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The Whole 9
Creative Photography Circle
Camino Day Two: Sao Pedro de Rates, Portugal
The reprieve from walking the Camino lasted only a few minutes. Soon the motorbike pulled up in front of Antonio’s restaurant. Too soon. I understood now what the man had tried to say to me in Portuguese. The place was near. With the promise of coffee urging me on, I attempt a graceful dismount. To my dismay, I clutch the sides of the motorbike while trying not to fall. I disentangle my leg and swing it over the seat. Swing implies the grace I was trying to achieve. I was nearly on the ground rump in the dirt.
The image of me as a teenager clinging to the horn of a saddle as the ground rushes closer and closer to my face flashes to my memory’s fore. At least this did not end in a trip to the emergency room. I still haven’t forgiven my brother for not cinching the girth tighter.
A better reward for this dismount, coffee! I test my balance and thank the old man and walk inside. The Portuguese restaurant is closed and only the café area is open with one or two guests inside. Some of the patrons are fellow pilgrims and others are locals. It is easy to see that Antonio’s is a popular place. The image of happy families and friends, candles flickering and glasses clinking; toasts for each other’s health and comradeship boisterously fill the restaurant.
Soft rays illuminate the tables and bar. Light and shadows dance. Without the distraction of others, I drop my pack on the floor, already exhausted, leftover from the night before and from my deficiency of morning coffee. I focus my attention on the woman walking toward my table. She drops a menu in front of me and I order the bitter liquid. The life-affirming brew reinvigorates me with purpose. I prop my booted foot on the other chair at the table.
I close my eyes. Inhaling, I allow the coffee to revive me and take comfort in its scent. The smell of coffee always comforts me. It is a symbol of my childhood and makes me feel safe and at home no matter where I am. Raised mostly by my mom, she worked as a nurse on the night shift. Everyday, I would come home from school met by the aroma of fresh coffee–coffee as she started her day, and as finished mine. The smell always reminds me of those moments after school that I would have with her.
I open my eyes.
Outside of the window, the group I’d left behind this morning and in the dust of the motorbike moments ago, walk by—reiterating the brevity of my carpe diem moment. Briefly I think they will keep walking and not come inside and not notice me. We would not revisit our brief acquaintance and soon forget that we’d met at all. So often I am wrong, I am again now. The door swings open and I drink my coffee.
The pilgrims walk in, greet me, and smile. Laughing and speaking loudly in quiet spaces, like Americans do. They occupy the table next to me and with realization, Frenchie laughs at me. “It was you on the motorbike, no? I thought it was you!”
Georgia gathers his attention and they study the menu.
I return mine to the menu, deciphering the language. I order a small tuna salad and hope it will sustain me through the rest of the day.
My camera equipment is splayed on the table and I switch lenses as I wait for food. Milena and Georgia start taking photos and invite me into the group. I jump in. Pushing the bandana up on my forehead. We smile against the flash as more cameras appear and document our respite.
Frenchie slides into the chair across from me. Still amazed by my motorbike escapade, he doesn’t ask the questions others have on the Camino. He has a lightness about him. As if the Camino is something he lives for and has traversed many times. It takes me a moment to recognize it, but the characteristic he exudes is sincerity.
As it turns out, he has walked the Camino before and has been walking this one from southern Portugal, following an undefined path, one of his own creation at times. I am a little intimidated by his determination and admire his fortitude along his Way. I see in him something of myself, a common approach to life, as well as our currently shared path. The tingle that was in my hands when we first met, sparks and sputters as our conversation continues. Others’ conversations fade, and with our hesitant, interested glances, conversation becomes an intimate understanding. A heavy thud, the spark settles in my stomach, an instant, knowing feeling that I’ve experienced only a few times before. A handful of times that accounts for some of the reasons I chose to walk the Camino: The Ex, The Best Friend, The Musician. An attempt to come to terms with a past that never goes away amidst my determined intent to leave it behind. The attempt to find the bravery needed to be me and act on the feelings that haunt me. Frenchie here reminds me of the very reasons I am on the Camino, but with a dose of curiosity for the man before me.
