Reverse Camino Day 27: Bedbugs

I wake innocently, thinking of little besides breakfast.

By the time I finished a perfect cup of Americano and toast with jam, I’ve brushed an itchy feeling on my cheek several times, thinking nothing of it. Before leaving the café, though, I pause at the restroom mirror. There, underneath my left eye, are four tiny raised bumps in a straight line.

Well, shit.

One little red bump could have been a mosquito. Or a flea. But those little nightmares leave a tell-tale trail of multiple bites as they crawl across the skin. Bed bugs.

Shit.

I have to do something about this. If I have them in my pack, the bites on my face are the least of my worries. These buggers hide well. You can turn a pack upside down and inside out and not find a thing. If I do nothing, I could spread them to other pilgrims, other hostels, and that’s just being inconsiderate.

God knows where I picked them up. Fortunately, being a worry wart means I did a mountain of obsessive, pre-Camino research, so if—or when—they show up, I know what to do. Buried in my pack is a large black garbage bag, but I am going to need an albergue with a hot clothes dryer.

*

Blood-sucking hitchhikers or not, the Camino (like the show) goes on.

It takes me forever to get out of Burgos since I opt for the alternate scenic river walk. Through the long, meandering tree-filled park, it goes on and on forever with more side trails than I remembered from last time. This reverse Camino has forced me again and again to make mistakes, choose the wrong path, and fail in front of others. This much failure is horrible for my ego, but wonderful for my soul.

For the fourth time in an hour, I manage to get off track while still in a city park. There, at the river’s edge, I pass a guy wearing no shirt, baiting a hook from an old folding chair beside a rusty, silver hatchback.

I take in the scene and hesitate only a moment to calculate the risks, then say, “Perdón, señor. ¿Sabes que es el Camino?”

“Aaah…” Shirtless guy cranes his neck to look over his shoulder at the source of the sound, certainly not expecting a ponytailed, backpacked pilgrim to interrupt his morning fishing excursion. With rod and line in hand, he stands up and approaches me, looking down the path. “El Camino. Ayi.” He stabs the air with an index finger. That way. Back to Burgos.

“No, no voy a Burgos,” I clarify. “I’m going in reverse.”

He pauses now, uncertain. “Al revez?”

“Sí.”

He looks both ways, glances back at his river fishing hole a moment, then seems struck with a moment of clarity. And charity.

“Vale.” Ba-lay. The multi-tool of Spanish words meaning okay, c’mon, got it, and yup. Right now, it means he’s going to help me get unlost. He walks past me, going up the sandy trail in his flop flops, flipping sprays of sand behind him.

Through the serpentine river paths, beyond the leafy curtain of cottonwood trees, at last, he points me to an expanse of manicured fútbol fields surrounded by cyclone fencing. Beside these barriers is a pale, narrow track ground into the grass and a small gathering of pilgrims in the distance.

“El Camino,” he says with satisfaction.

“Muchas gracias, señor. Good luck with the fish!”

I get lost several more times before the day is over, but I guess I’m getting used to it.

*

Many hot miles later, I decide to stop in the tiny village of Riopico when I see the Colombian flag flying over one of its albergues. It makes me think of dear Marisela, my peregrina sister from 2013, so I walk down the short street to check in. It’s barely early afternoon, but the extra time will help my plan to work better.

The only thing to do now is tell the hard truth. Which I hate.

On entering the front door, the cafe on the albergue’s first floor smells freshly cleaned. All the tables and chairs arranged at perfect right angles. And quiet—there no one else here. It takes a moment before the hospitalera meets me at the desk, but I tell her about my Colombian friend from Bogotà that I walked with in 2013 and hope the cultural connection warms her up because I don’t want to say what needs to come out of my mouth next.

“Ah, how nice.” Not warm enough. Crap.

“So, before I pay for a bed, can you tell me whether you have a good, very hot dryer?”

“Sííííí…” almost like a question, mild caution.

“Because I have bedbugs bites and need to dry all my clothes in a hot dryer for an hour.”

Her face looks stricken, jaw slack. She glances down at my clothes.

