Laza to Xunquiera de Ambía
Wednesday October Fourteen, 2020
I woke up cold, tired and already a little bit cranky at the raging bed bug bites I’d been inflicted with the day before. There had been no heating offered during the night in the albergue and so I removed my body from my sleeping sack reluctantly and took myself down to the bathrooms to indulge in a nice hot shower. I know that the heat from the shower was probably not the best idea for my inflamed skin, but after such a cold, sleepless night I needed all the small comforts I could muster. In the process of elongating the shower for as long as I could I convinced myself that I had accumulated even more bed-bug bites throughout the previous night, but my conviction was simply down to an overactive imagination. There were no more bites on me than there had been the morning before. But there were certainly no less bites on me either, and each and every one of them reminded me of that as I redressed and got myself ready for the day.
The world outside the albergue was damp and cold, but with thirty-five kilometres ahead of us that day we couldn’t dillydally like we had the day before. So we ate up, wrapped up and headed out into it the dreary morning. The village of Laza appeared quite differently by the light of day, and in leaving it it revealed itself to be a lot larger than it had seemed the night before. It even surprised us with an exceptional bakery where we bought pan au chocolat from. We consumed each one rather greedily, which was entirely unnecessarily considering we’d only just eaten our breakfast at the albergue.
The path out of Laza took us alongside an infrequently travelled sealed road, hemmed in by hills on either side where clouds gathered and threatened to own the day. And own the day they did. It started drizzling soon enough, and it kept on drizzling in the hours to come. Rain is one thing, but drizzle is quite another. Rain generally comes at you from one direction (above), while drizzle has the pesky habit of coming at you from every conceivable angle. Many years ago a friend had described drizzle as wet rain, which I had scoffed at because all rain is wet. But the sentiment has always stuck with me, and indeed the wetness of the drizzle as we left Laza made certain that we were equally wet within the first minutes of its arrival. Not even the excessive size of my poncho could save me from the discomfort of the day’s damp.
So, between the bed bug bites and the drizzle I wasn’t exactly in the liveliest of moods as our day began. And to exacerbate my grey thoughts the morning’s route required less of a stroll and more of a constant climb along rocky outcrops that ran fast with constant steams of water. No sooner had we left the relative ease of the sealed road then we began to climb and climb, and climb some more. It was an epic undertaking, both physically and mentally. I moved on ahead of Daan trying to keep myself as clear-headed as possible, so as not to let thoughts with negative leanings slip in and take over. Instead, I kept my eyes on my shoes as I put one wet foot in front of the other and traipsed methodically across the sodden stones. On any other day I’m sure that the climb would have been made worthwhile by pockets of remarkable vistas here and there, but for my climb the only outlook provided was the heavy grey mass of cloud above and below and to all sides of me.
I contented myself with a reminder that it was my sisters forty-second birthday that day, and that she would be celebrating it still back in New Zealand, with friends surrounding her in an open restaurant where there was no need to socially distance. The other small joy that ran through my head that morning was the knowledge that I had finally raised my goal total of $2,000 for Amnesty International as I walked. I had wanted my journey to go a little further than simply being a solo project with my own meditation and physical perseverance in mind. Instead, I figured it was a great opportunity to draw attention to a cause that meant a lot to me, and so my journey had been peppered with social media posts asking for donations to the cause. The fact that I’d reached my $2,000 target brought me great joy, and with donations still coming in that morning it was enough to buoy my mood and stop me from slipping into that void of despair.
The climb finally came to an end, but the unrelenting drizzle did not. I arrived at another sealed road (quite possibly the one I’d left earlier on in the morning) and continued on to a wonderful little village called Alberguería. Well, I say wonderful, but there was very little of it to see within the dense mass of cloud that had enveloped it. The joy it brought me came courtesy of an amazing cafe in its centre. A café that is a notable spot for any Peregrino travelling along the Sanabres Way. For a start, there was a log burner roaring away at the front of the room, filling the space with a much needed sense of warmth as I removed my dripping poncho and equally damp jacket beneath it. The second thing to overwhelm me was the sight of hundreds, if not thousands, of scallop shells hanging from the walls, the ceilings and the pillars of not just that room but two others also. Each shell had been signed and dated by a pilgrim who had passed through the café. It was such an incredible sight, and one that created yet another connection to the well-worn path I myself was now travelling along. I ordered a hot chocolate and an espresso from my host, and when he brought out each of them to me he arrived with a shell for me to sign also. Which I did, gladly.
