Trail Day 5: Empty Vessels

Cizur Minor to Maneru, 25 km

The Mesetas

Photo by: J W Foster

Joe: It’s 5:30 in the morning and the heat from the day before has barely subsided. I’m sitting in the dark in a small courtyard and I’m the only one awake. I’ve just slept with nine women in a ten-person room; I guess it’s because married couples are allowed to sleep together and there were no other married couples in our room. The women were of various ages and from different countries. I’m surprised and impressed at the number of women on the trek, young and old, walking the amino alone or in small groups. I also realize how lucky I am to be married to someone who doesn’t snore.

Post Note: Elaine says it wasn’t just the women that were snoring!

We have met several people on the Camino that have done this trek more than once, some that have been doing parts of it for over twenty years. It gets to be a part of life, a renewal, a cleansing of the body and soul. I’m starting to feel this renewal, albeit slowly. It’s directly competing with the pain and fatigue in my feet, legs, back and shoulders. Unfortunately, the pain and fatigue is still dominating.
I’m also surprised how over this past week, Elaine has responded to the new pilgrims we’ve meet with genuine zeal. She isn’t feeling drained by the experience, which is the typical response back home. Instead she appears to be gaining energy from it. It’s opening my eyes more to the real Elaine, not the one that can sometimes be buried under a blanket of anxieties.
As the daylight approached pilgrims started making their way to the bathrooms in a separate building. Soon everyone was packing their belongings and walking out the gate. As Elaine and I headed east for the mountains, we could see before us a long stream of colorful backpacks swaying back and fourth in the morning sun. We climbed to the top of the mountains, down the other side into a valley, and kept on walking through miles of farmer’s fields. We pushed ourselves hard in an attempt to get away from the crowd of pilgrims, wanting a little peace and quiet to recharge from all the geographical and social inputs. Instead of stopping at Puente la Reina, a traditional pilgrim’s oasis, we walked further on. Our plan was to find a private place tonight in Maneru, a small village another 6 kilometers away.
It was a bad decision. What the guidebook had indicated as a nice “forested path” ended up being a scorching march down an open, gravel farm road and up the side of a half-barren mountain. There’s a big difference between hiking under shaded trees and hiking in open fields when the hot afternoon sun is beating down on your head.
Arriving in the village of Maneru, we were debilitated and exhausted. Our water bottles were now empty and our shirts were drenched with sweat. The dust from the road had settled into our wet clothing, our hair and our pores. The sleepy, small village was quiet. We walked through the empty streets looking for lodging while the sun continued to beat down. We saw not a single person. The western edge of the town was fast approaching when we spotted an open barn door. Inside we found a middle-aged couple stacking produce boxes filled with green vegetables.
Elaine poked her head in and asked in Spanish, “Excuse me, where can we find the local albergue?”
The couple was Portuguese and their Spanish was limited.  Elaine struggled to understand them. We learned that the local albergue had been closed for over a year. The women who owned it had taken ill and never recovered.
The husband, Milton, started giving us directions to the next town several kilometers away. His wife, Dora, noticed our dejected reaction to the news as well as our sweat stained, dusty clothes. Elaine had already taken off her backpack and looking completely exhausted. Dora stopped talking to us and turned to her husband, saying something to him.
She turned to us and said in Portuguese, “You’re staying with us.”
Milton was already pulling off my backpack. He then bent over and picked up Elaine’s from the earthen barn floor and carried them both into an ancient-looking house made of large fieldstone. We were peregrinos and we were in need. We would be staying with them for the night.
Once inside, Dora took us upstairs and pointed us to showers. I don’t know if it was out of kindness or because of the odor and dust clouds that were trailing behind us. She pointed to the small bathroom at the end of the hall, saying, “El bano, chuveiro.” I beat Elaine to the shower but she playfully assaulted me until I gave up my chauvinistic attitude.
In the end, our push to get away from the crowd just wasn’t worth it. Elaine ended up with an angry blister, and the cost to our tranquility before we met Dora and Milton was too high. We did learn a lesson though. If we wanted to prevent a premature end to this trip with the kind of pain and exhaustion we experienced that day, we would have to carefully attend to all our needs, not just our need for privacy.

Elaine: We hiked some mighty tough terrain today, including the spectacular “rock-stravaganza” just past the Pamplona basin, on the backside of Alto de Perdón (Peak of Forgiveness). Most people know it as the often-photographed panoramic mountaintop with the iron silhouetted statues of pilgrims and their livestock all walking single file. I’ve never hiked over such craggy terrain before. Some of the rocks were as big as watermelons, and the descents steep and treacherous along an old, washed out road. There were a few times when I thought, ‘There’s no way I’m going to finish this without breaking something.’ But I focused on the path, and held tight to my trekking poles. It was mostly the poles that helped me make it to the bottom.
There are so many ways to look at the day. The pessimist in me says we should have stayed in Puente la Reina and it was our selfishness, our search for privacy that caused our suffering. After all, that town had a good number of albergues with enough variety that we should have been able to find something to our liking.
The positive seeker and philosopher in me thinks if we’d stayed in Puente we would have never experienced the kindness we knew today. The couple that took us in showed us such generosity I had to consciously will myself not to cry. Milton and Dora were far from rich, but they shared their home and food freely, making a simple meal of lentil soup and white cheese that restored us.
Although Dora and Milton spoke mostly Portuguese, we communicated freely. I discovered that Spanish and Portuguese are surprisingly similar, with about a 70 percent overlap in the words I could immediately understand. We had fun trying to find common words while in the middle of a sentence. I would start pointing or making a charades-style movement to explain my meaning, and then one of them would understand my message and translate it to the other. It took some effort, but we all seemed to be willing to work at it.
I made a point of expressing our gratitude repeatedly during dinner.  Milton said, “I believe it’s a blessing God sends. We take care of others and He takes care of us…this is as it should be.”  He explained that he and his wife use their property as a little shop and pilgrims regularly wander in looking for lodging or assistance.  I asked, “Do you ever feel annoyed by the requests?”
Without hesitation he answered, “People do not ask unless they need. Why should that bother me?”
I told him we were kindred spirits because I also enjoy performing acts of kindness, and I’ve always gotten at least as much out of it as the person I’ve helped. I turned to him in a confiding manner and said, “Look how even now, my past good deeds are coming back to me.” It made us all smile, and we lingered over our food for a few more moments.
That night, I also learned some important hiking tips. Dora and Milton were experienced trekkers and have walked the Camino. They have an elaborate morning ritual they had developed for walking long distances. They explained it to us in detail, each taking turns: “First you tape the toes with adhesive tape. Then you put Vicks (VapoRub) NOT Vaseline or Compeed between the toes and over the soles of the feet. Use a lot, don’t be stingy. It avoids blisters,” said Milton emphatically.
“And it’s very refreshing for the feet. Use it when your feet get tired from walking during the day,” Dora added. They swore by this technique and insisted they had not had a single blister during their many hikes.
Our experience reminded me of the parable of the little boy on a beach throwing washed up sand dollars back into the ocean. The boy is stopped by an old man who says, “Why are you bothering with that? There are thousands of these things on the sand, you can’t possibly make a difference.” The little boy picks up another sand dollar, throws it back in the ocean and says, “I did for that one!”
It really makes the difference when you happen to be that one sand dollar that’s lifted and thrown back into the ocean.
We pounded our bodies in some blistering heat today. For awhile I thought I was going to exercise my option to end the hike, but now I realize that the joy we felt at the end of this day was a direct consequence of all the pain and exhaustion we endured.

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