“I’m so sorry. I wash everything so I don’t share them.”

She snaps into action. “Vale. I will get something to put all your clothes in. I will give you something to wear.” Moments later, she places a plastic bin at my feet. Unpacking my bag, I fill it with everything washable—blanket, bag liner, shirts, socks, underwear, nightshirt, bandanna, gloves. In the restroom, I change into the loose cotton top and a skirt she gives me. When I return, I toss today’s clothes into the pile too.

“Thank you so much.”

“I will wash these now.” Something about her clipped voice and the tightness of her jaw betray her feelings. I’m the last thing she wanted to deal with today.

Her tenseness would have had Old Me apologizing and scraping and bowing, barely able to justify my existence for creating such an inconvenience. Right now, I’m oddly, miraculously unfazed.

Maybe it’s the effect of being the oddball pilgrim walking backwards, daily dealing with everyone wanting to know what I’m doing and why. I’ve almost stopped caring what people think of me. I’m sorry for troubling her, but for possibly the first time in my life this is not wrapped up in my self worth.

Again, I thank her, order a vino tinto, and carry my pack out on the spacious concrete patio. Now to implement the second part of my plan. Unfolding the huge, sturdy plastic garbage bag, I flap it open and drop my pack inside. Gathering the opening in my fist, I blow up the bag like a balloon then seal it closed with a twist tie. I’m making an oven. The sunshine-heated air and hot concrete should do the trick, baking everything inside: bugs, eggs, and (accidentally) a bit of aged cheese.

This project completed, there’s nothing else to do but relax in the shade at an outdoor table and soak up the fine weather. In this borrowed, feminine outfit, I feel like I’m on vacation, sipping my wine and snacking on this small plate of olives and pickles. What has happened to me? Old Me would have been worrying and fretting and agonizing over the buggos.

“Mind if I join you?” A friendly older blond woman asks.

“Not at all, have a seat! Gorgeous day, isn’t it?”

She pulls back the study aluminum chair, and smiles as she sits back. “Yeah. It reminds me of California weather. I’m from L.A.”

“Just like home, then! I’m from rainy Oregon, so this is a treat! I’m Jen.”

“Patty. Nice to meet you.” She opens a bag of potato chips. “Want some?”

“Sure! Thanks! Have some olives if you like.”

“Where did you come from today?” The question every pilgrim asks.

“Burgos.”

She blinks a moment, uncomprehending. “Burgos?” If I were walking west like everyone else, I should have been in Agés or Atapuerca or even somewhere ambitious like Villafranca. “But tomorrow is Burgos.”

“Yes, for you it is. I’m walking the Camino in reverse, so I’ve come from there today.”

“Oh wow! And is this your first Camino?”

“No, I did it the normal way—from Saint Jean to Santiago—three years ago.”

“What made you want to come back and do it again—and backwards?” She’s genuinely inquisitive and curious.

“Honestly, my first Camino was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and my life changed completely as a result. This Camino is one of thanksgiving for all the good things it brought me. I’m also working on a memoir about it, so I’m doing some fact-finding too.”

We wile away the afternoon, chatting about our journeys and writing in journals. About an hour later, a fit-looking, middle-aged man approaches our table. Patty and I are still the only ones here.

“Ladies, do you mind some company?” He asks, gesturing with a bottle of wine in his hand. He’s wearing a black baseball cap and a big smile.

“Not at all! Please sit! I’m Jen.”

“I’m Patty.”

“Nice to meet you both. I’m Tobias. Where are you two from?”

“I’m from Oregon.”

“Los Angeles. How about you?”

“I’m from Germany. I’m staying at the pensión in this village.”

This seems like a funny thing to lead with, so I tease, “So, only the best accommodations for you!”

He laughs and says, “I don’t stay in albergues. Some wine?”

“Sure!” Our glasses are nearly empty, so we drain the last sip, and he fills them up with a nice Rioja.

“Thanks! That’s so nice of you.” Tobias is a mix of respectful and playful, and the three of us hit it off immediately.

“Where do you walk from today?” Tobias asks.

“I came from Atapuerca,” Patty says. “But Jen here has a story for you.”

