Day 32; Palas de Rei – Ribadiso – 25.8 km

My plan for the day was clear: I was going to walk to Arzúa and spend the night there regardless of what anyone else was doing. Why? The answer to that question lay with my experience of attending Mass in Arzúa the previous year.

On that occasion I knew I was in a special place when I heard the soulful sound of a singing congregation as soon as I entered the church. Then without any knowledge of the language I felt completely enthralled by the Priest when he spoke. It wasn’t what he said as much as where it came from, and I knew the scene was set for a powerful experience.

Moving towards the altar to receive holy communion I felt a oneness with the community of people around me. As I met each person, I watched their facial expressions and the devotion in their movement as they returned to their seats. I experienced a level of grace and connection that is impossible to describe and out of that space the words came; ‘if I die now it’s okay’. It would be okay because I had experienced everything.   

Later the Priest invited the pilgrims amongst the congregation join him at the altar to receive a blessing, and we stood before him in a semi-circle whilst he searched internally for his words. When he spoke, my mind had no idea what he said but my heart recognised their source and tears streamed down my face. I felt loved absolutely.

Mass in Arzúa is a nightly event, just as it is in most towns along the route. The blessing is a nightly event too, yet its impact was such that I felt it was the one and only time it had ever been given. Of course, I wanted to return in the hope of the experience being repeated, without any guarantee that it would be.

During the day I talked to Leo, who was part of the Spanish/Limerick contingent I had met a couple of days earlier in Samos. He told me that he had received reports advising that accommodation in Arzúa was already fully booked. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear and initially I blocked it out. I wasn’t going to be easily diverted from my goal. However, as I thought more about it, I realised that I ought to listen to what I was being told, even though I didn’t like it. The prospect of not being able to get a bed in Arzúa was not one I really wanted to test, and although it wasn’t easy to let go of what I wanted, my day became a lot easier once I did. My Camino was teaching me about flexibility; without realising it, that had been a persistent challenge for me over the previous thirty-two days. By letting go of my fixation on a particular outcome, other things became possible.

That night I stayed in Ribadiso, a hamlet with a couple of albergues two or three kilometres from Arzúa. After the initial relief of checking in and completing my chores, I went to the bar with my journal and a beer, and I noticed how lost I felt without my new friends. In Mike, Jackie, Frank, Jill, Brett and a few others I had found an inclusive circle where I felt safe. I didn’t know where any of them were and I was afraid of losing them. With only two days to go before arriving in Santiago I was afraid that I would be celebrating alone and I didn’t want that.

However, as I sat there Leo came in and joined me at my table while Javier joined some friends he knew. Soon we expanded to become a trio when a UK pilgrim joined us, and when I spotted Heather and Eugene arriving, I invited them over to join us for dinner. The things I worried about sometimes manifested into being while probably mostly they did not!

Day 30; Sarria – Portomarín – 22.4 km

In the morning I left shortly after 6 a.m. while the Limerick and Spanish contingent slept on. Outside the albergue I met Jim, Richard’s dinner companion from the night before. While we talked, we lost our way in the darkness, but doubled back before we got into too much trouble. Soon we were tangled up with quite a few other pilgrims and I was content to just follow, trusting that those ahead could see where they were going. There seemed to be an influx of Spanish pilgrims walking the last one hundred kilometres to Santiago, so it was quite noisy. When a group of Spaniards got together, no matter what time of day, they could be loud, and so I looked forward to getting away from them.

As the morning stretched out before us, so too did the line of pilgrims, and I separated from Jim until we met again mid morning over coffee. At the café I saw Kathy with her group and we chatted briefly before she moved on again. Then Peter, a man from Dublin who was travelling with his wife, took a seat nearby. I greeted him; we had walked together briefly a few days earlier, although his expression told me that he didn’t remember me. Then after my companions left, he came over to make amends for forgetting me and we left together to walk the ten kilometres to Portomarín.

Peter didn’t seem to notice that I shrunk as our walk progressed; by the time we got to Portomarín I was feeling utterly crushed. Although he walked alongside me, Peter seemed oblivious to me, as he talked and talked. There was no connection between us; we were walking alongside each other without actually meeting. My experience with Peter helped me to connect with another pain within and I knew I needed my own space; I couldn’t stay in a crowded albergue. At the bridge on the entrance to town I left him to wait for his wife while I went ahead to find a hotel.

