Eyes glazed like a doughnut

I’m sorry but writing has gone absolutely out of the window.
My favourite thing to do right now is not think, a manner which takes many forms, from vacantly staring into space to vacantly staring at my phone, consuming forms of instantly forgettable entertainment.
There is a longed for nullity in sinking down to rest, abandoning forward motion in favour of stillness.
I’m still inland, walking from Santiago to the coast via the Camino Primitivo, a route which has turned out to be a much more pleasurable sensory experience than the overwalked French route. There are still paths with earth underfoot, which would be unable to withstand the million tramping feet which annually erode the French route. It adds a pleasure to the walking that I didn’t notice missing from a journey on stone.

I still have extra time before the boat from Santander and I’ve been wiling it away in short days on the Primitivo, following reccomendations for albergues I must visit, trying to spread a little of my money out to the hotel industry that is so desperately waiting for business to resume.

But the problem with this approach is that I’m walking at 75% of the usual effort for twice as long, and as much as I walk towards the coast, the camino seems to be stretching out in front of me endlessly like a camera’s perspective trick. I imagined myself lounging on beaches for the final coastal stretch to Santander but after a couple of weeks of this slow walking I’ve changed my mind.
Now I want it to be over as quickly as possible so I can lie down in a bed for as long as I can before the boat.
Not a hostel bed either, I’ve been experiencing too many of the dormitory bunkbeds that I can’t sit on the edge of with a straight back, usually placed so close together in the room so that I can’t lie on the floor to stretch out. Taking a bundle of towels and clothing down the corridor to the shower, making sure I’m clothed in public space at all times, except public space includes the bedroom. Albergues expect the cameraderie of shared spaces to be part of the camino experience, but even as they are, with one or two people where 10 would be in “normal” times, it’s too much for me. I want a double bed where I can stretch my glutes, do the happy baby yoga pose (Google it), groan aloud as I repeatedly twist my back, apply cream to my chafed parts and let them air dry (which can also be achieved during the aforementioned happy baby pose).
I want a good rest before I return to the UK and make the final push for home. I’m in no position to attempt a change of pace right now, crawling as I am, but with a week or so to stretch out and sleep I’ll be much better placed to go for it.

On my first day out of Santiago, a few km after the climb up and over Monte de Gozo, I met a woman, another pilgrim, awkwardly loaded with a rucksack and another bag across her front in a sling fashioned from a scarf. She stopped to talk to me, bright blue eyes shining from a weathered face, and told me about her adventures with God, of walking in faith from Belgium to Santiago, leaving in August 2020, walking almost without money, never making plans for where to stay yet always finding herself with a bed at the end of each day.
You’d call her crazy I suppose, in the same way that people say that about me, making a choice of action where the effort seems to far outweigh the reward, driven by something unrecognisable. Stories came flowing from her in a torrent, one thought leading to the next, the incredible coincidences, the times she was helped unexpectedly. She was called to pray one night in a church instead of going to sleep outside, and did so until the guardians of the building came in and prayed beside her, eventually inviting her to stay the night.
I admired her total commitment to vulnerability, her abandonment to chance, or faith, as she sees it. I’m not sure I could ever be so totally vulnerable. I always keep my backup, my just in case, my tent, my sleeping bag, my internet supporters, my network. I may be poor but I don’t think I’ve ever truly had nothing. Mind you, this woman probably has a house full of possessions waiting for her in Belgium, mortgage paid off, and children wanting to know how she is. Without either of those security blankets to return to, perhaps my life is vulnerable in different ways to hers.

I was reminded of her when I met David and Celia in the Albergue de Bodenaya, also abandoning themselves to fate and vulnerability but in a completely different way.
David, later joined by Celia, took over the albergue six years ago, in existence as a donativo hostel since 2005. They offer evening meal, showers, laundry, a bed, and breakfast, all with a genuinely warm welcome and no expectation of renumeration. There’s a box high up on the wall marked donations and they’re not paying attention to what or whether people put anything into it.

