Sunday, March 18, 2018

Camino Portugues Days 17-20: The Other Kind of All Inclusive Vacation

Day 17 to Redondela 
Distance: 9.5 miles
Time: 4 hours

Day 18 to Pontevedra 
Distance: 12.5 miles
Time: 5 hours

Day 19 to Caldas De Reis
Distance: 13 miles
Time: 5 hours

Day 20 to Padron 
Distance: 11.25 miles
Time: 4.5 hours

To be perfectly honest, there have been some ups and downs to this "walk through Portugal" business. I'd be lying if I said I enjoyed every minute of it, but at the same time I'm grateful for each step and misstep. And as I've been told, you find the Camino you need, not necessarily the one you go looking for. Let's take a look at the myriad components of this all-inclusive-ace-number-one vacation experience. 

It has rained literally every day, albeit some days worse than others. And the albergues are largely unheated, so I've basically been cold for three weeks. But I got to walk through expansive eucalyptus forests fed and made mossy by those downpours, and over ancient Roman bridges that span their resulting rivers. And I got to reflect on gratitude for heat. 

There are literally hundreds of dogs through Central Porgual that want to eat my face. But I sweet-talked as many animals as I ran from. Like these cats, who were totally chill about me hanging out, even though it looks like they're throwing me some serious shade. Don't believe them, we're tight. 

I have failed several times to acquire dinner due to some combination of language barrier, loneliness and social anxiety, resulting in me ordering coffees and running away, or not being able to go in the restaurant at all. Or ordering but leaving in tears because my paranoia (or reality) has me convinced that the men at the next table are glaring at me. (PS I'm a huge wimp. I need people to like me. Overtly. Whatever.) But I have also eaten more bread in the past three weeks than in the past year, and have still lost like 10 pounds. Because walking. 

As I've mentioned I've struggled with language. But I was gleefull to not know the real translation of this sign, which I choose to believe refers to a sanctuary for the ghostly. I imagine a bunkhouse with tight stone corridors and small window nooks from which to look over the city. And in the halls and quiet spaces the city's apparitions gather to take some respite from their prowlings. 

I have a love-hate relationship with the pilgrim albergues. When they were empty I was desperate for the companionship of other pilgrims. When they're full I am annoyed at the groups that giggle too late at night, or get up absurdly early. But in the end they are a dear comfort, and now full of the familiar faces of strangers. Some you only see once, and are left thinking about days later. Like the group of older Spanish couples traveling in some serious style. One gentleman, who carried a day pack with a 60s-chic Barbie clipped to it, also had a messenger service deliver a duffle bag — from which he produced a matching set of top and bottom pajamas and his own set of floral sheets, pillowcase included. He was one of the ones up giggling. His wife was in the opposite bunk and kept shushing him. And then giggling. It was a special night. 

More of the Camino Portugues traverses main roads and cobblestone alleys than the Camino Frances' more frequently natural settings, but it's given me opportunity to develop my new love for gates, doors and graffiti. I've seen this heart multiple times, usually with this word. 

Because of the territory crossed, the atmosphere is somewhat diverse. Today I visited the ancient stone O Pedron, enshrined in a church (one that seemed particularly full of violent images of Christian conquest). The stone is supposedly the mooring that the boat carrying the remains of Saint James tied to in the first century AD. Some say that previous to this purpose, the stone was a Roman altar dedicated to Neptune. 

And in stunning juxtaposition, just outside the church, people were either setting up or taking down a massive carnival. Which is kind of a sad thing to watch on a cold day, with all the lights off, though with its gaudy billboards, solace for sale, and enthusiastic promises, it was not unlike the literal and figurative constructs of the Christianic empires, though certainly with less fear and blood. 

And finally on my list of comparisons, I feel like I have gotten more glares and grumpy looks this trip than in most of my other travels combined, but there are more than enough sweet souls along the way to balance it out. Like the Portugues barista that showed me like 30 pictures of her baby, AKA "the most beautiful girl in Portugal." Or the Galician man who stopped me on the trail to say hello and welcome to Galicia and where are you from and doesn't the rain make the forest beautiful? Or the man standing in front of the church in Padron today clapping and shouting "Buen Camino!" when I walked into town...and again when I walked back from the cafe. 

Or, thank the cosmos, the amazing pilgrims I met yesterday — Jamie from Australia and Linda from Montana — whose company and profound, thoughtful conversation the last 3 hours of walking was worth the entire trip. It would be too much to describe all the different things I learned and examined in those few hours. But I know it is the reason to go on Camino. I met Jamie last week and had a great couple of conversations with him and his Danish companion. When I saw him again after a stretch of not, he came over to give me a great big hug. 

"Linda," he said. "This is the girl I told you about." 

Among the many things we discussed, the nature of nature, the nature of faith, the nature of society and its future, Linda validated some of my more stressful social experiences of late. 

"I wasn't like this on the Camino Frances," I told her. "There, I got more and more confident and outgoing as time went on, and soon it was easy to go out and interact with people. This time, I got more anxious, embarrassed and paranoid as I went. I think it's my attitude..."

She started shaking her head after my first sentence. She has also done the Camino Frances, a few years ago, and is one of the sweetest, gentlest souls I've encountered. She speaks fluent Spanish, though not Portugues. "NO," she said. "It is definitely not you. This is a totally different environment." 

Though a seasoned traveler, she also felt very out of place and anxious, not a normal experience for her while traveling. She also pointed out something I'd been reacting to but hadn't specifically nailed down yet. "Did you notice that you were constantly surrounded by only men? Every restaurant you go into in Portugal is all men. Full of groups of men, and not one woman."

She was RIGHT. Thinking back, not once do I recall walking into a place to eat and seeing women, or getting anything other than MAYBE a tense smile, usually less, from the host or bartender. Just serious individuals or boistrous groups of men that gave me the side eye. Not like I was attractive. Like I was out of place. Which I was. I mean, I'm wearing a pastel jacket, using a walking pole and carrying a giant purple backpack wrapped in a torn poncho. But even in the evening minus the backpack mountain it was like that. In cafes in the daytime it was the same. Portugal seemed to populated entirely by grumpy dogs and grumpier dudes. Linda and I agreed, we wanted back in the Pilgrim bubble. 

(I will say the obvious exception to this phenomenon was the cities which had younger people of both genders — Lisbon, Porto, and especially the university town of Coimbra.) 

Not that it's not worthwhile to strike out on your own, off the beaten path they literally say, and not that I mind being the odd girl out, but after the truly fascinating and lovely if somewhat severe Portugal, I'm a bit relieved to be in Spain, where the restaurants tend to be full of couples and families, and the old dudes I pass on the trail, out walking their seemingly docile dogs, almost always offer a grin and a buenos dias. 

Now, here I am, in the last albergue before Santiago. Just a night's sleep and a 15 mile walk between me and my destination. 

And finally, I leave you with this "cool mom". Who I someday hope to be. She is clearly a good person with her priorities straight, and I wanted to hug her immediately. I didn't. I just took her picture without permission. And for that I am sorry, but it had to be done. Just look at those meow-meows.