Lefty is angry in the morning. A little Tylenol and Arnica and bed-rest are only so effective. Within minutes, Lefty moans. The day of walking has not even begun.
Back in Eden, you wait for the group to pack and go. Niny does not depart the hostel early. She offers you some Voltaren cream—a topical anti-inflammatory. Jenn chips an ibuprofen your way, hearing that you had only Tylenol. Within twenty minutes, you feel much better, and excited for the 25km day.
“I’m walking behind you, Maria. You really don’t look so good. It looks like your leg is in really bad shape,” Gerrit says.
“No, no… don’t worry about me. I’m just walking like this so I don’t bend my leg. It only hurts to bend it. I’m just trying to baby it.” You try to convince yourself that it’s not a big deal. That pain doesn’t sear through Lefty every time you extend her forward. You hobble, leaning heavily on your hiking pole like an old Wizard on a quest.
And so it goes. Your group makes slow, deliberate progress. Everyone has a complaint: Gerrit nurses a bad knee, Niny a cranky hip, Fred a bad knee, Jenn an uncomfortable bag. Katie… nothing. At least one member of the group is healthy.
Someone comments on your condition at least every 20 minutes—it seems that you are the most handicapped in the group—or that, at least you are in the most pain. But pain management is a talent of yours. You hike up the mountain, slip and slide through mud, and reach the top. You stuff a few cheap cookies and hazelnut spread into your face, chase with some peanuts, and set off again—to get a head start. The next several kilometers are all downhill—steeply downhill–and you take your descent with excruciating slowness, so that it is not excruciatingly painful.
An old-timer passes you on the way down.
“Oh, you have a problem! Tendonitis! You must take two days rest. Ice. And Ibuprofen!”
All things you know. But you would rather be in pain than be bored from a day of rest. Such a day could mean only one thing: you lose your group—to which you have become so attached.
Your group, however, isn’t exactly an established entity, for within another hour, Gerrit says his goodbyes, declaring that he will take a faster pace and most likely sleep in a town five kilometers farther than you intend to go. You are dismayed to hear the news, having felt particularly fond of the fellow. Gerrit, who often walked alone—either ahead or lagging behind, as one might leisurely stroll, cradling his camera, and always in a state of reflection—is leaving you.
Niny, within the next hour, declares that her hip is in too much pain to keep up, and perhaps she will see you later.
Your group dwindles to four, and even Jenn and Fred take on a pace that you cannot maintain. You and Katie shuffle slowly and deliberately over a sunny stretch of road—a 2 km detour in order to see an octagonal monastery—for nothing but a set of locked doors. You catch up to the Canadians and realize that Jenn’s fuse is short. Everyone agrees that the next town, Puenta de la Reina, should be reached as quickly as possible.
You decide to limp alongside Fred, and though your knee hurts terribly, you realize that the pain has plateaued. It does not get worse, and recovers rapidly with small amounts of rest and ice.
The hostel is cheap and charming. 5 euros per person. You and Katie see a secure, walled-off backyard and negotiate a price of 5 euros to camp there, in order to keep in good company and be able to leave your tent and things in a secure location. You wash clothes in the bathroom sink and hang them out to dry.
Niny arrives at the hostel later. She is met with arms thrown high in the air. “Niny!”
The group realizes the hostel provides no kitchen. You leap at the opportunity to contribute something back and offer to break out your camping stove, spices, oil, pan, and pot for the occasion. You host a meal for 6 people (adopting a sweet older Australian woman) for the low cost of 1.77 euros per person. Everyone is pleased to have saved a little money and Fred mentions that you and Katie have inspired him to try to spend less. You shelve this compliment alongside the one paid by Gerrit the day before: “You and Katie have inspired me. I think I may buy a tent and continue to travel.”
The next morning you see a note left on the kitchen table from Niny, which declares that she has decided to leave the group and head out solo. You have the impression that she has been trying to shake away from your group for some time, though unsuccessfully, due to her speed.
You and Katie set off to walk with the Canadian couple and spend the day tailing them. Some tension between Fred and Jenn leads them to walk alone, and you focus only on the state of Lefty, who howls from time to time.
The day of walking is unremarkable aside from the weather and 5 hours later you are staggering into a quaint little city called Estella, curious about whether the next hostel will allow you to camp in their garden, if it even has a garden.
