As I left Santo Domingo I began walking with Wolfgang, a young German man in his mid to late thirties. Although initially I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to walk with him, I allowed myself to find out. The previous evening we had sat across from one another at the dining table in the albergue. He had tried to include me in conversation with the people he knew at the table. However, I had retreated back into myself and it wasn’t easy to draw me out. It really says a lot about someone who continues to act kindly in the face of little encouragement. So having had that experience with Wolfgang I was positively predisposed towards him. After three or four kilometres together we were joined by Eugene, an Irishman from Cork who lived on the Isle of Man. He was walking the Camino with an Irish woman and a group of Canadians.
As we approached the first village I could see the bar was busy and some people were sitting outside, amongst them the two Dutch ladies I had paid little attention to, as well as members of Eugene’s walking group. Instead of heading straight for the bar as I hoped, Wolfgang unexpectedly went into the church, and as soon as I saw him disappear, I felt lost. I wasn’t sure what to do. Although I wanted a rest over coffee, suddenly that seemed next to impossible. For some unknown reason I felt unable to walk into the bar with Eugene. To buy some time, I went into the church too. Really I was just hiding while I tried to work out what to do. In the end I decided to walk on.
At the next village, four kilometres later, I stopped for coffee and within about ten minutes I was joined by Eugene while he waited for one of his group. He began by asking why I hadn’t stopped to join them earlier. In the face of his challenging enquiry, I lied and said I hadn’t felt the need to stop then. I decided it wasn’t a moment for truth. My experience of Eugene had already made me wary. I had the feeling that however unintentional it might be, he could trample on my sensitivities. In contrast, I felt safe with Wolfgang. With him I experienced kindness, gentleness and a respectful distance, while Eugene was a bit more of a bull in a china shop.
In Belorado there were lots of places to stay, and as a result, the hospitaleros competed for pilgrim custom. One enterprising albergue owner came out to meet us, offering bottles of water while advertising his albergue at the same time. By coincidence it was his albergue that had already caught my attention so in my case his advertising wasn’t necessary. On the way inside, I met Elaine, one of the Canadians, and we both made reservations for the dinner the owners provided on site. Almost immediately I became aware of my attempts to ingratiate myself with Elaine. I was fully aware of what I was doing: I was trying to ensure I was part of the Irish/Canadian party for dinner.
In the evening while we waited in the foyer before going in to dinner, I overheard someone say that Elaine had booked a table for six people. That worried me a little: I didn’t think it was necessary to book a table; I had assumed it would be a communal meal. Then I hoped I was the sixth person, as there were five members of the Irish/Canadian group. Wrong – it was a New Zealander named Les. I made the discovery while we waited in line on the stairs, and when I entered the dining room they were seated at a table for six. Other tables were set for smaller numbers and I wondered if they had also been reserved. I felt like a spare part. But more than anything I felt hurt by what I saw at the time as Elaine’s meanness. In the awkwardness of the moment, Les rose from his seat quickly, insisting I take it, saying he was the imposter. But the staff sprang into action and placed an extra chair at the end of the table, which I took. By then, whatever confidence I had about being there had evaporated, and in my mind I blamed Elaine for my discomfort. On more mature reflection, I know it would have been so much easier if I had asked to join them, thereby taking the power into my own hands, rather than placing it in someone else’s.
With Eugene and Les either side of me, we talked about a variety of subjects. Les seemed a gentle, open soul, whereas I found I had little in common with Eugene. His conversation focused mostly on business, which is not something I have much interest in, and I had even less interest in what he had to say when he told me I was taking the Camino too seriously. His judgement felt really hurtful and stayed with me for days, although at the time I tried to conceal my feelings. I felt hurt because I knew I couldn’t have been more sincere in my endeavours, and yet somewhere within me I also knew there was a truth in what he said.
Although I don’t know what prompted his comment, I imagine it may have been because of something repeated to him by Jeanie (one of the Canadians). When I had walked with her earlier in the day, I had told her I was seeking to experience a depth of inner aloneness, and that I was willing to tolerate the layers of vulnerability that came with it. On reflection, I realise that in some circles that makes me a little unusual. The notion of inner aloneness had come up at a retreat I attended a couple of months earlier. I understood it to mean the place beyond the illusion of separation, where inner aloneness is in fact experienced as unity with the Divine, rather than the aloneness I was more familiar with. And to experience unity I would need to dissolve the layers of separation.