I wasn’t the only pilgrim to sleep well. The hospitalero had to wake up the whole dorm at 7 a.m., which was when we made the collective discovery that it was pouring with rain, and I mean really pouring. While I was still mentally adapting to the sight of such rainfall, I became aware of a heated exchange between some agitated pilgrims and the hospitalero. He was being confronted with suspicions that there were bedbugs, which featured high up on the list of ills a pilgrim might face. Some marks on the bed above mine were being pointed to as evidence, along with suggestions that they might have fallen into my sleeping bag. But there was no certainty that we had bedbugs at all, so I shrugged off the fuss and hoped, as I packed my sleeping bag back into my rucksack, that I was not also taking some unwanted companions with me.
Breakfast was a non-event – I hadn’t been able to make it to the supermarket the day before. A very sweet cappuccino from the vending machine had to do while I applied extra padding to my blistered feet before departure. The dining room was busy with pilgrims, taking longer than necessary, it seemed, to don their waterproof ponchos before venturing out into the pouring rain. With my waterproof leggings on for the first time, I went back upstairs to tell Branu I was leaving. ‘How can you say that!’ he exclaimed. His surprise that I could just leave when I was ready to go was evident. Feeling a bit guilty then, I told Kirsten I would text her after I found a café for breakfast. Truthfully, that was to soften the blow that I was leaving without them. Although we sometimes walked together, I didn’t feel obliged to do so. I wanted the freedom to make the choice that was right for me on any given day.
The rain was still falling as I headed towards the main street, and I discovered that the restaurant we had dined in the night before was open for breakfast. However, when I went inside I realised I didn’t actually want breakfast at all; what I wanted was to walk. Although I remembered what I had said to Kirsten, the bother of removing my rucksack to search and text in the dark and the rain was something I couldn’t face, so I just kept going. As I walked through town, I saw other pilgrims spill out onto the street in the half light of the early morning, and I felt there was already something different about the day, without being quite sure what it was.
Most pilgrims were heading for Sarria, the town where many pilgrims begin to walk the last one hundred kilometres to Santiago. There were two routes: one shorter and more direct, the other route was longer because it looped around to include the village of Samos, the site of an abbey and Benedictine monastery. As I hoped to walk a little further than Sarria, I intended to take the shorter route and initially I thought I had succeeded – that is, until I could no longer deny the fact that the road signs indicated I was en route to Sarria via Samos. Just like that, any realistic possibility that I would get beyond Sarria that day was gone. We had had lots of discussion the previous evening about whether or not to visit Samos, and although it had not been my plan, it was seemingly on my path.
As I looked at the poncho-wearing group along the road ahead of me, I observed for the first time a pilgrimage before my eyes. It was a scene I hadn’t witnessed previously. There was a mystical quality to the sight of poncho-wearing, slow-moving pilgrims with sticks in one or both hands. It was striking in its simplicity and reverence. People were talking quietly, if at all, and there was something much more devotional about the procession than usual.
The arrival of the rain seemed to bring a lightness and freshness to the experience. I remember in particular walking through a small wood where the branches intertwined overhead to give shelter from the rain. This brought me into very close contact with the beauty and perfection of the raindrops as they sat on the leaves in their simple Buddha-like poses. Coming out of the woods, Samos soon opened up and I saw the monastery stand imposingly on my right at the entrance to the village.
Earlier I had met Mike and Jackie, a couple from Limerick, for the first time. Initially I stuck up conversation with Jackie before falling into step with Mike while Jackie walked behind with Marlene from Belgium. Mike referred to himself as a passionate Christian and we quickly got to talking about life and, of course, God. I enjoyed his company very much; he had an open, inclusive way of interacting with the world. When we reached Samos, Mike and I were ahead of the others and as we were longing for breakfast, we headed straight for a café.
Afterwards, we approached the abbey and were advised by someone on the steps to be quick as it was about to close. When we got inside, a young monk came towards us, making a key-locking gesture with his hands. In the brief time we were there, I took in the tranquil holy atmosphere within the abbey; I would have loved to attend Mass. I considered waiting in the village for the next Mass, but people outside were talking about different Mass times. Some said Mass would be another hour while others said two hours, and as I knew Sarria would be busy with pilgrims, I didn’t want to get there too late. Faced with such uncertainty, I decided to continue my walk and return another day to Samos.
On leaving the village I pulled away from the others, as I wanted to walk alone for a while. I wanted to reflect on what meeting Richard had meant to me. As I walked, I wept with gratitude for the feelings he awoke in me. I felt alive, excited and playful, and I knew he had touched my soul. The whole experience felt like heart medicine, and I decided that if we met in Sarria I would let him know how he impacted me.
In the afternoon, although much of the route followed the road, it was really peaceful, uninterrupted by traffic except for a tractor. Walking along quiet, winding country roads felt completely different to walking on busy main roads, and for most of the day I didn’t meet another living soul – that is, until I heard Dave from New Zealand walking behind me. We introduced ourselves and talked only briefly before he powered on ahead of me.
Close to Sarria I rejoined the Limerick couple, and as we arrived in town we followed Javier and Leo, two pilgrims they knew, into the municipal albergue. As we settled in, Jackie asked me if I would like to join them for dinner later and I said I would, although in truth I wasn’t in much of a social mood by then. I needed some time alone and headed out with my journal to find a bar and a beer. Failing to find a bar nearby, I opted for a lovely Italian café and a glass of wine. There, I talked to the Italian man who was the café owner and he told me about setting up his new business with his Spanish wife. Then while he swept the wet leaves from the floor, the most beautiful furry kitten appeared to play with the leaves and the sweeping brush. She was thoroughly irresistible and when I picked her up, the owner asked if I wanted to take her with me. Ha ha! She had strayed into their lives a few weeks earlier and had taken up residence with them. Later, he asked if I would like to come back the following summer to give his wife a break – in the kitchen!
As I sat in the café I longed for a connection with someone who really knew me, someone with whom I could bear my soul. The people I felt closest to were gone and I was starting over again. During the day I had discovered that Branu and Kirsten were staying in Samos, and although I had said I would join Mike, Jackie and the others for dinner, I wanted to stay where I was. The owner came over to me as the café filled. ‘You tell me if and when you want your dinner here,’ he said. I felt really touched that he was taking care of me and tears flowed down my cheeks. The full power of the Camino experience happens in the most unexpected ways and circumstances; the connection I longed for came from an unexpected source. It had been a day of abundance: meeting Mike and Jackie, Samos, walking, feeling my connection with Richard and then the café owner.
While I was having dinner, Richard came in with Jim, an Alaskan man I had met briefly earlier in the day. Seeing me, Richard came over, expressing his surprise, for he had expected me to have gone further. I told him about my unexpected detour to Samos, which had been absolutely worth it. He asked if I wanted to join them and I declined. I knew it was time to move on. Then as I was leaving, I went across to where they were sitting and told Richard that I had really enjoyed meeting him and that he had touched my heart.
Back at the albergue and ready for bed, I took out my book to read while I waited for the others to return. When they did, I was informed that they had come back to look for me a few times during the evening. I apologised and told them where I had been. They didn’t mind; they weren’t offended. Javier asked me what I was reading and I exposed the cover so he could see Conversations with God. ‘What are you reading that stuff for,’ the Spaniards chimed, before recommending their own reading material. I just laughed, feeling pleased that I didn’t need to hide my book cover.
Before lights out, Mike came over and sat on the edge of my bunk with his bible in his hand and took out photographs of his daughters to show me. It was a lovely gesture of welcome and inclusion.