The day started with drizzle and progressed into full-blown rain within an hour or two, and I was back into full rain gear. While some people scurried for shelter I ploughed ahead. Then I realised, much to my dismay, that my waterproof boots were not in fact waterproof! They coped well with showers but were no match for heavy rain. My feet were soaked and I squelched as I walked, fully aware that my blisters were also coming under pressure, as my plasters loosened their protective grip. Up ahead I saw a café and decided that I would stop to change my socks, even though I’d be returning my feet to wet shoes.
The café had a calm, sedate atmosphere without a rucksack in sight. That was unusual. Sitting at the dining tables enjoying lunch were groups of four-star pilgrims (their luggage was transported). By contrast, I sat on a barstool in my waterproof leggings with my rucksack beside me. After a few minutes, Mike made an entrance in his dark green poncho, with Jackie, Frank, Jill and Brett following shortly behind. As we all lined up at the bar, I heard Frank ask Brett what he did in the real world. ‘I’m an Anglican Priest,’ Brett replied. I was certainly surprised; all I knew until then was that he was a four-star pilgrim with an English accent. While I was surprised, I was delighted too; now he really interested me as I have always been fascinated by people who choose a life of service to God. Conversation turned to more immediate matters; accommodation, we were all heading for Palas de Rei and there was some concern about availability. The wet day would force pilgrims to stop earlier than usual, and we were hearing that the private albergues were already booked up. So I decided to head off in advance of the others. Truthfully that wasn’t the only reason for leaving ahead of the group. I seemed to want to be part of it and also on the periphery.
The downpour resumed as soon as I left the café and it continued for the rest of the day. When I arrived in Palas de Rei I was absolutely dripping. On the outskirts, I noted the existence of the municipal albergue, and even though I questioned the wisdom of my desision to walk a further couple of kilometres into town, that is exactly what I did. Nearly an hour later, when I couldn’t get a bed in town, I had to retrace my steps to the municipal albergue, which turned out to be a modern version of Colditz. Even after a hot shower I still felt cold. The small laundry room was, I discovered, the warmest place in the building, so some clothes washing seemed like a good idea.
Soon I realised that my idea was not unique. With the day being so wet, a lot of people wanted to use the machines, and the facilities didn’t quite stretch to accommodate the needs of so many people. In fact, there was a long waiting list; I was fourteenth in line for the dryer, and fifth in line for a washing machine. While I hadn’t bargained on such a long wait, I didn’t have anything else to do. Then five girls got very upset when they returned from lunch to find that someone had removed their clothes from the washing machine. Their discovery was followed by drama and chaos as people argued about what had happened and who was next on the list. The noise, as it was to me, was all in Spanish and carried on until Javier arrived and took charge. He looked like an unlikely leader, as he stood in the middle of the room in his schoolboy shorts; nevertheless he was a leader – he came across as a really genuine man and people listened while he calmed the situation. It was a lot of drama over laundry, but with so few clothes available to pilgrims, laundry is very important business on the Camino.
That night I had a lovely dinner with Frank and Jill in the nearby hotel restaurant. Their walk had begun in León. Jill worked as a teaching assistant in Madrid and had travelled from there, while her father had come from New York. It was Jill who really wanted to do the Camino; Frank was a somewhat reluctant pilgrim. There was much of the whole adventure that he could have done without. He suffered quite a lot with blisters, which made walking tough, but he did like the social aspect, so it wasn’t all bad.
When I look back I see the ways in which I deny the fulfillment of my own needs. Earlier in the day I moved away prematurely from others when I left the café. I had begun to feel vulnerable as they began to discuss accommodation plans. As a four-star pilgrim Bret’s accommodation and evening meal were booked in advance, while Jackie and Mike had each other, and Jill and Frank had each other. Wherever they went, they went together, whereas I was on my own which put me in a more vulnerable position, one I didn’t really want to expose. At such times, it seems like making an exit is the only thing I can do, and then the impact of those decisions hit home later. That night I was lucky to meet Jill and Frank. Being alone is great when it’s what I actually want, but when it’s not what I want, it’s a lonely experience.