Day 29: Soul soup and reunions – Ponferrada to Villafranca del Bierzo

During the night, the man in the room next to me talked on his phone until after 1am. If I spoke better Spanish, I would have understood every word. I tossed and turned, sweating under the synthetic comforter.

In the morning, I was not feeling tremendously better, and the coughing and congestion persisted. My ears seemed to be less painful, even if still stuffy. I was dreading the day’s forecast of rain, feeling concerned about the effects of more moisture on my health.

From my window, I saw early-rising pilgrims already heading out and I longed to join them. Despite my concerns, the path made it worth the effort. Snow-covered mountains peeked out from behind the morning’s low clouds to reveal breathtaking beauty. The sun made a momentary appearance, brightening the wet and muddy path ahead.

A seed of an idea began to germinate as I passed impossibly large vegetable gardens (or were they small farms?) along the way. I began to daydream as I passed row after wiggly row of onions, potatoes, greens, tomatoes, and corn.

I looked on with envy at the the various fruit trees, almond groves, and grape vines that encircled each plot. Hearing a rooster crowing in the distance had me dreaming of fresh eggs. Looking back now, I realize that the dreams I harbor for my own someday farm and orchard got planted in me then, on my way to Galicia.

After the inspiring agriculture, I entered the small city of Fuentes Nuevas just as the predicted rain started in earnest. Feeling chilled and hungry, I started to lose steam and hope. Cautiously hopeful, I stopped into a bar, but with my dripping poncho and wet boots, I felt bad for mucking up the place.

Es possible hacer sopa? I inquired to the bartender.

It was early in the day, but some hearty soup would help what ailed me.

He looked as if he were about to say no, but he must have taken pity on me. “Si,” he said. “It might take a few minutes.” I nodded gratefully and he ducked into the kitchen.

After ten minutes, he set a massive steaming cauldron of chicken noodle in front of me and added an enormous basket of sliced rustic bread. I choked out a muchas gracias, but the words didn’t convey how loving and comforting this abundant meal felt to my soul. Big, wet tears pooled in my eyes. (I sincerely suspect that he picked up some instant soup at a store nearby just for me.)

Later, I left the bar warmed up, body and soul. As I exited, I noticed a pilgrim walking toward me wearing a blue poncho. Even though it looked like Katrin’s, I’d been separated from her for many days and it was unlikely to be her.

As I turned away, I heard a “Hey, sweetie!” in a sing song-voice. It WAS her! Big hugs, laughter, and grins followed, and then introductions to her walking companions. One was a young woman from Quebec and the other a German psych/nursing student.

Suddenly, the day seemed brighter despite the weather, and the hills before me didn’t seem so formidable. We stopped for tapas and a wine tasting at a co-op (what the heck!). We talked animatedly about about the people we knew in common, and all we’d seen and done in the intervening time since we’d last been together in Hornillos del Camino. It was delightful to be reunited.

At the co-op, I learned that the region has a unique microclimate that produces excellent wines. It was like being in a hilly La Rioja, as vineyards once again appeared along the path, enchanting the scenery.

The four of us were walking together through one such field when we passed a garage-like structure, with some familiar faces hanging around just inside, sipping wine. What the heck was this?

We slowed and an older señor asked us if we also wanted some wine. I checked my watch – still morning. Well, hell. When in España… Why not? Katrin shrugged and requested white, and I chose red. As we sipped this man’s own vintage, he offered us olives to taste as well (it’s practically unheard of in Spain to not offer someone a snack with their beverage). He kept encouraging us to eat and I chatted with him about the wine and his vineyards. I marveled at the experience of tasting wine on the very ground it was grown in.

When we offered to pay, he wouldn’t accept. “Para ti? Nada. Un regalo.

We were surprised and grateful – and the sun was coming out too! We each got a kiss on the cheek and buen Caminos all around.

The hills were really starting in earnest. We walked on and on, my lungs struggled with the elevation gain. As I eavesdropped on a six-person French group hollering encouragements and jokes to each other, I started grinning as one particular hill separated the fit from the chaff.

Oh, j’ai oublie quelque chose au fond du colline!

Il y a du mustacel en haut!

Courage!” I called to them with my fist in the air, which got a fun reaction. Later they even asked me how much farther it was to the town, and we conversed entirely in French. I was delighted to get past the language barrier.

Meeting up with a Camino friends once again brought up the alone-or-with-company dilemma. I had felt so lonely and sickly in the days since Muriel left, yet I felt uncertain about whether I wanted to be in a group. I had a sense that this dilemma was larger than the Camino itself.

In my journal, I wrote: It’s a habit of mine to just go along. I let others set the agenda – which I later come to resent. In the past, I’ve ignored my intuition and not advocated for my own desires. Something tells me that this is one of those ‘How do you want to do your life, Jen?’ questions.

What I want is to walk alone at least part of the time. Eating meals and staying with friends is great, but I want to be spontaneous and stop to look at snails and odd flowers I haven’t seen before. I want to walk without influence like Meg does (goodness knows where she is now!). I want to trust and listen to myself.

On arriving in Villafranca, I decided to have one last splurge before going hard-core on my budget. While my walking friends checked out albergue options, I steered myself to the town’s Parador Hotel for the night. I ate snacks for dinner to keep the expense down.

Then I made a decision to practice what I’d realized earlier in the day: It’s okay to ask for what I want. I hopped on Facebook to ask Katrin if we could meet later in the morning since the complementary breakfast didn’t start until after the time we’d arranged and I wanted to sleep in a little. I was so proud of myself for this idea and the bravery to request a change.

Sadly, Katrin didn’t check her messages before leaving in the morning, so we missed each other entirely and got separated again. Still, I trusted Divine timing and headed out on my own. Happily, it wouldn’t be the last time we’d meet up.

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