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The Camino Journal

Chapter 7: June 24, 2004

IT WAS ALL GOING SO WELL UNTIL...

Let’s see now... where did I leave off? I believe I left you in Villafranca, where we were staying at the refugio of a man called Jato. It was a very funky place, and crammed full of folks of every nationality.

Among them, there were several Japanese pilgrims. Akihiro was a young guy who had the air of a floppy eared dog ­ long curly hair, all gangly limbs and a big smile. Well, Elena saw his feet, and they were the very worst we had seen on the Camino. She worked on him for quite a while to fix him up ­ the remarkable thing was that he was covering basically the same distance as us ­ we saw him numerous times over the next days ­ but he must have been in incredible pain the whole time. Who knows what drove him on to walk. At this point, he is ahead of us ­ we are sure he has made Santiago already.

Along the way Elena was able to care for his feet several more times to fix him up. The other unusual Japanese pilgrim we met was Lika, who was doing the pilgrimage for the 4th time. She was like a small puppet, all dressed in pink, with little floral gloves. She had a voice straight out of a cartoon ­ the highest squeakiest little voice. Someone said she weighed 33kg, but she was carrying an 11kg pack. She would discretely disappear behind a bush on occasions and smoke about a cm of a cigarette before she threw it away. She was utterly fascinating. At Jato’s place that night, Jato performed a Queimada, a ritual involving copious amounts of burning alcohol, and strange incantations wishing well to pilgrims, and poking fun at them at the same time. By the failing light, I played my fiddle to accompany the Queimada. At Jato’s place, as at Foncebandon a little earlier, we started meeting more folks ­ our new Camino family. There was a much wider spread in ages and nationalities than there had been in France.

After Villafranca, there were a couple of mountains to cross before we got into Galicia. Mountains. HA! I laugh out loud at those puny hills! Actually, this was when we felt our good form from walking so much. Big hills were simply not an issue any more. It was great to charge up a hill, enjoy a fantastic vista, fresh air, sheep and cows with bells walking up the road, the smell of flowering herbs and broom. Often walking those hills, there was a smell of beeswax from the combinations of flowers we encountered. The second of the big hills, up to O Cebreiro, did tire me out somewhat. Coming down from the hill, there was a lot of tarmac (the enemy of hikers) and the sun was getting hot. It was a longish stage for us. At a certain point, a little old lady came running out into our path with a plate of crepes. “I make these for the pilgrims” she said. “Please take some!” We did, and were about to thank her and continue on our way when she said, “This is by donation ­ any amount will do...” The sly fox had let us eat the crepes and then wanted us to pay. Elena did pay, but Peter and Diane had not seen this, so the lady tried to hit them up for money a second time. Later on, we found out she had gotten into trouble with the police over this. She had a little Bunsen burner in the barn and was running quite the racket! That night we stayed in a tiny hamlet called Biduedo, in a fabulous farm B&B that had been suggested to us by another hospitalero (old pilgrim running a refugio). We were fed fresh white cheese, and a mountain of steak, which we could not even finish! How about that!

The next day was my birthday, and it started off with a spectacular sunrise over the hills. We were walking down into a town called Sarria (like Sarnia, only prettier), and the path down snaked through forest groves of giant chestnut trees, past quaint hamlets and alongside rivers ­ the beauty reminded us of the Camino in France. At a lunch stop, we ran into Martin, whom we had met before in Villafranca. He bought a birthday round of Ribiera wine, and then we set off for the final stretch to Sarria. And then...

And then, just like that, I fell. I went all that way through France, up and down mountains of mud, over the most treacherous trails, and now, walking along a straight dry road, I tripped over a pebble the size of a walnut. The weight of my pack threw me forward, and I fell down hard on the gravel. After the initial adrenaline rush, I brushed myself off, and checked various moving parts. Wrist and arm -ok...so I could still play. Knee - a bit bruised, but hopefully that would pass. Ankle - quite sore. I had twisted it, and it did feel uncomfortable. I finished the walk into Sarria without apparent ill effects, and we checked into a very new and clean refugio. Siesta, and then, seafood tapas for dinner, with an emphasis on octopus and squid. Very delicious - much better than the pig’s ears!

The next day, we got an early start and headed for Portomarin. We arrived early, and waited for about three hours for the refugio to open. You leave your packs in the line against the wall... by just before opening time (1 PM) the line stretched all the way around the corner and up the street!

What a mad scramble for beds when the place finally opened!! But we got decent beds. Later that afternoon I even got the chance to play in the very large and fortress-like church in town. The sound was quite spectacular in that church, but was slightly compromised by the swallow which had flown in that morning and was making distressed sounds throughout my playing.

