Via de la Plata: Day Twenty-Nine

A Gudiña to Laza

Tuesday October Thirteen

36km   19֯C

Considering we had a rather lengthy day ahead of us neither Daan nor myself were much inclined to hurry up on our travels. Daan’s lack of enthusiasm boiled down to the sore head incurred from the previous evenings level of intoxication. And my lack of lustre came from the fact that I’d awoken from my drunken slumber covered in bites.

Bed Bug bites to be precise.

At first I made the assumption that I’d been feasted on by a mosquito throughout the night. But the considerable pointy height of each welt, not to mention the precise sequence of each bite and the excruciating itch of each one, seemed to suggest that something else was at play. The mysterious bites made their way along my back and my arms, across the top of my head and my belly, and worst of all in the recesses of my underarms. Whatever had attacked me had left such a deep impression on my body that even writing these words has provoked a skin crawling sensation some months later. Daan came to my rescue and informed me that the distinct symmetry of the bites suggested that Bed Bugs were at play. That, and the intense agony of each wound. Much, much more unpleasant than any mosquito bite I’ve ever experienced.

I showered thoroughly, as much to feel clean from the unwholesomeness of my situation as to sober up from the evening prior spent quaffing large volumes of Licor de Heirbas. The shower allayed the discomfort of a hangover but certainly not the unease brought about by the bites.

Daan’s own unease was down to a hangover, pure and simple. I humoured his inability to get cracking with the day and followed him patiently from one establishment to the next. We ate breakfast at a local cafe, and then collected bread from a bakery across the road before moving on to a petrol station where Daan bought energy drinks to allay the pounding in his head. I, inexplicably, bought two pairs of thermal socks from the Repco. Perhaps I was still drunk from the night before. Perhaps I just liked the colour. They were green.

It was 9.00am before we finally began our climb out of A Gudiña. The weather suited our joyless and heavy mood with a thick wall of mist shrouding the landscape about us. It was dense enough to limit our visibility to about twenty metres. It was also lovely and cool, which on any other morning might have been a hindrance, but with a body covered in Bed Bug bites it came as some relief. It meant that I didn’t heat up so much as I walked for the bites to flare up and enrage my senses.

A gloomy old day…

There was not much to be said between us as we wandered through the mist. So far so peaceful, and ever so mystical, but much of the charm was lost on us in our funky states. The cloud cover burnt off within an hour or so to reveal a landscape of rolling hills stretched out forever and ever on either side of us. The mist still hung about deep in the valleys beneath us, and dark clouds on the horizon threatened to unleash rain upon the landscape at any moment. It was all very moody and atmospheric, but mostly moody in more ways than one.

We split up and I made my way ahead of Daan with The Doors blaring in my headphones. The black sky about me had imbued a desire to hear ‘Riders on the Storm’. And when the rest of The Doors back catalogue began to feel a little too lively for the occasion I retreated to Pink Floyd and (of course) ‘Dark Side of the Moon’. It was just that kind of a morning.

The path provided a steady climb throughout the morning, but it was nice and even as it went, making it very manageable and palatable. My pace surprised me (as well as Daan who watched me disappear into the distance at speed), but it was inspired by the constantly changing landscape around me. It had me all worked up about what I might discover just around the corner. It continued to surprise and delight me, and the ever increasing moments of joy urged me forwards at a speed that really should have been impossible considering how much I’d drunk the evening before.

A local, wishing me well on my journey…

When Encoro das Portas came into view I was enthralled by the sight. What a splendid vista to look down upon. The water of the seemingly endless reservoir seemed dark and foreboding in the distance, which contrasted nicely with little pockets of sunshine that occasionally crept through the cloud cover to shine on the hills that loomed above it. The light danced across the hills while the clouds moved at pace above them, creating a dynamic sense of movement from an otherwise static landscape. I stopped in my tracks to take the prerequisite number of photos and videos on my phone before carrying on along the ridge to discover more still. The view gave me the very distinct impression that I was back in New Zealand, which rankled me a little. I’ve always felt a bit lazy about making such flippant comparisons between locations across the globe. It’s a lot like this place, or a lot like that place. But we all have a tendency to do it nonetheless. I guess it’s simply a way of giving the newly discovered setting some context.

