Oy. I am knackered. Currently in Arca, or Pedrouzo, or Arca Pedrouzo, or Arca (Pedrouzo) – it all depends on the sign you read. Just as whether we’ve traveled 40 or 43 kilometers in the last two days depends on whether you believe the piece of paper given us by the French, the somewhat suspicious Galician kilometerstones, or your lyin’ legs. In any event, we’re at about Kilometer 18 – or about six hours’ walk from Santiago, which we’ll reach tomorrow.
A few days ago I was going to write here that I’ve finally gotten the hang of all this walking business. By the time we reach Santiago, I thought, I’d be in shape to walk this Camino. But yesterday the bones (or something; ligaments?) of my legs hurt. And today it was the bottoms of my feet. We’ve been resting for hours, and they’re still sore. It’s like a dwarf pounded on them with a wooden mixing spoon. Why a dwarf? I don’t know. Imagery.
Let’s catch up, shall we?
The Spanish (all references to “the Spanish” here expressly exclude Julio) keep to themselves, somewhat like the Asians. Everyone else on the Camino interacts with one another. In the Asians’ case, I think it is a matter of language and culture. If they speak English, or want to talk, they don’t let on. In the case of the Spaniards, it is both the lack of a common language (few speak English, the common language of the non-Spanish pilgrims) and the Spaniards’ lesser need to seek out friendship: their own friends are just around the corner. And who else but the Spanish can take just two or four days to walk on the Camino?
“Lejos!” they say, when I answer that I am from the United States. Anywhere in the U.S. but New York is, in their minds, even farther away.
The Spanish are also not as much in the moment, perhaps because they are in their own country, so they have not, in a sense, left their old lives behind. They are still on the same cell phone plans, and they, unique among the nationalities here, carry their phones with them around the albergues, or can even be heard talking on the Camino itself. I’ve seen Spanish Camino bikers ride by wearing earbuds. “Buen Camino!” one called out to us, and then continued talking into his cell phone’s microphone as he rolled past. Really, why bother with the Camino? You can do that on a stationary bike in your local gym.
I think it’s time we had a serious, adult conversation about toilets in Europe, and perhaps especially in less developed Europe. The traveler to certain parts of Europe, like points on the Camino, cannot help but notice that there must not be a distribution channel for toilet seats in these areas. There the commode sits, fine white porcelain, yet bereft of any place for you to sit. Except that you are supposed to sit. You must sit. And if you are a man, you will sit where the splashing from other men goes. On the porcelain itself.
Was there, at some point, a rash of toilet-seat thefts by tourists or pilgrims? Where would you put one? My driver’s ed teacher in high school made his bathroom pass a toilet seat precisely because they can’t be hidden.
At least it’s not southern Italy, whose toilets alone (last I was there, in 1989) gave it Third World (or Developing World, as we’re now supposed to say) status. There, you get a hole in the ground. If you’re lucky, there’s a chain or rope from the ceiling that you can clasp hold of while squatting. I remember I was right out of college, this was in Naples, there was a long line for the bathrooms. I walked to the front of the line just to see WTF. There sat an unsmiling matron of a certain age, at a large desk, doling out five squares of toilet paper to each of the backpackers. There they all stood, shifting their weight from one foot to the other, waiting for their squares.
I then went to see the toilets. Cheesus Crise! as Julio would say. Hole in the ground and not even a chain to hold onto. The Romans were better sanitation engineers in 40 BCE than the Napolitanos were in 1989.
Ventas de Narón to Casanova Mato
Every inhalation in Galicia brings with it a surprise. It is an earthy, aromatic part of the world. Woodsmoke and sorghum, fall leaves and grass, cow dung and a smell like oranges (but there are no oranges), hay that smells like camomille, soil. Eucalyptus! Brought in from Australia in the mistaken belief it would be useful for building.
In the morning I am inhaling the camomille-like smell in deep breaths, taking it in, imagining the freshness of it nurturing my cells, and then I am caught short by a smell so foul that my cells threaten to mutate, or at least to revolt, until once again I can smell something like tea . . .
We have left so early that we navigate by moonlight. I have left my new headlamp somewhere, and Mom has spent so many hours reading while others sleep that her battery is dead.
Oh what a plight
Dark as dark night
Thank God for Carrie
With her wind-up light
There is a corona around the moon, like a small rainbow. “Grandma Powell always said that meant a change in the weather,” Mom said. “I guess that was the Indian in her.” Grandma Powell was one-quarter Indian – Cherokee, and perhaps Blackfoot or Blackfeet (these are two distinct tribes). The rest, as I’ve written elsewhere, was gristle.
From the hills we’re in, we can see fog blanketing the valley below. When we enter the fog, the air is so thick with water that our packs grow wet, and the trees rain water down on us as we pass.
