I’ve started walking faster. Still not fast. But faster. On Tuesday morning, as I left Agés, I found myself overtaking people on the road. People who hadn’t stopped to answer the phone or to pop their blisters. I overtook some people who were actually walking. This is a first for me and I was delighted.
I was headed for the city of Burgos. Everyone you meet tells you that the Camino changes after Burgos. It loses the mountainy feel, there aren’t as many little villages and you spend long and dusty day’s walking across the “Meseta”, Spain’s central elevated plain. I enjoyed my final little mountain villages, stopping in them all, as I always do.
In one village I sat in a little picnic area for pilgrims next to two young men. They sat together, eating their lunch in total silence. Then one of them got out his toothbrush and toothpaste and started brushing his teeth. The other guy looked on with a look of utter disgust. My guess is that they started out walking as friends, but after two weeks of spending time together non-stop they’ve grown tired of each other and simple acts like toothbrushing have become deeply irritating.
The guy who had brushed his teeth then decided to refill his water “bladder”. I have discovered that, for hikers, a bladder is a plastic bag of water that you keep in your rucksack and it’s connected to a hose that comes out of the arm of your bag, so you can just suck and get water, without using your hands at all. It’s a bit like Homer Simpson’s beer hat. My bag is not a speciality rucksack. In fact, my backpack is my regular little orange school bag that I’ve been using for college and work for the last five years. It holds all I need and it’s a lot lighter than what most people here carry. This guy had a massive rucksack, big enough to carry a child and still have room for a whole set of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica. He fished around for his water bladder, which was deep in the rucksack. He started taking things out of the bag, much to the annoyance of his “friend” who looked on and scowled unhelpfully. He shoved his arm further and further into the bag. It really was a big bag. He looked like a vet plunging his arm into a cow during a difficult calving. Eventually he grasped the bladder and pulled. Everything spilled out of his bag. His “friend” rolled his eyes and started getting ready to walk again, leaving him in a panic trying to refill his bladder and repack his massive bag so they could leave together. I’m glad I’m travelling alone.
Brierly, my guidebook writer and sworn enemy, agrees that it is good to walk the Camino alone, so that it will be easier to meet local people and benefit from their wisdom and lore. As if rural Spain is full of wise characters spouting folklore like the Native Americans in Doctor Quinn Medicine Woman.
I wish I’d spent the rest of that day alone. I really do. Relatively early on, I met a middle-aged Slovene woman. I started chatting to her because I love Slovenia and Slovenes and have spent two good summers there. She wasn’t in a good mood. And while the Irish are good at complaining, for the people of the Balkans, complaining is a passion.
She told me about the pain in her ankles. I sympathised, having had bad problems with my own ankles. But she wasn’t interested in my problems. She wanted to talk about hers.
I recommended going to a pharmacy and stopping early for the day to rest. She wouldn’t do it. She decided that if I could walk to Burgos today, then so could she. She decided that we were going to walk together. She continued to complain. For the next four hours. She didn’t ask me my name or where I came from. She just whined. She told me that for the first week, she had been fine. She had walked with young fit people and had no problem keeping up with them. Now here she was with sore ankles, stuck with me. I kept recommending she stop and stay somewhere en route. She refused. If I could do it, then so could she. I don’t think she realised just how insulting she was being. I tried to suggest we walk separately, but she said she needed to be with me, so I gritted my teeth and bore it.
When we stopped for food, she was amazed that I got vegetables. A common complaint I’ve heard from Northern and Eastern Europeans is that Spanish people don’t eat vegetables. I know this to be bollocks. But Germans and Poles and British people are used to getting a pile of boiled vegetables or of sauerkraut on the plate next to their meat. They’re not used to ordering a salad separately from their meat, so when they order some pork and it arrives on a plate with no cabbage, they draw the conclusion that Spaniards don’t eat vegetables, rather than simply ordering a salad as well as the pork, like everyone around them is doing.
Anyway, the walk into Burgos was not an easy one. The city is the biggest one so far and it’s a big change from what you get used to here. There’s no soil to poke your walking poles in to propel you forward. You’re walking on hard footpaths, dealing with traffic and pedestrians and the life of a city. I love cities, but it does feel weird on the Camino. It just doesn’t fit. My walking partner really hated the city. It took us about two hours to walk through the industrial estates and the suburbs to get to the city centre, and the city centre was big and easy to get lost in. She kept muttering that we should have taken a bus through the city because walking through the city was “not the real Camino”. She said this over and over again. But of course it’s the “real Camino”. Pilgrims have been walking through Burgos for hundreds of years.
