“Baby, sometimes you gotta laugh to keep from cryin’.”
I’ve heard my mom use this phrase my entire life and I can say without hesitation that it has saved me from myself on more than one occasion. I’m a pretty balanced and positive person but there are times when I crumble like the best of us. And while I’ve experienced much harder challenges in life than the Camino de Santiago, there were a few moments that most definitely tested my mother’s favorite saying.
I don’t think it was an accident that our first day on the Camino was amazing. The weather was mild and the walk was easy. Katie and I merrily took in our surroundings as we relaxed into our adventure. Our packs were just right, bodies felt strong, the paths were easy to follow. We stopped after 12km when we arrived at our first albergue in a town called Neda. The albergue, situated on a green lawn next to a pretty river inlet, was brand new and surprisingly void of pilgrims. I had been skeptical of staying in these pilgrim hostals as I am not a fan of dormitory-style arrangements. We couldn’t believe how nice this one was and to our delight, Katie and I had a private room for the bargain price of 6 Euro each!
We picked up some pasta and wine at a nearby grocery store and I made us a nice dinner while Katie washed our clothes. We adorned our picnic table with a bouquet of lavender and dined in the fresh cool breeze with a huge lovely sun slowly sinking on the horizon. With that same cool breeze gently rustling the drapes and a faint industrial clanging sound in the distance, we were both lulled into the sleep of babies. I’m not sure what everyone was warning me about on this pilgrimage. The Camino is awesome!
I’m sure you know where this is going.
The next day started out fine enough. In fact, the next 8-9 hours where quite pleasant. We had packed sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs in our packs before leaving the albergue so a mid-morning snack was in hand. We stumbled upon a lovely beach outside of Pontedueme around lunchtime and enjoyed the ocean air while we sipped beers and listened to 70’s classics coming from the radio behind the bar. We stopped for chocolate croissants and coffee at a cute sidewalk café. We did need our rain jackets as it was misty. But definitely not raining. Piece. Of. Cake.
Around 5pm we found ourselves in a town called Miño. There was an albergue there but it was sort of a gloomy place (especially in comparison to the albergue in Neda) and the next town was only 8km away. We decided to stop for a beer and make a decision. Note to self: do not make super important decisions on the Camino de Santiago after a couple of beers.
With fresh enthusiasm, we decided to forge ahead. I mean it’s only 8km. That’s like, 5 miles. It’s the long loop around Town Lake. We can totally cover that in under two hours and then we will be in Betanzos (way cooler town) on a Saturday night with plenty of time for a good dinner at a nice restaurant.
Now I’m not sure why we thought the terrain we were walking was anything like the flat trail around Town Lake and that the distance could be compared. What we ended up walking for the next 8km and FOUR HOURS was the equivalent of walking Stratford Drive from Zilker Park to Red Bud Trail. Twice. With backpacks. And tired feet. (Non-Austinites, consider the steepest winding road you can imagine and that’s what we tackled).
By the time we rolled into Betanzos, it was dusk (about 9pm) and I was utterly delirious. The red-hot pain that shows up in the balls of your feet had set in and every single step felt like shards of broken glass were piercing my peds. Seriously, it was hard to breathe. The one hopeful moment (that would be quickly dashed) was hearing Claptone over a PA on a party boat as we crossed the bridge into town. I had a fleeting vision of a hot shower, fine dining and maybe some good music later in the evening. Ha. Here’s what actually happened:
After winding our way up two more cruel cobblestone streets to the top of the old town (I’m sure it was cool but I was too exhausted to care), we quite literally stumbled around a plaza where the albergue was supposed to be. There were people strolling arm-in-arm, laughing as they made their way to some fabulous dinner with friends. I wanted to ask them for help or directions but the pain in my feet had paralyzed me and I dove onto the first bench I saw. An equally exhausted Katie Ford stepped up to the plate and found someone to tell us where to go. The albergue was just around the corner. “I can do this…just a few more steps.”
We tumbled into the office of the albergue (this one was in an old church and was cool, but again, too tired to care) where an old man checked us in, stamped our pilgrim passport and gave us mattress covers. He led us upstairs and into a dorm with at least 20 sets of bunk beds, most of them occupied. The lights were dim and everyone was already hunkered down.
As quietly as we could, Katie and I made our way to two open bunks and began to rummage through our packs for toiletries and clean clothes. I was promptly scolded by a mean lady for “jiggling” her bed. Gawd, I think my exact response in the bitchiest tone I could manage was, “OK, LADY.” It was at this precise moment that I panicked. I suddenly remembered reading that many church-run albergues have a curfew and lock the doors at night. I ran down the stairs to the front desk where I asked the old man what time he would be locking the doors. As the words were leaving my lips, my eyes were registering him packing up his things and putting on his jacket. “Cinco minutos,” was his response.
No! No! No! No! We haven’t eaten anything since lunch! I’m so hungry I’m shaking! This can’t be!
I dashed back up the stairs and found Katie in the hallway and quickly explained our predicament. While the last hour of the walk that evening had laid the groundwork for a meltdown, my having to explain to Katie that, “we are about to be locked inside a f**king albergue with a bunch of asshole people and we won’t be able to get any food before the f**king old man locks the f**king front door” was the tipping point.