We pass a cemetery. My eye catches the word “Peregrino,” Pilgrim, on a sign, and I back up to read it.
Cimetario de Peregrinos
How encouraging. A cemetery for pilgrims who fell between the 80th and 60th kilometers.
Mom said she read in her book, the one by the German comedian, that only 16% of pilgrims finish the Camino.
We are still navigating by moonlight, and when we enter the trees and the moonlight can’t penetrate, we navigate by litter. Pilgrim litter is far more reliably ever-present than the Camino’s fabled yellow arrow.
My mind is still working on yesterday’s legal kerfuffle. It’s also working out solutions to the electronic document signing on Friday.
Secure DocuSign signature starts with the preparer of the document having the email address of the signatories and giving them a password. Title company inexperienced with DocuSign, won’t think to require a password. Person clicking on the signature lines needs only the credentials to the email address to be used.
And this I give to Julio, who is on his way to Madrid, by text message, with instructions for him to pass the same on to Adam, in New Jersey, by email. Problem solved, I return to the world around me.
We will put in around 20 kilometers today. It is almost too much for Mom. “I wish we were already there,” she says, with a few kilometers to go. I have noticed the same thought in myself. I then put my attention back in the present, including on my sore legs or hips, working to remain in the now. I suggest that she too follow Eckhart’s advice not to resist, not to want to be in the future.
“I’m not resisting,” Mom says, resisting even talk of resistance. “It was just kind of a little hope.”
Carrie laughs. Forget being a prophet who isn’t heard in his own house; try being a mere life coach.
We finally reach the albergue in Casanova Mato. The older woman who runs it is handsome and officious and as helpful as she can be without speaking English. We three go upstairs and shower, and then Carrie and I take a nap. It is probably my second nap of the trip. I’m finding that naptime is an excellent time to get sleep without snorers around. Daytime has always been for me an illicit time to sleep, a hedonistic indulgence, and so it’s doubly delicious. In fact, it’s downright —
“Wake up,” Mom says. “It’s five-thirty. Time to eat.”
She’s perched on the edge of her bed, shoes tied smartly.
“We just ate a few hours ago,” I say, stifling a sob.
“No, we ate at three,” she says.
Mom’s gusto for food has reached a fever-pitch on this trip. I point out that I’m not yet hungry, and that nothing in Spain starts cooking before six-thirty, and that in fact the woman downstairs told me that the albergue a kilometer to the east opens at seven-thirty, and the one 1.5 kilometers to the west, which offers a ride, opens at six-thirty or a quarter to seven.
“I’m bored,” she says.
“Why don’t you arrange the mochilas for tomorrow?” This will get rid of her, I think.
A young Spaniard named Álvaro helps me speak to the service that handles the mochilas, the backpacks that Mom and Carrie send ahead by car every day. I thought I was clear to tell the mochila man that we need him to carry the mochilas from Casanova Mato to Ribadiso, but he keeps asking the name of whichever woman is downstairs. Is it Carmen? How the hell should I know? We went around like this for some time. I asked a group of four Spaniards of about my age if any of them spoke English. They all shook their heads and pointed to Álvaro. He got on the phone, then off.
“He is very hard to understand,” Álvaro says. “It’s a strange dialect. I think it’s maybe his first day on the job.”
I asked Álvaro why he was on the Camino. “Because in January my mother was very ill, and I promised if she got better . . . She got better.”
We invited him to join us for dinner, but he’d brought his own comida, he said. So we called the albergue, Casa Bolboreta, that served food 1.5km away, and then we were blown away by the great meal we got for 8 Euros. Meatballs, great fries, lentil stew, water, wine – Mom said it was the second-best meal she’s had here, after the dreamy two servings of soup she got during the festival in tiny Navarette.
She and Carrie had been reading the blog and got themselves into a laughing fit. Mom started to reminisce about a trip to Germany in the 1990s, when Oma, my mother’s mother, was still alive. Mom had gone with her then-husband, known now as whatsizname, and they decided to take a bus tour of the Rhine Valley. Oma invited herself along. They’d been riding in the bus for several hours when Oma leaned across the aisle and said to Mom, “Where are we going?”
“I don’t know,” Mom said.
“Well, where is it then?”
“I don’t know that either.”
Oma, disgusted, turned to the man next to her. “Sir,” she said, in her unmistakable (and usually incomprehensible) Bavarian accent, “d’yaknow where this bus ‘s goin?”
“Leiwen,” the man said. She thanked him and turned back to Mom.
“Where is this Leiwen?”
“How should I know?”
“What,” Oma said, “you get on a bus and don’t even know where it’s going?”
