There has been a string of good hostels over the past few days, which can spoil you. The first was in Villar de Mazariffe. It was a private Albergue run by a father and a daughter in a newer building on the edge of town. It was essentially a ranch-style house with a walkout basement. The house was set back from the street with a nice green lawn in the front. Ellen's students sunbathed in the plastic lawn chairs making it look like some weird frat house in the middle of a Spanish town.
The highlight of this place was the peregrino meal they served for 8 euro. Downstairs they had a commercial kitchen and a large dinning room. The father cooked. He had a rough face with grey stubble, and a long grey pony tail braided into a thin rat tail. They served a vegetarian meal, which is a happy thing after all the strange meats we encounter. The meal started with a fresh salad, then it was a pureed onion soup, and paella for dinner, followed by flan for desert. The meal was awesome. Then, a french pilgrim busted out a wooden recoder (I called it a flute, but was corrected) and started making hobbit music, and proceeded to sing. This must have fired up the old man in the kitchen because he brought out a bottle wrapped in rope with clear liquid inside. He began setting up a table with a bunch of small glasses. He poured the liquid in a bowl along with 5 coffee beans, a lemon rind, and two heaping laddles of sugar, and then lit it on fire. He laddled the flaming liquid up and down, raising it high above the bowl while reading a hand written prayer on a piece of crumpled paper. I´m not sure what the translation for this cocktail is, other than the italian name: grappa. After the prayer, in one puff, he blew out the flaming bowl and poured us shots. It had a stinging smell and it tasted like sweet sugary moonshine. We all went back for seconds.
Last night Ellen and I stayed at an English (as in British) hostel in Rabanal, which is a tiny, one-road town. The hostel was in a recently converted barn, which is far from the barns we think of the US, and more of a large stone house. It had a secluded courtyard with stacked stone walls and a garden. It had rained the whole day from Astorga. Our feet were soaked when we got there and it was cold out, about 48 degrees. The British people that run the hostel serve english tea and biscuits (round crackers) at 5p. In this small room the pilgrims gather at a large table across from a fireplace that was raging. The chimney continued upstairs in our room where it gave off warm, dry heat. It was perfect on a cold, wet day. The hostel was donation-only, which included a breakfast in the morning of coffee, bread and jam. Ellen and I each gave 5 euros.
The hostel rotates volunteers on two week shifts to run the place. Not everyone was a brit, you just have to be a member of an english confroternity, or something like that. There was one volunteer who stood out. His name was Chard, as in Richard. I guess he didn't like the alternative. He was from San Franciso. Chard was kind of chubby, in the way that partying through college and into your thirties does to you. He had blond hair and tan california skin. Chard was a bartender. He could lock you into a conversation in passing, making quick one liner comments that would cause him to erupt in laughter. His laugh was like an on-off switch. There was no variation, like something that was kind of funny versus something that was tears-in-the-eye-funny. Chard always laughed at full tilt, and his face made the same curdled expression each time.
Chard liked us. We got to talking about burning man, which really fired him up. He had only been once before and planned on going this year, but he said his plans could change. Chard had met a pilgrim girl a few days before and they had big plans to spend a week together in Santiago. Chard said that anything could happen, and this just might affect his burning man plans. He insisted that we write down his email address and the name of his friends theme camp.
The next morning, after the english breakfast, Chard gave us a big hug and thanked us for stopping in. He was a good guy.
Ellen and I continued to the next town through a steady cold rain, and could only think about how great another fireplace would be. This was our day off, it was only a 6K day. We showed up in Foncebadu at 9:30a, too early to properly check into the hostel, but they let us pay and leave our bags. We had to wait until noon for beds. Ellen got a bad vibe from the place. I thought it was fine. We walked another 4K without packs to a cross where pilgrims deposit rocks from there hometown. This was a giant heap of rocks with all sorts of things taped and stapled to the pole that stuck out. It looked like a big grave. The rain started getting heavy and we hurried back to the hostel.
We found a bunk, and discovered some mold in the corners of the ceiling and walls. This is not that uncommon. These structures don't have much in the way of insulation, and temperature changes cause condensation to build up. The hostel had only one shower and toilet on our floor, making Ellen even more remorseful. Once we had settled in and upacked our bags we walked down the street to the restaurant and ordered garlic soup to warm up. The restaurant was also a private hostel and Ellen decided to send her students text messages directing them here. She thought this place was better. Her students rolled in, filling the remaining beds. We loitered here for awhile, and just like the internet computers that need to be fed, we ordered more food every hour to maintain our customer status -an ice cream bar, another coke, then two cafe con leches.
Ellen went back to the hostel to take a nap and I followed about 45 minutes later. I woke up to the sound of a noisy german looking for a bed. I was sleeping on the bottom bunk and Ellen was up top. I could hear another woman saying that she thought that the bed was taken. I pulled my sleeping bag off my face and joined in on the conversation. I pointed up at the bed "It's taken. My girlfriend is sleeping up there." The german chimed back "They said there is one bed left."
I looked up at the lady who was napping on the next bunk over. "There was a girl here ten minutes ago gathering her things, but I think that is her bed". I got up and looked at Ellen's bed, it was empty, her stuff was gone. I figured she relocated to the top floor because of the mold. "Okay" I said to the german "It's all yours". He derobed and clamored up there, commenting how hot it was today. I didn't get the humor, and couldn't tell if he was sweaty or rain-soaked. I didn't like my new neighbor.
I sat back down on my bed and started collecting my thoughts. I noticed a note that Ellen had left for me. It explained that she got a bad feeling about this place and decided to change hostels. There was a parish hostel 100 yards away that was donation-only. They had a fireplace and served a free dinner. I turned to the lady and said "My girlfriend left me a note. She switched hostels." as I waived the piece of paper in the air. Then I felt strangely awkward because the lady probably thought my girlfriend had just abandoned me, which was true to some extent, but not in a permanent way, just for the night. "She didn't like this place, she got a bad feeling" I said in an attempt to restore my dignity. "She thinks the parish hostel is better" In a soft voice the lady turned to me "But all of the other hostels are full." I didn't have an answer.
I put on my rain pants and went downstairs to the common area. It was busy with pilgrims and I decided to go back to the restaurant. I could order a coke or something. Ellen would be there at 5p to meet with students and I could get the full story then. The rain had stopped and only fog remained. I decided to switch directions and head to the parish. Maybe they would let me in. I peered into the church area and saw Ellen's stuff on a lone mattress on the floor. They had put her in here as overflow (very typical if a hostel is full) Inside she was with Courtney and Cathy (two of her students) in front of the fireplace. I told them about the german and my break up letter. They encouraged me to move hostels, but I felt planted; my sleeping bag was out, my bag was unpacked, and besides I had already paid for the pilgrim meal that night.
"Come on this place is better. They already gave us rice and vegetables" Courtney pleaded.