In the middle of the night, I had to go to the washroom. I left the sleeping dorm, and got the shock of my life when I saw about a dozen people packing up to get an early start. It was 4:30am. Apparently, the first ones had left at about 2am with headlamps to get to the next refugio and be first in line. I am sure they saw a lot of the Camino, walking in the middle of the night like that! There was nothing to do but get started ourselves. We were on the road by about 5:20 AM, in the pitch black dark before dawn. After a few hours of walking, my foot started to really hurt. It was the ankle that I had twisted. It got progressively worse, and I was convinced by my travelling companions to call it a day after about 15 km. Elena found ice for my foot, and started to negotiate early access for me to the small refugio, when our Japanese friend Akihiro and his friend Norio came limping up. Norio had developed tendonitis in his shin. We did get into the refugio early, and had a rest day.

The next day ­ rain, and pain, in Spain! The only thing missing was the plain, which would have been a welcome sight, because Galicia is all up and down. Walking was becoming more difficult. At this point there were maybe 75 km to go to Santiago. And they proved to be the toughest of the whole trip. At night ­ ice, anti-inflammatories, and lots of rest. By day, pain that made every kilometer a victory. I would have good spells, and then really bad spells. I will spare you the gory details, but we have kept slugging on. I say we, though the rest of the gang spend a lot of time waiting for hobblin’ Oli...

The next day had me limping along slowly and stubbornly. We met an American doctor and her husband on their honeymoon with two Canadian nurse friends. She did acupuncture on my sore foot at one point. There we were sitting in a café in the middle of nowhere, me with 3 needles sticking out of my foot. Ya do what ya gotta do! I think it did help. That night we arrived in Santa Irene. I had a good feeling about the place because Irene is my Mother’s name. Also, the previous night, we had met some Spaniards who had the phone number of a private refugio in Sta. Irene, one that could be booked ahead. This is not common in Spain, but times are changing. So we arrived in Sta Irene, and found a lovely refugio, one of the best we had had in Spain. There were sheets on the bed, towels, and they did laundry for a very little sum. And to top it off, we remet Marie and Josephine, two Camino friends we thought had passed us long ago. So there was much rejoicing. After we cleaned up and had a snack, we decided to go to try to play in the tiny chapel that was only a hundred yards away (for me, half an hours walk!) Apparently, the man next door had the key. Elena talked to him, and he didn’t really want to be bothered with the whole thing. He finally relented, but said “OK, he can play, but only for half an hour. I have work to do, not like some people around here!” Then he was surprised to see a whole group of us, for it seemed that everybody in the refugio had come along to hear the music. One Spanish fellow, Jose, chatted the old man up, and convinced him we were honest and trustworthy. Reluctantly, the old man let us in, and then began noisily cleaning the church. He was soon joined by two very chatty local church ladies, and the three of them began talking loudly to each other, about five feet from where I was trying to play something ´sensitive´. It was quite ridiculous. I could not exactly ask them to shut up, because it was their church. But they did not ‘get’ music in the slightest degree. For them it was an occasion to be social. Jose jumped in to the rescue, and went up and said some magic words to them, upon which they shut up and sat down and were very attentive, if sulky. At a certain point, another local came in with a camera, and one of the church ladies jumped up and began preening in front of the altar, so that she could look good for the picture. But she was quiet! It was all quite surreal. It turns out that Jose had said to the three: “Listen, have some respect, he is playing religious music!” It worked. They were finally quiet, but not because they figured it out themselves. Someone had to tell them.

The next day was absolutely pathetic for walking. I was so rusty in the morning. I thought it would take me three weeks to do the 20 km we had to cover that day. But finally I got into the swing. Things got better. Things got worse. They got better again. I made the most of it. The end bit was the hardest. (Usually is!) Had a brutal time getting past the Santiago airport at Lavacolla, which basically means ‘wash your privates’. In the old days, that might have been the very first place pilgrims washed on the entire pilgrimage. Apparently, Christians used to laugh at Jews and Muslims because they washed so much! I hate to think of the stench. I myself am bad enough after one day. In any case, our book had said that this last stretch was 6 km, but it turns out it was more like 10 km. It seems that there is this funny thing a lot of the time with the last 4 km – they just do not finish. I was labouring up a hill, and a Costa Rican woman behind be began to sing a beautiful Spanish song. It actually lifted my feet and helped me make it. Now we are in Monte del Gozo, a large refugio a mere 5 km from Santiago. It looks like a university campus built in around 1978 – soul-suckingly bleak, a huge pilgrim factory with 800 beds, but we knew that it would be like that. It’s hard to believe that we are only 5km away from the end of our 1,000 trip. I cannot believe I made the last few, that is for sure.

The landscape here in Galicia is totally different from the previous heat. It is basically the Spanish equivalent of BC ­ temperate rain forest, intensely moist with fragrant groves of towering eucalyptus trees that actually ooze foamy sap and oils. The air constantly smells of it, especially when it rains, which is almost always. The Basques have a word for this finest kind of mist that penetrates everything ­ xiri miri (sheery meery). Tomorrow ­ Santiago. I will say more of my perceptions of the human and spiritual side of the last few kilometers. But until then, I have to run. (well, ok... Hop) The ice on my leg is melting, and the word is that there is a doctor here who has special painkillers. Got to hobble!

ULTREIA!

Oliver