In my mind’s eye, Dear Reader, I see Christina leaping across the desk, grabbing the clerk by his t-shirt, and giving him a slight, yet intense, shake, as she says, between gritted teeth:
“I. Need. A Bed. And I Need. One. Now.”
She gives me a look out of the corner of her eye, looks back at the clerk, her eyes narrowing, and adds,”
“No. I Need Two. Two Beds. PRONTO!”
How had we come to this uncharacteristic turn of events? We would be in Santiago the next day. What was happening???
This crisis had begun earlier in the day. Christina and I had separated during our walk, as usual. We knew we would run into each other later in the day. I was the faster walker and prone to long, leisurely stops for bocadillos and beer, she was slow and steady.
We were Camino family.
As we got closer to Santiago, there were fewer and fewer beds available. The crush of pilgrims who began their Camino in the city of Sarria was surprising and overwhelming. There were the same number of albergues, but there were more pilgrims to accommodate. Survival belonged to the fittest. And the fastest.
At lunch time, I had pondered (over my bocadillo and beer) the real possibility that there might not be any beds available for many kilometers. The weather was blisteringly hot and sunny.
Christina came along as I sat there eating and drinking. We considered our options.
I had noticed the warning signs of no room ahead and was thinking about getting a taxi to take us to the nearest available albergue. Christina would have none of it.
She reminded me that catching a ride at this point would betray weeks of decisions to walk rather that catch cabs, buses, vans, etc., as so many other pilgrims had done. Walking had made us a family.
She was right. I could not give in this close to the end.
(blubbering like a baby) “I can’t do it, Sarge! I just can’t do it (sniveling). I wasn’t cut out for this (wailing, moaning)!!”
(slap) “Snap out of it, Private! (slap) You’ll do it ’cause it’s your mission!! (slap, slap) It’s what you came here to do!! Now get back in there!! (slap).”
I snapped out of it.
By hook or by crook, we would continue walking and, somehow, we would find an open albergue for our last night on the Camino.
We set out in the hot midday sun. This was why people got up at 0430 and left before dawn – so that they would not have to walk in the middle of the afternoon.
But, you, know, it just wasn’t our style.
So we walked.
As always, we split, me ahead, her behind.
I walked along highways and villages, beginning to see more and more of the trappings of suburbs and not of abandoned villages. More stores, fewer dogs lying in the sun.
I passed an albergue which looked inviting. There were young people lying on the nicely mowed grass as their clothes dried on the nearby clothes lines. I heard music. There was gentle conversation and laughter. I think I hallucinated people playing badminton in the backyard while a little white dog got a belly rub.
I approached the door and saw the dreaded sign which filled me with a sadness that I was becoming accustomed to – “Completo.”
I trudged on.
It was later in the day than I had ever been walking. There were few pilgrims on the Camino now. Most had stopped for the day. But I, and I knew Christina, still hadn’t found a place for the night.
I came to a small town with a tourist information booth. It was a small log cabin with a bulletin board outside, brochures, postcards, and a friendly young man getting ready to close for the day.
I asked him if there were any albergues in the area that might have beds available. He didn’t know but there was an albergue a few kilometers down the road. If that one was full, there was another a few kilometers from that.
I began to consider the possibility that I might be spending the night under the stars, in the suburbs of Santiago.
As I looked at maps and brochures, in walked a very exhausted Christina. We were happy to see each other but we looked bedraggled and faced a serious problem.
I told her that there were no albergues in the area and no guarantee that there were any beds available down the road for many kilometers. It was so late in the day, you see, Dear Reader, that most beds were already taken.
This is when Christine had her virtual meltdown.
This is what I saw in my mind’s eye. Nostrils flaring. Eyes widening. I saw Christina’s spirit reach across the counter and grab the innocent tourist information clerk.
What Christina actually did was politely ask if there were any places in the area which might have space.
I heard the tiny twinge of desperation in her voice (she kept her hands to herself).
The clerk must have heard something and seen the “Don’t-you-DARE-give-me-an-answer-I-don’t-want-to-hear” look in her eyes.
Uhm, yes, the clerk replied, there was a hotel up the road.
She looked at me. I had been standing at the other end of the counter, flipping through brochures but mentally weighing my options.
She and I were both on a strict pilgrim budget. We could not afford to spend more than the usual 5 or six euro for beds, especially this close to the end. She had a plane to catch so she had time constraints. I would soon have to pay some to-be-determined dollars for a t0-be-determined way to get home.
We both knew we couldn’t afford to spend a night in a hotel. And we couldn’t afford to waste time.
And then, Christine pulled a silver bullet out of her wallet.
“My Dad,” She explained to me, “gave me a credit card to use in emergencies. I haven’t used it yet. This is an emergency.”
I explained that I didn’t have enough money to split the cost.
“My Dad won’t mind,” she said.
The tourist office was closing in five minutes.
I said, sure.
She made the transaction, I thanked her, and said a big prayer of gratitude to my Saints. I also added Christina’s Dad to my list of people I say a rosary for.
She headed towards the hotel, and I stayed back to make a reservation for my time in Santiago. Christine and I would arrive at the Cathedral in Santiago the next evening, after dinner and I did not want to wander around without a place to stay,
I left the tourist information booth, having made a reservation in Santiago. I followed the clerk’s directions to get to the hotel – go up, turn left at the corner, and it would be less than five minutes away.
I walked out of the booth, the clerk locked the door behind me and took off in his car. There were no people in the narrow street, no voices, and no sign that said “Hotel this way, you idiot,” which was what I needed.
I walked to the corner, turned left and went straight ahead to a house with an open door.
It was very quiet.
I hesitated at the door.
“Hello??” I called from outside the doorway.
There was a bucket just inside the door with some cleaning tools, as if someone was in the middle of washing the floor and had left the door open.
This didn’t feel like a hotel. It felt like someone’s home.
“Hello? Christine?” I called again, still not entering the building. These were the directions, but this didn’t seem like a hotel. And Christine had only been about ten minutes ahead of me. Surely she would be on the lookout for me. I heard conversation in a back room.
Should I walk in? What kind of low-key hotel is this?
I slowly realized that this wasn’t a hotel but someone’s house, someone who probably did not speak English. Sweaty, smelly, dusty, with hat and sunglasses, I stood a very good chance of scaring the crap out of a family watching t.v. and eating dinner.
Imagine as I walk in, drop my backpack and say, in my faltering Spanish, “Hola! The gentleman said you have a room for me and my friend??” Imagine as their forks fall from their hands, mid-bite, dropping paella all over the just washed tile floor.
I decided to quietly back away from the door and look around town a little more.
I went back to the main road, went up a few more blocks and found the hotel. I went to the reception desk (real hotels have one) and told them my friend had just come in. They directed me to the room and there was Christina, stuff already spread out around the room.
Within minutes it looked like our backpacks had exploded. Stuff was everywhere, airing out. Girls gone wild. We each crashed on our very own twin beds. No sleeping bags tonight!! Nice clean sheets, soft mattresses, and a bathroom we only needed to share with one other person. We didn’t even worry about leaving our stuff out while we each took turns in the shower.
After washing clothes in the sink (yes, we still had to do that), we headed down to the bar.
We were handed a drink menu. It had been many weeks since I had seen one of those.
The day called for one particular drink.
The perfect drink for this most interesting day?
An icy gin and tonic.