Back on the Road

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I slept a total of four hours that night–which is about three hours more than the nights before my first two Caminos. So, I considered it a win. I’d wrestled in and out of consciousness most of the night, knowing that the less I slept, the harder the next day would be. Still, from about 2am-5am, I was out, and that was enough to cut the insomnia dizzies to a minimum.

Preparing for the Camino is shockingly lonely when you’re not headed out the door with other pilgrims. I was happy this would be the last time I’d be by myself.

I ate my last apple, packed the final bit of bread in the top of my backpack and, and pocketed the remainder of the chocolate bar. After obsessively checking that I had passport-phone-money-pilgrim credential packed, I said a strange goodbye to my little room and locked it behind me.

The kind front desk man waited up for me–I gave him a heads up that I would be leaving early. “Would you like a taxi?” he asked. I stared at him for a brief moment, realizing he didn’t even know I was a pilgrim. I wanted to say, “And give up already?!” But he wouldn’t have gotten it. I was yet to be on the Camino. “Não, obrigada,” I thanked him. That was the final temptation to ditch this whole plan, I suppose.

In your mind, you often imagine that starting the Camino is a momentous, emotional moment. You’ll take the first steps and tears will burst forth from your face! In reality, the first few hours are often about figuring out if you’re even headed in the right direction. The weight of the pack is also a sudden shock to me each time. I’m really carrying this thing with me? I often think.

Out on the dark morning streets of Porto, the Wednesday morning rush hour had begun. I watched a woman miss her bus on the way to work, just to flag down the one immediately behind it and happily jump on. I followed so artsy students up the hill, past the Steak-and-Shake and toward the main road, this time away from the beer bar. This will all look so different in two weeks, I thought.

I felt disoriented. Now I had to get out of the city and I still hadn’t seen any pilgrims. Where were they?

“Bom Camino!” a voice suddenly yelled. (Bom Camino–or Buen Camino once you reach Spain–is what you yell to pilgrims to wish them a good journey). A 40-something man in a business suit raised his arms in excitement at me.

“Peregrino?!” I asked him. He must have heard my American accent immediately and switched to English.

“Not today, sadly. But I have walked nine Caminos and plan to walk my 10th starting in the winter from Italy. I have a Camino tattoo!”

He rolled up his sleeve. I rolled up mine. “I have one too!” I yelled in excitement, showing him the tattoo I’d only just gotten a few months before. We were like two little kids on the playground realizing we both liked the same things.

We went in for an awkward high five/handshake and decided on a strange, 1990’s-esque greeting that combined the two.

“It’s hard to get out of the city, don’t loose sight of the arrows, it can take a while.”

I thanked him and we parted. That is the energy I missed and couldn’t wait to experience again–people who did this thing all their lives without question or the need for explanation. I walked on, energized by his spirit. I still wonder if he made it from Italy before the COVID shutdown.

First of many guard doggos on my walk.

The cobblestone roads wove throughout the construction-filled city, with Camino arrows re-routed on traffic cones and orange barrels. By the time the sun started to rise an hour later, I was still in the depths of the city and getting hungry.

I popped into an open cafe where I saw another walking stick leaning on the doorway. The sleepy cafe owner made me a cafe con leche and I ordered a large, decadent-looking Portuguese pastry.

The walking stick outside belonged to a German man named Michael probably a little younger than my parents. He was headed to the Coastal route which walked up the beaches of Portugal. Our roads were meant to split in a few hours. I was headed to the Central Route. This route included more mountain and forest walking, and though I’d miss the beaches, I didn’t like the idea of staying in seaside towns with a small population of pilgrims. I wanted a crowd.

Full of sugar and caffeine, we parted ways with a hearty Buen Camino, the second of my journey so far.

The next three hours were all about putting one foot in front of the other and little else. On the Camino Frances–the route I’d walked in 2009 and 2017–the first day doesn’t allow you to zone out. You have to climb over the 27 kilometers of Pyrenees Mountains. The first four hours are on a sharp incline and if you hit bad weather–which I did in 2009–the trail could be life-threatening. In the Martin Sheen movie, The Way–spoilers–this is where the main character’s son dies in the first 20 minutes of the movie.

The only threat to my safety when leaving Porto were the cars. Cars in Portugal drive VERY quickly, and after decades of getting used to the pilgrims hobbling along through their cities, hitting them doesn’t seem to be a source of anxiety. It was, however, for me. I figured if I had to, I could drop my backpack and press myself against the stone wall, but I hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

The city road eventually turned into a suburb, which lead to a highway exit ramp (I kid you not) and eventually to a stone-wall-flanked road. It’s absurd to think that the road could fit two directions of traffic, not to mention leave room for a backpacker.

I wrapped my whistle around my wrist, ready to blow it with all my might if a car or motorbike didn’t see me in time.

Finally, the skyline opened up, and the land before me looked more like the Camino I knew–farms of soft golden grass ready for the fall sliced in half by an ancient winding road. Above the stone walls, lemon trees–something you don’t get until the end of the Camino Frances–looked down over me. I was reminded how far south I was.

