Pilgrims often rise early because by doing so they can get a head start on the day itself and avoid those tortuous last miles of walking under a severe and merciless summer sun. This is especially advisable when the stages surpass 30 kilometers but recommendable for any distance. Galician climate is perhaps slightly cooler than the oven-like midday temperatures of, say, Castile, but it is also generally much more humid there and thus prone to muggy weather. That can make even late morning hiking strenuous and uncomfortable, so it makes perfect sense to want to reach your destination as quickly as possible.
But that’s not the only reason.
Departing well before even a rooster crows also increases your chances of making it to the next major town in time to ensure a bed for the night in the public shelter or albergue. At 5€ a night, I can assure you it’s a coveted prize for the frugal. This also explains why I had some issues with doing the Camino during a Holy Year in the first place. I don’t mind doing albergues, in fact I like the human interaction they encourage, but I couldn’t see this as a good year. In addition to the 250,000 co-pilgrims sharing this quiet walk together with, I refused to turn this into a competition. “That’s not what the Camino is all about,” I argued. “At least in my book.”
Aitor, the ever-optimist when it came to these things, tried to persuade me cajolingly. “Come on! It’ll be fun.”
“No it won’t. It’ll suck.” I think I was pretty clear on this point.
“Where’s your spirit of adventure?”
“At home, under my socks somewhere.”
“Come on. Trust me.”
“Just let me think about it.” Aitor had promised to get rooms in towns where he thought we would have difficulty getting into the albergue, like the first and last legs and cities like Pontevedra, but on the other days, the sleeping arrangement was open. Redondela was one of those places.
Albergues do not open their doors until 1:00p.m. I really feel it’s their way of getting us pilgrims out of the way for a few hours so they can clean up and fumigate, but I also like to think they do so that they can give everyone an even chance to sleep there at night. In a sense this is good because it means the young, strong and swift can’t just jumped to their feet at 5 a.m. and bolt down the trail to grab all the beds before the old, flabby and slow like us have a chance to show up. And that may be an intentional measure…but that doesn’t mean people can’t line up. So in the end, instead of having people stream (or straggle) in little by little and sign in, once they arrive they have to spend the rest of the morning stuck next to the albergue so as not to lose their place in line.
When we arrived in Redondela at 12:20 that day, already a sizable number of walkers had managed to reached the door before us. Aitor flipped out his guide and informed us that the shelter had something in the neighborhood of 55 beds for weary pilgrims (another pilgrim heard over 60), and a quick scan told us we arrived well within that limit.
The shelter in Redondela is a restored historic building, I think it once served as the town jail, and it is attractive. At one o’clock on the dot, it opened and we began to file in. The crowd up to that point had been reasonable in size, but not so surprisingly, those people in line had friends with them who happened to appear just in time to go in. The situation looked a little bleak. On top of that, it turned out that the guides had grossly overestimated the available space. There were only 42 beds. This got the crowd restless and nervous about whether or not everyone would be able to claim a spot to sleep that night. Murmuring grew into grumbling and even some well-voiced complaining surged. “Jesus!” I thought. “The sticks are going to be flying any second now.” When it came to a cheap bed, no one was your friend.
The woman in charge was a pretty and small-framed woman with a clear-minded attitude on how she felt pilgrims should be treated, which was not dissimilar to cattle. She possessed impressive organizational aptitudes and had she wanted to she would have made a great prison warden. Her oral skills were commanding as well. In fact, I think her first word was something like “Achtung!” From there she reeled off several minutes of rules and procedures with such efficiency it blew my mind away. What had once been nearly a mob scene, had suddenly turned into a fairly well formed line of docile obedient pilgrims.
She reminded us of the order of priorities 1) handicapped (not us yet) 2) walkers (I guess that was us) 3) horse riders (not horses) 4) cyclists (not a prayer at this time of year) and capped off her discourse with, “And of course, anyone using a support car should not be allowed. Come on, I know you know each other by now, so we can all be honest.” These were the scourge of the Camino. The cheaters. Jesus! The woman was actually asking us to fess up. I suddenly recalled the incident from the day before with my car and noticed that the Belgian girls were ahead us in line, which curled the room in such a way that they were within a face slap’s distance. I took one quick glance at them who stared in our direction with an expression of (how can I describe it?) hate. We looked away casually the way you do when a hypnotizer asks for a volunteer and you don’t want to pretend to be a hen laying an egg in front of a thousand people. At any second I was expecting the girls to scream “Them! Them! Fraulein, they have a support car!” But they kept mum and thank God, because we weren’t using one in the first place, and it would have been entirely unfair. But just imagine trying to explain it all those tired and irate pilgrims.
Considering all those rules that fraulein spewed out, what I couldn’t get quite understand was how the group of Italian scouts who were ahead of us managed to be admitted. There must have been 15 of them. I’m sure there must be a limit on that, like getting tickets to a Springsteen concert. No more than six or something like that. But nothing was said or done. That in my opinion seemed unfair. Why hadn’t fraulein said anything about them?
Anyway, of the 42 spots, we came in 38, 39 and 40, which meant we had to wait nearly another hour for our beds to be assigned. In that time, we had a chance to become better acquainted with some of the other pilgrims sharing the Camino with us. In addition to the Belgian girls who had not narked on us (but were not talking to us because apparently we cheated) and the Italian scouts, we met wonderful people like two very nice brothers from Huelva, a mellow and kind couple from Spain (he was from Valencia and she was Argentine), and just behind us to wrap up the line were two young men from A Coruña in Galicia. They had just done the first two stages (Tuy-Redondela) that very morning (30kms) and were suffering the consequences. One showed us a blister the size of my elbow. Aching and hurting, they were a good laugh. This, my friends, is the invaluable advantage to going to these shelters. By doing that, you get to know your fellow pilgrims better, and it makes the whole experience that much more enriching.
Finally we reached the counter and were admitted, but the problem at that point was that we would have little choice about getting a sleeping arrangement that suited us. This proved especially delicate because Aitor had to take an upper bunk, and if there was something Aitor could not do was sleep in an upper bunk bed because he had fallen out of one when he was a child and never fully recovered. That’s what he told me.
“What do you mean never fully recovered?” I asked. “Does that mean you forget how to use pronouns in your sentences, or freak out from time to time?”
“No, I just have a fear of falling out of beds, that’s all.”
“That’s too bad. But I think it’s time you got us into this thing. That’s life. That’s the Camino.”
Meanwhile I looked over on the other side of the hall and saw what I thought was the only remaining empty bed, an upper bunk joined entirely to another where a young blonde German woman in her twenties was lying on her back with her shirt rolled up, exposing her belly for all to enjoy. I think she was reading too, but to be honest, the initial image made it difficult for me to focus on detail. Just as I was looking up at the ceiling with my hands raised and was preparing to give thanks to God for his generosity, a larger older blonde woman, I am assuming it was her mother, shoved me aside and dumped her things on the bed. Oops! Oh, crap! Mine was the next one over. Excuse me. The Camino could be so fickle.