Camino Life: Birthday Celebrations

Everyone is eager to celebrate at a simple pilgrim meal.

Everyone is eager to celebrate at a simple pilgrim meal.

In the midst of a physically and spiritually challenging experience like the Camino, one that puts you out of your comfort zone and calls you regularly to think what you might call “higher thoughts,” it can be comforting to celebrate the mundane with fresh eyes and new appreciation. That’s why birthdays —your own, or someone staying at the same small albergue on the Camino— are so much fun!

I’ve had two memorable birthday-related experiences on the Camino. The first was in 2007 at a hostel in Villafranca del Bierzo known as the Ave Fenix, which is worth its own entry on this blog as a highlight along the Camino at a later date. The guests for the night were seated on benches at three long tables, and the conversations along each one were mingled bits of Spanish, French, German, and English as well as other languages I couldn't identify.

After a hearty supper we were all feeling warm and sleepy, but everyone became more alert when one of the host’s sons turned out the lights while another son came out of the kitchen carrying a Bundt cake with a fat candle in the middle. The host himself began singing “Happy Birthday” in Spanish and used his fingers to conduct the rest of the room as we all sang in our own languages. The cake arrived in front of a tiny Filipino man, grinning widely and blushing from all the attention. After he blew out the candle, we all cheered and the host and his sons portioned out pieces of cake for us all to share. (I later found out that the man was celebrating his 67th birthday! The next morning I saw him with his pack that looked like it weighed almost as much as he did, so never feel like you’re too old for the Camino!)

The second birthday experience to recount happened six years later and happened to be my own birthday. My buddies and I were staying in a small, rustic albergue.  It was the only thing in town other than a bar, and a shrine to Mary up a nearby mountain. Dinner was family-style, and I knew from experience that the host was good at making tasty food for a lot of people with help from willing guests.

Once we had selected our bunks, one of my friends was eager to get me to join the group that was going up to the shrine. I had already seen it, but humored him and went along with the rest of them since it was a nice day and it felt good to walk without a pack. Once we had returned, my friend challenged me to a game of chess before I could even go inside, and he insisted I remain at an outside table while he rushed in to get the chess set.

We played until dinner and all the while he was waving off my guilty feelings from not helping with dinner, excusing me because of my blister-ridden feet (this was the time I walked the Camino in sandals), and telling me it was pretty crowded in the kitchen anyway.

After dinner I discovered his reason for keeping me outside. While we had gone to see the shrine and played chess, our other two friends were busy in the kitchen cobbling together a birthday cake from instant hot cocoa mix, flour, and eggs. As the last plates were cleared away, they presented me with what looked like a large chocolate pancake with a candle in it. All of the guests sang in their own languages, cheering when I blew out the small candle in the middle, and eagerly tasted slivers of“cake.” It was without a doubt the biggest birthday party I’ve ever had, and also one of the most memorable.

Hunter blows out the candle on his impromptu birthday cake.

Hunter blows out the candle on his impromptu birthday cake.

Hunter Van Wagenen’s Camino experiences began in 2007, and he enjoys sharing the humorous and the miraculous stories, in addition to practical advice he has lived and collected. His dream is to live in Spain helping pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. He currently lives in Greensboro, NC with his wife Stephie, who will walk her first Camino this summer with Hunter.  Hunter@CaminoProvisions.com