Sunday, July 27, 2008

I made it.

28 days, 830 kilometers, 13 blisters, 2 boats, 2 pairs of shoes, 2 sleeping bags (I lost my first one in Santoña), one tick, and so many amazing stories later, I made it. I have walked across Spain and lived to tell.

But telling will have to wait awhile. I haven't slept more than 4 hours total in the last two night, and just finished a week's worth of 40km + days. First order of business - sleep. Next order of business - sangria.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Home Stretch

Can you believe I've been gone almost a month already?

If all goes as I hope it will (knocking furiously on wood), I will be in Santiago de Compostela this time next week. My first 3 days of Warp Speed to Santiago have gone reasonably well. They're not easy days and I've slept like a dead person every night, but I haven't cut my feet off or cried yet. The nights are as fun as the days are difficult, so that makes a lot of it worthwhile. Last night we sat around a picnic table telling jokes in 4 different languages, with different people translating so everyone could understand. Most jokes invoked the topic of the Last Supper, and I had to leave the table a couple of times because I almost wet my pants from laughing so hard.

I have an inexplicable mental block against walking after 3pm. I don't know what it is, and I totally can't help it. At about 2:55, I start unintentionally dragging ass and can't really get back into the game, regardless of how many café con leches I down. Since I'm walking for about 12 hours each day now, I have to compensate appropriately. This has involved waking up between 4:30 and 5:30am. Not that big of a deal for me, especially since I'm sort of a random sleeper to begin with. The problem lies in then trying to get myself (and my ridiculously large backpack) out of a room filled with no less than 30 other sleeping people. I've refined my technique, but not before a few moments of trial and error. The first morning, my mom called at 6:00am to say hi. Great. Normally an excellent time to take advantage of the 7 hour time difference between Spain and Texas. Except I was trying to move my things out of the maze of a room I was staying in, and in the process left my cell phone sitting on my bottom bunk. With the ringer was turned ALL the way up. And I was all the way out of the door before I heard it. I'm not sure how more people didn't wake up, but I grabbed the phone, my sunglasses, my guidebook and hightailed it out of the albergue before anyone could figure out that I was the one responsible for disturbing their sleep at that ungodly hour of the morning. Fortunately, I've gotten smart. I have started leaving my strategically packed bag in the hallway at night so I can pop my sleeping bag in the next morning and leave without dropping my metal Sigg bottle or smashing into someone's bed in the dark.

Fortunately, I have a room all to myself tonight. Today was a 38km hike that started at 5am. 32km involved varying levels of really cold rain. If anyone saw me at the Radiohead concert in May, I sort of looked like that again by the time I got to the albergue. I was that happy, too. I was dying for a shower, my warm clothes, and my sleeping bag, but before I could even make it back to the bunk beds, I was greeted by a swarm of flies. They were everywhere. I couldn't count them all, and I couldn't keep them off of me. I can handle a lot of things - cold showers, snoring, wearing not clean socks because I had no means by which to wash and dry clothing the night before... but I cannot handle flies. They freak me out. So I walked 2km to the next town and happily forked over 15€ to spend the night in a pensión housed in a gorgeous old mansion. I have two beds to choose from in a room with no men emitting various disturbing noises throughout the night, and I can turn the lights on while I'm packing to leave at 4:30 tomorrow morning.

I know this all sounds incredibly appealing - soaking wet uphill hikes in cold rain, vermin, blisters... but believe it or not, I'm still having an amazing time. Two days ago I had a really rough hike up a 400m high mountain. It was a steep slope that went almost straight up, and I though I might actually fall over dead halfway up the hill. But I didn't die. I made it all the way up to the top of the uphill climb that just wouldn't quit. When I turned around to see where I had come from, I got the most euphoric rush I've had in years. Not only was the view incredible, but I'd gotten up there all by myself, even though I wasn't sure I could do it. Even after the hardest day, as cranky and tired as I might be when I first set my pack down at an albergue, I still feel happy about what I've done. It's like I've conquered something by not giving in and taking a bus when I'm so tired of walking that I want to throw something at someone.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Dear Nike, Thanks for saving my trip.

She lives!

Thanks to Nike and a long suffering hospitalera in San Vicente de la Barquera, my feet are healed, and I'm over halfway to Santiago. This is the first day I've been near a computer since last week, so despite my urge to give you a second by second rundown on the last 7 days, I'll try to keep this to the point.

