Zabaldika is one of 26 small villages, stretched out along the Esteribar Valley. Apparently, it consists of only 13 homes, 40 neighbours, and a community of Sacred Heart nuns. I didn’t know any of this at the time, given I arrived there by taxi and hadn’t been reading my guidebook very closely. This wasn’t because of negligence or disinterest in the Spanish countryside, but because I hadn’t caught up with myself yet. My Camino and my arrival in Zabaldika came about rather quickly, and reading up on tourist information was low on my list of priorities.
The village is about 10km from Pamplona so I imagine many pilgrims don’t stop at all, but keep going to Hemmingway’s old haunt instead. In my short time there, I didn’t see a coffee shop or bar, and unless a person wanted to stop off at the 13th century church, they might not have given the place a second thought. Rightly or wrongly, the availability of food, drinks, and a place to sit determine the daily schedule for pilgrims, and the absence of these things probably mean that Zabaldika is rather quiet.
I remember stepping inside the front door of the albergue, to the cool, clean, interior. We had arrived unexpectedly, covered in dust and weariness from the day, yet the woman greeting us at the door welcomed us warmly and sincerely, with a wide smile and open arms. Literally. She seemed glad to have us, despite our state.
Within minutes, we realised we had arrived somewhere special. A living room space with armchairs and couches, books and magazines, was a sweet reminder of the everyday comforts we had all left behind at home. The nuns could have easily converted that space into a downstairs dorm to pack in more pilgrims and bring in more money. The fact that they hadn’t done this was telling, and I welcomed the conscious decision to create a space that was both communal and restful.
It was a bit of breathing space from the racing and competition.
The second thing to surprise us was that our host didn’t ask us for payment upfront.
In fact, she didn’t ask for payment at all.
There was a bed for each of us and we would share a communal dinner later that evening. If we wanted, we could join a session of prayers and singing afterwards in the church. They hadn’t put a price on anything but welcomed donations, and she pointed to the donation box placed discretely in the corner. I already felt humble gratitude for the bed, but their unconditional generosity marked the distinction between “doing the Camino” and “being on pilgrimage”. Their support wasn’t dependent on money. They thought of it as a vocation and were glad to be of service to our journey. If we couldn’t afford to pay, we’d still be given the same warm welcome, the same food and shelter, the same kindness. Their insight and mindfulness created a shift of energy in the group, and there was an immediate lightness to our mood.
You mean you’re not trying to rip us off because we happen to come from another country and have money in our pockets?
You mean to tell us that pilgrimage has nothing to do with profit?
You mean to tell us that our presence here is measured not just in terms of the Euro we spend?
While the rest of the hostel scrambled for showers and a space at the sink to wash their clothes, I lay down on my bed for an hour to rest. I was enormously grateful to get a bed in the corner and with it, some small opportunity to turn my back on the roomful of strangers. I didn’t mean to be anti-social but in the previous three days and nights, I met dozens and dozens of new people and I was worn out from all the talk. I’m simply not used to talking from 6am until 9pm every day.
On top of that, I felt over-stretched from the noise that accompanied life on Camino. All the photos I had seen were of vast stretches of countryside, with big, open skies, and a gravel trail reaching to the far horizon. The pictures implied a life harmony with nature, and I’d thought my days would be full of quiet reflection. The photos didn’t show the crowded cafés, the queues for bathrooms and showers, or the harried-looking restaurant staff, trying to feed the ongoing crowds of hungry pilgrims.
They also didn’t show the rustling of plastic bags, and the zipping and unzipping of backpacks every morning for an hour, and every evening for another hour. That’s two hours of every day, listening to the noise of people:
packing their bag,
zipping up the bag,
unzipping the bag,
unpacking their bag, and
rooting for something in their bag that may/may not actually be there
Only to pack it up and zip it up all over again.
Added to that, there was the noise of:
doors opening and closing,
things falling on the floor,
chatter about blisters and bedding….
You get the idea.
