Christina Has a Meltdown – Just One More Day Until Santiago

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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???

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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.

Christina and I were neither.IMGP4520

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.

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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.”

Full.

I trudged on.

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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 misunderstood.

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.

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It was very quiet.

Too 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.

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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.

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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.

Not beer.

Not wine.

The perfect drink for this most interesting day?

An icy gin and tonic.

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Dads and Oranges – Day 38 – Eirexe to Melide, part two

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I’m a sucker for cute old men with something to show me.

I was enjoying my last days on the Camino. I had left my Camino family member, Christina, back in the albergue about an hour earlier, since she was just getting packed as I was heading out the door.

A very unusual situation for us.

But I knew we would catch up with each other before our travels ended. She had a ticket to fly back to the States in about a week and, once out of the albergue, she would be focused.

I, however,  was free to dawdle.

My daily routine had settled into enjoying a steaming, sweet, cafe con leche and a croissant about an hour after I started walking every morning. That way, I could get the cobwebs out of my eyes, get all the joints working, and get some distance before my first stop of the day.

But there were not many cafes on this part of the Camino. I had walked for 7 kilometers and was anxious to find a place for breakfast.

I approached the town of Palas de Rei, which seemed especially white and gleaming. The streets were empty because I had missed the early morning rush hour and the pilgrims who had stayed in the albergues in town had already left.

As I walked along, lost in thought and on the lookout for a cafe, a gentleman came up to me on the right. He began talking to me in Spanish and, though my language skills had improved over the weeks, I clearly needed coffee to kick those skills into high gear because I couldn’t understand a word he was saying.

But it may have been that he was speaking Galician, a Spanish dialect that is different from Castilian, the Spanish taught in American schools and spoken around my grandparents’ houses.

Eventually I caught what he was saying. “Are you hungry? Would you like coffee?”

The last time an old man had approached me and offered something, it had turned out well. It had been a few weeks earlier and I had been able to fill my pockets with cherries, my mouth with cookies, and my camera with photos.

It had taught me a Camino lesson – keep your guard up but take a chance when something is offered on the Camino. The benefits usually outweigh the risks.

Remember, this is a pilgrimage. The Saints have your back.

I looked the gentleman in the eye and saw earnestness and honesty. I couldn’t imagine where this would lead but sensed benefit, not disaster.

I followed him down the street. We walked about a block (downhill and I realized I’d have to trudge back uphill to return to the Camino) and then turned into a pristine, but empty, cafe.

In the front window was a pool table, then a folding screen, then the bar area. The room was sparsely decorated, as if still in the setting-up phase. The walls were white and the ceiling was high, which increased the spacious feeling. There were half as many tables and chairs as could easily have filled the space.

The impression was of a clean and well cared for cafe, waiting for customers to arrive.

I was the only customer there, but not the only person. Behind the counter was a young woman who smiled. I heard activity in the kitchen.

I asked for a cafe con leche, which can be found everywhere on the Camino, but didn’t see any bread. I asked if they had a croissant or something similar. “Tiene usted un croissant o pan como algo?” I sputtered. The woman replied that they didn’t have croissants but they had toast.

On the Camino, many cafes and bars offer toast and coffee as a standard breakfast menu, so this was very fine for me. Picture a toasted baguette, not a toasted  slice of white sandwich bread, with lots of butter, jelly, and sometimes honey. I ordered coffee, toast, and orange juice. I took off my backpack and took out my phone and guidebook.

The juice was fresh squeezed, as was all the orange juice I bought in bars on the Camino.

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I had lingered in many bars in the mornings, watching automatic juicers squeeze orange juice out of freshly cut oranges.

The barman or woman would open a mesh bag of oranges, slice two or more in half, and drop each half down a chute in the top. The halves would be pressed between two rollers and a waterfall of  juice would come out the bottom and go directly into the glass, the peel falling into a container.

The barkeepers always used enough oranges to fill a good-sized glass. These oranges were bred for juicing – they were 99% liquid.

This orange juice was cold and just sweet enough to stick in my mind forever as the gold standard for orange juice.

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I ate before I realized I wanted to take a photo. Sorry. The orange juice was delicious.

This cafe/bar was, in fact, relatively new – it had just opened the November before. The daughter, who was the woman behind the counter, had recently opened it as an albergue and cafe for pilgrims on the Camino. There were beds upstairs, although by that hour all the pilgrims had left.

She was making a go of this new business and her mother, who had made my toast in the kitchen, and her father, who had snagged me on the road, were helping her. Her parents owned another place on the other side of town. I imagine that they helped her out financially, also, which perhaps was why they were there.

The daughter told me that, like many bars on the Camino, they would be open until the late hours of the evening. This explained the pool table in the front.

