As I mentioned early on in this blog, the idea of taking a month to walk a distance you could cover in a day by car can feel a little contrived, especially as the backbone of the Camino feels like it’s breaking at times under the weight of its own popularity. Stretches of the path have become commercialized as local populations see a few euros to be made and start catering to us pedestrian-tourists in the form of meals, trinkets and housing. And who can blame them? One of the more lucrative ideas seems to be to build a cross between a hotel and a hostel, offer a limited number of beds in the shared housing section for the going rate of 5-10 euros a night, and then when that’s full, have a bunch of spartan rooms (“habitaciones”) at 30-60 euros a night that weary pilgrims are more inclined to pay for than to walk another 5 km to the next hostel.
Still, the quintessential pilgrim experience crops up more often than not in spite of these complications. A few days ago, after descending from the spectacularly placed hilltop town of Cebreiro – the highest point on the French Camino – we stayed in a town called Samos in one of the oldest, if not the oldest, monastery in Spain. Once home to hundreds of Benedictine monks, fewer than 20 brothers now call the massive complex home.
Anne-Claire and I had both gotten a little run down and weren’t feeling well that night. We’ve noted that if ever there was a good way to spread disease, the Camino is it. Take a bunch of tired, underfed pilgrims who are constantly meeting and remeeting people from all over the world in the Jacob’s ladder that is the social system and watch as viruses make the trip faster than we do (funny that “Santiago” or “Saint James” translates to “Jacob” in several languages).
We left Samos engrossed in conversation on the topics of foreign affairs, religion and the Irish language with Joe from Dublin and Mareade from Cork. Though probably one of our slowest days speed-wise, the miles fell quickly behind, as our companions are both fascinating people. Joe’s a brilliant polymath working on a doctorate in chemistry. And Mareade has a keen eye for observation unusual for someone of just 20 years old.
Early in the evening, we arrived at yet another typical Galcian town where the livestock and the meters of elevation far outnumber the residents. We checked the first small albergue in Ferreiros and found it was completely full, but they directed us to the restaurant just down the hill. Out back, a tiny room crammed with beds stood surrounded by piles of lumber and building equipment. It looked like it had just been put up that afternoon (Anne-Claire even got some wet concrete on her shoe). A boisterious Swede named Kenneth informed us that the one shower for the 25 of us who would eventually sleep there that night had no hot water at all.
This wasn’t strictly true. There was hot water if you put the handle in the middle instead of to either side, though so much of it shot sideways from the head that by the time it reached you, any warmth had been lost to the air. Kenneth said later that if he had been the plumber who had installed the shower, he’d have fired himself. But after almost 30 km, I was just grateful to rinse of the sweat and dust from the trail.
We enjoyed a nice communal dinner, and then all headed back to our room around nine o’clock for bed. A loud generator was still toiling right outside the door, and a frustrated Italian, who had arrived after the shower had stopped giving hot water from any point on the dial, asked if anyone knew when the generator would turn off. Kenneth, by this point several bottles of beer and wine into his nightly routine (so we hear), piped up immediately and offered to take care of it.
A moment later over the din of the generator, we heard some yelling, which I can only guess was in Swedish. Kenneth forced the sticky door open and smiling, said, “I had a talk with it, and it will go off in about five minutes.”
Everyone laughed, but a couple of minutes later, the machine peetered out. As whispered conversations cropped up around the room in the pleasant silence, a shy Scottish guy of about 20 who’d said little to that point in the night commented to his girlfriend how nice it was that in a single room like this one with no bunks, it opened the door to freer conversation. Indeed, we were all on the same plane and in for what we figured would be one of our most interesting nights’ sleep on the Camino. Magically, as the sunlight dimmed the ambient light (the only light available, come to think of it) in the room, everyone settled into bed around the same time, and I drifted off for a very restful night.
Pilgrims come to the Camino seeking truth, enlightenment, religious revelation and answers to every possible question. More power to them, I suppose, if they’re successful. But it’s nights like the one we spent in Ferreiros that have crystallized its value for me – realizing that under layers of class and background and every other label we proudly affix to ourselves, we all share the same longing for a few basic things in life, a good night’s sleep not least among them.