The Albergue at Casanova Mato
The albergue itself looked a lot like the little hospital in which I was born. Boxy, small, and, by definition, I suppose, sort of clinical. There must be a manufacturer out there who makes albergue dormitory bunk beds, because I’ve seen them again and again on the Camino. They’re made of hollow aluminum. They don’t fit together well, and they squeak.
But their squeaking is nothing compared to the sound their springs make. Imagine ten windshield wipers that have lost their rubber. I felt bad every time I got up from the bed, or sat down. It’s not good to hold it in when you’ve got to go in the middle of the night, but some times – and I do mean only some of the time – I’m more thoughtful than is good for me.
Or maybe I still had in mind the ominous sign downstairs. Its English translation assured us that the albergue had the right to “throw away” any “infractors” of the rules of the albergue. (The fine print said infractors could be thrown in either a culvert or the trough of a pig (also known as pre-jamon) “at the proprietor’s sole discretion”.)
Casanova Mato to Arzua (~ Km. 60 to ~ Km. 38)
Still no grocery stores. And our albergue didn’t even serve breakfast. The next spot on the map – there are few towns on the Galician Camino – is over 9 kilometers away.
It is cold when we start. After thirty or so minutes, I have to take off my windbreaker and cap, leaving my two wool layers and gloves. Then, without any change in altitude, we all suddenly walk across an invisible line and the temperature drops.
“Did you feel that?”
“Yes! It got cold again!”
We walk on for a bit, and then it’s like walking into a warm house. By now I am totally confused. I am able, finally, to empathize with Tiger Woods, never quite sure whether his clothes are to be be put on or taken off.
Mom says that she no longer feels anything in her back, where the tumor sat. She says that Barbara the Bavarian told her about a German woman who’d had cancer and walked the Camino. The woman visualized the cancer as a ball of wool, and every day saw herself pulling a strand of wool off it. When she went back for her tests, the cancer was gone.
The Ultimate Second Breakfast
However, Mom says she feels a pain like a band across her stomach. Perhaps it’s the lentils, which begin to do their job and send her into the bushes.
Mentally, I am more of a walker now. Walking 20 kilometers, or almost 13 miles, is no longer a big deal. On some days, I could see walking a good bit more. And of course 13 miles will get you all over Manhattan. But we rely on our food, and our breaks, and we love above all Second Breakfast – which is hard to find in Galicia. We are all starving, and need a break from walking in the near-darkness. I am just commenting on the dearth of places to eat when, up ahead, I see it.
It’s like a shining city on a hill. A castle. A grail.
“Is it a mirage?”
No. It is, in fact, a place to eat and rest.
We fall upon it like castaways on a toasted bagel with cream cheese.
Menus and signs are everywhere, and they have pictures of pizza on them. “I wonder if they’re really serving pizza this early,” I say. “I was thinking the same thing,” Carrie says. It is 9a.m. We order, get on the Internet, I click to electronically sell the big, beautiful house I’ve owned for almost two years, and at 9:30 we’re each hoovering up a medium pizza.
Only later does it occur to me that I didn’t even read the closing documents on my house. I just clicked.
We spent over an hour there, and then we were off. We were nearly run over by a small herd of cattle, including a feisty little bull whose head had been tied to his right leg, so that he ran with a misleadingly submissive ducking motion. Then we were into the eucalyptus trees, and then we came upon another hill. Mom has not yet seen a hill that didn’t elicit a groan from her.
I felt my pack pulled backward. I looked back and saw that she had grabbed a loop of it with one of her walking sticks. “Come on,” she said. “I carried you around everywhere for nine months.”
I am sure we pass a kilometerstone saying 44 kilometers, and then 45, and then, much, much later, 42.5. I am hoping this system prevails at dinner, when someone will serve us 12.5 Euros of food and charge us for 10.
“Buen Camino!” we say to some bikers.
“Good way!” they cry back, in English, much as the flirtatious waitress (which kind of has a nice ring to it) in El Acebo, when thanked, had translated directly from the Spanish de nada to sing, “Nothing!”
Bone-Tired and Shaky
My legs are bone-tired. But Mom is worse off. There are more hills. “Look,” she says, holding out her hand. “I’m shaking.” Indeed she is. We ponder why it is and she walks some more, stops. Holds up her shaking hand. She tries to walk some more, stops, trying to catch her breath. “I can call a taxi,” I say. She shakes her head.
“You slept terribly,” I remind her, “and didn’t eat much for Second Breakfast. And no First Breakfast. Let’s get you something to eat. I think Carrie has a banana.” Carrie did have a banana.
In Arzúa, we opt for another hostel, so we can have our own rooms and get some sleep – and rest even when not sleeping. I fell asleep on the bed with my laptop on my chest, something about as common, for me, as fainting.
Are we going to make it to Santiago?