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 31; Portomarín – Palas de Rei – 24.8 km

The day started with drizzle and progressed into full-blown rain within an hour or two, and I was back into full rain gear. While some people scurried for shelter I ploughed ahead. Then I realised, much to my dismay, that my waterproof boots were not in fact waterproof! They coped well with showers but were no match for heavy rain. My feet were soaked and I squelched as I walked, fully aware that my blisters were also coming under pressure, as my plasters loosened their protective grip. Up ahead I saw a café and decided that I would stop to change my socks, even though I’d be returning my feet to wet shoes.

The café had a calm, sedate atmosphere without a rucksack in sight. That was unusual. Sitting at the dining tables enjoying lunch were groups of four-star pilgrims (their luggage was transported). By contrast, I sat on a barstool in my waterproof leggings with my rucksack beside me. After a few minutes, Mike made an entrance in his dark green poncho, with Jackie, Frank, Jill and Brett following shortly behind. As we all lined up at the bar, I heard Frank ask Brett what he did in the real world. ‘I’m an Anglican Priest,’ Brett replied. I was certainly surprised; all I knew until then was that he was a four-star pilgrim with an English accent. While I was surprised, I was delighted too; now he really interested me as I have always been fascinated by people who choose a life of service to God. Conversation turned to more immediate matters; accommodation, we were all heading for Palas de Rei and there was some concern about availability. The wet day would force pilgrims to stop earlier than usual, and we were hearing that the private albergues were already booked up. So I decided to head off in advance of the others. Truthfully that wasn’t the only reason for leaving ahead of the group. I seemed to want to be part of it and also on the periphery.

The downpour resumed as soon as I left the café and it continued for the rest of the day. When I arrived in Palas de Rei I was absolutely dripping. On the outskirts, I noted the existence of the municipal albergue, and even though I questioned the wisdom of my desision to walk a further couple of kilometres into town, that is exactly what I did. Nearly an hour later, when I couldn’t get a bed in town, I had to retrace my steps to the municipal albergue, which turned out to be a modern version of Colditz. Even after a hot shower I still felt cold. The small laundry room was, I discovered, the warmest place in the building, so some clothes washing seemed like a good idea.

Soon I realised that my idea was not unique. With the day being so wet, a lot of people wanted to use the machines, and the facilities didn’t quite stretch to accommodate the needs of so many people. In fact, there was a long waiting list; I was fourteenth in line for the dryer, and fifth in line for a washing machine. While I hadn’t bargained on such a long wait, I didn’t have anything else to do. Then five girls got very upset when they returned from lunch to find that someone had removed their clothes from the washing machine. Their discovery was followed by drama and chaos as people argued about what had happened and who was next on the list. The noise, as it was to me, was all in Spanish and carried on until Javier arrived and took charge. He looked like an unlikely leader, as he stood in the middle of the room in his schoolboy shorts; nevertheless he was a leader – he came across as a really genuine man and people listened while he calmed the situation. It was a lot of drama over laundry, but with so few clothes available to pilgrims, laundry is very important business on the Camino.

That night I had a lovely dinner with Frank and Jill in the nearby hotel restaurant. Their walk had begun in León. Jill worked as a teaching assistant in Madrid and had travelled from there, while her father had come from New York. It was Jill who really wanted to do the Camino; Frank was a somewhat reluctant pilgrim. There was much of the whole adventure that he could have done without. He suffered quite a lot with blisters, which made walking tough, but he did like the social aspect, so it wasn’t all bad.

When I look back I see the ways in which I deny the fulfillment of my own needs. Earlier in the day I moved away prematurely from others when I left the café. I had begun to feel vulnerable as they began to discuss accommodation plans. As a four-star pilgrim Bret’s accommodation and evening meal were booked in advance, while Jackie and Mike had each other, and Jill and Frank had each other. Wherever they went, they went together, whereas I was on my own which put me in a more vulnerable position, one I didn’t really want to expose. At such times, it seems like making an exit is the only thing I can do, and then the impact of those decisions hit home later. That night I was lucky to meet Jill and Frank. Being alone is great when it’s what I actually want, but when it’s not what I want, it’s a lonely experience.

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 27; Villafranca del Bierzo – La Faba – 25 km

At breakfast, I met Kirsten and Branu and we talked about how far we would walk that day. It appeared that most pilgrims were focused on getting to the top of the mountain to a village called O Cebreiro, thirty kilometres from Villafranca. To reach it, we had a choice of routes: the shorter road route with a steep climb at the end, or the longer mountain route with a steep climb at both ends. Those intent on making it to O Cebreiro in one day took the shorter road route to save their energy for the ascent at the end of the day. As my feet and I disliked road walking, we decided to take the longer mountain route and stay overnight in a small village part way up the second mountain.

Kirsten left the albergue with me. She seemed very nervous about making a mistake and sought confirmation from others as we were leaving town. For her, the events of the previous day must have still been vivid. At the place where we needed to decide whether to take the mountain or the road route, I felt very clear about which way I was going, despite the steep climb that was immediately evident. However, Kirsten was torn, probably because Branu wasn’t with us; she didn’t know which way he would go, or when and if they would be reunited. She seemed to feel swayed towards the road route, as all the pilgrims we met were going that way. I advised her to do whatever she wanted, since I would still take the mountain route whatever her decision. At the same time, there was a small voice inside my head wondering if it was really so wise to be going up a mountain on my own. After some hesitation Kirsten came with me, although I knew she still felt uncertain about her decision. A kilometre or so later, when we looked below us, we saw the pilgrim procession along the road in the distance and agreed that we had made the right decision.

