Christina Has a Meltdown – Just One More Day Until Santiago

IMGP4507

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???

IMGP4500

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.

IMGP4514

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.

IMGP4519

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.

IMGP4511

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.

IMGP4513

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.

IMGP4512

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.

Ahhhhhh.IMGP4509

 

 

 

 

 

The Old Man and the Race to a Bed

IMGP4482

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.

IMGP4498

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.

IMGP4494

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.

IMGP4489

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.”

IMGP4497

 

 

 

 

As I Fall Asleep

IMGP4500I hear the gentle snoring of people falling asleep.

I hear grown men in bunk beds laughing uncontrollably like school boys at summer camp, one softly saying a word that sends the others into giggling fits. Then the other whispers something that leads to even stronger bed-shaking hilarity. On and on. I know tears flood their eyes – they are hysterical yet trying soooo hard not to wake anyone  up.

I hear the creaking of  upper bunk beds and mentally assess how new the beds are and the weight of my own upper bunkmate.

I hear women snoring. Yes, it happens.

I hear sleeping bag zippers being zipped slowly to not disturb people. Unfortunately, like undoing velcro, it can’t be done silently.

I recall the sound and sight of a group of gray-haired, slow-moving grandmothers laughing uproariously like teenagers, in the showers at the end of the day.

I smell the sickly sweet odor of that God-awful ointment that someone is rubbing on their feet and calves. Do they know how horrible it smells? I will never get that “fragrance” out of my brain.

I smell the body odor of those who don’t wash themselves and/or their clothes.

I hear the soft pad of bare feet on the tile floor as people head into bed after lights out.

I hear the loud clunk of something accidentally falling out of an upper bunk in the dimness as a person tries to roll over.

I hear the echo of a group talking and laughing down the hall in the living area.

I see the light of someone reading an e-book in bed.

I hear the very soft scratch of someone writing in a journal.

I see soft twilight still glowing at 1030 at night. For a night owl like me, it is perfection and I smile.

IMGP4468

Goldilocks and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Situation

[Continued from the previous post – if you haven’t read “No Photos, Just a Terribly Embarrassing Albergue Story,” you might want to read that first]

The problem slowly became clear to me.

The young pilgrim wasn’t especially annoyed at me, but I had messed up, without a doubt. There was no one to blame but me. I had caused a major problem.

Can you see it? Please say no.

IMGP6342

Maybe now? Experienced pilgrims are slapping their foreheads at my stupidity.

IMGP6343

I had to look a dozen times before I saw my mistake.

IMGP6344

The day before, the Xunta was small (20 beds) and the friendly hospitalera had given me the receipt, telling me not to lose it since it was my proof I belonged there. This day, the not-as-friendly hospitalera had given me the receipt and waved me along.

I hadn’t noticed that I was assigned a specific bed in a specific section of the building.

I had just put my pack down in a good location, as everyone had routinely done when arriving at an albergue since Day One (I add, defensively).

Today was the first and only day it would be different. I had unknowingly taken this guy’s bed.

I can’t imagine the domino effect I must have caused when he got to his assigned space, saw me dozing peacefully,  and said to himself, “Someone’s been sleeping in my bed – and THERE SHE IS NOW!”

As my error flashed into my brain, I instantly offered to vacate and go downstairs, tail between my legs, and ask for another available “cama.” He graciously declined my offer since he had already gotten another bed.

I desperately showed him my tickets and explained in my broken Spanish that I hadn’t known I had been assigned a bed, based on my experience the night before.

I don’t think he really cared. I was so apologetic, though, that he may have begun to feel sorry he had brought it up.

Did he feel badly about how badly I felt at my mistake?  Did he really excuse my mistake? Or did he think I was just another arrogant and/or stupid American (had he seen the American flag sewn on my backpack)?  I was mortified and humiliated. How could I have been so dumb to not have seen the markings on the receipt and ask questions?

After walking for more than four weeks and 700 kilometers, I still didn’t know what I was doing.

I had a loooong talk with my Saints that night.

IMGP4469

If it’s any consolation to that unknown pilgrim whose bed I inadvertently took, a pilgrim came later that afternoon to the upper bunk. He had a “bed bug” sheet with him to prevent bugs from getting to him and I helped him slip the cover on his mattress.

This was the first time during the trip that I had thought about bed bugs in albergues, even though it was a common thread in the on-line forums I’d studied in preparation for my trip.

My infestation-obsessed bunkmate climbed up into his bed later that evening, having spent a raucous night on the town.

I, however, tossed and turned all night long, imagining that every itch and scratch was a you-know-what crawling on me and into my pack.

It was all in my imagination. The only souvenirs I brought home from my trip were all bought and paid for.

But the Camino (St. Julian, I’m looking at YOU) continued to keep me humble.