Anna’s Camino: Day 5 – Zubiri to The Abbey

In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.

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The Abbey, located in Ilarratz, Spain. Image via their FB Page. Visit them and click “Like.” They’re always in need of volunteers and donations, so consider helping them restore this gem!

A funny thing happened on the day we left Zubiri, but it’s hard to find a way to put it in words, since the change was literally all in my head.

At the end of my last blog post, Natalie, Claire, and I were at the municipal albergue in Zubiri, Spain. The next morning, I awoke in a manner that would become pretty much the norm for the rest of my Camino: people started to stir and pack up around 6, and I stubbornly stayed in bed until around 6:30. Eventually I took my earplugs out and wrapped them in my eye mask, deflated my pillow, and sat up to see where my girls were at. Claire was also on a top bunk, and she and I made grumpy little morning grins to each other as we tried to pack up as best we could without crawling down from our bunks just yet. I had a momentary thought that I was SO lucky to have ended up with two other non-morning people.

I was still getting my packing routine down to a science, but it went something like this: tuck earplugs into special pouch, tuck pouch in sleep mask flaps, deflate pillow, wrap sleep mask (with earplugs) in pillow, stuff pillow in its own bag. Next step is to change pants in sleeping bag if at all possible (pants were stored under pillow all night, along with pillow bag and sleeping bag bag). Slide out of the sleeping bag, shift over just enough to pull it out from under me, zip it up and roll it up, then stuff it in its bag (which was under the pillow all night, with the pillow bag). Get out of bed, pack PJs, pillow and sleeping bag in backpack, change shirt (typically wore sports bra to bed to make it possible to change out in the open in the morning, since bathrooms could be touch-and-go first thing), off with the hiking socks, on with foot treatment stuff (Un-Petroleum Jelly from Alba, moleskin, toe tubes for little toes), on with socks. Pack everything else into pack, and roll out with pack and walking sticks, either towards breakfast area if there was one, or to boot storage if I needed shoes on first. From waking up to walking out, the entire routine took about 15 to 20 minutes, giving me plenty of time to get out before they kicked us out, but still stay in bed for as long as possible.

We three met up in the communal kitchen/dining area to eat breakfast. I can’t remember what we had, other than cafe con leche from the kitchen’s vending machine. It wasn’t that great, but it was much better than anything you’d get out of a vending machine in the US. That was the morning that I started getting into the habit of texting my boyfriend “good morning,” since I knew that I was waking up just around the time that he was going to bed each night, and it was fun to have a few minutes to say hi before hitting the road. Claire was trying to get a few things settled via email before leaving for the day, so we dragged breakfast and chatting time out a bit, and were the last to leave the albergue. As we were leaving, Claire noticed that Natalie had decided to leave her Keen walking sandals behind in the donation area. Natalie had decided that they weren’t useful for showering, she didn’t need them for walking, and they were just weighing her pack down. It turned out that they were the perfect fit for Claire, so voila! she had a new pair of sandals. We shuffled off together, the slowest of the pack, but happy to be walking together for another day.

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A bridge somewhere between Zabaldika and Ilarratz.

Natalie had already walked the Camino Frances a couple of years before, and was walking this time with the intention of stopping at places she hadn’t stopped at before. Other than that, she had time, and didn’t mind if she walked a shorter or longer day than other pilgrims. Claire had a shorter amount of time alotted to walk the Camino, and was concerned with schedule and budget. She was particularly interested in visiting all of the churches she could along the Way, and no matter how “in a hurry” things got, she’d still stop to check if the churches we passed were locked or not. My biggest goal on the Camino was to relax and stop worrying so much about making other people happy. I wanted to use the walk to step out of myself for awhile and find a way to be more content with myself. My only concerns at this point of the Camino were to get to know my new friends, to walk as far as I was comfortable, and to make sure to try tortilla as many times as possible.

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Exactly how I was feeling by Day 5.

