Viana and the Monastic Life

To Viana

Last night in Los Arcos Julio and I shared two bottles of Rioja with our young friends Steffi, of Germany, and Jethro, of England.

Julio wanted to get up at five in the morning.

“Julio, that’s not humane.  I still have three hours of REM sleep left at five.  I wouldn’t ask a dog to get up at five.”

I may as well have gotten up at five.  Between the noises in the night, the rioja Julio forced down my throat, and my worsening cold, I slept fitfully.  I woke up feeling at least as sick as yesterday, but I was not going to take the bus again.  And on the evidence of today’s mostly very pleasant walk, I see that it’s more than possible to walk 20K even when you feel sick.  The way I feel at 6a.m. is apparently not predictive of how I’ll feel later on.

The countryside was beautiful today.  At first, we couldn’t see any of it:  we were underway at a quarter to seven, guiding ourselves by looking slightly away from the path so that the rods of our eyes, or perhaps it’s the cones, could discern the slightly lighter path from the surrounding field.  The sky was clear and the stars were popping.  We walked toward Venus, which is as close to romance as the Camino gets.  After an hour or so the sun stretched tentative orange fingers from east to west.  The light before and just after dawn was something to behold, draping soft warm tones over the ploughed brown of the furrowed fields, the yellows of the grasses, the dozens of different greens of the olive trees, the small but numerous vineyards, and, later, the pines and almond trees.  We were walking through 19th-century landscape paintings.  We ate almonds from the trees and blackberries from their bushes.

The physical pains are mostly receding, at least for me. Soon we may all be enjoying ourselves as Julio does. Today I experienced moments of real enjoyment in the rhythm of stick-stick-sticking my way across the landscape, taking in the smells and the light and shadow.

We spent a good part of the day walking with (or near, because no one on the Camino walks at the same pace for more than a little while) two pleasant, lovely lasses from England, one from Leeds (Jenny), the other from London (Katrina).  Their good natures and medical kits came in quite handy, the latter for Mom’s wasp bite and my first burgeoning blister. Katrina just stopped by our dorm room to get this blog’s address, saying they were taking the bus onward in the morning and we’d likely not see them again, so now they’re here, practically famous. Do come walking in the U.S., girls!

Meanwhile, the Koreans still dress like Himalayan mountaineers on expedition.  Their entire heads and faces are covered with hats and bandannas.  They wear glacier glasses, long-sleeved jackets, and gloves – every last bit of skin or hair is covered against the sun.  I was passing one of them, seated, her features only barely apparent beneath all this protection, when she pointed at my feet and chortled merrily to her friends (if non-English speakers could ever be said to “chortle” – Lewis Carroll invented the untranslatably English word by combining “chuckle” and “snort”).

Julio told me more about what he said to the Belgian woman yesterday.  “I tol’ hair, ‘Why are you here?  You don’ speak the language, and in your veins there is no blood, only Coca-Cola.’”

“You said Coca-Cola?”

“Yes, to do this job you have to have some dynamism, not be there with your lists and your forms.”

“Did she understand you?”

“Of course not!” he said.  “I had to repeat myself.”

“They did seem to be unaware of the thousand-year-old tradition of the hospitalero, didn’t they?  Kings were constantly funding hospices for the care of sick and injured pilgrims – even leprosariums.”

“That is correct.”

Outside a café-bar where we stopped, Mom got stung by a wasp, twice, on her big toe.  She cried out and hopped around and we found her a chair and some ice.  “You’re going to have to suck it out,” she said to me, pointing to her leathery big toe.

“You’re thinking of snakes, Mom.  You get bit by a snake, I’ll be there.”

The Monastic Life

I didn’t realize the extent to which we would come to live an almost monastic existence on the Camino.  We wake up when it’s dark.  We then eat bread, perhaps with butter.  We strap on a hunchback (Mom calls her backpack “Quasimodo”) as a Catholic penitent might put on a hairshirt.  We walk, and walk, and walk. At nine or ten we stop for a snack. It’s an indescribable pleasure to simultaneously sit down after walking and eat after nearly fasting. The mid-morning break is one of my favorite times. Julio says that his favorite part of walking — and he told me he walks 250-300 days a year — is the eating.

At around one o’clock we check into the albergue and then Mom, Marie Anne, and Julio go shopping. I stay behind to wrestle with wi-fi or my Vodafone USB connection, upload photos, write blog posts, and check emails. We eat lunch communally around a wooden table, simple meals of real food, not far divorced from nature.

We sleep, often under nothing more than a sheet (in my case, a bedbug-resistant silk enclosure) on mattresses as thin as adult diapers, in bunk beds located in chaste dormitories, with people called pilgrims, or peregrinos.

I don’t have privacy, or no more than a medieval pilgrim might have had during stolen moments in an outhouse.  There is no night-life in the small towns, and even in the larger towns where there is night-life, it’s irrelevant to us:  hostel doors close at 10, or even 9:30.  There is no TV.  Indeed, just having a computer with Internet access and iTunes makes me more plugged-in than most, though all the hostels have computer terminals for hire.

Lights go out at ten.  I wake up in the dark.  And walk again.

And women do not enter anywhere into it.

This must be good for me somehow.

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