Sunday was a tough and long day. It included a 17-km stretch with no villages. This was the longest walk so far without any breaks and it was a hot day. I didn’t take me long to drink and to sweat out my supply of water.
My body is reacting well to the walking. My legs are changing shape. My lower legs in particular. I now have calf muscles like the Hoff. And my shins have got a lot more solid too. I’d forgotten what it was like to have unflabby bits.
And the further I walk, the better I get at doing hard things and at finding motivation when it isn’t there. As the poem says, “I am the Master of my Fate. I am the Kanye of my Soul.”
For all my boasting, I did not walk into the hostel that evening. I staggered in. I think the hostel owner found the sight of me comical. He was full of that heterosexual humour that I just don’t find funny. He asked me where I was from, and when I said Ireland, he told me I’d have to go to the next hostel 7 km away. Then he laughed at his own “joke”. Then he showed me a pile of dirty sheets in a basket and told me that would be my bed, before laughing again and showing me my actual bed. He decided that my name would be Manolo and he introduced me as Manolo to the rest of the staff, laughing all the while. I know lots of straight people who tell these jokes and I just don’t get it. Never have.
Sleep was difficult that night. I’ve got used to other pilgrims’ snoring, but the man next to me had all kinds of other sound effects. He was an overweight man. I’m not sure if he was bigger or smaller than me. I have no idea how big I actually look to other people. Like me, this man had to lever himself out of bed and carefully lower himself back in. He was obviously having throat problems. He didn’t cough once, but he cleared his throat very loudly about once a minute for three hours. He was drinking water and sucking sweets to try to stop himself but it wasn’t working. I’ve never heard anything like it and I didn’t feel great when I got up the next morning.
Monday morning was really, really sunny. And the sun was very hot and very burn-y.
From the 17th to the 19th centuries, upper-class young Englishmen used to go on a “Grand Tour” as part of their education. This would involve travelling around continental Europe (especially France and Italy) and being snobby and cultured for months on end. It was important that they only visited Spain, Italy or Greece in winter and they would race to northern France or Germany in the springtime as it would be madness to get caught in the Mediterranean sun.
The aristocrats of old were right. There is nothing of value in “good weather”. It confounds me that people who have options choose to live in hot countries. The sun is so disempowering. It’s difficult to move, to eat, or to sleep in hot weather. And it’s just uncomfortable to be outside under the sun. And that burning feeling is just so awful. Ireland really does have the ideal weather. A cloudy 12 degrees with occasional drizzle is so unthreatening and idyllic.
Anyway, while I’m complaining, I might as well get another one out. Monday was one of the many Camino days where you walk along tracks with beautiful flowers growing on either side. And flowers bring insects. And insects love my face. Don’t do the Camino unless you’re comfortable with insects flying directly at your face for an hour or even two hours at a time. Insects including wasps and bees. And insects don’t ask before they fly into your mouth or up your nose.
I’ve been impressed by how little rubbish pilgrims leave behind them. Over 200,000 people walk this route every year. You certainly see some plastic bottles and food wrappers, but really not that many considering how many people are here. I have become good at noticing what I call “pilgrim droppings”, small things that fall out of pilgrims’ backpacks or off their bodies by accident. I’ve seen quite a few ear plugs on the ground, clearly brought to block out the snoring of others and accidentally dropped along the way. I’ve seen hundreds of used plasters, compeed pads and bandaids that have obviously dropped off pilgrims’ feet. The other thing you see is kind of gross. If you look into the bushes along the path, you can see quite a bit of toilet paper. Used toilet paper. When you have long stretches between villages with no facilities at all, it’s not surprising that people get caught short.
I have a notoriously spacious bladder that only needs to be emptied once or twice a day, so I have not been using Spain as a toilet. Until Monday, that is. I found myself 6 kilometres from the next town. And I wasn’t dying for a pee. I was dying for a poo. Oh no! I held on. And held on. But I was going to explode. Dear readers, I went into the bushes and for the first time in my life, I did an outside poo. I’m basically Bear Grylls. And while I was at it, four cyclists came past and every one of them made eye contact with me. I have never felt more manly.
The rest of the day’s walking was easy. I had done the worst thing I’d have to that day and there was a spring in my step.
The next day, Tuesday, was probably my most emotional so far. I’d obviously been reading all about the shooting in a gay club in Orlando. It’s rare that news makes me emotional, but I found myself tearing up over this, an attack on my tribe. And here I am, engaging in a very Catholic ritual, feeling very far away from the gay world. I was even more depressed when I read that the shooter was gay, or at least that he’d been a frequent visitor to this club and had used gay apps. I think most gay people have experienced at least some self-hatred or disgust at themselves related to their own sexuality. That’s what happens when you grow up in a straight world. I kept thinking about how much self-hatred this shooter must have felt to kill 49 other gay people and to know he was going to get killed himself. The whole thing upset me, and I found myself being sad for the shooter as well as for the victims.
But Tuesday was also a good day for me emotionally. Late in the afternoon, I passed the halfway point in my Camino. I had walked 354 kilometres and had another 354 to go. I genuinely believe I can make it, even though it took over three weeks to do the first half and I only have a little over two weeks to do the second.
It had been a windy day and soon after passing my halfway mark, it started raining heavily. I got out my rain poncho, remembering the first time I’d used it, on the first week of my Camino. That day, the rain and wind had battered and challenged me. It had been my first time doing over 20 km in one day and I could barely stay upright. I felt so bad. This time, the rain was annoying and I tore my poncho, and yes, my feet and ankles hurt, but this wasn’t anything as hard as that time. I can walk longer and faster than I could before and my body kind of expects 20 km a day now.
I stayed that night in a cute village called El Burgo Ranero, which sounds more like a fast food chain than a place name to me.
The weather was still wet yesterday morning and there were few places to take shelter along the walk. At one stage, the sky just opened. There was thunder and lightning and hailstones. I got soaked through. My rain poncho is in such a bad state now that I can only use it to protect my backpack and I just let myself get wet. I didn’t mind. It feels refreshing, after so many weeks of sun. Eventually, the sun came back out and I was dry by the end of my walk.
Something strange has started to happen in the last day or two. I’m beginning to not hate the Camino. I don’t want to speak too soon. Obviously, I’m still not an outdoorsy person. Obviously, I still look around sometimes and ask what on earth I’m doing here. Obviously, when my ankles are so sore that I feel like crying, I want to give up. Obviously, the sunburn and the dirt and the insect bites and the barking dogs and the sleepless hostel nights and the stink of my sweaty clothes and the false friendly chats with elderly German couples all drive me insane.
But yesterday I noticed myself being happy while I was walking. I was actually enjoying the process. It’s taken a long time, but I’m feeling more optimistic about everything. As I said earlier, I think I’ll actually make it to Santiago. As I also said earlier, I’m feeling more in control and more motivated. My body is changing shape. Not only are my calves getting muscly, but my waist is getting smaller.
I was worried that I’d come to the end of this adventure and have to say “Well I’ve proved I’m still alive, but I’ve no idea what I’m alive for.” But I don’t feel that way now. I think this might actually turn out positively.
But there’s lots more walking to do first.