In the hotel I waited as a young couple checked in, but when it was my turn the receptionist told me they were full. Fortunately, a young male employee with very good English overheard the conversation and told me they had rooms with shared facilities on the top floor for €25. That was all I needed: a room; sharing facilities wasn’t an issue. He showed me such kindness as he took my rucksack and escorted me upstairs, telling me that as I was first to arrive, the place was mine. It was as though he could see what I needed.

The impact of his seeing me was powerful. Once inside the room, I broke down into convulsive tears as the crushed part of me expressed itself. What I felt was absolute abandonment. It was too intense to be about missing the people whom I had met and parted from on the Camino. I knew this pain had earlier, deeper roots.

After I slept, I ventured out with my journal to get a beer and do some writing. There were lots of bars, but I wanted somewhere quiet. When I finally found one that met my needs I ordered my drink, and while I waited for it to come I heard my name called. It was Jackie; she was with Mike, Jim (the Alaskan) and Dave (the New Zealander). I couldn’t believe it. Of all the bars in town we could have chosen, how did we all end up in the same one? I joined them, even though I wasn’t sure I was ready for company. But within a short time I discovered it was just what I needed.

Frank and Jill, a father and daughter duo from New York, joined us too and we all became so comfortable that we stayed in the bar for dinner. Later, we were expertly guided through a selection of local aperitifs by the young male hotel employee who had helped me find a room; he turned out to also be a barman. Then we went outside, wrapped up, to enjoy our drinks and the remainder of the night. By then I felt relaxed. I really liked the people I was with; it felt like being in a family. Mike and Jackie were clearly at the helm, as they created the welcoming environment for waifs and strays to come into the fold. We might not have met at all that night, so I felt really blessed with good fortune. It was also nice to have the freedom of a hotel and not to have a curfew to comply with.

Earlier, when we were in the bar, Darren had come in and I waved to him, but he looked a bit preoccupied. I guessed he was asking about accommodation; it was about 9 p.m., very late to be looking for somewhere to sleep. When I saw him leave, I was in two minds about whether to go after him. I was worried in case he couldn’t find anywhere to stay and I wondered if I should offer to let him sleep in my room. When I confided my thoughts to Mike, he asked me whether that was what I really wanted. No, it wasn’t what I wanted. I was torn between what I wanted for myself and my impulse to rescue Darren, which came from my own fear of being unable to find room at the proverbial inn. Then as we sat outside later, the Australian woman with whom Darren had left Villafranca a few days earlier, came by our table. She had just arrived and was staying a few doors down. I guessed then that she was with Darren, so I knew he wasn’t homeless after all and I was very glad that I hadn’t interfered or acted on impulse.

Day 29; Triacastella – Sarria – 25 km

I wasn’t the only pilgrim to sleep well. The hospitalero had to wake up the whole dorm at 7 a.m., which was when we made the collective discovery that it was pouring with rain, and I mean really pouring. While I was still mentally adapting to the sight of such rainfall, I became aware of a heated exchange between some agitated pilgrims and the hospitalero. He was being confronted with suspicions that there were bedbugs, which featured high up on the list of ills a pilgrim might face. Some marks on the bed above mine were being pointed to as evidence, along with suggestions that they might have fallen into my sleeping bag. But there was no certainty that we had bedbugs at all, so I shrugged off the fuss and hoped, as I packed my sleeping bag back into my rucksack, that I was not also taking some unwanted companions with me.

Breakfast was a non-event – I hadn’t been able to make it to the supermarket the day before. A very sweet cappuccino from the vending machine had to do while I applied extra padding to my blistered feet before departure. The dining room was busy with pilgrims, taking longer than necessary, it seemed, to don their waterproof ponchos before venturing out into the pouring rain. With my waterproof leggings on for the first time, I went back upstairs to tell Branu I was leaving. ‘How can you say that!’ he exclaimed. His surprise that I could just leave when I was ready to go was evident. Feeling a bit guilty then, I told Kirsten I would text her after I found a café for breakfast. Truthfully, that was to soften the blow that I was leaving without them. Although we sometimes walked together, I didn’t feel obliged to do so. I wanted the freedom to make the choice that was right for me on any given day.

