Walking the Camino: The Wild Dogs of Villafranca

IMG_1141Distance walked: 29km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 194.8km

I left the small hotel in Cacabelos feeling renewed and optimistic again. The remaining journey, which had felt impossible only two days earlier, felt doable once more. The two nights of rest and good food had revived my flagging body, and meeting Marco and his Ricard had restored my faith in humanity. I had less than 200km to go and I was hopeful again about getting to Santiago in one piece.

Unlike earlier days on the camino, I walked out of Cacabelos with a new strategy for self-care. Specifically, I decided to take the ibuprofen tablets the pharmacist had suggested, and to build in more rest stops for my sore feet. I’d refused all pain relief up to that point but after a month of walking, I was sore. If I was going to continue, I had to do something different.

I didn’t want to take a bus and skip a section.

I didn’t want to stop for a week to rest.

I didn’t want to stop entirely and go home.

(Stubborn, me??!)

I wanted to walk the remaining distance but I couldn’t afford to overdo it so I had to get a lot more strict about my distances and rest stops. In retrospect, I should have worn some sort of arch support but I’ll know that for next time. 🙂

That morning, I was to pass through a town called Villafranca del Bierzo. All along the route, I’d heard about the wild /crazy /rabies-infested/ angry /wicked dogs in Villafranca. Depending on who I spoke to, the dogs were anywhere from mildly irritable to outright savage, chasing innocent pilgrims for miles along the trail. The thing is, there are two towns called Villafranca along the Camino Francés. Even though lots of people warned me about the dogs, no one seemed to know which Villafranca was the one to watch out for. I’d passed through one already: would this be the morning that I’d meet these blood-thirsty beasts?

As it happened, it wasn’t the morning for being ravaged by wild dogs – happily so, I might add! I didn’t see a single dog that morning (wild or tame) and passed through Villafranca without incident. Outside of town, I had to decide whether to take the “high road” into the mountains or to follow the “low road” along a national route. The former is more scenic but has more ups-and-downs. The latter is more flat but runs alongside a road full of cars.

Which one would I choose?

All the pilgrims around me that morning were asking the same thing. I’m sure some people asked just as a way of making conversation but others were just plain competitive. I met a lot of competitive people on camino – way more than I ever expected. I often wondered whether I imagined all these personalities, or maybe they were reflecting some sort of sensitivity in my personality. But when I met pilgrims who got competitive about the strength of my ibuprofen tablets (yes, I’m serious), I knew it wasn’t all in my imagination. There are always people who are “more” of whatever I am, (faster, fitter, more injured, whatever), so I learned to tune out a bit.

Unsurprisingly, I took the “low road”, alongside the roadway that everyone told me would be dirty, noisy, dangerous, and un-scenic. I wondered how all these people could know such a thing given they’d never walked it. As it turned out, the route suited me just fine. Yes, there were cars, and yes, I walked inside a metal barrier that would have offered very little protection if a truck went off the road and slammed into me. In that sense, it was dangerous. But crossing the road and walking along with my backpack was no more dangerous than any other day of walking in the previous month. There were plenty of small villages along the way so I had ample opportunity to stop for coffee and food, and I was happy to avail of fresh salad and cake! (And when I say “fresh”, I really mean it. The woman who made the salad pictured below actually climbed over a stone wall to retrieve the head of lettuce, so you really couldn’t get fresher!).

Mixed salad with a basket of bread: a fine feast for €5

Slate rooftop…getting closer to Galicia

The new motorway running through the Valcarce valley

The small village of Vega de Valcarce felt quieter than the previous villages along the way. It felt like a place that everyone had forgotten. The newly-built motorway transformed the Valcarce valley so that there was no passing traffic on the road any more. Even the pilgrims on foot were only passing through, and there was an unusual quietness in the hostel and in the streets. True, it was early October and the trail was getting quiet. The cooler weather meant that many pilgrims had gone home, and already I started hearing that the hostels between Santiago and Finisterre were closing down for the winter. I’d hoped to walk all the way to the coast but I hadn’t made any solid plans to do so. I needed to see if my feet would hold up the 800km to Santiago before committing to a further 100km. Even if they did, I’d need accommodation along the way. With hostels starting to close, it might not be a good time to walk that far. I decided to wait and see.

In the meantime, the hostel in Vega de Valcarce was a little rough around the edges but mostly sufficient. I got a bed without problem, the shower was mostly warm, and I bumped into a Los Angeles woman I’d met weeks earlier in Roncesvalles. We spent the evening swapping stories on our 600km along the way…and comparing notes on anti-inflammatory medications…ha ha ha! 🙂

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Kitchen & dining area in the hostel

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Yum!

