Camino Memoirs: The Calm before the Storm and Over the Pyrenees

Saturday, 25 May 2019

I embarked on my journey to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France today. I had a hard time sleeping last night in anticipation of the first day of the Camino de Santiago, which wasn't even today. I had packed two bags, one for the Camino and another for everything else I would need afterwards to travel around Europe for a few months (including camera gear). The sun was just barely starting to rise when I walked to the train station with my Camino backpack on and my duffel slung across my body; that was quite a weight. The Bayonne station was a small depot with only a couple of platforms. I sat down on one of the open benches across from some men that were of retirement age and a couple of younger guys who all appeared to be Camino pilgrims (peregrinos). Some pigeons were walking about in the open area between all of us and the old men were speaking in French and chuckling while playing around with the pigeons; it made me smile. 

A train had arrived, but I didn’t know where it was heading and none of the other pilgrims were getting up to board it, so I thought it was going somewhere else. The younger guys and I almost missed our train. They must have thought the same thing that the older gentlemen were going to Saint-Jean too, but were returning home from their Camino. The guys bolted through the doors to the train platform and I hurried behind them. The train doors were already closed when we got to the train, but they reopened them for us. Phew. That was close. I moved past the others to the back of the train. The windows were hard to see through because there were spray-painted graffiti on the outside. I also managed to make an unfortunate seat choice and I ended up sitting across from a strange Australian lady. Her clothes were a bit tattered, she wasn’t wearing any shoes or socks, and I could tell that she had a serious infection in one of her feet. She kept exclaiming that I was using a scratching app on my phone to cause her pain and that she would turn me into the police for what I was doing to her. That didn't make for a pleasant journey. I counted down the minutes and just hoped she wouldn’t lash out at me before we got there. The conductor came back to collect fare money from her and also offered to get her help because of her foot, but she refused his help. 

The train wound its way from flatlands to the very hilly Basque region of France. I was happy when we stopped at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and was able to leave the scary lady there on the train. I now was truly embarking on my journey. I huffed my gear from the train station in what appeared to be a long walk through town to the city center. I was able to drop off my extra bag that would be sent onward to Santiago de Compostela and stored there ahead of me for my travels after the Camino. A literal weight was lifted from my shoulders and I now had all that I would need for the next undermined amount of Camino days. I walked down the narrow streets made of brick laid in the familiar clamshell design representing the Camino. The first time I went into the pilgrim’s office, I didn't get a lot of information from the volunteers because they assumed I knew what I was doing and I was too overwhelmed to know what questions I should have asked. I realized that I didn’t even know where I was supposed to go to start the Camino or how to find a place to stay for the night. I had to come right back to the office asking about a map. A man in the office gave me everything I needed to get me on my way. He gave me pointers on landmarks to look for when I needed to get off of the road to follow the trail and which alternative routes to avoid that could lead me to certain death. I still wasn’t completely reassured though. A woman had taken the restricted path the previous week, falling and breaking her arm among other things. I had not booked an albergue (a Camino hostel for pilgrims) ahead of time as I thought that you could just show up and find one like in the movies. I was finding out that there are a few locations that you sort of need to pre-book as they can fill up; the start of the Camino Francés (Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port) is one of those places. Luckily, the man referred me to an albergue at the edge of town that included a couple of meals and still had a bed available for me. I was saved. 

I walked nearly to the end of town when I reached the front door of the albergue on the main street. It appeared that it was closed until 1500 hours and it was still just late morning. I didn’t have a local phone or the ability to speak French, so I messaged my friend in Switzerland and asked if he would call the albergue to see if I could at least leave my bag there so that I may wander the streets unburdened. The door in front of me opened and an old woman in her late seventies or early eighties appeared. I had my first crack at using a voice translation app that allowed us to speak back and forth to each other and we were getting an adequate translation to comprehend what must have been spoken. I was able to leave my bag there until I was allowed to return after they reopened in the afternoon. I walked around town until it started to rain and was quite cold outside. I found a restaurant where I could get out of the rain, pass the time, warm up and fill my belly for the coming day. I felt a bit alone for a couple of hours as I watched other pilgrims come and go with their companions while I enjoyed my hot chocolate and pesto chicken pasta by myself. It was a way to pass the time. I had seen that the weather was going to be junk for the next few days. I had contemplated whether I should just stay in Saint-Jean a few days and wait it out for better weather, or not. I watched countless pilgrims continue onward in the rain and I knew that I couldn’t just sit around for a few days for better weather; pushing through bad weather was part of the pilgrimage.