Crossing the mountain we met only two people: one a local farmer and the other a fast-moving pilgrim. After ten kilometres we arrived in the town where the two routes converged. For me it couldn’t come soon enough. Tiredness had really hit me as I descended, and thoughts of a chocolate croissant with a café con leche kept me motivated for the last kilometre or two. Half an hour later we took off again along the road. By then it was midday and hot, and my feet were really objecting to the hard road surface. Although I slowed down, my Achilles tendon ached and I became more and more ill-tempered. If truth be told, I really wanted to walk alone, but I couldn’t see how I could get away. I knew Kirsten would follow no matter how far I went. She had to be with me and I resented her dependence on me. I didn’t want to make small talk or big talk; I didn’t want to talk at all. Just walking was as much as I could manage.

Although I didn’t have a clear plan as to where exactly I would stay, I hoped to make it to La Faba, a village five kilometres from O Cebreiro. Kirsten had heard about a ‘hippy albergue’ in La Faba and wanted to stay there; initially I agreed. However, when we arrived in the village, a man told me about an alternative hostel and advised that it was the best place he had stayed so far. An unsolicited albergue recommendation was very rare, so I knew it warranted an investigation. But Kirsten didn’t want to come with me, so we were at another point of conflict, just as we had been at the beginning of the day. While I was clear about where I was going, Kirsten was reluctant. As I walked away she stood undecided at the top of a little hill, although I guessed she would follow me in the end.

The albergue was well run by a couple of German women, and on arrival I felt really welcomed, not something I had experienced everywhere. Often, arriving at an albergue was a very impersonal, transactional experience. It was always so nice to be greeted warmly and to have a sense that the hospitalero had some insight into what it took to continue to walk each day. As the German hospitalero enquired about my day, my reply was overheard by a male pilgrim passing through the foyer. ‘I recognise that accent,’ he said. He had clearly arrived sometime before me, as he was already showered and changed. I hoped we’d meet again later – I recognised his accent too.

A few minutes into the check-in process, Kirsten walked through the door and I was happy to see her. Perhaps I was slow to admit that this was the part of the day when I needed her more. With the resentment and friction of the day forgotten, we agreed to go to the bar for a drink once the chores had been completed. While I waited for Kirsten in the dormitory, the man I had spoken to earlier came in and introduced himself. Richard lived in my home county of Wexford, so we had something in common from the off. He asked if he could join us for a drink and as we walked up the little hill to the village, I found myself clicking with him straight away. It was a friendship born in immediate playfulness. Truthfully, I felt excited in his company and I hadn’t felt excited for some time. We had dinner in the local bar, where we were joined later by Branu who had walked back from O Cebreiro, having failed to secure accommodation. During dinner it emerged that Richard worked as a doctor. I wasn’t surprised; he had an air of calm, and my sense was that he was used to being in charge. I could really imagine people feeling safe in his hands.

On the way back to the albergue, I walked ahead with Branu while we played with our shadows under the street light. However, we sobered up quickly when we realised the dorm was in complete darkness on our return. Switching on overhead lighting was not an option – a riot might have broken out. Finding what I needed, then getting onto the top bunk and into my sleeping bag without making too much noise or injuring myself was not easily achieved.

Although I didn’t admit it to Kirsten or Branu, I liked Richard. I had learned that he had a daughter, but he didn’t wear a wedding ring so his marital status wasn’t clear. But I liked him and I was hoping…….

Day 26; Ponferrada – Villafranca del Bierzo – 23.5 km

The albergue staff switched on the overhead lighting at 6 a.m., and with the brightness difficult to ignore, I sprung out of bed quickly. The three strangers I had shared the dorm with were early starters and had already left. Kirsten, on the other hand, was slow to mobilise herself; I had finished breakfast before she appeared, she looked exhausted after her long trek the previous day, even putting on boots seemed to take a lot of her energy.

Although we began walking together, Branu gradually fell behind and soon we couldn’t see him at all. It became apparent as we walked through the commercial district, which was completely different to the quaint old city, that Ponferrada was a lot bigger than we’d anticipated. With the city signs competing with one another for attention, I lost sight of the Camino and began to follow another pilgrim, assuming she could see what I could not. Mistake! It transpired that we were following Elizabeth from Dublin, and I don’t know who she was following. She worked as a teaching assistant in Madrid and had good Spanish, which came in handy, as we were lost. If I had been on my own I would have retraced my steps, but I felt safe in numbers and had faith that we would find our way back. However, Kirsten was less trusting – of me, of herself, or anyone else; mostly, perhaps, she was worried about being parted from Branu.

About two hours later we were reunited with the Camino and shortly afterwards, Kirsten and I stopped at a café. Darren was there ahead of us and I was pleased to see him, as I needed some light relief. Walking with Kirsten for the previous couple of hours had been draining, so I was glad of Darren’s company. The three of us left together after coffee, and as the morning progressed into afternoon, Darren and I laughed our way through story after story. We were as carefree as school kids on a day off. I really don’t recall what we were laughing at, but it all seemed funny at the time. After a while, Kirsten dropped back and later I saw her in a bar having a beer with Heather and Eugene.