A wonderful companion throughout the morning’s walk…

But yes, the vista before me rang true with tones of home, particularly landscapes in the South Island of New Zealand. Right down to the crisp breeze that whipped up from the surface of the reservoir below and chilled the air about me. I stopped to take it all in, as well as to consume snacks and water. Daan caught me up and we took in the dramatic vista together over a shared lunch before we headed off on our separate ways once more.

Something of a perfect lunch spot…

The reservoir stayed beneath me to my right for a long while as I journeyed along the ridge. And to my left a second truly amazing view opened up was filled with a never-ending sweep of green hills. It really was a stunning route to feel a part of, and all of the morning’s lack-lustre sentiments were long forgotten. They were replaced instead with wide-eyed joy and contentedness. The view was helped by the now consistent sunshine that had finally and comprehensively broken through the cloud and which was highlighting the dramatic scale of the landscape.

Sunshine, happiness, and wonderful vistas…

The descent down from the ridge towards a village called Campobecerros seemed to take an age. It wasn’t helped by the fact that the village could be seen far off in the distance, but the route needed to zig-zag down the hillside, such was the steep angle of its descent. To the left of the village was a vast construction site dedicated to a high-speed rail route that was sure to change the nature of the landscape irreparably. The village itself, tiny in comparison alongside the scale of the modern development, seemed inhabited only by cats when I finally arrived upon its streets. The feline population scampered away from me as I wandered along the narrow lanes to try and find somewhere to eat. The layout of the village was more like a labyrinth than anything else, and I lost my bearings quite quickly, but soon found myself outside a bar nonetheless, as if a sixth sense had drawn me there. Daan arrived shortly after me after a complicated phone conversation about where it was that I’d actually arrived at.

Not much happening here…

The hostess at the bar was rather short with Daan as he made enquiries, so while there was accommodation available we decided to continue on towards Laza nonetheless. It would add another sixteen kilometres to our day, but there were still plenty of sunshine hours left in the afternoon, and we weren’t getting a particularly welcoming vibe from Campobecerros. We stopped long enough for hamburgers however, as well as ice-cream, to fuel the remainder of our journey. We finished up just as the bar began to fill with all of the workers from the new rail site. I was glad to get going, as a strange sort of nervous energy had overtaken me, and all I wanted to do was continue moving.

I almost regretted the choice of soldiering on as we climbed out of Campobecerros, such was the steep ascent that came with it, paralleling the descent we’d just made down into it. The climb went on, and on, and on, and soon enough Daan and I had established our separate paces and separated along the path. The climb eventually levelled out and then began a remarkable descent down into Laza. The path became a lovely, leisurely angle, with many hairpin turns that doubled back in on themselves. Ahead was a wide open valley, with little villages dotted along the hillsides. There appeared to be no easy way into them, and certainly no easy way out of them either, and my imagination fired up as to what life might have been like historically in such locales. Hell, what was life like living in such a place in contemporary times?  

You can almost here the eerie synthesised notes of Angelo Badalamenti’s theme song…

The day had since become grey and overcast once more, which I didn’t mind it at all. The new, gloomier light perfectly suited the large pines that grew on either side of the road. It gave me a sense that I was perhaps walking to a small town called Twin Peaks, rather than Laza. The gloom deepened as the day wore on and created a wonderful ambience the deeper into the valley I descended. The constant breeze whistling through the pines added to the eerie sentiment prevailing over the day. I stopped at a cold and dark looking stream that ran alongside the village and in the space of snapping a few photos Daan had caught me up once more and so we entered Laza together, rather happy that the day was finally over.

