The Beginning of the Home Straight

Once satisfied with my pursuit of Portugal’s picturesque coastline I crossed the border back into España, now very much on the last leg of my trip. As much as I endeavoured not to start the countdown to my return home – having just a couple of week’s worth of pitstops (and barely a week’s worth of budget) left to go – I couldn’t help but gaze fondly ahead to the Eurostar journey back to London St Pancras and the already-planned champagne reception met Moeder Moo Moo. Whether it was the anticipation of home, the grey autumnal weather, or the utter exhaustion of one hundred and seventy six days on the road taking its toll (yes, I did just count), I was starting to feel lethargic, lacklustre and a little bit lonely. And I couldn’t think of what better a state to be in to empathise and converse with those who had just completed the mighty Camino de Santiago.

Having only first learnt about this network of pilgrimages during earlier stages of my trip (feeling an utter pleb for the duration of my first conversation concerning it; a scholarly superior during my second), I was eternally grateful for my crash course four months prior as I entered the holy land, swarming with travellers far more saintly and spiritual than I could ever hope to be. Not only could I name-drop Eliot and Stuart, two real-life people that I had met in other countries, at separate instances, who had completed the Camino themselves (somehow I felt this made me a more legitimate visitor to the city), I could also, on occasion, blame my lack of energy on “all the walking”, and hope that people believed that I, too, was a now-enlightened pilgrim who had trekked all the way from the French Pyrenees and was deserving of free hot chocolate / private accommodation / a deep tissue foot massage. (I was offered not one by the people of Santiago de Compostela, and frankly rather disgruntled by this.)

But before I had even reached the city’s bus station, neigh – before I had even embarked on the bus out of Porto – any early signs of loneliness were to be curtailed, cut short, deemed utterly kaput, by a red-haired, toe-ring-wearing, fifty-year-old hippy from Finland. At first when she started talking to me (in Finnish) at the pick-up point I did my usual stranger-danger trick of pretending not to hear. This is a little more difficult to sustain when sitting on the same bench as the suspect; even harden when she starts to touch your arm with her henna-adorned hand. I concluded that I would have to acknowledge her presence at some point, or it might start to look like we were some kind of estranged inter-generational couple with severe communication issues. So I turned to her, my mouth smiling sweetly while my eyes shot out laser rays of irritation and hostility (at which point the handful of henna was removed from my forearm), and admitted, ever so politely, “I’m so sorry, I have no idea what you are saying.” “Ohhww!” howled the now even more animated Finn, “You are not Finnish?” Well. This changed things completely. Being assumed to be Scandinavian? I don’t think I’ve ever received such a compliment. We became then, immediately, bosom buddies, and spent the entire journey gabbling away, lamenting the lateness of the bus, the merits of Porto and our shared longing to partake in the grand Camino but, you know… ouch.

First on the agenda once checked in to our respective hostels was going for a beer, a pastime which I soon learnt to be more of a constant state of being for the Helsinkian. She liked her beer. A lot. I don’t think she ever ordered a glass of water or similarly non-intoxicating beverage, no matter the hour, and I concluded that this was half for the hippyness it afforded her, and half for the plate of free nibbles it was always accompanied with in this part of the country. Unfortunately for me these dishes always contained – mostly only contained – some kind of cured meat, of which I did not care for any more details, and did not care to put in my cake hole. So when we both had a beer, she got double helpings. (Perhaps that’s why she hung around me for so long.) She explained to me, though, that she was really actually a vegan, back home, and couldn’t stand the the concept of using animals as food. But that she broke this rule when travelling, especially when in Spain, for she could live fully-sustained buying only five-to-ten beers a day, and who could say no to that?

But before I realised the slight alcoholism, along with the elastic vegan tendencies, we had to find somewhere for our first (or, for her, first five-to-ten) bevvies. We stumbled upon this lovely little café-cum-bar, in the middle of nowhere, which was really rather busy on this random Tuesday night. With a beer in hand we sat down with some very strangely-dressed people at a large communal table, and soon realised that: a) we had gatecrashed their Spanish conversation class, and b) it was Halloween. I had a headache brewing and a stomach rumbling and was not overly keen to partake in either. Helsinki, on the other hand, had other ideas. (After all, she could line her stomach with all the free jamón she was stockpiling, and her day to day appearance (with all the henna, piercings, red hair) was kind of naturally Halloween-esque.) So after a couple of beers and an attempt to converse in Spanish small talk with a bunch of witches and draculas, I decided to bid bon voyage to my new, spooky, friends (my reason: “all the walking”), heading back to my hostel to make a microwave jacket potato and get a nice early night. (Hashtag living.)