In Villafranca, the albergue of popular choice was referred to as the ‘hippy place’. Run by a family who had been tending to pilgrims for years, it felt more like a community than usual, and it was clear that the family enjoyed the role they played. The upstairs dorms were accessed by external staircases while balconies overlooked the courtyard below, and as I observed the flow of movement from my vantage point in the queue, I had the feeling of being on holiday.

When Darren and I got to the top of the registration line, we were allocated a double bunk bed – not ideal, but I knew I would be okay. I felt really happy. I knew so many people; Kirsten had arrived with Heather and Eugene, and I was especially pleased to see Branu a little later. Even before he showered, he ordered a bottle of wine and the three of us pooled our food resources for a lovely impromptu picnic. Those were some of the best moments. I felt so fond of Branu. Sometimes we had deep philosophical conversations and at other times we would just look at one another and laugh. I felt no pressure from him or with him. I could come and go as I pleased and we would be happy to meet whenever we did. He was also the bridge that connected me to Kirsten; we seemed to need his laid-back let’s-have-some-fun attitude as an antidote to the intensity between us. His appearance often put things into perspective for me, and I would suddenly find my playfulness again.

Then after a lovely day I found myself drifting away and disconnecting in the evening. I didn’t seem to know what to do with myself and I felt at a loss. At the communal dinner, I struggled to participate in conversation; it took so much energy for me to talk at all. I could see Darren further down the table; he seemed to be getting along well with the girl on his right and I wondered if I had lost my companion.

Day 17; Frómista – Carrión de los Condes

I had been walking the Meseta for a couple of days and felt I had entered a different phase of the Camino. There were fewer people, stops and shelter, along with much less variety in the terrain and an elusive horizon far off in the distance. Everything seemed to stretch out. Maybe I had stretched out too; I had certainly slowed down. At last I seemed to accept that there was no such thing as getting ahead.

When I arrived in Carrión de los Condes, I headed for the parish albergue where I met two beautiful young nuns, Maria from Spain and Diane from Peru. At the check-in desk, Maria sat with the male hospitalero inviting pilgrims to join her and Diane for a sing-song before evening Mass. At the appointed time, about twenty of us sat in the foyer in anticipation of being entertained – well, that’s what I anticipated anyway – but before any singing began, we were each asked to introduce ourselves and say what we were looking for from the Camino. I hadn’t expected that. Not only did I feel the discomfort of the truth in the pit of my stomach, I was also first in line to speak. With a shaky voice and a pounding heart I said I was looking for oneness, and just to add to my discomfort, I was asked to repeat what I had said! My mind questioned then whether I had said too much – or perhaps too little; had I been understood? Worst of all, had I sounded too holy?

After Mass the priest, with the help of Maria’s translation, invited the pilgrim congregation to join him around the altar to receive a blessing. Twenty or so of us stood in readiness for what I anticipated would be a group blessing when unexpectedly, the priest asked us to approach him individually. As he laid his hands on each person’s head, Diane sang in joyful accompaniment, and when I looked over at her through my tears she just nodded. I felt she was saying, yes, it’s all here for you. Then when it was my turn, I walked slowly and as consciously as I could to stand in front of the priest. It was an experience I wanted to savour. I didn’t want to miss a thing, and when I received the blessing, I felt the innocent gratitude of a child truly received. In fact it was like making my first communion all over again.

Over the previous two weeks I had received a number of blessings, some particularly special, but none compared to that night.

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 13; San Juan de Ortega – Burgos

I was awake and annoyed early as a result of the disturbance caused by two male cyclists preparing for departure. At first I hoped to get back to sleep, but once I was awake I found that impossible. I could only look on in disbelief at Jeanie who was sleeping soundly, oblivious to the circus going on around her.

It was dark and cold outside (and inside), and it seemed to be taking longer than usual for daylight to appear. With no way to pass time and no comfort to pass it in, I was impatient to be off. But I wanted someone else to leave before me so I could follow them. My flashlight was a tiny, ineffective little thing and really not up to the task of dealing with darkness. Inexplicably, nobody else seemed to want to leave, so I set off anyway, but I really couldn’t see a thing and I soon returned to the albergue. Again I waited, and still there was no sign of anyone leaving. Once more my impatience got the better of me and at the second attempt I kept going.

Over the next couple of hours, a rugged, nondescript, barren landscape unfolded around me. The sandy, dry soil only supported plants of a spiky variety, or so I thought until I noticed an abundance of tiny, delicate pink flowers growing all around me. The star-shaped flowers sat directly above the soil without any apparent support. I couldn’t see any stalks. What struck me most was their ability to grow and flourish despite the tough conditions. It was difficult for me to imagine how such elegance could exist in an environment so arid. On reflection I see this as a metaphor with personal resonance. The flowers represent the delicacy of the heart, which even though it may get trampled on from time to time, has the strength to survive and prosper.

When Wolfgang appeared beside me later he talked about getting a bus through the industrial parts of Burgos straight into the city, arguing that walking through such areas did not add anything to the Camino. Sylvia and Christine (a couple of Dutch ladies) agreed, saying they would be taking the bus into the city at the earliest opportunity. Although it would have erased ten kilometres of difficult walking conditions, I declared there would be no bus for me; I would be walking all the way. Despite toying with the idea of catching a bus, Wolfgang walked all the way too, some of it with me. He was intending to stay two nights in Burgos and it was unlikely that I would see him again.

