El Camino de Santiago: (part 3 of 5) Breakdown

Sciatica. The weird funny nerve sensations. Another gasp. Another hit-the-deck moment. Another emergency stretch. There seems to be nowhere to run. Low Back whimpers, bares her teeth, and begins to growl.

The first hour of your walk is spent reconciling your posture. How can you lift, wear, and walk with this backpack without sudden arresting nerve irritation?

Low Back gradually warms up, and the sensations are less obvious. You walk, chat, and wonder if the sky might dump more rain, but it doesn’t. It merely threatens.

Your recent luck with reduced-price albergues and donativos leaves you and Katie feeling relaxed about the budget. You are furthermore pleased to her that another donativo awaits at the day’s end in Santo Domingo.

By now, you party is well-established. The Canadians, Niny, plus the two Germans. You are a group of seven and you enter the gorgeous donativo in high spirits, laughing, joking, and light. Your group approaches the hospitalier’s desk.

He is a dark man. Dark-eyes. Dark-stubble. Dark mood. His darkness emanates from him like storm-clouds—the type that chase you. They suffocate you with the promise of discomfort.

He briefs your group in a manner suggesting boredom and futility.

This is a donativo. It was established… by…. accepts pilgrims and poor people. We turn nobody away. Even if they have no money. Principles… tradition… we are all volunteers. We receive no money for our service. Please respect… others… a kitchen… boots in the hall…”

And so on. You understand so little of his rapid-fire delivery that everyone defers to Jenn, who translates. Members of your group ask about bits and pieces. “Where is the nearest super market?”

The man answers.

You raise your hand. He looks at you, and you stumble in an attempt to say, “Where is a gas station?”



The expression he wears is indescribable, but he launches into an irrelevant answer. “Why do you need a gas station? For camping stove fuel? You cannot put gas into a bottle. We have special shops for camping fuel. You can just buy some fuel there.”

You explain that you only want a gas station. Your canister already contains petrol, and it is cheaper. This is, after all, why you have decided to lug around your bulky and extremely efficient cooker in the first place—petrol being the cheapest and most abundant fuel source around.

“Such an American.”

Katie looks at him, “I’m also American.

The man points his dark finger in your direction. “Yes, but she is more American. You have guns, eh? Boom, boom! America.”

He does not like your response, repeats himself, and you decide it isn’t worth engaging with him. Gas stations are always located on the far edges of town—far from The Camino, which has been an unpredictable inconvenience.

Your group gathers around the bottom of the staircase, bags on backs, ready to be shown to your room. Jenn and the Spaniard speak in indecipherable speed, and you are too busy trying to get under your backpack to take notice.

“Katie, Maria,” Jenn says. “He says you have to put money in the donativo before you go upstairs.”

This is a first. While you are fairy sure this is a nice hostel, you are dismayed that you cannot see what you are donating for.

So you put in 7 euros, half your daily budget, feeling that your 7 remaining euros would be adequate to provide dinner, breakfast, and lunch for yourselves.

The guy!” Jenn cries, once in the bedroom. “I get it. You’re having a bad day. It’s a tough job. But we don’t need you to take it out on others.”

You learn that he insisted that you and Katie put money in the box—only the two of you—only the Americans, due to a prejudice.

He was complaining, and I told him your story,” Jenn continues, “That you have a tent, that you travel on 7 euros per day. But he says, I don’t care what they do. I can tell they are rich Americans, just looking at their clothes. That they have money. They should pay. I’ve been in the business for a long time, and I see people every day who take advantage. Seventy percent of people. They are not poor. They just take and take.”

On it goes.

You and Katie exchange looks of shock and disbelief, and simultaneously begin to cry—softly—at this injustice.

You are sensitive. You are tired. You are walking injured. You have pent up emotions broiling in your chest, your throat, your eyes. How could he? This man… how? Why? Why does he have to throw in your faces the very thing that has you so tightly wound?

Up until this moment, your trip has been a learning experience… an evolution in your travel strategy. You have learned that the company of others—the shared Camino experience—is worth the majority of your daily budget. You stay in hostels not because you need to, but because it is part of the Camino Life—and to do anything else is to deny yourselves the experience.

But doing The Camino (unlike traveling generally through couch surfing or leisure camping) on 7 euros per day is tough. There. You acknowledge that. It is tough. And every decision made by the group, every social gathering, every coffee, every cheap box of wine, every group dinner, every footstep taken inside a business comes at the cost of great deliberation and social tightrope walking.

So far, you have managed, and you genuinely feel no resentment from your new friends. They understand your situation, even help translate it for you, and often offer to sneak, share, “steal,” and anything else to help you achieve your goal. You are grateful for their participation, but never ask for it. You feel that to undergo such a challenge that can actually alienate you from others—time to time—should be undertaken alone, with zero expectations from others. What you are doing may be considered cheap. To the Spanish business owners, the hospitaliers, the locals who depend on the waves of pilgrims for their economy—already depressed, already afflicted with debt and unemployment—your travel method is cheap and not appreciated.