After I explain, Tobias says, “Backwards! Why?”

“You know, that’s what all the Germans say! I’ve been royally pissing them off since the beginning.”

“Oh! I have no doubt!” He laughs. “Germans must follow the rules.”

“You should see. They all do this slicing motion with their arm through the air, saying, ‘SANTIAGO, THIS WAY!’ A couple of them have told me ‘WRONG WAY’ and just keep going.”

Tobias is laughing, “Oh yes.”

“It really made me mad at first, these total strangers telling me I’m doing it wrong and correcting me. But then I realized that this is my Camino. I’ve saved up for months to be here, and I’m not going to let some opinionated, uptight guys spoil it for me.”

“Good for you!”

“You know what I started doing?”

“What?”

“Now, when a German says I’m going the wrong way, I’ve started doing this thing. I stop walking and look them right in the eye, and say, ‘Are you sure?'”

Tobias starts to laugh again, followed by a gasp of air.

“And they usually say, yes. So I then I ask, ‘Are you positive?'”

“What do they say?” He’s on the edge of his seat.

“They get this blank look on their faces, like they’re suddenly completely unsure. Once I turned around and saw a guy open his guidebook and look both ways for other pilgrims.”

Tobias is laughing, slapping his knee. “Oh, Jennifer! You have no idea what a service you are doing for my country!”

“I am?”

“Oh yes, people in Germany have no confidence. It is only on the surface. Oh, this is wonderful!”

While my backpack bakes in the sun, this is turning out to be a great day after all. The playful banter continues when the Andrew, an older British guy joins us. Patty and Tobias have met him along the way, and he’s quiet but a dry wit.

“So, why not stay in albergues?” I ask. “They’re cheaper. And it’s the best way to meet other pilgrims.”

“Oh, I like meeting pilgrims, but I’m a little too shy!” He grins, but I can tell he means it.

“Too shy!” Patty laughs. “I doubt that!”

“You know, undressing in front of people, using the showers…”

“You should totally try an albergue, Tobias. Be brave!”

“I’ll tell you what. I’ll stay in one if you come with us tomorrow to Burgos.”

I laugh. These three are so much fun to be with, I’m genuinely tempted to reverse course and join the crowd. “I don’t know…”

“We’re great company,” he says, gesturing to Patty and Andrew. “It’ll be fun!”

The idea of retracing my steps, though, does not appeal. I’ll be meeting Marisela and Muriel in Pamplona and want to continue on my chosen path, no matter how persuasive this particular German is.

“I think he’s going to keep asking until you say yes,” Andrew says drolly.

“Join us for dinner here tonight,” I tell him. “At least get a taste of the albergue life.”

“I will. And I’ll keep working on you for tomorrow’s plans.”

*

Just before dinner in the albergue restaurant, the hospitalera brings me the basket full of dry, folded clothes, fresh-smelling if slightly shrunken from the heat.

“Your clothes.”

“Thank you so much.”

“Vale. See you for dinner.” It might be the nicest thing she’s said so far. I’ll take it.

For a girl with bedbugs, I’m doing pretty well today.

Jen’s reverse Camino Day 10: Santiago de Compostela

After walking four days from the Atlantic, I finally arrive in Santiago to find the party has already started.

Total distance on foot: 0km
This day in 2013: Day 39 Rest day in Santiago

I should be asleep. Instead, I’m lying awake next to the open window, bathed in sounds of a nearby festival.

The thump of distant dance music, teenage girls’ singing echoes in the narrow streets, and screams of glee from whirling amusement riders reach me in the cool night air. The revelry outside matches my inner joy. How did they know to throw a city-wide party on my arrival to Santiago? Soon a dog starts to bark, and my roommate, a distinguished, elderly Frenchman, fully commits himself to snoring. But it doesn’t matter. Not even a chorus of big-nosed men could dampen my spirits.

I am so happy to be here.

Elated to be in Santiago again, just breathing its air, occupying this place is to be swept up in the memories of three years ago. The joyous arrival with my new friends. Celebrating the completion of a seven-week journey. Discovering how powerful I am and how important it is to share my life with others. This city holds the best parts of myself, reminds me of what I can accomplish and who I really am. I feel whole and complete at last.

