Help! Already I was lost! And not even out of Madrid airport! I hadn’t even started to walk the Camino Frances, the medieval pilgrim trail, over 440 miles across Spain to Santiago de Compostela.
No intrepid traveller, I’d worried intensely about travelling alone over 12,000 miles from home, whether I’d get lost on a foreign continent, get lonely, get sick, get bedbugs, not get a bed, and much more, but I never dreamt I’d have a problem so soon. The plan was to get off the plane and straight onto a bus to Pamplona, where I’d start walking, but it was only 6am, there weren’t any information booths open, and there was no-one around to direct me as I wandered tiredly to and fro, lugging my heavy backpack.
A pitying non-English speaking bus driver eventually waved me onto his bus, conveying he was taking me to “Ameriga”. Did I want to go there? How would I know? I was new in town! But all was well. He dropped me at a bus terminal in Avenida de America, and eventually I was the proud possessor of a ticket to Pamplona.
A few days later, my fears of loneliness allayed, I was socialising at an albergue in a little Spanish village. I’d chatted to a no-name Canadian, who had done the Camino five years before and forgotten how hard it was, a round-as-high Aussie, and a blowsy Londoner with a tomb of toppled teeth, travelling with a group of twenty Irish. “I slept above the (unprintable) Reverend last night”, she roared. I bet he was glad he’d taken his vows….
I’d shared albergues with Mexicans, Germans and a Frenchwoman. Florence the Frenchie had already been walking for a month, from Le Puy, in France, and I was sick with envy. I’d been walking only a short time and looked like my mother never loved me. She’d trekked 400 miles and looked like she’d just stepped off the runway! Not even a crease in sight and such fashionable clothes!
Albergues are dormitory-style accommodation, where for 6 to 10 Euros you get a bed, a pillow, and with a bit of luck, a hot shower. Since there was no telling who your bedmates might be, earplugs were a necessity, but albergue life is very Japanese-like. We each had our own little space, a few inches wider than our bed, and were blind and deaf to anything outside the invisible line.
The trail itself was very busy and quite beautiful, whilst walking in the hours most are usually sleeping. Earlier it was to avoid the heat of the sun, by midday it was exhausting, but temperatures were dropping rapidly, and it became something of a bed-race, with pilgrims heading down the trail before light. It’s a very odd experience, wandering along each day, not knowing where you’re going, what you’ll eat, who you’ll meet, who you’ll sleep in the albergues with, whether you’ll even get a bed. The scenery and radical difference to daily life is what makes the Camino Frances so appealing. Stunning medieval villages, wildflowers, gardens, woods, animals, outdoor life, complexity, simpleness, honesty and human interaction impress. Every day – hour – turning brings something different to the experience.
One morning I walked out of town in pitch blackness, completely alone, not even moonlight showing the way. My torch had died, so I could only navigate by watching each footfall on the white gravel path. In contrast, the next day was rush hour. Lemminglike, we poured in waves through the streets. Where did all those people come from overnight? Spooky…
More than thirty eventful days later, nearing pilgrimage end, the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, I’d become intoxicated by the beauty of the trail, the centuries old villages, vineyards, cornfields and gardens, where only jet trails clouded the sky.
Where else would every person you met, in every town and village, greet you and wish you a good journey? Where else would you see so many stunning sunrises? Drink free red wine from a fountain? Sleep with so many strange people? Find out just how much your feet can hurt? Get a tan that stops at the ankles? Watch cranes settle in for the night atop a church steeple? Walk for hours through rustling woods, eucalyptus groves and shaded lanes beside rushing rivers. And mist, fog, sunshine and rain, church and cow bells ringing across the hills?
I’d been lost, I’d been lonely, been ill and seen others with bedbug bites, and experienced almost everything I had so feared before leaving home. To my surprise I wasn’t the wuss I’d believed. I’d walked alone hundreds of miles, through cities, valleys, towns and mountains and experienced a fantastic journey. Fear of the unknown would never hold me back from embarking on an adventure again.
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