July 21, 2010 Cea to Oseira to A Laxe

Had one of the toughest days yet. The day started at the delightful little town of Cea. I’d had dinner last night with Ramon and Magdalena, two funny Spaniards. Then an English speaking Spaniard wanted to have a beer. So I got back in to the albergue around 10:30 and settled down in my top bunk.

I slept fine, but as usual too short because of the mass exodus from the albergue at 05:30. I finally dragged myself out of bed at 06:30 and hit the road 1/2 hour later.

Sometime before Oseira I caught up with Kristina, an older Polish woman, and Francisco from Portugal. Although they don’t share a common language somehow they’re stuck together like glue. Francisco has what the Bible would call a “withered arm” which means that besides his arm being small and not useful he can’t carry a backpack. Instead he has a suitcase on wheels – which must be an enormous challenge in these very rough paths. I also soon met Pascal and two Italians. We arrived together at the incredible monastery of Oseira. I attended 10:30 prayer office with the monks and some of this gang. If I were a multimillionaire I would buy these monks a new pipe organ to replace their cheap electronic. Other than the odd sounds of their organ the service was very nice. it was held in the balcony of the beautiful monastery church. The service was a half hour in length and afterward BrotherThomas, who runs the gifts shop, gave me a tiny painting of the face of Jesus.

Kristina, Francisco and I soon took off for the day’s destination, Castro do Dozon, about 10 kms beyond the 9km we’d already walked. I soon left behind the two of them and got in my walking groove, with this stretch pretty deserted since it’s a longer option to go via the monastery from Cea.

After a bit I saw the two Germans ahead — the ones I’d seen at the albergue with their young child in a stroller. They were clearly struggling on the rough path with their baby, Jacob, and his stroller. I helped them through the worst of it but left thinking they’d made a huge mistake to try this with the baby.

Given the extra time for the monastery I arrived fairly late at the day’s goal, only to learn that the albergue at Castro Dozon was full. Next albergue: 19 kms away in A Laxe. So I set out at 15:00 to walk the extra miles for what I believed to be a total of 37kms.

As the distance dragged on I was clearly flirting with my endurance boundary. Every step was painful and the goal seemed only slowly to get closer. I stopped to rest every hour, then every half hour. As I approached the albergue a van full of kids pulled up – the same kids from Lasa with the small backpacks. I couldn’t believe it. They were going to beat me to the last bed at the albergue. Sure enough, I headed to the door and a sign was already posted, “Completo.” I was stunned. I asked the hospitalera if she had any beds at all. She said no, though there were beds another five kms away. I was desolate, and sat down in the lobby of the albergue with a look of profound sadness on my face (i.e. I was almost in tears). But as we were talking the kids and their leaders from the van were listening. They invited me to stay with them in a backroom with mats on the floor. I enthusiastically said yes and they showed me the room, laid out my mat, and put the sheet on one for me. Some of the kids tried out their English a little on me to be friendly. End result, they get Saint of the Day in my book. I had become something of a curiosity for them and perhaps also an opportunity to express their Christian charity.

Since it was already 8:30 and the doors lock at 22:00 I set down my stuff and walked the .5 km to the restaurant. As I was finishing, who should appear but Artur of Estonia who had arrived at the albergue some hours earlier and already had a bunk. We briefly chatted before I headed to the albergue for bed. The hospitalera insists that my mileage today was actually 42 kms, and I believe her. I think this ties for my longest camino day yet, and I now know my limit — about 40 km, thank you.

Tomorrow Artur and I will head out at a reasonable hour to Ponte Ulla, an 18 km walk. I’m two day’s ahead of plan so I need to cool my jets in order not to arrive too early in Santiago.

July 20, 2010 Ourense to Cea

Day Seven began by asking directions at the hotel’s front desk about how to get out of Ourense. The answer was fairly easy — left, then right, then left until the Roman bridge — the follow through was much more difficult. After the tall, masonry bridge and the endless suburbs there was a steep vertical climb up a cobblestone drive for 1000 ft elevation gain. The uphill climb was very tough, mostly because whenever it seemed to be ending it was in reality just taking a break before another steep slope. The first 7.5 kms took over two hours, much slower than normal. Worse, the result was a feeling of exhaustion all day long.

The climb led to a long stretch of vacation chalets, each sitting, it seemed, on 5-10 acre parcels. These are large houses, built of 6’x18″x6″ slabs of rough hewn granite. While the materials should make these houses blend into their context of ancient stone buildings, just the opposite is true. Unlike the ancient homes, these stand out because they are nearly identical, symmetrical, but most of all, they are separated from their neighbors. All of the ancient houses are clustered together– sometimes walls touching while surrounded by miles of farms — for community and protection. Each of the homes has a barking German Shepherd tied in the yard for protection and a satellite dish attached to the house for community. The result was not an unpleasant feeling, just a disconnected one.

After a time the vacation chalets melted into the normal Galician pattern of scattered villages. At one of these villages I took a lunch of cheese omelette in a baguette. The TV was on and I found myself entranced by the Spanish-dubbed version of Minority Report with Tom Cruise. After days of tranquility I was easily lured into the fast pace of this American movie and I had a hard time dragging myself away.

Within a half hour the heavy lunch required a break from walking. So in a grassy spot with shade I laid down for 20 mins with my shoes off to rest. This gave me a chance to watch the trickle of pilgrims who were behind me. In 20 mins only three — a single Spanish woman was walking with the cigar-smoking older Spanish man. The solo Spaniard with the soccer flag still by himself. Each shared a buen camino as they passed.

After an hour I met Ramon from Madrid, a man who carries the party with him wherever he goes. His personality blends the jocular and the pushy. He was clearly frustrated with my Spanish, but clearly still wanted to communicate. At one point he asked me, “do you know what color was Santiago’s white horse?” I knew he was playing with me and I told him it was the same color as George Washington’s white horse. He also told me about some of the people he’d been walking with from A Gudina. A Polish woman who lives in Madrid. A Polish woman who is walking from Lourdes to Fatima to Santiago.

This was all with only 3 kms to go before the albergue in Cea. Once we arrived there after our 22km walk we found our beds in a spacious albergue seemingly created out of stone farm buildings on the outskirts of the village, took our showers, washed our clothes, and at Ramon’s suggestion headed straight to dinner — with Magdalena, the Polish pilgrim.

It was a lively and delicious dinner, with Ramon the life of the fiesta. Rumor told us that the town’s free pool was open. Several pilgrims planned to swim, and I considered joining them.

Otherwise it was a quiet day here on the Via de la Plata, unless you include the fact that there are now at least 5 times the number of pilgrims as before. The reason is that we are within the 100 kilometer minimum to receive a pilgrim compostela, the certificate of completion from the Santiago cathedral. I’m not too concerned to be in a crowd of pilgrims — I’d expected it. But I am secretly pleased that I’m the only American among this increasingly international band of pilgrims.