I woke far too early with my grandmother on my mind. She had died a number of years ago from cancer at home and had been nursed by my mother, her only child, until the horrible end. At the time, I don’t think I understood how difficult that must have been for my mother. I was so immersed in my own pain that I spent hours with my brother at the beach just to escape the enormity of it. I don’t even like the beach and swimming in the sea has always scared me. But there we were, dipping under the waves with the car keys tied tightly in a plastic bag and swinging from my brother’s neck. My grandmother had lived in a granny flat at the back of our house and had been an integral part of the family unit. Growing up, I had been raised by three adults: my parents and her. She had taught me to count by helping me with piles of dot-to-dot books and I have been an avid knitter all my life because she showed me how to make a scarf. I still have it and you can see where I made the stitches and where she worked on it. It was a horrible way for her to go and it took on an surreal reality difficult to really process. I couldn’t quite comprehend seeing the person I loved changed so terribly by pain and inevitable death.
Maybe I had had a dream of her. Maybe not. But she was on my mind when I woke and once my brain started working, I could not drift off again. So I slipped out of bed, careful to not disturb anyone and took my journal, Kindle, cup, coffee and filter to the front seating area and boiled the communal kettle.
Eventually, people began to wake and sat at the other tables. The morning manager was making coffees with an authentic machine and unlocked the cupboards, revealing what was on offer for breakfast. At one table sat the Love Birds. They were so involved in each other that they would ignore everything else and would walk slowly hand in hand, strolling down the way. When greeted, the woman would look started and the man would scowl, alienating everyone with his possessiveness. They would snuggle and kiss, oblivious to the world and were visibly annoyed if disturbed from that bliss.
The Canadian couple, Ed and Dorota, were still seated at the table when we left, but they caught up later at a little stall on the side of a road. The interior Camino route had joined with the coastal one that we were on and we had began to meet many more people. There were a lot of new faces at this little store set up with chairs to lounge on. Here, we could buy fresh fruit and coffee and relax. The woman running it smiled and stamped our credentials.
The weather was lovely and it was so pleasant to just relax and catch up with the other pilgrims. While we chattered, a young man with a battered guitar approached. He looked so spent. He wore the costume of a troubadour and his shoes looked impossibly uncomfortable for walking in. An older man with wispy white hair hovered over him, making him sit and loudly bought him fruit and coffee. I thought them a strange duo at the time. Since then I realise that he wasn’t pretending to be a minstrel, but was, in fact, a genuine wandering musician and part of a group known as Tuna. They walk up and down Europe, performing and relying on the generosity of people for food and accommodation. I would spend a lot more time with them in Santiago. But I knew none of this at the time. Instead, to me, the optics of the scene seemed a tad bizarre. Kim and I walked away trying to make sense of it and discussed possible scenario to try explain it. I think the story we settled on was that he believed himself the reincarnation of a troubadour and was revisiting the route he had wondered hundreds of years ago. It seemed poetic and possible the Camino. It rather excited and fired up our imaginations, inaccurate as it actually was.
The route was beautiful and scenic. It wandered up steep hills, old villages and through crop fields. We walked through quiet farmlands and skipped along stones trying to keep our shoes dry. We were puffing up yet another hill when we came to a little middle-aged French woman sitting on a wall, shaded by the trees. She and her husband had walked from Lisbon, but they were walking at their own paces. She told us that her husband would walk ahead and wait for her to join him at different points on the route. It had worked for them since Lisbon and would probably serve them well until Santiago. We drank from our water bottles and chatted with her.
The Love Birds were strolling hand in hand, talking and enjoying the sole company of each other. We greeted them and the man practically growled at us, making it clear he wanted to be left in peace. We scurried past, conciliatorily smiling at their odd behaviour. On a road where most people were so open, his hostility was greatly at odds with our expectations and experience.
While walking, we were overtaken by Tomas the Swede. He had walked from Lisbon and, being a seasoned pilgrim on multiple Caminos, was going strong and aiming to get to Santiago and home before us. We stayed together for the day’s final few kilometres which wound through a forest and skirted a river. One bare spot on the route was marked out with tape and a sign.
