My bed is comfortable and warm, and I don’t want to get up. Dark clouds outside spit a drizzle of rain against the window, and the thought of a whole day downhill does not really excite me. Give me up over down any day.
Breakfast consists of a café con leche and one of my power bars from the backpack, followed be the realization that the hotel, apparently, turns off heat after ten and my stuff is still somewhat damp. I shove everything into a plastic bag to prevent it from getting any wetter, at least, lace up my damp shoes, and meander outside, not really looking forward to the day.
Two Swiss pilgrims catch me at the sign reading “Santiago 790” and we trade pictures, then walk down towards Auritz together, trading stories of the first day and our unhappiness with the rain. They’re in their late twenties, finished university with degrees in architecture and social work respectively, and we discuss the Spanish Civil War and church architecture. Not a bad start into the day, even though I am damp and my mood goes, as does the Camino, downhill.
In Auritz the rain starts back up, and we decide to hit the one open bar in town, a hole in the wall Hemingway once drank in, run by a grouchy man who seems old enough to have given Hemingway the stink eye as well. The coffee is thin and weak, the patatas bravas (at eight in the morning) cold, and the smoke wafting over from the kitchen spells cooking disaster mixed with cigar smoke. But, somehow, I like it. Its a dive, and I like dives. Hemingway’s mug, looming over everything, just adds to the scene, and I realize that I am finding excuses to not have to leave when, suddenly… “Miiiiiikaaaaaaa”
Inga is here. In her tow not Lilly but a bedraggled looking older woman, clearly not a pilgrim. She and Lilly had split up, she bubbles between anecdotes and stories from SJPdP and Roncesvalles, because of “too much whining and too much hating,” planning to reconvene in Zubiri. The older woman is her hospitalera, a retired school teacher with a stern demeanor and few words to spare. We order another café con leche, sit down in the smoke coming from the kitchen, and suddenly all is well and warm.
The school teacher warms as well, telling a story about Don Elías, the man who marked the Way, and how he, with his old beater car, drove around to paint the first yellow arrows. One evening, just having marked a section, he returned to the car to find two Guardia Civil police officers waiting. Asked what he was doing along a path into Auritz that was used by ETA terrorists, he responded with “I am preparing for a great invasion.”
The Swiss join us, and we decide to leave, the school teacher haggling with the bar’s owner to let us have two cooked eggs and refill our water bottles for free. The rain has subsided and, mud and downhill-knee-kill aside, it once again looks like a good day to walk. Chatting we cross a river, and begin our descent. Inga doesn’t hike, she dances. Every few steps she twirls, laughs, and sings a few words, no wonder she didn’t get along so well with stoic Lilly.
In Bizkaretta we pass underneath a wooden bridge between two houses, from which someone hung two Conchas. The Swiss decide to stop for another coffee, and Inga and I push on. “Where are you staying tonight,” she asks, and I admit that I have no idea. “You MUST go to Suseia.”
Apparently Suseia is the (often booked solid) place to be in Zubiri. Most pilgrims push on to Larrasoaña, four kilometers further down the road, but those who don’t try to find a bed at Suseia. “Amazing food,” Inga proclaims, twirls once more, and makes me call them, “right now!” Which I do and which, luckily, yields a bed.
A few minutes later we cross over a road and towards a food stand selling coffee, sodas, and smaller food stuffs. We pause briefly, when we notice a blue basket on the ground “Need a husband? Leave your underwear here.” it reads. According to legend, told to Inga by the stand’s owner, a peregrina once, having grown tired of her itchy underwear, tossed her knickers into a clothing donation basket at the Alto. Another pilgrim, having watched the ordeal and enamored by her free spirit (and unfazed by the sanitary implications), approached her that evening, they got to know each other, and now they’re married.
Inga pauses briefly, then reaches under her T-Shirt, manipulates briefly, and produces her bra. “Boyfriend’s enough, don’t need a husband,” she proclaims, repeats it in Swedish to reinforce the incantation, and tosses the bra into the blue bin. “Enamored, yet?” she asks.
After another brief pause during which Inga, using the back of the stand as cover, reapplies mammary support from her backpack, we hike on. An hour later, my knees now officially unhappy, we see Zubiri for the first time. Even Inga has gone uncharacteristically quiet, and only speaks up to ask for my help navigating some of the harder descents.
We arrive in Zubiri with enough time to spare to drop our bags at Suseia, declare our eating preferences for dinner, hand our clothes to the proprietor who will wash and dry them for a fiver, and head out to find a pharmacy to get Inga some diclofenac gel to rub on her aching calves. In town we meet the Swiss again, Lilly in tow, who seems happier and more relaxed. All five of us go to grab ice cream and Lilly explodes a small bomb, declaring her intention to continue on with the Swiss. Inga does not look to disappointed.
We return to Suseia, the Swiss branching off into the municipal albergue, and spend the remaining time in the hostel’s astroturfed backyard before eating dinner and returning to the benches outside, a beer in hand. One of the many perks of staying at Suseia is the door code, allowing everyone to enter and leave at their leisure, and lockable lockers with charging stations inside. That, and a bathtub for every six person room. My room’s bathtub is occupied when I return, so I brush my teeth in a common bathroom, pack my now washed and dry clothes, and retreat. I dream of mountains and exploding knees and bulls that chase me. Pamplona, here I come.