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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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.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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.

This Time Last Year

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My DH and I were a few months away from celebrating 38 wonderful years of marriage. The children were grown and our lives had taken us to many places around the world, places I had never dreamed I would see, much less live in. We had recently moved to another country and were enjoying the adventure of getting settled. We were working on where to store Christmas items in our new apartment.

But I had other plans also and I knew they wouldn’t include him. I was going to walk the Camino Frances soon.

I didn’t know exactly when or how. I didn’t know exactly where. I especially didn’t know why.

I hadn’t made any transportation arrangements because I had no clue how to get from where I was to where I thought I might need to be. I didn’t believe in hiking poles – too dorky. I was a good (what’s good about it?) twenty pounds overweight and I’m being kind. I didn’t have hiking boots.

The only thing I had going for me was that I liked walking although I sometimes found it boring.

I had decided to walk the Camino Frances and I had broken the news to my DH just after Thanksgiving. Would he be OK with it? It would cost us money and time. Lots of time but I had no clue  how much.

Not even my children really knew what I was up to.

“Mom’s thinking about going for a long walk.” What did that mean???

You don’t choose the Camino. It chooses you. And I had been chosen. But try to explain that to people who want to know why you want to walk across the top of Spain.

The ancestry of the Camino Frances sits squarely on a pilgrimage. But I’d never been religious enough to feel drawn to religious sites. I’d never felt compelled to visit places noted for miracles. And my life was relatively happy – no need to do penance or suffer to set things straight.

I was an older woman, inactive for many, many years, suddenly possessed by an idea that no one I knew had ever done before or even heard of.

It was time to give this some serious thought.

Video? – Day 33 – Molinaseca to Villafranca

Still feel like a gorilla with a computer.

I’ve been working for many days on embedding this YouTube video into this blog. I still haven’t gotten it right.

Put on headphones if you’re watching this at work.

A special shout-out to my Camino family who inspired me and helped make the final days of my Camino so enjoyable and memorable. Still have many days to go, but everything is coming together at the end.

Video nerds – I still need help. This movie was done on Picasa 3 when Microsoft Photo Gallery became too unwieldy. Any thoughts??

They Walked Together – Day 29 – Leon to Mazarife

IMGP3832I was sorry to leave Leon, in the end.

I had experienced many more mind-blowing incidents than could be covered in a reasonably lengthed blog post. I had met people from my past and my present and seen unique sights, some large and touristy, some small and personal.

I had renewed my joy of being on the Camino and excitement began to build – the next major city I would hit would be Astorga and then, Santiago.

Santiago! Had I really gotten that far following my rain-soaked guidebook?

The sky was gray as I started out in the early morning (up earlier than usual, that’s the sense of excitement kicking in). I left the money for the room on the dresser since there was no front desk. I hoped for the best in honesty and charity, that the money would get into the right hands.

The walk out of town was slightly uphill and went through a few more interesting sights. One of the most modern churches on the Camino was on the outskirts of Leon, Iglesia San Froilan, La Virgen del Camino. Do I like the contemporary architecture better than the old Gothic? Maybe, but maybe I’m just tired of Gothic. Contemporary was a refreshing change of architectural pace.

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La Virgen rises above the Apostles.

Shortly after the Church, there is a choice to be made – take the recommended or the optional path? For a change, I decided to go the recommended route. It seemed to go through more countryside and I was feeling strong and confident.

For the most part, the route was on a plateau with few places to stop for refreshments along the way. Also, few pilgrims. The wind was strong and a little chilly but the sun had come out and the only real challenge was mental, not physical. My rain jacket, which doubled as my windbreaker, came on and off several times.

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I met a woman named Gabby and we walked the rest of the day together.   She was about my age, a little younger, and was also walking the Camino for the first time. She was walking solo. We chatted for several kilometers, comparing notes and experiences, asking why each was walking.

She told me of a dream she had had the night before. She dreamt that, for the first time, her ex-husband’s wife wanted to talk to her. Why ? She had no idea.

She told me her story.

She and her husband were happily married for 30 years and had several children. When she turned 50, she decided to do something different.