I awoke to a number of photos and videos sent to me via Helsinki (gosh they must have travelled fast) detailing the night before, confirming that it entailed copious amounts of beer, witches, gratis jamón, draculas, and Finnish selfies. I did not regret my decision to pass.

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Into The Wild

Camping. A dreamy night beneath the stars or a nightmarish dream interrupted by the elements, mild claustrophobia, and the incessant need to use the bathroom whenever the sleeping position gets fractionally bearable? Both, really. But campers-to-be always go into their trip in one of the two camps: the optimistic romantic versus the cynical realist. Members from both teams will no doubt end up being surprised (whether pleasantly or otherwise), but whether you approach the challenge with scepticism, or your idealism gets slowly weathered during the course of the getaway, one cannot deny that there is a sense of magic and intrigue in the notion of rocking up somewhere – anywhere – at any time of night, with the only requirement being a flat(ish) plot of land on which to pitch your tent, and in just a matter of minutes (after some careful practice) you can transform the wilderness into your humble home.

I most definitely entered my twelve-night camping stint, to be conducted on and around Iceland’s picturesque coastline, in Camp A. I was ready for the star gazing, the bonfires, the exquisite seclusion and the at-one-with-nature-ness. Privately viewing beautiful sunsets and rises were top on my to do list, as was waiting up – and out – for the elusive northern lights (while, of course, enjoying marshmallows speared by fallen branches melted to molten decadence over said roaring bonfire). The mornings, too, would be spent enjoying the surroundings of our temporary abode, which would more often than not overlook a lovely little lake or the glistening sea, preparing a batch of freshly scrambled eggs or warming porridge to provide the necessary sustenance for the day’s undoubtedly intrepid activities.

This vision, I regret to add, was nothing more than a pipe dream. Not one sunrise was observed; not one glimpse of the aurora borealis enjoyed; and not one even lukewarm breakfast delicacy consumed. But my optimistic romanticism would not be dampened that easily. Yes, we may have had to erect the tent in the dark / on soggy grass / against off-the-scale winds, but, in each and every case, once we were securely inside and wrapped up nicely (which for me meant three pairs of trousers, three pairs of socks, six tops and jumpers and, on occasion, a hat and gloves), and had zipped up the front door (I’m going to call it that), we were in a world of our own, away from anyone and anything else, which felt pretty bloody spectacular.

But then we had to engineer ourselves into our respective sleeping bags, at which point the minisculity of our immediate environs became very apparent indeed. With zips already the default fastener of our tent and outer clothing, the idea of YET MORE ZIPS on the sleeping bags brought a mild sense of agitation to both inmates (the narrator in particular), and that was before one had got one’s fifth jumper / hair / inner lining / index finger lodged in the ruddy thing’s mechanisms. My specific sleeping bag had the added utility (complication) of a zippable inner bag which, although on first impressions seemed a marvellous addition, got frightfully in the way of ultimate closure, and made mid-night fidgeting that little bit more suffocating. Anywho. Each evening as we settled down into the boudoir I endeavoured to position myself within the duo-layered sleep suit, often having to seek assistance from the other half when I accidentally zipped myself (or any other unsuspecting item) into the sleeping bag seal one too many times. The tightening of the mummy-hole followed; a procedure wholly impossible when one is actually within the sleeping bag and zipped up, so again I pressed the call button and lay, my eyes resting closed, wistfully, my mouth reaching out for one last goodnight kiss, and surrendered myself to the total enclosure achieved with the drawing of the strings, and to the resulting breathing hole with which I was left. And last of all was the excruciating task of re-positioning oneself to adopt a more comfortable pose, while attempting to keep all fastenings secure; remain – as much as humanly possible – out of negative swivilation with the inner (or outer) bag; and show the upmost sympathy and respect for the limbs and designated air-mattress-half of your bedfellow. It makes me weary just thinking about it.