‘They’re still digging up the bodies.’ Tomas teased.
‘No!’ shuddered Kim, walking away, ‘Don’t get my imagination started.’
We caught up to her, laughing, and continued, only stopping to take photos of a little bridge. We all chatted and had a wonderful time eating up the last few miles. Our pace quickened to match Tomas’s and it was like flying through the forest.
Finally, we came to Pontevedra, exiting the forest and blinking in the unencumbered glare of the sun. Before going any further, we found a cafe bar right where we stepped out of the woods. We sat outside on the metal chairs and watched as other pilgrims came and went. I said that I would get the first round and went inside. Sitting at the back were Ed and Dorota enjoying bowls of soup. We laughed and chatted a while before I went back outside with the drinks.
While sitting there, the little French woman appeared and sat down at another table with her husband and some other pilgrims that she knew. She greeted us with a smile. Kim and I were becoming concerned with the growing number of pilgrims now that the different Camino routes had converged. We mentioned to Tomas that we were looking for a twin hotel room for the night and Tomas very kindly phoned some of the hotels listed in my Wise Pilgrim book. He spoke to them in rapid Spanish before handing the book back to me. ‘All done. I’m also staying there tonight.’
We walked into the hotel and Kim and I looked into the bar while Tomas talked to the manager at the front desk. The bar smelled of sweat and was full of middle-aged men standing or sitting while drinking and playing card games. Conversations suddenly stopped, the room went strangely quiet and all eyes were on Kim and me, looking us up and down. Feeling hugely uncomfortable, we went back to the front desk, paid for our room and collected our key.
Entering the room, we tossed our bags down but soon discovered that the bathroom light didn’t work. So I went down with the bulb that had been left on the sink. There was no one at the front desk. I rang the bell and still no one arrived. I went back into the bar, braving the uncomfortable stares of the men, and asked the barman if he could help. He went to the front desk to check. Also finding it deserted, he opened the elevator door and rang the emergency button a few times. There was no reply. He then began banging on the side of the elevator and shouted, ‘Paolo! Paolo!’ BANG BANG BANG ‘PAOLO!’
He allowed the elevator doors to close and we watched it rise before descending again. The doors opened and out stepped Paulo. Without another word, the barman returned to his bar and Paolo took his place at the desk. I explained the problem with the lightbulb. ‘Ah,’ he sighed, ‘I forgot about that.’ He gave me another key and I returned to the room. We transferred our things to the new room which seemed to be in working order. Tomas popped his head out and we explained what had happened and made arrangements to meet up that evening. He said that he knew of a place that served Pulpo (octopus), a dish I’d never tried before.
Showered and refreshed, we met up with Tomas and sat at a table outside the bar on the pavement, drinking wine before walking into the old town of Pontevedra. It’s a lovely and charming town, almost magical at night. Tomas led us to the restaurant and we ordered a bottle of wine and calamari starters. It was delicious! This was followed by Pulpo which was steamed and sprinkled with paprika. I’m sure other people would say that we were served a delicious dish and the restaurant was rated as excellent online. But I sat there trying to cover the fact that did not enjoy it at all. I think it was the texture. For someone who cuts off every little shred of fat on her meat, it was very hard to chew and swallow the tentacles and suckers. However, it was definitely worth a try. I just don’t have to order it again. The wine and company made up for my awkward dilemma.
Ed, Dorota and a few other pilgrims were at another table celebrating Dorota’s birthday. She had bright beads around her neck and a tiara placed on her head. We were all very merry with wine and adventure by his time. We burst into song, singing Happy Birthday to her. I, showing off, then followed it up by singing it in Afrikaans and then in Xhosa. Others, not wanting to be outdone, sang the song in their own languages. The table behind then burst into song singing it in Spanish and then followed it up by singing more Spanish songs. We eventually had to leave them clapping, dancing and singing while we wondered around the old town. In the square was a round elevated stage on which stood or sat statues of men playing instruments. Nearby was a church tower and a lit shrine. People wandered about, like us, enjoying the still and fragrant evening air. We walked slowly back to the hotel and had another drink in the bar (sans the smelly ogling men) before finally going back to our rooms at around midnight.