My mind was racing. How do I piece together, “is there a regular hotel nearby?” in Spanish. The old man had now come upstairs to see what we were going to do. I was frantically trying to ask him if we can hurry and get food or if there is another place to stay. He finally understood and explained that it was 10pm on a Saturday night and he did not know if there is availability at any nearby hotels and that no, there was no time for us to leave and come back because he was going home. When the door is locked, it’s locked. You can leave, but you can’t come back in.
I looked wild-eyed at Katie and pleaded for her to make a decision. I was too bewildered to deal with this and I couldn’t string together a coherent plan to save my life. I was THAT upset.
You know, an old travel buddy and I used to have a saying that went something like, “only one of us can freak out at a time.” One person must always stay level. That night Katie was the calm one. She looked right at me and very gently explained that we have two choices. Go to bed hungry but with a hot shower and a guaranteed place to sleep or take our chances on the street, maybe having to walk for some time to find another room. I knew the smart thing to do was to stay put but my mind was fighting it. Instead of a nice dinner, perhaps some music and new friends, I was faced with a room full of snoring mean people and an empty belly.
We stayed. I came unglued. I pointed my finger at Katie and said, “I will never stay in another f**king albergue. Ever.” I cried in the shower. And then one of the nicest things happened. A sweet Italian lady had overheard our conversation and pushed her lunch pail into Katie’s hands and said, “eat.” Katie and I stood in the bathroom shoving crackers and cheese down our gullets and while it was by no means a meal, it was something. And about the most thoughtful thing anyone could have done for us.
But alas, I still had not laughed. I was pissed and I was going to hold onto that a little longer. I lay in bed that night fuming. The cacophony of snoring was unbearable. I think, no…I know I was sighing very loudly and sarcastically every time I turned over. I wanted everyone to know I was miserable. No one heard. And I doubt they would have cared.
The next morning I was still grumpy. I told Katie to go on, that I would catch up to her later. We had already decided we would walk a few days alone and I’m sure it was clear I was not going to be good company. A few hours later I was having coffee and a croissant and it dawned on me that it was 9am on a Sunday morning, that nothing was going to be open for hours and if I was going to stay here and get a hotel and relax, I likely couldn’t check in until after lunch. Oh, to heck with it. I decided to walk.
In studying the hand-drawn map we were given in Ferrol, it looked like there was a place to stay in a little town halfway between Betanzos and the next major pilgrim stop in Bruma. I figured I could handle 12 or 13km. But here’s something I learned about the Camino that day. It takes you where you are supposed to go. Not necessarily where you want to go.
About 4 or 5 hours later, I walked into a tiny village. It was utterly quiet with only a small cemetery and church flanking a modest plaza with a covered pavilion. There were a handful of farmhouses nearby but not a single person to be seen. I suppose it was siesta.
Surprisingly, I spotted a very large new modern sign with the Camino route clearly outlined. But to my extreme dismay, the “Aqui” marker put me about 3km past the town that I thought would be my half-way salvation. And meltdown #2 commenced.
No! No! No! No! No! This can’t be!
I still want to hear the voice mail I left Katie in that moment. I’m pretty sure it went something like, “holy shit, I missed a turn and now I’m past the town I wanted to stop in and I don’t know what to do and I would pay a million dollars for a taxi right now. CRAP! CRAP! CRAP! My feet are killing me and this f**king camino sucks! Call me!”
But then I did what my mom would have done. I laughed to keep from crying. I laughed at my predicament. I laughed at my aching feet. I laughed at the crummy faucet I had to get water from (amoebas be damned!). And then I did the smartest thing I would do on that walk. I put on my flip flops. Oh, sweet relief. Now, I have some nice Merrill hiking shoes that are broken-in and quite comfortable and I didn’t have blisters, but there was no getting around the searing pain in the balls of my feet. That was, until I slid those little piggies into a $10 pair of squishy soft flops from Academy.
With a spring in my step, I forged ahead and not an hour later, I stumbled upon a white tablecloth restaurant, quite literally in the middle of nowhere, with a gorgeous view of a green valley and an honest-to-goodness wine list. Adding to my immense delight, I ran into none other than Katie Awesome Ford. She had just finished lunch and had actually already left the restaurant when she doubled back to use the ladies’. Coincidence? I think not.
Katie walked on while I enjoyed a leisurely lunch. A sweet guy in another group of pilgrims called ahead and made a hotel reservation for me outside of Bruma and then I met two of the sweetest people I would encounter on this walk. Eve and Caroline from Sweden would become great friends throughout the rest of the Camino (and I’m certain forever).
I didn’t have another meltdown on the Camino and for the record, I never put those stinking Merrills on again. I walked approximately 50 miles in flip flops. Yep. And I will always try to laugh instead of crying. It works out so much better that way.
P.S. Later I did apologize to Katie for pointing my finger at her as if the albergue dilemma was her fault. I’m pretty sure I actually scared her when I did that. But, like my mom always says, “don’t cross Lisa when she’s hungry.”