THE YEAR WE SEIZED THE DAY (excerpt). Day 2: Zubiri to Villava
Chapter 3. COLIN: ELI GETS A WOBBLE ON We descend into the valley of the Rio Arga. The road takes us down through the pine forests beside cool running streams where Papa Doc Hemingway once fished for trout and where local Basques still do. There are chalets built entirely of stone and white farmhouses called caserios.
This is Euskal Herri—Basque country.
I find I have become very conscious of my body, as a working piece of machinery. Already the twinge in my lower back that I have had for ten years has become a steel scalpel softly inserted and then withdrawn with every step. The once interesting clicking of my left knee is a stabbing pain that raises a patina of sweat on my forehead. This body consciousness is a new thing for me; I normally ignore it except when I have an erection or the flu. But now I am becoming as attuned to my body as a camel driver
to his camels, a cowboy to his horse, a lawyer to his BMW. Every twinge is a potential disaster.
‘Did you know,’ Eli slurs, ‘did you know it takes seventy-two hours for lactic acid to settle in the muscles?’
I calculate we started walking twenty-six hours ago. At least forty-four more hours of pain to anticipate.
Right now she is stumbling ahead of me, head down, legs and arms waving about like a crayfish but everything else perfectly tuned. There is a chamois towel the size of a baby’s fist attached to the side of her pack, maps of Spain tucked into a little flap, and a funky top she bought yesterday on the way through Pamplona that says San Fermin 2004. Top of the range hiking boots and a headscarf complete the picture. She may look the goods but she does not feel it. In fact, Eli is seriously fucked. She is the colour of wall putty, and acting very strangely, walking backwards down steep hills and talking about catching a tram to St Kilda. Her eyes are moving independently in her head. You could fry eggs on her forehead.
She has only needed to stop for a pee once in the last half an hour, so by her normal standards she must also be seriously dehydrated.
She is a tough girl, and determined, so she keeps staggering on like a drunk out of a bar at closing time. But it is clear she is not going to get much further. This is not looking good. We are only two days into the walk.
Eli gets a serious wobble on. We are edging along a cliff face, there is a sheer drop on one side, a stumble will see her over the edge and my workload for the book immediately double. I wonder what I’d tell her mother if she takes a tumble. Stopping to ship a body home for burial will mean I may have to walk an extra ten or twenty kilometres a day to finish on time. Perhaps I should just keep walking and let the foxes and the ants sort her out.
Except she still owes me a beer from last night.
An hour from Pamplona she collapses against a wall, stiff as a bit of two-by-four. I lie her out on the ground, legs raised on her backpack, while she mutters incoherently about going to a funky bar in Brunswick Street for brunch and a glass of red.
Victor, the Swedish Spaniard, offers to carry some of her pack—the hair dryer, the easel for painting watercolours, the three million muesli bars. Two Irish nurses stop and give Eli their supply of rehydrating powder. After half an hour I help Eli stumble back onto her feet. We can’t stay here.
An Australian called Simon and a Spanish girl called Mercedes— pronounced MerTHEDis—stay with us the whole way to the next albergue.
When we get to the outskirts of Pamplona Mercedes negotiates with the hostelero of the albergue to let us into the dormitory three hours before it is officially open for the day. Eli passes out on the bed, saying she’ll buy the next round, let’s wait for three-quarter time.
It’s clear to me that the trip is over before it has begun. Eli is stuffed.
As soon as she’s well enough, I’ll put her on a plane back to Melbourne.
There is a part of me that is relieved. I didn’t really expect her to make it and I didn’t really expect to find my miracle; yet my naive soul is still disappointed. I’ve spent the better part of the last three years travelling.
The constant movement has become a welcome distraction from my life. Without something else to focus on, I am as restless as a caged animal.
We all have things we don’t like to face; with me, it’s myself.
COLIN: A FEW UNASSUMING REDS
While Eli is recuperating, I head into Pamplona for San Fermin. Take a look at the famous feria—festival—before we head home.
As I walk into Pamplona, there are graffiti and posters everywhere, written in Basque, for this is the heart of Basque country. Basque is an intimidating language, with lots of Ks and Xs and Zs. A typical Basque slogan reads something like KXAZIXK KXEKLE XXXZWQ!