I had been standing in the rain with a couple of other pilgrims before the albergue door opened for us. After registering with the lady of the house and given my first albergue stamp in my credencial del peregrino (pilgrim passport), I was given a room with a woman from Quebec and a man from southeastern France. It was interesting communicating with the two of them because they both had limited English knowledge and I had never studied French. Her English was fine enough to converse with, but she mostly had to translate what I said for the man. He was clearly in better shape than both of us. He told us that he had already walked 250 km from his home while averaging 35 km a day, but was also suffering from tendonitis in one ankle. The other woman walked partway up the hill out of Saint-Jean yesterday to Orisson and was driven back down to Saint-Jean because she couldn’t make it over the Pyrenees in one day. The only albergue in Orisson is fully booked for months, so she couldn’t stay there. That was not reassuring for me as I was already doubting my abilities to make it over tomorrow. I did have a lot of fun chatting with them though. The woman was initially supposed to go on the Camino with her husband, but she divorced him two years ago and lost her job three weeks ago, so she thought that going on the Camino now was a good idea. She is also participating in a medical study about the health of people doing long walks or thru-hikes. I love when she’s talking about animals in the wild or free she says, “animals at liberty.” It makes me smile. 

We sat at a long table set for a multi-course Camino family meal. Most of the pilgrims at the albergue spoke French except for a couple of Germans that would occasionally speak English. It was so nice sharing stories and laughing around the table with everyone; the calm before the storm. All of the dinner courses were home-cooked by the old woman and her family. After a tart for dessert, we finished with some fine French cheese before heading off to bed. My roommates and I continued to talk once we were all in our beds, kind of like sleepovers I had when I was a kid. I think it helped to put our minds at ease for the day ahead.

Sunday, 26 May 2019

I had a hard time sleeping last night so I woke up promptly and was a bundle of nerves for the first day of the Camino going over the Pyrenees. Why must the first day of the Camino also be the hardest? I went to breakfast and they had small bowls placed in front of us at the table that I assumed were for cereal, but there was no cereal, they were for coffee instead. I had some coffee, orange juice, and bread with jam and butter. I filled up my hydration pack and grabbed some extra snacks for the day as I did not expect that meal to carry me very far and I had no other food. I felt like I was in a rush, but also like I was going in slow motion. While I was deliberately packing my bag, I was wondering if I could truly do this. I double-checked that I had everything, said my goodbyes to everyone, and I was off leaving Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the cold, drizzling rain. 

The Camino started as a paved road that wound its way up into the countryside. Fences and hedges with trees separated rolling, green pastureland, and farmland. Not far from Saint-Jean, I passed two ladies that were walking together, from Holland and Colombia. They were deep in conversation and I was keeping a brisk pace, so I continued up the road alone. The road kept meandering around and the trees would hang over the road at times keeping some of the rain off of me. Eventually, I felt a hot spot in my shoe and I knew I had to address it right away or I'd have blisters, so I stopped to put duct tape on my shoes and foam tape on my feet. Back on the road, I was glad that I had added my poncho over everything; it was way better than the raincoat. I was just leaving the pavement to continue on a steep stretch when I met a group of ladies from La Gomera, one of the Spanish islands just west of Morocco. They only spoke Spanish, so it was good practice for me to have conversations with them on the way up. I paced myself with them because Nina and I had been talking for a while and were now fast friends. By this time, the Camino turned into a muddy gravel trail and with several switchbacks. We could see down to the lush, green valleys and the views were spectacular despite the dreary weather. Out of nowhere, this little oasis appeared beside the road; we had reached Orisson and stopped for refueling. It was quite busy inside and reminded me somewhat of a chalet at a ski resort, except that it was tinier and full of pilgrims. While waiting in line, there was an American woman in her early twenties who told me that I could get a stamp here for my credencial. I had been under the impression that we only got stamps at the places we stayed at overnight; I had no idea you could get them from many other places along the way as well. I settled for a cheese baguette and fresh orange juice but saved most of the sandwich for later because I wasn’t that hungry. Another fun fact about the Camino, the only real toilets along the way are at bars, which are more like cafés during the day. The emergency toilet paper I packed was meant for all of those times in between. The only toilet available on this day was at Orisson, so it was that you, “go now or forever hold your peace.” I left my backpack inside with the Spanish ladies and waited in the toilet line. It was long and found out too late that I needed to bring my toilet paper; luckily, someone gave me a handful before I went in. The other caveat, there were no lights inside and it was pitch black. That was an experience. 

