The Fourth Camino: Part 2

You can find part 1 here!:)

We woke the next morning at 7 am, just three hours after getting home. I’m not supposed to be here, I thought as I winced against the NYC sun. We hadn’t even closed the shades.

My hiking pants were draped across my laundry bin. Should I just put them back on? I was only bringing two pairs of pants in the first place. I rolled over and checked my phone through my puffy eyelids. “Ben…” I muttered. He grunted back, half asleep. “Iberia rebooked us…on the flight we already purchased.”

Yes, you read that right. After they finally canceled the flight the night before, Iberia automatically rebooked us. It just happened to be on the very same flight we’d bought tickets for through American Airlines. Apparently they’re a partner company. We were now the proud owners of FOUR seats on the same flight to Spain.

I’m going to spare you the customer service details of the next two hours, but I will say that if you–yes, you, American Airlines customer service lady–are somehow reading this, thank you. You were the first Camino angel of the trip. Long story short, she felt pity for us and managed to transform our extra seats into credit so we wouldn’t totally lose $450.

We were now the proud owners of TWO seats on a flight to Spain…well, maybe. When I opened up the confirmation email for the rebooked seats, I got an error message that said there was no option to check in and to talk to someone at the airport. I felt like I was in an absurdist travel film.

“It’s all going to be fine,” Ben assured me, “We have the confirmation email.”

But after only three hours of sleep and having our hopes dashed the night before, I was spiraling into what I call New York Times Mode. While I appreciate the Times most days, they have a habit of combining headlines into two parts, like this: Something something positive, but BAD BAD BAD THING TOO.

NY Times Mode for me sounded like, Ginny and Ben Book New Flight, But They Have Yet to Confirm Tickets.

After a bagel, two cups of coffee, and another round of saying goodbye to the cats, we headed out to the C train, dodging happy brunchers that looked at us in now-crinkled hiking gear like we were intruders to the Upper West Side. There was a women’s rights march happening downtown so people piled onto our train wearing pink hats and carrying signs. I remember seeing it on the calendar and thinking I was sad to miss it. I’m not supposed to be here. I was still so delirious.

After another 90-minute subway ride, we transferred back to our old friend, the Air Train. There’s a pond right behind the station. As we sat there waiting for the next shuttle, a large white egret landed on a log. “I hope that’s good luck,” I said to Ben. He was totally reassured that there wouldn’t be any hiccups this time, but I wouldn’t believe it until we had tickets in our hands.

As we entered the terminal, a crowd of angry guests lined up at the American Airlines counter. There were grumbles of hour-long waits and “I’ve been here since last night! Grumble grumble.” We approached the gatekeeper to the line who was being torn apart by the family in front of us for something that was not her problem, and for a moment, we met eyes. I made a, “This lady, amiright?” face and she gave me a smirk.

Then it was our turn. We tried to make it clear we were not assholes. “We’re opening a new line,” she whispered, “Follow Patricia and you can start it.” Our second Camino angel. I turned quickly to Ben, “Follow Patricia!” I yelled and we hustled behind the employee starting her shift. I held my breath as we handed her our passports, convinced our tickets had somehow been eaten by the Mercury in Retrograde monster.

“Gate 20,” she said, handing us the tickets and calling on the next passengers. I looked at our boarding passes like they were Chocolate Factory golden tickets. Ben and I booked it to security with some hope.

Ginny and Ben Get Boarding Passes, But Flight Has Yet to Take Off

Compared to the night we had, American Airlines was a dream. We had seats. We got on the plane on time. There was no fussing, yelling, or tension. An hour later, we backed away from the gate and felt the familiar rush of takeoff that sent us flying across the runway, and for the first time since the start of Covid, off American soil. I put my head back and closed my eyes.

Flight Takes Off, But Will They Catch Their Train?

Finally in the air, and very clearly heading in the right direction, I went into a boneless state of half-sleeping/half-jolting awake on Ben’s shoulder for the next few hours. We watched an episode of Great British Baking to try and feel normal, but I just needed the time to pass.

Wrapping your head around 150 miles of hiking is one thing, but not sleeping for two nights beforehand was another. We made a crucial decision on the flight–one that slightly broke my heart but was a fair compromise compared to not getting there at all. We would skip the walk from Astorga to Foncebedon–a 20-something-kilometer trek up a mountain–and instead take a cab (gah) to Foncebedon, sleep an extra night in our reserved room, and start walking the next day.

Let me explain something about my moaning and groaning about taking a taxi. I first walked the Camino in 2009, when there was a whole other vibe on the pilgrimage. Hopping in a taxi for even a couple of miles would get you booed by hikers when you got out of the car. Let me also make it clear that I think that is baloney. Yes, a pilgrimage is about learning and challenging yourself and yada yada yada, but come now. If catching a bus, a train, a car, or a mule means your pilgrimage can happen at all, then that’s the point isn’t it? But still, I had this old, “But I wouldn’t do it,” nonsense in my head. Maybe I’d have to get over that.