The rain was still falling as I headed towards the main street, and I discovered that the restaurant we had dined in the night before was open for breakfast. However, when I went inside I realised I didn’t actually want breakfast at all; what I wanted was to walk. Although I remembered what I had said to Kirsten, the bother of removing my rucksack to search and text in the dark and the rain was something I couldn’t face, so I just kept going. As I walked through town, I saw other pilgrims spill out onto the street in the half light of the early morning, and I felt there was already something different about the day, without being quite sure what it was.

Most pilgrims were heading for Sarria, the town where many pilgrims begin to walk the last one hundred kilometres to Santiago. There were two routes: one shorter and more direct, the other route was longer because it looped around to include the village of Samos, the site of an abbey and Benedictine monastery. As I hoped to walk a little further than Sarria, I intended to take the shorter route and initially I thought I had succeeded – that is, until I could no longer deny the fact that the road signs indicated I was en route to Sarria via Samos. Just like that, any realistic possibility that I would get beyond Sarria that day was gone. We had had lots of discussion the previous evening about whether or not to visit Samos, and although it had not been my plan, it was seemingly on my path.

As I looked at the poncho-wearing group along the road ahead of me, I observed for the first time a pilgrimage before my eyes. It was a scene I hadn’t witnessed previously. There was a mystical quality to the sight of poncho-wearing, slow-moving pilgrims with sticks in one or both hands. It was striking in its simplicity and reverence. People were talking quietly, if at all, and there was something much more devotional about the procession than usual.

The arrival of the rain seemed to bring a lightness and freshness to the experience. I remember in particular walking through a small wood where the branches intertwined overhead to give shelter from the rain. This brought me into very close contact with the beauty and perfection of the raindrops as they sat on the leaves in their simple Buddha-like poses. Coming out of the woods, Samos soon opened up and I saw the monastery stand imposingly on my right at the entrance to the village.

Earlier I had met Mike and Jackie, a couple from Limerick, for the first time. Initially I stuck up conversation with Jackie before falling into step with Mike while Jackie walked behind with Marlene from Belgium. Mike referred to himself as a passionate Christian and we quickly got to talking about life and, of course, God. I enjoyed his company very much; he had an open, inclusive way of interacting with the world. When we reached Samos, Mike and I were ahead of the others and as we were longing for breakfast, we headed straight for a café.

Afterwards, we approached the abbey and were advised by someone on the steps to be quick as it was about to close. When we got inside, a young monk came towards us, making a key-locking gesture with his hands. In the brief time we were there, I took in the tranquil holy atmosphere within the abbey; I would have loved to attend Mass. I considered waiting in the village for the next Mass, but people outside were talking about different Mass times. Some said Mass would be another hour while others said two hours, and as I knew Sarria would be busy with pilgrims, I didn’t want to get there too late. Faced with such uncertainty, I decided to continue my walk and return another day to Samos.

On leaving the village I pulled away from the others, as I wanted to walk alone for a while. I wanted to reflect on what meeting Richard had meant to me. As I walked, I wept with gratitude for the feelings he awoke in me. I felt alive, excited and playful, and I knew he had touched my soul. The whole experience felt like heart medicine, and I decided that if we met in Sarria I would let him know how he impacted me.

In the afternoon, although much of the route followed the road, it was really peaceful, uninterrupted by traffic except for a tractor. Walking along quiet, winding country roads felt completely different to walking on busy main roads, and for most of the day I didn’t meet another living soul – that is, until I heard Dave from New Zealand walking behind me. We introduced ourselves and talked only briefly before he powered on ahead of me.