We had talked a little bit the night before about our itineraries. We were all looking forward to getting to Pamplona, and many peregrinos were going to be walking straight from Zubiri to Pamplona. However, we all walked a little slower, and our friend Terry had suggested that Zabaldika was actually the perfect place to stop for the day. The abbey there dated from the 13th century, and in recent years had been abandoned until a small order of nuns moved there to reopen the place and turn it into a warm and welcoming albergue for passing pilgrims. She said we might even get to ring the church bell if we behaved ourselves! So we talked it over, and set a course for Zabaldika and the nuns.

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Gotta love a good industrial area.

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Photo taken before I realized how much I detested the paved portions of the Camino. If you look carefully, you can see that on each side of the pavement in the distance, there’s a well-worn path where smart pilgrims have elected not to kill their feet.

It turned out that Claire had a close friend, Neil, whom she said owned an old abbey between Zubiri and Zabaldika, so we decided to stop in and see him along the way. As we got closer to what I was thinking of as Neil’s hangout, I realized that I hadn’t quite understood what Claire had meant by “old abbey.” La Abadia de Eskirotz y Ilarratz, known simply as The Abbey, is rather unassuming, compared to many other Spanish religious structures. It’s presumed to be a 12th century fortress that was converted into a church sometime in the mid 13th century. Neil and his partner purchased the property from the diocese and began restoring it, but have been met with some unfriendliness from the local community during the course of restoration, presumably because the couple are outsiders and locals fear that the building will be put to bad use. However, as we three pilgrims saw during our private tour of the building and chat with Neil, the church was forgotten and unloved for quite some time. It was looted, the ceiling was falling in, there was water damage and settling, and it was in danger of becoming a ruin before it came into private possession. Furthermore, Neil and the team of volunteers who have been working for years to bring this beauty back to life have pledged to never use it for financial gain or in any way that would damage the building, grounds, or local community. They simply want to restore a gem back to its original state – and they’re doing a damn good job.

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These rosettes in the front portico are said to have been created to capture the exact spots where holy water fell when the priest was blessing the door of the church at its opening.

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Inside, looking at the main altar. This altar would have been hidden for centuries behind the type of altar one typically sees in churches throughout Spain – a giant, elaborately carved and heavily gilded/painted wooden structure that probably concealed much of the back wall of the church. Amazingly, this mostly intact painted altar is so rare that it’s worth more, culturally, than the altar that once hid its presence.

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That skull and crossbones is an original lectern from the middle ages or early renaissance, found tucked away in the attic when Neil and his crew moved in.

 

Neil and Jacobie, his volunteer, met us at the door of the building, and Neil and Claire quickly got to catching up. Several more pilgrims walked up as we did, and the volunteer gave us a quick tour of the place, explaining the architectural details that remained intact, including several very important and unique touches, like rosettes laid in stone at the front door, stars carved in the door lintel, a remarkable painted altar which was in spectacular shape due to being covered by a later altarpiece (now missing, presumed looted), and a small medieval lectern that was found tucked away in the attic when the team started renovations. After the other pilgrims had left, Natalie and I sat down with Jacobie over a wonderful cup of homemade cafe con leche, and asked her story. It turned out that she had grown up in South Africa, like Neil and Claire. She moved to London for work, but had taken time off recently to walk the Camino Frances. During her walk, she visited The Abbey and met Neil, and the project stayed on her mind after she finished the walk and went home to London. After a month or so, she called Neil to see if he could use any help, quit her job, and took off for a couple of months of volunteer work at The Abbey!

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This photo is also via The Abbey’s FB page, taken from the Camino as you come up alongside the church. The gravel path you can see in the mid-ground leads down from the Camino, by the graveyard, to the front door of the church. You can just see the built-in benches on the portico where Natalie, Jacobie, and I sat to have coffee and a chat.