Daan arrived at the café a little while later and joined me in another coffee and sweet plastic wrapped lemon muffins from the counter. We sat in front of the fire in an attempt to dry off as much as possible before we set off on our way once more. Despite the ferocity of the wood burner however it was no match for the sodden state of our clothes and so when we finally left the café in Alberguería we were as cold and as damp as we had been when we arrived.
The sky at least was showing a little bit of promise and suggested that it might clear. Light was finally creeping into the day, and so we soldiered on into it. The rest of the journey provided a many and varied landscape, in such a way that the remainder of the afternoon seemed to be made up of at least three afternoons. Time felt like it was moving painfully slow as the landscape morphed from farmland into more mountains, and then to forests and then traditional Galician villages. Rain came and went as we walked, as did the occasional beam of sunshine. I kept my poncho on, just in case, and was happy that I had done so by the end of the afternoon because when it did rain it really rained.
My interest was piqued by the many grain huts that dotted the path we travelled. Each village played host to a number of the stone and straw huts, which came in a variety of states from ancient and decrepit to modern and well maintained. And rather than simply being monuments to a bygone era they were still functional, and filled to the brim with corn,
When Xunquiera de Ambía finally came into view I was relieved that the day was finally done. Sunlight streamed down over a well-kept village while dark, brooding clouds hovered about on all four horizons surrounding it. I felt like I had arrived at a refuge and the village welcomed me with open arms, as did a rather lovely guest house that Daan had booked in advance the day before. I arrived first, having walked ahead of Daan, and was glad to indulge in an exceedingly long and exceptionally hot shower. It was wonderful to feel warm for the first time all day and then equally pleasant to feel dry again once I’d redressed. A load of washing was done before I made my way downstairs to a small bar in the village where Daan had settled in ahead of checking in.
We drank and pondered our next move, as our Camino was no longer as cut and dry as it might have been in days past. Region after region was shutting itself off from its neighbours as Covid continued to tighten its grip over Spain. The following days journey would take us through Ourense, which had been considered a Red Zone for at least the previous week. A Red Zone, as far as we could make out, involved curfews and limited trading hours. It also meant limited access in and out of the city. We had been watching the news eagerly each evening to get a sense of what our options might be, but in conversations over the previous week we were still no closer to a solid plan.
We had considered walking as far as the border of Ourense before jumping on a bus, which would take us to the following destination of O Ponte. The purists in us didn’t like the idea of succumbing to wheeled transport however. We thought about walking around Ourense, to O Ponte, which we calculated would add approximately thirty kilometres to the day. That would bring the days total distance to around sixty kilometres though, which we each balked at. We even contemplated the idea of hiring horses to ride around the border of the city. This seemed less like cheating than the bus option, and much more palatable than a sixty kilometre day. It also seemed like a hell of a lot of fun.
By the end of the evening we had resolved that if we couldn’t find horses to continue our journey on we would instead walk through Orense, and continue on through the other side to O Ponte where the closest accommodation was available to us. It would still mean a fifty kilometre day, but it seemed like our only option under the circumstances. In such an instance we could confidently tell any official that happened to stop us that we had no intention of dilly dallying around the city. We were simply passing through.
Beyond that our next challenge would be Santiago de Compostela itself. It was considered an Orange Zone at that point, and there were ongoing suggestions that it would be designated a Red Zone any day now and shut off to the rest of the world. The thought of not being able to finish my Camino was a devastating one. I had travelled so far, almost nine hundred kilometres, that the idea of everything being shut down just as I arrived at the finish line was heart-breaking. It wasn’t as if I could just meander back next summer to finish it off either, as my time in the Northern Hemisphere was coming to a close and I’d have to be back in New Zealand by Christmas before my visa ran out.
My head was a little muddled, to say the least. I was so close to finishing, but then there was every chance of not being able to achieve that. And besides, I don’t think that I was actually ready for the completion of my Camino just then. I was nowhere near close to processing exactly what it was that I had nearly achieved. The scale of what it was that I’d accomplished came mostly from the external perspectives of friends and family who were actively messaging me on social media and telling me how awesome my adventure was. There was a common theme throughout about living vicariously through me at a moment in time when so many of them were limited to the four walls of their abodes with once unimaginable restrictions now placed on their freedom of movement.
I felt grateful, certainly, that this adventure was still available to me, despite the state of the world. But the little tingle of anxiety within me that believed I might not complete the entire journey was a gnawing one. As gnawing at the terrible itch of my bed bug bites. Both sensations overwhelmed me when I finally took myself to bed after dinner and attempted sleep. It came, eventually, but not after long moments of trying to calm and clear my hyperactive head.