Close to Sarria I rejoined the Limerick couple, and as we arrived in town we followed Javier and Leo, two pilgrims they knew, into the municipal albergue. As we settled in, Jackie asked me if I would like to join them for dinner later and I said I would, although in truth I wasn’t in much of a social mood by then. I needed some time alone and headed out with my journal to find a bar and a beer. Failing to find a bar nearby, I opted for a lovely Italian café and a glass of wine. There, I talked to the Italian man who was the café owner and he told me about setting up his new business with his Spanish wife. Then while he swept the wet leaves from the floor, the most beautiful furry kitten appeared to play with the leaves and the sweeping brush. She was thoroughly irresistible and when I picked her up, the owner asked if I wanted to take her with me. Ha ha! She had strayed into their lives a few weeks earlier and had taken up residence with them. Later, he asked if I would like to come back the following summer to give his wife a break – in the kitchen!

As I sat in the café I longed for a connection with someone who really knew me, someone with whom I could bear my soul. The people I felt closest to were gone and I was starting over again. During the day I had discovered that Branu and Kirsten were staying in Samos, and although I had said I would join Mike, Jackie and the others for dinner, I wanted to stay where I was. The owner came over to me as the café filled. ‘You tell me if and when you want your dinner here,’ he said. I felt really touched that he was taking care of me and tears flowed down my cheeks. The full power of the Camino experience happens in the most unexpected ways and circumstances; the connection I longed for came from an unexpected source. It had been a day of abundance: meeting Mike and Jackie, Samos, walking, feeling my connection with Richard and then the café owner.

While I was having dinner, Richard came in with Jim, an Alaskan man I had met briefly earlier in the day. Seeing me, Richard came over, expressing his surprise, for he had expected me to have gone further. I told him about my unexpected detour to Samos, which had been absolutely worth it. He asked if I wanted to join them and I declined. I knew it was time to move on. Then as I was leaving, I went across to where they were sitting and told Richard that I had really enjoyed meeting him and that he had touched my heart.

Back at the albergue and ready for bed, I took out my book to read while I waited for the others to return. When they did, I was informed that they had come back to look for me a few times during the evening. I apologised and told them where I had been. They didn’t mind; they weren’t offended. Javier asked me what I was reading and I exposed the cover so he could see Conversations with God. ‘What are you reading that stuff for,’ the Spaniards chimed, before recommending their own reading material. I just laughed, feeling pleased that I didn’t need to hide my book cover.

Before lights out, Mike came over and sat on the edge of my bunk with his bible in his hand and took out photographs of his daughters to show me. It was a lovely gesture of welcome and inclusion.

Day 25; Foncebadón- Ponferrada – 25 km

Cruz de Ferro, a famous Camino landmark, is a huge iron cross originally erected to help pilgrims find their way across the mountain. Over the years, a large mound has formed at its base as pilgrims have added a stone, brought from home, to symbolise what they want to leave behind and their readiness for rebirth on the last leg of the Camino. Legend has it that when the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela was being built, pilgrims were asked to contribute to its building by bringing a stone; hence the tradition at Cruz de Ferro.

As I approached, I could see lots of people already there, standing amongst the stones and taking photographs. Not only had I missed the sunrise, but I didn’t have a stone. Still, I wanted to participate in the ritual along with everyone else. Stitched to my rucksack was a multicoloured ribbon, which for me represented joy, and I placed it between the stones. Put simply I wanted joy and play to have more prominence in my life.

Walking across the mountain and through its villages was an uplifting experience. The picture perfect alpine village of El Acebo particularly stood out. I imagined people holidaying in the quaint, historic houses with their rickety balconies overhanging the narrow street, and for a while I felt more on holiday too – that is, until I was struck by the realisation that nothing big was going to happen to me on the Camino. It was like a bolt out of the blue. Suddenly, it became clear to me that I would be exactly the same person when I returned home as I had been when I started out. I could hardly believe that could be true. It was a reality I hadn’t bargained for, and in response I felt really angry and disappointed. What on earth was this Camino all about?

Before arriving in the town of Molinaseca, where I stopped for coffee, I had managed to walk off or at least park my anger. Inside the café I met Darren, the Irishman I had briefly encountered in Foncebadón, and we struck up easy conversation, which helped me forget my morning’s disappointment. Later we left together to continue our journey. Darren was good company and I felt really relaxed, until we arrived at the enormous municipal albergue in Ponferrada. The registration process took place outside in the courtyard, and as I stood in the queue with Darren I began to feel uncomfortable about the possibility of sharing a dorm with him. But I needn’t have worried; I was allocated a small room with two bunk beds and three new companions.