We are interrupted from our talk by the food’s arrival. The owner, Antonio joins us at the tables. He is a Camino celebrity; a fact I would know if I had bought a travel guide before the trip. He introduces himself and asks about the route we plan to take. He advises a different route. The view at the top is worthwhile and it will only make for a brief detour along our way. The view at the top–a key indicator that there is a climb. At a less distracted time in my life—or this Camino, I would have picked up on that key point. The Way has changed paths, and bends toward a new direction.
I agree to join the group.
Camino Day Two: Sao Pedro de Rates, Portugal
I don’t know what I was thinking, leaving before the others. As if my pace would ever—ever be strong enough to take lead for the day. I leave the cobblestone square out of the Templar village of Sao Pedro de Rates. I find the yellow arrow that guides me away from the stonework onto a dirt path out of town. I ignore the numbness of my feet and continue along the path. In my rush from the albergue, I had not considered coffee, and now at the start of the day, I wonder how I could have possibly forgotten. I am in the middle of nowhere with no others in sight, much less a local coffee house. I tread the winding path surrounded by low-lying fields of grass and briars and am curious about the crops that are grown here. The dormant field has been recently tilled as preparations are made for the upcoming summer’s work. The hope of an autumn yield lingers in the soil. Occasionally, pilgrims overtake me. Couples and solitary figures pass. Early morning shadows straggle behind them and their faint “bom caminhos” bounce through the countryside.
I hear them behind me before I see them. Minna, Josefina, and Georgia laugh as they walk. I pause for a moment to let them catch up to me; with strides faster than mine, it only takes a moment before they overtake my pace. Another voice is in the mix and the girls’ voices register a slightly higher, excited pitch than before. Georgia, engulfed in conversation with the pilgrim, pauses, but Josefina and Minna slow their pace and say hello. Curious about the newcomer, I turn to the group. His head tilts away from me, as he listens closely to Georgia. He leans in to the conversation as if by closing the distance he hopes that proximity aids understanding. I recognize that he is not a native English speaker. The cap hides his face, and a long white scarf hangs around his neck. He carries a pilgrim’s wooden staff. Made of simple knotted wood the staff and the flowing white scarf seem to be a part of him. This pilgrim’s talismans.
He notices my addition to the group and looks up, a flash of a smile. I fumble my words but manage to introduce myself. He responds with his name, too quickly for me to catch. A French accent dances on the words. My hand slips into his; I wonder if I imagine the tiny shock. Surprised I glance up, and see amusement in his eyes. Amusement from the conversation surrounding us, or with me. Brevity in the moment, another farewell and soon their steps lead the group out of sight.
I stop walking and am confused at the sudden sadness I feel. A nearby horse neighs and I see a man working in a makeshift stall as another brushes the animal. Why am I so emotional this morning? An older man on a scooter rides by me and stops at the top of the hill. He waits. I make my way to the top and greet him in Portuguese. Assuming my momentary melancholy is a result of my lack of coffee, I ask the man if he knows where I can find coffee nearby. My meager Portuguese fails me as he explains directions, my forehead scrunches and it is evident that I am confused. The man smiles and pats the back of the scooter.
Dilemma: do I compromise the whole Camino for coffee? I mean, I am supposed to traverse The Way on foot, bicycle or horse. Does this count as a mechanical horse? I have always wanted to ride on one in a foreign country. My imagination included a handsome foreigner, darting through traffic on a far away island. The old man tapping the back of his scooter isn’t exactly the epitome of my fantasy. However, I have always wanted to ride and isn’t one of my reasons for walking the Camino to do the daring things I’ve always wanted? I rationalize.
Who am I kidding? Right now I’d forfeit the whole damn Camino for coffee. I climb onto the back of the scooter. Technically, our speed is not much faster than a bicycle. We ride along the dirt path. The low grassy fields, which I admired earlier, blur momentarily like an impressionist brushstroke. I see the girls and the French pilgrim ahead. Laughing and without hesitation as I fly by, I shout to the group: “Bom Caminho!”
Camino Day Two: Sao Pedro de Rates, Portugal
Searing. Dull. Sharp. Acute. Pain. My feet touch the floor and I stand. At least I try to. I fall back onto the bed shocked by the knife-slice pain needling through my feet and lower legs. Trying not to disturb the others sleeping, I stop the scream curling from within by clasping my hands over my mouth. Tears pour forth.
