I arrived at my albergue in Pamplona much earlier than the other pilgrims, having just come from Barcelona by train.
I didn’t know how things worked then. I requested a passport from the man at the front desk, and he stamped it and assigned my bunk. The first to arrive after me was a group of girls, all friends, speaking a language I couldn’t identify. Then a friendly, smiling Spanish man greeted me with a “hola” and climbed onto the bunk above me. That was my first encounter with another pilgrim.
The next morning, I was out the door before sunrise. Agitated nerves kept me from sleeping in. But I didn’t know which direction to head in, and so I waited on a bench outside the albergue, pretending to tie my hiking boots, until a man emerged and set out on the trail. I eventually followed him.
A group of Spaniards intercepted me, all chattering away happily. One woman sang out, “Buen Camino!” I tried the same words out, but they stuck in my throat, and some sort of garbled greeting made her smile at me like I was a half-wit. I felt like one.
The Spaniards on their 9th pilgrimage
Since it was Easter Week, almost every pilgrim I met when I set out was a Spanish person on holiday. I had no idea what anyone was saying, ever. On my first day, a man offered me a chunk of his bread after we had both climbed to the top of a particularly steep hill. He’s the first person to teach me about generosity on The Way.
Some of the Spanish pilgrims, especially the older men, had been walking the Camino for years. I met one guy who was on his 9th pilgrimage.
The same smiling guy in my first albergue became my walking buddy for some time. For days I walked with him, a Spanish girl, an Italian named Mario, and a Chinese girl named Cecilia. They were wonderfully generous, and kind, and I think they recognized that I was a little adrift, and so they adopted me.
The solo women
There was only one time on the Camino where I felt scared to be alone.
It was after leaving Estella, and although I started out with a few people ahead of me, they disappeared quickly. I walked alone for hours, without seeing another soul. I grew more nervous as time went on. I was walking across farmland, shrouded in mist. Had I taken the wrong trail? If something happened to me, how would anyone know?
But it only happened once. There’s a sense of togetherness on the Camino that keeps everyone looking out for everyone. It’s how I ended up with Swiss lotions for sore muscles, and plasters for my blisters. And solo women were common.
Cecilia, the Chinese girl, was one. She had a beautifully magnetic personality — people were drawn to her cheerful and upbeat attitude. When we parted ways, she cried as she hugged me. Then there was Terri, the Australian who was travelling alone for the first time ever. She was eventually making her way to Croatia to discover where her parents came from. Then there were the two Sardinians, Rachele and Simone, who came separately but ended up bonding over their homeland (and a dispute over how to make the best lasagna).
A Belgian woman gave me flip-flops one day. Then there was the older Canadian lady I met before crossing the mountains. She was on her third pilgrimage, but this time she was doing it her way. Even if it meant getting a bus.
The people going through great loss
I walked for about a week with a Danish man who treated me like a daughter and was forever looking out for me. He’d often give me food, worried that I wasn’t eating enough. One day, he told me about how his wife had died six months before.
Another solo woman I walked with had just been through a divorce. We spent hours talking about this, and other things, and pouring out our hearts. “I’m so glad I met you,” she told me. And I agreed.
The happy-go-lucky Dutchmen
The Dutchmen I met on the Camino were a particular kind of breed. My first encounter was with Gerrard — an older man on his fourth marriage, with some very strong opinions on just about everything.
He was one of the first people to truly get to know me. We kept passing each other on the trail, and one day he stopped me and asked, “What’s your story?” So we talked and walked, and talked and walked. He always wore a knitted beige sweater, and a fanny-pack around his waist. He’d disappear for awhile, and I’d see him again, and it was always a relief when I did. His bear hugs were the best. After Burgos, I lost him and didn’t get to see him again. I dreamt about him, though, and it felt as good as the real thing.
The other Dutchman was an extraordinarily tall man named Andre. He was eccentric to the extreme, showing up at our albergue one day and immediately stripping down to his shorts so he could dry his clothes by the fire. We never walked together, but he’d always pop up somewhere. Even in Finnisterre, lying on a beach with my eyes shut against the brilliant sun, I heard my friend next to me exclaim, “I can’t believe it!” And then I looked up to see Andre striding across the beach, dripping wet, with that big goofy smile on his face.
The married couple
I think it takes a special, solid kind of married couple (or just a couple, really) to walk 790 kilometres together without killing each other, but Clay and Elizabeth from Alabama did it. I spent most of my pilgrimage with them, and the two Sardinians. In a recent blog post, Clay described us all as a bunch of misfits from weird places — a completely apt description. They felt inspired by the experience and now they run a tour company in Birmingham.
Getting to know them was the highlight of my walk. And now I have new relationship goalz.
The Italians were as strong of a force on the Camino as the Spaniards, the difference being that they barely spoke any English (other than Rachele). Of course, they all spoke 10 other languages. Rachele, for example, insisted that she never spoke any Spanish. But she was consistently our translator.
I had several complete conversations with the Italians without actually speaking.
Mario, an older man looking to arrive in Santiago for his 50th birthday, spent a good deal of time telling me about how he took the wrong path during the snowstorm and got lost for hours. He told me all this using mostly hand gestures, and slow Italian, while I gasped in amazement. We spent a lot of time walking together or just hanging out in the albergues, not really speaking. But it didn’t matter.
Another Italian man walked with me one afternoon and, well, I think he might have proposed at one point? We again had an entire conversation with hand gestures and broken language.
The people who defy all categories
I don’t like putting any of these people in categories, really. They were all so special to me, even the brief moments.
I badly want to walk the pilgrimage again, but I wonder how it’ll be different. Will it be worse? And do I really want it to be better? Will it diminish the quality of my first pilgrimage?
Tibor the German man and Flemming the Danish man were a big part of my journey, too. They were generous and pure-hearted, and full of never-ending optimism. Seriously, never-ending. One day, Flemming carried Terri’s pack in addition to his because she was in so much pain. And he didn’t complain for a second.
Later, at an albergue, the two of them ran out to buy food and then cooked us a home meal. There were one euro bottles of wines, and fresh veggies topping plates of noodles. We found a guitar and then sat around making up Camino songs.
I think, for now, my stories about the Camino are finished. It’s been so wonderful to share these experiences! Next time: the Northern Route.