Walk n talk
By Parson Thru
10:36 am from Estacion Sur de Autobuses, a stone’s throw from Atocha.
The driver was a surly entertainer of women who cough through decades of tar when they should be laughing. He waited until six minutes over the half-hour - just long enough to establish who was in charge - stamped out his last cigarette for the road, slammed the hold doors shut and soon we were racing through concrete tunnels and out into the brightness and blight that is functional Madrid.
Four hours of mandatory TV later – a testosterone-fuelled animation about super-hero footballers, followed by 1940s cartoons – and I was pulling my rucksack out of the hold. The bus rolled on – direction Santiago. It’s better by far to walk.
I’d fallen asleep for half an hour just before we pulled off the autovia. I hadn’t really slept the night before. Maybe it was excitement.
I’d heard of two decent albergues in Astorga. I chose the one furthest out of the way – through the tourist haunts and down to the bottom of Plaza de San Francisco. It felt a little bit weird walking straight off a bus and into an albergue. With all the road-battered peregrinos around me, I felt like a fake – but, then, I always do anyway. I presented my blank pilgrim credencial to the German warden at the desk. I had the right change – that was something. It was around half two to three and people were beginning to pack in. Three French cyclists pushed in front of me. No one else in the queue said anything. I let it go.
My first real conversation was with Steve. Steve was a tall Californian, probably in his late sixties. He’d walked into our four-bunk dorm, having heard English being spoken. He spoke some Spanish, German and a little French, but was glad of the chance to relax in a familiar tongue. Adam, across on the adjacent top bunk, was from New Zealand, Linni, in the bunk below was Finnish; above me was Pierre, who’d walked from Bordeaux.
I rolled-out my clean, fresh-smelling sleeping-bag, then wandered into town to find food and supplies. There’s not a lot to do in Astorga. I walked around. I remembered it from the year before when I came with N. I was three weeks later this year. A lot of shops were shut. The place was half deserted. I found a supermarket. No sandwiches. Bad for the cafes. I bought some bread and bananas and a bottle of water for the morning. I ate the bread and bananas outside on a seat.
Afterwards, I explored the streets. Many of the bars away from the tourist route looked like oases for local men and I avoided them, walking back into the main plaza. Bored and hungry, I wandered into another supermarket. I bought a slice of empanada, knowing it was likely to give me trouble. Steve was at the till, having some kind of debate with the cashier. I paid and passed through.
Some bars and restaurants around the square were doing steady business, whether it was peregrinos, tourists or locals watching the inevitable football on large screens. I sat on a bench. Steve wandered up. He pulled a can of Mahou out of his shopping bag and pulled the ring. I looked around and smiled. We had the appearance of a couple of tramps, which, in a way, we were.
He told me he was no stranger to walking, living in the Sierras in California. He’d become a committed Europhile during his service years. His family didn’t understand him and he generally flew to Europe alone once a year. We chatted a while. There was something soothing about his manner and accent, or maybe his voice. He had food in his bag to take back to the kitchen and prepare. He offered me some. I just wanted to sit in a bar and eat. Thinking of the 22 kilometres ahead of me the next day and speaking to Steve about bocodillos de bacon on the road ahead had set my stomach off. I told him to check out breakfast at a café in Foncebadon, two days ahead. It was where N and I had first encountered the bocodillo de bacon a year ago. Ten minutes later, I was picking at a burger in a bar without a TV.
Back at the albergue, I spent the last hour and a half before sleeping looking out across the roofs of the town as the rain began. Pretty soon, it was torrential. I listened to The Doors through my iPod and could hear the roar on the plastic roof of the terrace. Inside, the French walkers and cyclists were gathered around the kitchen table. They’d offered me a place, but I couldn’t face trying to join in, preferring the company of the two or three quiet figures outside.
That night, I had my first good sleep ever in an albergue. Pierre woke me around seven pottering around gathering his possessions – head-torch flashing around the room. I took his cue and slid out of my sleeping-bag, dragging my stuff into the corridor so the other two could lie in a while longer. There was no paper in the first toilet. I needed to empty my bowel for the day ahead – I was starting my Camino routine. I found a cubicle with paper. So far, so good. All I needed now was for my boots to be where I’d left them in the rack.
In the street, the rain had stopped. It was still completely dark. I walked past the hotel we’d stayed in a year ago and followed my first yellow arrow. This would be a different Camino. In the darkness, I could see Pierre up ahead. I followed at a polite distance, thinking we'd probably speak later if he wanted to. I walked along brushing moist stone walls and thinking about people I knew who might benefit from a prayer or two. Nothing ventured…