We landed at Madrid airport at 6:30 am and wandered through the labyrinth of the terminal to a customs line that snaked around like a twisted ball of yarn. Doctors in white coats met us by the gate to let us know how to get medical attention for Covid should we need anything during our stay.

Ginny and Ben Make it To Spain, But Hurdles Still Remain. (That one rhymed)

It was odd being in a major city like Madrid and simply skipping it. We had about 6 hours before our train and I couldn’t wait to crash into a bed. We got in a taxi and headed to an off-the-highway hotel for our long-awaited nap. I had no idea where we were, when it was, or what we were doing, but surely a midday nap at what was 2 am for us would do the trick, right? Right?

When we keyed into the room, I grabbed what I thought was the “Do Not Disturb” sign and placed it on the doorknob. I swear I am not usually this spastic a traveler.

We fell asleep the moment our heads hit the pillow. For the next three and a half hours, I wove between fever dreams that we were still in Manhattan and the distant sounds of vacuuming. And then, the door handle jiggled. And then the door opened, but caught on the folding lock. “Hello?!” I yelled. I then realized what was happening. We weren’t being broken into. I had put the sign on “Please Clean” and the poor staff was trying to do their jobs. “No, gracias! Lo siento!” Christ on a cracker.

We woke up an hour later with a bit more spirit and vigor. “Remember when someone tried to break into our room?” I said excitedly to Ben.

The rest of the day involved another taxi ride and two newly booked trains to the town of Astorga. I watched the mountains, fields, and even bits of the Via de la Plata–the Camino that went through Madrid toward Santiago–pass by my window. I saw pilgrims walking along the straight road and wondered what they were doing to occupy their minds.

I’ve started each of my Caminos with a train ride. Twice to St. Jean Pied du Port in the Pyrenees and once to Porto in Portugal. But this time I had Ben next to me. I looked at my new adventure buddy and wondered if he was starting to question all this again. But we were here. We were no longer on the roof of our apartment building watching planes fly over without us. I did that the first and the second time our Caminos were canceled from the pandemic. I’m not supposed to be here, I remember thinking both times.

The sun melted into a soft, creamy orange as we approached the Astorga stop. When I was little, my favorite time of day was when the sky just started to slip from the hot afternoon sun to that burnt orange hue before dusk. It usually meant my dad was coming home from working in the city or my mom and I were driving to some rehearsal. We stepped off the train with a handful of other hikers and started the steep walk into town.

And then we saw it–our first Camino marker. It was a new one. Not one on the actual trail, but one pointing you back the right way. In 2009, and even in 2017, you’d thank your stars if you even found a painted yellow arrow. Now there are permanent signs on traffic poles.

“Look at this town!” Ben yelled with an enthusiasm I hadn’t heard from him in years. “It’s amazing!” There’s nothing like seeing a place through a new person’s eyes. Is it possible it had all become commonplace to me? “Look at the murals!” He yelled. Three-story-high murals of battles and local history we’d never studied in school covered the sides of entire buildings.

Our hotel looked out over the stunning cathedral next door and a castle designed by Gaudi. I’d booked this spot thinking we’d stay there two nights.

“Oh it’s you!” the hotel owner yelled in joy when we gave our names. It turns out that I am one of the more–perhaps overly–communicative guests he’s had. “I’m not charging you for the missed night. I am sorry the flight interrupted your pilgrimage.” Our third Camino angel.

We took pictures on our ridiculously decadent balcony and headed out to find food. “Where is everyone?” Ben asked, referring to the nearly deserted medieval city.

“It’s too early for dinner,” I explained. “Everyone will emerge in about two hours, around 8 or 9.” But on second thought, I didn’t know if they would tonight. Spain was hit horribly by Covid and from what I read in the forums I follow, most towns were far from ready to return to the highly social world they once had. Ben was right, even for 7 pm, it was empty.

With most restaurants not serving dinner for hours and our energy fading, we went into an American-style burger bar called Urban Food. We’d spent years seeking out Spanish restaurants in NYC and our first stop in Spain is…a burger place. But it was friendly and delicious and I had my first Estrella Galicia of the trip, the pilgrim nectar of the gods.

After dinner, sleepy and full of burger and beer, I looked lovingly at this little city that had brought me so much over the years. In 2008, when I studied the Camino with my college, we visited the albergue–the word for pilgrim hostel–to learn how they functioned. I’d later stay in that albergue two more times. The second time, I’d meet a man with Leukemia who’d hand me a rosary “for my husband’s future Camino.” This was long before Ben thought about going. But he was right. And goodness knows where that man is now. I’d write an essay about the experience and had it published years later. It felt right to start here, even if we wouldn’t get to walk out of town as we’d planned.

We stopped by the outside of the cathedral before heading up to bed and I pointed out the albergue and the direction of the Camino. There were so many stars, so many more than you could see from our old rusty NYC roof.

It was time for bed. It was time for a long, long sleep without an alarm clock.

Ginny and Ben Make it to Spain, and Sleep Like Rocks

9 responses to “The Fourth Camino: Part 2”

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