Friday, 1 August 2008

Pilgrims in Parallel Worlds

The sun burns on. And we cycle on. Past olive groves and bodegas, through medieval towns with cobbled streets and bolt studded doors, through scrubland and over motorways. We look for rivers to swim in and find they have dried up. Even factor 40 sun lotion and cycle shirts are poor protection against a sun that scorches and sears our skin. We ride early and late to try and avoid the worst of it, but with temperatures touching 35 degrees some days there's little window of opportunity for riding in the cool. The kids are tiring and the road is relentlessly steep; every day I hope for respite but none comes. I squint again into the sun's glare, focussing my attention on keeping the bike from wobbling on the difficult gradient, pushing, always pushing sluggish pedals around with my feet. My sunglasses lie unused in their case, their tendency to steam up on tough hills has rendered them a useless fashion accessory. The sweat builds up on my forehead, even when I pause the bike for a rest my body continues to pump it out. After a while it starts to run down my face, stinging my eyes. I can't see and the pain is irritating. I wipe my face with my tee shirt that resembles a wet rag.

And yet this is such a journey of two halves. Just another ten or so kilometres and we'll be at a campsite, plunging into a cool open air pool. And that is the beauty of cycling the Camino rather than walking it. While the pilgrims are confined to hostels in the prescribed towns on the route, meeting the same crowd each night, we have the freedom to wander off the map a little. In the late evening at Puento La Reina and Estella we see them, hanging around outside hostels and the Red Cross; they seem lethargic and drained, having walked in the hot sun to secure a bed for the night by 1pm. Meanwhile we breeze past and up the hill to a campsite that's full of partying Spaniards, cracking open beers, diving into the pool and cooking for the family. A couple of days ago we reached a hill town and felt like stopping. I wandered over to the nearest refuge. He had been full by 1pm, so had leased a church. There were already fifty pilgrims packed into the aisles and on the altar. All lay face down on dirty mattresses, or sat near stain glass windows trying to escape the heat of the evening. It was so quiet. As he showed me to a tiny space at the back of the church I tried to imagine my three children keeping this sense of sleepy quiet. I turned him down and he shook his head. Where were five peregrino's going to find accommodation at this hour? We cycled off up the hill and set up our own campsite, on the scrub , at the side of the N111. No swimming pool, no facilities, but free of charge and the children could make as much noise as they liked.