She decided that she wanted to give a recital.

She was a very amateur musician (practicing music had long since taken a back seat to raising a family) yet this was something she had always yearned to do – play her cello for friends. She shared this idea with her family, who were all supportive.

She practiced diligently for the next year in preparation for her performance. She hired a hall and sent invitations. She got an accompanist and, with her teacher, selected a series of perfect pieces. She learned them well.

She gave her recital on her birthday to a hall crowded with friends and family. It was a success! The applause and congratulations, the respect and admiration of the audience of well-wishers were more than she anticipated. She felt honored and successful. She felt empowered – who wouldn’t? She was a novice who pulled off giving a successful recital. All the planning and hard work had paid off. Her children were especially proud of her.

Describing the event to me, as we walked along the Camino, brought an energy and happiness into her voice that was infectious. I realized I was smiling and my heart felt full of joy for her success. I couldn’t help but be delighted for her “chutzpah” at pulling off the event and pulling it off well.

A week after her recital, her husband told her he wanted a divorce.

I was dumb-founded and stopped in my tracks. We were walking an area known as the paramo. wide open with the horizon going off as far as you could see. The Camino was silent except for birds in the distance and the breeze in the nearby pasture blowing through flowers.

She walked on a few steps, then stopped and turned back towards me, silently urging me to continue our Camino.

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I took a moment to process this strange turn of events in her story. Then we began walking again.

She says she had had no clue and was totally taken by surprise.

He had begun an on-line relationship with an old flame from his high school days. Their correspondence had rekindled that old flame.  He decided that he needed to take that relationship to the next level. Gabby, of course, would have no place in that scenario.

She was stunned, hurt, and felt very betrayed. Her children were as taken by surprise as their mother.

He was insistent. Long story short, she was now a divorced woman after 30 years of marriage to a man she loved and a family she doted on.

She didn’t, of course, have much to do with the new wife (yes, he married soon after) but she was shy and introverted, not belligerent and one to rant. Her children stood by her all the way and she was grateful for that.

Now, she was walking the Camino. When I asked her if the divorce was the reason why she was walking, she thought about it a moment and said that she honestly didn’t think so. Five years had given her time to get her bearings and she was doing well. She had settled into her new life and was happy.

She had never spoken to the other woman. I asked if she was angry with her and maybe that was why she was dreaming about her. She said she didn’t think so, she really was at peace with the way her life was, at that point. She walked comfortably and surely along the Camino. Quietly confident but not over-bearing and strident.  Friendly and charming, capable and realistic,

And, last night, she dreamed that the new wife wanted to talk to her.

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Mr. Coffee, Meet Mr. Taxi – Day 28 – Leon

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La Torre is slightly off the beaten path in Arcahueja.

Continuing into Leon, I stopped at a small but well-known bar and albergue, “La Torre,” to get some food and drink. It was the middle of the day and it was hot and dry. I was the only person in the small bar, which suited me fine. The hospitalero was friendly and welcoming and there was toilet paper in the WC.

Life is good.

I had already had several friendly encounters that day.

First thing that morning, I had come to a bar for my morning coffee and croissant only to discover that the bar was in crisis. Their coffee maker, the big gleaming metal machine found in every cafe, capable of spurting individual cups of foamy cafe con leche in under a minute, was broken. This was a major problem because the line of pilgrims looking for their morning “cuppa joe” was just beginning.

But the machine was broken. Fini. Kaput. Nada. No coffee, no milk, No happy pilgrims.

The owners came up with the best solution they could on short notice on a Saturday.

They had a small Mr. Coffee and a carton of milk and they apologetically splashed hot coffee into cup after cup as pilgrims came into the bar in a steady stream.

A month ago, I wouldn’t even have noticed. Now, after almost a month on the road, Mr. Coffee seemed completely out of place. I knew, in my heart, that there was no way this would be an “authentic” cup of cafe, but I felt the pain of the hospitaleros as they made pot after pot of coffee, running out and then having to wait while the next pot brewed. At least the coffee wasn’t sitting on the hot plate for long.

