The Chafo De Santiago

The 'Chafo' series was first published in 2008 after an inglorious series of peril through the far reaches of Northern Spain. Presenting the official Author's cut - a nostalgic reminder of the pain that was...

My smashed vertebrae pinches with throbbing bouts of deep, piercing torment. Knees are adrift in a mess of ligament, my ‘hobbit-foot’ bunions crunch and burn inside sweat stained Asics that buckle beneath a ridiculously over-packed bag floating on a rill of sweat coursing down the ridge of my back.

Forty degree Basque sun sears my face pink, surging salty beads of perspiration over faux ‘Ray Bon’ aviators. It is a quivering mess down south. Hairs of my inner thigh and butt cheek grind on skin raw and red like a punched Matador, chafing furiously like two hands hell-bent on friction over campfire.

With a crack of the neck I stare up to scrutinize the sun and unleash a barrage of apoplectic expletive, a calibre I would have previously thought humanly impossible. I swear like a sailor on heat, biting my chapped bottom lip and ruffling the sand and murk from my filthy, un-showered head. Zoning deep into a world of meditative denial, I dodder left and right up the one final incline for the day with legs splayed comically wide. I prefer that passer-bys think I’ve got bad rickets rather than endure any further sandpapering of my inner thighs.

This is pain, my friend. Real pain

I mutter. I groan. I bleat like a sheep. Corns blister under my arch-less soles, making acquaintance with gritty pustules on my big toes and blisters on the edge of my poor, demoralised pinkies. Muscles show up in places I didn’t even know about. Biological nooks and crannies I never knew could produce fluid began to divulge their worst.

Too much?

For most people, getting through the first day of the Camino de Santiago is hardly a walk in the park. Getting through it on a whim, unplanned and unprepared is truly begging for punishment.

Existing for over 1000 years, the Camino, or ‘Way of St James’ was one of the most important medieval Christian pilgrimages. It was believed that if you walked the entire length of the trail in St James’ footsteps, it would void a mandatory spell in purgatory, a sure-fire plenary indulgence to grant the remission of one’s sins. (I would later ponder in the thick of heat and pain how many pilgrims paradoxically fast-tracked the onset of their own passing as a result of pushing their bodies through such intense punishment.) Today, it is walked for myriad reasons, as much about leisure and tourism as it is spiritual odyssey. Over 70,000 take the journey each year, commencing from the edge of the French Pyrenees to the Cathedral of Santiago 790 km West.

I met a lanky American hippy named Brandon in Edinburgh days before my own sweaty, Spanish ordeal. For four weeks he had plundered his way across the Camino and looked like a dog’s breakfast: rugged, dirty, sun-glazed, sporting a filthy moustache that generated both scorn and ironic respect. Recounting his many magical stories of traipsing through lush vineyard and desert tracks, stunning peaks, endless golden fields and Hemingway-frequented villages atop foothills in the middle of nowhere, I became spellbound, enchanted by the glory and challenge surrounding his mystical, enlightening journey along the long, dusty Camino trail.

Edinburgh’s thick chill and proclivity to rampant alcohol consumption had sent me directionless, bereft of a charged soul and pining for challenge. Seizing the day, I booked a flight and left the next morning.

Eight hours at Barcelona’s Arc De Triomphe station, two four hour buses and a 45 minute taxi ride with two random Spaniards later, I set foot with great spirits at the Camino starting line, a town 40 km outside Pamplona called Roncevalles. Tender afternoon sun baked on the lone bluestone pilgrim hostel (called an ‘Albergue’) as folk of generations and races lay about on grassy knolls and cafĂ© chairs, connecting, learning, indulging in each other’s presence and soaking up the remaining light of day.

Randomly, I dined that night with two middle-aged Italian women and an eccentric French deviant named Henri. The Italians were lovely, drawing out my suppressed elementary grade Italian, in accordance with a healthy use of mime, confused laughter and head nods exacerbated to feign a conversation that actually contained shared comprehension. When the four of us got stuck into the red wine things began to make a lot more sense. We laughed and smiled at each other, gave each other confused looks, and through knowing glances, the Italians and I deduced shared belief in the fact that Henri was certifiably deranged.

The red wine failed to inspire much the next morning, rising at the crack of dawn with 100 other largely middle aged Spaniards, baggy eyed and weary, lethargically packing their pilgrim sacks, prepped and primed to plant boot into gravel and be off on their own private adventures. With the bunks clamped so closely together, I literally did wake up at Dawn’s crack. I’m pretty sure she was French.

Armed with a hubris and a heavy sack I set forth valiantly in the unknown, a green road sign greeting me ominously in the dark pitch and eerie sleet with the daunting indication: “Santiago de Compostella – 790km.”