This time last week, I thought I was going to have to cash in my chips and go back to Madrid. My feet weren't getting any better, and if anything, my boots seemed to be making my situation even worse. My first day back on the road after my day of rest was a disaster. I only made it 17km, and the last 7 were done in flip flops because my boots were making me cry. Literally. Not only were they making my blisters hurt worse, but they were also making me walk funny, which was hurting a tendon in my right foot. A cold shower and long talk with myself made me decide to take the train back to Santander (20 minute train ride... that took me 8 hours to walk) and buy a pair of running shoes. It was a last ditch effort, and thankfully it worked. Life has been like night and day since, and I'd like to thank Nike for sending Nike Airs to Europe. Since the exchange rate sucks, they were easily the most expensive shoes I've ever purchased, but they were worth every penny.

Thanks to the new shoes and my healing feet, I started having fun again. Stefan (my new German friend from Cologne) and I kept a similar pace for the next several days and had a great time in between. We stayed in some adorable towns - historic Santillana del Mar, Cóbreces, San Vicente de la Barquera, Colombres and Llanes. Some of the sleeping arrangements were nicer than others, but our favorite was in Colombres. The "albergue" involved mats in between exercise equipment in a gymnasium where an indoor soccer tournament was being held... until 11pm. We opted to stay in a pensión apartment where (for 10€ each) we had our own bedrooms, a bathroom that didn't require flip flops for bathing, a kitchen, couches and a television. We felt guilty for about 5 seconds as we ate the dinner we had cooked while crashed out on couches watching Spanish trash tv, but let's face it - we're pilgrims, not martyrs. I needed my sleep that night. After a rambunctious Tuesday night involving several bottles of Asturian cider, I reluctantly said goodbye to my new friend. He's currently recovering on a beach in San Sebastian before heading back to Cologne.

I've met SO many interesting people along the way. I usually find myself surrounded either by Germans or Spaniards, although I met my first American yesterday. He's a 23 year old college kid from Northern Arizona, and he doesn't know a lick of Spanish. He started the Camino from Amsterdam (which may or may not explain his tendancy to be a bit dippy), doesn't have hardly any money, and generally either sleeps outside or in churches. He has really long hair and a Grizzly Adams beard, so everyone calls him "El Hippy". It's sort of hilarious. He's a well intentioned guy, and seems to be enjoying his unorthodox approach Summer 2008.

It's going to be an intense next 10 days. I have just enough time to get to Santiago before I'll have to head back to Madrid to catch my flight to Tunisia for the real vacation part of my trip. I've walked over 30km per day for the last 3 days, and will have my first of several really long walks tomorrow - a 44km hike from Villaviciosa to Avilés. I'm about to stick my feet in the coldest water I can find to prep them for the abuse they're about to endure. Provided that my body parts and the weather cooperate, I'm estimating that I'll be in Santiago on the 27th or 28th.

As a postscript to my girlfriends... I was horrified to find that I have missed out on important American gossip. Madonna was having an affair with A-Rod?!? WTF? I had no idea that I needed to book a flight to England to console Guy Ritchie! Please remember that I'm removed from the real world and forget to check on the rare occassions I am able to hijack a computer. I could use a bullet point list of pertinent updates every few days.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Sangria, Sangre, Santander

Well, the wheels finally came off. I overdid it yesterday, and am spending today recuperating in Santander. I can probably pinpoint about 6 or 7 different reasons yesterday was unsuccessful. Each error committed alone wouldn't have dented the day, but combined, caused some problems.

Among my errors - shorts. They seemed like a good idea so I could get a little color on my pasty white legs, but I was obviously not thinking properly. 2 hours into the hike, we had to scale El Brusco, an insanely steep hill full of dense brush. The hill was only 90 meters high, but it was like walking up a flight of steep stairs, sans the stairs. Everyone who knows me knows that I'm not the world's most coordinated person. As a child, my dad used to jokingly call me Grace because I had none. I'm still not quite sure how I didn't fall off the mountain, or fall in a briar patch, because I definitely slipped several times.

Once I got off the mountain, I thought things were going to be okay. The view from the top was gorgeous, despite my harrowing climb up, and beach on the other side was even better. I slowed down a little as I walked along the shoreline - it was nice to just enjoy the sound of the ocean and the heat of the sun. I soon lost my little yellow arrows, though. I stopped in a pharmacy to ask, and one of the employees looked at me like I was completely out of my mind (which I probably am). She said I shouldn't have come to Noja in the first place if I was following the Camino. I pulled out my book and showed her the map I was using, and how it indicated that the actual official Camino went through Noja. She told me I was using a bad map and to take the highway to Güemes because it was faster and easier. I thanked her, despite the fact that I was completely aggravated that she completely missed the point of a)my question and b)what I was doing, and walked towards the highway. The Camino followed to the right of the highway, so I figured I had to see an arrow somewhere, sometime. 2 hours later, I FINALLY saw my first arrow. I was so happy I took a picture of it. I was 8km from Güemes, where I planned to stop for lunch and assess the general pain I was feeling in my feet. I would decide there if I would stay the night or try and continue on to Santander.

