I ripped off the bandaid rather early on my last morning in Santiago. I shoved all my things into my backpack one more time and said goodbye to my comfortable hotel haven, to the cathedral, and to the people at Pilgrim House. I exited the city the way I came in, past the restaurant where I’d seen the pilgrims sitting when I was so lost.
My adventure was coming to a close, and now it was time to get myself home. After my first Camino in 2009, my hiking partner Claire and I went to stay with some friends studying abroad in London. Sparing you the details, I was an emotional wreck when I left a few days later for Heathrow airport.
Everything built up from my 35 days of hiking came crashing down on me the moment I realized I needed to get myself back to reality. No one understood what we’d just gone through. The rest of the world seemed so gray, so angry, so flippant. I still woke up at 6am with a burst of energy but people around me seemed put out by the morning hours.
When I left, I remember buying a Bounty Bar at a corner store in London with tears running down my face while the poor confused guy behind the counter gave me my change.
Between 2009 and 2017, I had some practice getting home. The flight and the bus and all the details in between were one thing. But returning to a place that doesn’t feel desperately lonely? That’s another challenge. This time, I had a husband who listened and I lived in a city I loved. I didn’t have to return to the silence of being a pilgrim in a distant and quiet world.
I marched up the steep hill of Santiago toward the bus station. I had a ticket for a coach bus back to Porto for one more night before my flight home. It was warm and humid again and by the time I reached the station, I was exhausted. Walk across a country? That’s normal. Walk to the bus stop? I’m a mess.
Driving back out of Santiago is always hard. I just worked so hard to get there, after all. It was also the first time I’d been on moving transportation in two weeks, which is always disorienting. I sat next to a kind man about my parents’ age who told me about his journey.
The bus wove its way past the towns I recognized. I watched the exits fly by–Tui, Barcelos, Ponte de Lima. We even passed the Camino at one point and I saw someone cresting the hill with a backpack. The one major event from this bus ride that I’ll tell you about (and warn you about, if you find yourself taking an Alsa bus in Spain), is that there were no stops for the bathroom for three-and-a-half hours. Maybe a regular human being could have managed this (can they?!) but not me apparently.
By the time we got to our first stop–the Porto airport–I begged the driver to let me run inside. Remember on my first day when I’d researched where the airport bathroom was? It all comes full circle. He said that he’d wait for me as long as his cigarette lasted. Lordy. I ran inside, panicked, and ran back out, worried the bus would take off with all my belongings.
I got back on the bus with plenty of time to spare and when we pulled up to the Porto stop, I realized that we were about a 45 minute walk from my hotel. I was too tired to figure out the taxi situation, so what’s 3 more kilometers?
I wove my way through the city, past the Crystal Palace I’d seen the sign for on my first day (it’s very pretty), past an amazing storefront full of Portuguese pastries (oh how I missed you!), and finally back down the hill into the old part of town.
As I approached the start of my Camino, I saw the beer place in the distance. A woman was leaning in the doorway.
“So, how was it?” she called to me. It if had been written in a movie, I wouldn’t have believed it. I went inside and had a beer while I told her about my two weeks. We talked about all our favorite small towns in Portugal, about my Camino family, and about heading back to the states.
“My husband and I are supposed to come back next May,” I told her, “Maybe we can take the bus down to Porto.” You guessed right that we did not, in fact, go the following May. But I did look up the restaurant online just now, and it appears that the business has survived.
We bid our farewells and I made my way through familiar streets. I felt like I’d been gone for years. I was a little worse for wear this time around, but grateful to see my city again.
The next three hours consisted of waiting for my AirBNB owner to turn up. She did eventually, but by the time I’d wandered sweaty and worn by the day, I collapsed onto the bed.
The room was comically decadent. I booked it on a whim because I’d stayed so well under budget for the first part of the trip. French doors opened up onto a faux balcony overlooking one of the main cobblestone streets.
When the sun began to set, I headed out one last time to wrap my head around Porto and my cyclical journey that left me dumfounded about where and when I was. My phone buzzed with a warning about the storms in the path of my flight, but I’d flown through rough patches before, I trusted that if it was really dangerous, they’d cancel it.
I bought myself some gelato wandered around my block, staying close to home out of fear of getting lost in such a state of confusion and exhaustion. It was time to rest. The streets were filled with tables lit by torch lamps and couples cozied up to their bottles of wine. It may be the most romantic city I’ve ever been in, and I was suddenly so aware of how much I missed Ben.
My Camino family was still in Santiago. They sent me pictures of the same bar from the night before. But I was in limbo, somewhere between NYC and my life as a pilgrim. It was time to go home.