The morning came to life some kilometres out in the middle of nowhere, and through resplendent fields and exquisite valleys I was enthralled by some of the most amazing scenes of my life; alluring ridges and spurs winding down at the culmination of the French Pyrenees, woods and clearings, hayfields and sand gravel tracks. Sun rose higher and flitted through the wind-arched forests. At one with the natural world, I was electrified and ecstatic. When energy waned, I would seek sweet motivation from the I-Pod for a little aural stimulation. Lou Reed chimed in at one point very nicely…

“Yes I am a nature’s son…and I’m the only one…. I do what I want and I want what I see…. it could only be me. I’m so Free”

This collusion of visual and aural stimuli washed my soul with wonder, the gravity of the concurrent event barrelling me with previously unexperienced profundity. I was doing this! So Free! Free from the rut of cotton-lined comfort and inebriant conviviality of Edinburgh, the sloth and breakfasts at four in the afternoon. Free in the wild with my wits, my senses, two legs to move me, two thighs to grind, and a mind sparked with the alchemy of excitement and surreal sensation of being alone in the heart of the rousing Spanish countryside. If my friends and family could only see me now.

However, as morning became noon the sun began to sear and scorch and my ability to sustain enthusiasm grew onerous. Early grade chafing made its presence felt and by mid afternoon, in purposeful exhausted ignorance of distance travelled, I’d reached both Pamplona and personal breaking point. Ready to drop in a heap, I attempted to register a night’s sleep at a local Albergue, and was subsequently horrified to find not a single vacant bed in town. I was seemingly not the only one with the first day blues, the Albergues replicating war infirmaries, choc full of trail-weakened, broken humans, crying in pain and unable to move.

Dejected, exhausted and sunburned, I has no choice but to soldier on up another steep incline at a snail’s pace in searing Spanish heat, each stride sanding away at some of the reddest, rawest, thighs known to man. Thoughts of self-defeat filtered through my primal consciousness, leaking energy like a sieve. In my zone of meandering madness I hadn’t eaten for eight hours.

Somehow I mustered the gumption to stagger over the last of that God forsaken hill, sorely ricketed and malfunctioning. Elderly locals of the petite town of Cizur Menor looked on with amused bewilderment, witness to a very broken Australian crawling through their city gates.

But I had made it. And on a lone patch of grass in the back garden of a vacant Albergue, my obliterated frame sunk long, deep into the earth. The grass was silk, the oxygen sugar. I heaved in sweet gasps and stared into the infinity of sky. Never before had I relished so much in the pleasure of sitting down on my own ass. It was sheer, absolute, unadulterated bliss.

Later I learned that Roncevalles to Cizur Menor is a three-day endeavour. I had smashed it in one, and smashed myself in the process. In the futility of Camino lunacy, it had not occurred to me that walking 49km in one stretch was the action of an unbalanced masochist.

Home and hosed, I set out to fix my ailing body. After gasping dismay at the fact I had walked all the way from Roncevalles in one day, the friendly lady in charge of the hostel - clearly well versed in fixing the feet of the foolish, not only taped up my feet but lined my walking shoes with the added insulation of female sanitary pads for additional shock absorption. With feet fixed, I hobbled across the street to sort out my horrid chafing. Without the ability to elocute my bleeding peril in native tongue, the poor woman at the ‘Pharmacia’ must have thought I was an outright sex criminal as I gestured furiously around my groin region asserting the word ‘cream’.

With thighs cooled, it began to dawn on me that I’d signed up for more than I initially bargained for. I was galumphing across rural Spain armed with an array of useless, indulgent items including a denim jacket and laptop computer, plus stupidly failed to supply some of the very basics. Bereft of a sleeping bag, I dozed heavily that night in my beach towel, unwashed since the early days of Edinburgh and now marinated in sweat from the post-45k-chafe shower.

The Camino seemed so wonderful in theory and imagination, so romantic, so ripe for glory. I was juiced up to take on 500 miles of Spanish countryside like it was a casual stroll, ready to bellow primal screams of victory to the staid Atlantic horizon at the foot of the Western coast. I dreamed that I could become an instant conqueror, a hero, a veritable Don Pelayo! But Instead I’d become Don Quixote - mad as a cut snake and borderline hallucinatory.

Notwithstanding the filthy, moist consistency of my bedding, that night I drifted off to instant slumber, bewildered by the task ahead, pondering how on earth I could possibly be in any condition to walk at all the following morning, or indeed, the following week.

741km to Santiago, an 18kg backpack, shoes full of sanitary pads and enough thigh cream to sink a small ship. A potentially insurmountable task at hand, this beaten carcass would rise again valiantly at dawn’s crack. It may prove to be my finest hour yet.

Or the perilous end of my body as I knew it.

No comments: