31 August, 2014 - O'Cebreiro
Today was the big climb out of the valley of Valcarce up into Galicia. Though it was a relatively short distance to hike (8.1 kilometers or 5 miles), it took about three and a half hours from when I stepped out of the hotel to when I made it to the church. The climb was tough - straight uphill for pretty much the entire time - but it wasn't awful. I can feel my body getting stronger every day out here.
It is pretty amazing to notice how my body is changing. I can sense how high my metabolism is and I can feel the muscles in my back every time I take a step on the trail. I notice the muscles in my legs every time I hoist my pack on and, although they are really sore every single day, I can tell the muscles in my feet are getting stronger too.
The hike up to O'Cebreiro was wonderfully challenging. It started winding through roads in tiny sleepy villages around dawn then broke into the wilderness. Covered by luscious trees, the trail went from asphalt to dirt quickly after the start. It is at this stage of the Camino where pilgrims cross into Galicia with the cooler weather and the ever-increasing number of pilgrims making their way to Santiago.
My first negative experience on the Camino happened today. I was on a particularly steep and barren stretch of trail that wound through grazing fields for a local farmer's livestock. I hadn't come upon another pilgrim on the trail for quite some time so when I heard hooves walking up behind me, I turned around. I saw a tanned, good-looking, burly man probably in his fifties sitting atop this beautiful horse. As he came up, I smiled and greeted him as I had every other soul on the Camino with a simple, "Hola, buenos dias."
He greeted me kindly enough with the usual, "Hola, peregrina. Buenos dias." Now, by this point on the Camino I had learned to understand a bit of Spanish simply through immersion. I would listen to people speak and be able to pick out enough words and context to understand what they would say. So while I could grasp what the man was saying, I didn't fully understand until the whole situation was over. He told me all in Spanish, there is a fork up ahead in the trail with a very small waymarker. Most pilgrims miss it and go the wrong way. I'll go with you to show you.
I said no thank you but he insisted and started walking alongside me. He then started asking questions like: how old are you, are you married, are you alone, where are you stopping today, would you like to come to my house, can I kiss you, just let me kiss you.
We came upon a slight bend in the trail and the man brought his horse quite close and forced me into the bend, blocking me off from the trail with the massive flank of his horse. As there was a wire fence behind me keeping me on the trail and off the grazing fields, I was well pinned in.
My answers were getting more and more terse and I was getting more and more anxious as he started to dismount. I decided to shove past his horse out of the bend in the trail and I started walking pretty fast. He stayed on his horse and began pursuing me with more questions and invitations. Finally, I stopped in my tracks, turned around and shouted, "Por favor, basta!" Please, enough!
I learned that phrase in Italian and prayed it held the same sentiment in Spanish. To my surprise, the man simply smiled, winked at me, turned his horse around, and went back down the trail. I stood there until he was out of sight then I turned and ran.
I reached the next village and stopped at the very populated cafe where I waited until a group of pilgrims left so I could tag along with them. I was doubly thankful when I arrived at O'Cebreiro around noon just before the midday church service started. I emerged from the trail among the parishioners, sweaty, dirty and on edge so I just walked straight into the full church and sat down in a pew in the last row.
I didn't even really pay attention to the priest. I just prayed: Dear God, thank you for keeping me safe today. Please don't let me let this experience taint the rest of the Camino. Help keep me vigilant and help me keep my heart and mind open to Your teachings. Please also bless and keep safe all of my fellow pilgrims. Amen.