Enter your first “donativo.”
These hostels have been established for peregrinos—pilgrims of The Camino—and request only what one can donate. The opportunity to sleep for free presents itself, and you struggle mightily with your conscience.
One the one hand, you and Katie have scrimped and saved for days in order to regain lost footing in your budget. For the first time you were comfortably above zero, but still needed to purchase food. You talk outside about a fair amount to contribute and decide on 6 euros for the pair of you.
The donativo is remarkable in its ambience. The hospitaliers are volunteers—other pilgrims who need time off. Breakfast is included, and coffee, tea, and snacks are available throughout the day. There is space only for about 20 people, and there is no pressure to give money immediately.
You meet a new cast of characters.
There is Jonah, the Franciscan monk from Germany who has walked 7,000km with a 10kg piano on one shoulder, and a 15kg backpack. He travels with no money. Only enough money to eat, drink, and smoke. He plays his piano in the street, and volunteers to play the organ at churches. His energy is gentle, and his attention strong. You are fascinated with him.
“What do you eat?” you ask.
He smiles in mock self-pity. “The same thing all the time: bread, cheese, some meat, and wine.”
You think to yourselves that he is malnourished. His face is weather-beaten—over-exposed to the elements. His posture is stooped—too many kilometers walked, too many hours played over the piano.
“Have you ever fallen sick?”
His eyes widen with seriousness. “Yes. Sometimes. I must tell you it is very important to not eat raw or uncooked food all of the time. Your stomach changes. It becomes sensitive. I began to vomit blood and had to go to the hospital. I now can no longer eat fat in large amounts. Just one hot meal—a hot soup, or broth, is all you need. It helps your stomach remember. It is good for the body, this warmth you get from cooked food.”
You nod along, thinking about lessons from macrobiotics.
“Have you ever run into trouble? Has anyone every tried to rob you?”
“Yes,” he says. “Three times. Twice, they beat me. Again, I had to go to the hospital.” He elaborates on this.
“Do you camp? Ever hitch hike?”
He nods, “Yes, I camp most nights. But tonight, I stay in this donativo.”
“So a hostel is like a once-a-week kind of luxury?”
A single, long, slow nod. “Yes. And no, I do not hitch hike. Sometimes I have taken the bus, but only because I found myself in the snow. I needed to get away from those conditions quickly.”
You learn that he has been a monk for over ten years, since he was 19 years old. And that he recently broke away from his faith and began to walk—in order to find out what he really must do. You listen to his cautions about walking along, especially at night—about avoiding drunks in the street, and about carrying too much weight.
“I used to walk more, but now I cannot. I carry too much.”
You admit to him you have a knee problem.
“This is not good,” he says. “You must carry less.”
You can’t. There’s nothing left to leave. If you carry less, you end up like this guy: sick, weathered, eccentric, malnourished.
You are impressed by people who can travel with no money. This is something you cannot bring yourself to do. Too much free-loading, and too little security in the case of an emergency.
Before you leave him to buy yourself some ibuprofren, you give his a small sachet of vitamin C and whey protein powder, which he consumes immediately, and gratefully.
Later in the evening, you notice an older woman at the end of your table. She has piercing blue eyes and blondish-silver hair. Her sweater is a vibrant electric blue, artisanal. You see that she eats some plants she has obviously collected along the way. You leap out of your seat to talk to her about the plants, which you have also been collecting.
The is something angelic about her. You cannot describe it. You feel an immediate kinship with her and you swell with emotion.
“Why do you walk The Camino?” you ask.
Her manner of speaking is eccentric, somewhat fractured—frenetic, yet entirely coherent. “Ten years ago, I was hit by… a car. I was very hurt. My back, my legs, my neck. I could not use my arms and hands—not very well. I had surgery–” she points to a scar on her throat– “and it helped a little, but I was not well. I did some healing on myself with plants and meditation, but I still had many problems. Arthritis in my shoulder. Great pain in my hip and my leg. See, I could not walk. I could only go about 3 kilometers, and then I would be tired, and the pain would be too much. One and a half months ago, I met a woman. She is a healer. She did some healing on me—I do not know what, and I immediately felt better. I began to walk more. 10 kilometers, twice a week. And then more. I could walk again, and I am so happy! I walk The Camino, and I pick flowers and I eat them, and I walk in the sun, and I feel wonderful. It has been so long! I never thought I could walk The Camino!”
