Waking Up in Roncesvalles
Roncesvalles, Spain. Wednesday. The monastery’s automated klieg lights flipped on at 6a.m. Like a small child, I thought if I put my hands over my eyes, the lights would go away. The showers operated on a timer set to 25 seconds. For those of us reprobates who could not actually shower in 25 seconds, it was necessary to depress the temperature control to earn another 25 seconds. I found this was much easier if I stood with my back against the control and simply leaned back every so often. I did this several hundred times, until I’d had a proper shower. There was nothing to be done about the lights that turned off after 60 seconds.
For breakfast at the restaurant that had turned us away the night before, we had café con leche and bread with butter and apricot jam – the only thing on the menu. Mom said, “I was in so much pain last night I don’t think I got to sleep before two or three o’clock. How did you sleep, Carrie?”
“Like a rock,” she said. “Once I get down, there’s no waking me up.”
We caught the 9:20 bus to Zubiri, where we found an unsmiling and unhelpful woman at the public albergue in town. She was cleaning, so I figured she was the cleaning woman and not the public face of an albergue heavily trafficked by pilgrims. We were then lucky to find on the street several extremely helpful fellows who gave us all sorts of information. One was local, one from Catalonia. We walked to the one item of interest in the town, a bridge that had brought pilgrims from the Camino to the town for nearly a millennium, though the bridge had been rebuilt in the 14th century and repeatedly thereafter. (A guidebook said the Romans had probably had a bridge in the same place.)
I remembered my disappointment upon learning that the Great Wall of China was not as old as its origins – it has been built and rebuilt up to the present time, so that you could never point to a piece of wall and say, “Look, someone fashioned that with his bare hands nine thousand years ago.” It might have been built or repaired in 2005.
In the village we found a bar where Mom was able to get some eggs, salad, and patatas, which were actually in French-fried form. She didn’t eat them. I went to the bathroom. Ten seconds after I sat down, the automatic light went off. The toilet was a good twelve feet from the light switch.
We returned to the albergue to find the cleaning woman, now changed out of her blue cleaning outfit, presiding over the registration desk, and not noticeably more oriented to customer service than before. We paid only 6 Euros, though, which made me happier than before. Julio met her when he arrived a bit later, and on the trail the next day, he would say, “Oh, my God! That woman! I wanted to ask her, How much do you want for a smile? Two or three Euros? Jesus Christ! Bloody spinster!”
Mom inspected the cooking facilities and announced that only stew would be practical; she and Carrie went shopping for ingredients. I napped and Mom made stew. An Australian couple who had been living in London asked if they could join us, and of course Mom said yes. Eileen showed up later, too, and Mom invited her to eat with us as well. It’s surprising to me that pilgrims, like Christians generally, don’t place much emphasis on the fellowship of breaking bread together, for Jesus is constantly portrayed in the New Testament as eating and drinking wine with people. The religious scholar John Dominic Crossan has made a persuasive case that communing over meals was an integral part of Jesus’ ministry.
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. — Arthur C. Clarke
I took my MacBook Air to a nearby café-bar and logged on to the Internet there. Soon I was in Skype instant-message conversations with most of the people in my life whose names began with A: Adam, Alejandro, and Ashley. Alejandro called me up on Skype video.
“Hey, how’s it going?” I said. I turned down the volume. Alex, a Dominican friend from law school, said he was working out of the DC office of his firm for a week. I spoke some more and noticed the proprietress watching me speak to my computer.
She was about to alert the Guardia Civil, but her curiosity got the best of her. She came around the bar to stand behind me and shook her head in wonderment at the image of Alejandro speaking on the monitor. “Say something nice to her in Spanish,” I said. “She’s been very kind to let me stay here so long.” He did so, and she was charmed. Later, I called my friend Ashley, who is impossibly beautiful in any culture, and we talked over Skype video too.
Mujer? the proprietress asked, raising her eyebrows. Wife?
The proprietress had let me stay in the bar beyond closing time, but it was time to take my leave. I left a large tip, carried my MacBook Air and my Skype conversation with Ashley into the alley outside, and sat down on the cobblestones to continue it.
The trail to Pamplona, Thursday. Last night I had the best night of sleep since I arrived, and interesting dreams. In one, both a Labradoodle and an attractive European woman showed me great affection.