At one point, I asked to use the bathroom, and I was pointed upstairs to the staff toilet, typically off limits. The tour we’d taken had only led us into the large, open main floor, so I was excited to get to go up where the choir would have been. I didn’t realize that there was a whole second section to the building beyond the church, itself. (I should have, since it’s an abbey, and that means there had to be some form of living quarters, but that’s what you get for turning your brain off and going on a long walk.) Up the stairs into the choir, then through a doorway, into a dark, spooky hallway, down another set of stairs, and you’re in the other half of the building. It was a sturdy enough space, but one that’s not exactly confidence-inspiring if you’ve always had the secret fear of dying by falling through a floor. The ceilings were low, and the beams were quite hefty. Some looked to have been touched by fire, but it might just have been centuries of fireplace smoke. The bathroom was absolutely charming, though. It was flooded with light, covered in old floral linoleum, and the plumbing didn’t work, so you had to use a couple of buckets of water to make the toilet flush. I was weirdly happy over the entire experience, especially knowing that not many people got to see the bones of the building the way I had.

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Behind the scenes. The floor is obviously strong enough to camp out on, but I’m a coward.

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Beams. Much more impressive in real life.

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Probably my favorite bathroom experience on the Camino, just for the novelty. Note that the door is missing a window pane, so when you’re on the toilet you’re just staring out at the big open room with the tent in it 🙂

After the bathroom, I walked back outside to find that Claire was getting a tour of the grounds. Natalie and I tried to let them have their distance, since it’s not often that two old friends get to have a private conversation when one has moved to a different country, and they only had an hour or so to catch up before we’d have to move on. While Nat and I were looking around the building, she pointed out that you could see exactly where the old Camino had been in relation to the building. It has moved slightly over the years, as the path was widened and improved by the local government, but the old path is still there to see, running right beside The Abbey, like two old friends, still close enough to talk.

Eventually, we bid The Abbey farewell and walked on. Zabaldika was another two hours’ walk away, and it was already getting on towards afternoon. As is the way on The Way, our paces varied. Sometimes we’d all be walking together, other times one of us would fall behind or move ahead, and sometimes we’d all be walking alone, lost in our own thoughts. When we walked together or in pairs, we’d typically talk about our lives back home. For my purposes here, I won’t ever share anything deeply personal that a Camino friend shared with me, because the Camino is a place where many people go to figure themselves out, free of judgment, with the help of other people who are in something of the same spot. As I quickly learned, almost everyone I met had an issue or two that they were trying to work out by walking, and some days were heavier than others. You never had to talk with anyone if you didn’t want to, but often people were surprisingly open about their lives and what they were hoping to achieve, so it could feel a bit like a big walking group therapy.

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Follow the arrow.

That day, I remember a specific conversation that Natalie and I had. It means a lot to me, because it was the beginning of a shift in my perception. One of the big problems that I was dealing with for a year or two before the Camino was a feeling of being left behind by my best girlfriends. For much of my youth, I just assumed that I’d be the first married, with kids, and a house/picket fence/etc. My biological clock ticked for about a year in my early 20s, and by my late 20s I was starting to secretly dislike the idea of ever having children. By the time I hit my early 30s, I was getting out of an eight year relationship and realizing that I really, really didn’t want children – and I didn’t have too much faith in ever getting married, either. Nor did my finances look like they’d ever be right to own a house, or a car, or even have a dog, for that matter. In short, the traditional “American Dream” was not where I was headed, even under the best of circumstances. Without any of those things in my future, where did that leave me? What would my life be? Was it worth living? I didn’t know. And while I was sorting through all of these weird questions, one by one, almost every one of my best girlfriends got married and started having children. I was happy for all of them – they’d found good partners, professions, homes, and had moved on to the next step that worked for them. But as they became wives, then mothers, they shifted into new life perspectives, becoming subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) different people. They were still my friends, but our friendship had changed. I felt alone, left behind, and like it was horrible of me to ever talk about how hurt I was out loud, because I was the freak who couldn’t get her shit together, not them. At the same time that I was thinking that I was a loser with no life to look forward to, I was also thinking, “Hey, look at this amazing life I get to live now that I’ve figured out I don’t want to get tied down to other people!” But that was the smaller thought, being buried under all the “Gee, what a loser, might as well just die” thoughts. That’s where I was hanging out, mentally, on the day Natalie and I had our first heavy talk.