The ETA is Spain’s IRA, a ruthless terrorist organisation that has been fighting for an independent Basque state for decades. But many Basques don’t like them and rich Basques despise and fear them because the ETA kidnap them for money. Most Basques I spoke to are quite happy with the autonomy they already have. Independence won’t change anything; most importantly, it won’t make Atlético Bilbao play any better. But on the way into the city I see a lot of ETA propaganda posters on the walls and light poles with pictures of young Basques currently in prison for heroically blowing up an unsuspecting policeman, plus a few women and children who happened to get in the way.
Today, though, Pamplona is unconcerned with the ETA. This is the feria. By the time I complete the long climb into the old city, it is going off like a frog in a sock. There are young men, white tunics torn, knees bloodied, faces hollowed by the terrible things they have seen, staggering all over the square. And that’s just from the drinking. Wait till they run with the bulls tomorrow.
San Fermin is a little bit about bulls and a lot about drinking. The bulls only run for two minutes every day; the drinking goes on for twenty-three hours and fifty-eight minutes. An unassuming bottle of tinto with the texture of chainsaw lubricant and a kick like aviation fuel costs just three Euros.
The feria is important to Spanish society, MerTHEDis has explained to me, because most sons stay at home until they marry, perhaps at twenty-six or twenty-seven. If they don’t party on the street, they don’t party at all.
Any hour of the day or night during San Fermin you will see people staggering around the plaza drinking tinto out of clear plastic glasses the size of a plumber’s bucket. There are buskers painted like gold cowboys or silver pirates, and Africans move about the crowd holding out trays of cheap sunglasses with more hope than expectation. There is no pitch; they just shove the tray in the middle of a conversation and wait for someone to tell them to fuck off, and they do.
Everyone has a red scarf; old women, babies, even a chihuahua. The square is packed with people, all kinds of people: mothers kick footballs to their sons, punks vomit, babies fall asleep in prams, lovers smooch. Three young Spaniards, reeling drunk, attach themselves to a mariachi band busking around the square. What has been a slow day so far for the crooners turns into a bonanza. The boys are a movable party.
Soon a crowd of about a hundred has gathered. Bottles are broken, middle aged Spanish women tossed in the air. No insults are traded, or punches thrown. These are hopeless happy drunks.
I like the Spanish and I love San Fermin.
Behind the square the alleyways reek of urine and stale wine. There is more broken glass than spilled blood. I go into a bar and order a tinto. This is my kind of pilgrimage.
I remember thinking: I hope Eli’s all right. Half an hour later I can’t even remember who she is.
Day 3: Villava, and we’re not going nowhere …
ELI: ARE WE THERE YET?
I wake to an empty room, disorientated, and look for a clock. A note sitting next to a small pack of teabags on the bedside table reads: ‘Manzanilla Infusion’. It smells like chamomile. I know I am in Spain but don’t know where or how long I have been asleep. I can’t even remember how I got here—it feels like days have passed.
I kick back a cocoon of blankets and sit up on the edge of the bed. I feel weak, light headed and sore all over. Each breath is hollow and moving sparks flecks of tiny stars before my eyes. Despite the heavy throb in my head and chest, I can feel the fever has left my body. Whatever it was, I am through the worst of it.
My digital watch reads 12:15. I pull back the curtain to see if it is midnight or midday. Light pours in. Squinting, I count back and realise I have been asleep for twenty-five hours.
A priest finds me standing in the kitchen getting water. Unsure of who he is, I begin to apologise but before I can finish he rushes towards me, placing his hand gently on my forehead.
‘Bien!’ he says. (I’m trying to learn three new Spanish words each day; ‘bien’ was one of Monday’s words.) I offer him a smile.
He pinches my cheek. ‘Very much better,’ he says in fractured English, explaining that he’d been in to check on me earlier and changed the blankets, which were soaked with sweat.
‘You eat now,’ he insists, bunching his fingers together and raising them to his mouth.
Yes, please. I haven’t eaten since dinner two days before and I soon lost that.
I ask the gentle priest if he’s seen Colin.
He raises both index fingers and places them either side of his head. ‘San Fermin.’