At the big, modern, municipal albergue I was shown to my bunk, and I saw that Swedish Ann was already there. Within moments I overheard Sue’s South African accent, and when I went to say hello, I discovered that Elisabeth, Manoel and Sue were near neighbours. While I really needed a nap after my shower, I also wanted a beer with my old friends, and I decided to forgo a rest in favour of friendship and fun.

After lunch we agreed to meet again later for dinner and we went our separate ways for the remainder of the afternoon. Sue and Elisabeth took a city bus tour while I headed for the cathedral, although I was so tired I didn’t get much out of the experience. It was vast and spectacular, but what I needed was rest so I returned to the albergue for a short nap. In the evening the streets were full of all the generations, dressed up and strolling in the sunshine, while lots of elderly people sat on the many benches soaking it all up. It was Friday night and there was a festive atmosphere, with a small circus act attracting a lot of children of all ages. It was very colourful and the children were excited as they sat in the miniature parade vehicles, becoming part of the entertainment while parents followed with clicking cameras.

After the unexpected show, we moved off to get away from the crowds and found an outdoor table in a little piazza surrounded by shops and cafés. It was another world, set apart altogether from day-to-day Camino life. We ordered drinks; mine was a glass of cold, crisp, fruity white wine and I felt like I was on holiday. Then Sue spotted George, a Dutch man we had shared dinner with in Ventosa, in a book shop across from where we were sitting. She reacted quickly and went into the shop to invite him to join us for a drink. We were pleased to see him – well, some of us were anyway. I noticed that Manoel became very quiet and I wondered if he preferred to have the ladies all to himself!

Once seated in the restaurant I knew I no longer wanted to be there. It was about 9 p.m., and I was just too tired and didn’t feel hungry. It was Elisabeth’s last night and although it would have been nice to have shared dinner, I didn’t have the energy for it. I would have been staying only out of politeness and I decided that was taking politeness too far. It was time for bed, so I said my goodbyes and headed back to the albergue alone.

I had had a great day.

Day 11; Santo Domingo – Belorado

As I left Santo Domingo I began walking with Wolfgang, a young German man in his mid to late thirties. Although initially I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to walk with him, I allowed myself to find out. The previous evening we had sat across from one another at the dining table in the albergue. He had tried to include me in conversation with the people he knew at the table. However, I had retreated back into myself and it wasn’t easy to draw me out. It really says a lot about someone who continues to act kindly in the face of little encouragement. So having had that experience with Wolfgang I was positively predisposed towards him. After three or four kilometres together we were joined by Eugene, an Irishman from Cork who lived on the Isle of Man. He was walking the Camino with an Irish woman and a group of Canadians.

As we approached the first village I could see the bar was busy and some people were sitting outside, amongst them the two Dutch ladies I had paid little attention to, as well as members of Eugene’s walking group. Instead of heading straight for the bar as I hoped, Wolfgang unexpectedly went into the church, and as soon as I saw him disappear, I felt lost. I wasn’t sure what to do. Although I wanted a rest over coffee, suddenly that seemed next to impossible. For some unknown reason I felt unable to walk into the bar with Eugene. To buy some time, I went into the church too. Really I was just hiding while I tried to work out what to do. In the end I decided to walk on.

At the next village, four kilometres later, I stopped for coffee and within about ten minutes I was joined by Eugene while he waited for one of his group. He began by asking why I hadn’t stopped to join them earlier. In the face of his challenging enquiry, I lied and said I hadn’t felt the need to stop then. I decided it wasn’t a moment for truth. My experience of Eugene had already made me wary. I had the feeling that however unintentional it might be, he could trample on my sensitivities. In contrast, I felt safe with Wolfgang. With him I experienced kindness, gentleness and a respectful distance, while Eugene was a bit more of a bull in a china shop.

In Belorado there were lots of places to stay, and as a result, the hospitaleros competed for pilgrim custom. One enterprising albergue owner came out to meet us, offering bottles of water while advertising his albergue at the same time. By coincidence it was his albergue that had already caught my attention so in my case his advertising wasn’t necessary. On the way inside, I met Elaine, one of the Canadians, and we both made reservations for the dinner the owners provided on site. Almost immediately I became aware of my attempts to ingratiate myself with Elaine. I was fully aware of what I was doing: I was trying to ensure I was part of the Irish/Canadian party for dinner.

In the evening while we waited in the foyer before going in to dinner, I overheard someone say that Elaine had booked a table for six people. That worried me a little: I didn’t think it was necessary to book a table; I had assumed it would be a communal meal. Then I hoped I was the sixth person, as there were five members of the Irish/Canadian group. Wrong – it was a New Zealander named Les. I made the discovery while we waited in line on the stairs, and when I entered the dining room they were seated at a table for six. Other tables were set for smaller numbers and I wondered if they had also been reserved. I felt like a spare part. But more than anything I felt hurt by what I saw at the time as Elaine’s meanness. In the awkwardness of the moment, Les rose from his seat quickly, insisting I take it, saying he was the imposter. But the staff sprang into action and placed an extra chair at the end of the table, which I took. By then, whatever confidence I had about being there had evaporated, and in my mind I blamed Elaine for my discomfort. On more mature reflection, I know it would have been so much easier if I had asked to join them, thereby taking the power into my own hands, rather than placing it in someone else’s.