 

 

 

Taking Stock and Starting Again in Cacabelos

Camino de Santiago: Would I stop walking or would I find a way to go on?

Distance walked: Almost none!

My quiet hotel room in Cacabelos was a real reprieve after the loud hostel the previous night in Ponferrada. I was glad to have stopped in the small town and even more glad to have had a private room for the night. There’s nothing like some sleep and some clean sheets to revive a flagging spirit.

The next morning, I sauntered downstairs for breakfast. Even that felt indulgent: instead of having to walk anywhere between 1 and 10km for my morning meal, I merely had to walk down two flights of stairs! The rain had cleared, the sky was bright again, and I had a decision to make: how far would I walk that day. As I sat nursing my coffee, I had to acknowledge that I still felt a heavy weariness within myself. I’d been walking for a month and my body was really feeling it. I could have pushed myself out the door and walked again but I didn’t want to. Somehow, I’d fallen into feeling the camino was something to be endured rather than enjoyed, and I wasn’t happy with that pattern. I needed to reclaim some joy and sparkle again. I also needed more sleep, some quiet time, and to figure out some sort of plan for my feet.

I inquired at the front desk about staying another night and to my surprise, the answer was no. I say, “to my surprise” because there seemed to be no one about and only 3-4 other guests having breakfast. I couldn’t imagine why they  couldn’t let me stay but they were expecting a tour group later that afternoon. They had no available room. So, feeling rather withered with the news, I went upstairs to gather my belongings and pack my bag. Half way through, there was a knock on my door. I hesitantly answered, wondering whether they were already kicking me out. The kindly man from yesterday stood there.

They’d made a mistake and turns out they could offer me a second night after all:

You can stay in this room, we can give the smaller room to the other person. Would you still like to stay?

Would I like to stay? YES please!

So, that’s how I stayed a second night in Cacabelos.

Tranquil ease at the archaeological museum

 

 

And to this day, the name of that small town is a sort of metaphor for me. When I hit that point of being over-stretched or overwhelmed, I think of Cacabelos. I think of what a tonic it was to get some extra sleep, to wander through the archaeological museum, and to eat a non-pilgrim meal for my lunch. I think of how it was to sit in the shade of a random coffee shop and invite a random pilgrim to join me, and of how she unexpectedly poured out her life story and camino lessons as though I were a long-trusted friend. I think of how much her story echoed mine and of how I was learning a lot of the same things as she. And then, when she was done with her latte, she gathered up her bag and was gone. I never saw her again and surprisingly, that was okay.

I think of how it “re-set” my well being to be quiet for a while, write in my journal, and wander around the town with no particular plan.

Shop window full of knitting wool

The tinned fish (and only fish) section of one supermarket

And I think, too, of going out for dinner by myself that second night, and of all the courage it took to approach a group of pilgrims I’d never even seen before, and ask to join them for dinner. Just think, a day earlier, I felt far too self-conscious and meek to spend time with Peter and Jeanne, yet there I was, boldly inviting myself into this group.  These Americans and Germans were new to me, and as it turned out, new to each other, but they welcomed me in with unquestioning warmth. And that evening, I remember the hearty bowl of broth, Marco’s rippling laughter, and his Dad’s kind smile while Marco translated for him all that I said. None of them knew that night that their company and kindness restored my faith in humanity again. And in myself, too.

Yes, there were self-absorbed jackasses on the camino. Chances are, someone thought was a jackass and all. Being sore and tired had made me cynical and weary, but taking time to rest in Cacabelos had turned things around again.

There was exceptional goodness.

There were genuine and generous people right at my elbow.

And with 200km to go, there was still everything to play for.

Fingers crossed!

 

 

 

 

Camino de Santiago: My Hardest Day

IMG_1108Distance walked: 11.4km

Remaining distance to Santiago: Just over 200km

My walk from Ponferrada to Cacabelos was, without doubt, the lowest point on my 800-km journey. I’m not saying that to depress you. I’m saying it because I think it’s important to be honest about both the highs and lows of walking the camino. Everyone talks about the great people, the cheap wine, and the fabulous scenery along the way. All those things are true. And people also talk about the “challenging” experience without necessarily going into details. So here are some of my details, and I want to point out that I also got through this dismal day!

When I woke up in Ponferrada on the morning of October 1st, I could hear the rain outside the window. Not just falling but thundering down outside. I twisted in my top bunk bed and peered out the window.

Pure black.

It was 7am – quite a lie-in by camino standards – and the sun hadn’t yet risen. On top of that, it had poured rain all night and the ground even sounded wet. It didn’t look good out there but I decided to go through the usual morning routine anyway. Pack up my gear, lace up my shoes, and go forth. That’s what it’s all about, right?