You could throw your arms around her and kiss her. You could cry into her gorgeous sweater and tell her it is going to be alright—that you are so happy for her.
Instead, you tell her that you are glad to hear it, and then ask if she has relatives in Sweden or Norway. She says only Denmark. You tell her you think you have the same features. To this, she smiles, and you are lost in the depth her her eyes—eyes that radiate timeless sagesse—wisdom, but also saintly childlike sweetness.
The feelings you experience from your exchange with this woman are strong and persuasive—moving, to understate it. You feel moved to help someone. The energy inside you simmers; need to do something positive for someone—to transfer the heat of it—directs you.
Jenn complains of neck pain. Fred seems like he needs some space to himself. You decide to offer to stretch Jenn’s neck, as a humble thanks for the last couple of days. She accepts without blinking an eye, and so you have her lie on a bench in the small common room while perform the protocol under the watchful eyes of the hospitaliers. Before you know it, each of them asks if you wouldn’t mind working on her as well.
Of course. You spend about a half hour on each woman, adding some massage and corrective postural advice and decide in that moment that you have paid your donativo.
The routine is familiar, and you walk with great attention to Lefty, and with general relief that she does not become worse. Ibuprofen is wonderful and effective. But only to a point. The day stretches on infinitely, with verdant green fields on all sides. Gently rolling hills. The landscape is forgiving. The hours are not.
Jenn and Fred walk ahead of you and Katie and when at last you all stumble into Los Arcos entirely too early, they leave you for a hostel. You are despairing because for the first time since Lefty called in sick, Righty begins to complain in a deep and unstable, intrinsic kind of way. You fear walking. Fear wrecking both your knees simultaneously, and leave it to Katie to scope out the landscape.
Nothing is open. No shops, no cafes. Nothing else that you can afford. It is windy. You finally decide to climb up the steep tree-studded, grassy bluff overlooking the city, and chose a camping spot.
It is too early. The conditions are harsh. You are lonely. You are hurt. You feel lower than you have in a long time. Of course, on a nightly basis you engage in some form of self pity or another, mostly out of concern for Lefty and fear of Righty acting out—fears now realized.
But most bad feelings are attributable to fatigue or hunger and you can see that Katie suffers from both. The budget is too tight, and the camping too plentiful to ignore. But even as the rainclouds begin to roll in, you wonder if you are being stupid.
Stupid, yes, because of your pride. Of your fucked up sense of integrity. Because of your refusal to piggy-back on your travel buddies and acquaintances. You ask the hostel owners in town if they would mind if you cook out on their terrace, just to be free from the wind. No one cares.
And so you cook, and the rain slowly wets everything around you. Jenn notices you. Then Fred. And Niny (who had again bumped into your foursome). Niny sweetly joins you in the rain, donning her coat, and offers you a glass of wine. The others soon come out in the sprinkle, in some form of consolatory camaraderie.
You do not interpret it as such in this moment. You think only about demonstrating that you do not take services which are not offered to you first. Jenn thinks you are silly. Says you should cook on her private covered terrace; later, she offers to sneak you into her room through the window. “We are alone in our room. Plenty of empty beds!” You refuse.
Katie later exchanges a few emotional and terse words with you about the strictness of your lifestyle. She intimates embarrassment, frustration, fatigue, and more. When you ask her if she could decide any differently, she says she could not. She says only that she gets crippling frustration from the weather.
Lefty is unhappy. This, of course, is not news. Despite the pain, you are not a slow walker. The group has expanded to include two Germans: Moritz, a 21-year-old student of economics and engineering, with stomach-turning blisters on his feet; and Katja, a 30-year-old pharmacist’s assistance and rock climbing instructor. Katja’s English is nearly non-existant and she and Moritz tend to walk together until you lose sight of them in your rear-view.
Fred is in good spirits, and he is happy to walk with another cripple, who can relate to his knee problems. You have learned to pass the hours of your walk deep in conversation with whomever had the stamina to participate. The subjects are always varied, and the level of understanding you begin to have of your buddies deepens. Couples walking is somehow therapeutic. You are glad that Jenn and Fred have been consistent walking buddies. Niny, again, is missing.