With Eugene and Les either side of me, we talked about a variety of subjects. Les seemed a gentle, open soul, whereas I found I had little in common with Eugene. His conversation focused mostly on business, which is not something I have much interest in, and I had even less interest in what he had to say when he told me I was taking the Camino too seriously. His judgement felt really hurtful and stayed with me for days, although at the time I tried to conceal my feelings. I felt hurt because I knew I couldn’t have been more sincere in my endeavours, and yet somewhere within me I also knew there was a truth in what he said.

Although I don’t know what prompted his comment, I imagine it may have been because of something repeated to him by Jeanie (one of the Canadians). When I had walked with her earlier in the day, I had told her I was seeking to experience a depth of inner aloneness, and that I was willing to tolerate the layers of vulnerability that came with it. On reflection, I realise that in some circles that makes me a little unusual. The notion of inner aloneness had come up at a retreat I attended a couple of months earlier. I understood it to mean the place beyond the illusion of separation, where inner aloneness is in fact experienced as unity with the Divine, rather than the aloneness I was more familiar with. And to experience unity I would need to dissolve the layers of separation.

Day 10; Cirueña – Santo Domingo de la Calzada

After six kilometres we arrived in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, where we stopped for coffee and a discussion about the day ahead. I wanted to explore the town without being under the pressure of time, although it became apparent, that my interest in Santo Domingo was not shared by all. It was clear that Sue wanted to pass through it as quickly as possible, in the same way we had done with many other places, and as we left the café I felt that the disharmony between us was evident.

Santo Domingo, the man after whom the town is named, was an eleventh-century Benedictine monk who devoted his life to caring for pilgrims. However, what piqued my interest was a story featuring a young German pilgrim who paid the price for rejecting the local innkeeper’s daughter in favour of continuing his pilgrimage. She wasn’t best pleased, and decided to exact her revenge on him by planting a church treasure in his belongings. The crime was duly reported, the young pilgrim was charged with theft, found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. All very swift.

His parents, despite their grief, continued their pilgrimage to Santiago, and as they approached the town on their return journey, a voice told them that their son had been saved by Santo Domingo. Hearing this they went to see the judge who had sentenced the young pilgrim to death to tell him that their son was still alive, despite being hanged. The judge, who was in the middle of roasting chickens when he heard the news, was not inclined to believe them. ‘Your son is as alive as these chickens I am going to eat,’ he said. Just at that moment, the chickens he was cooking – a cock and a hen – leapt from the spit and crowed ‘Santo Domingo de la Calzada where the chickens crow after being roasted’. Since then, descendants of the cock and hen remain in residence in the cathedral in celebration of the local legend.

The Cathedral was first on my list of places to visit, but I couldn’t gain access without a ticket; for that I was directed to the tourist office. There, I cast my eyes around at the souvenir collection and found myself particularly drawn to an emerald green rosary. As I touched the cross, tears came to my eyes and I began to realise that I was facing a decisive moment; continue ahead with my comrades or take a risk.

As I walked around the Cathedral my decision became clear. Even though I had only walked six kilometres, and it was still hours before midday, I would stop in Santo Domingo. I accepted that I needed to slow down to really experience here, and to do that I had to take the risk of following my inner compass. Oddly, I also felt it was time to return to the municipal albergue experience. In some ways my Camino had begun to feel less like a pilgrimage and more of a walking holiday – or perhaps I hadn’t learned how to have both. The pilgrimage experience, something that is really personal to each individual in its meaning, was what I had come to experience. Although the social contact was important, I wondered if it took me away from my deeper journey, or maybe I just hadn’t learned how to navigate between them. My feelings had guided me to a deeper longing, and I sensed that my Camino at that point was about following the courage of my heart.

At the agreed meeting time, I returned to tell the others my decision, which they accepted without question. Elisabeth had returned with pastries and we gorged on those before saying goodbye. I didn’t know if we would meet again, it seemed unlikely as they would be a whole day’s walk ahead of me. After they headed away I sat outside on a bench wondering how I would kill time until the municipal albergue opened at lunchtime. Not to mention the though of the long day stretching ahead with nothing to do and no friends to do nothing with.

The albergue reception provided a view into the large downstairs dining room with access to a rough and ready garden for relaxing and hanging out washing. Upstairs I walked through the old, empty, dilapidated rooms. It was like going back in time to 1950s Ireland, with brown patterned wallpaper and lino floor covering, threadbare carpet, crooked walls, squeaky floors and stiff water taps. It didn’t feel in any way nurturing or comforting and I noticed how empty I felt after the exhilaration of my earlier decision. The reality of my loss began to sink in fully. I didn’t want to spend any time upstairs so I returned to the relative homeliness of the ground floor dining room. From there I had a good vantage point, and I watched some of the first pilgrims arrive; notable amongst them was the advance party of two who were booking beds for seven men from Friesland (a province in Holland). Such a request got my attention and I knew I would remember them.

I felt more alone than ever as I realised all the familiar faces had gone ahead – not just Manoel, Sue and Elisabeth, but all my other Camino acquaintances. The full impact of my decision hit me and in part, I regretted my decision. It was like beginning all over again. I hadn’t anticipated how vulnerable I would feel without my friends, but at the same time I knew there wouldn’t be anything new without letting go of the old. In the dorm, I felt lost among all the new arrivals with their different languages and I asked two women where they were from without actually being interested in their response. Although they told me they were from Holland, they could have been from Mars for all I cared; my enquiry was merely an attempt to conceal how lost I felt.

