Tui to O Porriño (18.5 kilometers — feels like swimming 15 kilometers)
Did you ever want to reach back into the past and grab your younger self by the shirt collar and smack yourself up the side of the head for something really stupid that you said?
Yeah. Me, too.
The Me from September 21, 2019 — a few weeks back.
We were walking from Tui, just across the border in Spain, to O Porriño, about 18.5 kilometers away.
And it rained. Oh, man, it rained. All day.
And it was cold. And wet. And I lost my poncho. And we were surrounded by really cheerful — that is, annoying — people who just jumped off a shuttle van with their tiny daypacks and walking sticks. We could not escape them. And it was wet. I was wet. My shoes were wet.
And my attitude was … well, wet.
I only wanted to be back in Tui in the beautifully restored convent in which we’d spent the previous night, sitting in front of a fireplace, reading a book, and sipping red wine …
So, what was the first thing I wrote on Facebook, when we got out of the rain?
“Well, you need wet days to appreciate the good ones, I guess.”
The best of the photos from the walk between Tui and O Porriño:
No, Previous Bob, you don’t need rain. You were having a grand time enjoying the Camino and everything and everybody it had to offer.
Rain doesn’t make all that better.
Rain makes you … wet.
And cold. Did I mention how cold it got?
A pity, too, because a portion of this forested pathway was one of the most beautiful that we’d yet encountered. And that is really saying something because this journey has taken us through some spectacular countryside. We were on a mix of forest trail, ancient Roman road, and quiet country roads.
There is a word for what I was experiencing in that forest, a word that was actually a clue in a crossword puzzle this week: Petrichor.
It means “a pleasant smell that frequently accompanies the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather.” The forest vibrated with the smells of wet grass, pine, eucalyptus, flowers, rich soils, decaying leaves, and pine needles. The odors of life and death swirling about, creating a heady cocktail for the senses.
It made me giddy. I wanted to write a poem about how it made me feel, rain and all.
I was pulled from my reverie by a gentle voice.
“The next time we do laundry, we should put your baseball cap in with the clothes.”
“Huh? My hat? You can smell my hat?”
Rose: “Uh, yeah. Pretty bad.”
“You are walking four feet away from me in a gloriously wet forest. And you can smell my hat?”
“It is only a suggestion.”
So much for poetry. I’m not even sure if there is anything you can rhyme with “petrichor.”
Fortunately, a busload of day-tripping pilgrims came up behind us with all the exuberance of a mob on its way to a hometown football match. They had umbrellas, and ponchos, and tiny little backpacks, and brand new shoes, and walking sticks with Camino shells tied to them.
And I immediately (to my personal shame) did not like them intruding on my forest reverie. (Who knew if they could smell my hat? What else about me might be offensive?)
For miles, we couldn’t outwalk them.
Occasionally, their sag wagon would pull up and the driver would hand out snacks and bottled drinks. We’d leg it down the road but they always managed to catch up.
We were close to the 100-kilometer mark, which is the minimum amount that a pilgrim needs to walk to be eligible for certification in Santiago de Compostela. From this point on, pilgrims need two stamps a day in their passport books to be eligible for certification.
Needless to say, this is a popular starting point. Especially for packaged tours, which book your rooms, shuttle your luggage, provide guides to lead you, and handle your meals and snacks.
This group did help me to understand that nobody owns the Camino. There is no set of rules that says how you are to manage your walk. People embark on Caminos for as many reasons as there are stars in the sky.
The Camino may have started as a spiritual journey centuries ago but nothing says you can’t walk it for fun, exercise, or tourism. Look at Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” Pilgrims from all walks of life, mostly preoccupied with their material welfare, more so than the welfare of their souls.
I was told that the passport books which everyone gets stamped along the Way got their start with repentant criminals who were ordered to walk the Camino to atone for their sins. To ensure that they followed through, convicts had to collect stamps or signatures along the way.
Imagine sharing the road with the guy who killed his neighbor over a barking dog, or slept with the duke’s wife, or stole a pig in the marketplace.
“Oy. I’ve been a bad lad, mate. Just atoning for me sins. Can I gets yer signature on this here scrap of parchment?”
Now we walk into bars and coffee shops and churches, and tourist stores and ask clerks to stamp our books.
The main pedestrian thoroughfare through O Porriño:
At first, O Porriño looked as wet and forlorn as I felt. We walked through a ghost town. After drying off, cleaning up, and settling into our auberge, we went in search of a meal. The rain had stopped. People were out. And carnival rides, concession stands, and a huge music stage were being set up. This was the first day of a week-long festival and there was euphoria in the air, now that the rains had passed. Quite a change.
***** ***** ***** ***** *****
So, It took me a little while to grasp that these people weren’t intruding on my Camino, because I don’t own it. Nor do they. Nor anyone, no matter how many times they may walk its many paths,
Well, that felt good.
One gift of the Camino, I think, is that you give up control over so much in your life.
Think about your daily routine back home. The alarm wakes you. You drive to work, maybe to a secure parking lot. Your workplace is filled with familiar colleagues and customers. You chose comfortable places to eat (like in your car in the McDonald’s parking lot). You return home, lock the door, turn on CNN or FOX, and then stare at the same sit-coms you have watched for years.
Our lives are so familiar, so safe, so routine, so controlled, that our senses have dulled.
Then we decide to walk the Camino.
You don’t dictate who you meet along the way. You often don’t get to decide where you sleep or where and what you eat. And you sure don’t control the weather.
So things happen. Or they don’t. Your deprivations and exaltations start to define you. The things you least expect begin to chisel away at your calcified life. And you keep walking because somewhere, a week or so from now, you’ll reach your destination. And you will not be the same.
And you will be overcome with gratitude.
But, meanwhile, what happened to my poncho?
I distinctly remember having it as we lumbered through the bleak and gray downtown of O Porriño. That was a bad call. Merchants in this town apparently played fast and loose with the Camino arrow system and posted fake directionals that lead pilgrims right through town, rather than along the river.
I fell for it.
As we walked past empty storefront after empty storefront I started seething. We could have been walking along the river, wallowing in, um, petrichor.
Both trails lead to the municipal Auberge Peregrinos Xunta, which was clearly built when the Communist party was in power, as an ode to Russian minimalist architecture. You know, “Concrete is the fabric of the people!”
Regardless, it wouldn’t open for another couple of hours. So all we could do was sit outside in the cold and shelter ourselves from the cold wind and rain as best we could. It was when the idea of “sheltering” came up that I realized I’d lost my poncho.
I suppose we could have gone looking for another place to stay, but then I would have missed the most important lesson of the day.
When the auberge opened, a man around my age was efficiently, if indifferently, processing pilgrims into the bunkrooms. He didn’t look especially happy — or unhappy — about it.
When my turn came, I pulled out my soaking wet pilgrim passport.
He stared at it. I could not read his face. Was he going to toss me out, or lecture me on the importance of caring for my documents?
He looked up and raised a finger. Not that one. The one that is the international sign for “one moment, please.” He reached under his desk and pulled out a portable heater and plugged it in.
Then he took my passport and carefully unfolded the accordion-like pages and set it on the floor leaning against the wall. He placed the heater where it could dry the pages.
“Come back in a little while. It will be dry,” he said in halting English, which he punctuated with a grandfatherly smile.
I felt like crying as I made my way upstairs to my bunk. That was the smallest, yet the kindest and most humble, gesture I had experienced on the Camino. It purified my body and soul of all the grumpiness and self-pity and misdirected annoyances.
I was so happy to be exactly where I was at that moment.