On Thursday, I wrote celebratorily about having completed a “Brierly stage” in one day. Well, on Friday, I did it again. 50 km in two days!
I’ve now sped up. The elderly couples and other slow walkers who I was keeping time with have fallen behind and I’m now keeping time with much bigger groups of walkers.
Friday was a pleasant walk, leaving Santo Domingo there were no long stretches of road without a village. For the next two days, there was a village at least every five kilometres, and often there was only a kilometre or two between the villages. These are all really small little hamlets. My guidebook tells me that there are only 20 or 30 people living in each one. And the Camino is keeping them alive. Each of these little villages has one or two pilgrim hostels with bars and often a guest house or hotel too. They’re very atmospheric little places and the walk is certainly easier when you know that you’ll be coming on one of these villages every hour or so.
I also found other “late” walkers like me. On Friday, between 6:00 and 7:00, at a time when most other walkers have been stopped for at least two hours, I met two different German men, both of whom were out walking to Belorado like me.
One of them was one of the most handsome men I have ever seen. He was like Harry Judd (from McFly) only even hotter, if such a thing is possible. He asked me if I missed Ireland and I said that I missed the rain and the clouds and that I didn’t like the sun. He asked me if I was enjoying the Camino and I said that of course I wasn’t, that I don’t really like walking. He asked me why I was doing the Camino if I don’t like walking and I answered that I didn’t know. He looked at me with his perfect eyes and said with his perfect mouth, “The Camino will give you the answer, Connor.”
I hate the mumbo jumbo talked about the Camino. You hear a lot of people saying things like “the Camino will provide” or “the Camino has the answer”, as if the Camino were a magical being. It’s not the Abominable Snowman. It’s a long walk.
Still, he could have told me anything and I would just have accepted it because he was so beautiful. He was wearing a bandana and I caught myself thinking “bandanas are so sexy”. Of course, bandanas are not sexy. The man was sexy, not the bandana.
It reminded me of when I was a teenager. At the time, the sight of a man’s chest was very exciting. I never saw my friends’ chests. I wasn’t on any sports teams and my school didn’t have PE, so I was never in a changing room. I rarely went to beaches or swimming pools. TV advertising hadn’t started sexualising men to the extent that it does now. Men’s chests were in short supply. Of course, there was the internet, but the dial-up connection we had was very slow. I could search for pictures of men on the computer when I was home alone. Pictures loaded line by line. You would wait with baited breath as the top of the picture filled in and then gradually the head would be revealed and you’d breathe a sigh of relief that it was in fact a picture of a man. Then the head would be complete and you’d cheer to yourself as the chest became apparent. Then you’d get down to the waist and you’d get really excited. Was this just a topless pic? Or an all-the-way naked pic? Late 90s porn took patience, but there was drama and excitement to it.
Anyway, there was I, a teenage gay, starved of opportunities to view men’s chests, when one hot summer’s day I was walking along Patrick Street in Cork and I met a guy from my class by the Bank of Ireland ATM beside Waterstones. This meeting is burned into my memory. He was one of the most confident guys in our class and there he was wearing a leather waistcoat. With nothing underneath. Chest! Nipples! Arms! Abs! I remember not being able to talk properly. There he was, on the main street of the city, where anyone could see him. And his chest out for anyone to see. Nobody in Cork in 1999 dressed like that. He was with two girls, both of whom seemed as smitten as me. Ever since then, a man wearing a waistcoat or a jacket or a zip-up hoodie with no shirt or t-shirt underneath pushes the button on my libido that I discovered that day.
Is the same thing going to happen to me with men in bandanas now that I’ve met German Harry Judd? I don’t know.
The hostel in Belorado was nice. There were a lot of facilities. There was a hotel on the same site and those of us in the pilgrim hostel were given green wristbands to wear, presumably to prevent us from getting the special treatment the hotel guests were getting. I don’t know what I was missing out on by being brandished like this, but I know I wanted it.
Yesterday was another day with lots of little villages and potential for breaks. It was also the first day in ages where there were regular benches along the path. To add to this, it was really cloudy. Perfect for walking! Unfortunately, having increased my walking distance, my ankles were complaining again. If something prevents me from finishing this Camino, it will be my ankles. A day that should have been easy turned out to be painful.
