A Day of Ups and Downs

The hostel at Roncesvalles was the largest one I stayed in while walking Camino. It housed close to 200 pilgrims. People had talked about the enormity of the hostel in advance, with rumours that it was impersonal. True, it was big and bustling, but also clean, well equipped, and efficient. The large space was divided into cubicles and each one contained only 4 beds. They weren’t soundproof (so I could hear the snoring of dozens of people further down in the room) but they provided privacy. I didn’t have to look at nearly 200 other people when I sat on my bed. That helped things considerably.

My 3 “roommates” were friendly but spoke no English so our conversation was limited to smiling. They were awake before me the next morning and again I woke to bright headtorches. Only then did I realise that these strategic pilgrims had slept in their hiking clothes the night before. I can’t imagine sleeping with t-shirt, shorts, and socks all underneath the sleeping bag in a warm hostel but these guys had done just that. It meant that they were ready very quickly the next morning but I felt unsettled.

They might have chosen to sleep in their clothes so they wouldn’t disturb me.

They might have chosen it for reasons of privacy.

They didn’t have English and I didn’t have Spanish, so I’ll never know what their reasons were.

It did seem, however, that they’d slept in their clothes so they’d save time. They packed their sleeping bags and were gone before 6am, and had surely saved a few minutes by being pre-dressed. It unsettled me to think that the race for beds had turned into one big race for everything, and that people might shave off the minutes wherever they could. I hadn’t joined the Olympics but still, I began to feel I was in a competitive race of some sort.

The staff roused us from our beds by playing Gregorian chants across the stereo and switching on all the lights, so I was out the door around 6:30am. I didn’t avail of the vending machines with coffee and snacks before I left – that would mean being out of bed some 15 minutes earlier, and bed time is too precious. So, this was the first day to start walking without food in my belly. An early-opening supermarket allowed me to stock up on fruit, and the nearest coffee stop was only 3km away. The café solo was a bitter jolt to my system and I sampled my first (and most delicious) empanada.

Mental note to self: don’t order café solo again but do eat empanadas.

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Early morning and getting a tan on the back of my legs

Like the days before it, this day was a swelter. I remember sitting on the side of the trail at one point in the early afternoon, dying to take a nap in the ditch. Really, I was looking at the grassy edge as though it was a king-size bed in a four-star hotel, and imagined all sorts of lovely sleep. Sleeping on the side of a dirt gravel trail is not a classy look, and I realised that if I stopped then I’d never arrive at my destination. Instead, I sat for a while in the shade, trying to plan my energy for the afternoon. After the steep descent from the Pyrenees, my body was both painful and slow, and I was concerned about my lack of progress.

John Brierley’s guidebook breaks down the 800km walk into stages, with each day (or stage) averaging around 25km. Some days are longer, others are shorter, but if you keep to Brierley’s plan every day, you’ll reach Santiago in just over a month. His plan for this particular day was to walk 27.4km but I decided to go 22.2km to Zubiri instead, in the hope that I’d find it easier to get a bed there. Plus, my calf muscles were really sore, and those extra 5km were beyond me.

Sometime around 3pm I was still shuffling along with my very sore calf muscles, my very heavy backpack, and my very tired body. The trail had quietened down considerably but I felt embarrassed to be still walking so many hours after leaving Roncesvalles. I started with a small group of Canadians that morning but they had a quicker pace and had gone on ahead hours earlier. No doubt, they were sitting in a town square somewhere, enjoying a beer, and taking it easy. It sounded good.

Behind me I heard chatter and laughter as a group of pilgrims approached. I felt too tired to turn around and instead, kept putting one foot in front of the other, focusing on my eventual destination. I didn’t expect to meet anyone I knew (and I knew 20 people or so at that stage in the trip), and I didn’t have the energy to strike up conversation with new faces. But as happens so often on Camino, the four women approaching were not new – I actually knew them. We met initially in Orisson, and the next evening they invited me to join them for a bottle of wine (or two) as we sat in the evening sunshine in Roncesvalles. They were buoyant, beaming, generous women with warm laughter and hearts. I was happy to see them and at the same time, felt deeply ashamed.

Ashamed? Isn’t that a strong word?

Yes, and yes.

Let me explain.

I left Roncesvalles hours before them, but I was walking so slowly they caught up to me. How embarrassing. They were still joyous and energetic but I was feeling over-stretched and tearful. I felt like a failure standing beside them because I was slow and I wasn’t feeling very gracious about it. Earlier in the day, I shared with someone that I was very tired. The guy was twice my age, walked twice my speed, and seemed very surprised to hear that I was struggling. In that split second, I felt judged and ashamed, and the feeling lingered with me for the day. So, by the time the 4 lovely ladies came along, I had already spent a few hours ruminating on my inadequate performance. I felt exposed somehow, as though they were seeing me at a low point. I didn’t want anyone to see me at a low point.

I don’t know if they saw any of this when we met on the trail but if they did, they handled me with great sensitivity. They exclaimed with excitement when they saw me and again, they took me under their wing. Since we were all heading to Zubiri, we would walk together. And so, for the rest of the day’s walking, they kept me distracted with their laughter and chatter. Of course, my calf muscles still ached but their warm company meant that I kept walking in the right direction. Their timing was sweet and it totally transformed my day.