I look at my feet disbelieving the pain. What the hell happened from last night to this morning? I lift my legs back onto the bed and examine the bottom of my feet. Swollen, a little pink and one blister. I rub my ankles. Tiny needles. How am I supposed to continue the Camino if I can’t even stand? Think. Now what?
I reach for my boots. I suck in a breath and clench my teeth. Determined. I know what I need to do, and see no other way. One. Two. Three. I shove my foot into the boot. A silent scream escapes on an exhale as fresh, hot tears roll down my cheeks. I take deep breaths, calming breaths. After a few minutes, I try again. Now protected by cushioned socks and boots, I place my feet on the floor again. You knew there would be pain. You knew this wouldn’t be easy. You chose to do this. Now, stand up!
The idea and the emotion were overwhelming. To think, that I was once again trying to make myself walk. Walk against the pain. In spite of the pain. And that this time, I made the choice. I did this to myself. I chose the Camino. I chose the pain. To fight it. To overcome it.
I test my balance and attempt a step. Off balance, I steady myself and wait. Leaden legs. The pinpricks in my feet course to my ankles, minute nerve- shocks at the joints. The minutes feel like hours as I try to strengthen my steps. I swipe the tears from my face and breathe deeply. The electric jolts lessen and the pain eventually numbs the sensation throughout my legs. How long will I last today?
Although it is still early—just after sunrise, some pilgrims have already begun their march. I gather my belongings. I decided last night that I would rather walk alone than with the girls and contrived to continue on my own.
The pain hinders my starting off earlier and the girls are awake now. I make my way toward the entrance of the albergue. Unfamiliar with pilgrimage etiquette, I am unsure how I should start off on my own. I mean, is it rude to just say so long with a cursory nod farewell? Awkwardly, I say a simple goodbye and attempt to find my way, walking through the pain.
Camino Day Two: Sao Pedro de Rates, Portugal
Searing. Dull. Sharp. Acute. Pain. How can pain be both poignant and numbing? I am unsure, but it is. I wake paralyzed by the pain in my legs. Unable to move, I lift my legs like I used to when I was in my wheelchair, two hands latched beneath my calves, and swing them over the side of the bunk bed.
I arrived at the albergue last night, walking “on fumes” so to speak. I nearly crumpled to the floor trying to remove my boots at the entrance of the albergue. Nuno, a tall thin keeper of the albergue, welcomed us. Peregrinas. Minna and Georgia, perfectly capable of conversing after the day, strike up a conversation and agree to visit the town that evening with Nuno. I can barely stand let alone be an interested participant in conversation. One last tug on my boots and I limp over to the counter and present my credencial for inspection. Nuno smiles and stamps the passport with a Templar-esque stamp of black and red. I lean heavily against the counter top. I glance down at the credencial on the counter. The unstamped boxes taunt me. Teasingly they sing “bom caminho.”
I wince and gather the last bout of energy I can muster to follow Nuno and the girls down the hallway of ancient mortared stone. He leads us into a darkened room. Pilgrims sleep before the sun has set; exhausted from the effort of their day. Nuno indicates our bunks and I bite my lip to keep from bursting into tears. The thought of climbing the ladder to the top bunk is too much for me and I barely hold my tears at bay. Recognizing my dilemma, he leads me to a locked room. It is empty of people and backpacks. The room is closed and I am its first pilgrim tonight. I have my choice of beds and elect one close to the door and then I join the girls on a trip to the market for supplies. At the small shop of goods, we decide to cook dinner together and return to the albergue.
My room is dark and formidable—offering fearsome protection. I drop my bag on top of a rough wool blanket at the foot of the bed and ease onto mattress. I close my eyes against the reality of the day and the doubts for tomorrow.
The water steams and streams onto my head and down my aching shoulders; red indentions, indicators of the weight of my burdensome packs, soothe as the water’s rivulets fall over my shoulders and slither along my spine, onto my breasts and down my thighs; following the tracks of scars on my legs, pooling at my feet, releasing tension from the packs I carried. The water creeps down the drain taking with it my belief in my own ineptitude.
