When I finally arrived in the late afternoon in Palas de Rei, the albergue was full and I was lucky to find a room in a pension. Francine and Miguel from France were not so fortunate; they had to continue for another six and more kilometres to the next hostel.
I had badly neglected my diary in the previous few days. On arrival at albergues I was too tired to put any thoughts on paper, and the longer distances I had to walk on most days now affected me. It was not that I was choosing to walk these longer stretches: albergues in this region were often around fifteen kilometres apart and I was too fit for such a short distance. Also, I wanted to meet Uta on the 26th in Santiago, which dictated my pace as well. Many other pilgrims were just as tired as I was, but Santiago was nearing and this kept us going. Climbing 650 m uphill to O Cebreiro and then continuing at a superfast pace to Triacastela had obviously been foolish, but that’s how you learn: on my next Camino I will know better. While walking, the motion, maybe also the good spirit, pushes one along, although there comes a time when one does walk like a zombie rather than a light-hearted pilgrim.
Since Sarria a completely new phenomenon had developed. When I passed a large car park at the outskirts of town, busloads of ‘pilgrims’ joined the Camino. Often they were in groups. Jolly, excited and touristy they chatted away – and one even played a radio! The stream of people, often only with a daypack on their back, was such that even having a quiet pee became a challenge.
The lonesome days appeared to be over, but the worst was that albergues from now on were bound to be full. Hundreds of new pilgrims had joined in and on two occasions I had to find alternate accommodation. Nevertheless, apart from having to search for a bed when tired, the occasional change had also advantages; no snoring, no whispering and no early awakening by the sounds when backpacks are handled. They were caused by zips frequently opening and closing, plastic bags crackling, headlights flashing, etc.
The intense backpack ‘music’ is something a poet could write long chapters and verses about. The rucksack material, when handled, sounds like a viola; depending on the size of zips forever being opened and closed, they can be compared to flutes, clarinets or oboes and the really big ones sound like bassoons. Plastic bags create the sounds of tambourines or they can be likened to trumpet blasts if handled vigorously. If in company, communicating through whispering might sound like violins, or cellos and these are just the differing sounds of handling one rucksack: now imagine many backpacks in the morning and you will know how this orchestra sounds!
Most pilgrims, acutely aware not to disturb, try to be as quiet as possible, although often with limited success. Talking in a whisper, for instance, meant to be muted, can be more intrusive than talking softly. Misunderstandings are more likely to occur, requiring repeating – which adds to the disturbance. Whispering, especially at a higher pitch, can also be more irritating to the ear. But what I missed most when alone is the camaraderie, the chit-chat and the possibility of a communal meal. Nevertheless, in Palas de Rei I did enjoy the peaceful sleep – and I had no need to hide my bug marks!
The next day I arrived in Ribadiso – not even a village, just an old farmhouse next to the río Iso with a medieval-looking bridge bordering one side of the property. The sleeping quarters were converted old barns, built from rocks. They were surrounded by meadows where about twelve cows grazed peacefully. There was no fence in any direction.
After the obligatory midday snooze I sat with my water bottle and some biscuits bought the previous day, at some distance from all activities and next to the riverbank. While attempting to catch up on my writing I could hear a cow behind me. She was making whish – whush noises when ripping grass with her tongue and simultaneously blowing the dust from her meal through her nostrils. She was only about a metre away and from where I sat with legs sloping down the embankment, the head of the cow at such close proximity looked enormous: the beast was intimidating and in comparison I felt insignificant. From time to time we looked into each other’s eyes, just to communicate that we did not mean any harm.
It appears that I have been away from Europe for too long. There was a small green plant next to me and, in moving about, my calves brushed against it. It was a nettle and now I had the burning sensation and sting marks which I remember well from Boy Scout days in my teens. And then I was suddenly stung on my elbow by a plant behind me – I needed to be more vigilant.