But to you, it is an important challenge and an education. It teaches. It forces you to determine what you need, which conditions are the most valuable to you, and forget the rest. You are not cheap; you are frugal. Frugality implies consideration of the value of things; cheapness implies value of money, for its own sake.

Character is what you do when nobody is watching,” Katie said to you once.

Do your travel friends know the amount of energy you invest in maintaining an equal exchange with them? Do they see it? You believe so. Many times, they have even counseled you in learning to accept a freebie when they are available.

You get so much in your life for free already. You spend so little as it is. Could you travel on less? Absolutely. But doing such a thing requires too much reliance on others, and this notion makes you uncomfortable. You attribute your position on this matter to years of hiding out in your bedroom, away from scary “step-moms,” constantly walking around on egg shells. You lived in an environment in which you dared not create any wake. You did not want to have to ask for anything—just wanted to do things for yourself, so that no one could leverage anything against you later.

Whatever the reasons! You are crying now. Sobbing. And the pent-up energy of having walked so injured for so many days, in the rain, in the wind, in the promise of-but-never-fully-delivered sunshine, explodes out of of your eyes, leaving behind two unhappy sacks of water. How you loathe to let them see you cry.

Jenn is angry not merely on your behalf—more so on behalf of the group. You and Katie are down, and everyone reflects on the man’s behavior. Jenn goes downstairs to confront the man, and returns shortly, even angrier.

I can’t believe that guy! Just because I speak Spanish, he feels like he can just unload all of his shit on me! Fuck that. I wanted to tell him off, but I didn’t. I just said hey man, I get it. But you really need to take a vacation.”

This report from Jenn, vigilante of justice, brings on new waves of tears. You are inconsolable. You don’t even want Katie to touch you. You can think only of how hurt you are, but not about how you want revenge. You don’t want to yell, or scream, or anything. Not at him. Not at anyone.

You think about how utterly bruised you feel. How the man’s negativity has poisoned you, and that it isn’t just the man, but the poison in him, which found its way in. Poison—like a virus—a strategist. Infecting everything in its path.

You wonder if instead of shooting him a furrowed look, you should buy him a flower and wish him better days in the future. React with kindness. Kill the virus.

Not that idealistic, in reality.

You avoid talking about him any further, attempt to pull yourself together, and ask Katie to open up your Spanish language software so that you can practice—get better command of Spanish and defend yourself in the future.

The upsetting bastard enters your room. His eyes dart around, find yours. He says awkwardly, “How are you?”

Well, my feelings are pretty hurt,” you reply honestly, tersely.

He fumbles, mutters, tosses a heavy, clinking, folded paper into your hands– Sorry!”–and abruptly leaves the room.

You know what it is before you open it. Your money, and an apology note.

I can’t fucking handle this right now.” You run to the bathroom and sob your eyes out.

I take it the option to work with the pilgrims like volunteer 12 years ago (no money). I work also like fisioterapist with donative. (more than 2000 pilgrims by year—medle 3 euros by pilgrim. In hospital 50 euro minimum). Winters I go to India to work with poor people—no money. So, I am tired to the touri-pilgrims and to the people that put a coin and later they go to the best restaurant. Sorry for judge you. (To me every planet vuzge me cause I am in the road of Santiago.) well, every body can do it. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa. So, I go to take a rest for the day. Cannot heal anybody today, like fisiotherapist. I go to cry. Also for my poor soul, alone and in silence.

Really excuse me.

I am, really, poor (only food and cigarettes and petrol to my bike). So, I only can help you for one day in your live.

Really excuse me. In really the donative is not for me, is for keep the house open winter and for help poor people with no money, food and cigarettes. Really sorry, I go to breathe outside the albergue. (4 months Sunday to Monday here, 24h.). Today was long day with the Spanish. Doing tourist. On my Catolic road (and the road of my brothers to work the world).


See!” says Jenn. “Everything works out in the end! He apologized.”


It’s all you can think. You don’t want your money back. You will return it. It wasn’t paid to him. It was paid to the donativo. This guy does not deserve a flower, or a hug, or even a massage—as Jenn suggested you offer. He deserves nothing from you.

You are not in the habit of rewarding bad behavior. The note was not an apology to you. It was the note about him, and how you should feel for him. You should pity him, as he pities himself. Never. An apology should be delivered to your face. It should not be avoidant. It should not be throwing money—as though money were the matter.

You feel disappointed in him, more so than ever. Maybe you are being harsh.


In the morning, the man tries to catch your eyes, to gauge their feeling. You show him jaded indifference. No anger. No forgiveness. You can feel that he has not changed, deep in your gut.