I should have stayed in Güemes. After finishing a sandwich and some lemonade, I felt better about life and thought I could handle the last 11km to Santander. I couldn't. 5km into it, I wanted to cut off my feet and walk on my hands because my blisters hurt so badly. I was tempted to stop and take off my boots to assess the damage, but I knew that would just make things worse since I'd have to walk at least 5km to civilization regardless of what was going on down there. I decided to keep going, though at a much slower pace. 4km later, I felt like everything and everyone was staring at my sad, limping self - cows, motorists, children. I started to lose it a little and was talking to myself, "Angie, of course your feet hurt. You're walking across an effing country. What did you think was going to happen?" Pretty sure everyone thought I was a crazy homeless person, which again, I sort of am. I'm still not sure how I made it to the dock to get on the ferry from Soma to Santander, but I did it. I knew something tragic was going on in my right boot, but since I just couldn't deal with it at that point, I bribed my inner 5 year old with some ice cream and quietly waited for the ferry to get there.

At 7:30pm, 12 hours after I started, I hobbled off the ferry in Santander and started the 4 block walk to the albergue. It took me 25 minutes. I gingerly climbed the flight of stairs to the door of the lobby, and was greeted by a closed door with a sign that said "COMPLETO, COMPLETE, FULL". Ugh.

I pushed open the door and was greeted with pitying looks from 3 older gentlemen manning the intake desk. We exchanged pleasantries in Spanish, and then I asked for a suggestion of an inexpensive place nearby where I could stay. One of the men made a phone call and said that a woman would be by for me shortly. She ran a pensión down the street and would only charge me 15€ for the night. I asked if any of my friends had made it in time to get a bed, and found that the only one accounted for was Àngel, who somehow managed to snag the last available spot... two hours earlier.

Once settled in the pensión, I assessed the damage and decided I had to take today off. My feet were a complete disaster, and I had a raging heat rash/sunburn on the backs of both legs. It was past 10pm by now and I was exhausted. I had hurt myself trying to do too much, and was pretty bummed about getting separated from the people I'd become used to seeing daily. I decided to just go to bed and deal with the fallout of my wounds in the morning when I could think a little clearer. As I lulled myself to sleep with self denounciations for being so stubborn, I heard a familiar voice in the hallway. I poked my head out of the door and was greeted by Stefan, who was hashing out details with the pensionera. He seemed as happy to see a friend as I was, and we immediately started yammering about our awful, awful day. We stayed up for another hour or so commiserating, which seemed to make both of us feel better. He was fortunate to have made the very last ferry to Santander from Soma, and had also decided to stay an extra day to nurse a pretty bad sunburn. By the time I went to sleep, I had made peace with losing a day. I'll probably make it to Santiago on the 27th, which isn't exactly what I was aiming for, but fine nonetheless.

And now here I am. I've done all of the gross things you have to do to blisters to take care of them, and did quite well not to scream when I doused my injuries with iodine. I've used up half a bottle of aloe vera, and can safely say I'm on the road to recovery. After gingerly walking around the part of downtown Santander where I'm staying, I'm happy to have an opportunity to see some of the historic buildings, including the cathedral, which really is beautiful. It feels good to be a real tourist today.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Lost in Santoña

I literally don't know what day it is. The only reason I know the date is because of the timestamps on the emails I'm getting. I've been deprived of internet for the past few days, so this could get sort of long and drawn out - I'm suffering from computer withdrawals.

I've adjusted to walking alone, and it's not as bad as I thought it would be. To clarify for my mother who is probably freaking out at home at the idea of me walking across Spain by myself, I'm not TECHNICALLY alone. Annie, Carrie and I didn't really walk together much after the first day because we kept different paces. My marathon running cousin was usually a few miles ahead of us leading the pack. Carrie could keep a faster pace than me and was generally just around a bend or something. I usually brought up the rear because I'd get distracted taking pictures or would have to take an asthma/bum knee/snack break. Also, it's a little hard to walk with other people. It's nice to be able to enjoy the quiet of the scenery or my iPod without worrying about keeping up conversation, or being able to breathe, talk and walk at the same time. Most of our socializing occurred in the evenings after we arrived at the albergue. I knew in advance that this would be when I'd miss my companions the most. Fortunately, I'm adjusting, and I've made new friends.