Just then, what had to be a 110-year old woman in a smock appeared from a hole in the wall and began screaming at me in Portuguese. I apologized over and over–for what? Lord knows–and spitting out the “I don’t understand Portuguese” phrase I’d practiced. She went on for so long, getting angrier by the minute, that I just kept walking. When I turned around, she was still shaking her fists at me like I’d stolen her lemons.

The road turned into a path surrounded by peeling eucalyptus trees and I cleaned my lungs with their fresh scent. I loved the fall air here. NYC is the fall is amazing, but Porto is a close second.

The next four hours of hiking went on with little fanfare–again, a strange switch from my usual Camino experience. My patience, energy, and feet, however, felt differently. The lack of sleep was catching up with me and the magic was dwindling. I had yet to meet another pilgrim since the German man other than a very enthusiastic Brazilian couple that filled my spirit with a burst of temporary excitement. But they were too quick for me, so I was alone again in minutes.

I was struggling, honestly. The romanticism of the Camino is typically unshakable in my mind when I talk or think about it back home. And here? I was walking on a busy road and getting yelled at by old ladies. Where was everyone?

I turned my focus to a backup plan that I’d intended to reserve for the most dire moments of frustration, but this seemed like as good a time as any. I listened to Hamilton. With no one around me, I sang the opening numbers to myself, threading myself up another highway overpass and through a nearly empty town. The music distracted me from my rumbling stomach and reminded me of home. There were no restaurants in sight and I was almost out of bread and chocolate. But Hamilton kept me company.

In the final walking hours of the day, hot and starving, I took a short detour to avoid staying in a larger town nearby. There was a monastery hostel if you walked a few kilometers off the main trail, and even without being a believer, staying with the nuns had always been my most fulfilling experience.

As the sun was starting is early setting, my now-dragging ankles carried me over the hill to see the historic monastery–with “over 1,000 years of history” according to its website–in Vairão. It sat on a hill looking over a stunning field. A lush garden just through the gates was being tended to by a groundskeeper pruning roses.

“Peregrino?” he asked me, “You need a bed? You are staying here tonight?” he asked in Portuguese.

He pointed me toward the home of a nun outside the monastery walls who would unlock the building for me. I started to panic that I’d be sleeping in an eleventh-century monastery surrounded by a cemetery all by myself. While I waited for the key, he let me wander around the rose garden and sit in the sun for a brief beautiful moment. “People are not normally allowed in here,” he said with a wink.

A four-foot tall nun welcomed me with a hug and unlocked the front door, leading me up to a series of room that looked out of an old elementary school. The volunteer host for the night arrived as well and I had hope I wouldn’t be alone. After the quick tour of the showers, sink for laundry, and kitchen, I sat on my bed, back in my true element at last.

I sunk into a deep sleep with extreme satisfaction, the cool air from the french windows blowing in through the open shutters. When I woke up, at peace and clear-minded, I washed my clothing and hung it up on the line outside by the garden, feeling a bit like all the 19th-century ladies from the BBC shows I’d watched in my suburban slump over the past year.

When I returned, Barbara had arrived! My roommate and soon-to-be-lifelong friend came in the room with the energy I craved all day. She was from Germany, was covered in tattoos that all had thrilling stories and had vibrantly red hair. We decided to make dinner in the kitchen together and split the cost of the ingredients. “Let’s grab wine, too!” she yelled. We were going to be great friends.

As more and more pilgrims arrived, I quickly learned that nearly all of us had had a weird day. Many got lost, some took taxis, others bailed on their plans to try and reach the coast.

As the stories poured through the front door, my pasta, tomato and mushroom dish was finishing up and I realized I’d made enough for a small army. When I rounded the corner to the dining room, there my small army sat.

When Ben and I decided to move back to NYC, I dreamed of throwing dinner parties. I didn’t care how small our apartment was, I just wanted people to come eat my cooking and be comforted by my home. This is all I wanted, really. It just happened to arrive first in a monastery in Portugal.

We laughed and told stories about our day. One woman, who had only just arrived at 8pm, had gotten horribly lost because she walked toward a church steeple that inspired her to go to mass. Afterwards, refusing to use a cell phone for assistance, she got so lost that the police eventually gave her a ride to Vairão. But she wasn’t upset, she was beaming! Laughing, even! She was elated at the adventure she’d just had. “And then I walk in the door and there is pasta and wine waiting for me!”

As she spoke, she let me borrow her cell phone and I helped her download the Camino app I used to navigate the road in an emergency. I understand being spiritual, but if there is a god, they made people , who made GPS systems, and we should use them if were lost in Portugal and the sun is going down.

Filled with pasta and wine, we all wound down for the night. The hostel sold scallop shells in a small case to raise money, and I spotted a wonderfully weird chipped one that had a whole lot of character. I bought it and attached it to my backpack–another tradition complete.

For the first two hours of sleep, I was kept awake by the unmistakable sound of people moving furniture. It sounded like children moving their desks around a classroom on tiled floors. At one point, I went out into the dark hallways and determined it must have been coming from downstairs somewhere. But why so late?

I headed back to bed, put in my earplugs, and closed my eyes. What an adventure. How lucky am I to be here. I fell asleep smiling.

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