(El Camino part 2)
Let’s see, where was I…. ah yes, bedbugs. We woke up early on our third day, passing the Cruz Ferro while it was still dark. It’s a tall pole with an iron cross atop a large mound of stones and other offerings. It’s believed that the Celts initially erected this monument and it was later dedicated to Mercury (god of travelers) by the Romans and then the Christians adopted it, adding the cross. Pilgrims traditionally carry a stone from home and leave it here, symbolically leaving their burdens behind.
An hour or so later we were having breakfast in a cafe in El Acebo. The first stop of the day was one of my favorite routines of the Camino. We would wake up before dawn, walk for an hour or two and then stop and enjoy a relaxing coffee and breakfast. We would typically eat a Napolitana (chocolate croissant) or Spanish Tortilla (a potato and egg frittata).
While we were eating, Carlo noticed that he had a few itchy red spots on his arm and back. Initially, we tried to convince ourselves that they were mosquito bites but after showing them to a few people and doing some furious internet research, we came to the sad conclusion that they must be bedbug bites. To say we were all horrified would not be an exaggeration. This was honestly my biggest fear of the Camino. I think we’ve all heard stories of bedbug infestations and just how hard it is to get rid of them. And not only were we going to be traveling to many more albergues and hotels, but we were then going to friends’ houses after we were finished. Plus we were in a place where we didn’t have access to good methods of treating our clothes and belongings. The next few days would prove that.
At our next stop in Ponferrada, we immediately told the volunteers at the albergue what we were dealing with. The woman was so sweet. She immediately took Carlo under her wing and washed all his clothes and treated his pack for him. We all felt relieved and went out for a fun dinner with a large group of new friends. The city of Ponferrada was vibrant with a festival going on and all was good.
The next day and night passed uneventfully. We stayed in Villafranca del Bierzo in an albergue next to an old church, Iglesia de San Francisco, that was founded by none other than St Francis of Assisi on his own pilgrimage. The arched doorway of the church is called La Puerta del Perdon. Historically, if a pilgrim was too sick to make it all the way to Santiago, they could pass through this door and receive all the same indulgences (forgiveness for their sins). We were still going strong and the church was locked anyway so there was no easy way out.
The next day, we rose early and while we were walking, Carlo noticed more and more bites. Our hearts sank as we realized we weren’t in the clear after all. We hiked to the small village of Vega del Valcarce and once again told our story to the keepers of the albergue. They were also very understanding and friendly. They washed Carlo’s things for him while I went to the pharmacy and bought toxic bug spray and treated his pack myself. We enjoyed a sunny afternoon soaking our feet and playing cards at, what we agreed, was one of the nicest albergues.
The next morning, Carlo was ready first and went outside to wait. While I was finishing up my packing, I noticed something small and dark on his bed. Oh please, no. Damn, it was a bedbug. Maybe it was dead and just leftover from our treatment? Nope, it’s creepy little legs were moving….Here we go again. Koben, Casey and I talked quickly and decided there was no reason to ruin Carlo’s entire day. We would tell him when we got to our next destination so that we could decide then what we would do.
I had read that bedbugs were an “issue” on the Camino. I wholeheartedly agree. And, even worse, after now knowing exactly what the bites look like, we had been seeing them on more and more pilgrims. Not everyone, of course. In fact, I’m sure most don’t get them. Koben, Casey and I never showed any bites. However, in our research, we learned that not everyone gets welts or some don’t show the bites for up to 14 days. And what was the likely hood that Carlo was the only one in our little group to have them? We had been staying in close quarters for several days now and it didn’t seem possible that he was the only one. And of course, it’s not just the bugs themselves. The worst thing is their eggs. They lay their eggs in dark little places, like deep in a pocket, and are extremely difficult to find and kill.
I’m definitely irritated with the Spanish government for not dealing with this issue more aggressively. This is a public health issue and it seems to me that some standards around mattresses, bedding and pilgrims belongings could be put in place that could help dramatically. Some albergues have their own requirements, such as checking pilgrims for bites and requiring that entire packs go in plastic bags or remain outside. But they do this for themselves and it does not appear to be mandated. Nurse rant.
The hike this day was a steep but beautiful walk into Galicia and to the mountain town of O’Cebrerio.
O’Cebreiro was one of the cutest villages we stayed in, and again, reminded us of Dungeons and Dragons or Lord of the Rings.
Upon arrival we broke the news to Carlo, who was, understandably, extremely bummed. We had all reached our limit with this issue and decided it was time for drastic measures. We all agreed on a few things…We no longer trusted albergues or our ability to treat our belongings on the trail. And we definitely didn’t want to take any chances of spreading them or bringing them to the homes of our friends.
While discussing various plans over lunch a German fellow overheard us and chimed in that he had similar issues last year and told us what lengths he went to to ensure that he did not bring them home. His plan, while somewhat expensive and obsessive, was solid and we ended up adopting it for the most part. We knew there was no other way we would have total peace of mind.
But first we had to get the rest of the way to Santiago, so that afternoon we began the first phase. Carlo separated all of his belongings into two piles. Anything that could be wiped down with rubbing alcohol (which dries and kills the eggs), like electronics, went in the first pile, and basically anything that was fabric, (except his shoes, which we soaked), went in the second. Pile one was treated. Pile two was bagged and thrown in a dumpster. We each gave him some clothes of ours and bought him anything else he needed. We also found a new pack, a couple sleeping bags and some camping pads.
We slept that night in the church yard under a tent that was used for festivals. It was a little rough, and honestly I couldn’t help but think that if we were in the US, I would be a little worried about CPS. But we were laughing about it and having fun. It was even more of an adventure and felt, in some ways, closer to the experience of the original pilgrims.
This is also where our little party comes together even more. I loved the way we all talked through our options as a group, listened to each other and came to our decisions collaboratively. We are all very experienced and love the outdoors so choosing this path was exciting, uplifting and freeing for us. We weren’t 100% sure we had gotten rid of the all bedbugs, but we were sure we wouldn’t be picking up any new ones. That was enough to see us through the next several several days.