Saturday, March 8, 2014: The fifteen or so kilometers between Hospital de Orbigo and Astorga proved to be some of the hardest hiking I’ve ever done. My goal in completing close to thirty kilometers on my initial day on the trail was to make my second day easy, ensuring plenty of rest before I had to start tackling the mountains after Astorga. Well, my plan backfired.
Fifteen kilometers on the Camino de Santiago would normally be a breeze; something easily done in just a few hours. However, that second day on the Camino was my own personal hell. Heading out of Hospital de Orbigo I was in good spirits, but I knew that physically, I wasn’t at 100%. Within an hour or two of hiking, I felt so low that I was ready to throw in the towel.
It was the first time I found myself absolutely alone during the entire trip. A huge sense of loneliness and confusion had overcome me, nurtured by my sickness and low spirits. I questioned myself for even tackling such a journey. I started to feel foolish and insecure. With every break I had to take, I became more and more doubtful about whether I could even finish the second day. To add to all of this, I was forced to acknowledge the troubles back home that I couldn’t seem to escape. Solitude can be peaceful and restorative; on the Camino, you have nowhere to hide from yourself.
At one point I nearly did end up in a ditch after my stomach decided it didn’t like the little food I ate, forcing me to quickly find an escape route for my breakfast (you try quickly manoeuvring yourself with a 30lb pack while you have the shakes and chills). This was also on an uphill portion of the trail. It felt like everything was working against me, except my hiking poles which were the only things keeping me upright.
Overall, my memories from that second day on the Camino are somewhat vague. I can recall the first few moments of the day, when I felt proud of myself for finally taking on the hike; stopping in an abandoned, concrete bus stop to eat an orange; the desperate, slow walking that I had to force myself to endure; and finally, the bar two kilometers outside Astorga that I nearly fainted in front of after replenishing my water. I also remember how relieved I felt when the taxi I got the bartender to call showed up, ending my torture for the day.
After a half day of hiking and the taxi ride that saved me, I found myself knocking on the door of the Albergue de Peregrinos Siervas de María. I had, however, arrived before it opened for the day. Standing there, I nearly wept.
The hospitalera who answered the door offered to keep my pack in the meanwhile, but then she took a closer look at me and realized that I was probably going to pass out on her doorstep. She let me in, put me up in a room of my own (I later realized I was actually quarantined), then gave me instructions to not leave my floor while they completed their cleaning. I had absolutely no problem with this.
For the next sixteen hours I rested, sleeping for the majority of that time. I went through periods of having to wear layers of clothing in bed (including my toque), to stripping down to the lightest items I had. It was fitful sleeping. At one point I forced myself to get up and have a shower to try to rid the fever, meanwhile washing my clothes in the shower stall. I even hung them up in my room to dry. Shortly thereafter I could hear the voice of my Italian friend out in the hall, asking around if anyone had seen me on the trail that day. Hearing his voice, and eventually the voices of others I knew, snapped me out of my sickly trance and gave me strength to once again leave my room.
I was eventually reunited with my friends from the first day, even my Canucks. With wobbly legs I joined them for a walk through Astorga, as the Italian was going to cook dinner for us again and we needed ingredients. It just so happens that we arrived on the day that Astorga celebrates Carnival. I had heard a drum line earlier in the day from my hostel room, but once we were in the town square the festivities hit me with full force. The streets were packed with costumed locals, a parade was in progress, and everyone was in high spirits.
Once we returned to the hostel and word about me being sick had spread, fellow pilgrims began visiting my room to check on me and give me things to help me feel better. I was prescribed throat lozenges from Germany and flu medicine from Korea; I had a constant supply of ginger-lemon tea brewed for me by the hospitalera; plus I was fed and wined by my Italian friend for dinner that night.
Getting sick on the Camino taught me a lesson about the Way of Saint James: everyone takes care of everyone else. Regardless if you just met at the albergue that evening, or if you’ve been hiking together for weeks, peregrinos form an instant bond that only the Camino can help create.
Due to my illness the hospitalera suggested I stay two nights in Astorga to ensure a healthy recovery. I took her up on her offer and was forced to once again say goodbye to my friends the next day. It was the last time I saw them.
Finding myself alone once again, but thankfully feeling better with more mobility, I tried working out a game plan for the remainder of my Camino. I took my guidebooks to a cafe to grab some coffee, and sat with my books to pour over the maps.
My head was a blur of thoughts: Do I just give up and take the train to Santiago? Do I continue on with my original plan and tackle the mountains, despite the fact that I was still sick? Should I bypass the mountains by taking the train to Sarria, which would still allow me to get my Compostela certificate but would knock off about 150 kilometers of hiking?
I was stuck in a personal battle of mixed emotions — do I take the easy route and give up (something I do quite often)? Or do I tough it out and prove to myself that I’m stronger than I give myself credit for, and can actually complete something for once? In the end I chose the option that would still allow me to finish and not kill myself in the process: I decided to take the train to Sarria.