Getting to bed early or sleeping in late were impossible. Lying there, I realised just how over-stimulating the whole thing had been. That evening, I cried because of everything. I was just like a small child, over-stimulated and up way past my bedtime. But there was no way I was getting any sleep, so I resigned myself to going downstairs to wash out my clothes and eventually get some food.
Walking down the stairs was torture on my calf muscles. Those damn Pyrenees had me ruined! My hamstrings felt like badly rusted wire, ready to snap. The last thing I wanted to do was hand wash my clothes in an outdoor sink, but I did it anyway and cried my eyes out from beginning to end. I might be a bit embarrassed to admit it all now, but at the time, it was an escape valve. They say that when you’re on Camino you don’t always get what you want, but you do get what you need. I definitely needed some way to decompress and in the absence of a bottle of wine, crying my eyes out did the trick.
Over dinner, the head nun joined us for courgette soup and chicken stew, and explained a little about their ethos and missionary work around the world. Their local community was elderly and small in number. In previous years, the declining numbers attending church had led to diminished funds for them, so they’d opened an albergue as a new source of revenue. If I were very cynical, I might have decided she was on a moneymaking agenda, but I think that would have been an unduly harsh judgement, and a very one-sided one too.
It’s true that many people make their living through the Camino Francés, in providing food, accommodation, or transport to the (hundreds of) thousands of people who pass through every year. That’s the practical reality, and every Euro that pilgrims spend, contributes to the economy in some way. At the same time, the Camino is a pilgrimage route, pre-dating even the Christian tradition. People walk it for a variety of reasons, some of which are religious or spiritual in nature.
At the dinner table that evening, we were a mixture of nationalities and backgrounds, and no doubt, we were a mixture in terms of our religious or spiritual zeal, too. When I arrived, I felt over-stretched and somewhat cynical about the whole enterprise. I was running low on reserves, and I felt heavy-hearted after the effort of the Pyrenees. That wasn’t a religious experience: it was a physical reality and I had a very emotional response. My spirit was flagging.
I cried my eyes out while washing my clothes and again, when the group sang hymns in the church. I cried the next morning when we had a misunderstanding about breakfast. In fact, I could barely keep the tears inside. I doubted whether I had the stamina to proceed. I felt rather bleak.
The nuns at Zabaldika welcomed me with warmth and tenderness. They didn’t ask for money, they didn’t push an agenda or schedule on me, and when I broke down in tears, they offered hugs and reassurance.
They willed me to be well.
They willed for me to have a Buen Camino.
And they meant it.
They gave me a bed, a homemade meal, a community of people to eat with, and somewhere to wash. More than that, they showed me that the Camino I was searching for, did exist.
I felt like my heart had cracked open and some gooey liquid had unexpectedly leaked all over the kitchen floor. They’d helped me mop it all up, put it back in its rightful place, and reinforce my heart with an extra layer of sealant and love.
They gave me hope for the next phase of the journey. I don’t know how to explain that without using the word “spirit”, because what they gave me was spiritual sustenance. And I took on the next leg of the walking with a little more lightness in my heart and understanding of my needs. They helped me find a way to go on.
The funny thing about my Zabaldika experience is this:
Days later, I happily bumped into the four lovely ladies again – they called themselves “The Champagne Camino” in honour of all the wine they were drinking along the way. When they found their private accommodation in Zubiri, they’d discovered that one of their rooms had an extra bed. They went back out on to the streets to find me, and offer me the spare bed. I could have stayed with them and shared an evening of dinner and vino. How wonderful! But I had been told that the town of Zubiri was completely full (ahem!) and had taken a taxi to Zabaldika. The rest is history, but I learned two things:
- When someone tells you that the town is completely full, they might not have all their facts straight.
- In the words of Mick Jagger: You can’t always get what you want but you might just find you get what you need.
I would have gladly shared the evening with the ladies but had I done that, would I have found the non-commercial, vocational Camino I was looking for? Probably not. So they may never know the true extent of their influence, but those nuns changed everything for me. I felt it then, and I feel it now: I got what I needed. Exactly and entirely.