After a nap I made my way to the kitchen with my journal and took a seat at one of the long tables. Although I had slept, I felt unbelievably tired on all levels. I began to reflect on what I had discovered earlier in the day. My expectation that something big would happen was really a fantasy, a belief that I would become somebody or something else. It’s not that I actually wanted to be another person, more a case that just being me wasn’t really enough: I had to be something. Once the initial shock, anger and disappointment had worn off, what I felt was total relief. I realised that I had been saved from the utter disappointment of arriving in Santiago expecting my fantasy to be fulfilled there. So as I sat in the albergue that evening I knew something big had happened, just not the kind of big I had anticipated.

Later that night while I was food shopping, I met Branu for the first time in four days. He had just arrived in Ponferrada, which hardly seemed believable, as it was 9 p.m. I couldn’t imagine that he would have dawdled so much along the way that he needed to walk in darkness to get to his destination. Over a glass of wine in the albergue courtyard, I discovered that he had walked with Kirsten to Molinaseca, intending to stay there, but that they had arrived too late for beds. While they could have shared a hotel room, it was not Branu’s style, so instead of spending a relaxing evening at Molinaseca, they had set out on the additional eight kilometre walk to Ponferrada. Although Kirsten was a good walker, she was nearly thirty years older than Branu, and I wondered if it was something she went along with rather than wanted.

Our time to catch up that night was fairly short – the 10 p.m. curfew arrived all too soon – but we agreed to leave together to continue our reacquaintance in the morning. When I got to my room, it was in complete darkness and the ladder that had been there earlier to help me reach the top bunk had mysteriously been removed. After a couple glasses of wine, I was both a little tipsy and a little noisy in my endeavours to get to bed. But since I blamed one of my room-mates for moving my ladder, I wasn’t too bothered about the grunts that communicated their displeasure.

Day 14; Burgos – Hontanas

In the morning I left the albergue while Burgos was still in darkness, and even though the streets were lit, the Camino signs were difficult to make out, so much so that I couldn’t see them at all! Ahead in the near distance, I noticed a female pilgrim making decisions without hesitation and I decided to follow her. It turned out that I was following Brandi, a young American in her twenties, and we began walking together from the outskirts of Burgos. At our first coffee stop we met some people we knew, including Eugene and Heather. In fact when I arrived Eugene enveloped me in an uncharacteristic hug, as though I was some long-lost relative. After we found a table, Manoel and Sue joined us and I felt my happiness was complete. When I was feeling good, as I was on that morning, I found those impromptu meetings among the loveliest of my Camino experiences.

Brandi and I parted company some time later and before lunch I met Wilhelm who, much to my surprise, was walking alone, as he was one of the seven men from Friesland! Naturally I enquired about his comrades and found out that they had not originated as a group of seven, as I had imagined. Wilhelm had set out to walk the Camino alone, but got no further than the airport before he found a ready-made walking group. The six men carried the Friesland flag on their luggage and that was what had brought them to Wilhelm’s attention. What intrigued me about them was how they walked together – more of a march really, as though they were in the army; they looked like they were taking part in their daily drill. The Camino seemed to be mostly a physical challenge to them, while for Wilhelm it was more than that – he had a real gentleness of spirit. So the first day I talked to Wilhelm was his first day alone. The rest of his group had finished in Burgos, while he was walking on to Santiago, and indeed beyond, to Finisterre.

I had set myself a big task for the day: almost thirty-two kilometres, which was quite an increase under the circumstances. It was the first day of what would be a week of walking the great Meseta Alta, a barren wilderness that provided little or no shade from the relentlessness of the sun. So after lunch I set off on the remaining fourteen-kilometre walk to Hontanas, while others quite sensibly finished their day’s walk at lunch time. I knew it would be difficult; I just didn’t know how difficult until I encountered the reality of no cafés, no trees and no shelter of any kind – just endless walking in oppressive heat.