As I walked along, sore and feeling sorry for myself, there were lots of poppies, just like on the Somme. Because I’m a melodramatic weirdo, my thoughts turned to death. Obviously. One thing I’ve noticed about being outside is that you get a lot of cuts. I’ve found inexplicable little nicks on both my hands and my feet. It’s hard to keep clean on the road and I keep thinking about Shane from the Australian soap opera, Home and Away. In mid-90s Ballincollig, Shane and Angel were Brad and Angelina, Rose and Jack and Romeo and Juliet all rolled into one. Theirs was truly a love we could all get on board with. One day, Shane was working on his motorbike and he cut his hand. (He had a motorbike and floppy hair. He was everything.) The cut got infected and Shane died. And Angel was left alone. I hope I don’t die from a cut. If I do, you’re all my Angels.
You meet all kinds of people on the Camino, including people looking for business. It’s not that unusual to bump into a teenager trying to encourage you to spend the night in the hostel or guesthouse that their parents are running. Yesterday, I met a hostel owner doing the same thing. He drove up beside me and asked me where I was from. He got very excited. He used to work as a barman in Fitzsimon’s in Temple Bar in Dublin. I can’t imagine a more different life. From Temple Bar to running a hostel for pilgrims in a tiny mountain village in Spain.
I ended up in Villafranca. Again, I was staying in a pilgrim hostel in the same complex as a hotel. This couldn’t have been more different from the night before. We didn’t have to wear special wristbands. Apparently the owner of the hotel has walked the Camino himself and wants to “give something back” We were given a pilgrim price on the standard hotel dinner in the hotel restaurant. It was amazing. The starter was the biggest starter I’ve ever had. And I’ve been in America. It was a massive bowl of potatoes and sausages in a lovely delicate sauce. The main course was almost as good. And real tiramisu for dessert. It felt like my first time ever eating. For once, I was a person, not a pilgrim.
I made sure to get over 12 hours off my feet that night. My ankles were OK again in the morning. I just need to make sure to keep resting them and I should be alright.
This morning started with the steepest hill of the Camino so far. Three minutes in, and it felt like I’d done a whole day’s walking already. It was unforgiving and steep for about three kilometres. I took a lot of breaks. And once you get to the top, there’s a steep downhill to a river, only to have to climb back up to the previous height. If I’d had to do this on my first day, I would have given up.
And all the little villages have disappeared. We had to walk 12 kilometres up and down mountains without anywhere to take a break. At one stage there was a woman giving out free drinks from the back of her car, but that’s not the same as sitting down in a little bar and having a lunch and an ice cold drink and having wifi. It was really tough.
The road was busy today and I met a lot of pilgrims. One English boy was marching along, singing at the top of his voice, to the tune of “She’ll be coming round the mountain”. The words he was using were “There were ten German bombers in the sky”, which he sang over and over, until the next verse, when he switched to “And the British RAF shot one down”. The next verse was the same as the first, except this time there were only nine German bombers. Considering that one of the biggest groups of walkers on the Camino is the Germans, he was clearly being a prick.
I met a German man around the same time, who asked me all the usual questions about where I’d started from and how far I was going. Then he asked me how much I weighed. When I told him I weighed 180 kilos, he was amazed. He made me repeat it twice and then write it on my phone just to be sure. He told me he was 75 kilos and he could barely stand up at the end of a Camino day. He stood back and looked at my body in awe.
I have written before about my conflicting feelings about being objectified. I hate it when drunk people and children call me names on the street. I hate when drunk women and hen parties slap my bum or pinch my nipples without my permission. I generally don’t like discussing my weight very much. But just sometimes, when a man sees my body and drinks it all in like that, I kind of love being objectified.
After our ridiculously long walk, we finally reached a village and had a break. A lot of people were stopping there. I wanted to go to at least the next village. Because the next village marked the 200 km point. And I made it! I have now walked 200 kilometres. Across difficult terrain. In Mediterranean heat. Carrying all my belongings on my back. Just 500 km to go!
I was the only walker on the last stretch of the way today, and it was the only part of the Camino so far that goes through a forest. As anyone who has ever read a book or seen a movie knows, forests are full of evil forces. Forests are where you meet escaped convicts and grizzly bears and Blair witches. Indeed, when my stick hit the ground, I could hear something moving in the undergrowth. I didn’t question it. I walked on.
I haven’t been attacked or eaten by malevolent forest forces. I am in the little village of Agés. I went to a nice-looking hostel and paid for a bed. After I had paid, I was told that the hostel was full and I was being taken to the annex. I was led down a laneway and into a crumbling building. It’s probably the most cramped room I’ve been in so far. I’m not going to complain though. Five young Portuguese cyclists have just arrived and are changing. If you’re going to be cramped next to someone, it might as well be a gang of young semi-naked Portuguese cyclists.