You leave. Toss on the bag, take two steps, and hit the pavement.

Riiiiing! Zap! Pow!

…goes your Back.

It’s over.

You are afraid to move. You know you are at the tipping point of an injury. You investigate the cause. It seems that the pressure from the waist-strap of your backpack presses so tightly against your right S.I. joint that it is actually smashing nerves.

What to do? Since the beginning of The Camino, you have lost more than three belt loops. You scarcely recognize yourself anymore. And while you enjoy your new regal cheek bones and delicate feminine shoulders, you cannot overlook the fact that weight lost around the middle is no longer protecting your back.

Every time you get skinny, Low Back complains. Repeat. Every time. It is utterly unfair.

You take a deep breath, crawl gently back into your bag, and tread lightly. This will be a test.

After an hour, Low Back begins to warm up, and Lefty, knowing Low Back’s troubles, moans more softly, so as not to steal attention. During your lunch break, you lie down on a tiled terrace and do a few supine spinal twists.


The shock comes fast and hard. You realize that a large lump over your right SI joint got smashed in as you rolled over the tiles.

There’s the problem.

The lump is large, and squishy, and the tissue surrounding it is textured. When you press on the region, it makes you gasp from the whole gamut of nerve expression.

You wrap your travel towel around your waist, to cushion the lump from the bag. It is all you can do. It helps immensely.

The end of the day greets you with a charming little hostel on the outskirts of town with plentiful adjacent camping. You offer the hospitalier 4 euros for use to the kitchen and toilets, so that you can stay in the company of your friends, and she refuses. When you ask for a bag of ice, she produces a large one.

Niny rolls in late. “Niny!” Jenn calls. Niny is limping still, happy to have arrived. And you are happy to see her; you realize that she is a great comfort to you. Just knowing she is nearby is enough.

Maria, may I pay you to massage my legs?” she asks. “They are so sore. No matter how I stretch them, no matter how much rest I get, they never feel refreshed. They are always so tight, and it is becoming so hard to walk. I think I may not be able to continue this walk.”

You are eager to help her, knowing that payment is non-negotiable, that she will insist on it. You are content with five euros.

The only space available is in the garden. You place two tables end to end, cover one of her exposed legs with your travel towel, and set to work with great attention. You talk. About what, you no longer remember. And you move with ease and confidence, as though you know exactly what to do. But you don’t. You only know how to stretch people; massage is entirely intuitive. You mix in some stretching for her Achilles tendons and calves, and finally discover that her adductors are intensely tight.

You work on her for an hour, unable to quit until you feel that you havr done everything you can for her, and she hands you 15 euro.

No, Niny. It’s too much. I was thinking five.”

No. Fifteen,” she insists.


Fifteen. Maria, I am prepared to pay. What you do is very valuable. You are very good. Really good. The way you touch me is perfect, with good energy. You are confident, like you’ve been doing it for 20 years. I feel so good. You make me cry.”

This is unexpected, and you realize the moment she says it that she is on the brink of tears, and you know to do nothing else but take her in your arms and give her a deep, reassuring hug—while you wrestled with feelings of surprise with yourself. You simply do not hug people like that.

Her words echo in you throughout the evening, and you feel happy about them—happy that someone tells you that you have a talent, that you are valuable.

No, it isn’t that you have self-esteem issues. You don’t even have self-doubt. You feel secure. You can’t explain it beyond gladness in your ability to affect someone so deeply and so positively in a sliver of shared time, cut and plated separately from all the rest.

Stealth sleeping above the hostel.

Stealth sleeping above the hostel.


Though you devote your energy to giving freely what you can (as you tightly watch your euros) and getting such large returns on your energetic investment, Low Back deteriorates. You ignore her and find Niny. You must talk to Niny. You must know her, discover why you feel so much affinity.

Her story is not yours to tell. Unfortunate. But her story fascinates. Her life is varied, exotic, bizarre. It challenges not only the listener, but Niny, too. The tone of her voice speaks volumes, and you feel that she is still coping with decisions she has made in the past, but she does not regret them. Her experience is so fascinating that you plunge into a series of hard questions and hypothetical circumstances. Niny answers all of them, openly, without chagrin. It is what it is. She does not spend her life apologizing to anyone, or to herself.

Shit hole town. Population: about 30. One albergue. One church. One bar. No market. Nothing but a courtyard and a picnic table. Everyone is starving, without a scrap to eat. Only you and Katie have food. Only you and Katie have a device with which to cook. Being a boyscout pays off.

Katja, the German vegan, realizes she has only 4 carrots and some uncooked cream of wheat. The bar offers plates of food to the pilgrims: iceberg lettuce, blood pudding, eggs.