Adding to the mood…

The local albergue was open, and so we paid our €8 to a rather surly man at the local emergency office and collected the albergue key before setting off to find it. It lay on the outskirts of the village and was a modern build consisting of lots of glass walls that riffed off of the overcast sky and created a cold, sterile ambiance within the building. Not even the bright red walls of the dorm could warm it up. Our dorm room consisted of four bunk beds, with all but two beds wrapped methodically with cling-film. Large red X’s had been taped over the surface of the cling-film, to help cement the message that these six beds were off limits to pilgrims. It was an extraordinary sight, perfectly befitting the extraordinary Covid infected world we now found ourselves living in, and it added to the already sterile quality of the albergue. If a hazmat suit had been provided to sleep in I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised.

A Strange New World of accommodation options…

I kept my backpack outside of the room, so damned paranoid that I’d brought some bastard bed bugs with me. My skin still crawled each and every time I thought of them, which was often as I tried furiously not to scratch at the welts. I wondered if perhaps a hazmat suit wasn’t a good idea, considering how violated and infected I then felt.   

Daan and I wandered back into the centre of the village and found the local bar, Bar A Picota, which had a restaurant upstairs from it. An elderly woman operated both establishments simultaneously, with her husband in tow, although he seemed much more inclined to sit and stare up at the television set behind the bar than actually contribute in any meaningful way. Perhaps the news of the world was wearing him down somewhat. Or perhaps she just preferred things to be done the way that she liked them to be done. I know a fair few relationships with just such a dynamic at play. Many of my previous relationships included.  

We sat outside on the terrace for beers and affectionate interactions with a couple of local dogs. These beasts were perfectly domesticated and wonderfully amiable, unlike so many of the other canine creatures we’d been privy to over the past few weeks. Beside us were a group of youths who chatted amiably amongst themselves about a new iPhone release. Their presence in the village felt strange to witness, considering all of the emptied out villages we’d passed through where no one appeared much younger than fifty. They added an energy that we hadn’t been privy to in quite some time and I imagined that they had exiled themselves from a city somewhere and returned to the safety of family and a smaller community during such unsettled times.  

I did some maths on the time difference between Spain and New Zealand and realised that the following day had just begun in the Southern Hemisphere, making it October 14th. That meant that it was my sister’s birthday. I Facetimed her as I drank, trying to sneak in the call before she made it to work, but she had already arrived and begun her day there. The idea of such predictability and normalcy in a country not ravaged by Coronavirus fascinated me. Lives went on as they always had – mask-less and without limits to social distance, venue capacity or how many people you could Bubble with. I compared the forty minutes of traffic that she’d just sat in commuting to work with the noticeable lack of any traffic seen over the previous week in my travels. How very different our two worlds were.

At eight we were ushered upstairs into the restaurant by our hostess and fed with some of the heartiest food I’d yet encountered along the Camino. The fact that the whole operation between the bar, the restaurant and the kitchen was a one woman show made it all the more outstanding. We washed the meal down with red wine and took in the ambiance of our stone walled surrounds, decorated as they were with some wonderfully unsettling local masks. The masks were unlike any that I’d ever seen before, and with good reason. They were unique to Laza and used in Entroido carnival celebrations that lead up to Ash Wednesday. They were known as Os Peliqueiros and they were a noticeable presence that peered out over us as we ate. And if any of these masks turned up in a modern day horror film I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised, such was their disquieting effect.

There is nothing well-meaning in that smile…

With another big journey ahead of us the following day we called it a night as soon as the last of our dessert had been washed down by the last of our wine and headed downstairs from the restaurant. The laneways of the village were dark by then, and we found ourselves uncertain of the route back to the albergue on more than one occasion. But we discovered our destination nonetheless and put ourselves to bed between the reels and reels of cling-film. I started to doze within a matter of seconds, despite the gnawing itches that throbbed on my mauled body. It had been the most remarkable day nonetheless. One of the most remarkable amongst a long list of remarkable days. There seemed to be a compounding effect to this final league of the Camino, where wonders were multiplied, and emotions were elevated. And with less than a hundred and fifty kilometres remaining I could only begin to imagine the joys that lay ahead.

A noisy local…
The new normal…

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