By the time it came to 8am, the sky was lighter in color but still a very dark grey. And still, it rained. Pummeled,  more like. Yesterday’s clothes didn’t dry out overnight and the tumble dryers were still going, still booked out. I’d never get my clothes dry on time before leaving, I’d have to carry them, wet, to the next hostel and hope to dry them there.

The hostel staff loudly banged on doors and turned on all the lights, threw open all the windows, and told us we had to leave. We all knew that we’d have to be out by 8.30am at the latest – this is normal on camino. No doubt the staff were thinking of their 3-hour turnaround time in which they’d have to clean and re-stock the hostel before the next 174 pilgrims would arrive. I don’t envy them that work. And yet, their approach and tone that morning was rather sharp, rather harsh.

I sat at the front door and peered out at the rain. The next coffee stop was 2.2km up the road – about half an hour away – and I hoped to get my breakfast there. The nearest accommodation was even further.

There was no mistake: a half hour in that and I would be absolutely soaked.

I still had one pair of dry socks left but otherwise, all my remaining dry clothes were on my person. If I walked out into that rain, they wouldn’t be dry for long.

I didn’t know what to do, but I knew this:

  1. I couldn’t stay in the hostel any longer
  2. It was too early to check into any other accommodation in town, so staying around for the day seemed untenable
  3. I didn’t want to “skip” a section by getting a taxi or a bus, like the women from Acebo were choosing to do

It didn’t seem like I had any option but to walk. At 8.30am, I heaved my extra heavy backpack on my shoulders (remember, it was full of wet clothes), and walked out the door. Instantly, the cold, wet rain pelted my face and was an omen of the day to come. I gingerly put one foot in front of the other.

The terrain between Ponferrada and Cacabelos is quite level – there are no major inclines or declines. The distance is quite short too, and ordinarily I would have comfortably walked it in three hours or less. That day, everything got on top of me. The rain was relentless all morning and in no time, I was soaked. The backpack was unbearably heavy and the ache along my shoulders and back were impossible to ignore. My feet dragged under the weight and the wet, and every step was an agony. And somehow, all of this got in on top of my heart, too. I dragged along at a record slow of 2km an hour, feeling disheartened in the extreme. I inquired about accommodation along the way but there were no beds. I had no choice but to keep going, even further into the rain. I bumped into Peter and Jeanne again but felt too weary and ashamed to stop for long.

Ashamed?

Yes. I hated to admit it but there I was, young and healthy and absolutely struggling that day. And I was also completely blind as to how to change my situation. From what I could tell, I couldn’t get a bus or taxi, and since there was no available accommodation, I had no way of stopping early or drying out my clothes. I presumed that Peter & Jeanne couldn’t help because their arrangements were different, so I didn’t really share just how defeated and hopeless I felt. I didn’t know what else to do except keep going, alone, and feeling rather miserable. I didn’t want to depress them but they saw it in me anyway and later confided that they were concerned about me that day.

Note to self: Had I told them about the wet clothes, the extra weight, and my extra sore feet, they might have been able to help me find a solution that I hadn’t considered. People can be good like that – full of helpful suggestions and kindness, if only I’d thought to share. I learned this the hard way.

The day was a slow, painful, drudge. The sunny and strong days in the Meseta felt like a lifetime ago and I was full of dread for the remaining 200km of my journey. If ever there was a time when I felt like bowing out, or felt truly doubtful of my ability to keep going, this was it. It was my most difficult day’s walking, for sure. The highlight of the day was to find, and eat, some fresh figs that grew on the side of the trail. I’d only ever had dried figs so these were a sweet, delicious novelty in my day, and a necessary distraction from the weariness.

 

I had no intention of staying in a private hotel that night but as I got closer to Cacabelos, the billboard signs for a pilgrim-friendly 3-star hotel were too tempting to refuse. The management was smart to advertise the nightly rate (€36 for a pilgrim) so that by the time I passed the third sign, I was sold on the idea. My daily budget was less than €36 so to spend a night in a private hotel, even at that price, was a splurge. And yet, something had to give.

I needed to stop. I needed to wash and dry every inch of clothing I carried with me. I needed a very hot shower, a very long sleep, and a hot, hearty meal. And, though I had refused for all 600km so far, I needed to take some sort of pain medication for my inflamed and swollen feet. No amount of stretches or ice water had resolved the persistent ache: if I were going to walk to Santiago, I was going to need some help.

But first: a quiet and clean hotel, with one of the nicest receptionists I’ve ever met. This middle aged man welcomed me with gentleness and warmth, and he told me everything would be okay. He must have seen the day’s despair and defeat on my face, and he assured me that they would take care of me there.