Hot pink lavender envelopes the royal sky. Momentarily rejuvenated, I realize how hungry I am and I turn back inside the albergue. Amadeus walks toward me. I should’ve known I’d see him again. After all, he did give me his map. We talk briefly about the rest of our day and how we found our way. You can always tell when someone is genuinely happy to see you and I see relief in his eyes. An unexpected kindness. Certain that a second chance encounter is unlikely, I say goodnight and take the moment to wish him well.
The girls stand outside the kitchen talking with another pilgrim. They introduce me to Josefina. A law candidate in Louisiana, Josefina tells us that she is engaged to be married and that later friends will join her along the way—friends currently at a concert series in Barcelona. Josefina’s openess and warmth do not falter for a moment as she gathers materials to doctor her feet. We finish our meal and enjoy our reprieve from the day.
It is difficult to deny the demands of the Camino, as the Way intrudes on our after dinner conversation. Josefina removes her sock to medicate the white, bulbous blister on her heel. I cringe. She has no heel—only the blister, which has burst and left raw, tender pink flesh beneath its flap. Unable to put her shoes on again, Josefina wraps her heel for the night and resolves to walk the Way tomorrow in flip-flops. We clean the kitchen and after the dishes are put away, they ask if I will join them as they explore the village with Nuno. I, barely able to lift my legs, distinguish the unfathomable feat and decline the adventure.
The girls are lovely but the sorority evolution to the evening isn’t exactly why I am on the Camino. I return to my bed resolved to leave at first light.
Camino Day One: Sao Pedro de Rates, Portugal
The afternoon sun is slung low above the horizon. At the end of the cobblestone lane, just before the stones change to a dirt path, a small café stands nestled in a green courtyard. I pause for a drink. The waning sun casts its shards through the doorway to illuminate the darkness within by angular light. A small woman stands behind the bar and a man sits on a stool talking with her. She glances at me as I limp to the back of the room and pull a chair around to prop my foot on for a moment. She walks over and asks me if I would like anything. I pull crackers and almonds from my pack and she returns with the cold coke. As she places the drink on the table, I ask how much farther until reaching Sao Pedro de Rates.
She tells me that it is still quite a distance away and asks if I know anyone to walk with because soon the sun will set. I say that I am walking alone and notice her forehead wrinkle as she turns. A look I’ve seen many times from anxious friends after announcing my trip, but this time I can’t question the concern. At this point, I am worried about making it to the albergue too. My left leg has swollen more and more throughout my journey today and now my ankles spill forth over the brims of my boots. I try to wiggle my toes, but am unsure if I succeed at doing so or not, so abandon the attempt. I finish my snack and say goodbye to the woman, again at her task behind the counter.
I hear “Bom Caminho” as I walk into the courtyard. Two women sit at a small, round table: girls my age, resting, drinking a coke and talking. We had the same idea. I am surprised to see other pilgrims–peregrinas at that. Georgia and Minna, an American and German, met on the Camino Frances, and decided to walk again. This time, the Portugal Way and together. We talk for a moment but I know that if I want to get to Sao Pedro de Rates before sundown, I have to leave. I wish them both a good way and continue along mine. The path continues through the village and winds toward flat farmlands. I stop to take a picture and drop my packs to the ground. Grateful for the fact that I didn’t actually weigh the packs before beginning this morning, I rub my shoulders. I don’t want to know. As I set up the shot, the girls from the café overtake me. They stop in disbelief, as they realize that I am carrying camera equipment in the additional pack. I laugh at their looks and explain. I couldn’t possibly go on the life-changing adventure of a lifetime without a camera. I’m a photographer or that is, I was.
We walk together down the dirt roads and I am happy for the distraction of conversation. They ask me why I am walking the camino and without a ready answer and unsure how to respond, I ask if they are walking for religious reasons. Their answer is simultaneous: spiritual. Georgia, a former director on Obama’s campaign for President, walks in honor of her father’s life. I notice a large shell tattoo on Minna’s ankle and learn that it is the symbol of the Camino. The sideways shell, with its linear rays of light, shines the way.
Cobblestones merge with buildings of stone ornamented with a simple cross. No overt demonstration of Church, but rather an understated declaration of faith adorning the village, we stand in its center. A tacit town of stone, Sao Pedro de Rates. The way guides us and we follow the path to the right, around a corner and I stop. A banner billows on the wall, indicating the albergue. I made it.