It hasn't stopped the fascinated comments of "¿Sola? ¿Andas a Santiago SOLA?" Yeah. I'm by myself.

On Sunday, I walked out of a heavily wooded area coming off a pretty steep mountain. To my left, a middle aged man was gardening in his front yard. He stood up when he saw me walking down the road, and as I passed he said, "¿A Santiago?". I get this about 13 times a day. It still amuses me to no end. I said yes, and he said, in Spanish, that he has never seen a girl come out of the mountain by herself. I told him there's a first for everything.

Sunday night - after my first day walking alone - I happened upon a party crowd in the albergue in Pobeña. When I arrived, I was greeted by Valerie, a Parisian who I've seen at albergues and on the Camino since we started in Irún, Ana the hospitalera, and her hysterical friend Baume, who is incredibly intelligent, witty and is employed as a streetsweeper. At some point in the night, someone asked her why she decided to be a streetsweeper instead of something else. She responded "¡Porque me gusta, claro!" Pretty great. After I had a chance to wash the last 32km off of myself, we went to a bar for a couple of drinks. A new face joined the mix - Stefan, an economist from Cologne had just begun his Camino that morning from Bilbao. The 5 of us sat on a patio for a couple of hours chatting in English, Spanish, French and German about our backgrounds, our trip thus far, politics, Mexico and alcohol. I was clearly only participating in the English and Spanish conversations, but I was sort of impressed that I understand a French word here and there. Two more pilgrims stopped in, Ignacio from Zumaia - who incidentally is really good friends with Jose Fran, the hospitalero we met and adored in Zumaia - and Ángel, a teacher from La Mancha who we've seen on the trails for the last few days. We moved the party to another bar for dinner and a bottle of Crianza and made it just in time to catch the last half hour of the Nadal v. Federer match. The bar went completely nuts at the end of the game, and I loved being there for it. We were probably out a little later than we should have been, but since the entirety of the albergue was all there, it didn't matter. We all slept in a little the next morning and got a little later start than usual, but it was worth it.

Yesterday was the first genuinely sketchy albergue experience that I've had to date. We've stayed in some rather... basic... accomodations, but this one took the cake. We stopped in El Pontarrón for the night, and knew we were staying at the Albergue Municipal. What we didn't know was that the front door hadn't been opened since the last guest stayed there on June 28th, and it probably hasn't been cleaned since 2006. There was a shower and hot water, but it smelled AWFUL. We had bunk beds like in most other albergues. Unlike other albergues, however, I was sort of scared of touching the bed with my bare skin. The blanket I stole from Continental Airlines came in handy, and I used it to cover the areas around my sleep sack that could potentially come in contact with any body parts during the night. We couldn't handle being in the room because of the stench, so we opened all the windows and walked up the highway to the bar for dinner, drinks and television. Stefan isn't a morning person and doesn't like waking up early, but this morning all 4 of us were up and out the door by 7am because we couldn't handle the thought of being there a moment longer than necessary.

Today has been great. We didn't walk very far because we're planning a 36km hike to Santander tomorrow. There was a stretch of highway involved in today's walk that made me feel like I was in a bad game of Frogger again, but that didn't last long. The highlight of the afternoon was a trip on a tour boat from Laredo to Santoña. There were two boat options to get across the bay, and I think I picked the better of the two. After a short walk through the center of Laredo, an excursion boat to the right of the harbor offered trips to Santoña for 4€. 5km down the beach, a ferry offered a short ride across the water for 1.70€. I took the excursion boat, and Valerie, Ángel and Stefan took the ferry. I got here an hour before Valerie and Ángel, and 4 hours before Stefan. I'm okay with that.

We have a washing machine at the albergue tonight, and it was impeccible timing. I was down to a bathing suit, and I don't think anyone wants me walking 36km in that tomorrow. Santoña is the anchovy capital of Spain, if not the world. They have phenomenal seafood here, which made for a pretty awesome lunch along with my half liter glass of sangria. I had an interesting walk back to the albergue, but at least I couldn't feel the 4 blisters I'm getting on my heels and baby toes. But I digress. Spain doesn't believe in dryers, so after our clothes finished washing, they went up on the clothesline. Our albergue is right off of the bay. I can actually see fish in the water right over the fence. It's awesome. The only downside is that it also smells like it's right off the bay in the anchovy capital of Spain. I have concerns that my clothes might smell like Santoña until I make it to the next washing machine. Unfortunately, there's not much I can do about that.