We were up before light. There is really no choice in the albergues. While the night-time policy that turns out the lights at 10p.m. works well to allow people to get to sleep, pilgrims have worked out no agreement for how they get up in the morning. Small, clumsy children, and most breeds of cattle, could be quieter in a small room. Pilgrims crinkle plastic bottles while they whisper, stomp around in their boots (while whispering), or even call out to their fellows in the next bunk in the sort of library voice that would be most appropriate if one had accidentally set fire to the library.
The trail wound through bucolic country. Parts of it were so lush I was reminded of Oregon. A stream burbled on our right for a long way and we walked in shade. There was only the sound of our walking sticks clicking, and Julio’s occasional irruptions of singing and jokery.
On the trail ahead of us Eileen was walking next to another man. They were chatting.
“She has found,” Julio announced, “a candidate!”
The day before, he had seen Eileen talking to a Flemish man. “Be careful!” he cried. “She is looking for a husband!”
Seven years ago, Julio, now 57, retired early from Banco Santander, Spain’s largest bank – “They own every corner of Spain!” – and has been hiking the world ever since. “I think nature is often the answer,” Julio told me during our walk today. “When I mentioned to my colleagues that I was going to Israel for a month to do walking, they said, ‘Julio, please go see a psychiatrist!’”
Julio speaks fluent Spanish and French, nearly fluent English, and apparently passable Basque. He speaks enough Catalan to excite at least one 60-year-old retired Catalan banker. Julio says everything emphatically, one could almost say explosively, and that, combined with his sturdy Spanish accent, makes most things he says very funny. Whatever language he speaks in, people laugh. He is a character fit for his own TV show, and the reality TV people should grab him while he’s still in fighting trim. For thirty-five years he has hiked or walked at least once a week. Five years ago he ran a marathon in three-and-a-half hours, a respectable time even for an habitual runner, which he had not been until he took up training 18 months earlier. For the moment, I suspect he could grind me into the earth on a long hike. He is indefatigable.
He’s also a real gentleman. I saw this over and over, as he helped one stranger after another. “Thank you,” they would try to say, but he would cut them off. “Come on! Be serious!”
On the way to Pamplona, we took a break in a small, unmarked store. “Julio is the king,” Marie Anne said. “Cameron, ‘e is ze prince,” she added, which put me in mind of regicide. This was not necessary, in the end, for only a half hour later Julio fell into a stream so small it could not have put out a match, and Marie Anne announced that “Julio is no longer ze king.”
It has been a very long time since I spent my time so pointlessly. I’m not sure what to do with myself, which, I guess, is part of the point of just being. I don’t think about the vast majority of things that occupied my thoughts, even to near-obsession, over the prior 16 months or so. I don’t even catch myself thinking about where to live next. I look at rocks and trees and think about what to write here. Occasionally the boss does have something to say – usually about the failure of Orange’s USB device to give my MacBook Air internet access.
You need to figure out that Internet deal. Orange’s “Internet Everywhere” is a slogan designed by Orwell. Your clients may be getting annoyed that you can’t make the Skype appointments.
We were a little ways outside of Zubiri when we came upon a sign put up by Magna, a large industrial and mining company. “BEWARE: YOU ARE ABOUT TO TRAVERSE MAGNA, S.A. INDUSTRIAL SITE. PLEASE, DO NOT LEAVE THE PATH.” But I didn’t notice the content of the sign at the time, because I was too busy reading what my fellow pilgrims had left behind, in three different hands:
T’AS COMPRIS JACQUES? [Do you understand, St. James?]
THIS CEMENT FACTORY IS APPROVED BY ST. JAMES & CO.
You are soon leaving Zubiri . . . thank god!
Julio found some blackberries. “Sour!” Mom said. “But that makes you feel happier.”
Near a pasture, I bent down to regard a particularly fine-looking cow. It drew closer. We gazed into one another’s eyes. Then it reached out a large pink tongue and licked me between my upper lip and nose. “You have beautiful eyelashes,” I said.
Marie Anne decided to offer Spanish lessons. “El cielo es azuuuuul!” she cried, pointing her walking stick at the sky.
She kept up like this for some time before Julio said, “You have forgotten to take the second pill again! Come on!”
We decided that today would be the day we laughed only like Maurice Chevalier.
Mom pointed out the flower pots in the windows. “Makes the heart smile,” she said.
Julio sang love operas. “Sing some marching tunes,” Mom said. “Something we can walk to.”