Leaving Orisson, I stayed close to the Spanish ladies as we kept a moderate pace heading into the clouds. I walked on the grassy area alongside the road that wound its way through more pastureland. A man was training his sheepdogs and other local cyclists rode by for their daily rides. There were marks on the road indicating how far I had traveled on the road; there would be twenty-seven kilometers today. The mist grew heavier, the hill got steeper and the kilometer markers seemed to take forever to pass by. I would walk for what seemed like a considerable amount of time and only one kilometer would go by. I lost my group of ladies shortly after Orisson in the mist. They fell behind, and I had to keep going or I wasn't going to make it, and I was past the point of no return. I couldn’t see much beyond the grassy area to the right of the road, but I knew that’s where the hill dropped off sharply. I was pacing myself with some random people for a while. There was one guy ahead of me; he would stop and be behind me, then go and be ahead of me again. I kept marching on. I marched on and on so much that soon there was nobody ahead of me or behind me. I was alone. I couldn't hear anything except the howling of the wind. The wind was cold and violent now blowing more from the side. I had regretted taking off one of my layers but felt like it was too late now to put it back on as the wind was blowing a fine mist that would cool you to the core. I was only around kilometer twelve when I realized I had so much more to go. I had to hunker down and dig deep within myself to continue going on.

There was a point on the map (from the pilgrim’s office) that indicated I needed to get off of the pavement by a cross. There were times when I thought it was time to turn off, but I could hardly see anything beyond the edge of the road. I stopped walking and stayed still for a while to see if I could hear anybody and reassure myself that I wasn’t lost. Had I passed the turn and was now alone? It was just then when I heard some commotion behind me coming out of the mist. I waited and a group of six Irishmen came walking by. They were very outgoing, introduced themselves, and started asking me all sorts of questions. They were all walking at a very brisk pace, but I tried my best to stay with them as they were good company and they were helping to get me where I needed to go. Shortly after meeting them, we stopped by a food truck that appeared in the mist and that just so happened to be there in the middle of nowhere. The guys treated me to hot chocolate and a banana; it was just what I needed because I started to feel a lot better. I walked with them further until it was just Sam and Evan walking with me. I felt bad for holding them back from their group because I was walking slower. They said they didn't mind walking with me because they had all day to get to Roncesvalles, they already had a place to stay and liked the company. We carried on. The kilometers passed much more quickly with their company, and also because of their pace. The top of the hill crested, and we continued going down a bit when we continued through some woods. The trail led through a sloping forest, the mist had saturated it and a part of me felt like I had seen something like this before. I turned around on the path and half expected to see the wraiths from, Lord of the Rings, coming after us. The trail was a combination of mud, leaf litter, and puddles of water. It was at that moment that I wondered if I had made the wrong choice by wearing trail shoes instead of boots. It wouldn’t have mattered much wearing boots though because I sunk halfway up my shin in the soaking wet detritus despite being quick and thoughtful with my foot placement. My feet were soaked and I worried whether I’d be prone to blisters later on.

I have no idea when we crossed into Spain. I didn't see a sign, so I have no clue when on the walk that was, but people said there was one. Evan and Sam were chatting with me the whole time, but I couldn't tell you what all we talked about, but it was a nice distraction from the task at hand. We continued on and even passed one of the experienced Camino pilgrims from my albergue in Saint-Jean. We came out from the woods to more of an opening where the wind was howling something fierce. For some reason, this area also had loads of huge slugs on the trail everywhere. We rounded this one particular hill and wound up randomly reconnecting with the rest of the Irish six. We continued onward together and the trail was steep and gravely; we still couldn't see down the mountain. Along the way, there was an old bunker for something that Dominic looked at, but we have no idea what its purpose was. The way eventually led to a fork where we could take a paved road or a trail that followed a river. We opted for the trail along the river and it was a lovely choice. From the mist, it became green and beautiful again. I was walking ahead of the others taking in the sights and sounds of the bumbling brook next to us; we were almost to Roncesvalles. We continued through the forest when all of the trees parted, and the municipal albergue at Roncesvalles stood before us in the distance. We had made it. I had made it. Not only had I made it alive in one day, but I made it there by 1515 hours. 