After wandering through the old city, I found myself standing before the albergue where I stayed with Gary, Scott, Mattias, and Meg. Deciding to check in, I told the hospitalero how much this place means to me. That warm conversation is how I ended up in the best bed, away from the bunks, enjoying the invigorating night air.

*   *   *

In a short conversation with fellow-pilgrim Alexandra, we discover one of those marvelous Camino coincidences: three Junes ago, she stayed here at this same albergue just two days before me.

“We almost met!” she says.

Later, she holds up a huge, leather bound book and says, “I found it!”

Confused, I ask, “Found what?”

She flips through the pages and says, “I looked for the guest book from three years ago and found this. Is it yours?” She hands me the book, open to a drawing of a stained glass window, and a list of changes I would make in my life.

“It is!”

Tears spring up as my eyes skim over the words. It’s like receiving a love note to myself from the past. This entry declared all I dared hope to create in my life. Seeing my own handwriting and the date inked on the page reminds me how joyous and uncertain I was that I could bring that happiness home with me. As I look over the words again, I realize that I embody so much of it now. I’ve become what I once only dreamed.

“Thank you for finding this!” I say to Alexandra, misty-eyed and grinning. It would never have occurred to me to look for the old guest book. Reading the words again, a feeling of certainty and closure settles in. The old journey is truly complete, and a new one is just beginning.

*   *   *

That evening, I enjoy the luxury of not having to walk anywhere. Feet up on the coffee table, I chill out in the communal living room with my journal and a Spanish-English dictionary.

In all the chats I’ve had with locals the last few days, the recurring problem has been with verbs.

When I studied Spanish long ago, I was in literature and advanced classes, skipping the basic-but-essential repetition of verb conjugations in past, future, conditional, etc. To this day, I can only speak Spanish in the present tense. For the last week, I’ve been telling people, “I do the Camino three years ago.” I really want to solve this and sound less like a two-year-old.

So while pilgrims enter and check in, and the two hospitaleros talk and laugh behind the counter, I’m nerding out with the dictionary. After an hour of looking at all the conjugation charts, I painstakingly write the following:

Yo caminé el camino hace tres años.
Hace tres años que yo caminé el camino francés. Ahora yo he volveró para caminar una segunda vez en la otra dirección.

I know this is still awful. The dictionary can only take you so far.

I enlist the help of one of the hospitaleros, and his face scrunches up in hilarity as I read the sentence. He knows how the words should fit together, but struggles to explain why. We dance around the differences between

  • to do the Camino vs.
  • have done the Camino vs.
  • did the Camino

When I ask about a finer point on the verb to do, he shrugs with a smile and tells me he is originally from Italy, and Spanish is only his second language. This sends me in to a fit of laughter for unintentionally barking up the wrong tree.

In spite of this, he teaches me two helpful phrases. In English, there’s no expression for the act of returning by the same way you’ve already come (see how choppy that is?). In Spanish, there are two ways to say it: voy de vuelta (I’m doing the return.) and voy al revez (I’m going in reverse). Even though they still don’t solve the verb problem, I happily commit these phrases to memory.

After a good half hour, here’s what the American and the Italian end up with:

Hace tres años que hice el camino francés desde Francia a Finisterre. Ahora, voy de vuelta a Francia por comletar el viaje.

It’s been three years since I did the Camino from France to Finisterre. Now I’m doing the return to France to complete the journey.

Imperfect, but closer, and fewer future funny looks.

*   *   *

Sleep comes fitfully, interrupted by the celebrations continuing long into the night. Every time I wake, I remember where I am, smile, then nestle down under my cozy silk blanket, sighing with pure contentment.

I couldn’t be happier to be here. I am joyous to return by the way I’ve already come.