During the last few days the countryside was exceptionally beautiful: fairly hilly – which adds to the workout – and lush green fields sprinkled with herds of cows and with trees often shading the path. Here also, as earlier in Galicia, the meadows were surrounded by dry-stack rock walls which bordered most of our way. Rocks were also used to build farm sheds but slate roofs of previous villages had given way to the half-round ‘monk and nun’ clay tiles, with a half-round tile facing up and the other down.
The previous day, when I was descending a village lane, a herd of cows came home from the fields. I was surrounded by them as they stomped slowly up the hill, quite placid with their heads nodding and slightly swaying from side to side. From so close, almost brushing up against me, they appeared massive and I would not like to meet an angry bull in such intimate proximity. The cows gazed at me with their big eyes, asking why I was in their way and why I parted their stream and forced them to step around me. Those coming up this road were all light brown with white patches, but in the fields I also saw many with black and white markings, just like the ones I encountered at the riverbank. After passing the herd, I had to be extra watchful: the cows had splashed their droppings anywhere, especially, it seemed, when straining uphill.
On a typical day my walk now started around 7:00 am, just before dawn. After about two hours I would have coffee, sometimes with a pastry. Earlier on, in a very small bar with granny sitting in a rocking chair in one corner, I had my best coffee ever; probably not the best in quality but best in quantity. The bar did not even have a percolator; it served coffee and hot milk out of large urns. The cup, however, looked as if it belonged to Gulliver. It had an old-fashioned round shape and a big handle and its volume was probably that of three normal cups. The coffee really went down well and if quality was lacking, the size was compensating. Normal cups always leave me wanting more. After a further two to three hours hiking I would look out for a good spot for lunch and a snooze, which left me with approximately two further hours to reach the albergue for the night, sometimes having an apple on the way for added energy.
With so many pilgrims on the way, even though they had thinned out to a great extent since Sarria and were no longer a bother, everyone was concerned about finding a bed and the tempo increased the closer we got to our destination. This was stressful and not in the spirit of the Camino, which is generally laid back. However, haste was now a reality and there was the urge to get ahead of ‘rivals’, especially if there was a larger group to catch up to.
I managed to overtake such a group just before the albergue in Ribadiso. However, I missed the entrance sign and walked past the gate, and this allowed the large party to slip in. Nevertheless, there was no harm done: there was still enough space for me and anxiety had been in vain. Perhaps I need to ask myself why I experience situations so pessimistically and why I worry unnecessarily. Can I do something about this? Can I take things as they come without anticipating calamity? This is worth investigating.
In the meantime the cows had gathered on a level expanse of grass next to the washhouse in Ribadiso – some still grazing, but most lying down, digesting their day’s harvest. Several pilgrims were resting on the perimeters, relaxing their weary bodies on this warm afternoon.
The last few days had been more difficult than I had expected. This could have been caused by a general lack of sleep, the body’s reaction to constant walking, the effects of my bug allergy and the knowledge that the end (I mean Santiago) was near. At one stage I thought I could walk to the end of the world, now I was not so sure anymore. For the next three days I intended walking only about 15 to 20 km daily so that I would be rested on arrival in Santiago on Saturday 26th, the day on which Uta would arrive from South Africa. I was getting excited: not much time and distance to go! The landscapes and pathways we had recently passed through were not only the most scenic and serene of my whole walk, they were often shaded and the buildings with their small windows, crooked doors, sagging roofs and outbuildings full of old mess were interesting and a source of inspiration.
Hórreos, the centuries-old unique granaries in Spain, are found everywhere here. These are storage structures, probably just over one metre wide, about two metres high, with the length varying between two and five meters per unit. They have a pitched roof and louvres for ventilation on both long sides. They stand about 1m or more off the ground on stone pillars with large, round stone discs supporting the granary structure. Because of the overhanging discs, which are like capitols between the pillars and the actual storage structure, rodents are unable to climb any further, thus they cannot reach the stored food. Often the pillars and capitols and sometimes even the main structures are artistically elaborate, and two, three or more of these hórreos can be found next to one another, or more often in rows.
