I've been procrastinating. We're almost to the end -- and in the last few days we've had a plethora of adventures! The Camino never stops surprising us, it seems.
The morning after my last blog we departed, aiming for a city called O Cebrairo, that was, as someone said, "after a bit of an uphill." This, it turned out, was actually a 400 meter climb (try a little more than 12,000 feet!) Whee! We walked all day through beautiful forests alongside a riverbed ... and then we saw a small uphill. We began up it ... and right when we thought it should be about to even out, it became (what felt like) a 90 degree angle, upwards.
We conquered that hill!
It was broken up into three sections -- after one third it let out at a small town, where some stayed at an albergue, and where we all dunked our heads under the icy water of a local fountain. The next third let out at a vending machine on a small patch of flat, followed by a cafe about 50 meters away, that none of us made it to. We collapsed by the vending machine instead. The final third brought us to the city of O Cebrairo -- quaint, cobblestoned, clean, and set just over the crest of the hill, overlooking the entire countryside. This was the only place so far that we had seen tour busses and tourists -- and they were everywhere (it was easy to see why!)
On our climb up, we all had different experiences. Rachel plowed through it, and I chased her, not allowing myself to stop unless she did (she didn't, except in the designated places). Mary and Sanne paused after the first third, and when they went to continue they rounded a corner and found that someone had plugged a radio into a window somewhere, and the song playing was The Proclaimer's "... and I would walk 500 miles ..." We've been singing this along the way, and boom -- here it was, perfect motivation. Julia got stuck behind a train of horses all the way up, and even when she stopped to take a break at the fountain they showed up again, right behind her this time. This was a frustrating experience for her, and a really funny one to hear about from the rest of us.
When Rachel, Mary, Sanne and I got to the top, we found Julia and Robert sitting at a cafe waiting, with bad news. All the albergues were full, and there was nowhere to stay. We'd been hearing this rumor all day, but we're generally very optimistic, and kept thinking, surely there will be something. Nope. Even worse, the next town (down the mountain) was also full -- and sleeping outside would be ridiculously cold, especially as we only have sleeping bag liners. In the end we found two rooms in two different hotels, and Sanne and Rachel took one, and Mary and I the other. No sooner had we walked in but we were rejoicing in our mishap. We would have always chosen an albergue -- but here, just by circumstance, we were blessed with our own room, and our own bathroom! I was just getting my shampoo out of my bag to shower when we started hearing yelling from outside that sounded like, "KATIEEEEEEEEE????"
Yep. Julia and Robert had no idea where we all had gone, so their solution to finding us was to walk around O Cebrairo calling our names. This made me laugh really hard (and they say Americans are loud!)
Robert and Julia came around the side and climbed through our very large ground floor window (no screens in Europe.) Watching this made me a little afraid for the safety of our stuff while we were gone. About an hour after they came in, we heard again (from the hallway this time), "MARYYYYYY?? KATIEEEE!!!" Rachel and Sanne had adapted the same location technique. We are really classy.
The next morning, after a really, really good nights sleep in an actual bed, we headed back down the mountain and into a small mountain town called Triacastella. This town was absolutely delightful -- but again, was filled by 1 PM! People begin sticking backpacks in a line several hours before the albergues even open, creating a sort of desperate race to the finish approach to these final days. We were lucky enough to get beds, but another group we frequently walk with ended up on the grass outside until the town generously opened up a gymnasium for them to sleep in.
The next day was monumental: we passed Sarria, the marker for the last 100 kilometers of the Camino de Santiago! This was the moment where we all realized, oh my gosh, we're going to make it! (A little too soon on my part, which we'll get to soon.) We went a little further to celebrate at a private albergue one town further on that had a swimming pool! This was like a resort oasis, and provided a much needed break! We were there by one, and were able to spend the rest of the day resting by the pool, swimming, and laughing.
An important side note for me: this was August 6th, the date that one of my dearest friends from college made her final vows with the Sisters of Life in New York City! Despite the fact that I'm halfway across the world, this beautiful woman was on my mind all day, and Rachel (who knows her as well) and I were able to attend Mass at the exact time of the vow ceremony back in New York. That was a huge blessing! A mutual friend video recorded it and texted it to me, and we watched Sr. Mariae Agnus Dei make her vows, under a tree on the Camino the next day. We both cried, and in typical Camino style a bunch of people offered us bandages and chocolate milk until I tried to explain that I was just happy. Congratulations, dear heart!!!