We must be close to the city, the monastery is within earshot of festivities. I think back and remember Colin mentioned heading into Pamplona for the day. Hearing the Swede, Victor, talk about the bull run has appealed to some primal male instinct. Then again, he also suggested staying close to make sure I was okay. But maybe I imagined that—my recall is questionable. I started that conversation by asking him if it was.. Yesterday today.
The priest uses the numbers on his watch to explain that he’ll open the doors to the day’s new wave of passing pilgrims at 3 pm. Until then, I am confined to the small refuge and its modest courtyard garden, which is enclosed by a twelve-foot stone wall. He leaves.
Wrapping a notepad, pen and a bottle of water in a blanket, I wander outside into the garden. The air is crisp but the sun is warm on my skin. Laying the blanket out on the grass, I sit cross-legged beneath the branches of a solitary tree and let the situation settle in. With Colin gone—presumably for the day—and just three stray cats for company, I have time and space to think.
We’ve already been forced to take the first of only five rest days allocated for the entire journey. Great start. Though he hasn’t said it, I know Colin questions my ability to complete this trek or, at this rate, to make it through another day. I don’t blame him. I warned him before we came; my mind is both my biggest weakness and my greatest strength. It’s created havoc in the past and has the potential to ruin everything.
It is obvious that what happened on the bus to Roncesvalles has taken its toll. The sudden sickness and fever were little more than physical manifestations of doubt and fear. My head and heart were locked in battle and my body paid the price.
I came to the Camino with a purpose; to find the part of myself that remembers what it is like to feel strong and confident. Simon and Mercedes, the young couple we had met, seemed as determined and certain of their destination as I hoped to be. I hated appearing weak before them. But I’ve grown to distrust my body. It’s unreliable. There’s a certain pain that lingers close to death and once you’ve felt it, nothing else seems to register. I tend to break down now long before I realise it’s time to stop.
I take my pilgrims passport from around my neck and unfold the concertinaed pages, laying it across my lap. Your pilgrims passport is your badge of honour on the Camino, issued to you at the start of your pilgrimage. It contains numbered squares that represent the towns and villages you pass through on your way. Every establishment and albergue from Roncesvalles to Santiago has their own unique stamp. Presenting a passport full of evidence at your final destination authenticates the completion of a pilgrimage and you are awarded a certificate—still written in Latin—called the Compostela, marked with the official seal of the Sacred Church.
There is one catch, however: in order to qualify for a Compostela— your first-class ticket to the afterworld—you must state, when asked, that your official motive for journeying the Camino involved some spiritual purpose. If not, your Compostela is demoted to a measly certificado, and there’s no getting into heaven with one of those. This makes your pilgrims passport on the Camino the equivalent of a CV in the corporate world.
Mine, to date, wouldn’t land me a job as tea lady in a call centre. Just three of the forty-eight squares contain stamps; the first from Roncesvalles, the second from the albergue at Zubiri, and the third here, from the monastery. We still have so far to go. Forty-five squares. Four weeks.
My challenge now is to convince myself—despite evidence to the contrary—that I am actually capable of completing the journey. If I can make myself believe it, then we at least stand a chance of reaching Santiago sometime this year.
Opening my notepad to a fresh page, I write an affirmation that I hope can become my new truth. Then repeat it until I’ve filled the next three pages, front and back.
Each and every step makes me stronger; without and within.
Later that evening, Colin returns and sits down beside me on the bed.
‘So, how do you feel?’
‘Okay,’ he smiles, ‘now tell me how you really feel.’
I laugh. ‘I am good. Better anyway. Thanks.’
He explains the bus schedule to Paris and begins to run through options for a flight home. But I’ve already made up my mind.
‘We can’t give in this early in the trip. Let’s get up and start walking again tomorrow. If something happens further down the track, at least we’ll know we gave it everything.’
Colin looks concerned and hands me a note.
Colin & Eli,
Good luck & safe travelling. A pleasure to meet you both.
Simon & Mercedes.
PS If we don’t see you along the way to Santiago, send us a quick message to let us know you’re both ok.
The note makes me even more determined to get going again.
I ask Colin to promise: no matter what happens between now and Santiago, he will not stop believing in me. And even if he does, he can’t let it show. I don’t always trust my own judgment but this way, when I doubt myself, I’ll trust him. If he thinks we can, then we will.