Reverse Camino Day 3: Finisterre, finally and forever

A hard-earned, much-anticipated homecoming

Total distance on foot: 0mi / 0km
Towns traveled through: Dublin (airport), Santiago, Cee
This day in 2013: Day 46: The beginning of the end: Finisterre to Santiago

Now that Dublin’s given me an advanced degree in getting lost then found again, today’s journey will take me by plane, bus, and on foot to Finisterre—a tiny fishing village at the west end of the Iberian Peninsula. It will be hours of travel, lots of waiting, awkward connections, and at the end, a tight timeline to check in at my pensión. After a few days’ rest, Finisterre will be the starting place for my reverse Camino.

Although I’ve been to Finisterre before, it was a deliberate choice to stay somewhere unfamiliar, different from where Meg and I stayed three years ago. For distance. For understanding. To honor a precious memory. If all the connections go well today, I’ll arrive just after sunset and find my pensión in under thirty minutes before they lock up.

From Dublin to Santiago de Compostela

While waiting for my flight at Dublin airport, I strike up a conversation with a friendly-looking woman sitting beside me. Margaret is from Dublin and going to volunteer for two weeks in Santiago’s pilgrim office. She seems confident and no-nonsense. She’ll do a great job awarding compostellas to recognize each completed pilgrimage.

Before boarding, we swap contact information. She tells me, “When you get to Santiago, come look for me in the office—we’ll get coffee!”

From SCQ airport to the Santiago bus station

I’m always grateful when flights are uneventful. We land with no issues, and I can hardly believe I’m here. In Spain. After three years away.

Margaret and I walk out to the ground transportation area. The air is oppressively warm—even in the shade of the airport’s vast architectural cover. A huge crowd forms around the stop where the shuttle takes people to the city center. We wait. Everyone is talking loudly, smoking, standing closely, and managing to look both testy and bewildered.

A coach bus pulls up where we stand, and I reasonably expect to board. The driver takes one look at the crowd and tells us to move to a another spot about forty feet away. A rumor forms in the crowd that another bus, our real bus, is coming shortly. Ten minutes later, the same driver waves the group to his bus to board. For the second time, I lose my place in line as the disorderly horde moves back. Nothing makes sense.

The bus fills completely. As we roll toward Santiago, I’m hot and jetlagged and in a mild state of shock. Is this real? From the bus, even the sunlight is disorienting—brighter due to our proximity to the equator. It blanches everything from car hoods to recycling bins, casting inky shadows where it longs to reach.

On the way, we pass purpose-built buildings of cinder block and stucco with red-tile roofs. Hillsides are lush and verdant, but not even weeds dare to grow in the pavement of the small villages we pass. These two-second villages reflect the sun’s intensity from concrete sidewalks and two-story buildings, until the green countryside appears again.

The realness of it begins to land when we arrive at Santiago’s bus terminal. I remember it from the last time, this uninteresting, three-story concrete terminal smelling of diesel. Oddly, there is no clear place to buy tickets. As passengers disappear, I look around the vacant, echoing station, and my eyes follow a set of stairs to the second story. A janitor is working overhead.

Perdon, señor,” I muster my best Spanish as I ascend. “Donde se puede comprar los billetes?

He looks up from sweeping, his navy blue overalls immaculate despite the surroundings. Pointing his index finger heavenward, he says, “Go up the elevator one more floor. There you can buy your tickets.”

Sure enough, there’s another long, cavernous room plastered with posters and time tables, every wall lined by counters with closed windows. No one is there. It’s siesta time. At the very end, a single window is open. As I approach, a lanky, dark-haired young man looks up at me unamused.

“Sí?”

“I want to buy a ticket to Finisterre,” I say.

Para hoy?” Today?

Sí.” He tells me when the bus is leaving. I nod my assent.

Ira, o ira y vuelta?

Bwelta. Bwelta… I should know this vocabulary, but I can’t think. Looking at him, I stammer, “I… uh, I want to win Finisterre.” This is obviously not what I meant to say. I just want a bus to Finisterre.

“Okay. Twenty seven euros.” I pay in cash. Only later do I realize he sold me a round-trip ticket. Ira y vuelta.

With almost three hours to kill before my bus boards for Finisterre, I consider going out to explore Santiago, get something to eat, but decide to wait here. With plenty of snacks on hand, I reason, there’s no need to spend extra money. And besides, I really want my arrival in Santiago to be on foot a few days from now. Right now, I’m just passing through to the ocean.