It is Saturday, and you feel poorly by the end of the day. You follow Jenn and Fred through a large city, right up to the doors of the municipal albergue. The price is 7 euros per person. It is more than you can afford. You ask if you can camp in the garden. Access denied.
“You can camp 2 kilometers from here, once you walk back into farmland,” Jenn translates for the hospitalier. You cannot decide. You see only the welcoming lawn out front, ignore the discussion, and march away, determined to collapse upon it.
Katie coaxes you from your sinking completely into this Temperpedic lawn, tries to rescue you with hazelnut spread and bread. You cannot move. You want only to sink, to deepen your connection to the soil, let it wrap around your bones and consume you. The sun, perhaps, having finally shone persistently for the last three days, has sapped energy from you in a manner long-forgotten since last autumn.
“I can stay, I can go. I don’t care,” you say. “Just let me lie here and die for a while.” Nah. Katie coaxes you to a sitting position.
When Niny appears in the courtyard, you want to throw your hands in the air and shout, “Niny!” but instead, you frown and eat hazelnut spread off the end of your fiendish pocket knife with the gravity of an alcoholic staring down the barrel of his gun.
The re-appearance of Niny, who rejuvinates your core group, leaves not an ounce of desire for a 2 kilometer walk to the countryside of solitude. Jenn raves about the hot showers—about the water pressure—and about the kitchen, and it all sounds too nice. You tell Katie to bite the bullet and check you into the hostel.
When she returns, Katie delivers the good news: “Jenn is getting very good at explaining that we are two girls traveling for two years on 7 euro per day. I asked if we could just buy one bed, since we sleep together anyway, and the lady insisted that they were too small. Jenn said, ‘No really, these two girls can share a park bench,’ but the lady said she wouldn’t feel right about it. She gave us a discount. We only had to pay 10 euros instead of 14.”
This leaves money enough for food, and you are pleased. You hobble up to your rooms, wash your clothes in the bottom of the shower, hang them out to dry, and stretch a little. You see your body for the first time in days, and feel acute displeasure.
“I’ve lost three belt loops since beginning this walk, and I look down and all I see is mush!” You jiggle your legs. “What happened to me?”
Katie is patient with you, as you are patient with her—and with all women—every time they freak out over pre-menstral symptoms.
You think perhaps you are eating too much hazelnut spread. Niny, stretching her aching hip not to far from you, gives you a silent look of confusion.
Maybe you think you can get some kind of validation from her. Maybe you want the understanding eyes of someone older than yourself, who knows well the highs and lows of the ever-changing female physiology. But she says nothing.
You imagine a kind, reassuring comment from her. Though you do not know her well, and though she tends to leave early in the morning, only to be over-taken by your group later in the day, Niny emanates a Zen-like quality that draws you nearer to her than to others, if given a choice. You are not looking for a mother. No. You a looking for someone who has kept their shit together during the entire trip: no overt highs or lows, no bitterness, no resentment, no excitability. Just streamline steadiness and a reassuring comment or gesture: some Voltaren, an acknowledgment, a glass of wine, a look of appreciation. These are the small gifts of The Camino, wrapped neatly in good will.
The group realizes is it Saturday, and shops are closed. There is no more cheap supermarket food for the weekend. Because you and Katie are always prepared, you offer to share what little food you have left with your group.
Later in the evening, after seeing a children’s mock bull fight in the square, and after scoring the one and only kilo of rice for sale in town, you take advantage of the unusually present wifi signal, and try to determine Lefty’s problem. You make yourself sick with worry over possible minor tears in your meniscus or in your ACL, bursitis, etc., that is, until you decide that you have a classic case of jumper’s knee. You hitch one of Katie’s bandanas under your kneecap and hope for the best.
The previous night’s hostel has taught you a lesson: prices are negotiable, if your case is compelling enough.
Your modus operandi in backpacking has transformed. Long gone are the days of casual sight-seeing, heavily-loaded slow promenades, and general mistrust of others. Here are the days of companionship—of group energy—and of regular spending.
It is one thing to walk The Camino as an intended wild camper in hopes of accruing a surplus for later, more expensive travel. It is another thing to spend the whole of your budget almost daily. If you have enough food to eat for the day and the following morning, then you pay for the hostel. If you are “food poor,” then you must camp. If a hostel is deep in a city, hostel it will be. If the town is small and camping is abundant, then camp you shall, if only to ensure enough money for the decent food in the coming days.