When I arrived at my destination it was about twelve hours after my day had begun and I booked myself into the first albergue I saw: a bar. They had rooms upstairs, along with additional dormitories located in a series of random buildings at the back. My dorm accommodated ten people and four of them were present when I arrived. We exchanged the normal pleasantries but I didn’t know any of them and I was soon off to complete my chores. As I stood washing at an outdoor sink in what felt like a back alley, I could hear noise and laughter nearby, and I realised how disconnected I felt. The transition from walking alone to being surrounded by people and gaiety was challenging, particularly after the difficulty of the day. Down in the square, outside pubs and bars, the whole of the Camino seemed to have congregated – so many people and yet I felt so lost and alone.

Later I went down to the square to face the world, but I felt that I stood out like a sore thumb. I could no more have engaged in conversation than I could have walked another fourteen kilometres. After walking around the village to get my bearings, I positioned myself at a table with a pot of tea and took out my journal to write. Writing helped me to process my feelings and explore what was going on. The holiday atmosphere really jarred with me and I felt out of sync with the rest of the world. I didn’t know what I wanted, while I had a list of all the things I didn’t want. At the centre of it was my ongoing resistance to the evening meal, the pilgrim menu. In addition, I was resisting drinking alcohol as a way of passing time, while others appeared to be doing it with gusto.

The pilgrim menu, a standard three-course meal served everywhere along the Camino, varies hardly at all from place to place, either in variety or cost. A simple salad – by simple I mean lettuce and tomato – or soup to start, followed by hake or stew with potatoes, but rarely any other vegetables. Dessert might be a banana, Santiago tart (almond), a pot of yogurt or sometimes ice cream, all washed down with red wine for a total cost of about €10. So what was my objection? I should be so lucky, right?

Well, for days I had been trying to figure out how to reduce the carbohydrate content of my diet and increase my vegetable intake. Vegetables were normally only available in the soup. So in order to have vegetables I needed the starter as well as a main course, and then while I was there, how could I refuse a dessert? While my body had some difficulty with the amount of carbohydrate and lack of fibre I was consuming, my mind was even more troubled.

Journaling helped me to realise the bind I had got myself into, and I began to see that my resistance to the pilgrim menu symbolised my rejection of how things were, a refusal to accept what is, which meant that I vetoed everything around me. In an ideal world, one of my own making, I would have had more control over my diet, but if I was to have any peace, I had to accept what was available. I was doing the Camino, after all, and pilgrim dinners were part of the deal!

Day 12; Belorado – San Juan de Ortega

A peaceful and quiet morning was made even more perfect by the appearance of two captivating vistas within the first couple of hours. The first gem was a field of sunflowers still in bloom. Having seen many dead or dying sunflowers already, I paused to move amongst them and examine them more closely. We were almost of equal height! Then soon afterwards, I was gazing into the distance at the simple beauty of a small hermitage built into a rock. The humble structure touched my soul more powerfully than the grandest of churches, including the Compostela in Santiago, its impact being in its pure simplicity.

When I arrived at my destination, I saw that San Juan de Ortega was pretty much a one-horse town: an albergue, a church and a bar – that was it. While a couple of the Irish/Canadians headed for the bar to wait for other members of their group, I waited with the seven men from Friesland for the albergue, a former monastery, to open at 1 p.m. Once inside I saw that it wasn’t worth waiting for – the accommodation was really grim. The only positive I found was that males and females had separate showering facilities. At least I could shower in peace, I thought. I wouldn’t need to queue behind or among the seven men from Friesland. With that in mind, I went into the ladies bathroom where I was met by one of the seven men from Friesland stepping out of the shower. He obviously didn’t want to queue either! His unexpected appearance ruined the one and only thing about the albergue that gave me any feeling of comfort. I was annoyed with him, and to make sure he knew that, I pointed to the female symbol on the door. What could he do? Nothing! He just muttered something in Dutch and left. After my shower I sank into a deep sleep and when I awoke, I saw Jeanie and Elaine (the Canadians) in bunks next to me while the others (Heather, Eugene and Bob) had decided to walk on further.

In the afternoon I sat on a bench across the road from the albergue having my lunch and pretending to write in my journal while I observed Jeanie and Elaine in the bar. Although I could have walked over to join them, I resisted. My internal dialogue was preoccupied with thoughts of all the things I didn’t want to do at that hour of the day. I didn’t want to sit in a bar and drink alcohol at four in the afternoon, neither did I want any other kind of drink. This was a regular dilemma – what to do when there seemed to be nothing to do except sit in a bar. What I really wanted was some kind of relief from the monotony, but I didn’t want to sit in a bar to get it.

