The darkness of night greeted me as I stepped off the train and onto the railway platform. The station was dark, except for a flickering sign overhead that bore the name of the town Sarria. This was to be the starting point for my trek along the Camino de Santiago.
The Camino is a medieval trail that meanders 500 miles (approximately 805 kilometres) through northern Spain. In English, it’s known as The Way of St. James. For 1,000 years, believers have travelled this route on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, where legend says that the remains of Saint James the Apostle are buried. On this particular trip, I planned to walk the final 80 miles (about 129 kilometres).
Testing my wits
I made my way through the deserted train station and pondered my current situation. I didn’t have anywhere to stay and it was raining hard. I stopped for a moment and put a cover over my pack and pulled the hood of my jacket down tight over my forehead. Silently, I made my way out into the darkness.
For the first time, I was beginning to question the wisdom of my plan.
My plan was simple: Buy a plane ticket to Spain, and spend Christmas break hiking from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela. My only objective was to cover the distance in five days. I intentionally didn’t arrange any transfers or hotel reservations. Instead, I planned to stay in albergues (hostels) along the way, just like pilgrims have done for centuries. My goal was to force myself into a situation in which I had to rely upon my wits and the kindness of strangers for survival.
“Which way do I go?” I asked myself. I turned left and made my way down a narrow street. Then it turned right and became a major thoroughfare. I just as easily could’ve picked to go right instead of left, but intuition guided me.
The town of Sarria was much larger than I anticipated. I expected a sleepy village with cobbled streets. Instead, I found myself in a suburban city with a population of 13,000. The boulevard was lined with a mix of ancient and modern buildings that were decorated for Christmas with brightly coloured strands of lights. Each lamppost along the street was adorned with blue illuminated snowflakes. I spotted a 20-foot (or 6-metre) Christmas tree in the town square.
It continued to rain.
As I walked down the sidewalk, I tried to stay close to the buildings so that the roof overhangs would shelter me from the rain. Each time I passed someone on the street, I’d stop and ask, “Albergue?” My poor Spanish skills made it hard to communicate, so I tried speaking louder with a Spanish accent. “Albergue?” Still, no luck.
Eventually, I came across a group of college kids who spoke a little bit of English. We were able to communicate by using a combination of hand gestures, Spanish and English. We flailed our arms about for several minutes and pointed in various directions. Eventually, they directed me to Rua Maior street in the historic centre of town. There, they said, I’d find an albergue that could provide me with room and board for the night.
I turned right and headed up a hill to the highest point in town. At one point, the sidewalks ended and I was forced to walk in the middle of the street. I quickened my pace as I heard a dog barking in the distance. Fortunately, it was late and there wasn’t any traffic.
When I reached the historic district, I was shocked to find that the place was deserted. All of the businesses were closed, except for a small tavern that was tucked away in an alley. Inside, I saw a few locals sitting at a dimly lit bar. None of them spoke any English. I tried to communicate with the bartender and asked if she could direct me to the nearest albergue. She said something in Spanish that I didn’t understand, and pointed down the street. “South?” I asked.
I headed south on Rua Maior in the pouring rain. My clothes had become soaked and I was chilled to the bone. I could feel the weight of my backpack becoming heavier. For the next hour, I walked up and down the street, knocking on the door of each albergue I came to. Despite my persistence, there were no answers.
My situation was becoming dire
For weeks leading up to this trip, I’d studied guidebooks and scoured internet forums for information about the Camino. According to everything I’d read, albergues and hotels were readily available during the winter season. It was also my understanding that there were villages and hamlets situated every five kilometres or so along the route, so food and accommodations wouldn’t be a problem. It was becoming painfully obvious that everything I’d read had been wrong.
“What the hell am I doing here?” I said out loud. “What the hell am I looking for?” It all began with a romantic notion of going on an adventure, but now I just felt dumb.
Having given up the hope of an albergue, I began to wander the streets in search of a hotel. Now, I began to ask people on the street, “Hotel?” Even though I was using my very best Spanish accent, I was still having no luck. Occasionally, people would point up one street or down another, but when I arrived at each destination, the hotel there was closed.
For the first time in a very long time, I was beginning to feel homesick. “What the hell am I doing here?” I said out loud. “What the hell am I looking for?”
It all began with a romantic notion of going on an adventure, but now I just felt dumb. This was the first time I’d travelled without my family, and I was beginning to miss the security that this provided. On most vacations, my wife had everything planned down to the smallest detail; nothing was overlooked. On my own, I was about to crash and burn.
I looked down at my watch to see that it was just past midnight. It was late and I’d exhausted all of my options. I felt like a failure. My hope of a warm bed was gone, so I unshouldered my pack and sat down in an abandoned doorway. “I guess this is where I’m going to sleep tonight,” I thought. It was going to be a cold night, but at least I’d be out of the rain.
Wandering for the love of God
Just as I’d given up hope, I spotted an older gentleman who was walking in my direction. He was taking his dog for a late-night stroll. He was slender, with thick black hair and an unruly moustache. He wore a rumpled tweed blazer with a raincoat over it.
“Are you a pilgrim?” he asked, in a thick accent. I told him that I was and asked if he knew where I could find an open hotel.
“Are you walking as a tourist or for spiritual reasons?” he asked.
“Spiritual,” I said.
“Vagando por el amor de dios.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“Wandering for the love of God,” he said in English.
“Something like that.”
His face broke into a broad smile and he extended his hand. I pulled myself to my feet and met his grasp.
“I’m going to help you,” he said. He pulled out his phone and began to search through his contacts. Soon, he made a call and began to speak to someone in Spanish. I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but it sounded like he was negotiating. “Is 50 Euro for the night OK?” he asked.
“Yes, of course,” I told him.
At that moment, he stepped out into the street and hailed a taxicab that was passing by. He hung up the phone and began to speak to the taxi driver. After a few minutes of what sounded like another negotiation, he informed me that the driver was off duty and was heading home for the night. He’d agreed to take me to the hotel, but it would cost 10 Euro. I told him that I’d gladly pay the fee.
“Gracias,” I said to my new friend as I collapsed into the backseat of the cab.
“Buen camino,” he replied. “I hope you find what you are looking for, my friend.” Then he closed the door and we drove off into the night.