The Old Man and the Race to a Bed

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I was finally having serious misgivings.

I had left the albergue early and hoped to get some distance before it got too hot.

I had come to the final kilometers of the Camino Frances. Unfortunately, so had hundreds of fellow travelers. Most of them were in better shape than I was because their loads were lighter and they had just started out.

Most of these new pilgrims had started on the Camino a mere 80 kilometers earlier, the minimum distance one had to walk to get a Campostella. The Campostella is the certificate issued by the Cathedral in Santiago that verifies that you have walked a minimum of 100 kilometers on the Camino de Santiago de Campostella.

Getting the certificate had stopped being of major importance to me.  I would get it because it would be something concrete to show people – see, I HAD walked all across Spain. This says so. In Latin!

But for me, it was no longer a goal.

My goal now was to find a bed for the night before they were all gone. This was my last night before arriving in Santiago and I was finally stuck in the “bed race.”

I stopped for a cafe and assessed the situation. The temperature was hotter than it had ever been and it was still early in the day. My pack was bulky with my raincoat, fleece and wool from when I had started.

As I was wondering whether to order a second cafe or not, along came Christine. We had split the night before, staying in different albergues, but I knew I’d run into her today.

I also knew that somewhere – in front, no doubt – the boys (Andres and Juan Carlos) were also marching to Santiago.  Like a three-pronged attack, my Camino family was making its way to the finish line.

But now there was a serious problem. We were being passed by large groups of young people on school holiday, bicyclers, families, all energetically passing us. Most had little or no packs because they sent them ahead by van. They would all get to the albergues before we would. They would get the beds. We would get a sign that said “Completo (full)” and have to keep walking.

Some pilgrims were calling ahead and making reservations. I didn’t because I disliked the idea of having to be at a certain place at a certain time.

But, instead, I was kicking around the idea of catching a taxi to get to the town we were hoping to stay in. It was hot, I was tired, and we were running out of options.

Christine was dead set against taking a cab. We had walked the entire way, she pointed out. It would be admitting defeat to succumb to a ride now, so very close to the end, she insisted.

She was right.

Her argument, laying out the big picture, was correct.  Although we both knew we were going to have a hard time fighting the heat and the growing, faster paced crowds racing for the limited number of beds available, I had to surrender.

I enjoyed the last few sips, grabbed my hiking poles and backpack, and we headed off.

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We walked through towns and villages and it slowly dawned on us that we were walking through the suburbs of Santiago. We came to a town with parking lots and sidewalks and people doing their daily business.

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An elderly gentleman stopped to ask Christine a question. Christine, whose Spanish had not improved in spite of all these weeks in Spain, turned to me for translation.

I explained to the gentleman that my companion did not speak Spanish but I would try to translate. He spoke to me.

The old man found Christine charming and wanted her to have a drink with him.

He was “hitting on” Christine.

Oh, Camino, you never cease to amaze and amuse.

Clearly, she and I were pilgrims walking together. We were not out for a stroll, we were carrying backpacks, hiking poles and Christine was slathered in sunscreen. We’d been wearing the same clothes for five weeks (washed each night, of course).

Like the world’s strangest wing-man, I found myself translating while a stranger hit on my amused friend (were we getting punchy??).  As the person who was doing the actual talking, I was the only one who understood both sides of the conversation.

I kept a sharp eye out for any unwanted moves on his part – a surprising native New Yorker instinct on my part. But we were on the Camino, surrounded by pilgrims and townspeople.

I couldn’t let a rare opportunity go by, so I kept egging them on. Christine and I giggled and rolled our eyes.

Ninety percent of Spanish men do have a mysterious charm about them. This elderly gentleman, I’m happy to say, was one of them.

We finally had to beg off, thanking him for his diverting conversation. I gracefully indicated that hitting on pilgrims on the Camino was not, shall I say, the best use of his time and could be threatening to some. But neither of us felt threatened in the least.

This conversation gave us hours – no, days, of inside jokes.

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We stopped a few hours later for lunch.  We found a clean and bright little cafe near the top of a hill at a tight turn in a road. Locals and pilgrims were having a good mid-day meal.

We sat inside, where it was cool, keeping an eye on our backpacks which we had left leaning against the door outside.

We chuckled about the old man (old enough to be MY grandfather). We were enjoying what was turning out to me a surprisingly good day.