Later, at about six o’clock, I relented, and with a glass of red wine in my hand, I joined Jeanie and Elaine. They had booked a table for dinner and asked if I would like to join them. Initially I declined and later I relented about that too. Over dinner I got to know Elaine a little and discovered that she was not as aloof as I had thought. I knew Jeanie better; I had spent more time with her and knew she was a talker. They were work colleagues who had become friends, and along the way they had met Bob, also Canadian, as well as Heather and Eugene, who were both Irish and had begun the Camino travelling solo.

We were joined at our table by a lady from Australia who was staying nearby at a Casa Rural. She was doing the Camino in more comfort than us, which for her was important, but she realised it meant that the camaraderie that resulted from albergue living was something she missed out on. I completely understand why people choose to stay in hotels, but having had the albergue experience, I know something huge would have been missing without it.

Day 9; Ventosa – Cirueña

In the morning I awoke to the uplifting sound of Gregorian chanting as it wafted up the stairs from below. It felt like such an appropriate way to greet the day and I climbed out of my bunk to meet it. Over breakfast downstairs, I spoke to Debbie, an American lady who told me she was allowing her Camino to take as long as necessary. I saw the wisdom of that, of course, and although I had a return airline reservation, I had a little contingency that gave me some flexibility. Yet somehow I seemed reluctant to use it.

When we left, the morning was still covered in darkness and Manoel, Sue, Elisabeth, Debbie and I were immediately in dispute about whether to go left or right to rejoin the Camino. For some reason I felt certain that we should go left and they followed me. But then we met a man going in the opposite direction and Debbie decided to turn around and follow him. Later we discovered that both directions worked, although perhaps we had taken the longer route. In any event we were rewarded with the most glorious sunrise after about an hour, and I felt that the experience softened any residual resentment about the extra kilometre or two!

By then we had fallen into a rhythm of walking about twenty kilometres a day and this day was no different. However, half way through the day, the combination of the high temperature and my inflamed knees meant that I was struggling once again. Although Elisabeth, Sue and Manoel were ahead of me, I was able to get Manoel’s attention to say I was stopping and he relayed the message up the line. Everyone was agreeable to taking a rest, but Elisabeth suggested going a little further as she could see in the distance a more fitting resting site than the roadside spot I had chosen. I too had seen what looked like bales of straw and although my fatigue needed to be addressed urgently, I saw the wisdom of her suggestion.

We had begun to routinely book our nightly accommodation in advance and we were heading for a private albergue in the small village of Cirueña. When we arrived we found our albergue, Virgen de Guadalupe, painted in a lively shade of blue with lots of homely and inviting potted plants and hanging baskets outside. However, inside was a different story. The house itself was in disrepair, but more important than that, it felt more like we were staying in an army barracks where the resident sergeant was on patrol. After meeting us at the door, we were instructed to follow the hospitalero upstairs, where he sat us all around the kitchen table to complete the registration process. Included in the offering was an evening meal, and before arriving I had imagined a warm, convivial evening with a welcoming host and fellow pilgrims. However, our host didn’t have the welcoming touch. It felt like we were more of an inconvenience to him than anything else, so when he showed us the evening’s menu, one by one, we all said we wouldn’t be staying for dinner.

When we got to our room, I noticed the absence of the usual stack of blankets. So in anticipation of feeling cold during the night, I asked Manoel to see if he could get a blanket for me from the hospitalero. Manoel agreed to make the approach while I listened to the exchange from the safety of the dorm, and although I didn’t understand Spanish, his tone told me all I needed to know. In fact the hospitalero came into our room to shut the window we had opened. ‘If you kept the window closed you wouldn’t need a blanket,’ was the gist of what he said in Spanish. I wasn’t optimistic about my chances of a blanket!

