Taking the plunge!

Cork – St Jean Pied de Port

In the weeks leading up to my departure, even though I longed for what I hoped the experience would bring, I was filled with fear about travelling alone, and if my flight had not already been booked, I might have backed out. Each night before bed, as I completed my routine with a variety of potions and creams, I thought about how few of them I could take with me and how little control I would have over my daily life. How was I going to deal with the loss of all the small, almost unnoticeable, comforts and crutches I relied on each day and settle for not much more than a sleeping bag and a toothbrush?

When the day came I took the first flight out of Cork to London Stansted to get a connecting flight to Biarritz and an overnight stay at the airport hotel there. The following morning after a hot, restless night, I took a bus from outside the airport to the train station in Bayonne and boarded a train for the relatively short journey to St Jean. When I arrived less than an hour later, I followed the rucksack-bearing crowd to the Camino office to complete the formalities. One of the volunteers, a lovely man with a little English, helped me, and although I didn’t understand much of what he said, I figured I knew enough to get started. With my details recorded, I was given my Credencial (Camino Passport), which meant that I could stay in the pilgrim-only hostels (albergues) along the route. His advice was that in the morning I should take Route Napoléon, the harder, higher and more spectacular of the two routes out of St Jean, to my first overnight stop at Roncesvalles, twenty-five kilometres away.

With the preliminaries completed, the same volunteer led me and two other pilgrims to the nearby albergue and we were shown to a basement dorm with three bunk beds. Standing inside the little sparsely furnished room without a soft furnishing in sight, the impact and reality of pilgrim hostel life began to sink in. Checking the ticket number I held in my hand, I identified which of the blue tubular-framed bunks was mine, before I tentatively laid out my sleeping bag for the first time. Then I placed the items I thought I would need later – my earplugs, torch and toiletries – at the bottom of the bunk. Actually I could have emptied out the entire contents of my rucksack for I was carrying only what was absolutely necessary. As the three of us unpacked, we exchanged information in response to questions that would be repeated again and again over the coming weeks: where are you from? Have you walked the Camino before? The most obvious question – why are you doing the Camino? – was one I asked sparingly. For me, the answer was very personal and I imagined it might be so for others too.

As well as being the official starting point for the Camino Francés, St Jean is a significant tourist town. But I wasn’t a tourist and I wasn’t really interested in exploring; I was only pretending as I filled the hours until I could leave. Over coffee I looked at my guide book and maps, although I felt unable to absorb the enormity of what I was beginning to realise was ahead of me. Oh my God, five weeks! At that moment, five weeks felt like a lifetime.

Back in the albergue dorm, I made my first novice pilgrim error when I began talking to one of my room-mates in the semi-darkness without noticing that someone else was trying to sleep. Oops! I was to learn in the weeks ahead to enter dormitories quietly, as pilgrims sleep at all times of the day and night. That night I slept better than I expected, and I was very surprised to find when I got upstairs to the dining room the next morning that the adjoining dormitory was completely empty at 7 a.m. I wondered what the hurry was, and at the same time I began to feel I was running behind before I had even started.

Day 5; Obanos – Estella

After breakfast in Puente de la Reina, Manoel, Sue and I separated, and until mid morning, which on the Camino is about 9.30, I walked alone. Then I met David, an Irish musician in his mid thirties, who lived in Paris with his girlfriend. We hit it off straight away, and I realised as the hours passed that I didn’t want to share him with anyone else. It seemed we could talk about anything, and our conversation flowed freely. We talked about life, struggles, heartbreak, personal histories, influences; we covered a lot in one day! I usually think of myself as an open person, but on the Camino that was not how I was at all. However with David I was completely open. I let him see me and I saw him.

After five hours of walking together and only one brief coffee stop we reached Estella. Immediately, I faced a choice between a further uphill climb into town to find a private albergue, or settle for the big municipal hostel that stood in front of me. Despite my preference for small homely places, my tiredness dictated my decision. Initially we waited in the street with a few other pilgrims for the scheduled 1 p.m. opening time, not realising it was in fact already open. While we waited I noticed that the ease I had felt while I had walked with David had gone. I now felt awkward about our arrival together, as that often meant sharing a bunk, or at least ending up in close physical proximity. I also didn’t want anyone to assume we were a couple. Quite why that had any importance I don’t know, but at the time it did.

Once inside the albergue, David placed his rucksack on the ground before he set about a comprehensive rummage through his belongings. I was puzzled about what needed to be so urgently rescued when we only required the usual items: a Camino passport and €5 in cash. Why anyone would bury them in their belongings I couldn’t understand. I didn’t know whether to wait for him to find whatever he was looking for or not. In the end I decided to register without him, and when I received my bed number I went upstairs, leaving him to continue his search in the foyer.

