The realities of a popular pilgrimage can sometimes overwhelm the transcendent….
A Curmudgeon’s Day on The Camino
Lured by the prospect of uncovering even a nugget of spiritual truth along the way, hundreds of thousands of people each year don the pilgrim’s shell, staff and resolve to walk the 800 kilometre Camino across northern Spain. While the experience can be purifying and transformative, the ‘pedestrian’ aspects of the trail often overwhelms the sublime. To the curmudgeon, it’s all stubbornly pedestrian.
Be awoken before dawn by the sounds of rustling bags as pilgrim factory cheerily comes to life. Wait until the droves have left so one can use the bathroom mirror without guilt and not have to spar for a spare mug and spoon in the kitchen for one’s instant coffee, yogurt and backpack-weary banana. Stagger out of albergue in full rain regalia with torch blazing to face eerily empty streets of every Spanish town at 7:30 a.m. Hope that there are pilgrims ahead who have radar vision because the occasional yellow arrow in the fog-enshrouded dark is rarely enough to help you navigate the zig-zag path of The Camino. If one assumes that path will take the most improbable route – not west, not straight, and definitely not direct – then the chances of finding the path improve. Stride to outdistance the troupe of pilgrims behind you and those strung out endlessly in front in hopes that the trail may offer a moment or two of quiet contemplation.
The Daily ‘Trudge’
By third hour of mindless trudging down the side of an asphalt road, press salivation button for morning cafe con leche. Squeeze into corner of cafe, polish off doll-sized cups of coffee in two gulps, have some chocolate and start the ‘longing for lunch’ period of the day. Get in another three hours of Camino-numbing walking. Keep mind active by, if in Galicia, plotting best route through mud puddles and cow caca on the trail; if in Rioja, plotting which cluster of grapes would yield best pre-lunch snack; if in the Meseta, estimating how much toilet paper each woman leaves injudiciously on the trail. Attempt to make the walk an enriching and selfless one by 1) falling into stride with fellow pilgrims while trying to withhold that you are from Canada as you’ve been told by every pilgrim that ‘there are a lot of Canadians on the trail’ and then proceed to show how ignorant Canadians are about their country’s dire political situation, 2) flashing every pilgrim a smile as you wordlessly but tactfully sail by them, 3) stopping to take a photo of another stone church, monument or anything of historical interest that is more than an unrecognizable pile of rubble, 4) pausing to reflect – whether quietly on one’s own or within the context of a pilgrim’s church service – on the purpose of one’s trek on The Camino, without letting oneself be distracted by the nuns’ out-of-tune singing, or the non-pious behaviour of fellow pilgrims. Try not to be disillusioned when conversations rarely probe anything deeper than best medications for blistered feet, gastro-intestinal difficulties, and what albergues should be avoided. Or when conversations are complete non-starters because people are attached to their cell phones, or to the hip of their common-language-sharing Camino companions.
Stop for lunch. If weather is fair, choose a spot off the trail where you won’t feel ‘on view’ by passing, other salivating, pilgrims. Choose most expedient route to get food into face – drink yogurt, dip bread into cheese, swallow tomatoes whole, and try not to count how many chocolate biscuits are consumed while contemplating the resumption of one’s walk. Think about the wine or cerveza you’re going to have at the end of the day. Face the last three hours on the trail. Continue with backpack now dangling over only one shoulder because the other has abrasions from intense chafing. Note that legs are less reliable now on descents. Try to find something beautiful in the landscape – the colour of the wheatfields, the perfect geometry in the rows of vines in a vineyard, the undulating hills of Galicia and the lanes that wind their way through the still-lifes in stone that are the quiet Spanish villages you pass – hoping that it will convince you that yes, there are places of staggering natural beauty outside of British Columbia…… But changes in scenery are gradual, seldom eliciting the gasps for air that a turn in the road might do at home.
Best Place to Stay?
And then comes time to settle for an albergue for the night. The choices are clear: parish hostel – utilitarian, worn around the edges but cheap – and two types of private hostel; one where hosts have a genuine interest in their
roles as supportive Camino hosts and the other where business rules and beds are crammed into dormitories to improve profit margins. Ultimately one chooses either the parish albergue with communal meal because they offer the warmest welcome and free wine or the privately-owned homes converted into albergues as they offer private bathrooms that lock. Once the hostel has been chosen, the astute pilgrim now asks to see the dormitories to note the number of beds in each room, the distance between them and the occupancy rate to gauge which room is habitable for the night. Also, given that pilgrims are expected to happily co-exist in stark, dark and windowless rooms, one checks that the albergue offers breathing spaces elsewhere on the property; maybe a kitchen that one can turn around in, an outside terrace with space to take the sun and dry clothes, or an adjoining bar/cafe that offers pleasant outdoor seating. Keep antennae tuned to the ambience of the place; are owners glad to see you and working within ethos of The Camino, or do they sullenly recite albergue ‘rules’ as you register, are their rates suspiciously high, are there a few euro-pinching beds clogging the corridors? How are the other pilgrims behaving – is there an air of moroseness, with people mechanically shuffling from bed to shower to phone to clothesline, having resigned themselves to yet another night of borderline living in the name of St. James? Or do smiles and ebullience reign, with areas to encourage mingling and spontaneous comaraderie? If you can feel l’esprit du chemin, take your pack off and stay!
Avoiding the Bane of the Camino!
The next decision you make is perhaps the most profoundly important of the day – you choose your bed for the night. You want a bottom bunk by a far wall, away from major thoroughfares and above all, snorers! You get better at sizing up prospective snorers – usually portly (even if slightly), older (but not always), men, often bearded (just kidding!). Unfortunately, the guesstimations can still leave you stranded by the world’s worst snorer, and, at 3:00 a.m. still groping for a music selection loud enough on your headphones to blank out the wheezing and gurgling in the bed next to you.
After the fateful decision, quickly assemble shower bag, then beat all other arriving pilgrims to last available shower. Try to place all valuables you have brought with you into the shower in a place that is not already swimming in a couple of centimetres of water. This will be difficult in the showers that are the size of phone booths. Ignore signs about not washing clothes in the bathroom and soap the day’s hiking clothes. If lucky, find a spot on the line to hang clothes with clothes pegs you’ve strategically liberated from those already on the line. Loaded with all valuables – right down to Camino guidebook – set forth to look for a suitable place for an afternoon libation. Avoid places that are all-day haunts for Spanish men, or those for whom your one euro glass of wine may be the sole revenue for the day. In Navarre, blend into environment with a sangria or a vaso de vino tinto, in Galicia, hope for a dry chair.
Think about dinner, knowing that you will have one of four choices: 1)the free tapas (bowl of olives) with your afternoon drink, 2) accepting an invitation from complete strangers to share a ‘menu de peregrino’ later that night, 3) sourcing a styrofoam bowl of noodles that can be easily heated and in a crowded hostel kitchen that night, or 4) eating tomorrow’s lunch tonight. Return to the albergue as late as possible (to avoid the constant jostle of people) and retire to bed with a bar of chocolate (ignoring signs that eating in dormitories is forbidden). Continue to read when lights go out at 9:00 p.m. because does one really need ten hours of sleep after a breezy thirty kilometre walk that day? Have headphones ready for any undetected snorers or for kitchens that continue to vibrate with lively French, Italian or Spanish voices well past a boring English person’s bedtime. Feel one’s feet throbbing in time to one’s breathing and hip muscles wince with every fitful turn. Pray for sleep undisturbed by bed bugs, for dry socks and shoes in the morning, and sun-warmed space on the trail tomorrow.