As the Camino curved its way back into the mountains, the landscape transitioned from the vast sparseness of the Meseta into vibrant, intimate abundance. It felt like a new beginning, an emergence from the womb into an exciting new world. Most pilgrims I knew were intending to stay the night in Rabanal, a town at the bottom of the mountain, but I wanted to be higher up. When I saw Christine waiting for the albergue to open, I went over to say goodbye. ‘Go be with your spirit in the mountain,’ she said. Her words touched me, and I wondered if she had seen more of me than I realised.
That night I decided to stay in a community albergue that offered bed, dinner and breakfast on a donation basis. The evening meal was determined by the shopping done earlier by the volunteer warden, and the pilgrims cooked and ate as a community. Until then I had avoided such places; I wanted to be on the outside of the community, not part of it. On arrival, I was told by the American warden that all the beds had been taken, but that I could have a mattress on the floor if I wished. This was followed by more disappointing news: there was no hot water. The man who had gone for gas hadn’t returned, nor was his return that day guaranteed. Since I had already decided I would stay there I wasn’t easily deterred, and I followed the warden to a room full of mattresses and a mix of German and American students. ‘We have one more,’ he announced. Immediately the students began to rearrange themselves to accommodate me. Then later they took over cooking dinner, while I and many others only had to turn up to the table.
Foncebadón was more of a hamlet than a village; there was no place to go and nothing to do but relax on the veranda. While most people with beds slept, I enjoyed talking to a French couple who were cycling the Camino. It wasn’t often that I got a chance to talk to cyclists, as they generally stayed in different albergues to walkers. Just before dinner I took a short stroll, and while I was out I met Darren, an Irishman from County Meath. He was continuing his Camino after a stint as an artist in residence in Carrión de los Condes. But someone called ‘Dinner’, which put an end to our chat, as I was more than ready for food. Afterwards, I didn’t even wash dishes as there were so many hands available for work. Instead, I sat back on the veranda making a bracelet with elastic bands, colourful beads and letters of the alphabet.
At bedtime most of us headed for sleep in anticipation of reaching Cruz de Ferro, the highest point on the Camino, in time for sunrise the following morning. However, for me sleep came slowly and as I lay on the thin mattress on the concrete floor, I felt cold and couldn’t avoid for long the call of nature. To reach the bathroom I had to overcome both psychological and physical barriers. Firstly, I had to persuade myself to get out of my sleeping bag when I really didn’t want to. Secondly, I had to give myself permission to make the necessary noise, as everything I was about to do involved discomfort for me and disturbance for others. With permission granted, my release began with the noisy separation of the Velcro strips on my sleeping bag, the equivalent of opening a packet of crisps in the cinema during the quiet bits of the film. Then I switched on my torch and swished the light around to establish the easiest route to the door without stepping on anybody. Stage one of my mission was successfully accomplished. Next was the dormitory with the beds and the sleeping bodies – the night would not be complete without disturbing them too. Oh, and I got to repeat the process on the way back. What fun!