As we walked the path, Natalie and I got to talking about life as a single woman without kids. First, a little about Nat. She’s cool with a capital C. She’s about 15 years older than I am, but looks a little younger than me. She advocates for the disadvantaged and abused for a living, plays banjo in a folk band and guitar in a rock band, and splits her time between small homes in the Yukon and Mexico. When you’re talking with her, she’s truly seeing you, and she brings joy with her into a room. She’s just got this amazing inner light that attracts people to her, and her genuine goodness is evident as soon as you have a conversation with her. In retrospect, it’s no wonder that she was one of the first people that I noticed on the Camino; how could I not?

As is my wont, I started rambling on about the sorrow and anger that I’d been harboring, and once I got started, I laid everything out on the table: how I was lost and lonely, but had no way of peeling that away from the anger and sadness, so I couldn’t talk to the people I needed most in my life anymore. She listened to everything, interjecting here and there to clarify something I’d said. Then she gave me a truth. She said that she’d been through a similar thing, but it had passed. And yes, her friends had become different people, and she’d been forced to make some changes to adapt, but in the end, the kids grew up, and most of the friendships remained and grew strong again. There was more detail, of course, but these were the basics that allowed me to accept that I was allowed to grieve for old times and old feelings, without feeling guilty. I was allowed to be frustrated that things change, but it was also time to realize that while my friends were building their own life stories, I had time and space to do other things with mine. You know, things like spend a month walking across Spain, or hours writing blog posts about architecture and emotions.

It was a good talk. Afterwards, we caught up with Claire and took a short break by a beautiful, fast-moving river. We drank tea and had some snacks, and I took off my boots and laid back on a makeshift bench while Claire and Natalie described their homes to each other. It was a beautiful afternoon.

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Claire, sorting out a few things. I believe she has the tea canteen in her hands. Also, check out Natalie’s amazing orange pants. A few days later, I was able to describe her to an innkeeper by her pantalones naranjas (and it worked).

 

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The first time I saw this font, but certainly not the last. Claire’s beloved umbrella hangs on the fence, too.

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The river where we stopped to rest and have snacks.

Tomorrow I’ll tell you about Zabaldika. It was one of my favorite spots on the Camino, so I want to spend a whole post just about that night.

Click here to read Part 2 of Day 5. 

Anna’s Camino: Day 4 – Roncesvalles to Zubiri

In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.

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There are several weird things that I remember most about my time at Roncesvalles: how difficult it was for me to crawl up into the top bunk without bumping my shins on the bed frame, how very hot the hot water was in the bathroom taps, how loud the toilets were when they flushed, and the feel of my bare feet on the dormitory floor as I walked downstairs to rescue my boots from boot storage. There was warm wood, cold stone, and also a place where the floor was nubby and hurt my feet a little. The floor in boot storage was dirty. I also remember borrowing one of Natalie’s skirts while all of my clothes were in the laundry, and looking through the huge pile of throwaway items that pilgrims had left on a table downstairs in the main corridor.

That pile of left-behind stuff at Roncesvalles was an eye-opener, for sure. There were so many weird and random things in it from all over the world. My favorite was an entire set of foam hair curlers, left by someone who’d given up beautiful curls in exchange for less back pain, I supposed. I’d packed rather sparingly, only bringing 14 lbs of gear with me, including my pack. Still, by the time we hit Roncesvalles, I’d figured out that I could get rid of my hair conditioner, and I was calculating what else could go at some point. While I tried to find ways to make my pack lighter, Claire, who had packed on a budget and was always keeping an eye out for new and better gear, found a couple of nice clothing items in the pile and actually ADDED things to her pack. Natalie, who was a hiking pro with plenty of experience in her native Canada, had a heavy pack but also exactly what she knew she wanted and could carry all the way to Santiago. She’d even brought a “going-out” outfit with her, including comfy dress boots!

In the morning, we retrieved laundry from the nuns, packed up, and moved down to the dining hall, where Claire cooked up a quick batch of oatmeal. I’d intended on just waiting while she finished her meal, then heading out on an empty stomach (I’m not much for breakfast), but Claire insisted on feeding all three of us, and we had a hurried breakfast together as the volunteers shooed lingering pilgrims out the door to start getting ready for the new batch of wanderers who’d be walking in in a few hours.

