for the holy café con leche and he let me in. Begoña called a farewell as she returned to her errands, while Raul made me a thick, rich latte. In Spain, a cup of coffee tastes like a deep and intense moment of desire, a lingering kiss each morning, and I felt spoiled and loved all day because of it.
After coffee, I shouldered my backpack and walked across Bilbao to find the bus station. The entire city was fitted onto the foothills, the river curving through the history, the theater district, the churches and government buildings. I crossed cobblestone plazas rising to bridges, following steep, winding streets, always with a view of the mountains between the buildings, like framed landscape paintings wherever I looked. Once, lost in map study on a corner, a very dear older man with musical English stopped to explain the route; he wished me “Good Way,” even translating “Buen Camino” for me, offered with his cheery smile.
I waited only twenty minutes at the station in the July heat for the air-conditioned bus to Irun. There I met the self-styled Three Musketeers, who were actually the Three Graces in disguise – Charm, Joy, and Beauty, better known as Vicki, Pat, and Bernie, respectively. These three women were all teachers from Britain, two retired, one on summer holiday. “You Australian?” they asked. Americana. They immediately absorbed me into their group.
I feasted on pintxos, beer, and cheeky wit with the Graces at a pub next to the albergue, the word for pilgrim hostels along the Camino de Santiago. Vicki was annoyed by the bar owner who didn’t seem too anxious to take the order of four women backpackers, and she kept up a steady stream of abuses about his pace and the quality of the service. Bernie offered clever asides and quips, and was so helpful with her fluent Spanish that they called her The Linguist. Pat was the experienced through-hiker, and a runner, fit and easy to like – and 69 years old. Her pack was small and tight, her step solid and balanced. Pat was the glue holding the trio together.
After eating, we walked a path through a nearby park, waiting for the albergue to open. “My husband Jim was diagnosed with malignant melanoma,” Pat shared. “But – he’s nearly five years clear now, so we might breathe again, after he’s made such a long fight.” She talked about going back to college, too, after her children had grown. “I wasn’t their mother or Jim’s wife, but just myself, just Pat. How I reveled in it. Like this, now, walking the Camino.”
I didn’t elaborate on my own brush with cancer several years back. More than five. But my cancer could return whenever it wanted. I carried a nasty and, in my case, particularly persistent virus that could cause cancer cells to develop at any time. It had already cost me two surgeries and three organs, an ugly tally. I had taken those as warning shots.
My body was strong enough to make this long hike, at least for now. But I was asking any angel that could hear me for this trip to heal something more lethal than cancer.
I needed to face my fear that I was too late. That I had waited too long to recover the “me” I had once been, but hadn’t seen through to completion. I needed to go on this pilgrimage and arrive to see a steeple on a high hill, and thank Our Lady for my safe journey, and safe return…to myself.
“I’m following my dream from when I was seventeen,” I explained, “to travel the world, and write. I decided to bring that kid along, inside – just seventeen-year-old me, and me.” Pat nodded approvingly. It wasn’t complicated, my dream; but it was somehow sacred. An old wooden door with a hazy window, finally opening.
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BIO: Barbara “Bo” Jensen is a writer who goes off-grid, backpacking through national parks, trekking up the Continental Divide Trail, or following the Camino Norte across Spain. You can find more of Bo’s work on National Parks Traveler, Out There podcast, Journey, and www.wanderinglightning.com