The days have gotten much, much easier. There are still hills here and there, but there hasn't been a huge mountain to scale or cliff to ski down in a few days. I hope it stays that way, as does my right knee. With the pace I'm keeping, I'm hoping I can make it to Santiago by July 25th, the saint day of St. James. If I can make it to the end by then, not only am I guaranteed an awesome party in Santiago, but I may even have time to make it to Finesterre, a finishing village on the Western coast of Spain that, until 1492, was considered the end of the earth.

Friday, July 4, 2008

The Independence Day Tales

To all of my friends back home - Happy Independence Day!! Eat a hamburger for me:)

Today ended well, but it was an interesting road getting there. This morning we awoke in Markina-Xemein and made more noise than we ever intended to getting packed up. There's a set of Germans somewhere around Gernika probably cursing us right now. We patched up wounded feet and bruised backs (please wait for the picture to end all pictures - our hospitalero athletic taping a feminine product to my cousin Annie in an attempt to shield her already bruised back from further damage from her backpack. It's awesome) and started to hike. Carrie was attempting day two in size 11 flip flops. To her credit, she made it about 3 km through mud and a couple of rivers before it became inevitable for her to go back to her boots. We lost the war at that point. Her pressure wound hasn't gotten better, she has new blisters, and the tops of her feet are shredded. It was time to give in. After directions from a bartender in a taverna, we found our way to the three buses that took us to Gernika where we waited for Annie. Little did we know the trechery that awaited on today's trail. It was badly marked with few fountains or towns available for refilling water, etc. Annie ended up getting lost for a frustrating hour before finding her way back to the path and finishing the hike to Gernika. When she arrived, we looked classic. Carrie and I had spent the last couple of hours channelling the DC homeless scene: sleeping on park benches, scaring small children with our stench, eating day old bread... we were a sight to behold.

The day wasn't a wash, though. Gernika, the site of one of the worst experiments in total war of the 20th century, is home to a peace museum that I've wanted to see. We found the museum across the street from the tourist office where we stopped to snack. The permanent exhibit is so moving, and we even had the chance to see a temporary exhibit on South African Apartheid. I thought it was an entirely appropriate sidetrip for July 4th. Gernika itself is a phenomenal town. Founded in the 1000s, Over 75% of the original village was destroyed in a German bombing spearheaded by Spanish forces supportive of Francisco Franco on April 26, 1937. While few original buildings remain, the traditional architecture of the new additions do nothing but add to Gernika's charm. I'm so glad I had a chance to finally see the town I've read so much about about.

We decided to take a bus to Bilbao to give everyone's wounds a chance to recover from the grueling week. We've now eaten fresh food, showered, and are about to call it a night. Unfortunately, Carrie's feet are beyond repair at this point, and since she doesn't have realistic options for comfortably and safely continuing the Camino, she has decided to return to Madrid tomorrow. I'm so sad to see her go, but given the current state of affairs, it's the best decision. Annie's week with us is also over tomorrow, so come Sunday morning, I'll be hiking to Portugalete on my own. I'm okay with it, though. I'll definitely miss the company, but I've already met some incredibly interesting people in the last week. I'll catch up to them on Sunday, and will no doubt have plenty more stories before I'm through.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Stinky cyclists and the Xemein Fakeout

I've been sort of biased against cyclists for a long time. My first encounter with Camino cyclists was in 2001. They were either Italian or Spanish. We saw at least 50 of them during the course of the trip. They were loud, stinky, rude, and Matt will swear to this day that one of them stole his watch somewhere in the León portion of our excursion. Cyclists have been a rare sight on this trip, and the first cyclist we encountered was not only incredibly attractive, but also very well mannered and seemed to appreciate the value of a shower. The second one we encountered made up for that.

He's about 70. At least that's how old he looks. He's missing his front teeth and smokes like a 1970's era Pinto. He REEKED. And Carrie got to sleep in the bunk above him in Deba. He wandered around the albergue in his undies and a shirt (the thought makes me cringe still), and when he finally turned in for the night, began emitting the foulest odors I've ever smelled in my life. And then he started grunting and moaning in his sleep. I thought there was hand to hand combat going on in the bunk next to me at 3am. By the time we got up at 5:30, it was all I could do not to gag. I had to get out of that place. It smelled like something died. Thank God he's doing at least twice the mileage we are each day.