As I look back, I realise how important the group was for me. Its protection fortified me until I could set out on my own again. Yet to have remained with the group for longer than was necessary would have masked what I needed to resolve within myself.

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

Day 7; Los Arcos – Logroño

The breakfast spread at Casa de Abuela looked inviting and I wanted to do it justice, so I took as much time as I could to enjoy what was before me. But I couldn’t linger too long as there was the small matter of a twenty-seven kilometre walk ahead of me to the City of Logroño. It was a walk I wasn’t particularly looking forward to as my limbs had taken a battering over the previous couple of days, and I would also have preferred to avoid trekking across a big City. Sue had left with the morning still bathed in darkness, while Manoel was coming to terms with losing his map and the consequence of its loss. The previous day’s experiences had left me feeling in an optimistic, positive mood so I asked Manoel if he wanted to leave with me, and my map, when daylight appeared.

Mid morning we stopped for coffee in a small village where some other pilgrims were already gathered, and I sat outside with Dublin John. He was on a two-week Camino, which he intended to finish in Burgos a week later. While I waited for Manoel to join us, our conversation focused on John’s injured foot. We pondered whether or not he would be able to make it to Logroño that day at all. Typically, feet and legs are high up on the Camino conversational agenda, but it could get a bit tedious, speculating on exactly what had been hurt, and how long it might remain hurt. I needed some light relief, which I hoped would come from Manoel, but when I looked around, I noticed he had joined another table. Interesting.

Just as Manoel and I were leaving the café, Elisabeth arrived. Earlier in the morning we had left her sitting at the kitchen table in the albergue. At sixty-eight, Elisabeth was an impressive walker, much better than me, and she caught up with us shortly after her coffee break. Soon Manoel and Elisabeth began to converse in French. He had lived in France during his Royal Air Force days, so he found speaking French easier than English. While they talked, I lost interest and fell behind, partly because I wasn’t part of the conversation, but mostly because I was feeling sluggish. In the distance I could see Viana, where we intended to stop for lunch. It looked deceptively close due to the flatness of the surrounding landscape, whereas I felt the reality of the actual distance with each step I walked – for me it couldn’t be close enough.

In Viana, my spirits lifted at the sight of the enticing and extravagant display of tapas that covered the entire length of the long bar, its beauty alone felt restorative. While we sat outside enjoying a delicious lunch Dublin John came into view and joined us. Quite soon I sensed Manoel wasn’t very keen on John being with us. That seed had been sown in my mind when he hadn’t joined our table at the cafe earlier, and over lunch he seemed to make very little effort to include John. Secretly, I hoped John would push off on his own after lunch so that the awkwardness wouldn’t continue further into the afternoon and he duly obliged.

As we rested outside in the shade Manoel phoned ahead to a private albergue in Logroño to book beds for the three of us. It was a relief to have accommodation secured and comforting to know that I would be staying in a private albergue. Before leaving Viana, Manoel found a supermarket nearby, so I was able to stock up on black tea bags. I had been missing my morning cuppa, as most albergues had vending machines that dispensed only lemon tea.

Refuelled, we set out on the remaining ten kilometres to Logroño, which for me was even more difficult than the hours before lunch. By then the day was very hot, and although I tried to keep up with the others, I really struggled. My knee joints were swollen and my legs felt like dead weight. Every step felt torturous. I knew I should just stop and take a break. In fact I should have taken as many breaks as I needed, but I was reluctant to either let the others go on ahead of me or ask them to wait.

As the afternoon progressed, walking in the heat felt almost unbearable, and by the time we got to the outskirts of Logroño I just wanted it to be over. Every step required physical, emotional and mental effort, so I left the navigation through the city to Manoel and Elisabeth. Then as we drew closer to our destination, I thought I spotted the albergue and I tried to point it out – they ignored me, and continued on. While I was annoyed at being dismissed, I still followed them, as I wasn’t entirely certain of what I had seen either. Within minutes we arrived outside the building I had identified earlier, having gone the long way round, which wasn’t very long at all; still, I was irritated as it confirmed I had been correct, although not confident, in my observation. As we arrived, we met Sue emerging from the albergue and I felt even more resentful. She was heading out for a walk around the City having arrived well ahead of us and seemed to have taken the twenty-seven-kilometre walk in her stride. I didn’t like her being so carefree when the experience had taken so much out of me. I was more familiar with seeing myself as the one striding ahead, rather than the one struggling behind and I didn’t like this new turn of events.

Inside the albergue, the check-in process was unusually laborious and I found my patience further tested. I needed to rest so badly, but the hospitalero moved at a snail’s pace and she had an appetite for collecting more information than I was used to providing. When we were shown to a large, thirty-bed dormitory, I felt really disappointed. I just couldn’t believe my eyes as I looked around at what was more akin to an open-plan office and not at all the kind of private albergue experience I had in mind.

When I lay down to sleep, it proved very difficult, as a group of young Spanish students were making a lot of noise, despite other pilgrims telling them to be quiet. As I sat up again in exasperation I caught the eye of a familiar Spaniard resting in his bunk across the room. ‘They are very loud,’ he said. ‘They certainly are,’ I replied before I burst into tears and lay down again in my sleeping bag. I sobbed uncontrollably. I didn’t know why I was crying; I just was. When Manoel realised what was happening, he stood by my bed and held my hand. Between the sobs I said to him ‘I can’t stop,’ he replied in his best English, ‘why you want to?’