I gained a new appreciation for the father standing on the corner, selling pilgrims on the idea of stopping for a bite to eat. The location of this bar, just off the beaten path, did not work in their favor.  But the food was very good, the service warm and friendly, and the prices perfect.

I left about an hour later, having eaten and rested, and another pilgrim having arrived (Dad had been pounding the pavement again). This place, Cafe Bar Santirso,  deserved more traffic and I would be happy to stop there again on my next Camino Frances.

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http://cafesantirso.wix.com/cafebarsantirso

To put icing on the cake, Dad showed me a shortcut back to the Camino, no hill climbing needed.  Maravilloso!

Back on the road, I continued towards Melide. Had Christina passed me? Probably. Would I find her in Melide? Probably not, it is a city with many albergues.

But I knew I would see her and Andres and Juan Carlos, my Camino family, soon, although I didn’t know where or how.

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A Time to Rap – Day 38 – Eirexe to Melide, part one

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Is it excitement? Anxiety?

For whatever reason, I wake up early, pack up, and leave the albergue as Christina is waking up. I can’t wait. I need to get on the road.

You know by now that Christina, the boys, and I – my Camino family – share our fondness, no, our need, to sleep late on the Camino. So this is very unusual for me.

But the sun is shining, the mist is disappearing off the fields, and I can’t stay in bed any longer. By now it takes me only about 15 minutes to go from bed to packed and out the door. Quite an achievement.

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The municipal albergue looks basic on the outside but was very clean and modern on the inside. The hospitaleros were friendly and we talked for at least an hour the night before.

The Saints have me covered. The Camino consistently provides what, and who, I need. Friends, acquaintances, and strangers. Every day is filled with more joy and adventure than I could ever have expected.

I would meet Christina later today, somewhere, somehow. We hadn’t spoken about meeting up but I know we will.

I walk through tiny, rural towns, with chickens nonchalantly crossing the road to get to the other side. Horses lazily swish their tails as they watch me follow the yellow arrows down the lane between houses.

Dogs bark in the distance and I pass new cars parked in old converted stone stables next to quiet stone houses.

I am invisible and I don’t disturb these scenes. I photograph them in my mind and will remember them forever.

I pass small village parks and picnic areas made  ready for the passing pilgrims, with fresh, cold running water and well-trimmed lawns and hedges. Rustic towns and villages show their surprisingly cosmopolitan edges.

Local people might seem to be of another world but they are surely part of mine and I am the newcomer. Their worldliness makes me smile and I shake my head at my own biases and incorrect assumptions.

I wasn't expecting to seee this in a rural park along the Camino.

I wasn’t expecting to see these sculptures in a rural park along the Camino. This picnicker is enjoying an early breakfast surrounded by . . . nature.

I walk past an encampment of tents, the first time I’ve seen tents on the Camino.

I will later learn that they belong to an Irish Church youth group whose leaders take about 20 young people on this section of the Camino every year. They arrange with a local tour guide who sets up their daily camping spots and who goes ahead with the van carrying packs and food.

The young people walk from camp site to camp site and set up when they meet the van. They have dinner, talk, sleep, and breakfast and breakdown the site each morning. It explains all the young people racing up the hillsides laughing and singing. I thoroughly enjoy their exuberance and energy and absorb their excitement.

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I hear two of them coming up behind me on a rocky, narrow wooded path. They are singing rap songs at the top of their lungs. There are other pilgrims going uphill and they are passing them all.

Dappled shades of green color the rocks as the sun shines through the new leaves. Birds are singing and there may even be a stream nearby. But the rappers closing in on me from behind present me with a dilemma.

Can I ask them to stop singing?

I don’t mind singing, I don’t mind rapping. But here, in this setting, it seems inappropriate. If I ask them to quiet down, will I just be an old fogey? Will they ignore me and keep on doing what they’re doing? Will they give me a hard time? Do I just forget it and let them sing their way into the future? Am I asking for trouble?

Their fast approach demands a decision on my part.

They climb on the rocks next to me, rapping away (I don’t think they understand the lyrics, either). They clearly have no clue that they are being so loud. I smile and nod.

Then I say, smiling, “Por favor, como un iglesia (Please, like a Church),” as I indicate the surrounding woods with a nod. I don’t know what language they speak so I go with Spanish. With my clothes and my pack, they can clearly see that I am a pilgrim who has been in it for the long haul.

They look at me, look at each other, and continue walking and singing.

Then, within 10 steps, they stop singing as if on cue. They don’t say a word as they silently hop from rock outcropping to outcropping on the trail. The birds and, yes, a stream, become the music of the Camino once more.

I thank Big Tess for giving me the guts to ask for quiet and risk being seen as a cranky old person who doesn’t like new music.

I also silently thank the adult leaders of this youth group who have created a considerate, friendly and cheerful group of young pilgrims. In a few hours I will meet up with one of the leaders and I will tell him of the incident and will point out the boys involved. I will tell him how impressed I was with the consideration and respect the boys had for the Camino and for me!