Today was supposed to be the hardest day of the entire hike across the Spanish Basque country. It was a hilly route that reached one of the highest altitudes we'll see on the entire Camino. The hospitalero in Deba was pretty dire about his explanation for the day and made it clear that things were going to get rough. Annie is getting blisters and has friction brusies on her back from the pack she's carrying. Carrie's boots are starting a pressure wound on her right leg, making it pretty painful for her to walk at all, and anything downhill is sort of out of the question. My asthma has been acting up because of the cold, damp places we've been staying (yes, Mom, I have my inhalers with me), and my pack has been putting pressure on a weird spot in my back that makes my leg go just numb enough that it hurts like hell. We're really pretty right now. We mentally prepared ourselves last night for a seriously painful day.

And then it wasn't. Annie still has blisters and tender spots on her back, but she made it down the mountain reasonably intact, despite the sharp descent (read: cliff we practically skied down) at the end. My iPod stayed charged for the entire day, and my pack and I sort of made peace with each other to the point that I was actually comfortable at the end of the day.

Carrie wins the bad ass award for the day. She knew she couldn't put her boots back on and make it to Markina-Xemein, so Annie offered up her Keen flip flops as replacement shoes. With no better option, Carrie took the flip flops that are 3 sizes too big and hiked up a mountain. With an enormous backpack. Several mountains, actually. She made it to the albergue in rare form, exhausted and hungry, but intact, and in much better shape than she'd been in the 3 days prior. She is my hero.

Unfortunately, the hot water heater was on the fritz at the Carmelite monastary where we stayed last night. We got resourceful and heated up a few tea kettles for bath time. We managed to knock a little of the nasty off ourselves, but we'll be due for a real shower tomorrow. We had the good fortune of another welcoming hospitalero who couldn't do enough for us. He got up in the middle of his lunch to put water on the stove for us to bathe, insisted on washing our dinner dishes for us, and was full of helpful information. I can't get over how nice everyone has been to us over the last week - it's sort of humbling how willing people have been to help us with even our most trivial requests.

I need to learn French, stat. We spent our 3rd night with the delightful Belgian woman, and I really wish I could talk to her. Carrie can sort of understand her every once in awhile, and she and I work through very rudimentary conversations involving lots of gesticulating and nodding. Today we looked at pictures of her adorable grandchildren (I was sort of shocked that she's a grandmother - I hope I have her legs when I'm that age), and giggled in the corner when a group of cranky Germans from the albergue in Deba made a repeat appearance in our albergue today. Carrie thinks she called the crankiest one a witch in French, but we can't be sure. Regardless, I sort of want to pack her up and take her with me. She rocks.

There's a Japanese guy who we've seen almost nightly since San Sebastian. He has been travelling through Europe and Asia for the last two years. I was floored when I heard that. He wanted to see the world, but didn't have enough vacation time at his job to travel, so he quit his job with the intention of travelling for three months. Three months turned into six, then nine, and two years later he's still going. Last night he was telling us about Yemen. Completely fascinating.

Observation: We 3 Americans like to stop for snack breaks. Europeans like to stop for smoke breaks. It is absolutely BEYOND me how these people can scale some of the ridiculous mountains we've been climbing after a cigarette. Insanity.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

"I can't believe old people do this."

Today's quote courtesy of me.

Dear God. What have we gotten ourselves into?

It's not quite that bad (now). But really. There had to have been hallucinogenics (or at least a Red Bull and vodka) involved when I planned this trip.

Today was going to be an easy day. In scheduling our trip, I figured we'd probably be a little sore by now, so after the extra 3.5km we walked yesterday, we were only signed up for about 15km today.

We didn't factor in hills.

Last night, we assembled around a few maps and discussed today's route with the hospitalero and the other pilgrims. While today's hike would be a short one, it wasn't going to be easy. There were several steep ascents and descents, and an "unpleasant" half mile walk along a major highway. We mentally prepared ourselves, planned to sleep in an hour later than usual to get a little extra rest, and hoped for the best.

Our laundry didn't really dry last night, so I walked out of the albergue with all manner of damp clothes hanging off my backpack. I had to have looked hysterical. I wasn't really lucid yet. Exhaustion finally set in, and I had a rough time waking up when Annie tapped me at 6:30am. I popped in my headphones, wished the girls luck, and slowly started up the first steep hill about 2 blocks from the albergue.

45 minutes later, the iPod dies. I was too tired to plug it in last night.

My mind is a loud, loud place to be sometimes. Today was one of those times.

