Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Camino, Days 1-3: from Pain to joy

Day 1: The Solidarity of Pain
St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles

OK, so I think I explained the trip to St Jean pied de Port... This is where the actual walking kicks in. Did I mention that Day 1 involves a heinous ascent of 1300m? A full distance of 27kms? And an estimated journey time of 8hrs? I may also have mentioned there was the option of only going 10kms the first day... it turns out this wasn´t an option at all, unless you had booked ahead.

So, as advised I set off early. In the Albergues along the way that are specifically for Pilgrims the day tends to start early with the first alarm going off at about 5.30am. So it´s easy to be out the door by 7am. The Albergue I was in gave me the full experience - washing clothes in a bathroom basin, sleeping with olympic snorers, sleep talkers and coughers and dealing with the interesting whiffs that come with sharing rooms with people who have spent the day (and other days preceding) walking long distances.

So after a breakfast served by a very territorial old french lady who wouldn´t let anyone near her bench and therefore insisted on making all the hot drinks for people, I stepped out the door. It was a morning of low cloud, which I discovered was a blessing. I started on my own, but soon fell into step with a group of older Spanish men, Pedro, Jose Luis and a man they all referred to as El Coordinador for the fact he went way ahead of them.

Lesson one on the Camino... Just as in in life, do not follow blindly, assuming others know the way. And if you do and you discover you have gone the wrong way, accept that the fault is as much your own for having followed. Then turn round and walk the 1.5kms back to rejoin the Camino. And then you hit the hills...

Having been somewhat irritated by the number of pilgrims on the Camino, making my trip less unique than I had imagined it would be, this first day created the most amazing unspoken solidarity between everyone. Over 150 of us walked over that mountain that day. Many of us were completely unprepared for the distance, the exertion or the terrain. So this solidarity came through sheer pain and was expressed without actual words, more of a raising of the eyebrows and a massive exhalation (generally with your tongue out to emphasise) as if to say "fuck me, this is hard!"

The first climb to Orisson was entirely in cloud. I sweated like I was at Bikram yoga, I kid you not. It looked like my hair was sweating. The climb was constant and steep... Just quietly, walking the streets of Melbourne, no matter the distance, did not prepare me for this climb! But it was beyond worth it. We came up to the top, turned a corner and were above the clouds, looking at the peaks of the Pyrenees all around us. The sun was out and the mood changed... for a few minutes before the next climb!

Honestly, the walk on this first day was so completely spectacular, both physically and visually that it has been hard to compare days since. I know it may sound sick to some, but I loved the feeling of pushing myself up that mountain - it was completely me and my own legs doing the work. And the sense of achievement was unreal.

We had further to climb and it carried on being hard, but there was this slowly building elation thing happening. I stopped at the statue of the Virgen of Orisson for lunch. I set the camera up to take my picture and promptly sat myself so that my ankles rested in a pile of nettles... not cool. They left me with an angry rash for days! And the photo was crap.

From the Virgin we climbed up to Col de Lepoeder which was the pinaccle for the day, passing grazing sheep and horses all throughout the mountains. In fact the consistent sound of the Camino for the first three days was the sound of cow bells around the necks of the sheep and horses. After the pinnacle the track swept right and headed downhill at a rapid and precarious rate. You could see who feared for their knees as we did our best to traverse the slope, zig-zagging like pre-snow learner skiers.

After about 3kms of descent we emerged from the woods to the sound of thunder and the sight of the Albergue... The most enormous sense of relief!

Albergues are set up to house the maximum number of people. They vary totally in quality, but this one was nice. Comfortable, despite housing over 120 people each night. Clean (until we were let loose on it) and well equipped (which, to the average Camino Pilgrim means they had a space to wash clothes and a kitchen to sit in... we´re not a demanding lot!).

Pretty much without fail everyone crashed and slept before 9pm. The collective exhaustion was infectious.

Day one rocked. I felt really good and really strong. No major issues with my legs or feet and my pack hadn´t held me back, despite being about 5kgs heavier than recommended (and than most people are carrying).

I slept like a baby.

Day 2: The Grump of Exhaustion
Roncesvalles to Zubiri

If day one was characterised by stunning scenery and a sense of achievement, day two was characterised by the unapproachable grumpiness that comes from being physically exhausted. I was not a pleasant Pilgrim on day 2.

I felt good when I started and I fell into step with Paul from Carlisle. I hadn´t met Paul before, but I think we found each other mutually nice, but boring and so after we grabbed some breakfast in the next town he pretended to need to do something with his pack and I readied myself more quickly than I would normally and we separated, so that I could go and get lost again on my own, rather than dragging another pilgrim down with me...