Shortly after arriving in the dorm, Dublin John appeared next to me. He had been allocated the bunk above mine, and as we prepared our nests for the night, we did our best to navigate around each other without touching. There was still no sign of David. I thought perhaps the rummaging in his bag had been a delaying tactic, and I wondered if I had lost him. Despite the connection I had experienced with him, or perhaps because of it, I was relieved not to be sharing close physical quarters with him – it was easier for me to share such confinement with strangers – but I didn’t want to lose him either.

We hadn’t eaten along the way, and even though I was really hungry, I delayed lunch further in favour of chores. That was a mistake! By the time I had finished washing, the supermarkets were closed for siesta, so any ideas I had about making lunch in the homely albergue kitchen were quashed. Instead, I found a soulless, empty bar along the street serving food, and while I could have explored the town afterwards, I had neither the interest nor the energy for more activity. It might have been a pretty town, but I was unlikely to see it, except on the way out in the semi-darkness of the morning.

Late in the afternoon, I observed a few people, including David and Dublin John, chatting in the garden, and although I wanted to join them, I hesitated. I questioned whether or not I should. Maybe David wants some space, I thought, and as I second-guessed what David wanted, I held back and denied my own needs. In the evening, Dublin John was rounding up people for dinner, but I wouldn’t join them – by then I had lost any ability for conversation.

With hindsight I have a clearer understanding of the events that triggered my reactions that day. In David I had found a kindred spirit, someone who spoke my language. He was the first person I was willing to confide in, and while we walked I felt held in a protective bubble, without interference from the external world. But when we were reunited with the world, it was a transition I found difficult to make; I felt challenged by the reintegration process. During the day when I observed David in conversation with others, I told myself not to be a burden to him, yet at the same time I felt burdened by what seemed to be required of me – assimilation into a wider group and the ordinary conversations of Camino life.

Taking the plunge!

Cork – St Jean Pied de Port

In the weeks leading up to my departure, even though I longed for what I hoped the experience would bring, I was filled with fear about travelling alone, and if my flight had not already been booked, I might have backed out. Each night before bed, as I completed my routine with a variety of potions and creams, I thought about how few of them I could take with me and how little control I would have over my daily life. How was I going to deal with the loss of all the small, almost unnoticeable, comforts and crutches I relied on each day and settle for not much more than a sleeping bag and a toothbrush?

When the day came I took the first flight out of Cork to London Stansted to get a connecting flight to Biarritz and an overnight stay at the airport hotel there. The following morning after a hot, restless night, I took a bus from outside the airport to the train station in Bayonne and boarded a train for the relatively short journey to St Jean. When I arrived less than an hour later, I followed the rucksack-bearing crowd to the Camino office to complete the formalities. One of the volunteers, a lovely man with a little English, helped me, and although I didn’t understand much of what he said, I figured I knew enough to get started. With my details recorded, I was given my Credencial (Camino Passport), which meant that I could stay in the pilgrim-only hostels (albergues) along the route. His advice was that in the morning I should take Route Napoléon, the harder, higher and more spectacular of the two routes out of St Jean, to my first overnight stop at Roncesvalles, twenty-five kilometres away.

With the preliminaries completed, the same volunteer led me and two other pilgrims to the nearby albergue and we were shown to a basement dorm with three bunk beds. Standing inside the little sparsely furnished room without a soft furnishing in sight, the impact and reality of pilgrim hostel life began to sink in. Checking the ticket number I held in my hand, I identified which of the blue tubular-framed bunks was mine, before I tentatively laid out my sleeping bag for the first time. Then I placed the items I thought I would need later – my earplugs, torch and toiletries – at the bottom of the bunk. Actually I could have emptied out the entire contents of my rucksack for I was carrying only what was absolutely necessary. As the three of us unpacked, we exchanged information in response to questions that would be repeated again and again over the coming weeks: where are you from? Have you walked the Camino before? The most obvious question – why are you doing the Camino? – was one I asked sparingly. For me, the answer was very personal and I imagined it might be so for others too.

As well as being the official starting point for the Camino Francés, St Jean is a significant tourist town. But I wasn’t a tourist and I wasn’t really interested in exploring; I was only pretending as I filled the hours until I could leave. Over coffee I looked at my guide book and maps, although I felt unable to absorb the enormity of what I was beginning to realise was ahead of me. Oh my God, five weeks! At that moment, five weeks felt like a lifetime.

Back in the albergue dorm, I made my first novice pilgrim error when I began talking to one of my room-mates in the semi-darkness without noticing that someone else was trying to sleep. Oops! I was to learn in the weeks ahead to enter dormitories quietly, as pilgrims sleep at all times of the day and night. That night I slept better than I expected, and I was very surprised to find when I got upstairs to the dining room the next morning that the adjoining dormitory was completely empty at 7 a.m. I wondered what the hurry was, and at the same time I began to feel I was running behind before I had even started.