Sore Feet and An Old Bicycle
Cool air drifted through the albergue window that framed the slim blue neon cross that topped the adjacent church. As sunlight crept over the hills and fell upon the hedge rows cockerels cackled into the cool air proclaiming the start of another day. By the time I flushed, brushed and drug my pack down stairs most of the our flock were already on the trail marching north toward Spain. Breakfast was the crusty bread Sue bought from the baker who visited our pilgrim meal last night, but a fresh cup of coffee would come later after a few miles of walking.
The first mile or so was road walking then the Camino spilled onto a dirt path that thread through a valley of dew covered grasses and grape vines. A humble creek ran along side the trail then under the stone arch of a medieval bridge. It was early but not too early for farmers to be in the fields with hoes and bent backs. They fished weeds from the moist soil that anchored the knee-high corn stalks.
The next stretch of asphalt led to a cafe filled with the smells and sounds of coffee being ground, milk being steamed and women chatting. By the time we started walking again the sun was showing its strength. In less than an hour all the dew was gone and sitting in the shade near the edge of the road was a barefoot woman. Like an unfaithful lover she had kicked her hiking boots aside. She and her footwear were at a turning point and words were not needed. Her blistered feet shouted why she sat barefoot along side an empty rural road.
“How’s it going?”
“My feet are killing me. I have used these boots before with no trouble, now they are killing me. They are shit.”
The tall thin woman was a straight talking German who could speak more languages than my high school language department offered. Some people make you smile because they can tell a joke or have an expressive face. British humor often comes from a dry wit and sarcasm. This woman, Lea, made me smile because she was so blunt and honest. She did not waste time with euphemisms nor did she hide her feelings. She was not a whiner or complainer but if things were “shit” she had no problem admitting it. And when she said that word she said it in such a manner that it did not sound foul or vulgar, it sounded like an objective assessment, a sum of numbers. Like when an engineer declares, “That structural support is insufficient for that load.” Lea would say, “That bridge is shit”.
After a few minutes of chatting about boots, blisters and where we were headed for the night, Lea asked, “Can I walk with you a while? Maybe it will stop me thinking about my feet.”
With a grimace she thrust her tortured feet back into her fickle boots. Despite the pain she set a strong pace.
“What do you do when you’re not hiking, Lea?”
“I teach design at university in Egypt.”
“That sounds exciting. How do you like teaching?”
“Sometimes one or two students are interested. Working with them is good but most are not interested. They are children of rich people, they go to school because their parents send them. Most would prefer to be wedding planners, not designers. They don’t use their brain, they don’t try. Their design drawings are shit.”
The Camino took us through lush farmland, over hills, past white churches with acorn shaped steeples and under grape arbors that stretched from one side of the road to the other. Based on the size of the arbor nothing taller or wider than a small hay truck could travel those roads. A few miles later, on the banks of a small river Sue and I rested while Lea soaked her damaged feet and a mother and daughter stomped and scrubbed curtains in a bucket. For the final push into Ponte de Lima Lea changed into her Birkenstock sandals and lashed the boots to the outside of her pack.
We hiked through tunnels of flowers. I could only identify the roses but there were other species and their colors, textures and sweet fragrances made the hike into Ponte de Lima feel like a walk through a botanical garden.
Ponte de Lima as the name implies is a city divided by the Lima River and connected by a ‘ponte’ or bridge. It was early afternoon when we crossed the river and on the far side sat three old men and one old bicycle. My guess is that most days you could find those men sitting there watching pilgrims, merchants, and pretty girls cross the bridge. The old bicycle was as weathered as the men. It was a traditional three-speed with a trigger finger shifter and rust pitted chrome brake handles. Everything that was once shiny and bright on that bicycle was now rusty brown. Even the blue and white paint had oxidized to a dull chocolate color.
To me an old man who rides a bicycle daily around town is admirable. An old man that rides the bicycle that he and his father bought when he was a schoolboy is closer to a legend. Thanks to Lea’s language skills I learned that the man bought the bicycle fifty years ago when he was a teenager and has ridden it ever since. Despite its age, rusted parts and odd seat angle (tipped skyward at a castratingly sharp angle) he swore it rode wonderfully.
“Can I ride it?”
Lea translated my request and the old man responded by smiling widely and waving his arm toward the bike as if to say, be my guest.
I threw my leg over the bike, pushed off and with trepidation slowly lowered my tender parts toward the threatening seat. To my surprise as I placed more weight on the seat the tip ratcheted downward until it was parallel to the crossbar, a more reasonable angle for a bike seat. As I traveled over the cobbles the rusted seat springs creaked and the aged leather saddle molded to the curves of my buttocks as if we had met before. The comfortable seat combined with plump tires gave the bike a cushy, pillowy feel. It did ride wonderfully.