“I do not want to sing marching songs!” he said. “I learned them all in the army, and I do not want to think of Franco!”
Marie Anne began to sing the Marseillaise.
|Allons enfants de la Patrie,
||Arise, children of the Fatherland,
|Le jour de gloire est arrivé !
||The day of glory has arrived!
|Contre nous de la tyrannie,
||Against us of tyranny
|L’étendard sanglant est levé, (bis)
||The bloody banner is raised, (repeat)
|Entendez-vous dans les campagnes
||Do you hear, in the countryside,
|Mugir ces féroces soldats ?
||The roar of those ferocious soldiers?
|Ils viennent jusque dans nos bras
||They’re coming right into our arms
|Égorger nos fils et nos compagnes !
||To cut the throats of our sons and women!
“Mariana!” Julio cried. “You should have taken singing lessons when you are a little girl!”
Mom sang songs from “My Fair Lady” (“All I want is a room somewhere, far away from the cold night air”) and the “Sound of Music” (“Do, a deer, a female deer” and “I’m just sixteen, going on seventeen”). I smiled as I walked ahead of her, thinking I would remember this for many years.
Carrie hummed along. What a sport she has been! I have been listening intently for a single complaint, and none have been forthcoming. What’s with this teenager? What do we have to do with her? We’ve thrown at her everything we have: more than three types of food; miles and miles of hiking with heavy packs; group living; foreign languages; conversations exclusively among adults, often in foreign tongue and with allusions to history and politics; and a total inability to check a cell phone or Facebook page for days at a time.
And not a peep.
Still above the valley, we came upon a few houses. On the street outside of one, there were two vending machines, looking like sore thumbs among the quaint and crumbling farm buildings. There was an entrepreneur in the area. I heard a plate.
“I just heard a plate,” I said, transforming my experience, like all the great poets, into art. Around the corner, we found a man and his wife serving up hot dogs, something that looked like a combination of pizza and quiche – and that ran out before my hungry eyes – and beer. (A shy young Korean woman offered me her pizza/quiche, but I couldn’t). About twenty pilgrims were looking very pleased. The prices included an obvious convenience surcharge, and we all paid it gladly. Julio held court.
After about half an hour, we were back on the trail.
“I am drunk,” Marie Anne announced. She began to sing.
“The second pill!” Julio cried.
500 Miles Without Calves?
I began the day with a little soreness in the same left calf, but the right calf had earlier served notice that it would not be without problems. When I’d gotten up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, my left calf and Achilles tendon operated as if made of solid glass, and my right, in sympathetic solidarity, was also now barely working. For the first 18 kilometers of the walk, things were fine. But somehow, though the walk had very few inclines and declines, the last five clicks were brutal. Every part of my legs from my knees to the bottoms of my feet screamed in pain.
Right now, between the left calf and the near-blisters on my feet, I can barely walk. In an attempt to give my calf a break, I had switched from the FiveFingers to the Salewa trail-running shoes I’d worn through Israel, but I think I’d have some real blisters if we’d walked another few kilometers. Adding socks and shoes simply adds layers of things that can abrade the skin. Tomorrow I may switch back to the FiveFingers and my status as the most amusing tourist in Pamplona. I have borrowed a very large ibuprofen pill from Mom’s mobile pharmacy.
Haysoos eee Maria
The Jesus y Maria hostel in Pamplona was a find. Only 6 Euros, and it had Internet service, washing machines, and a serious kitchen, not to mention a sheet and pillow case. Julio disappeared for a while and returned with lentils. A while later, he came in from the kitchen. “We are going to have two pots of lenteels,” he announced. “One healthy one, and one with chorizo sausage. One with cholesterol, one without cholesterol.” He had made two pots of about five gallons each, so that we were obliged to force food on a passing Irishman, an Israeli, a young English couple, and the seven Koreans from the night before, who had come to the kitchen to make another mouth-watering meal from scratch.
I complained jokingly that we never had enough wine to get drunk. The Irishman disappeared for a while, and returned with three bottles of Rioja. I turned on the iPod and out spilled Dean Martin and the Gipsy Kings. There was some singing involved, though thankfully little of it from Julio, who was busy doing his escaping-rabbit-made-from-a-handkerchief trick on Eileen and one of the friendly Korean boys.
For photos, remember to check out the albums on our Camino Not Chemo Facebook Page.
Pilgrims’ clothesline at the albergue in Zubiri