Everyone had their particular wish and desire on the Camino; Aitor’s was stomping around the countryside when it was pitch black out.
“It’ll be great!” he said enthusiastically to our dumbstruck faces. “Something new and different.” It would stir other senses in our bodies, he added. We would have a chance to enjoy the Way among the mystery of darkness.
What this also meant was that we would have to wake up at some ungodly early hour.
For some unimaginable reason I said I thought was a good idea too, but that’s because I am known to speak before I think. And it certainly didn’t seem like such a winner at 5.30 the next morning when Javier’s alarm started beeping frantically like a bomb about to explode. It was start of the fifth day (or the end of the fourth night depending on how you looked at it) and the long-term effects of the daily adventures and early rising were beginning to take their toll, and for a second I wished I was at some Swedish spa resort. By now, I popped my daily Ibuprofen ration to 600mg, just for good measure, and downed with no other breakfast but a piece of fruit. Javier and I then quietly got our things together. I had become quite efficient at organizing myself over the past few days: I would just throw everything into the same bag and toss it into the backpack.
We emerged from the hotel and set off beneath the orangish illumination of the street lights, which became sparser as the town fell behind us. We weren’t the only ones out there. As usual, some of the early birds from the albergues intent on grabbing a bed in the next town had taken to the road too, but for the most part, things were pretty quiet.
Now, I want to make it cleear that I did my best to keep an open mind about things, but I gotta say that hiking through the countryside in pitch blackness just doesn’t do it for me. You can’t enjoy the scenery they you can in broad daylight and, if you are a myopic middle-aged knucklehead like me, on more than one occasion you end up fumbling around for a Way stone to indicate a direction. It just wasn’t fulfilling. I needed to see more than just a few stars and planets lurking in the damp air.
Aitor and Javier picked up speed and before we knew it they had disappeared into the darkness, with just about everything else as far as I was concerned. The good thing about heading out just before dawn, though, is that eventually it will get brighter. Now, those were the tones that I enjoyed. The constantly changing shades of gray and blue treated us to something “new and different” every minute. Definitely beats crawling around and squinting like Mr. Magoo for a painted arrow somewhere.
Finally we came to a place whose owner I felt had a solid head on his shoulders. About 100 yards before we encountered a sign saying: “Bar Peregrino, straight ahead. Open for breakfast at 7:00 a.m. every day, come and visit us. We love you!” Now that was what I called advertising and good business sense. Here, most places were closed at this hour even though hundreds of potential and I mean VERY potential customers passed by every day, and the restaurant owners couldn’t be bothered with serving up a little service. It made no sense to me. Was it really what my friends had said that the Gallegos don’t get up early? They sure did in O Porriño.
This was actually a couple who knew what it was doing. They are probably in the Canary Islands enjoying a well-deserved break for the winter after all those summer early rises…then again, knowing the Gallegos, being untiring workaholics (once they open their bars, that is) they are still plugging away at the old family business. In any event, Andrés, who had decidedly opted not to try and keep up with Aitor and Javier, and I trekked up to the top of a hill and entered the cafeteria. A whole slew of us were in there. The brothers from Huelva, some Germans, the couple from Argentina and Valencia. We all greeted each other and then we sat down for some coffee and chocolate pastries to really recharge the batteries that morning. Andrés popped a cigarette out of the pack for a smoke. Just then I saw I had a missed cal from Aitor so I gave him a ring. “What’s up?”
“Where are you?”
“We’re in a bar a few kilometers up the road. Kilómetro 33 or so. Where are you?”
“Jesus. You really got far. Hold on. ‘Andrés can I have some sugar please? Thanks.’ We’re going to be here for a little bit. Where should we meet?”
“We’ll wait for you.”
“Really? You sure you want to do that? It might take us a while. ‘Andrés, here’s your chocolate doughnut.’”
“That’s all right. Just try to make it quick. You see, I left my money in Andrés backpack. We haven’t got a dime.”
“Really? That’s sorry to hear. Hold on.” I told Andrés and we muffled the phone so they couldn’t hear our laughter. “OK, we’ll be there soon. Hold on.”
I hung up. “Want another coffee?”
“Sure.” Oh, well. That was the nature of the Camino. You can rush and rush, but you never knew if it was going to get you there any faster. They were screwed.
I was just kidding about the coffee. I am a sinner of great sinning but I occasionally have a heart. We did stick to the Camino though. Javier had suggested that Andrés cut down the distance by taking the highway instead of the long route, but Andrés was not at all for that. If he had come that far and not been buried yet, then he wasn’t going to cheat.
The route we took was through a small and pretty village, there are so many of them along the way, it never seemed to surprise me just how I never tired of them. We rounded the corner and ambled up the street for barely a minute when a old man approached us and said, “¿Buenos días?”
“I don’t want scallop shells thanks,” I replied as a knee-jerk reaction.
“Are you from Teruel?”
“Excuse me? Do I look like someone from Teruel? Do I sound like someone from Teruel?”
Andrés took over and said that we were from Madrid.
“Just asking. ‘Cause I was there during the war.” Teruel, that tiny obscure city from the eastern part of Spain, was the scene of one of the harshest battles of the Spanish Civil War. The man certainly looked old enough to have fought there, albeit as a very young warrior. He had also been present at a number of the other major battles towards the end of the war. I am a student of history, and from what he was telling me, it could have been true, though you never know with old people. They have a tendency to get fanciful with their facts as they get on. But it was fun to listen to him all the same. Just then one of the German women walked by. She was blonde and pretty, not at all fat but well-rounded, the kind that drives Spanish men crazy, because they find them so voluptuous. She walked by, smiled and said hello. Then she kept going. The old who hadn’t lost a smidgeon of his verve for eying females, spied her for about 50 yards before noting, “Boas patas y boas orellas, señal de boa besta” which translated from Galician means something like, “Good legs and good ears, sign of a good beast!” There was no doubt he approved of her. What would the Austrian tortilla poet have thought of that technique?
The man talked on for a little longer, but then we slowly but surely cut him off because by now the owner of the bar was probably threatening Javier and Aitor to play with doing something nasty with a walking stick if they didn’t pay up, but we still had one more person to meet. This was one of the other German girls. She must have been traveling with the “besta” though I hardly ever saw them together. I had seen her a couple of times and and felt she was a rather cold and distant person because she hardly ever said more than a unfelt hello, which is uncharacteristic of the Camino. At the same time I was intrigued, because she was a fairly large woman, with ample hips and used to walking sticks as if she were doing cross-country skiing. What had amazed me the most was her stamina, her persistence, her fight. I started up a little chat with her. She indeed was from Germany and she and her friend had started down in Oporto, some 230kms away. She was a nice girl and had a good sense of humor. Noticing that she walked with a slight limp, I asked her how she was feeling, and she told me that she had reached a point of stability where her aches and pains were no better but no worse either. “We’ve had time to get to know each other and have learned to accept each other.”