Foregoing exploration, I buy an orange Fanta from a nearby vending machine and sit on a bench with my snacks. There are no buses and no people around. It’s pleasantly quiet. In my journal, I sketch the side view of a parked bus; its rounded glass front and antennae-like mirrors give it the air of a giant white bug.

The janitor walks by, and I raise my hand in a small wave. “I have my ticket. Gracias por la ayuda,” I thank him.

He nods with understated pleasure. “Your bus will be here at 7pm. At number 11,” he points to the bay numbers and raises his eyebrows to ask, Do you understand?

Muchas gracias!” I say, smiling.

From Santiago’s bus station to Finisterre

I just can’t believe I’m here.

As the bus rolls out of town, I catch a glimpse of the cathedral, see a few pilgrims walking along the road, and even spy a sign marking the Camino path as it intersects the road. Then familiar landmarks fall away, and it’s stop after stop until it seems like we’re never going to leave the city.

But we do. It’s evening, and the light is still bright as we make the insane zig-zagging journey across the west-most part of Spain toward the ocean. Spanish buses are consistently efficient, clean, and almost brand-new, putting American long-distance bus companies to shame.

Unfortunately, the passenger experience on this trip is not for the faint-hearted or those inclined toward motion sickness. The roads are narrow and winding. When cars approach in the opposite lane, our driver slams on the brakes. When the coast is clear, he guns it—even around the tightest of corners. I hold the seat in front of me and make the best of the three-hour ride.

Two college-aged girls are a few seats in front of me, talking animatedly in bright, open-voweled accents. I’m sure they’re American. An overweight, heavy-breathing Spanish man moves to sit in the seat behind me. I turn around to see who it is, and he leers. I scowl and turn my back. He’s giving off that vibe men have when they see women as objects rather than people, certain that foreign women are “easy.”

After my cold-shoulder treatment, the guy moves again and sits behind the American girls. As the miles pass, he starts peering between their seats as they’re looking at photos on their phones. I wonder if this creep thinks he’s going to get lucky, leaning forward, trying to catch their eye.

This won’t do.

I talk over his head, “Hi ladies! I keep trying to guess where your accent is from!”

They laugh, and we start a conversation. I move up beside them, and we talk about how they’re from Michigan, doing a semester abroad to Spanish in Salamanca, and decided to take a mini-vacation to Finisterre for a few days. They ask for suggestions of places to see. After apologizing for the intrusion on their conversation, I tell them I was looking out for them because of the creepy dude.

“He was like breathing over our shoulder,” one said.

“Just wanted you to know I’ve got your back,” I say. They seem grateful. Our conversation fades, but the guy moves to the front of the bus and gets off a half-hour later.

Back in my seat, I stare—stunned—out the window at a sight I remember: The Atlantic. The relentless wind whips the jet-blue waves into a froth all the way to the distant, misty horizon. Even viewed from the climate-controlled bus, this ocean and the moon slowly rising whips up a frenzied longing inside of me that I’m trying hard to allow. This scene is in the very marrow of my bones, part of my spiritual DNA. We’re so close to Finisterre now. This is where I left my best self behind, and where I will reclaim her once again.

From the Finisterre bus stop to my pensión

I’m here. I’m here. At the very edge of town, I stand in the fading twilight. I’m looking across the cove to the pensión where Meg and I stayed, feeling a mix of bittersweet emotion and gratitude. The wild wind whips through the palm trees above, through my hair and clothes, chilling me and making me feel so very alive. I’m really here.

Over the last three years, I can’t admit how often I have thought of this place. Visited so often in my memory, it started to seem like a place out of time, just a vivid imagining of my soul, but now the screaming gulls, the extraordinary air, and the rocks pushing against my soles tell me: I’m home. I’m home.

I’m also lost, and it’s almost dark. Making one last tour of the village, I finally locate the pension where I made my reservation. My host walks me down the street, hands me the key, and I spend the next eight hours swamped by vivid dreams and a heart full from homecoming. I’m really here. I’m really here at last.