I have just finished walking nearly three months across France and Spain on the medieval pilgrimage trail of the Way of St James, or the Camino de Santiago and have arrived at Finisterra – what was thought to be the most western edge of the world in the Middle Ages. Turns out it’s actually Cabo da Roca in Portugal, but never mind about that. I’ve spent a couple of days here, enjoying the sea air and being disappointed in my hope for a spectacular sunset. It’s winter, after all. Still. There’s something lovely about a nearly deserted tourist town on the ocean. People have more time to talk, to share a brandy, to recommend a good restaurant (that their cousin most likely owns), to learn your name. It’s good to be here, grey skies notwithstanding.
The plan for today is to head out to the little retreat house in a town several kilometers and at least two bus rides away where I’m going to think and write and meditate and not waste any time on Facebook or with Netflix. I am hoping that my good intentions will beat out my bad habits. That will most likely only happen if there is no wifi. I can only hope.
I head down narrow cobbled streets to the bus stop in Finisterre for the 9:45. Except I find out it’s been discontinued because it’s…December. Through sign language I communicate this to the only other passenger waiting, a Czech pilgrim who speaks zero Spanish, English, French, Italian or German. There’s an 11:45 we can catch.
This gives me two hours to spend any way I please. I briefly consider going back to the albergue, but then realize that what I really want to do is walk around. I feel the soft, mild wind on my skin, smell the sea, spy on fishermen sorting out their nets through an open garage door, walk among the tiny wooden boats perfectly parked on a sloping concrete slab that angles into lapping water. Inspect a stack of battered, seaweed-laced crab traps. I notice the good, solid feeling of my backpack strapped securely on, my feet warm and supported in perfectly laced shoes, my toes free and happy. My legs feel strong and ready after a few days of rest. All within me is calm. All is bright.
Urgency of mother nature shortens my maritime stroll, so I ducked into the only bar open on the waterfront. The glass protected area in front is filled with weathered, aging men in small groups or standing solo. Some of the older ones stare out to sea with a watery and vacant stare, many with a small glass of sherry in hand. Several are smoking. They are talking in the singsong way that Galicians have. It’s sounds like Portuguese, and I find that I can follow their conversations if I pay attention. I don’t.
A balding man in a worn burgundy sweater, jogging pants and knee-length black rubber boots is placidly digging a finger into his right nostril. He leans back languidly, inspecting what’s he’s just extracted. Rolls it thoughtfully between thumb and forefinger and, redirecting his gaze to the harbor, he opens his mouth and scrapes the mass off his finger with his teeth.
I’m beginning to shiver at the only table outside the protection of the glass terrace. I’m here to avoid breathing in cigarette smoke and to have a bit of solitude. My café con leche is drunk and I have 20 minutes before the bus comes.
A battered green Citröen pulls up and parks inside the paved pedestrian area in front of me. And old man with a sweet face gets out and walks toward the bar. I smile at him and notice at least four missing teeth as he beams back. He begins a conversation and, within moments, is seated at my table. After five minutes, he has given me his phone number and told me that if I need any help for any reason, if I need to be rescued, he’s the man to call. He asks for my number, too, so he’ll know it’s me when I call. After ten minutes, he’s invited me to come with him as he takes a couple of other pilgrims to see a waterfall later on today. I decline, as I already have plans.
After 15 minutes, it’s time for my bus and I head up to the stop. Except the bus driver tells me his bus won’t get me where I want to go. There’s a different bus, but no one seems to know its schedule. I get on this bus, determined to at least get part of the way.
I arrive in the town of Cee. The bus I need doesn’t leave for another two hours. I duck into a hair salon across the street and get my first haircut in perhaps a year. There’s still a lot of time to spare. I have lunch at the nearby mall. I was really hoping to a Spanish version of Panda Express, but made my peace with a beautiful plate of churrasco, homemade fries, green salad, chewy fresh bread and a caña con limón (beer with really tart lemon soda). Mid-slurp of beer, Moises calls me. Wants to make sure I’m fine. I tell him my plans have changed a bit and he says he’ll be there in 20 minutes. (I was perfectly happy to wait for the bus, but sometimes when people want to be of service that badly, you just say YES.)