I had my coffee (coffee, not cafe, it made a difference to me), wished them luck, and continued walking.

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Tiny raneros

Shortly after, I met a local man who was out for his morning stroll. He stopped and wished me a very fine morning. It had been a long time since a local had given a greeting that was more than just a smile and a nod. We had a short conversation in my very halting Spanish and I felt good as I continued walking.

Walking along a stream, I heard a familiar sound. This time, I stopped and really looked. Yes, there! I finally saw one of those elusive raneros I had heard about from Carlos days earlier when we left El Burgo Ranero. So small but such a big sound!

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I encounter a local eager to chat even if we didn’t speak the same language.

Continuing, I met another local women out for a walk. Her friendly greeting and smile warmed me like the sun and we began to chat. She asked questions about where I was from, how long I had walked, where I was going? She asked if my clothes were comfortable, was everything in my backpack, was it heavy?

I learned that most of the pilgrims she ran into on this part of the Camino, which ran through her neighborhood, didn’t look approachable. Their heads were down, their eyes shaded, they determinedly planted their hiking poles with each step, They all seemed focused on getting one foot in front of the other and she never felt comfortable interrupting them with conversation.

But, oh, the questions she wanted to ask. Why are you walking? What have you seen so far? What are the people like? Where do you sleep? My answers were as complete as I could make them. I asked how long had she lived here? Had she ever walked the Camino? What is Leon like?  She herself had never walked the Camino and now she felt she was too old.

Other pilgrims passed us as we talked. Our chat lasted for at least 30 minutes. We laughed, noting our similarities and differences. Eventually, we went our separate ways, wishing each other a “Buen Camino.”

Now it was lunch time (OK, early lunch, I still needed a real cafe fix) and I was at La Torre. The simple menu appealed to me. I decided it was too hot and late in the day for coffee and went the beer route. The hospitalero saw me wipe sweat from my forehead as I dropped my pack outside and he asked whether I would like an ice-cold frosty glass for my beer. My eyes teared up in joy.

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The hospitalero at La Torre was ready with a fast taxi, a cold beer, whatever.

Bliss was mine as I sat outside in the shade and ate a tortilla (not as good as Sinin’s, whose I mentioned in an earlier post, but not bad) and washed it down with the iciest beer I’d had in a loooong while.

Karen, a nurse from Australia, and another pilgrim, a young woman from Germany, arrived at the bar. They were tired and thirsty. Karen was limping heavily and as soon as she sat down she began massaging ointment onto her knees.

It was at least another eight kilometers to Leon. They considered their limited options and finally decided to try to find a ride into the city.

They didn’t speak any Spanish so I offered to try to arrange transportation. I haltingly asked the hospitalero if there was a taxi available (I hadn’t seen any cars in the village) and he told me that he had a relative who had a taxi and could take us into Leon.

I hadn’t thought of going along for the ride.

I told Karen that a taxi would be available and the cost would be reasonable if it was split. After some back and forth – did they want to take this taxi, how much would it cost, when could it come to pick them up – business was settled and soon a clean, new van parked in front of the bar. I used my “Espanol muy primitivo” to check the arrangements for the women.

They asked me to ride along. They even offered to pay in return for my helping them.

I thought about it. There was not a cloud in the sky, which meant that the sun was really burning down. Siesta time was approaching and the roads would be devoid of people. Taking the taxi would get me to Leon in 20 minutes instead of 3 hours. Having walked about 430 kilometers straight, there would be no shame in taking a 20 minute taxi ride.

Yet, I declined their offer, breaking my new rule of always accepting what is offered. Getting into a vehicle at that point seemed as out of place as, well, drinking a cup of Mr. Coffee. My mind was on walking, slowly, carefully, strongly. Let the adventures find me along the road as planned.

I saw them drive away, slightly regretting my choice as I thought about how quickly they would be in the city and how much trudging l had ahead of me.

The beer was no longer cold, the tortilla was finished. I said “adios” to my hospitalero friend, hoisted up my backpack, and headed out.

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Approaching the suburbs of Leon