Day 8 – Astorga to Rabanal del Camino (21.4 km)
Over the past seven days I had walked 180 km and I found this to be quite manageable, but I still had 270 km ahead of me before reaching Santiago, so there was no room for complacency. After rising around 6 am in Astorga and enjoying a generous breakfast of bread, jam and coffee in the albergue, I strode out in direction of Rabanal. Shortly after setting out Don and I caught up with one another and we walked together for most of the way. We were discussing this and that, and, as the sun rose behind us, I introduced Don to my friend the stickman, who greeted us in all his glory. Stickman then also introduced us to his friend, Don’s Shadow, and Don was suitably impressed. I wonder how many pilgrims walk the road and never meet their stickman.
Don works as an agricultural consultant in New Zealand and owns a small cattle farm, which he operates on organic principles. In that country food is still mainly produced as nature intended it to be, but he nevertheless told me horrific stories of hormone and related spiking – all profit enhancing practices. It made me wonder what, in pursuit of gains, humanity is capable of.
On arrival in Rabanal later in the afternoon I managed to book into a different albergue to Don: although I liked him, I found his company somewhat taxing in the long run. As usual I preferred being alone, especially in early the hours of the morning and in the afternoon when tired. It is then best to find one’s own most efficient rhythm and spare one’s energy. Perhaps I was once more finding excuses for my reluctance to socialize and my mind became preoccupied with the following:
Some people are remarkably knowledgeable and interesting and can broach just about any subject. There are people who can keep a light or not so light conversation alive and make those around them feel at ease. Some do not necessarily talk much but radiate a quiet, confident manner. I wish I could fall into one or all of the above categories; it would surely make my life simpler. Since childhood I tended to feel awkward in others’ company and lacked easy-going manners. There might be an explanation for this: when I grew up, we lived on the same company premises as my father’s employer and were often reminded to behave and be polite.
When Alzheimer’s set in and my father lost his job, my aunt was kind enough to let us stay in comfortable accommodation under her roof. The house was three stories high, but being a gracious family home, it had an open staircase in the centre. Again we had to be thankful, behave well and keep quiet. We were constantly reminded of the need for gratitude and respect for others, and this did not make it any easier for me to develop confidence.
In later years I steered clear of authority; I avoided contact with my superiors at work as best I could by diligently fulfilling my tasks as a project manager. Social contact and being able to socialize is, however, essential in this position and, by not feeling comfortable in management circles, this became an obstacle for advancement. I tried to solve this by buying my way into an engineering company – only to find that my new business partner had a similar influence of perceived dominance on me which persisted until I finally bought him out.
Even in my own family I experienced difficulty. My father, as a result of his own afflictions, was a very strict person and because of his example and my own inhibitions, I developed a tendency to be rather authoritarian towards my wife and children as well. I believe that I have made strides since then, but deep-rooted tendencies persist, albeit with decreasing intensity. What I really would like to shrug off is the awkwardness which I still feel at times when I am alone with one person. I need to stay relaxed and allow conversation to flow naturally, rather than have some imagined pressure blocking my mind as it sometimes does. I had a few opportunities on the Camino which put my habits to the test; I have mentioned the two instances with Audrey and Don, but there were also the two women whose paths I had frequently crossed since day four and had avoided ever since with a passion. To me they represented exactly the gregarious, tennis-playing socialites that I have always steered clear of. Then there was the young Dutch woman whom I did not dislike at all but around whom I felt awkward: as a result I avoided her as well. My inhibitions created a negative aura, which was probably felt by both of us.
There was also a young French girl I walked with for a while before reaching Astorga. She intimated that she had had some dreadful experiences in her life. I had the distinct sense that she needed someone to talk to. Our language barrier certainly played a part and communicating was less straightforward, but this was not reason enough to avoid contact. She approached me on three subsequent occasions and every time I shied away. Under ideal conditions, probably with time to bridge my initial resistance, gather my thoughts and prepare myself in whatever way necessary, I might have reacted differently. However, in these instances I had let her down.
Perhaps one of the reasons for writing this diary is to relive the past and adjust my mind so that I can interact with others in more supportive ways. Writing allows me the time to think and reflect on this without facing anyone.
The Camino is unique in that every person is equal; even age differences are seemingly irrelevant. Everybody has the same purpose and those that do the walk probably have some similarity in character. Distractions such as television and other deflections forced onto us at home are rare. Life’s challenges – whether related to work or to one’s family, dwindle away or are kept at a distance. The Camino was consequently for me the right training ground.
I did, however, also make meaningful contact with fellow pilgrims and had rewarding conversations. Maybe, to be less critical of myself, I should acknowledge that, compared to my earlier years, I have gained a great deal of confidence and am far more at ease in most circumstances. This is something I should be grateful for.
Rabanal is a truly delightful village, neatly maintained and stretched out on either side of a long road with a rough stone surface. It looks similar to the Roman roads we had previously used and maybe it even was one. A tar road with hardly any traffic bypasses this community.
The village is probably 400 m long, the road rising moderately at first but then inclining steeply, enough to get the heart pumping faster. Houses and surrounding walls are of stone, as is the historic church of Santa Maria, about two thirds of the way up the road and in the middle of a small and steeply sideways sloping square. The village bears the imprint of history. It is said that, like many others along the pilgrims’ way, it was protected by the Knights Templar, who were probably also the architects of the Romanesque remains of the Church of the Assumption.
Monks, originally from Santo Domingo de Silos and now affiliated to Sankt Ottiliens Erzabtei in Germany, had established themselves in one of the old houses next door to Refugio Gaucelmo. They now hold daily services in the village church, with Gregorian chanting at Vesper time when the sun sets. Unfortunately today, as I was informed by some Hollandse dames ‘dit sal nie hierdie dag gebeur nie’ ‒ ek was toe bekommerd. The Monks were not in town, so no Vespers!
In my searching for food I had to return to the lower part of the village where a small shop was selling the essentials. I was not perturbed about what to eat; I knew I would never go hungry on the Camino: fellow pilgrims look after each other and food is often shared. The previous day I was given a bowl of something that tasted like maize meal with chopped pepper – not gourmet, but well-meant and eaten in company. Today I had a chat with Louis from Holland and a woman from Hamburg who, although already a granny, looked rather young. Louis had bought a plate del dia and could not finish his second pork chop, so I benefitted again: not that I was hungry but it was a well-meant gesture which I did not want to decline – and the chop was very tasty. It is quite amazing how one meets fellow pilgrims, loses them and meets up with them again sometime later. I caught up with the Italian I had met when leaving Carrion de los Condes on my second day and where we got lost in the dark. We met again in a bar in El Ganso, where we shared coffee and a tortilla. He was the one who had lost his job as a reporter and wanted to write a book about Parma ham.
Usually I was up and away by 6:30 and I generally walked until about 9:30, or until I could find a bar in which to buy the morning coffee and something to eat. By that time about eight to ten kilometres would have passed under my feet, and there would only be about fifteen or so manageable kilometres remaining.
The mountainous part of the Camino was next on the map. I could already see the peaks, black and solid in front of us. We were by now already at an altitude of 1055 m, so the climb to a height of 1505 m the next day was only 450 m in height difference, over a distance of about 6.5 km. I was not worried, as I was prepared for this. However, the way down after the climb from Punto Alto at 1500 m to El Acebo at 1150 m in about two and a half kilometre distance was more concerning.
Day 8 – Astorga to Rabanal del Camino (21.4 km)