It was at the entrance of the albergue that I said my goodbyes to the Irishmen who had helped me get this far, and particularly, Sam and Evan. I had to register to get a bed in the albergue and they were off to their pre-booked accommodations. I didn’t know if I’d ever see them again, so I tried to make sure to grab their contact information just in case. I went to register and they gave me a necklace that would be used to call groups of people in, so registration wasn’t so chaotic. Unfortunately, that was the only albergue in Roncesvalles, and if they were full, you would have to continue to the next town. As I sat there waiting for my necklace group to be called, I snacked on that baguette I had stowed away earlier and watched the pilgrims come in. There were people there that looked like they were in much more pain than I was afterwards. They eventually called my necklace group where we were filed inside a room to get our information taken, pay our dues, and get our credencials stamped by a grouchy man. Nobody that worked there seemed to be nice now that I think of it. We were given directions of where everything was and then led to our respective floors. The place was huge; the building was made out of stone and had several floors to sleep a few hundred pilgrims. Each floor opened to a common sleeping area with assigned beds that weren’t in bunks but sort of looked like cubicles. The ceiling was vaulted and had several windows open letting in cold, damp outside air. I noticed there were no blankets provided and I only had my sleeping liner (like all of the blogs I read suggested); however, everyone else had sleeping bags. I was going to freeze. I had an emergency blanket that I brought out but it was not ideal. I couldn’t imagine rolling around all night with that foil crinkling; I’d surely get thrown out. I went for my much-needed shower. The enjoyment was short-lived though as women continued to harass everyone showering to move along faster. In addition, you had to continuously hold down the shower button or the water shut off immediately. I gave in to their pressure and ran out with my towel around me to the toilets to change as the women continued to wail at us. 

A happy thing happened though, and I was invited to come by to the hotel restaurant next door to hang out with the Irish group. I met with them at the hotel lobby where we continued to the pub area to wait for the others. The young woman I met in Orisson, who had told me about the Camino stamps, was sitting with a couple of the Irish guys I hadn’t met yet. I wondered how she was connected to this group too. Turned out that the Irish group was not just six men, there were three others I hadn't met yet from the group, and Alexis (the young woman) had walked with them. We had some beers and eventually, the two of us ladies got invited to join the others for a pilgrim dinner (a three-course menu). I had spaghetti, followed by trout, and completed with a brownie; I even paired with some wine. We all got a bit merry that night. My face hurt from laughing so much, it was such a good time. I had left Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France alone and here I was in Roncesvalles, Spain with a whole group of new friends. The waitstaff were so patient with our loud group. We had a waiter that Alexis thought looked like Seth McFarlane, but he definitely did not. Nonetheless, he became Seth. I felt bad for the guy, but he didn’t mind and was so kind and patient. The night was filled with great stories and laughter as they continued to tip the waitstaff so that we could stay longer. It was around midnight when we closed down the restaurant and they walked back Alexis and me to our albergue. When we pulled on the door handles, they were stuck. The doors were locked. We tried every door and they were all locked. We were locked out. Apparently, there are curfews at some albergues and we had missed ours by several hours. We went back to the hotel (where the restaurant was in) and the Irish guys ended up donating a room and did a room shuffle for us. We said that we could sleep on the floor or the couches in the rooms, but they didn’t like that idea. Instead, Alexis and I shared a room while the guys combined in the other rooms. Alexis and I went from having to sleep in cold, hard albergue beds to warm, comfy hotel beds to sleep on for our first night. The novelty was short-lived though as I could not turn my mind off enough to fall asleep. She slept soundly on her bed, while I lied on mine and thought of what the next day would bring. It’s amazing how much can happen in a day.


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