Hours of solitary walking later, I stop at a cafe in Negreira to order coffee and a bocadillo sandwich to go.
Sipping my coffee at an outdoor table, a young man approaches. We haven’t exchanged a word, I already like him. A few days from his last shave, he has deep tan skin and short, curly locks. We smile warmly at each other, and I say, “Hola, buenas dias!”
He greets me in Spanish and, situating his bicycle, asks me where I’m from.
“Los estados unidos,” I reply.
He’s amazed that an American can speak anything but English. “And so well!”
I laugh. “Gracias.”
“I’m Rafael.” From Cuba. “Like the archangel,” he says, smiling. He is one of those people with whom I immediately feel a deep connection. He radiates love.
Rafael sits with me for a short but animated, open-hearted conversation about our respective journeys, where we’ve been, where we’re going, and why. He’s traveling without a map, so I show him mine so he can going off the Camino to visit a stunning, secret waterfall further down the Galician coast. It’s not the words we exchange, it’s the love.
“What a beautiful soul you are,” he says, eyes boring into mine. He speaks the truth. We see each other.
They say you can tell whether you’ve been visited by an angel or a demon by how you feel when they leave your presence. After we exchange emails and hug goodbye, I’m glowing.
Rafael, in case you didn’t know, is the archangel of healing.
* * *
The thing with liminality is that you can glimpse it, but it’s fleeting. We’re not meant to live in that rarefied space all the time.
The rest of the day is unexceptional, bordering on challenging. In fact, I can’t even find my way out of Negreira. After countless backtracks and asking for direction, it still won’t release me from its clutches. I note that nothing in me wants to stop and just get a bed here for the night. Meg and I stayed here last time, and I can’t do it. I’ve got to keep going, break the pattern, and get as close to Santiago today as possible.
For all my effort, I’m eventually rewarded with a smooth trail along a river and friendly pilgrims who point the way as my fatigue grows. Then, I take one single turn, and I’m completely lost. I merely ascend from the riverbanks to the street by a sandy trail, and the arrows disappear. My map shows the bridge that’s directly ahead of me, but something isn’t right. I’m tired, I think to myself, but I can do this.
Crossing the long concrete bridge, I remember nothing about this place from the last time. There’s a bar at the end, so I stop there to ask a local if I’m on the Camino. He addresses me in slurred Galician, a mixture of twang and boiled octopus. I comprehend only his pointing gestures first to the west and then north along the street. Neither of these options seems right.
I’ve got to get back on the Camino. Muttering to myself and staring at my guidebook, I proceed on the north option he indicated along a quiet rural road. No arrows for at least a half mile. After ten minutes, I pass a house whose occupant stares at me as I pass. This can’t be right. Panicky nausea sets in. Two more steps, and I turn around to head back to the bar by the bridge. The old Galician guy is still standing out there, watching my slow return. I can’t ask him again. It’s useless. I just can’t.
So I attempt the other way he suggested, going about three blocks uphill near a school, but there’s no one else around to ask. No arrows. No cairns. This isn’t right either. I stare at my useless map. Tired, hungry, and all options eliminated, I don’t know what to do.
Against my better judgment, I go back to the bar. The guy is gone now. When I walk in, the stools are filled with no less than nine older men, all of whom turn to stare at me without saying a word. Either I’m an oddity or completely unwelcome, but feel intimidated. I fight the urge to run and instead ask the bartender for an orange soda. He serves me the drink, I pay, and then flee outside to the empty tables.
It’s mid-afternoon now, and I’m truly stuck. Lost. Tired. Miserable. The tears start before I even sit down.
Moments later, I hear a shuffling sound behind me. The bartender gently sets a small plate of bread rounds with a generous assortment of charcuterie. On the house. I look up at him with tear-stained face and choke out a moitas grazas. He hesitates. Does he want to help?
“I’m lost,” I say in Spanish. “Do you know where the Camino is?”
“Oh, uh…” He points to the other end of the bridge from where I’d come, and then to the left. “I think it’s that way, under the bridge.” But I’d already walked from that direction.
“I am going to Santiago. To the east,” I say. My Spanish isn’t good enough to convey more. “I see no arrows.”
“Oh, I think maybe you go under the bridge. To the right.” It’s the only option not tried. I thank him, and he bows slightly and makes his leave.
Sure enough, after a few minutes of walking, I realize he is right. But I’m so weary, and tired from the anxiety and embarrassment, the sense of relief evades me.