You know well how much it sucks to be a vegan in this situation. You invite her outside in the wind to join you and Katie for a bowl of rice soup with foraged greens in it. It tastes pretty good, all things considered.

In the bar, you and Katie spend the rest of your daily budget on some of the blood pudding and eggs, and you bask next to Niny, seated at the table’s end. The plate is delicious, and comes with free bread, and you consume nearly half of the table’s olive oil, soaking it all up.

You see Jonah across the room—Jonah, the German monk form a week ago. Who travels with a piano and without money. Jonah, who seemed eccentric but kind. He is shit-faced.

Seated next to a girl, he rolls around in his seat, runs his hand down her arm and between her legs.

This monk.

You chuckle to yourself, wondering where he plans to get laid. The church, perhaps.

Surely not in the dormitory, to which you retire. You squeeze in next to Katie, contort your body in some stupid way.

Low Back gasps, seizes, pinches, and refuses to let you move—to let you even breath. You are stuck in bed, unable to sit up, to roll over, to do anything at all but whisper in Katie’s ear that you have a big problem on your hands.

Katja invites you to the floor of the dormitory, and does 30 minutes of reiki. It is a novel experience, leaving you full of wonder.

I have this picture in my head,” Katja says. “Of a hard, black stone. It is screaming. And it cries.” And later, “I have another image. Of a hard–” with great difficulty deciding between knot, newt, and “Nut! It has a hard shell on outside. And inside, the nut is very, very soft.”

Tough exterior, softie on the inside. How many times have you heard this? Too many to count.


That’s it. I’ve done it. I’m stuck. I guess I’ll just hang out down her and arrange my socks or something.”

You are bent over from the waist. You cannot stand up again. Niny and Katie don’t seem to notice.

After all, everyone is soaked. Soaked to the bone.

Rain had pounded your group. Jenn and Fred had been at their wits end. Katja, tired. Moritz, missing in action. When you’d reached the outskirts of the city, after sloshing through puddles and mud, trekking up hill, then down, in a head wind, you learned there were still 10 kilometers left to walk.

It has brought you to this point. The weather, the wet, the large city, and the collective idea that in Burgos you would take a day off. Split a hotel room, even.

You are indifferent to the rain. Water dries. But Katie was crying, and Niny was foaming at the mouth for a hostel. Together, they had talked about it and how great it would be.

58 euros for three people,” Niny said at the door. “I think this is very good.”

You simply don’t care. Your legs, knees, back… they are shattered from the efforts of keeping up, not from walking itself. The money from the generous Aussie woman remained expressly for this purpose: one night in a hotel, in honor of Katie’s early birthday.

Katie making herself at home.

Katie making herself at home.

Happy early birthday, Katie.

Happy early birthday, Katie.

In your hotel room, you try again to straighten up, but your back pinches something awful, and you are too weak. You sink down to your knees, then to your hands, and slosh onto your side in a puddle of weakness. No one seems to notice.

After five minutes, you manage to roll on your back. But that is it. You cannot lift your right leg. You can do nothing but wait.

This is the theme for Burgos, the large city in which you find yourself on Easter weekend. You wait, and you pay. The cushion of money from Niny and the Aussi woman are all but gone. Machine-washed laundry service is purchased. Paella. Wine. The hotel. 12 precious hours of normalcy. Katie and Niny feel easy.

You just cry. Not for the money. The money doesn’t matter. You don’t give a damn. You think only of your back. How broken, how used, how abused, how busted you have become. Not even 29 years old, and walking is as laborious as it can be for an old woman.

You conjure up all kinds of excuses for this weakness: compensatory movement and gait alteration on behalf of Lefty, lack of stretching, pre-existing conditions… it all points to the same outcome, which is that you’ve done too much. While your brain, your lungs, your stamina all suggest that The Camino is a walk in the park, it has defeated you. Had you not abused Lefty on the first day, had you not had back surgery in the past, then you’d be able to…. to…. abuse yourself in some other way and come down with some other bullshit, tedious physical impairment.

Righty is the last lady standing. Righty. Not a peep. Nothing. Stronger than ever. Healthier than ever—while the rest is left in decay.

Later, you laugh maniacally at a bronze statue of a pilgrim, decomposing on a park bench, defeated, holes in his knee caps.

This is you.

This is you.

This is you.


You move from the hotel to the municipal albergue the next morning, but not before tip-toeing to the supermarket to purchase a three-day supply of food, knowing that everything will close that Saturday afternoon and not re-open until Tuesday. Easter. And then, after the market, you stop at a pharmacy.

Forty 600-mg tablets of ibuprofen, for 1.97 euros. 1800 mg a day. That oughtta do it.

You check into your hostel, head straight for you bed, and begin to write… furiously. Pounding out this story. Wondering how it will go.

Categories: Spain, Struggles | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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