Now, here’s a small Segway: Anyone who knows me knows that I am rather independent, maybe even fiercely so. I like being capable and self-sufficient. I consider it a strength to be independent. I have little patience for getting sick. Apparently, I’m stubborn and I don’t always accept help. Lovely Husband calls me “willful”. I think he’s being very kind in his choice of words.

I knew all of this going on Camino and knew that it would come up – after all, how do you walk 800km in a different country and not ask for, or accept, help at some stage? I’d already experienced spontaneous (and delightful) kindness in my previous 3 days, and I was very grateful for the Camino magic. But this particular day I was feeling sore and rather sorry for myself, and I was not so enthusiastic about having anyone witness me in that state. On the last stretch into Zubiri, when my body ached so badly I thought I couldn’t go on, something beautiful happened out of the blue:

One of the ladies spontaneously asked if she could carry my backpack.

Umm…what?

“Can I carry your backpack?”

I thought she was taking pity on me, or that maybe she was getting impatient with my slow progress and wanted to speed things up a bit. That thought is more of a reflection on me than on her, because there was nothing to suggest that she was impatient with my pace. I struggled to understand her request. Internally I thought: This backpack is heavy and it’s been hurting my shoulders all day, so it’s not fair to put that burden on anyone else. Anyway, she’s only saying it to be nice because I’m a mess.

So I said, “Ah no thanks, you’re okay.”

It’s an Irish thing – someone offers you a cup of tea and you decline it at least once, out of politeness and not wanting to be an inconvenience.

Someone offered to carry my bag and I said no. And the bag felt twice as heavy as it had felt a minute earlier.

She went on to explain that they were having their bags transported by van from town to town. On top of that, they were walking for only a week so she didn’t have as much stuff to carry. Her small daypack probably weighed 1-2kg compared to my bigger 8-9kg. She was thinking of returning to Spain to walk the full Camino with a bag on her back at a later stage. So, she wanted a test run. She wanted to carry my pack to see what it felt like. Her request had nothing to do with getting impatient or taking pity on me. Instead, it was an experiment, motivated by her own needs and request for information, and I would be helping her if I let her carry my bag.

Ahhhhh…..that changes everything.

She asked me again and this time, my self-sufficient, willful self was happy to hand over the weighty beast. Secretly I was thrilled and could hardly believe my luck. Before we knew it, we’d swapped bags and I was securing the light little daypack across my shoulders. There was no comparison between the two, and hers was feather light. I felt my eyes well up with tears out of sheer relief and gratitude. Without me asking, and without her knowing it, she had spared me from reaching a breaking point and totally transformed my day – again.

I don’t consider myself a religious person but I’m going to say that it felt like a “Hand-of-God-comes-down-from-above-and-directly-changes-the-course-of-events” kind of moment. There I was, shuffling along all day, alone, sore, tired, and feeling too ashamed of myself to make eye contact or conversation with anyone. There was no option of hitch-hiking but still, there might have been some other way to approach the day only I didn’t know what it was. Unexpectedly, these newfound friends came along with warm hearts and moral support. Just when I was at a breaking point (and I do mean I was moments away from crying like a baby) they offered unconditional and practical assistance. I would never have thought to ask anyone to carry my bag: that’s an enormous request but it was exactly what I needed. Having that weight lifted from my shoulders gave me enough energy to make the final stretch to Zubiri. I ached, I was exhausted, I was covered in sweat and dust, but I was also humbled in a most extraordinary way. Those 4 ladies, collectively, and individually, saved my sorry ass and gave me hope.

We arrived in Zubiri and went in different directions – they in search of their pre-booked accommodation and I to the nearest hostel. I was relieved to arrive at last and looked forward to meeting with them later in the evening for dinner and a drink. I knew I arrived hours later than most but I was still hopeful of a bed, or a mat on the floor, or a mat on the ground in the back yard. I didn’t really care where I slept, I just needed a shower and a snooze. So imagine my heartbreak when I learned that there were no free beds in that hostel, or in any of the hostels in town. After walking for nearly 9 hours, I learned that every bed in town had been taken hours beforehand. The next town on the trail was having a fiesta and all of its hostels were closed, so people had stopped off in Zubiri instead. Every hostel bed and B&B were fully booked. They’d even put mats on the floor of the local gymnasium and all of those were taken too. There was, quite literally, nowhere to sleep.

I thought back to the bridge I’d crossed only minutes earlier.

Beneath it, there was a river and I thought: I can wash myself there.

Beside it, there were grassy banks and I thought: I can sleep there.

I was that tired.

It was close to 5pm and I was close to tears. My new friends were nowhere in sight and I didn’t have a plan.

There was no room at the inn.

5 thoughts on “A Day of Ups and Downs

  1. Hi Ger, great stuff here. Of huge interest to anyone thinking about doing the Camino or who have done it.
    Lots of insights into what it’s really like, great tips and honesty. You must’ve kept a journal to remember all those details.
    I also blogged about a trip months after it happened. You have the benefit of perspective writing afterwards, and reflection.

    Like

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