In the morning I left the albergue while Burgos was still in darkness, and even though the streets were lit, the Camino signs were difficult to make out, so much so that I couldn’t see them at all! Ahead in the near distance, I noticed a female pilgrim making decisions without hesitation and I decided to follow her. It turned out that I was following Brandi, a young American in her twenties, and we began walking together from the outskirts of Burgos. At our first coffee stop we met some people we knew, including Eugene and Heather. In fact when I arrived Eugene enveloped me in an uncharacteristic hug, as though I was some long-lost relative. After we found a table, Manoel and Sue joined us and I felt my happiness was complete. When I was feeling good, as I was on that morning, I found those impromptu meetings among the loveliest of my Camino experiences.
Brandi and I parted company some time later and before lunch I met Wilhelm who, much to my surprise, was walking alone, as he was one of the seven men from Friesland! Naturally I enquired about his comrades and found out that they had not originated as a group of seven, as I had imagined. Wilhelm had set out to walk the Camino alone, but got no further than the airport before he found a ready-made walking group. The six men carried the Friesland flag on their luggage and that was what had brought them to Wilhelm’s attention. What intrigued me about them was how they walked together – more of a march really, as though they were in the army; they looked like they were taking part in their daily drill. The Camino seemed to be mostly a physical challenge to them, while for Wilhelm it was more than that – he had a real gentleness of spirit. So the first day I talked to Wilhelm was his first day alone. The rest of his group had finished in Burgos, while he was walking on to Santiago, and indeed beyond, to Finisterre.
I had set myself a big task for the day: almost thirty-two kilometres, which was quite an increase under the circumstances. It was the first day of what would be a week of walking the great Meseta Alta, a barren wilderness that provided little or no shade from the relentlessness of the sun. So after lunch I set off on the remaining fourteen-kilometre walk to Hontanas, while others quite sensibly finished their day’s walk at lunch time. I knew it would be difficult; I just didn’t know how difficult until I encountered the reality of no cafés, no trees and no shelter of any kind – just endless walking in oppressive heat.
When I arrived at my destination it was about twelve hours after my day had begun and I booked myself into the first albergue I saw: a bar. They had rooms upstairs, along with additional dormitories located in a series of random buildings at the back. My dorm accommodated ten people and four of them were present when I arrived. We exchanged the normal pleasantries but I didn’t know any of them and I was soon off to complete my chores. As I stood washing at an outdoor sink in what felt like a back alley, I could hear noise and laughter nearby, and I realised how disconnected I felt. The transition from walking alone to being surrounded by people and gaiety was challenging, particularly after the difficulty of the day. Down in the square, outside pubs and bars, the whole of the Camino seemed to have congregated – so many people and yet I felt so lost and alone.
Later I went down to the square to face the world, but I felt that I stood out like a sore thumb. I could no more have engaged in conversation than I could have walked another fourteen kilometres. After walking around the village to get my bearings, I positioned myself at a table with a pot of tea and took out my journal to write. Writing helped me to process my feelings and explore what was going on. The holiday atmosphere really jarred with me and I felt out of sync with the rest of the world. I didn’t know what I wanted, while I had a list of all the things I didn’t want. At the centre of it was my ongoing resistance to the evening meal, the pilgrim menu. In addition, I was resisting drinking alcohol as a way of passing time, while others appeared to be doing it with gusto.
The pilgrim menu, a standard three-course meal served everywhere along the Camino, varies hardly at all from place to place, either in variety or cost. A simple salad – by simple I mean lettuce and tomato – or soup to start, followed by hake or stew with potatoes, but rarely any other vegetables. Dessert might be a banana, Santiago tart (almond), a pot of yogurt or sometimes ice cream, all washed down with red wine for a total cost of about €10. So what was my objection? I should be so lucky, right?
Well, for days I had been trying to figure out how to reduce the carbohydrate content of my diet and increase my vegetable intake. Vegetables were normally only available in the soup. So in order to have vegetables I needed the starter as well as a main course, and then while I was there, how could I refuse a dessert? While my body had some difficulty with the amount of carbohydrate and lack of fibre I was consuming, my mind was even more troubled.
Journaling helped me to realise the bind I had got myself into, and I began to see that my resistance to the pilgrim menu symbolised my rejection of how things were, a refusal to accept what is, which meant that I vetoed everything around me. In an ideal world, one of my own making, I would have had more control over my diet, but if I was to have any peace, I had to accept what was available. I was doing the Camino, after all, and pilgrim dinners were part of the deal!