Becoming a Pilgrim (Shoes or Wheels- Part 3)

Adam McAree

O Cebreiro is beautiful. At 4,300 ft or 1300m the views are breathtaking. I was anxious to transition from the bike to walking, though I had mixed feelings. How could I possibly walk all that way BACK. Would I encounter new things the second time passing through these villages? Would it be boring without the adrenaline and endorphins I had enjoyed during the steep ascents and descents? Would it be a full week of silence? I was getting a bit lonely on my bike and yearned for some conversation beyond the transactional, “uno desayuno americano por favor….con bacon…. con un poco leche…quanta es?…muchas gracias.”

I ate some lunch where I had dropped the bike and attempted to find a wifi signal – this was the first time I had so few options. No luck here. However, I quickly struck up conversation with a Canadian woman traveling with her mother and a Brazilian girl traveling by herself and not certain what it was she was looking for ( there is a funny stereotype perpetuated by the German author Hape Kerkeling and there turned out to be some truth, as I would learn a few days later).

I found the public hostel at the edge of the town where a line was forming. I put my bag in the queue where I would be number 12. It was 12:30 and the place was scheduled to open at 1pm. I learned that it had 120 beds, that filling up was a possibility, and that it cost only 6 euro. The other pilgrims with me were super friendly and curious, as I had just emerged on the path without any blisters.

The doors opened and the line grew continually as we slowly approached the attendant. I was next. With my passport and money in hand I approached the window. Unexpectedly, the woman shook her head and said that she needed my credencial. I explained that I was just starting and needed one from her. This wouldn’t work, she tried to explain in Spanish before the surrounding group recruited a translator from the crowd. The verdict: because I had just started, had no stamps from my previous nights and had arrived on bicycle, I would have to move to the back of the line and wait to see if there was room at the end of the line. This was after I had ran to the church, purchased a credential, ran back and tried, once more, to pay for the 12th bed I felt somewhat entitled to. This didn’t work.  With some guidance from my new American friend, we perused the other options around the town, knowing that I’d have to pay “big bucks” but would atleast have a place to stay and could start meeting my new cohort. However, it was Saturday afternoon and, ” Es completo” was all I heard from the friendly attendants. ” Es completo” is Spanish for “shit out of luck.”

After one last failed attempt, after 2 hours had passed and I waited in the line once more, I made a decision to walk on. I said my goodbyes and would take my chances in one of the next few towns I had passed on my way in. It was hot and sunny and most of the pilgrims had already found their accommodations for the night so I was, once again, alone.

Alto do Poio is at 1330 meter and was quite a site when I stopped there in the morning. I was excited to stay there this night and looked forward to chatting, venting my first experience with the public refugio, and getting a meal and some rest. I had hoped to get a similarly low rate but ended up paying 20! I felt like I had been cheated and that there was some other reason a bed wasn’t available in the public room. On the other hand, I got my own personal space w/ a bathroom for 20 euro. That’s a steal anywhere!

I cleaned up, washed some laundry in the shower – a super efficient way to keep cycling through the wool boxers and socks and another reason pilgrims like to stop in the mid afternoon as this gives ample time for clothing to dry on a line long before bedtime – and headed down to the inn to find some food and company.

Maybe I hadn’t learned yet how to show interest or maybe I was too shy to introduce myself, but the conversation never happened. I scribbled in my journal and used the wifi as I sat with a beer in the sun utilizing my down coat for the first time. Getting hungry I learned that the inn across the street would be serving dinner after 7 and hoped that I would get to be part of a communal dining experience – the type I had heard about but didn’t quite understand. Instead, I was sat at a table for four in a large empty dining room. The very friendly host asked me what I wanted and proceeded to rattle around in the kitchen before presenting me with a basket of bread and a pot of soup. I had three helpings and finished the bread. I thought this was it until the man brought out a porkloin with potatoes and eggs. Surprised by my appetite, I finished this too. Next course: Tarta de Santiago – a delicious, almond cake much like marzipan but crumbly, and with eggs. I would soon learn that this Menu del Dia typically includes coffee and unlimited wine – all for 10-12 euro! Maybe next time I would have someone to share with.

Full but not satisfied, I retreated to my room. It was nine-ish in a place where the sun doesn’t set until after 10pm. Luckily, I still had a movie on my ipad and would have entertainment before a long sleep and my first full day on foot! I felt somewhat ashamed of maintaining this type of familiar comfort, but I was alone, tired, and a little homesick after 5 days away from home.



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