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Published: March 5th 2010
San Juan de Ortega
This is where my ankle swelled up to the size of a watermelon and made me realize that 44km a day was perhaps foolish.
Hobbling a little now, I find myself deep within the dreaded Meseta. It’s all I heard about during those first nine days to Burgos. All of those, and you’ll meet many, who have walked the Camino before, fill you with trepidation about this famously fearsome stretch. There are countless harrowing tales of this endless, featureless, barren semi-desert. Soaring temperatures, infrequent water fountains and zero shade. Actually it’s wonderful.
No electronic beepings of alarms wake me up and I stir to find that it’s already daylight. I congratulate myself on having slept well but then unnervingly realize that I am alone in the sixteen bunk dorm. Either everyone has left already or something terrible has happened to the planet in the night which somehow passed me by. Once you get used to them, earplugs can work a little too well.
Scrubbed and clothed, minimally, it’s already pretty warm, I find signs of life downstairs where surprisingly grand and luxurious breakfasts are being tucked in to. I’m offered cappuccino by some German chaps I’ve been bumping into since the beginning and now happily take the time to indulge. Conversation and laughter flows around the little kitchen as food morsels are exchanged.
This is much better than the 0530 starts a week ago where everyone trudged off into the darkness without exchanging a word. There no longer seems to be any rush.
The number of pilgrims has decreased; maybe many took too much heed of the Meseta stories. This means the albergues are smaller and quieter so you can actually sleep a little longer in the morning. The small-size lends itself to more intimate relationships with hospitaleros (the name for people, almost always volunteers, who work in the albergues) and fellow pilgrims.
“Que pasa amigo?” I’m asked for the tenth time in the morning. People who I could remember storming past over the last week or so are gradually catching up and overtaking me. I’ve given up trying to hide the limp and only have to hide the grimace until the super strong anti-inflammatory pills kick in.
“Estoy bien, gracias” I reply. Before we go on to walk together for a while chatting about everything including why the initial pace of 40km plus per day was a little ambitious.
It took a few days to admit that I had a problem. First I put it down to an
ankle bracelet being too tight, then I decided the pain must be coming from where I broke my ankle a few years ago playing football. It was a crucial tackle. After all there was one minute to go and we were winning 9:0.
My stiff, swollen ankle means I no longer gloat about not having gotten a blister yet - I tell you, the magic tape works.
Advice and all manner of creams and potions are usually offered before they leave me behind. Their concern and kindness does wonders to spur me on.
I call into a tiny shop in a tiny village, which like many others, according to my guidebook, sprung up purely to feed and water pilgrims along a particularly barren stretch. I buy some bread, cheese and ham, the staple diet of the peregrino, and some enormous nectarines. Water is topped up at the fountain by the pretty little church and I set off through the cornfields.
It’s only mid morning but it’s already very hot. My only company are huge black vultures swirling ominously overhead, perhaps choosing which pilgrim they’d prefer to succumb to dehydration.
I pass a kilt wearing Scotsman
Somewhere in the Meseta
Pienso que todos los peregrinos tienen este foto verdad?
asleep behind a haystack, then a Polish family of four picnicking under a bush. The famously pretty French Canadian girls are giggling along with their enormous packs and the Italian cyclists zoom past in a blur of technicolour lycra.
At the top of a slight rise I stop to take in an expansive view, more sky than earth. There is little colour. An unbroken pale blue above and dusty gold below, interrupted only by the white gravel path snaking away endlessly into the distance.
“Daviiiid” I hear from under a lone tree.
I join two familiar faces for lunch. Cheeses, meats, bread, fruit and even half a bottle of red wine are spread onto a t-shirt tablecloth in the only shade for miles around.
We can communicate well as long as I do all the talking. My Spanish is pretty good - in South America. However, in Spain I’m struggling to understand anyone. It isn’t just different accents but different verbs and unfamiliar expressions. It turns out that Costa Rican Spanish is quite an old fashioned variety. I’m commonly asked by Spaniards: “Donde aprendias español? En el siglo quince?”
That translates to: “Where did you
About ten days of baking hot, shadeless, flat, semidesert. Many hate it. I loved it.
learn Spanish? In the fifteenth century?”.
I leave the blossoming Camino romance and brave the heat once more. I catch up with the little super nice Korean lady. We walk the last few kilometres together chatting in broken English, usually about football, as her little legs go ten to the dozen even to keep up with my limp.
The albergue is not yet open when we arrive so the rucksacs are added to a growing line which stretches back from the door. Fortunately, clothes washing facilities are outside and accessible so I can complete this necessary chore. I’m getting pretty good at it now so the time spent scrubbing every other day is worth it given the alternative of having a bigger heavier bag containing more clothes. And it’s sociable. The washing lines have already been filled by early risers so trees, fences and bicycles are utilized for drying our sun-bleached clothes.
The doors eventually open and the hospitaleros don’t take long to stamp our pilgrim passports and take our payments. Three euros tonight. Trainers are left by the entrance and I dump my gear on a bottom bunk before racing to the showers.
The Magic Fountain at San Bol
Pilgrims who wash their feet in the freezing spring will have no more troubles all the way to Santiago.
The next day my ankle was completely painfree. But the other one was now massive instead.
than ten minutes later I’m sat outside a bar feeling fresh with half a litre of cold beer in my hand. I’m soon joined by others. Friends, not beers. Actually both.
The afternoon is spent chatting and reading outside the albergue. My guidebook tells me that tomorrow I’ll pass the site of an ancient battle against the Moors, a medieval bridge that was once a favourite haunt of bandits, and a ruined abbey that once offered food and shelter to shattered pilgrims. Oh and several tiny cafes offering jamon y queso bocadillos. Much the same as any other day really. I can’t wait.
In the evening a gang of us are back in the same bar for the pilgrim’s menu. Most restaurants along the way offer this and it is certainly a highlight of the trip. The best yet was a glass of port before the starter of grilled squid. This was followed by wild boar stew with ice cream for dessert. Washed down with bottles of local red wine. You really can’t complain at eight euros.
The albergue door is locked at 10:00pm so before it is even completely dark we are back in the dorm
The first of my favourite places on the Camino.
and tip toeing to our beds between the already sleeping masses. I go to sleep smiling.
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