There were three hiking days left in the trip. Years of planning and we were just an hour’s drive and a three day’s hike to Santiago. No matter the length of each Camino I’ve walked, the questions, “What comes next?” and “What was the point of all this?” start to creep in and distract you from enjoying the triumph of finishing.
I also woke to several persistent and confusing work emails. I knew this would happen, that’s just kind of the deal of a freelancer. What I didn’t expect was how much it would stress me out to explain to each of them that I was off the grid–and had ironically returned to the grid to tell them I was off of it.
In spite of these unwanted reminders of the real world, we left the albergue into a cool and calming mist. It was October 12, my dad’s birthday. Ben and I recorded him a video for the road and planned to ask any friends we encountered throughout the day to send a quick video message in their home language.
It was a stunning morning. Dew dripped off every branch and leaf, and when the sun did full rise, it slanted sideways through the branches like the blinds in our bedroom back home.
By mid-morning, we reached Palas de Rei, a small-but-significant city with a stunning church at the entrance of town. It was a bank holiday in Spain, and hiking on a bank holiday is even trickier than hiking on a Sunday. You’re in the way on a bank holiday. You’re a chore on a day when locals prefer to celebrate on their own. And I don’t say this with annoyance. These are small towns with old, relied-upon traditions. After a while, the 10,000th American (no exaggeration) of the summer asking for a cafe con leche in their dirty hiking clothes, broken Spanish, and likely some sort of attitude, gets old.
Needless to say, we were not warmly welcomed to town. Since we skipped a significant breakfast, we’d hoped to grab something in a cafe. I held down the fort at a table outside so we wouldn’t get in the way of morning festivities with the locals. After 20 minutes, Ben came out with two soda cans.
“They wouldn’t even look at me,” he explained. “I was the only one standing there and they wouldn’t even acknowledge I existed. So I gave them my best NYC directness and at least bought these sodas.”
“Let’s get food in the next town,” I told him. I’m sure it was just a fluke. A grouchy place that had probably served too many grouchy pilgrims.
We followed the road out of the village and chatted about what we’d look for in a home if we ever lived there, even if it was hard to imagine after the cold vibe we’d started sensing the past few days.
It was a short walking day in comparison to the one before, but still a hot one. Luckily, we passed back into the forest, around some tree-covered farms, and to a bar that I’d visited in 2008 on my college trip. I only recognized it when we stepped inside and saw a wall of hats from past travelers. Yet again, the bartender looked haggard and ready to burst at the first sign of a rude pilgrim, but I told him in attempted Spanish that I was here in 13 years earlier and never forget the Santiago cake. I unlocked a smile and a bit of small talk.
We ordered the cake and two coffees and sat outside in the sun. The Swedish man from the night before kindly wished my dad a happy birthday in a video.
Reinvigorated with sugar and caffeine, we carried on into the woods. There was no question that Ben and I were broken-in pilgrims by now. There was the slight limp, the left-faced sunburn, the mysterious rash. But most importantly, a new rhythm. I think there are so many reasons why the world would benefit from pilgrimage, just one of them being falling into this new simple pace, either with your own mind or with another person.
Despite the beautiful foliage, the temperature rose once again. The walk in the heat became more of a trudge when we reached a detour in the road and added a kilometer to the day. My heat/plant/mysterious rash burned in the sun, and I tried my best to drape my Buff overtop of it.
We eventually turned onto the main road leading into Melide and started the hot climb into town. Every time the sun cast a shadow onto the sidewalk, we stopped to catch our breath and lower our body temperature. We’d booked a hotel close to the center of town in hopes to spend an evening enjoying the area’s famous culinary scene.
Right before we ran across the road for our turn, Ben pointed out a restaurant called Brooklyn Grillburger and Kebab. “I can’t say I’m not curious,” Ben hollered.
After a few more winding turns, we ducked into the cool shade of a pub to pick up our keys for the room upstairs. The owner who greeted us was kind and energetic and the restaurant was lively. It looked like an excellent place to grab late lunch, but since we had plans to explore, we took our stuff upstairs and collapsed in the cool-tiled room.
“I am starving,” I announced. Ben agreed. It was nearly 6pm and we hadn’t had a full meal all day. Heading back down the steps, we noticed the restaurant had now cleared out completely from the earlier crowd, so we scooted across the street and into the city.
