I suppose it was meant as a test, a test of how much I really wanted to walk the Camino Primitivo; the oldest of the medieval pilgrimage roads across northern Spain. I think I passed, but maybe there’s more than a few losing elements to this story.
I arrived in Madrid mid-morning on Monday, with a connection to Santiago de Compostela. It would be easy. I’d take a cab into town, get lunch at San Clemente, cab it to the bus depot, snooze all the way to Oviedo, check in, get dinner, all would be well.
In a classic “I should have known” moment, I found myself in a line waiting to board that second short flight when I watched one passenger after another throw their luggage out the window of the jet bridge, encouraged by a smiling if slightly hurried gate attendant. Really? “Welcome to flight so-and-so, please throw your bag out the window,” she said calmly. Oh, hell, no. My backpack, all my worldly possessions? Not happening, chick.
“Please. Please throw your bag out the window.” Now she’s irritated. So I look out the window and there’s a conveyor belt that goes down to a flat truck where a baggage handler blankly tosses the bags, one by one onto another truck. OK. So I throw my bag out the window and walk the rest of the way down to the plane, take my seat, and after a few minutes, we leave.
I retrieve my bag from the luggage-go-round and get into a cab to town, thinking only of a nice lunch at San Clemente – my friend’s favorite restaurant in Santiago de Compostela. The birds are singing, the sky is blue, and San Clemente is closed because, what, Tuesday? I have a nice lunch at the open place next door, ordering one of my favorite things – a vieira. I’ve had them here before and they are amazing. Not only does just the smell of the tomato sauce bring tears to your eyes, it has bacon. Scallop, mad fabulous sauce, and bacon.
But they take forever to serve me and I have this bus to catch at 4-something so I ask them to wrap it up and I light out to the bus depot which is surprisingly empty for mid-day. That’s because the bus line is on strike. What did that mean? Superficially it meant no bus. No buses. No passengers, No tickets, no bus.
I go up to the counter and ask the man what gives, he says strike, I start to back away trying to figure out how the hell I was going to get myself to Oviedo without a bus, when he comes out from the ticket window and gestures to me to step aside. He looks over his shoulder, looks back at me, waves me closer and says, “You know, if you were to come back at about 5:45 or so, there might be a bus. You know?” Huh? I say, “Huh?” “There might be a bus at 5:45.”
Not sure what that means, I grab a cab to the train station, because I don’t know what other options I have and I find out pretty quickly that all I can get is something to Leon next day, then something to Oviedo. No. Not working. I cab it back to the bus depot, and take a seat on the bench by the ticket window, where I eat my vieira out of a bag soaked in splendid tomato sauce. With bacon.
I sit. I fidget. There are three other people doing the same, but to me, they look remarkably calm.
Finally, at about 5-something, I go back to the ticket window to get a refund on my ticket. They say, “Naturally, of course, not a problem, here’s the refund.” Then the same guy as before, the “5:45 might be a bus” guy leans toward me and says, “You know, there might be a bus at 5:45 and you can buy a ticket now and just get on it and go to Oviedo.”
Now I am in an alternate reality. But I am too tired, too cranky, too disoriented so I say, “Sure, give me a ticket on the 5:45 might-be-a-bus.” “Well,” he says, “We can’t sell you a ticket for today because technically, we are on strike, so you’ll need to buy a ticket for Thursday. Any time Thursday will do.”
So now I have a ticket for Thursday for a bus that might show up today.
5:30, 5:35, and now I’m watching him as he motions to the other three and me to follow him to the door of the waiting room. He asks for my Thursday ticket, looks at it, then gives it back to me and waves over his shoulder to follow him outside to the street where a man is leaning against a sedan parked across from the parking lot. When he sees the five of us approach, me, the other three, and the might-be guy, he stamps out the cigarette and reaches for our bags, lobbing them one by one into the trunk of his car. Might-be guy opens the door, we all get in, he says goodbye to us, and we take off and I have no idea what’s next. We cruise out of town, nobody says a word, nobody looks at me, I look out the window as Santiago de Compostela gets farther and farther away and, even though might-be guy knows I want to go to Oviedo right quick, I have no idea where I’m going. I figure we’ll all be robbed and murdered and our bodies will be thrown in a ditch behind some truck stop or something.
A short while later, our mystery driver pulls into a truck stop. Gas pumps in the front, a diner, and lo, a bus parked out back. He helps us with our bags, tells us the bus leaves in a minute or so, but we have time to use the facilities in the diner should we need. I get a sandwich at the diner and take a seat on the bus, still pretty clueless about what just happened.
About ten minutes later, the driver pulls out. Remarkably and as if nothing nefarious were underfoot, we head out toward Oviedo. What could go wrong? We then stop every few minutes or so on the most local of all possible local routes, and I see every single village between Santiago and Oviedo, arriving in Oviedo at 1:00 a.m. the next morning.
I check into my hotel, get around five hours sleep, and start walking after an amazing breakfast at a local bar I know there. I didn’t even get lost getting out of Oviedo – like nearly everybody. I had a terrific guide book stashed on my phone which took me block by block out of town and on to Grado where I spent the first night.
What’s the moral of the story? Not every auspicious event has an auspicious beginning. I still have a bus ticket for Thursday too, but I figured it would be bad karma to try to cash it in.