Half an hour later, he pulls up. We have a coffee together in the bus station restaurant/bar. He says hi to everyone he knows. We talk about the state of the world. How people are in such a hurry. How no one really talks anymore. “Hay que hablar con la gente.” You gotta talk to people. I solemnly agree.
We get into his car. Moises hands me a Tupperware container that is holding something warm and a plastic bag with what feels like a small and very fresh loaf of bread. He’s brought me food, since it was lunch time. A seafood Spanish tortilla with red peppers. Made by himself. With mucho cariño. For me. (At least that’s his story. Perhaps it was just his lunchtime leftovers. Who knows.) Regardless…
I need to go to one town to pick up the key for the retreat house, and then go on to the next town where the house is located. He is willing to take me to both of these places.
We set off. He lights a Marlboro and I roll the window down. The windshield is already filmed over with smoke residue. Ashes fly through the air and land on my clothing. I brush at them. He wanders over the lines sometimes. My stomach still isn’t used to these roads and I’m glad we’re not going any faster. He offers me a cigarette. I decline.
We find the Happy Day bar, the rendezvous point, without incident. My key connection, Riana, teaches English classes on the floor above the bar. The street is strewn with post-market garbage –boxes, papers, wrappers, empty soda bottles, limp lettuce and a forgotten potato or two. The whole area has a gritty, forlorn look to it.
Moises is getting agitated. He’s nervous about me going to some place I found on the Internet. He tells me that the area in which we find ourselves is worked by pimps, beggars, foreigners and prostitutes. He is certain that my hosts are going to recruit me to be a prostitute. I struggle to keep a straight face as I tell him I’m quite sure this is a reputable situation and not to worry. He isn’t convinced. He tries to talk me into moving to Finisterre. He’ll cook for me. “Es que no tengo a nadie.” He doesn’t have anyone. Well, besides his 26 year old son, who still lives at home. I smile in a way that I hope conveys compassion and explain that I have this fellow on the internet who I went on a date with before leaving on the Camino, who has been writing me daily for three months and who is coming to Madrid for a weekend to visit me. He doesn’t seem to catch my drift and tries to hold my hand. I gently and firmly disentangle my hand from his.
Thankfully, when Riana arrives with the key, her decidedly happy, nice–wholesome-lady-in-her- early-40’s vibe and the fact that she (a foreigner) is married to a Galician man and speaks perfect Gallego calms Moises and he is no longer concerned for my moral well-being.
She gives me the key and instructions for the feeding and care of the four cats with whom I’ll be sharing the premises. We hug. Moises and I set off once more, Marlboro ashes flying through the air again. We stop at a bar for directions. When he comes back, I’m certain he’s had a shot or two of whatever I can smell on his breath. I whisper a quick prayer for safety as our car lurches on to the road.
We find the house without further incident and he deposits me and my things with limited old-man-falling-in-love-with-a-much-younger-woman awkwardness. He reiterates that he is here for me, whatever I need. That I can count on him.
I thank him sincerely and say goodbye. He looks at me forlornly and shuffles back to his car in the greying afternoon. The wind has picked up and the air smells like rain.
I wave to him from the window as he drives by, and then he is gone.
*I found out two days later day from the across-the-street neighbor lady to whom I’d brought extra lentils I made the night before that Moises had come to town that afternoon looking for me, toting a bag of giant crab legs he’d brought as a gift. I do love those giant crab legs. Thankfully, I was out in the garden with one of the four cats, sitting amidst the ubiquitous plants of brassica extraction that my mom calls Walking Sticks and whose leaves everyone in Galicia puts into soup, taking advantage of late afternoon sunshine. Not wanting to raise his hopes that he’d soon have an extra mouth to cook for, I didn’t head down to the town bar where I was told he’d stopped for a drink before making his way home. My neighbor told me he came back one more time to look for me and, failing in that, tried to sell her the crab legs. Even with a sad heart, he’s a practical man. I admire that.