Unlike other places, I didn’t feel I had the freedom of the house. It felt too much like we were intruding on him and his domain and when the others wanted to go to the pub I joined them, even though I would have preferred to rest and journal. In the bar, we had a couple of hours to wait before they offered dinner service and passing time felt challenging. I knew I was going through the motions until we could order dinner and then sleep. Manoel was using the local services to access the internet while Sue was on her phone; we were all there but not together. Part of me wanted to tell them to put away the gadgets, but I knew I had no right. We did discuss the route for the following day and having consulted my guidebook, and read about Santo Domingo, I knew I really wanted to spend some time in the town. I didn’t want to walk through it and out the other side without experiencing it. Elisabeth and Manoel, too, were open to the idea, but Sue seemed less interested.

Back in the albergue, my comrades offered me their jackets to keep me warm during the night as the hospitalero had not softened his stance on the blanket situation. And as I lay in bed, I began to acknowledge that although being in this group had real advantages, if I tied myself to it I might be compromising my own needs too much. In any event I knew we wouldn’t all finish together as Elisabeth’s Camino would end in Burgos a few days hence, and I thought that might be my exit too.

Day 8; Logroño – Ventosa

In the morning I left Logroño with Elisabeth, Sue and Manoel, but I felt exhausted almost as soon as I began and immediately fell behind. My knee joints were inflamed and I struggled to find a walking rhythm. In truth, my body was telling me to rest but I was ignoring its wisdom. Furthermore, we had set out without breakfast and I just hoped that my comrades would stop at the earliest opportunity, but I thought I might have to wait an hour or more for one to present itself. Then while we were still walking through a large municipal park, I saw them disappear into a building in the distance. It was almost too much to believe that it could be a café and I tried not to get my hopes up. As I arrived outside I saw what appeared to be a public library, but once inside, its inner beauty was revealed. At the back of the bar was an outdoor terrace overlooking a lake, and I realised I would have food for my soul as well as my belly. However it was going to be a long wait, for there was only one man to fulfil the roles of server, chef and cashier.

Swedish Ann was in the café and as usual she was in no hurry at all, and although I knew I needed to adopt more of her philosophy, I had still not accepted the pace that was right for me in that moment. A week into my Camino, I continued to believe I had to match the standard walking plan set out in John Brierley’s guidebook, which for most pilgrims is the Camino bible. It sets out daily walking stages and destinations, where in general, the availability of pilgrim accommodation clusters. I thought that if I could do as John Brierley’s guidebook suggested then I would be doing it properly! Really I was afraid to trust my own wisdom and knowing, for that could mean allowing others to go ahead of me. Each day I wanted to be there, wherever that was; I found that there was, in fact, elusive. I was having trouble allowing myself to be here, in the present moment.

As the afternoon progressed, the others were ahead of me again. Somehow I pulled myself along, knowing that it couldn’t last forever, I would get there eventually. In time, I arrived at a sign which indicated a left turn to Ventosa, a couple of kilometres further, and another dull straight road delivered me to the village. As I was about to enter the albergue I met Manoel on his way back out; he was coming to find me. We had booked the albergue over breakfast in the park that morning and it did not disappoint. The moment I stepped inside, I noticed the house was furnished and decorated with care, and I knew I was going to feel at home. The hospitaleros were professional, and provided a very clean, efficiently run house with a small shop on the ground floor that sold food in pilgrim-friendly quantities. Upstairs they had segregated bathroom facilities, which made things a little more comfortable, particularly as the clothes washing and drying facilities were housed separately at the top of the garden.

While journaling later, I allowed myself to consider the possibility that I might not complete the Camino, and it was a thought that was not easy to accept. Even though I tried to console myself with the knowledge that the Camino is at heart an internal journey, not an external one, I still wanted to complete it! But I knew I needed to take the risk of slowing down and trust that my body would guide me physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually in accordance with its needs, rather than trying to implement a preconceived idea of how I thought it should be.

While Elisabeth and I sat in the garden in the late afternoon and early evening we discovered that we had misplaced Manoel and Sue. Where could they be? In the pub. They were drinking beer and eating crisps with George, a new acquaintance and a fellow pilgrim from Holland. Truth be told Manoel was a bit tipsy when we discovered his whereabouts, and wasn’t that inclined to want to leave, but with a little persuasion he came with us to a local restaurant for a lovely meal and a very enjoyable night with George.

Sue, Elisabeth, George, Me and Manoel