And that’s what they did. For the modest sum of €36, I was treated to a spacious room and a double bed with crisp, clean sheets. The bathroom was roomy, the towels were fluffy, and the soaps and shampoos were a dizzying indulgence. To top it off, they washed, dried, and pressed my laundry in a matter of hours and returned it to my door with a gentle knock before walking away. No drama. No demands. Just clean, dry (dry!) clothes that were a relief to behold.

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So, stopping off in that hotel was one of the smartest decisions I made in all 800km. It allowed me the chance to rest, to recover, and to get clean and dry. More importantly, it allowed me to gather my spirits for the final leg of the journey.

600km down, 200 to go!

Walking the highs and lows from Acebo to Ponferrada

Distance walked: 19.5km

Descent: Approx. 600m

My night in Acebo passed off uneventfully. Up there, some 1,110m above sea level, the air was crisp and damp, and I burrowed into my sleeping bag to keep warm. I was glad to have the loan of an extra wool blanket. It never occurred to me that the blanket might have had mites or tics from the previous pilgrim(s) so in retrospect, I was also glad that it had no hidden surprises!

I’ll admit, my memory of the day’s terrain is a little hazy. Some of that is due to the passing of time. Some of that is because I was trying to stay warm on a rocky descent into a cold landscape. This meant I looked down at my feet more so than at the sky and horizon. But separately, most of the haziness is because I happened upon Peter and Jeanne from the U.K., and I fell into happy conversation and step with them.

We had mutual Camino friends in common – people we’d met only days and weeks before – and we’d heard lots about each other. Most of it was good 😉

After the previous evening in Acebo, and the hypocrisy of pilgrims who said one thing and did another, I was feeling a bit disillusioned with the Camino and humanity.

Again.

This wasn’t the first time: I’d been upset by the pilgrims who’d left pools of water on the bathroom floors, and the pilgrims who’d shouted loud English at restaurant waiting staff. I had expected my fellow pilgrims to behave better but I was upsetting myself in the process. So, I asked Peter for his advice.

Peter had walked the first half of the Camino Francés some twenty years earlier. He confirmed what everyone else said: things had changed. Yes, there were more (and better) facilities now. The coffee stops were closer together. The navigation was much easier. And there were a lot more people – not all of them sensitive to the landscape or culture in which they walked. I felt relieved and heartened to hear him confirm all of this. Without realizing it, I had nursed a certain vision of what the Camino looked and felt like, all based on:

  1. Reports from friends, some 10-15 years earlier
  2. The many photos I’d seen of solitary pilgrims in wide open landscapes, looking entirely at ease
  3. The fact that I was walking in the off-season of September and October

*My* experience of the camino was often at odds to what I thought it would be, or should be. I found it immensely difficult to feel open-hearted and generous when there were so many jackasses about.

And yet, Peter gently pointed out that unless I spoke up at the time, there was no way of changing the events, people, or outcome of the previous evening. He was right. And since I had no way of going back in time and doing things differently, I’d have to just let it go.

His words were a balm on my agitated heart!

Quite literally, I felt the stress and tension melt away, and I felt an inner lightness again. I stopped getting so wound up about these strangers and found a way to continue on with renewed optimism. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I continue to lean on Peter’s words and wisdom to this day.

Meeting Peter & Jeanne, and sharing conversation with them was the absolute highlight. Their animated and gracious company made the walking easier and the time go faster. Later, Peter kindly treated me to coffee just the way I like it, which was a second highlight. In almost a month of walking, I hadn’t been able to convey to anyone just how I wanted my coffee so for him to breeze in with his superior language skills and make it look so easy – well, what a joy! We ate cake, took photos with friends, and eventually parted ways. I wanted to walk on to Ponferrada, so I waved them goodbye and hoped to meet them again.

By the time I arrived in Ponferrada late in the afternoon, it had already been raining for hours. The sky was heavy with even more rain, and it looked like a grim evening for the laundry. My shoes and socks were soaked through. My rain gear was wet and even my sweater and t-shirt underneath were soaked in patches. It wasn’t a good way to end the day but I was glad to get a bed in the hostel. At least it wasn’t all full up.

The hostel slept 174 pilgrims, most of them dripping wet. The queue for the shower was more than an hour long….and unsuprisingly, there were pools of water all over the floor! After, I queued to use a tumble dryer for my clothes but after 90 minutes, I gave up. They were “booked” for another three hours and I didn’t have the energy to stay up all night waiting for them. I hung my clothes on an indoor clothes line and went to bed feeling achy and cold. And just to top it off, I ended up sharing my small dormitory with some of the same personalities I’d seen in Acebo the previous evening. What luck!

Would I “speak up” at this late stage or would I keep to myself? I didn’t know what to do but decided to try and get an early night of it: hopefully the weather would be better in the morning and I could start afresh.