She wasn’t a very considerate walking partner. She kept deciding to stop in odd places. If I have a choice, I will always take a break in the shade, but she insisted that we stop on boiling hot metal benches that had been cooking in the Spanish sun for hours. We passed a lot of places to stay and I pointed them all out to her, but she said she was going to stay in a pilgrim hostel. Only Americans stay in B&Bs and hotels, she said. It’s not a “real Camino” if you do that. After four hours of her intolerable company, I only had one motivation left in life. I wasn’t going to stay where she did. As soon as we found a pilgrim hostel in the city centre, I told her that I was off to find a nice hotel, and that’s exactly what I did.
“Real Camino”. It’s just a walk. I really don’t know why people feel the need to make so many more rules than simply – “walk to Santiago”.
Although the map told me that I had walked 24 km that day, my iPhone told me I had done over 30 km. It certainly felt like it. But maybe that was just the company. Whatever the truth, it was my longest day’s walking yet.
As always when I stay in a hotel, I didn’t do any laundry and I stayed in bed late, so I left later than I had planned and smellier than I had planned. It didn’t matter, so long as I didn’t get caught up with my Slovene “friend” again.
The road out of Burgos is flat and relatively easy. As I walked along, I think I must have looked very bedraggled. Or maybe I was just sending out “Don’t walk with me” signals after the previous day. Whatever the case, I got a lot more congratulatory and/or encouraging shout-outs than usual. Every day, someone calls out “You can do it!” or “Wow! You’re doing so well!” or “Courage!” or “Animo!” But on this walk, yesterday, I was getting this constantly, from every walker and cyclist who passed me. One group of Americans were particularly friendly. “Oh my God! You’re so wonderful to be doing this! You’re very admirable!” They insisted on finding out my name and all four of them introduced themselves. One of them was leaning on a tree and asked if I’d like to lean on it too. I didn’t but it was lovely.
I got to the village of Tardajos and stopped for a drink. I had planned on going to the toilet too, but the bar didn’t feel clean so I decided not to bother. I had been told the pretty little mountain villages had come to an end and this was definitely the case here. It was like a Spanish version of the most unattractive parts of Carrigaline. I hurried out of the town. I’d gone five minutes when I realised I’d have to come back and go to the loo. It was indeed filthy, but I took off my glasses and pretended not to notice.
I stayed the night in what was actually a very lovely little town called Rabé. It’s not all Carrigalines from here on. I washed my clothes and played on the internet and got an excellent night’s sleep.
Today was my first day walking the “Meseta”, a flat plain. I was looking forward to it. Looking forward to not having to hike up mountains any more. What they don’t tell you is that the Meseta has folds. It has cracks. You’re still walking up and down steep slopes to get onto the flat bits. And those flat bits go on forever, without any shade at all, without any water available for miles on end. It’s beautiful, but it’s not really any easier than before. There are no more mountain clouds and mists to protect you from the sun. There are no trees. There are very few villages. It’s miles and miles of fields.
I did well today. I can now do 5 km in the heat without sitting down once. The first crevice in the Meseta is a particularly steep one, known as the “mule-killer” in Spanish. I adopted my usual snail’s pace shuffle as I descended. Some people decided to go with gravity and run down the slope. I know that if I did this I would definitely fall. One of the people who passed me, running down this slope, was the young English guy I mentioned in my last post. I keep bumping into him. My first experience with him was of him marching over a mountain top, surrounded by Germans and singing an anti-German xenophobic song at the top of his voice. Next I met him one evening in a hostel. He said to me that he and some lads were having drinks on the terrace if I wanted to join them. I guess he’s Captain Fun. When he invited me outside, I just said “No thanks” and he didn’t know what to say. Today, as he ran down the mountain and I shuffled, he poked me in the arm as he passed and said “Hey there, buddy!” I’m not his buddy.
It was late when I arrived in Hontanas. I walked over 20 km again today and the Meseta took it out of me. I walked into my hostel and the first thing I saw was my Slovene “friend”. I nodded to her, but we didn’t talk. Then I heard cries of “Connor! You made it! We’re so glad to see you!” Three people I’d never seen before in my life rushed up to me and started chatting enthusiastically, telling me what a delight it was to see me again. After a minute, I realised that it wasn’t a prank and that they were the Americans who I had passed yesterday and who had offered me a tree to lean against. I was talking to three of them, when the fourth appeared and said, “Well if that isn’t a sight that would make you happy! Great to see you Connor!”
I love Americans. I really do. I don’t care if it was fake. We all deserve welcomes like that after a hot and sweaty day. I had a drink with them. They’re adorable.
The hostel is great. It’s an old hostel that’s been recently renovated. Very recently. Some of the beds are still wrapped in clingfilm. I’m in a room of 10 beds with only three people – me and a middle-aged English couple. After taking to them for a minute they asked if I was Irish.
Connor: I am.
English woman: Well, we’re English. I hope you don’t mind.
Connor: Of course not! I have lots of English friends!
English woman: Oh good. Then we can sleep safely.
Connor: Yes you can. I haven’t brought a bomb with me.
Everyone: awkward silence