I eventually caught up to Carrie and Annie in a campground where bathroom breaks were being held. I had to keep walking for fear of losing my momentum, so I slowly inched past them. Carrie caught up to me shortly after as I stood in front of a barbed wire fence. I had two arrows to choose from, and didn't know which one to go with. Neither looked like a good choice. We chose the arrow on the right. It took us along a fenceline inside a pasture on someone's private property. The pasture also included a fair number of cowpies. About 500 meters in, we realized we may have chosen incorrectly. We turned around, walked back to the campground, consulted a map, and tried again. We chose the left arrow this time. We assumed that Annie had gone ahead, but we figured she'd stop along the way and we'd catch up with her then. And so we hiked. Until we came to the highway.

Last night's hospitalero said that the walk along the highway would be unpleasant. He didn't mention the words life threatening. The shoulder of the highway wasn't very wide. Also, cars were veering around a blind corner, so not only were they coming entirely too close to us in the first place, if they weren't paying attention as they came around the curve, we'd likely not make it to Santiago all in one piece. After about 10 harrowing minutes of diving towards bushes, cringing away from trucks passing too close to us, and finally running out in front of traffic, Carrie and I made it off the highway. The rest of the hike was slow going. We still haven't figured out how, but her boot has caused a bruise on her ankle that makes walking downhill uncomfortable (at best). She wasn't able to walk quickly, so we took the slow road for the last 7km of today's hike. About 5km from Deba, I got a text message from Annie. "In Deba... Did I miss u guys somehow?"

She didn't realize we were behind her. Also, she'd made a 4 hour walk in just over 2 hours.

I wasn't able to get enough of a signal to send a response to her, but she eventually called and we worked out a meeting place. And on we hiked. It started to drizzle a little, which was really sort of pleasant and peaceful. We reached a sign outside of Deba that had 3 arrows going two different directions. We went right again and began a quick descent on a rocky path. About halfway down, we started to rethink our decision after I almost slipped and bit it 2 or 3 times on a slick rock. I went ahead a bit to investigate, and when I returned, I found the slightly injured Carrie trying to scale a wall in an attempt to get an apple off a tree. Don't worry, I have pictures. She got her apple (a crisp cooking apple - totally worth the effort!), but we decided to turn around and go left instead. Anyone seeing a pattern here? The left hand path was just as steep, but not as slick. 15 minutes later, we were on level ground in Deba and faced with... an elevator?

Turns out we had to take not one, but two elevators down God knows how many stories to actually get into downtown Deba. I've never seen a city with an elevator like this before. Don't worry, I have pictures of that, too. After asking directions to the albergue and running into Annie along the way, we found our lodgings for the night, settled in, and Annie and I promptly passed out. I had hit a wall, and slept harder than I have in weeks.

So tonight we are in Deba. Tomorrow morning we're hiking what we've been told is the most difficult day in the Basque country, from Deba to Markina. There are steep, steep hills that will turn tomorrow into at least a 6 or 7 hour day. I'm sort of mentally preparing myself for a rough go, but after recharging my iPod, I think I should be alright. I knew this wasn't going to be an easy walk, but I underestimated the kinds of hills and valleys we'd be hiking along the coast. Carrie was reading through a brochure this afternoon and found a quote referencing letters that date back to the 1100's, when pilgrims would recount tales of the horrors of crossing the Basque country. Apparently it's always been this hard. Fortunately, things seem to get easier in Viscaya, so there's a light at the end of the steep tunnel. Think good thoughts for us (and our feet) tomorrow!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

"Do you feel like we're the Von Trapp Family escaping Austria? Because I do."

Today's quote of the day comes courtesy of Carrie. We had just descended what, at the time, appeared to be the world's steepest hill coming out of the world's densest Basque forest. We have since seen steeper hills, though the dense forest was something special.

Today was pretty wild. We started out the morning in reasonable form. We were the first pilgrims up and out the door at 6:30 this morning. We were a little hesitant about the path starting out, but once we found the first set of yellow arrows, the morning got significantly better. The hills were hard, but not completely unbearable, and we saw lots of farmland along the way, including a set of goats playing in the road between Santiago and Orio. I had to make a pit stop at the albergue in Orio, which looked like a cabin straight out of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. It was phenomenal. As we were leaving, the hospitalera asked where we were walking to. We intended to stay at an albergue in Askizu, and when we mentioned it, she shook her head and insisted that we didn't want to stay there. It is a youth hostel instead of a pilgrim's hostel, and there was no guarantee that the albergue wouldn't be full of tourists before we got there. The hospitalera went on, and her description was enough to make Carrie and I change our plans between the bathroom and the front porch where Annie was waiting with our bags. The hospitalera suggested that we continue on to Zumaia, where a friend of hers oversaw a pilgrims' hostel that would be much more comfortable. It would only add an extra 3.5km to our trip, so we decided it was worth the trip to keep going to Zumaia.