Camino Day One: Vilarinho, Portugal-Sao Pedro de Rates
I am supposed to be in Vilahrinho—surely this is it. The sun has lowered in the sky and the intense heat of midday wanes, replaced by a breeze. The Way has traded its busy roads for a wooded path and I should be at the albergue soon. I check the small map that Amadeus left me and see the symbol indicating an albergue in the village of Vilarinho. Theoretically, I could ask for directions; however, a glance about affirms a camino lesson I learned earlier this morning as Amadeus and I wandered lost through the countryside. The solitude of the camino can be a blessing and a curse. This place is deserted. I stray from the path a bit, and search for a sign indicating an albergue. Problem is, I have no clue what an albergue is. Until Amadeus mentioned it earlier, I had planned to “camp” at night by sleeping on the blue mat outside, under the stars—cowboy style. Sure, I have never actually slept outside, alone in the middle of nowhere, but it couldn’t be too difficult to figure out. I assume it’s an inherent skill of all people born in the South. Regardless, sleeping indoors and taking a shower would be ideal, if I could find it.
I can’t find the albergue. I check the map again looking for the next village. It isn’t too late in the afternoon and maybe I can make it to the next albergue in Sao Pedro de Rates before sundown. The idea of a hot shower and a bed after my first day of walking the camino is too good to abandon. It becomes my oasis in a self-imposed desert of self-discovery. I pocket the map and continue on the path. The wooded footpath winds toward an open road and then upwards. Away from the main road, the Way verges onto a cobblestone lane. The camino flows as a primeval, predetermined path, a waterless river teeming in its isolation with the depth of centuries of pilgrims and the weight of their lost souls.
Camino Day One: Porto, Portugal-Vilarinho, Portugal
I have to stop. The afternoon heat forces me from the path I follow with Amadeus and I stop at a small café, prop up my throbbing feet, and inhale a liter of water. It’s hot and my hands have swollen from the heat, numb. This is where, on a farm, you take a nap to escape the heat and right now, I could really use a rest. With a wave of his walking stick, Amadeus continues without me. I rest and am trying to wrap my head around the fact that I am supposedly walking to another country, but I can’t seem to get past the ache of my feet. I survey the damage. My legs have swollen and my socks have left circles, like growth rings on tree trunks, around my ankles. I am sweaty and tired and only half way through the first day.
The women of the café smile at me, a silent encouragement for my efforts. I am a peregrina. The man at the hotel thought I was crazy, but these women are kind–curious in their bewilderment of the monumental undertaking I’ve chosen. They offer to refill my water bottles and soon the swelling of my hands subsides and my fingers tingle as circulation increases. I’ve really no idea where I am at, how far I’ve walked today, or how much further I’ve yet to go. Planning clearly isn’t my strongest attribute. After a while longer, I continue on the path and realize that I am alone for the first time on my Way. I suppose it’s too soon to expect a moment of clarity and revelation this early in the game; however, I do feel a bit stronger with the knowledge that I am walking alone.
I wanted to deal with my repressed emotions from being hit head-on by a semi truck: mission accomplished. I dive into the trench at the side of the road and narrowly escape being hit (head-on) by a truck. This is really not what I expected from the Camino. I certainly didn’t envision such immediate and realistic therapy. The path has led me over hillsides and away from country villages to a busy road, a winding road with blind curves that are nearly impossible to navigate safely. I stand up and attempt the curve again, while gripping the stone wall behind me for support and step again toward the road. Survival strategies prepare you for small encounters such as these and instinct tells you to cross the street to be more visible to the cars. However, every attempt to do so lands me back in the ditch. I scream at the truck, “C’mon, seriously!”
I recognize the irony in my situation but am too angry to appreciate its greater relevance. I take a deep breath and step into the road. I snake along the wall and around the curve. The road clears and it is safe. I take a moment to readjust my packs, to readjust my heartbeat and walk on.
