Outside the main Municipal hostel in Burgos I joined the back of a long line inhabited by a truly bedraggled bunch – all staring vacantly into space. Those who arrived after were given the solemn news that there were no beds left.
A Canadian woman who I had briefly walked with on the first day – and who I had bumped into earlier that day when she had introduced me to the man she had ‘fallen in love with’ – arrived with her betrothed in tow. The honeymoon was clearly over. The deep – slightly overplayed – show of love we’d witnessed just a few hours earlier had been replaced with snarling aggression.
“Where are we supposed to go” she bellowed at the elderly lady behind the front desk – who both spoke no English, and was about 103. They left after satisfactorily making a scene and getting absolutely nowhere.
Two days later I acquainted myself with the pain of what it must feel like to pull the plug on a loved one. My long running relationship with my backpack finally came to an end. For the past ten years it had been my only constant companion on my travels around the world. Now with a broken shoulder strap, and gaping holes like Swiss cheese, it was time to say goodbye. I walked into a sport shop in the city – shame faced, with the look of a man sneaking into a red light brothel. Feeling like a filthy cheat I was, I purchased a shiny new red bag. I was not only cheating on the wife, but I was going to do it in the back of a gleaming new Ferrari. I left my old bag next to the bin outside my hotel – and afforded myself only the briefest of glances over my shoulder as I walked away.
For the next few hours I wandered alone and began to feel like I had entered an alternate world. The crowds of the past week were gone, I saw perhaps four pilgrims the whole day. I traversed across a lonely a plateau for much of the day. An empty and untouched world around me, stretching to the horizon, and then just a little bit more.
And so it went for the next week. I mainly walked alone, and made friends in the evening – usually consummating the friendship over hearty amounts of wine.
I had hoped to stay in the ruined San Anton monastery, but was turned away by an evil little French sadist who accused me of ‘not walking for long enough’ – despite having clocked up nearly 20 km by lunchtime. Since my chance of a bed had evaporated in one pretentious little French shrug I decided to not only kick the hornet nest, but to go at it with a baseball bat. I further enraged the situation by suggesting he wasn’t being being very Christian by turning people away. He exploded and began spitting and dribbling in a most manic way. I left quite satisfied.
The Gallic demon was quickly forgotten as I arrived in Castrojeriz – charmingly known as the longest town on the Camino. A wonderful place to spend a lazy, slightly boozy afternoon and warm autumn evening in the company of people who I didn’t really know – but knew well enough to talk about love, life and death – and everything in between.
The morning slumber was broken in the most disturbing fashion. Low Gregorian chanting played from a CD began to filter through over the loudspeakers. In that murky half world between sleep and awake it caused havoc with my mind. The first clearly defined thought I remember was that I was dead, and this was the afterlife. I can attest that realizing you aren’t actually dead is a great way to start the day.
The road out of the town climbed steeply to a dramatic plateau, where we turned to see the sun rising over the valley. A vast line of wind turbines stood to attention, slowly and methodically turning – their red lights blinking hypothetically in unison. An absolutely astounding sight – made all the sweeter by the man who had set up a little market stall at the top selling snacks and coffee. He also had one very cute kitten. Life was close to perfection.
I often fell into step with a young Australian dentist, Matt, who had decided to set up his own business making dentures in his garage. We would often eat together in the evening, along with an Anglo-Gallic man, with a quintessentially French name that I have now forgotten – I’ll call him Jean Pierre. He had signed up for a ‘camino package’ which involved a company pre-booking him into hotels along the way.
“Nothing below four stars, of course” he nodded unabashedly in my direction. His large bag was sent along by courier everyday – waiting expectantly at the next hotel – I can only assume with his clothing already hanging in the closest and his underwear smartly folded on the bed. I wanted to dislike Jean Pierre, and everything he stood for – but it was impossible. He was warm hearted, and incredibly genuine. The ladies swooned over his French accent and musketeer long silver hair. The younger men took him as a benchmark for further achievement in life.
In the little town of Corrian de Los Condes I slung my bag down next to a cafe and walked up the short steps to the impressive church. On discovering I had to pay to get in (I don’t do that) I sat on the steps rather than join the throng of pilgrims grouped near the cafes. Moments later a woman sat on the opposite side of the steps. We quickly struck up a conversation. Her name was Daniela – and little did we know, we would walk the rest of the pilgrimage together.
That night all of the characters I had met in the past week seemed to converge in one town. We sat together in the beautiful square, and feasted happily before scampering back to the monestery just before 10pm for bed time. There’s something frankly both hilarious and terrifying about trying to hide a slightly tipsy state while walking past a group of stern faced nuns.
Once more a big city was approaching. Leon was now on the horizon. It would be the last of the four main cities before the final push through to Santiago.
Daniela and I arrived in a little town named El Burgo Ranero by mid afternoon, and immediately liked it. The town was small and simple, the Municipal hostel likewise – the outer wall constructed with dried mud. It was one of those times and places where a group of people on the completely the same wave length assemble thanks to the good grace of fate. It was one of my favourite evenings of the whole journey.
It was here that we met Angela – a man in the process of a sex change. She had long blond hair, but still the physique of the man – albeit with a pair of budding breasts. We spoke to her at length throughout the evening as she explained the process – and the growing sense of finally ‘feeling right’. Everybody cooked different meals, and shared them around. Large slabs of chocolate were devoured and bottle after bottle of wine was opened and shared.
The next morning over a coffee we bought up the possibility of pushing through to Leon that day. It would be a long day – a 39 km day. But with the vigour and enthusiasm that generally comes after two espressos, we set off.
The sun blazed mercilessly throughout the day. During the final few hours – through dull, nondescript industrial suburbs – the mind began to go. We were reduced to giggling dementedly at absurd perceptions. Clouds began to look like rabbits – or a man on horse back with a sword – mental stability was at an all time low. Our feet screamed in agony, every step became a journey in itself. The last couple of miles took it out of us. Trudging through the streets of the city, we were only willed on by the hallowed promise of a shower and a bed.
After quickly paying at the first hotel we tried, we stumbled in the elevator. Unlacing the boots and lining back on the bed, the mind began to swim. For a brief moment I had no idea where I was. This was the edge of insanity – it felt like the edge of death. But it was over.