Monday, November 24, 2014

That's the Camino

My favorite photo so far.  Asturias. 

 I'm in a town called Unquera lying in bed eating chestnuts at Hotel Canal, a two-star gem that costs 28 American dollars a night and has WIFI in the room.  This town is perfect:  It's got the rugged Picos de Europa mountain range in the background, the Rio Deva running next to it, and even a border town feel, since one side of the river is Cantabria and the other Asturias.  I'm in heaven and I think I'll stay an extra day.

The last few days have seen tons of kilometers and my latest maladie: arch problems.  The leg from Santander to Santilla del Mar was possibly the longest yet, and on the last 5k, after popping into someone's house to fill up my water bottle (the door was open and when no one responded to my "hola"s I quickly helped myself to the sink), the arch in my left foot began to flatten and when I got to Santillana I was noticeably limping. You gotta pay to play.

However, in Santillana there were people!  Actual other walkers! There was Jacob (who introduced himself as "Pepe"), a Frenchman who upon seeing me lying exhausted and distraught on the bunkbed said "I know what you need" and produced a chunk of chocolate the size of my arm; Carlos, a guy who seemed vaguely annoyed with me every time I opened my mouth and who would snore like a clogged wood-chipper at least 60% of the night; and Miguel, an affable guy from Mallorca who I got to hear talking to his wife on the phone in Mallorcan Catalan.  It was great being around people.  I got a taste of what the "real Camino spirit" is all about, and the next day even got to walk a few Ks with Carlos and Miguel, which was a novel experience after so much solitude.  I hardly noticed I was walking because of the talking.  I wasn't thinking about how my arch might collapse or how many Ks we had left, but rather learning about how the articles in Mallorcan Catalan are different from those of Barcelona, and how the Balearics in August are a disaster.

Last night was spent in the Pirates of the Caribbean-esque town of San Vicente de la Barqurea, at a pilgrim shelter (hostel) called El Galeon.  When I got there I was appalled.  The place was a dump.  Rob, the guy in charge, showed me a dorm room full of unwashed bunk bed mattresses with no sheets, charged me 10 euros, and told me the only thing we could use in the kitchen was the microwave.  I was extremely tempted to ask him "What am I paying for?" but am trying to put a leash on my tongue after asking a poor old lady in Polanco who had just gotten eye surgery"What century are we in?" when she told me the bar next door didn't accept credit cards.  Lying in bed after getting settled in I was in somewhat foul spirits, but when I met the owners things changed.  They were nice. They talked to me.  The grandmother kept yelling "Matt! Matt! Come look at this Armenian woman who's only been in Spain for five years and is winning this game show!" Lola, her daughter, asked if I played the piano, claiming that I had "pianist's hands" (still trying to decide if this is a compliment).  All in all I realized what a difference people make.  PEOPLE.  If you have a crappy job and the people are great, the job can be great.  If you're in a crappy place but you're with great people, it can be great.  That's something I don't think people understand about traveling and something I forget half the time.  It doesn't matter where you are: the only thing that matters are the people.  You can be in the middle of Kansas hanging out at a gas station (although to be honest this sounds kind of awesome already) but if you're with good people you're going to have a good time.  Anyway.  As Lola left and kissed me on the cheek she said, "Play the piano."  As the mother left and kissed me on the cheek (borderline rromantically I might add) she said "Buen camino" (Good walk).  And they were off and I was left with Rob who had grown on me a bit despite the fact that he kind of gave me the creeps and I was semi-convinced he was a secret alcoholic.

The reason I'm staying an extra day tomorrow is because I think my body desperately needs the rest.  The Camino is not difficult cardiovascularly.  After the Basque Country there's stages where you barely break a sweat despite walking 35k.  But it's the wear and tear that kills you.  When you walk on pavement for long enough, or just walk in general for long enough, things start to fail.  It's actually kind of interesting: whatever defect your body has, however, minor, inevitably surfaces if you walk for long enough. The one upside is that after so much walking and solitude I feel in tune with my body, and thus am confident that I can push myself without going too far.  After all, some of the most exhilarating days I've had have been walking that extra 5 or 10k after I was already running on fumes.  Yesterday was like that, coming into San Vicente at sunset, the haze of the clouds melding with the end of the ocean, surfers happily paddling in the water, cows grazing tranquilly, and the Picos de Europa with the sun dropping behind them.  They're the kind of moments that make you glad you're pushing yourself even if it means some pain that night and the next day.  No pain, no gain, right?

Así es el camino.  

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