It was chilly and just getting light out when we left the albergue, but by the time we made it to the edge of town, it was fully light. Terry and Phyllis were taking pictures by the Camino distance sign on the edge of town, so we stopped and got into a few shots, then walked on together. Terry and I got to know each other a little better, and found that we both had a penchant for reading Camino journals and related stories. Natalie, Claire and I quickly outpaced Terry and Phyllis, but exchanged hopes that we’d meet up again down the road.

 

The walk out of Roncesvalles led us through an oak forest that was said to be inhabited by witches, as well as through a small town famous for its witch trials. I didn’t realize it until later, but once we reached Burguete, we were in Hemingway country. This part of Navarre was where Ernest Hemingway used to love to vacation with his family. It’s famous for being a great fishing spot, though I mostly admired the lovely architecture. I was still new to the Camino, so I hadn’t really grasped that the architectural styles would be changing drastically as I crossed Spain. In hindsight, I wish that I’d have taken more time to admire the buildings and historical markers as we passed through, since they were very different from anything I’d be seeing down the line. Burguete was the first place we stopped at that morning, since I needed to use the bathroom and we were all interested in finding a snack. I’ll always remember the cute little pub where I tried a delicious slice of spinach pie, as well as my first bite of tortilla (Spanish omelet). There was also a new and exciting find – a Jai Alai court! I’d always thought of Jai Alai as a strange ballgame from the 1960s that is typically only played in American casino towns, but it turns out that it hails originally from Spain. Burguete’s neighborhood Jai Alai court reminded me of any municipal basketball court in the USA, with a few small differences.

 

After our bathroom and snack break, we were off again. I had to laugh on our way out of town as we witnessed a rare sight, indeed – a group of cyclists in spandex and aerodynamic helmets was cycling down one lane of the road, when they were suddenly passed by a group of motorcyclists, clad in black leather and looking like hell on wheels! It’s not every day that you see biker gangs’ worlds collide in such a manner. After we left Burguete, a lot of the rest of the walk was rural, through lovely stretches of farm fields and woodland areas. At one point we passed a field with a bunch of fat, farting horses. We stopped to pet one of the horses, and in getting closer to the paddock, I grabbed at a weed to move it out of my way. And that, children, is how I found out about stinging nettle. I can tell you what poison ivy and poison oak look like, but until Spain I’d never seen a stinging nettle. For the next five minutes or so, both hands and one of my shins burned like crazy! I even took a picture, in case I needed to tell a pharmacist just what I’d gotten into.

Up until now, I’d had relatively little pain, other than the normal muscle aches and sore feet from walking more than I was used to. This was the afternoon that the lactic acid buildup started to get to me and I started to get into real muscle soreness territory. By afternoon, my calves were done for the day, and were not afraid to let me know it! Luckily, I hadn’t experienced any blisters or serious foot pain, mostly because I had taken one big lesson very seriously: whenever I started to feel a little bit of “heat” from friction in my shoes, I stopped immediately and treated the issue. I was wearing socks with built in liners, and also applying an organic petroleum jelly substitute (Alba’s Un-Petroleum Jelly) to my feet every morning before putting on socks. I also took breaks to take off my shoes and socks and give my feet air, put on more jelly if I felt I needed it, and address any hot spots with a piece of moleskin. On top of that, I had two pairs of shoes that I’d switch out as the mood hit: a pair of New Balance trail runners, and a pair of Teva Tirra sandals. Spoiler alert: I walked for 35 days, and never got a blister or any serious foot injury. Each peregrino has their own method of foot care, but mine worked perfectly, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

 

Natalie walked ahead of us that afternoon, since she had some health issues that needed care and Claire and I were taking our time. Before splitting up, earlier in the afternoon, we had stopped for a break in a little town before Zubiri. We were looking for a place to grab lunch, but nowhere seemed to be open. Finally, we lucked across a tiny cafe with a little picnic table outside. We grabbed cold beers and ordered bocadillos, then went out to the picnic table to take off our shoes, drink our beers, and figure out where we were going. There were several kittens running around in the parking lot, and I tried to coax them over with scraps. Meanwhile, the girls looked over our various guidebooks and we decided to meet up in Zubiri at the municipal albergue. I wasn’t excited about going to the cheapest albergue on the list, since I’d heard it could be dirty, but I also didn’t want to split up from my ladies, so I kept my opinion to myself. It turned out to be just fine. I hobbled into town that afternoon just behind Claire, and we grabbed beds in the same dorm as Natalie’s, just a bit farther down the room.

