My thoughts, at the moment: My pack is heavy. I’m alone in the albergue. My forehead hurts because I was stung by a bee.
But lets go back to last night. Turns out I wasn’t alone after all; a Spanish biker showed up, then a Spanish walker, then two more Spanish bikers. The guy who walked could speak English, but otherwise I was just gesturing and smiling at the others. And I didn’t spend much time with them; I had just started cooking dinner when the first arrived, and had finished by the time the others showed up. One by one they all left to head into town to find something to eat, and I was in bed, asleep, whenever they made it back.
So I’m not counting on being alone in this albergue, it’s very possible that other bikers will show up, and maybe the guy from yesterday (who seemed quite surprised that I had walked so fast- even though yesterday didn’t feel very fast to me). And there may be others- two men just walked up, they look like pilgrims and at the very least are hikers, and I can hear them sitting outside and talking to a few villagers but it’s all in Spanish, of course, so I can’t understand a thing.
The next two days are going to have some hard hiking, but I have to say, the most difficult thing about this Camino is not being able to speak Spanish. I sort of felt that on the Norte, a bit, and that was mostly because villagers wanted to talk to me as I passed through, and it was frustrating to not be able to have a conversation. But there were always other pilgrims who spoke English so it never felt too isolating.
I actually don’t mind how isolated this Camino is, but the Spanish I really need is the kind that can communicate some basic needs. I’ve managed to understand what I need to, but it just makes things a bit complicated. Like, yesterday, the hospitalero told me that if I wanted to eat dinner in the only place that sold food in Poladura (where I am now), I’d have to call in the morning the next day to let them know I was coming.
That’s well and good, but I don’t speak the language and even if I did it wouldn’t matter, my phone doesn’t have international calling. So I strategized, and in the only town I passed through today that had any facilities, I tracked down a pay phone, and attempted to call. A woman answered, I asked if she spoke English, she said, “No.” So then I did my best to throw out enough Spanish words that might make sense… like “pilgrim”, “dinner”, “reservation”, “tonight”. She spoke back, real fast, and I didn’t understand a thing. So I just sort of repeated myself a few times and then I heard some clicking on the phone and the line cut off and I didn’t have any more change.
Unsure if I had actually communicated that I hoped to have dinner tonight, I walked around Pola de Gordon in search of a supermarket, figuring that even though I was carrying food with me, I could buy a couple more things in case I didn’t have any dinner options. I found two supermarkets, both were closed. I didn’t want to wait around until they opened- who knows when they would open- so I went into a bar that had a line of the biggest, airiest croissants I had ever seen. I asked for one to take with me, and then the man disappeared into the back for awhile. When he finally reappeared, he set down an utterly pretty package: the croissant was on a gold plate and then two cardboard arcs crisscrossed over it so that the paper wouldn’t press against the sugar on top and it was all wrapped up in brown string.
My backpack was filled to the gills; I’d had to get creative about how to string clothing off the back so that I could fit my extra water bottle inside. There was no way I was going to be able to find a spot for the croissant, so that meant that the pretty package dangled from my hand as I walked up a mountain.
The last ten kilometers of the day were stunning. I’ve now moved into the mountains and there was a stretch when I stopped about every minute to take another photo. The climb wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t awful either. I can feel how strong my legs are from all that hiking in France, but my heavy pack and the hot sun threatened to do me in. But I just took it slow and it didn’t seem to take so long to reach the top (where I had my victory croissant).
Then a not-so steep descent, and then a path that wound gently around a mountainside. Despite the heat and some soreness in my feet, I was feeling happy and energized- I stopped to take a photo and heard a buzzing around my head, and when I moved I must have hit the bee (or whatever it was), because all of a sudden he swooped down and stung me on the forehead. What a way to end the day, it felt like someone jabbed a very sharp needle straight into my head, which needless to say is not a welcome feeling.
But despite bee stings and croissants and loaded packs, I made it. The walk today was about 25 kilometers, and it was just enough. I arrived in Poladura, a small village of houses, a church, this albergue, and a small inn (which is where I hoped to find food). A tractor rolled through the streets, a black dog jumped to put his front paws on the fountain so he could take a drink, a kid rode a bike down an alley. Otherwise it was totally quiet, but the albergue door was open, so I went inside. I did my best to read all the signs, I took off my shoes and left them downstairs, then I put my things on a bed and took a shower.
The normal Camino routines, but it feels strange to do them in a place where I haven’t checked in with anyone, haven’t spoken to anyone. But before too long a woman and man showed up, with two kids on bikes. The woman was Maria, the hospitalera, and she spoke a bit of English. I realized then how relieved I was to be able to confirm things with someone, to ask about whether I could get dinner or not (she called to the inn and it turns out that I had communicated well enough that they were prepared to cook for me). She had the keys to the church and she said she has to open it once a day, because it gets so musty inside. I walked in with her- the chapels and churches along the Camino are nearly always locked, so it’s rare to be able to go inside one- and her 6-year old neice, Celia, trailed along behind me, staying close and giggling because I couldn’t speak any Spanish. I think she thought it was both the strangest thing, and the best thing ever.
I also confirmed with Maria about a sign I’d seen on the door to the albergue… that the albergue in the next town I’d planned to stop in was closed (as of today, of course, it’s having “some problems”). This is the most remote area of the San Salvador so there aren’t many villages or places to stay, but I still have two options: turn my planned 15 kilometer day (not much but it’s a very challenging 15km!) into a 30km day, or stay in a room above the bar in Pajares, the village with the closed albergue. Maria didn’t seem to have much information about it but I figure I’ll try for the room at the bar, or at least see what the situation is like. If not, then I keep walking… One way or another, and even if it’s not easy, I’m sure I’ll find a place to sleep.
In these last two days I’ve mostly just felt like I was hiking through Spain, and not on a Camino. But then there are these moments that remind me of the particular nature of the trail I’m on, that there is so much significance and history of this route. Every once in awhile I’ll pass a small altar, usually set up in the branches of a tree. There is always a bench or a chair underneath and I’ve been stopping and taking a rest, welcoming the comfort and feeling like I’ve found something special.
And then yesterday, I passed by a little pilgrim oasis. I was about 18km out of Leon and the last 10 of those kilometers had been climbing up and down an often rocky path, and whenever I was in the shade small flies would swarm around my head. I didn’t have my back up water supply yet and I was just at the point where I was trying to conserve the water I did have but wishing I weren’t because I was awfully thirsty, when the oasis appeared. It was set to the side of the trail under a small grove of trees. There was a wide picnic table, a trash can, a metal container that held a pilgrim registry and a basket full of blister-healing supplies, and- the best yet- a fountain pouring out fresh, cold water.
And today, just when I entered the last village before heading into the mountains, two men passed me. “Una peragrina!” one said to the other, sounding excited. I turned and tried to answer his questions, and soon switched to French when I realized that he knew some. “It’s a beautiful day to be in the mountains,” he said. I smiled and then he wished me a Buen Camino and my smile became wider. Every time I hear it, it’s like I have an extra charge in my steps. “Have a good way,” they’re saying, and it’s said with such genuine care that I believe it, every time.