I wish I could tell you a bit more about how beautiful the old city of Melide is–after all, the city has been around since the Neolithic Period (!!)– but we were unfortunately too delirious and hungry to take much of it in. I’ve always felt this is one of the great ironies of walking such an ancient trail. You’re often too tired from walking to truly see how ancient it is.
We were also incapable of finding food. And I mean any food. The town was completely shut down between lunch at dinner and kitchens were not set to reopen for at least two hours. But all food stores and corner stores were closed for the bank holiday. We were kind of screwed. To add insult to injury, if we asked about food, the restaurant owners–clearly tired of answering this darn question–barked at us without even a bit of eye contact. “Comida! No!” One woman made an eating symbol with her hand and then pointed me out of the bar to leave.
We decided to head back to our hotel and have dinner there. But when we returned, it sat deserted other than a single older man drinking a beer at the bar.
“Ocho!” the previously nice woman yelled my way after I asked about dinner, holding up eight fingers to translate. I took a deep breath. We are visitors here, I reminded myself. I spotted an oversized, fluffy croissant sitting on a display behind her.
In clear Spanish, I asked if we could buy the croissant. She looked at us as if I had just offered to purchase her daughter. “Ahora?!” she asked loudly. For a moment, I thought she was going to refuse to let us buy it. We would take it to go, I confirmed. Finally, after an unnecessary about of bartering and begging, we exchanged money for the pastry in question and we walked outside to calm our dizziness.
“Why did that have to be such a big deal?” I asked Ben, “Are we terrible people for asking to purchase food?” My low blood sugar was definitely getting the best of me.
We went back up to the room and I put my head in my hands.
“I’ve been worried for days that we’re not actually supposed to be here and I think today confirmed it,” I said to Ben, the tears starting to interrupt my speech. “Think about all the people in the past few days who have just looked exhausted at our existence.”
I never believed that we would get some warm welcome mat when we came to Spain midway through a pandemic—or any time really—but I didn’t expect to encounter so much anger and frustration. How many months had I laid awake daydreaming about being here one day with Ben? How much had I talked about how this pilgrimage was about human connection and community?
Has the influx of pilgrims in the past few years finally hit its limit? Were we hurting the Spanish culture more than helping it? I’d always been told that the flow of hikers helped keep the towns economically afloat, that our presence was in some way beneficial. And when Covid shut things down, many businesses went with it. I always thought that the country wanted to keep the tradition going. I started seriously wondering if I was kidding myself.
“What about the Brooklyn bar? It looked really open when we walked past,” Ben reminded me.
“Yes!” I yelled.
We ran downstairs and hoofed it over to the restaurant. Lo and behold, they were open! And serving food!
The couple at the door was so warm and welcoming that I felt tears well up behind my eyes again. Pictures of Manhattan’s skyline from Brooklyn Bridge Park lined the walls. It was a sign from home. We ate a fantastically filling meal that combined burgers with kebabs—as the name of the place promised—and a few tall beers. Afterward, I walked up to the owner to thank her. I explained we had had a bad day and were having trouble finding food. I also explained we were feeling a bit homesick for NYC. She gave me a card with a special pilgrims stamp on the back and a warm smile. We keep the card on our fridge.
Thankful for food and rejuvenated by their kindness, we walked back to the hotel room, ready to stay in for the night.
When we made it up to the room, I turned off my phone in frustration. The work emails didn’t want to stop and I still felt torn about my earlier doubts.
I never want to fall in love with a tradition so much that I am blind to the fact that it is hurting the very thing that I’m trying to celebrate.
“Look,” Ben said, sensing my sadness. “This pilgrimage has been around for over a thousand years, probably longer. It’s probably going to be here for another thousand years, whether a town is annoyed with us or not. The pilgrimage is bigger than all this.”
He was right. The pilgrimage would likely survive whether it had the infrastructure in place or not. But is it fair to put locals through it? I didn’t know. I’d told hundreds, if not thousands (if you include this blog) about the Camino over the years. Was I part of the problem? Are there simply too many people?
I went to sleep trying to hang on to the kindness of the people from the Brooklyn burger restaurant as we WhatsApped friends walking behind us to encourage they stop by on their way.
We only had two more hiking days left. Tomorrow would be my 90th day walking on the Camino. And I suddenly had no idea if we were supposed to be there at all.