Idyll at San Roque

The 40th morning was miserably cold. I wore both my sweaters and put damp socks on my hands and strode over gravel in the dark, reminding myself that the sun would rise and a cafe would appear and it would be okay soon.

It was foggy. My headlamp just lit up the vapor, so I turned it off and the world appeared.

The moon was a waning gibbous and it wore crowns of light and lit the camino, giving any threatening stones on the ground long shadows. I saw a peak in the distance emerging from a cloud and heard the roar of water somewhere to the left. Out of the corner of my eye, behind the nearest hill, a great white arm waved: a wind turbine. A wind turbine, very close.

I walked in the perfect quiet moonlight until two women came up next to me.

“Do you want to walk in the light, dear?” said one, whom I recognized as Mary, a British woman with whom I’d eaten dinner the last two nights. And by that, I mean she gave me all her group’s extra food and I ate it in her presence. Her Scottish friend Pamela walked at her side and her husband Hugh was behind.

“Hi guys! I know you!”

“Oh, it’s Chelsea!” said Mary.

“Have you seen Earnest?” asked Pamela.

I’ve never met Earnest, but I know he is an Austrian guy who has walked from Vienna. He’s a travel writer and he’s very smart. He also has great calves and the face of Johnny Depp, and a mild, kind temperament. Mary, Hugh, and Pamela had spent the last night letting me eat their flan in a restaurant while they told me we were meant for each other. (Earnest, if you’re reading this, I need to know if you’re single and also how to get sponsored by Patagonia.)

“No!” I said. “I’m looking everywhere, but I can’t find him! What’ll I do? I made soup last night but the smell didn’t attract him.”

“Maybe we’ll meet him today,” said Mary.

We caught up to a group of guys and Mary and Pamela instantly singled one out, grabbing his arm and yelling, “EARNEST! IT’S EARNEST!”

I froze beyond the glow of the headlamps with a grin. A horrified grin.

“Hello,” said the guy.

“How are you?” they said. “We found you! Wait… oh… sorry, you’re not Earnest, are you?”

“Well, no,” he said. He did not have the face of Johnny Depp.

And on we walked.

The sun rose and Mary, Pamela, and Hugh went on while I stopped for coffee and chatted to a woman from Brisbane and a woman from Gainsville. And I walked on toward Finisterre.

At first I thought the line on the horizon was a cloud, but then I spun around and saw it continue all around me. It was perfectly flat. It was blue.

It was the Atlantic Ocean.

Finally, the Atlantic Ocean.

I walked closer and after some time, I saw a tall cross overlooking the descent toward Finisterre. I leaned against the cross. It was there I smelled the ocean the first time.

When I got down to Cee, I ate with my three friends again, who still had not seen Earnest. Then I walked through the town and felt like I was on holiday, because Cee was the first town in 40 days with a beach. It was a crescent beach, and boats lazed in the harbor. It was hot.

And then after drinking a whole thing of Lipton Lemon Iced Tea, I sat at a bar and ordered a red wine, and it came with a tortilla (which in Spain is an eggy, potato pie served with a slab of bread), and after I ate the tortilla the bartender offered me a second plate. I looked at the beach–so close, I could run to it and be in it in ten seconds–and I couldn’t believe I was there.

There were only three other pilgrims waiting at Albergue San Roque, named for the saint who will pray for bachelors, dogs, and skin problems. Three: an unprecedented paucity after the weeks of hustling crowds on the French Way. They sat in the dappled shade of maple trees in a small park opposite the albergue’s front door.

One woman wore gray and had a tattoo of a bird on her tricep. She was in repose under a tree, headphones in. Another woman in a long-sleeved pink jacket ate something at a stone picnic table. A man in a blue shirt with sweat on his back sat on the ground near a stone cross. I sat on a swing in the playground, between the two women, and then we were four pilgrims, evenly spaced.

Time passed. The man in blue got up and approached the woman in pink and sat down across from her. He took some of her food without asking. They must know each other, I thought. They began to speak in Italian.

When the hospitalero opened the door his first action was to pour cat food into a bowl. Two adult cats came running, and two kittens. One of the kittens had a foot that had broken a long time ago, because it was flat, matted, and folded under and she walked on it, lopsided but not limping. She didn’t seem to hurt but the sight cracked my heart. The hospitalero told me they were strays and one of the kittens had already died. But they fed them anyway and just tried to keep them from getting in the kitchen.

Like the hosts at most donativos, our hospitalero Luis is a volunteer. He lives in Madrid and loves the camino, so he has come here for 15 days to take care of pilgrims, which includes cleaning the albergue and cooking meals. What we pilgrims donate sustains the albergue and feeds the next day’s pilgrims.

The donativo albergues have been my favorite because here, the love and hospitality that is ever-present on the camino in some form is closest to the surface. Luis keeps offering me tea while I sit in a room with photos of pilgrims on the walls. A previous hospitalero left an infuriating 3000 piece puzzle here ages ago, and I tried to get the last hundred beige pieces into their places before my resolve flagged.

Now, I sit stubbornly on a top bunk in the bedroom. This is the last donativo on the camino. It’s the 40th day of the pilgrimage and I wish it was the first. I refuse to get off this rubber-cased mattress and fly home. If there was someone to throw a tantrum to, I would.

Finisterre is tantalizingly close. 12 kilometers away. That’s nothing. That’s two and a half hours. That’s 7.2 miles.

I just didn’t want to rush.

Later, we will eat dinner: garlic soup (made with egg, peppers, old bread, and yes, garlic), salad, bread, wine, and supermarket brand yogurt for dessert. We will all communicate just fine; it’ll just take longer than if we spoke the same language. We will tell each other where we came from and where we are going, and Gail from Brussels will have an Italian friend join halfway through the meal, who will want to stay the night as well, and we’ll send all the food down to him and fill his glass. He will introduce himself as Daniele from Milan, and when he is finished eating he will announce that he is going outside to have the last cigarette of his life, since tomorrow he and Gail will quit. Or maybe the day after tomorrow.

We’ll all trip over ourselves making sure each of us gets their preferred yogurt flavor.

After dinner I will put the kettle on and locate seven mismatched teacups. Piera from Rome will have chamomile tea. Francesco from Rome will request coffee and under his auspices I’ll make it the Italian way: too much coffee and too little water.

It’ll be Nescafe, which is my favorite coffee in the world. Nescafe is the coffee of adventure and nostalgia. It tastes like rain in Sofia with my World Race teammates, and misty mornings in Lilongwe when there’s a riot outside the hostel so we must snuggle up with each other and play card games, and mercy on a long layover somewhere in Southeast Asia. Nescafe tastes like everywhere in the world.

And after all this, I will curl up on a loveseat while Luis sets the table for breakfast with a delicious book I found in Astorga about the books Oscar Wilde loved to read.  Despite the Nescafe my eyelids will drop and my alacrity will dim until all I can do is fall into tonight’s bed, 12 kilometers from the end of the world.

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