So falling asleep – once the above routine had been painfully completed – was not, in fact, a terribly difficult job. One was so utterly exhausted from the physical and mental exertion that one would generally cross into the unconscious somewhat seamlessly. The problem, it entailed, was when one wanted – or one’s bladder needed one – to get up. This was a test for the willpower, abdominals and, perhaps most crucially, the pelvic floor.

One reacts differently to the need or want to go from lying, horizontally, on a blow-up mattress within a small but perfectly adequate tent enclosure to standing, upright, in the open air depending on the reason behind the task. Most frustrating of all scenarios is the need to pee, especially when the demand comes fast and furious, and introduces itself immediately after the completed execution of the going-to-bed procedure. In this case a quandary hits: do I undo all of my hard work to relieve my bladder and have (hopefully) an interruption-free night; or do I try to ignore the niggling tingling of my (unfortunately unzippable) urine chamber, pretend I am as empty as my bank account, and continue to try to fall asleep while knowing, deep down, that this need just ain’t gunna go away. The second option always prevails. (Something to do with romantic optimism?) Anything is better than undoing the just-fastened zips (upon zips upon zips) to relieve oneself immediately. Which of course results in, most often, a few hours of uncomfortable denial / at best a short stretch of restless light sleep / at worst a bout of mild-to-moderate cystitis. After which time one realises that they really must use the bathroom NOW, and must proceed to unlock themselves from their temporary coffin, waking up their partner, no doubt, in the process, while admitting to themselves that they should have bloody gone when they first bloody needed.

The donning of the outdoor gear thus follows: glasses (for those like myself who are not naturally blessed with functioning eyesight); head torch (to help alert the tent-mate to the ever-increasing kerfuffle); and hiking boots (with which to protect your three-plus layers of socks from the treacherous terrain en route to the toilet block). Perfecting the order of bedecking oneself with the three props remains to elude me. Glasses being the main stumbling block. How do you find them when you have no light? You can’t. But how do you find the light when you cannot see? You can’t. But how do you find your glasses when it’s pitch black and you are totally blind? You somehow manage to do it (after turning the entire contents of the tent (and your partner) upside down). The glasses are on (phew). But it is still pitch black and thus they are not doing a great deal. (They are also bloody cold for they have not, unlike oneself, being zipped shut in a almost air-tight sleeping bag for the duration you have been needing the toilet.) So now you search for the head torch which, in the aftermath of searching for the glasses, is now on the opposite side of the tent under four layers of clothes and in your boyfriend’s shoe. Let there be light. Now it is light but you still cannot see a thing. You are wearing your glasses, of course, but with the coldness of the air and the warmth of your face they have steamed up to high heaven and are, in fact, masking your already shoddy vision to worse than would be the case without them. So you place them on your head, the handles tucked into the head torch strap for extra support, and readjust to the world as you now see it: a big blurry mess (but with, thankfully, less fog than when bespectacled). Now one must put on one’s shoes, which have been sensibly placed by the exit of the chamber, requiring merely a quick bum-shuffle to the end of the bed, a partial opening of the inner tent door, and a feet-out / head-in situation as you try to ply them over your thoroughly insulated – and thus thoroughly enlarged – tootsies. With all your equipment in place it is now time for the crescendo: the getting up and out of the ruddy thing. Once the inner door is fully unzipped comes the hamstring and glutes workout – the sitting to crouching manoeuvre – to achieve a position which places you in the entrance hall, if you will, of the home, ready to close the inner door on your partner before opening the outer door to the world outside. You inevitably fall over when performing this trick, and have the head torch shining nice and bright to highlight the incident to anyone else in the campsite who happens to still be awake. If you haven’t wet yourself by this point… I salute you.

What follows is a drunken-like saunter to the facilities, more often than not assuming an alternative, highly detourious, route, involving a number of unforeseen obstacles and near-misses. But you make it, eventually, to the cubicle, and relieve your burning need, finally, which now presents itself as the slowest of river trickles due to its overdue nature. But you wait, you persevere, and at long last your bladder is light and free.

The reverse performance of the getting-to-the-toilet act is just as troublesome and clumsy as its predecessor, but once you are wrapped up warm, once more, in your little private haven, free from any lavatorial constraints, you can – finally – drift into deep, restorative sleep. (Before your alarm goes off and you need to go through the whole friggin’ drama again.)