Tuesday, June 22, 2010


I slept like shit that night in Barbadelo. I was on the top bunk and my lower bunk mate was a skinny old spainard with a snoring problem. His skin was translucent gray from smoking and his jumbled teeth were yellow. When he choked on himself in the middle of the night, the coughing that followed wafted an ashtray smell up from below. I hated this fucker. When his snoring would get intense I started rocking my bunk violently like it was a canoe I wanted to capsize. This worked half of the time.

We set out around 7a after Ellen attended to her blisters, draining and dressing them. We climbed the hill to the restaurant where we ate that night and were told to come back for breakfast, however the door was shut and a scruffy german shepard lay on the steps. We continued with empty stomachs; there were no provisions to buy the day before in Barbadello. We walked about 5 or 6k before finding a cafe for breakfast. This was the 100K mark and things started getting crazy. There was a tour bus that dropped off about 40 pre-teens, and spainards with tiny backpacks started showing up.

The pilgrimage is part of a catholic tradition where upon successful completion of the journey you receive a compstella in Santiago. This is a 'get out of jail free' card allowing catholics to skip purgatory when they die. In order to get the compestella you have to walk the last 100K of the Camino de Santiago. Many people time it so they end up in Santiago on Sunday for church. We were on schedule to get there Friday for 12pm mass.

The new pilgrims are easy to spot. They wear common clothes, carry small sacks like the ones that come with nike shoes, and are more impressed with what has become mundane to us. The new pilgrims take photos of everything, including themselves. They are loud and look very clean. The trail feels very crowded like a long line at a store that happens to be moving at a brisk walking pace. There is an urgency with these shoppers, anxious if it were black friday. They seem like sellouts to us, and their camino ettiquette is sloppy. The trail has more wrappers and trash on it, the yelling and loud conversations are impossible to block out. This is snoring of daytime.

At one point the trail became very muddy and only stepping stones were a safe bet. This was the first time i wasn't able to walk at my own pace. The sloppy section created a traffic jam of careful new pilgrims in clean shoes. I just wanted to pass them all. Eventually the trail quieted as we out-walked the new pilgrims, who stop after 15k to stay on schedule for Sunday.

That night we stayed at a municipal hostel. There were only 28 beds, and we were worried it would be full given this new trail condition. We were relieved to find available beds and learn that they had been turning away the 'camino-lites' to give preference to the pilgrims who actually carried weight and had been walking since France.

The next day we found the trail quiet for the first hour or so, and then it picked up again. Ellen and I came to a section of trail that was flooded from the rain last week. There was a giant group of new pilgrims jammed up at the water, however they were attempting to go around it. It looked like a herd of cattle stomping a new trail through brush and over a stacked stone wall. Ellen and I approached the water and discovered an easy path of stepping stones spaced every couple feet. We carefully hopped through. We couldn't understand why they were going around. On the other side we passed a herd of people waiting for the rest of the group. Holy shit! These were special pilgrims, mostly downs syndrome kids / adults. The helpers were carefully coaxing them along the new path they had created. It looked dicey. We threaded our way through and kept a steady pace to ahead of this group. In front of us was a group a loud spainards. We figured they were drunk the way they carried on. Their pace was fast, but Ellen and I were determined to pass them. One man in particular kept hanging back and would almost begin to urniate as we approached. Once we came into sight he took off again. This was the loudest one, the guy we thought was a drunkard. After a few more attempts we finally got by he and the rest of his group, and realized they were part of the special pilgrim crew. We made it to Melide and checked into to a provisional hostel.

The regular municipal hostel was currently being renovated. They relocated all the beds to a makeshift hostel inside a giant warehouse expo center, the cobo hall of Melide. It seemed okay, so we checked in. That night turned out to be the worst hostel experience yet. The day packers were there and it was party time for them. They drank and smoked in a far corner of the giant air hangar-like space, chanting soccer fight songs, yelling, clapping, and laughing. At 10:30p they were still going strong but we figured it would cut out as all hostels have quiet time at 10:30p, but our hospitaleros were gone, it was a free-for-all. The giant space echoed their party chatter into the partioned area of bunks. We had walls but no ceilings. I tried listening to music in hopes of falling asleep, but by 12p it was no use. I was disappointed at the other spainards who passively stayed in their bunks during all the partying. It was obvious they could not sleep either. If I could speak the language I would have tried to intervene, but as a foreigner I was at their mercy. There were many shhhing noises but the group of twenty crazy spainards kept going until they quit at 1:30a. Ellen and I had our alarm set for 5:15a to get an early start on our 33k walk the next day. Damn them.

I thought of all the awful things I could do in the morning to sabotage these fuckers. I could shake their beds violently, splash water on them, and pour my liquid laundry detergent all over their packs. Maybe I would just hide their packs in the dumpster outside. But by the time 5:15a came around I didn't care anymore and just wanted to get the hell out of there.