He gives me a little of their background, where I learn they’re Irish, they camp, etc. I again tell him that the boys are a credit to the group and to their leaders and they should be proud. I want to make sure the leader understands that the boys behaved well.

He does and is happy.

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I’m An Idiot But it Turns Out OK – Day 37 – San Mahmed to Ferreiros

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The albergue was deserted by the time I left.

My hand-washed clothes from the night before were still damp so I used the dryer for 20 minutes before I packed out. Most of the people had sent their bags ahead (yes, they transported their bags). A few were waiting for vans to get their bags before they headed out.

The dining room was empty – the hospitaleros were not there. But they left hot pots, toasters and coolers with items for breakfast such as cereal, coffee, and  pastry and pilgrims simply helped themselves. I had a simple breakfast while waiting for my clothes to dry and charging my phone and iPad.

The road was easy and flat and a short 3 kilometers to that final landmark city before the end, Sarria.

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Sarria is a little more than 100 kilometers from Santiago. Since one must have walked at least 100 kilometers from Santiago in order to earn a Campostella, Sarria is the place where you find an influx of pilgrims whose goal it is to get the piece of paper that proves they’ve been on a “pilgrimage.”   They start their Camino in Sarria, getting two stamps each day, and present it to the Pilgrim Office at the Cathedral in Santiago. Then they get their Campostella.

I have my guidebook with me and re-read the words of the author – “. . . remember that many of the new arrivals may be nervous starting out and the last thing such a person needs is aloofness built on a false sense of superiority. A loving pilgrim welcomes all they meet along the path – without judgement.”

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It is early morning and Sarria is just waking up. It is too early for me to stop for breakfast so I easily climb up, up, up, past the mural near the castle at the top. I drink in the sunshine and wish a sincere “Buen Camino” to the new pilgrims huffing their way up to the top of the hill.

And, then, as I gaze down at the city I have just passed through, relishing the view and the early start I had on the day, I get a sick, sinking feeling in my stomach.

I still have no cash. I had to use plastic the night before in order to stay at the albergue. I need to find a cash machine.

I ask a few locals briskly trotting to work where the nearest cash machine is and they point back down into the city.  Down, down.

Which Saint shall I thank for keeping me humble? I want to blame all of them. Couldn’t they have made me think of this 15 minutes earlier? This is going to cost me alot of time.

I have no choice but to head back down into the city. I run into many pilgrims heading up as I head down, some of them people I had briskly passed an hour earlier on the Camino. I have to keep asking locals for the nearest ATM. I feel like an idiot when the cab drivers point across the narrow street we are standing on and the bank is right in front of me. I am one of the first on line. But I am the only one with a backpack and hiking poles.

I fill up with enough cash to last to the next large town and retrace my steps up. This time I pass no one. All the morning pilgrims have gone. I am the last one.

However, I am jubilant to see my Camino companion, Christine, when I stop to get breakfast. She had gone the other way with the boys up the ridge. She said the views were great but the route was challenging. It was shorter than the way I had gone through Samos so they were quite a distance ahead of us, close to a day. The two routes had joined again at San Mahmed. She had slowed down and was now with me.

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If I hadn’t gone back for cash, I wouldn’t have run into her.

Sorry, saints. I should have trusted you.

We walk together the rest of the day. We pass the 100 kilometer marker, an important photo-op for pilgrims.

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A group of new pilgrims pass us as we walk up a wooded trail. They are family and friends from the U.S, Canada and Australia who are doing this as a reunion. They are chatting happily and loudly and rambling up the trail, toting tiny packs with just enough room for the paper map given them by their tour arranger. They carry bottles of water in their hands.

I am slowly going up the trail, which is much steeper to me than to them. I smile and wish them a “Buen Camino.” I realize I may be the first person to give them that particular Camino experience.

“Where did you start?” “How long have you been walking?” “Did you walk the whole way?” I don’t have to ask them these questions because I know what their answers would be. But they ask me and I answer amiably, remembering the author’s words. Their joy at being on the Camino is infectious.

However, they do catch me off guard when they ask, “Wow. Are you carrying everything in your backpack?”

Dear Reader, you have seen the photos. Does this look like a daypack to you?

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God bless them. They sent their “luggage” ahead because, they explained, they “didn’t have time.”

Christine and I get to the albergue, only to find it full. This is not good. We had forgotten that we would be meeting this problem from now on because of all the new pilgrims joining at Sarria.

Fortunately, we are among the first to arrive at the next albergue, which is clean, quiet and one of the ones operated by the municipality. There is no store to buy food, the only store in town having turned itself into a private albergue (the one that was already full). So we go to the bar next door and have a great meal. We catch up on e-mail, I catch up on blogging, and we have a quiet, restful night.

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