As we were walking to that mass, however, I discovered that I had a massive pain in my left leg -- a resurgence of the shin splint I'd had a few days before but that had disappeared. This one kept getting worse overnight, and by the time we got up I was limping significantly. Mary walked slowly with me, until after 18 kilometers I realized I couldn't go any further. I'm not generally a wimp with pain, but this was bad. Thinking it was probably worse than just a shin splint, I stopped in Portomarin, planning to take a taxi the rest of the way and meet my friends at their destination. No sooner had they left, however, I realized this was a bad idea -- as I had no idea if I would be able to walk the next day, and I was in a town with a bus. To take a taxi into a town in the middle of nowhere might mean also needing to take one out, and I had no idea how expensive that would be.
And that is how I found myself Camigo-less and in pain three days before Santiago.
Actually it wasn't that bad. I was trying very hard not to have a pity party and to make the best of it (but also not allowing myself to cry over it), when I walked out of the pharmacy and looked up to see none other than Mike, our doctor friend from DC. I think I said something like, "Mike, my leg hurts," and then burst into tears, and then cried more because I felt ridiculous that I was crying. (Lesson number one of the Camino: everyone cries.) Mike diagnosed this as probably a very bad shin splint, massaged the muscle out with his hiking pole (which hurt, yes), and ate ice cream with me. We spent the rest of the day chatting and sitting in the square at a cafe, and I learned how to find ice in Spain (go to a bar and explain that your leg hurts).
The next morning I found a German medical student with blisters covering the bottom of his feet in my albergue, also facing his destiny in the form of the Santiago bus. Together we shuffled to the bus stop, through the station at Lugo on our layover (where we got passed by several people in their 80's), and into Melide, a small city famous for its "pulpo", otherwise known as octopus. (It's a food.) And we ate it! It tastes -- I know, big surprise here -- like chicken, except really, really chewy. Robert swears a suction cup is still stuck in his throat.
Today, again, my camigos left on their 35 kilometer hike, and I stayed behind in Melide to take the bus. This wasn't until noon, being as it was Sunday, so I spent a leisurely morning in a cafe, passing through a street fair, and in the Iglesia San Roque, where I arrived at 10 when I had been informed Mass was, and had some peaceful quiet time until 11, when Mass actually was.
I also had ample time to reflect on this situation. The Camino is such a journey, and throws such unexpected things (good and bad) all the time. I never thought I would end up taking the bus 50 kilometers from the end. Is this disappointing? Certainly! Is it embarrassing? No, not really, as it could happen to anyone. Is it frustrating? YES. But, one thing the last five weeks have really taught me, is that what is meant to happen happens -- that God is always, always in control, and that his plan for my life is so far beyond my own. The Camino might be a microcosm of this, but it's one that my peewee little brain can understand and integrate. Where life is overwhelming to grasp, the Camino presents these lessons in very learnable stages, one day to the next. I am content. I am injured; I will be shy of meeting my goals of how far I walked; I actually may not receive my Compostela ("certificate" saying I walked to Santiago), but I am absolutely content in all of it, and I trust that all this has happened for a reason. To be disappointed, or to complain (even to myself) would be to let the negative overshadow the miracles of the last few weeks, and that would be a huge discredit to the wonder of this experience. And so, I accept it willingly!
... except I am definitely, DEFINITELY, walking into Santiago de Compostela tomorrow -- no matter if I have to limp, crawl, or if Robert has to give me a piggy back ride. I am way too stubborn to not do this, and I know I need to. (I also have medical approval, everyone who is about to freak out at me!)
Last night I was sitting on the third floor of our albergue with my friends, who were taking amazing care of me in my pain and emotional struggle with accepting this. I was just saying to Julia, "I wish we knew where that other American doctor is," referring to an ER doctor from Boston we've met many times.
"I ... think he's right there!" Julia said, pointing out the window. Sure enough, there he was, in the courtyard of the neighboring albergue, eating dinner. Julia went to get him, and he came up and made a personal medical call to me in my orange plastic chair in the albergue common room. After some poking and questioning he "diagnosed" me with tendinitis -- not a stress fracture as I was afraid.
"Have you been doing any repetitive, heavy exercise or heavy lifting?" he asked jokingly.
Today we arrived in Pedeouza -- our last stop before reaching Santiago de Compostela. Emotions are so mixed, and so many! We'll be there tomorrow! But this also means the end of a group, of a lifestyle, and of the beauty and freedom of the Camino! Part of me wants to say stop, wait, have I learned enough?! Am I different that I was?! Was my Camino "successful"?! Another part wants to say no, wait, I'm not ready to go back to "real life"! Another part wants to hold onto my friends -- these dear, dear friends from all corners of the world, each of whom I have grown to love so dearly. Tomorrow is a celebration, and also the end of a very good chapter -- a joy and a sorrow.
But first, we walk!