Finding “The Way”
Camino Day One Porto, Portugal-Sao Pedro de Rates, Portugal
We’re lost. Amadeus and I have been searching for the Way for over an hour. After leaving the church in Maia Forum it was easy to find the arrows: the roughly painted, yellow indicators that we are on the right path. Distracted by conversation, we’ve lost the trail and have spent the past hour on a detour through the countryside of softly sloping hills with crop-row trees, woven with dirt paths and gravel roads. His map indicates a church nearby and we make our way to it, resolved that someone will know how to get us back to the path. The flaw of our plan: there’s not a solitary person around. The morning is fading. The soft sun of the early afternoon has replaced the haze of the early morning with a promise of its blaze to soon come and we’re lost.
We look at each other and in spite of the excitement of the first few hours of the Camino, my lack of patience begins to show. I’ve never been recognized as being a patient person and despite my efforts to hide my aggravation, my temperament reveals itself. My mood shifts and just as the afternoon heat promises to do the same, I simmer beneath the surface. Amadeus smiles and I realize that this is only the beginning of the many challenges I will face and begin to laugh at my moodiness.
We follow the dirt road to the angel-decorated, iron gates of the cemetery and enter the graveyard. A groundskeeper meets us. We ask him for the way to the Way and he looks at us perplexed. He has no clue what we are asking, but leads us to the church. A man, painting the outside wall of the church, carefully climbs down from his ladder perch. A moment conversation between the two men leaves Amadeus and me where we began. Lost. This man directs us to a woman who looks at us in amazement. Santiago? She says with her eyes.
She unabashedly looks me up and down and with her disbelief I again think that I must be crazy to attempt this walk. I smile at the woman, hiding my bruised ego with a flush. She directs us down the road. Our meager understanding of Portuguese becomes evident with the anxious back and forth glances Amadeus and I give each other as we look at the woman pointing the way and then back at each other. We thank them and continue down the path. I hear a faint “Bom caminho” from the woman.
We’re still lost. Our misinterpretation of the woman’s directions has led us to the outskirts of the small village-a village we’ve yet to see. We stop at a home to ask for directions again. Peering over the small fence, we eye the dog behind it cautiously as we call to the people within. A man walks from behind the house toward the fence. Amadeus asks for directions to the center of town. We’ve abandoned our search for Santiago and narrowed our focus to finding the nearest village. The man points us in the opposite direction from the one we’ve been walking for the past thirty minutes and we turn toward the hill.
A short time later the man and his family honk as they drive by us. Were they laughing? The man at the hotel, the boys this morning, the woman at the church and now this family– I’m lost, frustrated and apparently a joke. Finally, the dirt path turns to cobblestone and we find ourselves in the center of a village. At a small café, we ask a group of gathered men for directions to the camino and they indicate that we should continue following the cobblestoned road.
Amadeus and I follow the road leading away from the men, the church, and the small village. We follow the road. It’s been hours since we started our journey in Porto. We’ve no clue where we are exactly or how to get to the camino. We could be walking in circles and not know it. Frustrated, we stop walking to formulate a plan. I take a quick photo, and turn to Amadeus. He’s leaning against a stone wall, looking at his map. I can’t help but laugh. Just above his head, a yellow arrow points the way.
Camino Day One Porto, Portugal
I awake with a surreal excitement-anxiety emotional combination. It’s early, and the light shines through the crack in the curtain. I blink and throw the covers back. I’ve arranged to meet Amadeus at the Cathedral Se at six thirty. A professor in the States and Austrian by birth, Amadeus decided to walk the Camino months ago and has been training ever since he made the decision. I once researched the Camino to learn about the credencial, and saw that Amadeus posted a message saying that he planned to leave Porto the same day as me. We agreed to meet briefly at the cathedral at the start of our journey. I check my phone for the time. It’s after six. I rush to brush my teeth and check my pack. I sling it over my shoulder, grab my camera bag, and close the door behind me.
I climb the hill to the cathedral, the hill that I complained about yesterday, seems different to me today. It holds the promise of the adventure awaiting me. I reach the top and see Amadeus waiting for me and smiling at the entrance of the cathedral. His excitement for the day is clearly written on his face. The doors are chained again. Amadeus walks down to meet me and we exchange introductions and take photos to commemorate the onset of the Camino. Tourists.
