It’s weird to go down to breakfast in a very large and well-equipped hostel (the N1 in Santarem) and know that I’m all alone. The dining room is large but I’m it in terms of guests. I had just spent the night alone in a room intended for eight. After a good meal and with fresh laundry from the night before, I start my way out of town. The guide book is a bit unclear in directing me back to the Camino path, and I’m fearful I may be making wrong turns. Americans, in particular, can’t grasp how these town are laid out, they’ve grown organically. We’re used to grids of straight lines and corners, but these villages and towns have differ histories and it’s reflected in their spider-web street patterns and, in this hilltop town, in its walls that might have been battlements in the past. Uncertain of my direction. As I go, though, I pop my head into the public market where vendors are setting up shop early in the day, and I take note of the beauty of the town’s cathedral. And, as he comes through the square where I’m standing, I ask for directions from a gentleman with a briefcase who was probably on his way to work. He said, “follow me,” and I obeyed. At a rapid clip – he’s not carrying a 20 lbs. pack on his back – I try to keep up as he winds in and out of streets that I’d have never been able to follow on my own, and suddenly he stops. We’re at the Porta do Sol, also referred to as the Gate of St. James (Santiago), and he points down a rocky steep path out of the gate, and says, “you go here.” Gulp, but again I obey, but not before thanking him and shaking his hand in gratitude. I’m not terribly encouraged as I slide my way down this narrow, wooded trail. It just doesn’t look like many people use it, but eventually it opens into a road and I see a reassuring sign pointing my way. I’m where I’m supposed to be.
The day is largely uneventful, and though I’m still walking through a lot of fields, the terrain and the vegetation starts to change and become more varied. At the slow pace of three miles per hour, one notices small things – gradual changes in one’s surroundings – that just blur past at twenty times that speed. I like it, and the change feels encouraging. Yet it’s still a very hot day – 32 degrees Celsius, 90F – and as the hours go by, the heat slows me down. My solution is a 10 minute rest stop, at least, every hour… pack off, sit or lie down and try to cool off. Ideally I do that in the shade, but in these fields there are few trees and there’s hardly a shady spot to be had. Shade or not, I rest, and then I’m refreshed and can start again. Doing this, one constantly needs to remember that it’s not a race, a difficult concept for a competitive person. I’ve already proven that I can go late into the night, but that’s not wise, so it’s a constant balancing act between the need for rest and the need to go on. It takes a great amount of self discipline, and I like to think I’m blessed with that if not blessed with many other skills.
A few days ago I was walking through tomato fields; today I’m watching the red pepper harvest. The first was mechanical – fascinatingly complex machines – but this one is manual. A teenager who seemed to speak perfect English was atop a truck filled with lush red peppers, sorting them in some manner mysterious to me. A short stretch further on I see a tractor with a large harvesting basket on the back and a handful of field workers filling buckets that they dumped into the basket. As I took some photos, they spotted me and stopped to pose. They yelled to me, but obviously I funny understand; it seemed friendly enough and I could hear them laughing.
Then after a couple of turns and a very gradual climb, I see something totally new and different, a stand of cork trees. I read that Portugal is the leading producer of wine bottle corks and I knew they were made from tree bark. Well, here they are. The trunks of the trees have been shorn of bark the way sheep are shorn of their wool, and the bear numbers whose significance I don’t know. I find a chunk of cork bark on the ground and examine it, trying to picture how the small cylindrical wine bottle corks might be stamped out of this material. I’m also aware of synthetic corks and screw-tops, so clearly I’m waking through a crop with a limited future.
The day is long, hot and my water is running low. It’s a situation that creates sone panic as I know I need to drink but to conserve. I’m getting a bit light-headed, but thankfully a village emerges out of seemingly nowhere… Pombalhino. It’s got a tiny cafe where I can restock while I rest my feet. It’s also starting to cool off now as the midday sun gives way to late afternoon. But it’s time to go on, and so I say my “Bom Tards” to the locals at the bar, and slog off feeling happy to have a fresh water supply in my hydration bladder (inside my pack). Every town seems to be on a hill, but thankfully Golega sits on a relatively low one, so the hike into town isn’t too bad. What’s evident right away from the decorative signage is that this is a horse town. In fact it’s where the horse breeding and training for Portugal is centered, with a very active international market for local horses as well.
My hostel is in a residential area, and, in contrast to my difficulty finding my way out of Santarem in the morning, Of I find my way easily. Once again, I’m the only peregrino in the place, but I share it with a group of laborers from the tiny African nation of Sao Tome’. One has his wife and two incredibly cute sons with him, and so they’re my Camino family for the night. Still I’m in my private room. I’m hungry, it’s Friday night -after the Iberian acceptable dinner time of 8pm, so after a shower and a change into civilian clothes, I walk into town and find an outside table, under a tree, at what appears to be a busy restaurant. Five minutes later, the male half of my only consistently spotted peregrinos walks by and I ask him to join me. It’s Paul, from the Isle of Jersey, and he reports having felt a knee pop just before Golega. He’s not 100% sure If he’ll be able to go on. We don’t dwell on it, though, and both enjoy a well deserved dinner. As a band starts playing for a Friday night shindig, we go our separate ways to rest up for what I know will be another walk for me, and for Paul and Mary to assess his situation and decide on what to do.