Fortunately I only went a couple of hunderd metres out of my way this time before I realised there were no obvious indications that I was on the right track; bouncing backpacks in the distance, yellow shells on blue tiles, yellow arrows painted on walls or lamp posts... So i turned around and immediately met an Italian man also going in my direction. I ran my theory past him and he said something along the lines of suggesting that there is no wrong way... but I turned back anyway and soon found that not only is there a wrong way, but we were definitely on it since the right way turned right off the main road some way back. I briefly wondered whether to go back and tell him, but he´d be a good km away by now and frankly he seemed philosophical about the possibility, as if he might just assume it had been a message from the Camino if he found himslef elsewhere... who am I to get between and man and a message... Now I feel bad. Haven´t seen him since.

Anyway, I moved on... Look, the scenery was fine, but it was flatter than the day before and a lot of it was very similar to walks I´ve done in England many times over. The vegetation was similar and even the climate wasn´t too different. It started out very cloudy and cool before heating up after lunch. So the familarity allowed me to build the grump until I arrived in Zubiri like a little ball of angry and pissed off, with hurty bits all over...

Fortunately the first Albergue I came to had space and I had a room to myself for a while before others arrived, so I showered and then massaged my own legs and feet, stretched and then went to sit by the river.

I hung out by the river with Nikki from Canada who I had met the day before and we shared lessons learned from the day... My lesson for the day was one that should be obvious: it´s not a race to the end, enjoy the journey. For some reason I had been caught up in some sort of over zealous speed hunger. A lot of people have tight timelines or are following the 30 day guide that gets handed out at the start, so it´s very easy to get caught up in a race to the finish.

Anyway, so I had ploughed onwards after breakfast without stopping for a rest or for food for four hours. And it wasn´t an easy walk either. And in my race I passed a couple of beautiful moments that I thought "it´d be lovely to stop and look at that a while", but I was too busy aiming for my destination. Bad Pilgrim!

That night I went for the traditional and very cheap Pilgrim´s menu at a local bar and found myslef (not for the first time) on a table full of non-english speakers speaking a language I have little to no competence in. If I had been less tired and grumpy I might have been more able to engage (it was French, which I can speak in when I´m not otherwise exhausted and surrounded by spanish... I just couldn´t find my words at all!). Ah well, lesson learned.

Day Three: The Joy of Survival
Zubiri to Pamplona

I cannot express the joy that comes from setting out the day after the grump feeling awake, alive and totally able. I had such a spring in my step. I chatted to myself and Juniper (my bag... see previous post). I sang songs and I veritably skipped the light fandango. And the stay stayed awesome.

The clouds kept the temperature cool and I walked a sort of relay with my three Spanish friends from the first day. Sometimes walking with them and chatting, other times going ahead or falling back. Days like that are getting more frequent as i get to meet more people and as everyone gets more comfortable to take their own time and walk their own pace. Inevitably you´ll bump into several people at a village cafe or in a shady spot along the way, then you´ll leave each other and go your own way.

Today, learning from yesterday, I stopped regularly. I took the time to take photos and when i stopped, I rested properly. I felt like I had all the time in the world. I sat by a river in Trinidad de Arre and ate my lunch. Then only a few hundred metres further on I stopped at a bar for a coke and watched people in the square for a while.

From Arre, the entry to Pamplona is pretty spectacular. Arre doesn´t really end, it just sort of feeds into a suburb of Pamplona. From miles away you can see the Cathedral on the hilltop and you wind your way in through residential suburban areas until you cross the river and find yourself walking around the city walls like a proper pilgrim of old. It was the first time I´d really felt the history of the Camino... It may horrify some (not least my mother) to know I´m not all that interested in the history... unless I can feel it. And I could feel it here.

Pamplona was abuzz. It was siesta time on a saturday afternoon, which apparently does not include a siesta so much as a drinking session. So i walked through the narrow city streets following the silver markers on the floor, among the feet of the Saturday revellers until i found myself at Jesus & Maria Albergue up near the Cathedral.

In the Albergue, as is often the case I was reunited with some of the familiar faces of the journey so far: The Spanish trio, Nikki, A lovely Spanish woman who´s name I have never quite caught, A hoard of germans (there are so many here!) and some others whose faces I know but whose names I haven´t heard yet. It was so good to see these faces that have been part of my journey since I had decided to take a day off in Pamplona the following day, which in Camino terms means a shuffling of the deck - new people to walk with.

I said goodbye to everyone and Buen Camino after doing a black market-style exchange with Nikki - your two apples for my two yoghurts, if you keep it quiet I´ll chuck in these dried cherries too. And tucked myself into my top bunk for the night... New adventures in the morning.

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