The albergue staff switched on the overhead lighting at 6 a.m., and with the brightness difficult to ignore, I sprung out of bed quickly. The three strangers I had shared the dorm with were early starters and had already left. Kirsten, on the other hand, was slow to mobilise herself; I had finished breakfast before she appeared, she looked exhausted after her long trek the previous day, even putting on boots seemed to take a lot of her energy.
Although we began walking together, Branu gradually fell behind and soon we couldn’t see him at all. It became apparent as we walked through the commercial district, which was completely different to the quaint old city, that Ponferrada was a lot bigger than we’d anticipated. With the city signs competing with one another for attention, I lost sight of the Camino and began to follow another pilgrim, assuming she could see what I could not. Mistake! It transpired that we were following Elizabeth from Dublin, and I don’t know who she was following. She worked as a teaching assistant in Madrid and had good Spanish, which came in handy, as we were lost. If I had been on my own I would have retraced my steps, but I felt safe in numbers and had faith that we would find our way back. However, Kirsten was less trusting – of me, of herself, or anyone else; mostly, perhaps, she was worried about being parted from Branu.
About two hours later we were reunited with the Camino and shortly afterwards, Kirsten and I stopped at a café. Darren was there ahead of us and I was pleased to see him, as I needed some light relief. Walking with Kirsten for the previous couple of hours had been draining, so I was glad of Darren’s company. The three of us left together after coffee, and as the morning progressed into afternoon, Darren and I laughed our way through story after story. We were as carefree as school kids on a day off. I really don’t recall what we were laughing at, but it all seemed funny at the time. After a while, Kirsten dropped back and later I saw her in a bar having a beer with Heather and Eugene.
In Villafranca, the albergue of popular choice was referred to as the ‘hippy place’. Run by a family who had been tending to pilgrims for years, it felt more like a community than usual, and it was clear that the family enjoyed the role they played. The upstairs dorms were accessed by external staircases while balconies overlooked the courtyard below, and as I observed the flow of movement from my vantage point in the queue, I had the feeling of being on holiday.
When Darren and I got to the top of the registration line, we were allocated a double bunk bed – not ideal, but I knew I would be okay. I felt really happy. I knew so many people; Kirsten had arrived with Heather and Eugene, and I was especially pleased to see Branu a little later. Even before he showered, he ordered a bottle of wine and the three of us pooled our food resources for a lovely impromptu picnic. Those were some of the best moments. I felt so fond of Branu. Sometimes we had deep philosophical conversations and at other times we would just look at one another and laugh. I felt no pressure from him or with him. I could come and go as I pleased and we would be happy to meet whenever we did. He was also the bridge that connected me to Kirsten; we seemed to need his laid-back let’s-have-some-fun attitude as an antidote to the intensity between us. His appearance often put things into perspective for me, and I would suddenly find my playfulness again.
Then after a lovely day I found myself drifting away and disconnecting in the evening. I didn’t seem to know what to do with myself and I felt at a loss. At the communal dinner, I struggled to participate in conversation; it took so much energy for me to talk at all. I could see Darren further down the table; he seemed to be getting along well with the girl on his right and I wondered if I had lost my companion.