Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Camino de Santiago, Day 17: Frómista to Carrión de los Condes

It's 30 degrees Celsius with low humidity, good clothes-drying weather in Carrión. That's a good thing. Having agreed on an early start and a short day, Marian and I arrived here by 1 p.m. after a flat 20 kilometers, only to find the albergues full. We settled for a more expensive hostal, lured by a private two-bed room and the promise of free washing. By now, we should know that when the Spanish say free washing, they mean it. Our clothes were returned in a plastic bag by 4 p.m., sopping wet. Free drying was not part of the bargain. Since I had just sprung for a larger-than-usual lunch, Marian volunteered to hang our clothes on the line downstairs, using the twelve plastic clothespins we carry, six in each pack.

The full albergues we found on arrival are a reality of Camino existence. Most English-speakers use the same guidebook by John Brierly and therefore aim for the same destination each day. This causes bottlenecks at some destinations and a resulting race for beds. We left Frómista by 7 a.m. and were still too late for the albergues. This was partly because we chose the more scenic alternative route through the countryside, avoiding the track along the regional highway, which meant spotting the bed-racers two kilometers.

The bottleneck in Carrión is worse than many because of what comes next. Tomorrow's stage (according to Brierly, natch) offers nothing, not even a pissant bar, for 17.1 kilometers. Even the Fuente del Hospitalejo after 7.5 kilometers may be a dry hole. So (a) we have to pack plenty of water and fruit and (b) anyone foolhardy enough to march on from Frómista after our arrival time today might have to walk as many as 26.8 kilometers to the next open albergue, since the first town on the next stage, Caldadilla de la Cueza, may have no room at the inn by supper time. This long-winded but ineluctable fact no doubt causes the authors of guidebooks in other languages, even Hungarian and Korean, to recommend Carrión as a destination.

So here we are at the Hostal Santiago, down the hall from Caro, a creative writing instructor at UNH with whom Marian has become friendly, and Mike and Bernadette, a middle-aged couple from Perth, Australia, who just keep turning up, like the sitcom parents they resemble. I should probably make more effort to get to know them.

Bed-racing and bottlenecks are not the only daily realities on the Camino de Santiago. If you are staying in a dormitory-style albergue, with as many as 50 or even 75 bunks to a room, your day is likely to begin when you are awakened by a bed-racer skirmishing in his or her pack at 5 a.m., with his or her headlamp playing about the dormitory like a searchlight promoting a new car dealership. Since the sounds of the first bed-racer will lead to more skirmishing by more bed-racers alarmed to sudden wakefulness by the thought of being beaten out the door by the first bed-racer, your chances of getting back to sleep will be small, unless you didn't wake up in the first place. I did. By 5:45 there's usually a whole lot of skirmishing going on.

Packing one's pack each morning soon becomes a routine on the Camino. The contents and order of my pack are clearer to me now than my own anatomy.

In the bottom of my pack is my rain gear, stowed in an orange stuff sack and weighing an extravagant 3 kilos. I would happily jettison this weight and perhaps I could, since it may not rain again between here and Compostela, but then of course it would rain gatos y perros. Next is my sleeping bag, which some of the more weight-conscious walkers leave at home, another kilo. Next is my spare-clothes bag. I left Massachusetts five weeks ago with two spare-clothes bags, marked Tops and Bottoms, to be more presentable for my honeymoon in Italy. (If you don't know about the trip Katie and I took before Marian and I began the Camino, you haven't been reading closely.) Now that my honeymoon is a blissful memory, however, I've jettisoned all but the essentials, and everything is in the Tops bag.

Next, from bottom to top in my pack, come three items in a single row: my toilet kit, my small stuff-sack of medical supplies (including blister-care products and the really very necessary laxative tablets), and my official REI self-drying trekker's towel in its own cool and overpriced carrying case. Then come my Teva flip-flops as a cushion for my I'd-die-if-I-lost-them essentials bag, which is braced on the topside by my travel pillow before I tie my pack shut.

In the zippered compartment on the front of my pack, I stow the Brierly guide and my Moleskine journal, with pen and reading glasses. In the brain of the pack, the compartment on top that the more flexible hiker can reach and unzip over his shoulders, but which Marian has to reach for me, are my food supplies for the day. Finally comes my water bottle in a side compartment just below the ubiquitous symbol of the Camino, a large scallop shell, which hangs from a string and bangs rhythmically against the water-bottle like a bell buoy in a breeze, all day long.

Contents of the IDIILT essentials bag include: US passport, iPhone and ear buds*, iPad and Bluetooth keyboard**, charger with Euro-plug adapter for iPhone and iPad, miscellaneous indispensables like an eye-mask and basically useless ear-plugs, and the three rocks I am carrying as an act of contrition to the Cruz de Fero, for my friend Randy, my late friend Donald, and myself.

There are several other repeating notes in every pilgrim's day:
• The cup of café con leche, which at least Marian and I cannot do without.
• The rest stop every 90-120 minutes, used for nature visits, second breakfasts, elevesies, lunches, afternoon snacks, and general back-and-shoulder relief. After not being able to get back up out of a sitting position during most of the first week, I now spring back to life refreshed after a 10-minute break.
• The most anxiety-inducing event of the day: arriving at your destination and searching for a bed, especially if you are not a bed-racer.
• The soul-restoring, stink-removing shower.
• Changing out of the shower into your second and only other change of clothes.
• Washing and drying your first change of clothes.
• Probably napping (age-dependent).
• Definitely eating (three-course "pilgrim meals" start at 10 euros).
• Trying to sleep and then trying to get back to sleep if, like me, you are awakened during the night by snoring and the irritating but persistent call of your middle-aged male bladder.
• Starting it all over again at the sound of the first bed-racer.

Today's post has focused on daily details of the Camino de Santiago because today's stage itself was pretty humdrum and featureless. Except for the little old man who sat on a bridge abutment at the puente outside Villalcázar de Sirga with his canine pal Mori, like a one-man, one-dog tourist information committee. That and a couple of cool conversations with Marian on the morning's walk, which I will reserve for another post.

* Used mostly as a sound baffle in the larger harder-to-sleep dormitories. I am proud to say that I have not listened to a single iTune while walking the Camino de Santiago.
** Which make posts like this one possible

[NOTE: This series of posts on my Camino continues here.]

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