But every day is like rolling the dice. You cannot plan to camp or to stay in a hostel, for you simply never know which conditions might befall you. Everything is played by ear.
So when you reach your next stopping point and learn that the hostel is 7 euros per person, you decide that camping is the best option. You and Katie request to leave your bags within the hostel walls in order to walk unencumbered in search of a nice spot.
And there are none. No nice spots, anyway. There is plenty of camping, but you sense Katie’s anxiety over the shattered glass, doll’s heads, discarded electronic equipment, garbage, weeds, shotgun shells, abandoned buildings and prickly-weed-studded fields.
You have an unusual sense of security. Such things bother you, certainly, but not in all contexts. You could see several reasonable camp sites fit for yourself, but none you found worthy of your younger, less experienced accomplice. Nothing is worth Katie’s misery, and you feel like a dick for leaving her with the impression that you might make her camp in such an environment.
Moments of weariness melt away your resolve. Katie is upset, and you decide perhaps you should just throw money at the situation to let her rest, as she has been pulling a lot of your injured weight.
You encounter Niny in a cafe courtyard. She drinks wine and inquires about your success. You tell her the truth.
“It’s too bad,” she says. “I wish I could sneak you into my room. We have so many empty beds in there, and I do not think they will fill up.”
You tell her thank you, but that you could never do such a thing. “It’s not fair to you guys. We follow you around and enjoy many advantages already.”
Looking at Niny, you feel regret. Every day, she has done or said one small thing, and in doing so has demonstrated sincere kindness. You think back to two hours ago, when you and Katie encountered her seated on the edge of the paved pathway, stretching her angry psoas. Her condition was very troublesome, very painful, and relentless. For many days, she tried unsuccessfully to walk shorter distances—and as well, to walk her own walk, and not the walk of the group—but had been unable to, due to the seasonal closures of her intended hostels.
You tried in vain to show her some stretches for her psoas, but the conditions were not great there on the side of the path, and your knee was too sensitive to be of any good in stretching demonstrations.
“If we have a table tonight, I will work on your hips and see if I can sort out your problem,” you’d promised her.
And now, no such opportunity, and you know she is in pain. You realize you are worried that if you cannot help her this evening, you run the risk of losing her the next day.
When you return to the hostel to fetch your things, the little old lady hospitaliers ask if you have found good camping. You tell them in broken Spanish that things have not gone well. They offer to call the police, to see if they have any suggestions for you. Katie disappears to the toilet. You tell the ladies that you travel with only 7 euros per day, and that you haven’t enough money for two beds, which is why you asked to share one.
The ladies prattle on in Spanish, discussing options.
“You have seven euros?”
“For seven euros, you can stay here. Two beds. Just seven euro.”
“Es verdad? We have 9 euros and 10 cents left. We can give you all of it.”
“No, no. 7 euros only.”
You break into a smile, then trip in Spanish to explain that you are a type of physio, that you do body work, that you would be very happy to work on them to make up the difference.
They smile kindly. No, but thank you. You are welcome here for 7 euros. Nothing more.
You feel at once grateful, and then guilty, for this is the second night in a row that you have received a discount while your friends pay full price. But at least you have appealed to them on your own, with no one else from your group there to do the dirty work of translating.
As soon as you have ordered your things upstairs, you go to the commons to find your friends to announce that you will be sleeping again in a hostel, and that you are looking for Niny, because you want to take a look at her hip flexor.
An adorable, middle-aged, rosy-cheeked Australian women pipes up, wanting to get to know you. In short order, she learns your story, and that you have a few physio tricks up your sleep.
“I’ve just had this neck pain, and tightness from my back… you wouldn’t mind having a look at me, would you?”
Of course not. If there’s one thing you love to do, it is to help and to teach people with the willingness to learn. As you speak with her, you catch the ears of your two German acquaintances, Katja and Mortiz, as well as Rick from Vermont, and older man you remember from one week ago.
You spend the first hour explaining how to fit and pack a backpack, which straps to pull, and then helping everyone re-size their straps and bands. The Aussie woman is thrilled. She asks if you can do something for her neck.
