In Pamplona, the staff at the main tourist office helped me find private accommodation for the night. I had just done my 4th day of walking and it had been a short one, at only 10km. If I kept up that pace, I’d never reach Santiago. But I hoped that taking some time out to rest and reconfigure would help me start again with renewed strength.
In looking for a bed, I wanted something central and cheap. Nothing was going to be quite as cheap as the main albergue but I didn’t fancy sharing with 113 other pilgrims. The woman behind the desk pointed out a few options from a list and after a little bit of sweet-talking, agreed to phone the establishment and book the room for me.
When would I like to check in?
Oh…in about ten minutes!
I followed the map and walked around the corner, down the street, and found myself at the front door of a non-descript building with the name of the pensión over the door. I’m guessing the building also held private apartments because my sort-of B&B was on the third floor (though, given they didn’t serve breakfast I really should just call it a “B”). Outside, the sun was bright and white hot but the inside of my “B” was dark. The wooden hallway was narrow, and the space inside the door was barely large enough for me to stand there with my backpack on my shoulders. I had to squint my eyes to adjust to the artificial lighting. Without any major welcome or ceremony, the woman took my cash and handed me a bunch of keys. My room was the last one down the hall. And she went back to watching TV.
Initially, I was relieved to have found a private room – especially with such ease. The place was quiet, and after the daily scramble and hustle of the albergues, I was glad. Getting a private room in a busy city for such a price was great, and I was delighted to keep the costs down. But when I turned the key the lock and opened the door to my room, my heart sank: the space was tiny. I had never thought to view the room before committing to pay. Had I done so, I might have seen the chipped paint, the exposed wiring, and the metal bars on the windows. The single bed was backed into a corner. There was maybe 30cm of floor space at end and maybe a metre of floor space to the side, which somehow included a wardrobe, a small table, and a beside locker. There was enough room to turn around, but there was nothing to spare. Thinking back on it now, I’m inclined to think it was fine – I mean, how much space did I really need? At the time, however, I took it personally.
There’s a saying that goes something like this: The way you do anything is the way you do everything. I don’t think that’s the exact quotation but I first learned this saying nearly 20 years ago and it’s been churning away in the back of my mind ever since. I’ve spent the years analysing it and trying to establish whether it is really true. The moment I walked into my private box room, I had an immediate thought:
Is this what I have amounted to?
After all the ups and downs of my life, is this the best I can do?
And if I were to die here, is this a reflection of my life, my achievements, and my worth?
The thought had slipped in so quickly that I might have missed it. I felt I had failed again and looking around, I was rather miserable. I guess I had expected a bit more space, a bit more modernity, and something that looked more like a hotel, as I know it. This room was rough around the edges and oppressively small, and I suddenly felt lonely. Surprisingly, I found myself missing my fellow pilgrims and imagined they were all back in the albergue, chatting, laughing, and making plans to explore the city together. I thought: I’ve made a huge mistake, coming here. I missed the sense of community that I’d come to know. I still remember feeling hugely conflicted about how to proceed, and how best to take care of myself on Camino. Being in loud hostels and being around so many people had reduced me to tears, but removing myself from the crowd and taking time to rest also reduced me to tears. I wasn’t usually so teary-eyed and I was really unsure about how to mind myself. What should I do?
Thankfully, I remembered another saying.
‘HALT’ stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, and it’s an acronym for a sort of emotional stock-take. When life is busy or intense, it can be easy to get swept along and lose track of how we’re feeling. Being hungry, angry, lonely, or tired can make us vulnerable and extra-sensitive, and lead to further problems. So taking a minute to stop and check whether we’re feeling any of these things gives us information to make informed, supportive decisions. The man who taught me this has a lovely way of explaining it and encourages us to, “Take it easy. Don’t make any big decisions. Stay in out of the cold and mind yourself.” Simple advice, but a revelation for the likes of me, who spends a lot of life living in my head.
On quick reflection, I seemed to be:
not at all angry
and very tired
So, instead of looking for another room or regretting that I wasn’t in the main albergue, I decided to make the best of what I had. Yes, the room was cramped and a bit dingy but it was mine. It allowed me more personal space than I’d known in the previous five days. It was quiet, it was central, and from what I could tell, the sheets on the bed were clean. Heck, there’d been no sheets at all the previous few days and sheets were a luxury! The bathroom down the hall was spacious and clean, and I had the comfort of washing both my clothes and myself without a line of people waiting outside the door. There were certain benefits to the place, and I had to remind myself that this was one day and one night in my life – it wasn’t a reflection of my entire experience.
