On the outskirts of Pamplona I met Manoel and Sue again and we walked while we exchanged stories about how we had spent the previous night. However, the conversation didn’t last long as quite soon I began to slip behind with fatigue. When slowing down didn’t provide enough relief I decided it was time to take a break. ‘I’m going to have to give in,’ I shouted to let them know I was stopping.
I felt I really had to stop, even though the environment around me wasn’t conducive to resting. The dry, cracked earth was home only to some spiky-looking plants. With little comfort to choose from, I considered an upright, concrete Camino bollard as a seating possibility. Once I was sure there wasn’t a softer option, I sat on it, and although it was a seat of sorts, it was not a comfortable one.
As I contemplated my situation, I couldn’t believe that four days into the Camino I was already exhausted; it was so much harder than I had expected. Apart from the physical weight on my back, I was also carrying some very heavy emotions, and they were often more difficult to carry than the rucksack. Once again, I returned to thoughts about the kind of Camino I had imagined I would experience and this was nothing like it! In my imagination, the Camino was a healing escape, one that I was meant to fall in love with, and I had naively hoped I’d bypass the difficult stuff. I had underestimated completely how the conditions of the Camino would work to strip away my defences, layer by layer. This was going to be a struggle for which I was ill prepared.
A couple of hours passed before I stopped again at a pilgrim monument on the top of Alto de Perdón where the seating options were marginally improved. The monument, a line of life-size pilgrim figures cut from iron, conveyed to me a sense of what it took to be a pilgrim in earlier times. Then, pilgrims had journeyed with minimal comfort in order to complete their Camino, and it seemed to me they must have walked with great commitment and sincere hearts. It was humbling to be reminded of what others were willing to endure on their pilgrim quest. While I rested there, I thought about what I needed to help me manage the challenges the Camino was presenting me with. I had already noticed that where I stayed and how supportive it felt was important to me, so I reflected on my options. The next official stop was Puente de la Reina, a big town, and at the start of the day it was where I assumed I would stay. Now I thought that is perhaps not what is best for me. Instead of falling in with what most pilgrims were planning I decided that I would stop in the small village of Obanos, a few kilometres before Puente de la Reina. Satisfied with my decision, I communicated my plan to Sue and Manoel before I took off again.
After lunch the afternoon stretch was very dry and hot, hot, hot. The intense heat felt torturous and fatigue took me over completely. Manoel and Sue had fallen behind and I was walking alone, which is how I wanted to keep it. I am not enjoying this Camino one bit! By then, I was in such a resentful state that I didn’t want to speak to anyone. However, I sensed a presence close behind me and when I turned around I discovered my stalker was a beautiful black Labrador and hugs and kisses were exchanged. A dog was no threat! Within moments, the dog’s master, a man in his forties, appeared beside me and began speaking to me in Spanish. Although I tried to respond, I also wished he would just walk on and leave me alone. Then he demonstrated himself collapsing under a great weight and I realised the meaning of his words. ‘Yes, heavy and tired,’ I said. On cue, he lifted and held my rucksack up off my back and as I adjusted the straps, I felt the weight shift from my shoulders to my hips. In response, I almost cried with relief while I clasped his arm to communicate my thanks, repeating my words over and over. Soon afterwards he handed me his walking stick, insisting that I walk with it to ease the pressure. He still talked away in Spanish, none of which I understood, until I heard him say fiesta and I wondered if he was inviting me to a dance! Then as some others came into earshot behind, my companion fell back to talk to them and I took my chance to pull away.
Prior to arriving in Obanos, I was reunited with Manoel and Sue and we headed straight for the albergue. However, we were in for some deflating news: it was closed due to a local fiesta. The Spanish man had not been inviting me to a dance after all! In disbelief, I gazed through the window, in the vain hope of seeing some life inside, but it really was closed. Moreover, it was the only albergue in the village. Sue and Manoel would have walked on, but I was absolutely determined not to go another step and I declared I was going to stay in a hotel. I had seen a sign on the way into town and I wanted to retrace my steps to find it.
The sign I had seen was in fact a Casa Rural, a private house with accommodation on a room-only basis. Then while we stood outside the house, the man with the black Labrador reappeared and caught my arm by way of saying goodbye. He seemed to acknowledge that something special had passed between us; I felt it too. Before we parted, I offered to return his walking stick, but he refused to take it; it was mine to keep.
Inside the house, I felt my spirits lift after the adventures of the day. We were shown to a lovely room which was like a treasure trove with pieces of antique furniture throughout and a little outdoor balcony where we could hang our clothes to dry. There were two soft single beds in place along with fluffy towels and an en-suite shower. An additional camp bed was provided for the third person; Manoel insisted that was him. I felt truly blessed by the kindness of my fellow pilgrims. It was their willingness to support me that meant I had both companionship and comfort.
On our way back to the Casa Rural after dinner, we saw the hospitalero with his wife sitting outside the house enjoying the evening sun and we stopped to greet them. Within seconds he pulled at my arm to place me beside him, and although we had no common language, I felt we could communicate. Emilio, a man in his sixties, enjoyed comparing the colour of his skin with mine; it seemed to amuse him to touch my pale, white, cold arm with his sun-drenched, dark, warm skin. While we talked, he shared with us his store of fresh walnuts, breaking the shells against the wall with the palm of his hand. I felt relaxed and connected as I enjoyed Emilio’s hospitality and the companionship of my new friends.
Back in our room, Manoel took out a Brazilian postcard that he had carried with him from home, perhaps for just such an occasion, and we all wrote our gratitude to the hospitaleros for their generosity. That day I felt touched by the generous interventions of strangers, and as a result, more connected to myself and those around me. At the time I wasn’t particularly open to receiving kindness. Yet those restorative experiences were exactly what I needed.