We agree to catch the train to Maia Forum. We hope that the short train ride to the village will bypass the Porto traffic. Amadeus wants to visit the church in Maia Forum and get a stamp for the credencial before beginning. I have no plans, direction (other than Santiago), or time constraints, and agree. We catch the train from Porto and spend the ride getting to know each other. We arrive in Maia and upon exiting the train, three me greet us. Initially, I think them extremely friendly and welcoming—an easy mistake to make. They are drunk and quickly turn critical and rude, mocking Amadeus and me for walking the Camino. They are young and with their statements, I recognize the vitality of youth and the luxury of judgment that comes with never knowing bitterness.
We walk to an older man and ask for directions to the church. We find our way there. A concrete and blue tiled church is the only thing to greet us amidst the tree-lined square. I walk to the edge of the square and unpack my camera. I stand in the center. It is small and paved. I look around. There are only the trees and the concrete steps leading to the flat façade. A small café with no patrons is on my left. The church is closed.
Walking alongside the church wall, we find a small door and enter the dim, dust-mote dotted interior. Ladies are there, preparing the church for a ceremony or festival. The vicar of the church walks toward us and leads us into a small room. His office consists of an uncomplicated interior lined with piles of paper, a small desk and chair, and a crucifix.
“We would like to be blessed.” Amadeus says to the priest. I look at him, surprised, then realize that I really shouldn’t be considering this is a pilgrimage after all. I quickly think about the etiquette for politely declining a blessing: Thanks but no thanks. May God be with you. No. Bless you!
It’s too late. The priest instructs Amadeus and me to kneel. I couldn’t even if I wanted to. Since my rebuilt knees, it’s never been possible.
I close my eyes, hesitatingly accepting the blessing. Quick and painless.
Porto, Portugal One Day until Camino
By Any Other Name continued…
The weight of the word slams into me: pilgrim. Pilgrim. What does that mean? A religious fanatic in search of absolution. The people who settled Plymouth Rock–wait. No. Those were Puritans. An image of my fifth grade class at Head Elementary in Alabama swims before me, as I struggle to find a connection between the word and me.
Unable to find one, I produce my credencial in answer to her question.
“Ah!” she says and takes it from me.
“I will help you to find a room, but I will take no money, ok?” She makes it clear that she will help me find a room, but not arrange to reserve the room and I try to imagine the scenarios that must’ve occurred previously that lead to her steadfast statement.
“What is your budget?” I blush and look at my feet uncomfortably. How do I explain that I have very little money to make this trip and had planned on sleeping outside, on a borrowed mat for most of the way? My friends think I am crazy. I already had to convince Sophie that I wouldn’t freeze to death without a sleeping bag or blanket and that I could cover up in my college hoodie. Sleeping under the stars. People have done it for years. My dad’s a cowboy for Christsake! I wince. I’m such a stereotype. I’m from Alabama with a cowboy father, a Bible Belt upbringing and married my high school sweetheart while still in my teens. At least, I wasn’t barefoot, pregnant and in a kitchen. Headstrong and stubborn are two of my best characteristics, without which I wouldn’t have made it through the trials of the past few years.
The woman has made several unsuccessful phone calls. No one has a room for my pittance of a budget. She replaces the phone and looks at me.
“I know. Is there any other place you can call? It’s important that I have a computer. Please.” I am begging as all of the emotions that I’ve suppressed well up inside me and I fight to keep from bursting into tears in the middle of the office. What am I doing?! I have no money. This is crazy. This is crazy!
Her face changes and she says: “It is ok. I will try more.” A few minutes later, she looks up from the phone. I have a room. It is nearby and the receptionist says that you can use the office computer in the lobby. Can you afford it?”
The Girassol Hotel, as it turns out, is only a short distance from the cathedral along Rua Sa da Bandeira. It’s hidden emblematic sign indicating the hotel’s location makes it difficult to find. In the end, a young woman pushing a baby stroller pointed out the sunflower-like emblazoned signet. The buzzer sounds allowing me entrance. I climb the stairs and am greeted at the top by a smiling young woman. She is kind and accommodating. The hotel is quiet and no one else enters. She points to indicate the hotel computer that I can use before she leads me to the elevator. The lift resembles ones seen in movies. The older ones that require a person to operate the doors. It only appears antique, but the woman would fit well into the era. She leads me to the end of the hall: room 53. Unlocks the door and shows me inside. The room is well lit and with a large bathroom. All of a sudden, the bed beckons and I am exhausted. The emotional tumult weighs on me and I debate what to do first. Shower? Find supplies? Sleep?