When my tears began to abate, Manoel and Elisabeth asked what they could do, and I suggested a cup of tea with my newly purchased teabags. As I sipped my hot tea, the Spanish guy from across the room came over to enquire if I was all right. He wondered what had happened to cause the tears. Nothing had happened as far as any of us knew; that puzzled him, I think. After he returned to his bunk, conversation turned to plans for dinner and while I was absolutely shattered I though I would regret it later if I didn’t summoned my strength to join them. However as we walked around the City savouring the atmosphere, I was very much a follower, just as I had been earlier in the day. During dinner my companions began to speak again in French and I felt increasingly more excluded as it continued. Truthfully I felt hurt by Manoel’s insensitivity in particular, as he was the person I had the primary relationship with. To prevent myself receding into the background completely I asked him to speak in English. It took some courage to voice as I was speaking from a place of hurt, a small place, a child place, rather than from a position of adult confidence and strength. It was an awkward moment as he didn’t seem too happy with my request, although he did acquiesce.

After dinner and an eventful day, there was a lovely quiet hum in the albergue as people completed their bedtime rituals just before lights out. And as I sat up in my bunk the Spanish pilgrim from earlier mouthed across the room, ‘Are you okay?’ My nod indicated yes, I was feeling better. Sue observed the exchange, and I could see from her expression that she wondered what she had missed. But I chose not to enlighten her; I didn’t want to share my vulnerability any further.

Earlier in the evening, Elisabeth suggested that my tears were caused by tiredness. Although, it was certainly true that the difficulty of the day dismantled my defences, I also felt that something deeper was being exposed, without knowing what specifically it might be. With hindsight, I see much more in the symbolism of the adults walking ahead of me, speaking a different language while I languished behind, unable to let them go, get their attention or voice what I needed.

I met my inner child so many times on the Camino, this was just one of those encounters.

Day 6; Estella – Los Arcos

There was an amazing still quality to the morning as I walked through the town of Estella. I felt present to the awakening of the day while the town’s residents were still mostly asleep, except for the early morning delivery workers. In my normal everyday life, when I step out of the house the city is already fully alive and active, whereas on the Camino, I got to experience each day slowly unfolding, and it was a beautiful, precious thing to witness.

After a gentle start to the day I came upon a painted yellow arrow that didn’t fulfill its promise, which is to direct pilgrims out of town while remaining on the Camino. As I stood trying to figure out the direction it was pointing towards, Monika from Brazil arrived on the scene. She was on her own that day, whereas normally she walked with her boyfriend and his father, and until that morning we were Buen Camino acquaintances only. Without a common language we communicated with gestures and a few words agreeing which road to take, more in hope than certainty. After a couple of kilometres, the absence of Camino signs and other pilgrims became concerning, as we found ourselves in a part of town that was as dead as a dodo. There wasn’t a living soul to ask directions of, but rather than retrace our steps, we kept going in the hope that once we reached the edge of town, we would be reunited with the familiar yellow arrows of the Camino. It was a risk that paid off, as soon afterwards we knew we were on the right track when we reached the Bodegas Irache landmark.

Mid morning, when I was alone again, I went into the church in the small village of Villamayor de Monjardín. Inside I rested my rucksack against a pew and waited as my eyesight adjusted to the darkness. The church was held in near total darkness as the narrow windows were more like slits that allowed in very little daylight. Gradually three men came into focus: two pilgrims and a man with a Camino stamp standing alongside an altar of lighting candles. While I searched for my Camino passport, the two pilgrims left and I walked over to present myself to the man with the stamp. He immediately clasped my hand and held it while he said a few words in Spanish. I beamed as the sincerity of his blessing landed within and I felt elevated to another world by his powerful, loving presence.

Walking away from the church my heart felt full, and as I looked across at the vines in the fields, I saw what was around me through new eyes. I felt oneness with nature and I wanted to walk alone to savour the grace of the moment, however I could see Swedish Ann just ahead, waiting for me. When I reached her, I didn’t have the heart to say I wanted to walk alone. I told her about my experience in the church, but I felt a bit cheated that the spell I was under had been broken.

Soon afterwards I walked ahead of Ann; her pace was too slow for me, whereas the previous day I had willingly fallen into step with the quite gruelling pace set by David. That hadn’t suited me either, but I had stayed with him and as a result my left leg was sore.

After lunch I caught up with Manoel who was also walking alone. At first I didn’t know if I wanted company, but I discovered that walking with Manoel was actually very comfortable. He was undemanding company, and it was easy to walk with him in companionable silence or talk as the mood took me. When we arrived in Los Arcos, Manoel phoned Sue to get her location and we followed her directions to the private albergue where she was staying.

The hospitaleros, a husband and wife team, had converted a house previously owned by the woman’s grandmother and had named it Casa de Abuela (Little Grandmother). As soon as I stepped into the intimate family kitchen it felt familiar and homely. Bread was baking in the over and through the glass oven door I could see that it looked like a large doughnut. Upstairs I was sharing a small dorm with Manoel, and Elisabeth from Paris while Sue was in another room. We also had the luxury of having the hospitaleros do all our washing by machine for an extra fifty cents. Washing clothes each day is very much part of the daily ritual, but washing by hand doesn’t really get clothes clean – at least, not the way I washed them.