Instead I pitch a fuming fit at myself. I was wrong! I made a mistake! I hate making mistakes! Angry tears start falling. I hate that old guy for watching me walking stupidly everywhere and not saying anything. And in the bar they all stared at me without offering any help! I feel like a total idiot. I look like an idiot–especially in front of all those people. My whole life I’ve tried to be perfect, and all I ever do is fail!
This backwards Camino thing is pressing all my buttons. There’s no way I’m going to succeed at perfection, but that doesn’t stop me from trying. It’s what I do. It’s how I am.
A new thought arises: I wonder where the perfection urge comes from in the first place. I’m the older of two, the big sister, the first born. If I got it perfect, no one would get mad. Being good was how I made everyone happy.
What if that’s a lie? What if I don’t have to be perfect?
Suddenly, this truth dawns on me like a shaft of light: Even if I do make mistakes, what if I’m intrinsically okay? Suddenly something deep shifts within me, a muddy, slippery tectonic plate shlunks into its rightful place. I don’t have to be perfect.
I’m swamped with the relief of releasing this forty-year-old burden. As if I’ve just liberated a massive weight from my pack and left it on the side of the trail.
Walking the Camino is the cheapest, most effective therapy ever.
* * *
Of course, about a mile down the path, I cross a cobbled, medieval bridge which I remember with perfect clarity. It’s gorgeous waterfall cascades between an old mill and cute, whitewashed stone houses. Two pilgrims splash in the shallows. I remember this. Of course. I just needed the detour.
* * *
I’ve walked way too many miles today than is sane or reasonable. I’m dusty, sweaty, tired, and weary—and I still haven’t arrived yet. A few pilgrims pass me going west, but I don’t want to talk anymore. I just want to get wherever I’m staying tonight. After crossing the bridge, I don’t notice the scenery. My feet ache. Trying to keep the pep in my step and hang in there, it’s all bravado now.
There’s a slog up an interminably inclined street. Its sidewalk is covered in loose bricks and laid out in constantly-changing widths to accommodate trees, , utility holes. I can’t just zone out or I’ll twist my ankle on a slanted driveway entrance. At the top at last, I turn onto a side street, hopeful to find the pension in my book. I’m only a few miles away from Santiago. With no reservations, they may not have room for me.
A block down through an odd, colorful neighborhood, I find signage that matches the address in my book. However, a huge metal gate is drawn across the driveway. Are they closed? Does this mean they’re full? Bravely, I slide it aside as it rattles and set neighborhood dogs to barking. Down the drive to an adorable two story home with a full porch, there are lots of shoes on the step. Oh God, don’t let them be full!
A few anxious minutes after I knock, a wiry, fast-talking man comes to the door and greets me in Spanish. I’m not catching all the words, but I inquire about the prices of the rooms. His reply is so fast, but I only hear the word “no” before concluding they’re full. I’m out of luck for the night. Now I have to find another place. I’m crushed.
“Do you know if there are other albergues nearby?” I manage ask as my voice warbles with emotion. A tear escapes without my permission.
“Siii…” he says cautiously, like there’s a question mark at the end. “I need to look up the number.”
I need water. I can’t believe I’m being so forward, but I ask him for a glass. If I have to keep walking to Santiago, I’ll need it on this hot afternoon. While he’s gone, I try to pull myself together. I can do this.
Returning, he hands me the cool glass and asks gently, “Pardon me, but why do you not want to stay here?”
“I want to, but you say there are no rooms.”
“Si, there are!” I’d misunderstood him. I laugh as another tear leaks out. God, I’m so tired.
“Oh! I don’t understand! I think there are no beds! I’m sorry!” Saying this makes me realize that I’ve got to work on my verb tenses.
My host settles me into a beautiful, quiet private bedroom with a separate bath. After a restorative shower and a batch of laundry, I sit in the back orchard in a comfy chair, enjoying the scenery of the hills I’ve climbed and descended.
I sit and write in my journal to recount the day and take stock.
I’m nearly crawling out of my skin not being able to contact Mary. It’s been four days. I’m afraid that she’s afraid. Maybe I should just accept what is.
I feel nervous about Santiago tomorrow. So much there. Not sure where to stay. Do I go back to the albergue where everything started? If I don’t, will I regret it? My sense is to go there. To trust. See what comes up.
I’ve returned here for gratitude for the changes in my life, to reclaim my soul, and walk my whole self home. But I also remember how I fell apart after my first Camino, how I struggled for so long to integrate its lessons. I’m afraid. I don’t know if I can stand the test of arriving, of remembering, of being completely undone a second time.
There’s only one way to find out. After today’s revelations, maybe I’m more ready than ever.