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.

Guided by Intention

On my first night in St Jean Pied de Port I walked around to get a feel of the town and to shop for provisions for the 27k trek across the Pyrenees in the morning. Then on my way back to the municipal albergue (pilgrim hostel) I noticed the church and I decided to enter. I sat with my shopping beside me just absorbing the atmosphere within the small church, beautifully lit with tall, thin, white candles. It was busy with lots of people moving around, taking pictures, lighting candles, talking and praying. After a while I felt quite moved emotionally and realised I was going to make clear my Camino intention.

Although I didn’t know what my intention was, I decided to walk to the altar to light a candle to begin my intention ritual. There were, perhaps oddly, a lot of different types of candles to choose from and some of them were named ‘pilgrim candles’. However I found myself drawn not to the pilgrim candles but rather the long-stemmed, thin, white candles and I chose one of those. By now the whole experience felt very sacred and as I placed my candle I closed my eyes to find my true intention. The word ‘sincerity’ arose with clarity from within. With tears flowing down my cheeks I made a commitment to let sincerity guide me along the way.

In times of doubt, confusion, disconnection and loneliness I reminded myself of my intention. That guiding principle helped me to endure the many, many painful struggles.

Day 28; La Faba – Triacastela – 26 km

In the morning, Branu and Kirsten were just sitting down to breakfast as I was ready to leave. Although we had planned to leave together, I could see they were pretty relaxed, so I said I’d meet them for coffee later and left. The guidebook had promised some spectacular views on the way to O Cebreiro, but the morning was cold, misty and foggy and I could only see a few yards in front of my feet.

At the entrance to O Cebreiro stood a tall majestic tree that seemed to announce the special place the village held at the top of the mountain. Passing through, I headed for the church and met Richard emerging from it. Inside, the church was more understated than most I had seen. I liked the simplicity; the seats were made of plain dark wood while the walls were devoid of the usual baroque grandeur. However, what usually engages my attention in a church is how I feel. Despite the noise and activity of those around me, I felt really at peace and I knelt down to pray. As I did so, I realised that I felt torn between wanting to stay and wanting to go. I thought that if I left, I might be able to manipulate an encounter with Richard in the village. Then as I contemplated my dilemma, I felt clear that if I allowed distraction to steer me, I would be straying from my intention to walk this pilgrimage with sincerity. In hindsight, I see it as a test of faith and perhaps the most important decision I made on the Camino.

While I waited for Kirsten and Branu, I walked around O Cebreiro before stopping for coffee and cake. Just as I was about to leave they appeared. By that time our schedules were out of sync and I decided to continue walking alone. As the fog cleared, a warm day was revealed and with a full heart I left O Cebreiro. Around me the landscape felt intimate again; animals grazed in fields of lush green grass, wildflowers grew in the hedgerows and I felt connected to my surroundings. Being physically close to the bushes, the trees and the brambles connects me with my internal home, and my connection with the landscape brought forward thoughts of all the people I had met on my Camino, as well as my family and friends at home, and I felt tremendous gratitude.

During the day I was reunited with Kirsten and Branu, but as the afternoon progressed I went ahead of them. I expected Triacastela would be busy and I thought it best if one of us went ahead to get beds for the three of us. Arriving in town at about 5 p.m., I saw a ‘Full’ sign posted outside the municipal albergue, and my concern about finding accommodation increased. Then as I walked on further, I met a local woman dressed in black who told me that everywhere was full, but that I wasn’t to worry – she had a room in her house for €30. I hoped she was a chancer and I thought she probably was. When I asked two young German lads I knew about accommodation, they told me they had got the last two beds in their albergue; they also told me that the woman in black had peddled the same yarn to them. Further along, I saw more ‘Full’ signs and my anxiety deepened. Then at the end of town I entered the last albergue on the street. Inside there was no sign of the hospitalero, and while I waited I peeked into the ground floor dorm and saw some empty beds. What a delightful sight!

Later, as I stood brushing my teeth, Branu emerged from the shower. ‘What now?’ he asked. ‘A beer, and then dinner,’ I suggested. Although clothes washing could wait for another day, some tasks could not be delayed. Branu needed to go to the bank and the supermarket, while I needed to tend to my feet before going out. As there wasn’t enough space or sufficient light to carry out the necessary foot repairs in the dorm, I went downstairs to the entrance foyer cum dining room. While I worked, Richard appeared at the open doorway. ‘Just in time! I’m in need of a doctor,’ I said. I was delighted to see him, though it turned out that he knew less about tending blisters than I did. I couldn’t believe that I didn’t even have to leave the albergue to meet him. We talked about the day and I asked if he would like to join us for a drink. He accepted. I felt so excited.

As Richard and I walked through the narrow, pedestrianised main street full of bars and restaurants looking for a table in the evening sun, I heard my name called. To my surprise I saw Kathy, my American friend. I couldn’t believe it; I thought she would be at least a day ahead of me. The moment we embraced, I knew that what we had shared together was over. Although walking with Kathy had been one of the most beautiful and spiritual encounters of my whole Camino experience, I knew then that the purpose of our meeting had already been served. She was with a new group of Spanish pilgrims, as well as her earlier walking buddy Vanessa, and that was okay with me. I was happy walking my own Camino.

At dinner with Kirsten and Branu talk turned to home. Richard was coming to the end of his Camino, and that was when I found out that he was going home to his wife. Initially I became quiet as I felt my disappointment register, but I didn’t withdraw from conversation. In Richard I had found a kindred spirit, and I was able to continue enjoying our playful banter for the remainder of the evening, even though I had fantasised about more. When we parted later, it really felt like the final goodbye. He was heading for Sarria the next day while I thought I might go a little further.

That night I slept like a log.

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.

Fear and Courage

Spiritual Calling

When I decided to walk the Camino de Santiago, I was aware that I wanted to immerse myself in a holding container long enough for me to find out what is calling me. I had the sense that I was meant to be doing something else with my life and that I was holding back on what God had given me. In any event I knew my soul wasn’t being fully satisfied; there was a longing I needed to address. I hoped and indeed I expected the Camino to help me find the truth of that longing.

Letting go

I realised before I left home that the Camino was about letting go and trusting I would be okay, although I couldn’t anticipate how the challenges would present themselves. But really the energy of the Camino started before I left Cork! The easy part was making the decision to go, a couple of months ahead of time it seemed no problem, I thought ‘I can’t wait’. However as the departure date got closer, I became more fearful, I was going to have to let go of whatever control I had in my life, my comfort, my livelihood, my emotional crutches and safety nets and surrender to the unfolding experience of Camino life.

So to go at all I needed to let go of what was familiar and face the vulnerability that arose in the absence of the crutches and the safety nets. That took courage and more importantly it took a level of belief in the possibility and of my own potential and trust in the universe. To grow requires a will to do so, no one said this would be easy but then neither is it easy to live life in the shadows.