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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.”
“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?”
“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!”
“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.
“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.