When I set off on my second day I hoped that walking would bring some ease to my inner discomfort. However, with each passing kilometre I felt more overwhelmed by how alone I felt in the world. What I felt was the confusion of a child standing alone in a playground while others played together. It felt like being locked inside, unable to get out.
By the time I reached my first coffee stop at a roadside bar, I felt really cross, frustrated and deeply resentful. I was desperate for a break but when I saw groups of people gathered outside chatting comfortably, I considered walking on and it took every ounce of will to push myself in through the doorway. Once I re-emerged, I sat with my coffee and bacon sandwich at the only unoccupied outdoor table available, where I was joined by a brazen village cat who wasn’t put off by my lack of encouragement. Within minutes a young, very chatty South African woman and her Dutch walking companion joined my table. There followed the usual opening questions before she told me that the experience was, for her, wonderful. At the time, I couldn’t imagine how that was possible, and part of me thought, she’s can’t be doing the Camino! The contrast in our experiences could not have been more marked, and it was that very contrast that meant I couldn’t stay with her for long and soon I was eager to be off again.
Leaving my lunch companions behind, I continued to walk until I reached Zubiri at about 1 p.m., and I headed straight for the municipal albergue. On arrival I could see a large, derelict yard at the front of the building. It really was particularly uninviting and although it put me in mind of Colditz, the prisoner of war TV series, I still approached. Inside, the warden sat in a small office, sandwiched between two large dormitories. After registering, he showed me to one of them and the Colditz feeling grew. At first I was amazed to find so many beds in a clammy room, and not only that – the bunk beds were welded together in pairs. In part I thought, you’re having a laugh, while another part said, I can do this.
Shortly afterwards I made my way across the yard to the very basic, unisex, communal shower block. The lack of frills I could cope with; however, I was less keen on the absence of a shower curtain and the necessary equipment to lock the door. Although I was alone in that moment and glad to be so, I was aware that the situation could change very quickly. Then while I was under the shower, I discovered that I had left my soap in Roncesvalles. Things are going really well!
After a hasty shower, I sat up on my bunk telling myself, via my journal, that I was well able for this, no bother to me at all. But as I looked around the room, my self-delusion began to fade. How would I fill this day, I wondered. I felt in a world of one, in an unfamiliar land, surrounded by strangers and languages I didn’t understand. In fact I wasn’t really there; I was waiting to go, waiting for the relief of darkness to come so that the discomfort would be over and I could get away.
Later, as I sat at a bench in the shade, I was joined by a couple of Italian men who were waiting for more of their group to arrive. In my naivety I asked if they were staying at the albergue. No, they were waiting to be picked up by a bus that would take them to a hotel in Pamplona. My heart sank as I considered what they were escaping to while I remained in Colditz. The luxury of a hotel room was very appealing and in complete contrast to my circumstances. In retrospect, I see that hotel comforts actually make the Camino more of a holiday, despite the physical challenge, and I realised my four-star pilgrim experience the previous year had been really a holiday too. No wonder I enjoyed it so much.
As I climbed back onto my bunk, thinking I might read, I was approached by Deborah, an Australian girl who told me she was on a mission to walk the world for love. I had noticed her earlier. She stood out because of the way she was dressed. To me she looked like she was on safari in deepest Africa, as almost every part of her skin was covered. Up close, I could see written on her wide-brimmed hat the astonishing words, Walking for love of God. Such a public declaration of her pilgrim intent shocked me, as I imagined that she might face ridicule and alienation for being so open. It’s only on reflection that I realise my thoughts revealed my own struggle to be open about my relationship with God. In my rucksack, I carried the book Conversations with God, and when I took it out to read later I folded back the cover so it couldn’t be seen. I was afraid that if people saw what I was reading I would be judged and labelled one of them. In hindsight I see how significant it was that Deborah approached me; she was reflecting for me my dis-ease with my own feelings.
Then at bed time I discovered the long-awaited answer to the question of who would share my bed – well not quite share, but closer than I would have liked. A German man that I had met in St Jean had the honour! There, he had occupied the bunk above mine, and to acknowledge that we were getting closer, I said, ‘We are destined to share a bed’. But I don’t think he understood my attempt at humour. That marked the beginning and the end of our conversation. Besides, I was ready for lights out and oblivion. However, for that I had to wait a little longer, until everyone settled down. Until then, the overhead light remained on while people folded and repacked their noisy plastic bags in readiness for the next day’s departure.