The afternoon was comfortable, lazy and carefree. I had lunch in the albergue kitchen, followed by conversation and map reading with Monika, my Brazilian friend from the morning’s adventure, along with Sue, Manoel and Elisabeth. Afterward I went for a walk, found a bank to get some money and sat in the square with some Australian pilgrims having coffee. When I returned to the albergue, the kitchen was quite and I chatted to the male hospitalero while he did his chores. I wanted him to know how much I appreciated what they offered, in their attitude and their facilities. I also wanted to know more about the bread! I was in luck – he was about to make a second loaf for our breakfast in the morning. This was a level of hospitality that I hadn’t experienced till then and that afternoon I became the apprentice bread maker at Casa de Abuela.

Looking back, I can see that Day Six had everything!. In particular staying in Casa de Abuela was one of the most relaxing and enjoyable experiences of the whole Camino for me. A week in, I was beginning to find more of myself, I felt more available to others and sharing the journey changed it completely.

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.

Day 1; St Jean Pied de Port – Roncesvalles

On a drizzly Sunday morning my Camino officially began with less composure than I had anticipated, for I hurried through town trying to catch up with those who had set out ahead of me. After about half an hour, my efforts to draw level were rewarded, but I was cautious in my interactions and I didn’t speak to anyone for an hour or two. My first attempt at conversation was with a Japanese man in his seventies. He was with a group, although when I met him they had stretched out and he was walking alone. We proceeded together for a short distance before I acknowledged to myself that I felt ill at ease and I moved on ahead.

Later I met two girls from South Korea and we walked together to Orisson, where we stopped for coffee after quite a strenuous ten-kilometre climb. Outside the bar there were lots of tables and stunning views. So after being served I went outside with my coffee, leaving the girls to decide which cake to choose. As I waited for them to emerge, I covertly searched my rucksack for something of my own to eat, when out of the corner of my eye I noticed the girls walking across the road to the terrace on the other side. I hadn’t expected that, and I didn’t actually want to be on my own, yet I didn’t move to join them. Looking around at the other occupied tables, I observed that I was the only person sitting alone and I began to feel out of place. Shortly afterwards, I waved goodbye to the South Korean girls and left to continue the climb.

Along the route, although I wanted to connect with people, I remained cautious about engaging in conversation. As the day wore on, I realised that the Camino was going to be challenging for me in ways I had hoped not to experience. While most pilgrims observed the practice of wishing each other ‘Buen Camino’ (enjoy it) my greeting was quietly spoken, if at all. Later I had lunch at a rest point which doubled as a Camino census station; actually it might have been more a census station that doubled as a rest point. This consisted of a mobile unit, where a man recorded on a white board the number and nationality of passing pilgrims. Looking closely, I saw that three Irish people had passed before me that day and I fantasised about catching up with them, as I imagined I would feel less alone if I met someone from home.

Although the views across the Pyrénées were at times spectacular, I was more focused on the destination than the journey. I was worried about securing a bed in Roncesvalles, and my anxiety meant that I didn’t take as much rest as I needed. So by the time I arrived I was frustrated by the physical and emotional struggle, and ready to collapse with exhaustion.

At about 4 p.m. I stepped through the albergue doors and into a large, modern facility with a busy reception desk. While I searched for my Camino passport and money, I chatted briefly and distractedly to a French girl I had met in St Jean. At that moment only three things in life mattered. My first priority was to secure a bed for the night. Next on my agenda was my desire to peel off the clothes that were stuck to my body and feel the comfort of a warm shower. Then I wanted to curl up for a nap. All other matters faded into the background.

In Roncesvalles men and women had separate shower facilities, and one became available straight away. Once inside the cubicle, I saw a small shelf for toiletries and a hook for items of clothing. These were then protected from water spray by the shower curtain. When I was ready, I pressed the knob to release the water and stood back in case it was cold, but the water stopped almost as soon as it started. I pressed again and the same thing happened. In fact the water stopped each time on the count of eleven. Showering on the Camino was a functional experience; there wouldn’t be any luxuriating under a stream of hot water for some time.

The large dorm was divided into four-person cubicles and mine was located just outside the men’s bathroom. This turned out to be unfortunate. Although I had earplugs, they were totally ineffective at blocking out the noise that escaped from the hand dryer every time the door opened, so sleep was impossible for me. Plus I was sharing a cubicle with three snoring Spanish men and at least one of them had smelly feet.

Then I considered three possibilities for dinner. I could cook in the lovely kitchen, eat at one of the local hotels serving dinner after Mass, or finish the leftovers in my rucksack. As it turned out cooking wasn’t really an option – the small village didn’t have a local shop, and with nothing to cook, the kitchen remained in pristine condition. I didn’t want to go on my own to a hotel for dinner, and I hadn’t met anyone I wanted to have dinner with either. So I opted for leftovers and went to the dining room to finish my bread, cheese and meat. There, I was joined by the French girl I had met in the foyer earlier, with two young female companions, and I felt envious of her ability to make friends so quickly.

With chores and dinner out of the way, the most difficult part of the day by far was upon me. With nothing to do, no friend to talk to, no distraction to occupy me, and nowhere to go, the remainder of the day felt endless. It was also when I felt most vulnerable and alone. All I could do was wait, firstly for Mass time to arrive, and then after Mass I waited for sleep.