On a drizzly Sunday morning my Camino officially began with less composure than I had anticipated, for I hurried through town trying to catch up with those who had set out ahead of me. After about half an hour, my efforts to draw level were rewarded, but I was cautious in my interactions and I didn’t speak to anyone for an hour or two. My first attempt at conversation was with a Japanese man in his seventies. He was with a group, although when I met him they had stretched out and he was walking alone. We proceeded together for a short distance before I acknowledged to myself that I felt ill at ease and I moved on ahead.
Later I met two girls from South Korea and we walked together to Orisson, where we stopped for coffee after quite a strenuous ten-kilometre climb. Outside the bar there were lots of tables and stunning views. So after being served I went outside with my coffee, leaving the girls to decide which cake to choose. As I waited for them to emerge, I covertly searched my rucksack for something of my own to eat, when out of the corner of my eye I noticed the girls walking across the road to the terrace on the other side. I hadn’t expected that, and I didn’t actually want to be on my own, yet I didn’t move to join them. Looking around at the other occupied tables, I observed that I was the only person sitting alone and I began to feel out of place. Shortly afterwards, I waved goodbye to the South Korean girls and left to continue the climb.
Along the route, although I wanted to connect with people, I remained cautious about engaging in conversation. As the day wore on, I realised that the Camino was going to be challenging for me in ways I had hoped not to experience. While most pilgrims observed the practice of wishing each other ‘Buen Camino’ (enjoy it) my greeting was quietly spoken, if at all. Later I had lunch at a rest point which doubled as a Camino census station; actually it might have been more a census station that doubled as a rest point. This consisted of a mobile unit, where a man recorded on a white board the number and nationality of passing pilgrims. Looking closely, I saw that three Irish people had passed before me that day and I fantasised about catching up with them, as I imagined I would feel less alone if I met someone from home.
Although the views across the Pyrénées were at times spectacular, I was more focused on the destination than the journey. I was worried about securing a bed in Roncesvalles, and my anxiety meant that I didn’t take as much rest as I needed. So by the time I arrived I was frustrated by the physical and emotional struggle, and ready to collapse with exhaustion.
At about 4 p.m. I stepped through the albergue doors and into a large, modern facility with a busy reception desk. While I searched for my Camino passport and money, I chatted briefly and distractedly to a French girl I had met in St Jean. At that moment only three things in life mattered. My first priority was to secure a bed for the night. Next on my agenda was my desire to peel off the clothes that were stuck to my body and feel the comfort of a warm shower. Then I wanted to curl up for a nap. All other matters faded into the background.
In Roncesvalles men and women had separate shower facilities, and one became available straight away. Once inside the cubicle, I saw a small shelf for toiletries and a hook for items of clothing. These were then protected from water spray by the shower curtain. When I was ready, I pressed the knob to release the water and stood back in case it was cold, but the water stopped almost as soon as it started. I pressed again and the same thing happened. In fact the water stopped each time on the count of eleven. Showering on the Camino was a functional experience; there wouldn’t be any luxuriating under a stream of hot water for some time.
The large dorm was divided into four-person cubicles and mine was located just outside the men’s bathroom. This turned out to be unfortunate. Although I had earplugs, they were totally ineffective at blocking out the noise that escaped from the hand dryer every time the door opened, so sleep was impossible for me. Plus I was sharing a cubicle with three snoring Spanish men and at least one of them had smelly feet.
Then I considered three possibilities for dinner. I could cook in the lovely kitchen, eat at one of the local hotels serving dinner after Mass, or finish the leftovers in my rucksack. As it turned out cooking wasn’t really an option – the small village didn’t have a local shop, and with nothing to cook, the kitchen remained in pristine condition. I didn’t want to go on my own to a hotel for dinner, and I hadn’t met anyone I wanted to have dinner with either. So I opted for leftovers and went to the dining room to finish my bread, cheese and meat. There, I was joined by the French girl I had met in the foyer earlier, with two young female companions, and I felt envious of her ability to make friends so quickly.
With chores and dinner out of the way, the most difficult part of the day by far was upon me. With nothing to do, no friend to talk to, no distraction to occupy me, and nowhere to go, the remainder of the day felt endless. It was also when I felt most vulnerable and alone. All I could do was wait, firstly for Mass time to arrive, and then after Mass I waited for sleep.