And so we hiked on. And we stopped for lunch. And I ate too much. It quickly turned into an iPod afternoon. The only thing that got me up the next steep hill was a mix of Mika, the Decemberists, Whitney Houston, and Taylor Swift. And then we stopped for a cookie break on a cliff overlooking Zarautz. And more hiking. And then we stopped again for a bathroom break.

That was the stop that killed us.

We could see the steep hill waiting for us. It was sort of awful. Carrie and I popped in our headphones while Annie sprinted off ahead of us, and somehow, we made it to the top. When I got there, a little old man came out of a house in front of me, stopped, stared at my enormous backpack, and said "¿A Santiago?". I said "Si". He genuflected twice and said "Santa Maria". I sort of laughed, but got a little worried for myself if this old man had to cross himself twice at the thought of me walking across his country. He commented on the size of my backpack, and I joked that it was like hauling a child over a mountain. He laughed and said (in Spanish) "That's worse than a child. You can put a child that size down and it will walk over a mountain by itself."

The hills wouldn't stop coming. By this time, it was about 5pm. At this point I realized we had taken too many breaks. We were exhausted and 4km from the albergue at an hour that we would have preferred to be napping or doing laundry. Two hills and one painful hour later, we arrived in Zumaia but still had about 2km to walk to the albergue. When we finally stumbled in the doors, we were spent. I couldn't feel my right leg from the weight of my pack, Carrie's ankle was painfully bruised from her boots, and Annie was just exhausted. We looked like hell and had contracted a serious case of the cranks. As we rang the bell to the albergue, a nice Basque man opened the door and commented on our sad, sad state. We (sort of) laughed, and said we were just looking for a place to stay for the night. He started to explain the provisions available to us for the night. We were going to have very basic accomodations - beds, but sleeping bags would be required, showers and a bathroom, but no kitchen, and we had to be out by 9am. We didn't care at that point and were happy with being shown our bunk beds.

After a shower and some chocolate milk, Carrie and I were a little happier about life. We started some laundry, and in the process, struck up a conversation with the hospitalero. He had lived in Gaithersburg, MD for several months as a Spanish teacher, and we talked at length about life in the DC area. His English was very good, and he was so animated as he spoke about his experiences in the United States. We eventually asked him how he became involved in overseeing the hostel, and he told us the most incredible story.

The refuge we slept in last night is a nunnery. For the last 400 years, an order of cloistered nuns called it home. This March, the remaining nuns in the order were forced to leave. Their numbers had dwindled, and as the youngest nun was already 60 years of age, they found themselves unable to care for each other any longer. The city council voted to preserve and refurbish the building, and as few accomodations exist for the Camino de la Costa, they opted to use it as temporary lodging for this summer's pilgrims. The hospitalero was asked to oversee the albergue after his own experience with hosting pilgrims. After returning from the United States, he purchased farmland and a house with his partner with the intention of spending the majority of their time in the country. Not long after, they parted under bad terms, and the hospitalero was left with a large house and a significant amount of land that soon became meaningless to him. He became very depressed and considered leaving the area to start a new life elsewhere. A friend - incidentally, the woman in Orio who suggested we continue on to Zumaia - told him about the shortage of pilgrims' albergues and encouraged him to become involved with the Camino by opening his home to people passing through the area. He reluctantly agreed, and began hosting groups nightly. They changed his life. Soon he was hosting groups of up to 300 people, cooking for them, offering advice, and enjoying company of the most diverse group of people he'd ever meet.

That story started an incredible evening. We spent the rest of the night around a table with the Basque hospitalero, a (completely attractive!) Catalonian cyclist from outside of Barcelona whom we'd met at the hostel the night before, a delightful Belgian woman, good food, and even better conversation. While flirting shamelessly with the cyclist, I found out that the albergue in Askizu was filled before noon. He had arrived there with the intention of spending the night, but was turned away and kept going toward Zumaia. The albergue in Askizu was 1km off the path of the Camino - not a terribly long distance in the grand scheme of things, but after the day we'd had, an extra 1km out and 1km back probably would have killed us. Thank goodness for small miracles and nice people.