As you diligently put her through a neck protocol, you expect that some awkward discussion of payment will ensue, and you mentally prepare yourself for a modest payment of 5 euros. 5 euros for 30 minutes of body work is insanely cheap, but 5 euros represents incredible fiscal flexibility in a day, the value of which cannot be understood by anyone spending an average of 20-30 euro per day.
You stretch her, massage her neck, give it a bit of traction, rub her traps, work out a few knots, throw in a few corrective stretches, and thoroughly explain what she needs to focus on in the future.
She gushes back at you, picks through her wallet, and thrusts a 50 euro note in your direction.
“I cannot possibly accept this,” you say. “It’s way, way too much. Seriously. I don’t earn that much in The States.”
She insists. Really insists. Assures you how happy she is. Tells you how much time you have dedicated to her well-being in so many ways. You accept. You feel indebted to her, and to everyone in the room.
So you work with Mortiz, whose neck hurts. You work on Katia, who has the beginnings of Achilles tendonitis. You work on Fred, whose entire body is a hot mess.
And you work on Niny, of course, who is your priority. You put her through a hip-back protocol, to try to identify her problem. While she is tight in expected places, you fail to pin-point the underlying problem. You feel disappointed that you cannot rock her therapeutic world. But she is satisfied; she offers to pay you.
“I will not accept any money from you, Niny. You have been pouring me wine and kindness all week. I owe it to you.”
This makes her uneasy, but she agrees to drop the issue. Katie later reassures her that she had no chance of paying you money.
You go to bed exhausted from over 4 hours of volunteer work.
Sciatica shoots through your right buttock. You gasp, drop your bag, and hit the pavement for child’s pose.
Dear God. What the fuck?
Okay, it isn’t a complete surprise. You’ve experienced weakness in your back before. Hell, it’s old news. Maria’s bad back is the lead character of many stories. But this particular bout of sciatica is badly timed. Lefty, though recently more quiet and seemingly on the mend, is not prepared for Low Back Pain. And neither are you.
The episode is fleeting. You shake it off, strap the bag on one again, and take note of the odd nerve sensations. It feels like someone jams their knuckles into your muscles; sometimes, it feels like someone runs the tip of a mechanical pencil over your skin. Unpleasant, to say the least. But you don’t label it as pain. Not yet, anyway.
The sky opens and dumps rain. You make it to the next alberge just in time. Camping is available, but you learn that this alberge is a donativo, and you are happy to be out of the rain.
When you see the inside, you are less than thrilled. The sleeping quarters is one long hall, with bed stacked after bed after bed—90 in total. The place fills up quickly. It seems that hordes of Spaniards have begun to walk a section of The Camino in honor of upcoming Easter, and they all are crashing here.
Lefty is in a normal state of anxiety, and Low Back is tight and tender, but you ignore their pleas with the pop of a pill, crawl onto the top bunk with Katie (it has been your practice, up until now, to trash one bed with all of your gear whilst you cram yourselves into the other. There is nothing you love more than being smashed between a wall and Katie.
A group of Spanish-speaking, gruff men—some lean, some rotund, some old—decide your corner looks best, and they move in next to you. You are aware of a gravelly-voiced man with dark eyes because he stares openly at you and Katie. He speaks at an inappropriate volume, so near to other sleeping pilgrims. You feel ill at ease.
The hostel is crowded. It is hot. Damp. Noisy. And crawling with nearly-naked fat men. This, remarkably, is your first memorable exposure to outright afternoon snoring. Thus far, heavy breathing and a couple snorts have been the only sounds heard. But these men… these men with the appearance and composure of members of a biker gang crowd around you in their skivvies, junk barely obscured by fat bellies.
Katie makes a comment to Niny about Mr. Creeper with the deep gravelly voice who likes to call over to his buddies so near to your napping heads.
“No, I don’t like that guy either,” says Niny. “He is looking at you all the time.”
Nothing is a threat. It all just reinforces your already colorful opinions about men.
You feel that, despite the crammed conditions, you should invest in some travel karma. You waddle stiffly to the front desk and drop 4 euros in the donativo box before bed—before nuzzling up between Katie and four snoring bottomless fat-asses.
Your sleep is fitful. Hot, stuffy, uncomfortable, and heavily interrupted by the impaired respiration of your neighbors.
How on earth do these men not wake themselves up?