Two Canadian ladies, Sussie Hansen and Ginette and an American chemist called Tony and I had a menu del dia at Ribadiso. Our first course choice was soup, spaghetti, salads or vegetables. The second course offered chicken, pork, fish, calamari or ham, all with chips. For dessert there was fruit, vanilla pudding, ice cream or a dry cake ‘Tarta de Santiago’. Added to this meal was a bottle of wine or a beer. The meal cost €8.00 per person. Tony was one of the pilgrims with whom I was trapped while walking around the Monastery in Samos with the bee-hive of enthusiastic ladies in tow of the monk. He was also the one who persuaded me at the crossroad outside Samos to take the longer pilgrims’ path to Sarria rather than the tar road. He had outpaced me and I had not seen him for a few days. I was pleased to meet him again.
During dinner in Ribadiso we talked about our families and our activities and the 65-year- old Sussie, born in Scandinavia and now living in Vancouver, told us that three weeks after returning from Santiago she would be climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. She had done this climb before and had also walked the Alaska Trail and the Inca Trail in Peru. What an energetic woman! Ginette was French Canadian and had worked as an air stewardess for Air Canada. She had obviously seen the world in her travels and was now walking the Camino – and that after five heart bypasses performed the previous year.
Tony was the one who impressed me most. He had dedicated one and a half years of his life without pay to making a difference in India where he had adopted a village and opened a school with three local women who previously only had a rudimentary school education. He organised furniture and essential teaching equipment, set up a basic chemistry lab and taught chemistry to teachers and pupils. To ensure continuity, he paid the teachers’ salaries for a further three years, until other sponsors stepped in. Incidentally, Tony recently informed me that one girl from the first batch of children in the village literacy program had progressed to finish her tenth class at a nearby mission school, and had then gained admission to a nursing school in Calcutta. He can be proud of himself.
For a long time Tony had lived among the Indian population and experienced their hard and cruel lives first-hand. He became very emotional over his memories and I wonder if the Camino played a part in this. This would match the emotional upwelling I experience at times. I am known to be quite moved at family funerals, and now on the Camino I also had bouts. At these moments frogs jump up into the throat but cannot pass the narrow part, so they slowly slide down into the stomach again. The stomach muscles then have a fair amount of difficulty retaining the frog with cramped flutters: that is what the Camino can do to you – at times this is a pain and an embarrassment, especially at my age.
Earlier that afternoon I had passed Tony sitting on a bench next to the area allocated for drying clothes. He was attending to his hair and there is nothing special about this, except that Tony’s hair was unusual to say the least and had fascinated me previously. The left side of his head was shaven and I was unable to recall the arrangement on the right. This afternoon, when Toni was diligently grooming his hair, it became obvious that it only grew in the centre of the skull: both sides were shaven clean. His hair was approximately 50 cm long and he was engrossed with brushing and combing. I did not want to break the spell, so I passed without a word.
Maybe in walking for days and days,
Passing history, crossing unknown ways,
Experiencing hardship, missing routine;
Maybe it’s then that the truth can be seen.
That each life is but a speck on earth,
Many specks make up history of worth.
We need to know this to master life’s art,
This is a fact – we all play a part.
It is then that we see how important we are
Speck or no speck is no more the bar.
We all have formed the picture to state
That everyone playes a part in this fate.
Then surely we must learn to believe
It’s up to us great change to achieve.
We need to look to the future and learn
The world we desire we have to earn.
If we are able to change the system,
Gaining rewards from our inner wisdom,
Then surely we see what road to go,
And this is the path that makes us grow.
The guards that previously stood in the way
Are no longer able to lead us astray.
We cannot afford to ignore wisdom’s paths,
We need to break seals – remove the guards.