It was dark when we started walking. We continued for about 7K until we found the first open coffee shop. We kept walking, making it to Arca by 2p. We checked into the municipal hostel again, but this one seemed more supervised. We were in a little nook with 4 bunks. The bathrooms were co-ed and the shower stalls didn't have curtains, so it was anyone's guess as to whom would be surprised. Ellen and I both showered without any strange encounters.

In Arca we caught up with many of our original camino friends who gained a day on us back in Astorga when the students took a day off. We still had 20K to Santiago and hoped that we would find more people there. We were avoiding the giant hostel of 400 beds just outside of Santiago, but figured many of our long lost friends would have stopped there instead of Arca.

Ellen wanted to get into Santiago early to take care of the housing arrangements for the students. We also needed to get our compestellas and make it to 12p mass. We calculated the distance and our pace and figured that we had to wake up at 4a.

We started walking at 4:45a after eating our breakfast provisions. We found our way through arca with the yellow glow of street lamps, and then the trail veered into the woods where we used our headlamps. Two of Ellen's students, Cathy and Courtney, were twenty minutes behind us. I wanted to hide in the woods and wait for them to get close and then start making strange snorking and grunting noises along with some twig-snapping. The woods were freaky, and that was the most frightening thing I could imagine hearing in total darkness. If they started running, then I would take off running too, amplifing the snorking / grunting. I kept walking instead but kept laughing just thinking about it.

We made it to Santiago with plenty of time to spare and found the Pilgrim office and got in line. It moved quickly and I was at the counter within 15 minutes. I had to fill out a few boxes on a sign-in sheet. There was a section that asked why I did the pilgrimage and I could check: religous or no religous. I put an X in the no religious box. The lady took my pilgrim passport and looked up at me. "You checked no religious" she said.
"I have to tell you that you will get a different certificate. Once I write this I cannot change this, do you understand?"
"Does the other certificate look different?"
"It shouldn't be a decision about aesthetics"
I peered over the counter and saw two piles of certificates on the desk. The no religious certificate was plain looking with less frills than the religious certificate.
"Hmmm, that one looks better". I said. I looked around the room to consult with Ellen who warned me of this, but I wasn't expecting the pressure of the decision. I thought they would just give me the no religious certificate. The other one was clearly the obvious choice, but I felt like a cheat. "I'll just take the no religious one, and if I want the other certificate I'll do the walk again." The lady looked at me flatly and didn't get the humor.

I watched her write my name in fancy caligraphy on the boring certificate. I walked out with a small poster tube that housed the 8.5 x 11 piece of paper. We checked our backpacks at luggage check stand a few doors down. They put our bags through an airport security x-ray machine, and without looking at the monitor took our 2 euros and carried our packs away. We wound our way through the city looking for the two hotels where Ellen had reservations for the students. The people at the front desks seemed confused that she was checking in but didn't want the key, and just wanted to pay and leave. "Ummm my amigos..." arms flailing "come here, peregrinos..." pointing to herself "teacher, my students..."

They finally got it, but the biggest mix up came at the next hotel where there was supposed to be three single rooms. The students decided amongst themselves who would get the singles and who get the doubles in the other hotel. Cathy and Courtney volunteered for one of the doubles, then Zack and Sam (the recently formed camino couple). Three other students were quick to take the singles, as it was said to be the ideal scenario. The rest of the students were mixed in doubles. Ellen and I showed up to the hotel and discovered that the three private rooms was actually one private triple. Oh shit. This will be great. There was some bickering when the students showed up, but it was only for one night.

We hurried back into the center of the city to the cathedral, which is a giant building covered in bright orange lichen and growing weeds from the lintels. I liked seeing an enormous, dirty cathedral after experiencing the immaculate cathedral in Burgos. We found seats with views of the giant incense burner that hung from a rope connected to a winch at the top of the dome in the center of the church. We were early, but this was a smart move because the cathedral was packed by noon, standing room only. Mass started promptly at 12p with a nun singing prayers that the audience responded to in a monotone song. There was lots of sitting and then standing and then sitting again. People repeatedly drew an upside down cross over their chests, but I just stood there unsure of the actual move. Ellen told me this mass was a very big deal because there was a cardinal there. When a cardinal gives mass he has other priests as helpers instead of alter boys. These preists were cloaked in bright red robes like kings, and they walked in form up to the alter. One of the red-robed men was 'Ultreia' the 82 year-old white bearded brazilian man. "Holy shit, it's Ultreia'" I whispered into Ellen's ear. "He's a priest!" Ellen whispered back. We were both shocked. We thought he was just some crazy old dude. We later learned that this was his seventh camino. We were blown away.

....to be continued.

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