Villambistia, like Tosantos, is a small place. Wikipedia tells me that in the 2004 census, Villambistia was listed as having a whopping 65 inhabitants.
The sign advertising Internet was misleading. Even though I sat inches from the router, I couldn’t get enough coverage to send a message home. A first-world problem, I know!
The walk from Tosantos was only 2km and I hoped to find a bed there for the night. My guide-book listed one hostel with only 14 beds. I may have wanted to stop there but there was no guarantee I’d get a bed. After all, I already decided to change my plans to stop off in Tosantos; I may have to change them again, too. Such is life on camino when you don’t book your accomodation in advance – every day is a guessing game. But considering I already walked 20+ km that day, I wanted to stop as soon as possible and get in from the blazing sun. I rested all my hopes on the 14-bed dorm and headed west.
Along the way, I happily bumped into two Canadian ladies I hadn’t seen in days. We first met in Zubiri, shared a dorm in Zabaldika, and lost track of each other until Logroño. Already, that felt like years ago and we had a lot to catch up on, so we chatted while we walked. Bumping into them was the sweetest part of my day, and I was glad of their warm company.
Out there in the middle of wide open farmland, hour after hour, all I could think of was this one term:
Let me explain.
A lifetime ago, I studied geography and learned about how the European Union reformed agriculture across its member states. Northern Spain, for instance, was known as one of the “Bread Baskets of Europe”. Wheat and corn were grown there since Roman times and more recently, the area produced huge amounts of crops – all for profit. The area was full of commercial, large-scale farms (latifundia), which were owned by wealthy landlords. As a result, the northern half of the country was wealthy and prosperous, with well-developed road networks, markets, and industry.
So far, so good.
The southern half of the country, however, was the exact opposite. Andalusia, in particular, was riddled with small farms (minifundia), on land that was poor in quality and poor economically. The farmers themselves were tenants and peasants, working to feed their families or maybe for small profit. The holdings were small, so everything was done by hand, which made it slow and inefficient compared to activities in the north. As a result, southern Spain had poorly developed road networks and markets, and no money to speak of.
It was a tale of two countries, until the EU came along with massive amounts of funding and a plan of action.
The rest is history.
When I studied all of this a lifetime ago, I found it fascinating. Geography – both physical and social – explained the world in a practical, tangible way. I liked to hike, I liked to travel – geography gave me the backstory that no guidebook ever would.
That said, the farming practices of mainland Spain were somewhat abstract. I understood the theory perfectly: I just couldn’t relate to it in my own life.
But by the time I reached Villambistia that day in September, all I could think of, over and over, was the word “latifundia”.
All I could see around me were expansive fields full of golden wheat and straw. These were fields that followed the curves and slopes of the landscape, but had no beginning or end. These fields reached all the way to the horizon – on all sides of me. I had never seen so many golden fields all at once, especially on such a scale, and without any fencing between them. There were no boundary lines or walls to mark the beginning of one or the end of the other. The only thing that separated them was the patchwork of colour – all shades of amber and ochre, as far as I could see.
Enormous tractors and straw balers roared across the landscape. The evening hummed with the sound of engines and the clanking of iron.
Though the villages were small and appeared poor, I passed countless BMWs and Mercedes cars that day. Or rather, they passed me, as they whizzed by on the roads around the village. Spanking new, gleaming in the sunshine, with tinted windows and growling engines….this was no ordinary, poor little village.
*This* was latifundia in action.
I was relieved to secure a bed in the 14-bed dorm, and delighted that the 2 Canadian women had chosen to stay there too. Otherwise, the evening might have been one of my loneliest.
The village had just one café bar, and it doubled-up as my albergue for the evening. On the ground floor, the bar consisted of Formica-topped tables and brightly-lit slot machines. Those tables were cluttered with shelled nuts, bottled beer, and ashtrays filled with cigarettes. The room was neither inviting nor charming.
The wall-mounted TV showed Saturday sport, and the small room was filled with men – most of them 60 years and upwards, in oversized cotton shirts and polyester blend pants – yelling loudly at the screen. The blackboard menu offered 3 types of sandwich to choose from, and the ones already on display were surrounded by flies. We were the only pilgrims in the village and stood out like sore thumbs, but were glad they had available beds. It saved us from having to walk further that day.
Upstairs, the dormitory extension was clean, modern, and newly built. The wooden bunk beds were probably the most sturdy on all of Camino, which meant they were quiet and comfortable. Small blessings.
The remaining 11 beds filled up over the next few hours. Each time a new pilgrim arrived, the hubbub began again.
The sounds from the shouting locals wafted upwards on the wind.
Backstage in the kitchen, pots and pans banged and clanged.
Pilgrims shouted back and forth between the bathroom, the bedroom, the washing line, the bar.
Doors banged in the crosswind,
Pockets were zipped and unzipped,
Things were knocked over, retrieved, and knocked over again.
Every new pilgrim followed the same pattern – shower, wash their clothes in the sink, eat some lunch, unpack and re-pack the bag…
It took hours for the room to settle.
I don’t mind saying it, but I ran out of there like my ass was on fire to find a quieter corner a few hours. One thing I really missed on camino was my own front door – and the boundary it creates in my life. No matter how demanding or crazy my day is, I get to go home, close the front door behind me, and keep the world at bay. That small gesture is a way of claiming some space. The front door is a dividing line between safety and storm. I love having one.
But on camino, I didn’t have a front door. I didn’t get to draw a dividing line between myself and the crowds around me. Every day, I was at the mercy of random strangers and their behaviours, as we competed for bathrooms, dormitories, washing line spaces, sandwiches, coffees, wi-fi, space, quiet, time, and energy. Of course, most of the time, my fellow-pilgrims were considerate, accommodating, and kind. But that afternoon, my new roomies banged and shouted their way around the hostel as though it were a shipyard. It pushed a few buttons.
My two new friends had gone for a walk by themselves so I was alone in a noisy hostel and an even noisier bar. I would have liked a drink but felt intimidated by the crowd downstairs. There was nothing else in the village – nothing to see, nowhere to go, and nothing to do. There were no corner shops, no amenities, no other “hub”. Even the doors of the 17th century church were locked. For miles around, there were fields of wheat and corn, but not a lot else.
I was surrounded by people but felt isolated and alone.
I was surrounded by open space but felt trapped in this nondescript village.
(You’ll be glad to know that this wasn’t a running theme for my entire camino. I’ll admit, the first two weeks or so were really intense between the crowds, noise, and the push/pull on my energy, but I did figure out a better way of being. By the time I arrived in Santiago, I was a different woman! Still, those early days were rather mixed, as I figured out my own way of walking camino and I think it’s only fair to mention it…)
I sat in dappled shade under a horse-chestnut tree, and closed my eyes. Even though I didn’t sleep, I got some rest and took some time to decompress. The sounds of farm life carried on the breeze, and my nose picked up the smells of the land. On the surface, it was a beautiful evening in autumnal Spain, and I was lucky to have it. Inwardly, I just wanted to survive the evening and get out the other side, hoping I would stay somewhere better the next day.