The municipal albergue was pretty bare bones, with shaky metal bunk beds that made me scared to have the top bunk. I was quickly getting used to the first come, first served rule as far as beds went, and even though I am not fond of heights or shaky beds, I resigned myself to the probability that I’d be sleeping on the top bunk for the next 30+ days. This night was the first time I remember making the conscious choice to get a bed by the door, since I knew I’d be getting up at least once during the night to use the bathroom. To my dismay, the bathroom wasn’t in the same building, but in a smaller outbuilding across the courtyard. I remember grabbing my things and heading to the bathroom to shower, and my legs being in such pain that what should have been a 20 second walk took a couple of minutes. Other pilgrims lounged in the sunny courtyard, journaling, chatting, and hanging out laundry, and several gave me looks of pity as I slowly made my way over towards the promise of a nice, hot shower and clean clothes. By now, my quads had seized up, too.

After taking a shower and washing my clothes, I regrouped with the girls, and we decided to find a pilgim meal somewhere close by. We walked back into town center to take a look at various available menus, and eventually chose a sports bar with a lot of locals inside. I can’t remember all of that night’s dinner, but I do remember that I ordered steak, with some amount of trepidation (steak in a sports bar? eek). However, I shouldn’t have been worried. It was one of the most tender and delicious steaks I’ve ever eaten in my entire life, and it cost about $5 US. All I could think of was all of the fat, happy, free-range farm animals I’d walked by over the last couple of days, and that fair treatment certainly pays off in the end. Over the course of the pilgrimage, I’d start to think more about the animals I was meeting, and have second thoughts on consuming meat, but for this day, I was very satisfied with my perfectly cooked piece of cow.

As wonderful as dinner might have been, I was exhausted, and almost fell asleep before dessert. I decided to leave the girls and head back to the albergue to see if my clothes had dried on the line yet, and get ready for bed. What awaited me was a mini nightmare for a new pilgrim: the clothes line was empty. My clothes were missing!!!!

I was so exhausted and confused that instead of taking a second to consider what might have occurred, I jumped right to worst-case scenario. Sobbing, I walked into the communal kitchen and announced to all of the pilgrims there that my clothes had been stolen. The people who could speak English popped into action, asking what I’d had on the line, where it had been hanging, and if I needed anything else. A few non-English speakers comforted me with kind eyes and pats on the back. I’m sure a few people rolled their eyes (as I’m doing in hindsight) at the sight of an over-tired, emotionally distraught woman in blue elephant pajamas, sobbing over a few things that could be easily replaced. I was mostly worried about a special t-shirt that I had worn that day, and intended to wear when I reached Santiago de Compostela. After a minute or two, I regained my sanity enough to stop the waterworks, and a helpful peregrina helped me retrace where my laundry had been. As it turned out, a married couple had washed their laundry earlier and hung it close to mine. The wife had sent her husband out to grab their things off of the line and throw them in the albergue’s only clothes dryer to make sure they were dry for the morning. He’d grabbed anything that looked vaguely familiar, including all of my clothes. I apologized for being a head case, and she apologized for sending her husband out to grab the laundry in the first place. He joked that he wouldn’t need me to pay rental space in their clothes dryer, and all was good. We hugged, the communal kitchen was once again a tear-free zone, and we all went to bed soon after, with nice, dry clothes.

Getting out of bed that night to hobble to the bathroom was torture. I resolved to pick up any and all available drugs as soon as we reached the next pharmacy. Other than that, though, no bed bugs and no excessive snoring from anyone in the dorm, so life was pretty good!

Click here to read about Day 5.