I have no maps and no idea what awaits me along the way. I can’t risk not having any food supplies or water for my first day. I drop my pack and camera on the bed, lock the door behind me, and search for a market. I buy bread, cheese, canned tuna, crackers, almonds, and 3 litres of water for the trek and fresh strawberries and nectarines and mango juice for dinner tonight.
I return to the hotel to shower and rest. The bed is comfortable and soon a short but deep sleep engulfs me. I awaken to the sound of my alarm. I awake with that strange wakefulness, where it takes a moment to realize exactly where I am at and why. I stretch out beneath the covers and kick my feet underneath, a habit lasting from childhood. I toss back the blanket and throw my legs over the side of the bed, dangling my feet just above the floor. I reach for a nectarine and listen to the sounds from the street below. Sticky from the nectarine’s juice, I walk to the bathroom to wash my face and hands. I grab a fistful of almonds to munch on as I gather my notebooks. I grab the strawberries and mango juice and return to the lobby. The woman is cleaning. I settle in front of the computer and realize that I am going to be here for a while. The computer is old. I know that “beggars can’t be choosers” but geez! I could be finished walking the camino by the time the program finishes loading.
There’s a bar behind me and I ask if I can use the kitchen in the back to wash the strawberries. I clean the fruit and offer her some to share. She smiles and plucks a berry from the container. She returns to her work and I begin mine.
I’m completely unaware of how much time passes until the clerk approaches me again. She has changed her clothes and is leaving for the night. She wishes me a good camino and I thank her and say goodnight. She smiles as she walks down the stairs in front of me and I return to my task.
The clerk who has replaced her for the evening is a surly middle-aged man who is aggravated that I am in the lobby. He approaches and interrupts my typing. Standing behind me, he looks over my shoulder and reads the screen. Sighing heavily he glances at the television and then back to me. My presence in the lobby has clearly disturbed his routine.
“You can’t stay here. You have used the computer for long enough. Any longer and I will charge you a fee.”
I try to explain that it was agreed upon before my booking the room that I could use the computer to complete my work.
“What are you doing here? Please tell me that you’re not one of those crazy people. Pilgrims. Going to walk. Walk. Walk.” He mocks.
Unable to hide my frustration, I reply: “I’m almost finished.”
“Seriously,” he says. “What are you doing here?” “It’s late. Can’t you finish tomorrow?”
“No. I can’t.” I state. “I am leaving tomorrow and will not have computer access. This must be finished tonight.” He sighs and returns to the desk.
I continue to work, unaware of how much time passes.
The man returns with determination and says, “You must finish.”
“I’m almost finished,” I say, not looking up from the screen.
“No. You must finish now.”
I keep typing.
“What are you doing?” He insists.
I’m tired and any fragment of remaining patience flees at the thought of him not letting me finish my work.
“I’m almost finished!”
The tears are there. I can’t hold back any more. The anxiety of the unknown, the frustration of the computer crashing, running out of time, this man, and the thought of another person saying that I’m crazy for attempting the Camino bursts forth with an unstoppable force and I sob.
“I’m one of those crazy pilgrims.” I admit sarcastically. I continue to type through the tears, trying to ignore the clerk.
“When do you leave?” he asks.
“Tomorrow? It’s after two. You’re crazy. It will be very difficult for you. It is not an easy journey. You must go to sleep.”
“I can’t. I must finish this.” I refuse to stop.
“It is a very difficult journey and you leave in a few hours. You must sleep.” His tone changes and he isn’t sarcastic or condescending anymore. “You are not in the best physical health.” I type through the tears. I keep typing, ignoring his plea. He places a hand on my shoulder and says, “You must sleep.”
Finally, I look up with tears streaming down my face. “Two minutes. Please.”
He acquiesces and I finish. I wipe my eyes and I walk toward the ancient elevator.
“Bom caminho,” the man says and I feel as if I have crossed an invisible threshold, a barrier.