However, the attitude I applied to myself was an accurate reflection of my everyday experience. I’d walked for only four days but I’d spent a good chunk of that time comparing myself to others and deciding I was a failure. I was too slow, too emotional, and too sensitive. They’re rather damning judgements, really. I don’t know whether I had a great realisation then, or if it came later, but somewhere over the course of Camino I realised that being really harsh with myself wasn’t going to give me the desired results. Somehow, I had to befriend myself and support myself a bit better. Otherwise, I’d end up crying myself all the way home. So, the room was a dump and my friends would be horrified if they saw it – so what? It would give me a chance to rest and to wash my clothing. That’s what I needed, and once I was asleep, I wouldn’t have to look at the bad décor. I made a decision to stay and my Ego just had to suck it up.
Out on the street, I enjoyed the buzz and the colour of downtown Pamplona. The winding streets were busy with tapas bars and tourist shops, and I felt that there were possibilities there – things to see, things to do, things to buy. I could feel the hive of activity. Pilgrims were easily recognisable with their hiking gear and backpacks, and just seeing them on the streets helped me to relax. It was reassuring to know that I wasn’t entirely isolated and that if I wanted to join them, I could. I was still part of the community.
At the post office, I decided to send a few of my belongings home in the mail. My bag was too heavy, so I cleared it out and waved goodbye to my long-sleeved thermal top, some pages from my guidebook (paper is heavy to carry), and my waterproof rain pants. All week, the weather had been hot and sunny, with cloudless skies at night. I felt confident about not needing raingear for the next phase of walking, and gladly sent the pants away in the post.
That afternoon, I bumped into some pilgrims I’d met on my first night in St. Jean, before we’d started walking at all. One of the German women had injured her knee rather badly in descending the Pyrenees and was hobbling along the street. Frustrated, she told me that it had been very steep and she’d twisted it somehow, and now the doctor wanted her to rest it for a couple of days before going on. She was pragmatic and sensible about her predicament, but grumpy and unhappy. She’d taken time off work to walk the Camino and couldn’t afford any time delays – the knee injury messed with her plans and she didn’t like it. On top of that, her new friends had decided to walk on ahead so she was facing an extra day in Pamplona, alone. This didn’t sit well, either.
Another German, a student we’d both met in St. Jean had also injured himself crossing over the mountains. He’d decided to walk the long stretch from St. Jean to Roncesvalles, up, over, and down the far side of the Pyrenees, all in one day. He was feeling healthy and strong, and was up for the challenge but by the time he’d arrived in Pamplona, he’d injured his feet so badly that he couldn’t walk at all. I never learned the details here but she told me that he was grounded: he would have to stay in Pamplona all weekend and see the doctor again on Monday, but already it was looking like his Camino was over. The doctor already wanted to send him home.
Together, we were disappointed for him–he was excited and hopeful, just like us, but had pushed himself too hard. After just 3 days, it seemed his Camino was cut short. What a loss. That’s among the worst news we could have heard and in the afternoon sunlight we hoped he was ok. Any of us could sustain the same injuries at any time: any of us could be sent home early. All we could do was to take it one day at a time. To this day, I’ve no idea what happened to him next. We didn’t meet in Pamplona and I never saw him again. It’s part of Camino–connecting with people and somehow never seeing them again, but wondering months later how they are getting on in life. I may never know but I still hope he is ok.
That evening, I ate a picnic of chorizo, cheese, and grilled asparagus on the grassy grounds of the citadel (La Ciudadela). Above me, a leafy tree provided shade and sent dappled light dancing across the grass. The wasps wanted my pineapple juice and I wouldn’t give it up, but I sat for an hour quietly content. It was the space and alone-time I needed, and I could feel my batteries recharge. That night, I relished the clean sheets and privacy of my own room, and closed my eyes to the world.
The rain fell heavily and unexpectedly, with loud claps of thunder and bright flashes of lightening. It sounded wild outside and I could think of only one thing: my rain pants are in the post office, waiting to go home.