Then, faster than we could react, we watched a little neighborhood dog lift its leg and pee on Christine’s backpack.

Dumbstruck, we sat there, watching as the dog’s owner called it over and took it home.

“Hmmm,” I thought to myself, “maybe we should have taken a cab.”

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What Are YOU Waiting For?

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” . . . What then? Shall we sit idly down and say,

The night has come; it is no longer day??

The night hath not yet come; we are not quite

cut off from labor by the failing light.

Something remains for us to do or dare

(Even the oldest tree some fruit may bear) –

Not Oedipus Coloneus, or Greek Ode,

or tales of pilgrims that one morning rode 

out of the gateway of the Tabard Inn –

But other something, would we but begin.

For age is opportunity, no less

than youth itself, though in another dress,

And as the evening twilight fades away

the sky is filled with stars,

invisible by day.”

– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Morituri Salutamos”,  1874

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How Did the Chicken Cross the Road?? – Day 39 – Melide to O Pino

 

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I’m so close to the end, it just doesn’t seem possible.

My head and my heart feel so full of thoughts and ideas that I hardly know where to begin.

The Camino is the perfect actualization of the idea of “Ask and you shall receive,” but not from God, from your fellow pilgrims.

“Can you grab my hat?”

“Can you get my water?”

“Do you have a euro?”

I have asked my fellow sojourners these questions at various times in the past five weeks. Strangers all. And the questions were always answered with an unconditional “Yes.”

I have been asked to adjust ponchos in the wind, to pick up hiking poles, to watch packs while the owner makes a quick dash into the woods for relief and, yes, to lend a euro to someone whom we both knew I’d never see again.

And I, also, had done all without a moment’s hesitation.

We are all strangers passing alone on a long journey together.

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I saw a person without legs biking the Camino. He was riding a recumbent bicycle powered by his arms.

I saw a blind person walking the Camino. He had two companions hold each end of a long – 10, maybe 12 foot – bamboo pole, one in front of him, one behind. The blind pilgrim walked in the middle, one hand on the pole, and the three of them walked along, chatting, fully loaded packs on their backs.

What a long, strange journey it’s been.

I arrived at the small town where I planned to get my cafe con leche and croissant for breakfast. The two lane road butted up against the narrow sidewalk of the bar and was just at the receiving end of a blind curve.

As I put my backpack down, I heard the loud squeal and angry honking of a heavy eighteen-wheeler, braking just in time for a car that had blindly entered the road. My fellow pilgrims and I looked in the direction of the noise but, hearing no crash, thud, or cries, returned to our activities.

The doorway was crowded as people entered and exited. It was a beautiful morning but threatened to get extremely hot in the full sunshine of the cloudless sky.

I noticed something odd as I headed for the entrance.

A chicken was strutting in front of the doorway.

Chickens and dogs had been the most common domestic animals I’d seen on the Camino. It was fitting that I should see a chicken one last time before reaching the metropolis of Santiago. But I worried about this one wandering into the road. The road was clearly problematic for cars and no doubt for pilgrims (the Camino continued on the other side).  I’d be foolish to take bets on any chicken crossing this road.

Yet, I was transfixed by what I saw next as I waited for the bird to move so I could get my coffee.

A pilgrim leaving the bar picked the chicken up. That’s when I noticed the string  on the bird’s leg. The man put the bird in the top pocket of a backpack which was leaning next to the doorway and which the bird was tied to.

The bird went in – plop – not protesting, with its head sticking out and happily looking around.

Another man came out and lifted the pack to help his friend get the pack on without losing the bird. Then he put on his own. They belted themselves up and, apparently in good spirits from a good breakfast, carefully yet nonchalantly crossed the road.

The chicken was bright-eyed and alert, almost cheerful, as it looked around at the world from the top of the pack.

Poultry in motion.

I stood there, pondering what I had just seen. The chicken literally crossed the road.

Why were they carrying a chicken? Did they find it? Was it a pet? A gift? Had they been carrying it for a long time? Did they always travel with a chicken? What did the bottom of his pack look like? What would they do with the chicken when they got to Santiago? Take it into the Cathedral? Take it home? Set it free? Eat it?

I had walked for 38 days. I had only about 48 more hours on the Camino.

I thought I had seen everything the Camino had to offer.

But the day would still be full of surprises.

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