We eat and laugh together, it’s easy with them, full of warmth and happiness. I arrive incredibly tired, after a mere 8 miles of walking, ready to fall asleep at 3 in the afternoon.
“You’re not living in the present moment” chided David gently the next morning, as I ready myself to leave. “Yes” I sighed, “I’m so tired, I’m only half here, half of me is anticipating the end.  I’ll have to come back again another time for a different camino experience.” “No, just change how you experience the camino now” and I laugh ruefully because my realisation of the lack of mindfulness lasted a matter of seconds before I’m thinking of future caminos, stuck in the future again, anywhere but here.

I spend a night in a very luxurious albergue in Salas, of the type that has been steadily driving up the standards and expectations of pilgrims in the last few years. (They have a robot lawnmower which makes me grind my teeth in a rage of climate change inevitability whenever it hoves into view). Part of the problem of the higher camino standards is that the donativo and cheaper albergues, with their shabbier facilities, can no longer compete, and so once they close, the camino becomes less available for all pilgrims to walk, no matter their state of poverty. There’s also the question of suffering, whether the suffering that could arguably be considered a necessary ingredient in the transformatory potential of pilgrimage is still present when each pilgrim has not only daily hot showers and a bed but a little light to read by, a curtain to pull for privacy, WiFi everywhere and shiny clean surfaces at every turn, the security of an online reservation ready for them at the end of every day.

Then I sleep a night underneath the stone gaze of a praying statue, up in the tranquil porch of a priest’s house, closed and locked, windows shuttered, behind the church that stands high and proud up on the hill above the small town of Grado. Cow bells clanking a gentle song through the night and I wake to the tiniest spots of water, more cloud than rain, wettening the edges of my sleeping bag.
I’m walking through the town the next morning when Celia calls my name. She’s walking to see a friend on the coast, making use of the lack of pilgrims to go on her own walking adventures. Pilgrims can’t be tied down at home for too long, she has her own urges to regularly go wandering. We walk together for a day and a half, chatting, sharing stories.

It’s easy to be happy in Spanish, the rhythm of the conversation creates lightness and energy. The tone of the exclamations change, they come more often, are more excited, more agreeable. 

“You don’t seem very motivated” says Celia. “I’m not, really. It’s the end of the journey, it all feels very mundane.” I manage to turn it into a joke, just another day at the office. She’s shocked into laughing at me again when I can’t remember what I did yesterday, where I was, no imprint of the sights she’s so familiar with and wants to tell me stories about. I suppose that she’s used to pilgrims who are full of the energy and exhilaration of an unusual journey, for whom every coincidence is a sign of the magic of the universe, every flower exclaimed over, every view entrancing, every joke hilarious. I must look like a morose lump in comparison, the donkey plodding along at the end of the circus parade, head down, uninterested in life. 

It’s great to share a day’s walking with another person, I walk about 3 miles further than normal, with only minor aches at the end of the day. The calf cramps I suffered after Finisterre have receded again, after a lot of massage and stretching. I even lose my voice in all the talking, feeling myself growing hoarse with so many more words than usual. 

Jarred out of my low mood, or at least presented with an alternative, I’m almost at the coast and with a list of donativo albergues ahead of me to break up the nights on beaches. 

I’m ten days away from a big lie down in Santander, 19 days away from the boat, 20 days away from a hug from anyone I’ve known for longer than a few days (the first since June 2019), 37 days away from the END OF THIS JOURNEY. 

5 thoughts on “Eyes glazed like a doughnut

  • April 30, 2021 at 4:44 pm

    This is a such an honest piece about one of the toughest parts of any journey, Ursula. Wishing you every good luck now as you find your way home to Wales.

  • April 30, 2021 at 5:07 pm

    So glad you got to Bodenaya! It was my favourite place of the Primitivo.
    Sending you strength & fortitude for your last 37 days.

  • April 30, 2021 at 10:01 pm

    Oh so well done you. Glad to hear you’ve booked your passage home. Hopefully by the time you arrive, the weather will favour you, friends will be waiting and you can find the stillness you’re longing for. Jean

  • May 2, 2021 at 10:10 am

    Willing you on, impressed (as always) by your honesty and your endurance.
    Not long now till those happy hugs!

  • May 27, 2021 at 9:04 pm

    I hope I live to enjoy your second book. You have that rare gift of making every page interesting.


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