Postcard 6 – Back on the Camino – The Francés  – With Kathy, Becky and Cecilia

The Camino is filled with random acts of kindness and love.

When Cecilia introduced me to the Camino a few years ago I was worried that I wouldn’t fit in. This one is the ‘Way of St. James’ and the walk can be from anywhere but ends up in Santiago de Compostela at the shrine where the bones of St. James (one of the disciples) are laid to rest. I don’t have the strong religious views of some of these wonderful people but I do love the community spirit, the challenge and the astonishing interaction with beautiful nature and I also adore walking. The other bonus is that you meet some special people from all over the world and they become your friends. 

Kathy is one of those people and her daughter Becky is about to become another. She’ll become a dear friend who, in four days, is someone I’ve known for years!

Cecilia has sent me a ‘What Three Words’ code to identify where she is after a couple of failed attempts using shop names and I bump into Tony and Richard two upbeat and thoroughly interesting people that I’d made acquaintance with in the bus from Pamplona. Richard is from Canberra and Tony shares his time between Hampshire and France. I like them immensely and they will give me a psychological lift in a couple of days time but they and I don’t know that yet. 

A lovely afternoon catching up followed by a wonderful Pilgrim meal with the other peregrinos in the Beilari Albergue.   Beilari is the word ‘pilgrim’ in the Basque language and Joseph is one of the nicest people you could care to meet. His job is to run the hostel and he’s ideal for the role as he explains the protocols and encourages interaction with the diverse nationalities that are staying tonight.

English tends to be the common language although French and Spanish are also dominant. What is amazing is the number of Far Eastern travellers and the popular language they use to bridge two dissimilar languages tends to be English.

We’re allocated a bed in a room with Kathy and Becky and they’re happy with that. It’s a room with four beds in two double bunks rather than a large dormitory where there could be twenty plus so we’re delighted.

The evening communal meal includes encouragement to interact with the others and a couple of games that share our names and from where we come. This becomes significant as we begin to walk. I am more than a little surprised at how some people remembered them. I am also surprised at the diversity of people as they reveal their home nations from the USA, China, South Korea, Germany, France and, of course, the UK.

Joseph gave us a mini talk on protocol such as rucksacks to be left in the covered yard area with only essentials taken into the dorms and everyone complies. It’s always filled me with a warm glow as I witness this trust.  I continue to find joy in the level of trust displayed when rucksacks are propped outside shops and cafes whilst a drink or meal is sought or just leaving them in the covered yard as they are tonight. Clearly, money, passports and insurance documents are kept in a personal bag but the rucksack contains everything else and by that I mean everything. 

I’d bought a straw hat in Ribadesella which I’d put in the rucksack for transportation and it had become crushed so I put it in the corner to be thrown out when I took the other rubbish in the morning. It looked like a crushed bird’s nest and I was disappointed with myself for being so cavalier with it when it had protected me so well from the surprisingly strong mid-day sun on the Norte.

In the morning it was like a miraculous new beginning the dilapidated shape that I’d thrown in the corner was a new straw hat. It had regained its shape overnight and fit me like it did when it was bought. Thumbs up to the hat shop at Ribadesella.

Breakfast is taken whilst rucksacks are packed and then repacked. Getting the weight and balance right is essential especially when walking ‘up’ and today is going to be unremittingly ‘up’.

It’s surprising how quickly two dozen people can be fed, packed and ready in an hour but that’s the case and by 8 O’clock the albergue is all but empty. We walk out into the rain hoping that we can get a coffee before we set off. Our steps are taken with a degree of care as the cobbles have a tendency to become very slippery when wet and the reflected shine acts as a warning as we give our feet a little twist at each step to gauge the friction. 

There’s one or two bits and pieces Cecilia would like to buy and the shops are still closed so another coffee is sought and after a bit of aimless wander, we find a cafe and manage some correspondence that’s made an appearance on our phones overnight.

Kathy and Becky set off and we promise to catch them up when the ‘shopping’ is done. As it turns out, they adopt a very steady gate and although we set off within the hour we don’t see them again until Orisson – to say I’m impressed is an understatement!

We set off about 50 minutes after them and the weather is drizzly so it’s waterproofs for the time being which is a bit of a bind as it means we get sweaty in the warmth. It really is very much ‘up’. From the moment we leave the walled town we’re leaning into the road. Cecilia is walking with me for the time being but that will change as her walk rate is very different to mine. 

We get a very short period of remission as it flattens out and we’re caught up by a wonderful Irishman. This is Dean’s third Camino and he’s very direct! 

“The Camino has changed my fecking life”, he says without being prompted. He’s now walking with us, sticks being pushed onto the road in a very meaningful way and then powerful strokes from his arms pull him forward with grace. There may be some exaggeration regarding his bulk as he’s wearing a huge cape.  His own observation is that the Camino, “Helps me get rid of this fecking belly” and he points to his paunch with a degree of irritation. Then he volunteers his story. 

Sadly, his relationship had broken up two or three years ago and he’d gone into a fit of depression and sold his flock of pedigree sheep one of which was bought in France at a cost of £1800. He goes on, “We’re reconciled now but the Camino keeps me sane”. After a few more brief words his steady gate goes into overdrive and he calls back, “Oi’m heading for Burguete” which is past the Roncesvalles Monastery that we will be staying at towards the end of the second day. One of us shouts (Almost jokingly), “What, tonight?”  He seriously affirms his intention and goes into overdrive. We learn later that he stops briefly at Orisson for a beer and a meal and then walks across the mountains to the monastery and beyond to Burguete – all today – the man’s a superstar.

I’m struggling a bit which I find disappointing as I’ve been over a week on the Norte which is known to be hard. I haven’t been walking every day so maybe that’s the reason and we agree that we should walk at our own rate so Cecilia goes ahead at a pace that’s highly impressive and I continue at a more leisurely rate. At about 2000 feet I need to stop and take a break and the ideal spot presents itself with views across two valleys both with various colours of trees and one with a layer of mist that’s been generated by the moisture from last night’s rain and the powerful sun this morning, it’s surreal and beautiful. I dig around for my sandwich but I’m disappointed when I find it’s been polluted by a crushed banana and there are flies on it so the flies win the meal and I fall back onto my emergency nut, raisin and fruit bars which I always carry even on the short tracks in England. I’ve had a call from Cecilia to tell me that she too has stopped. She’s about a kilometre in front of me and there is a tap with drinking water so I take the opportunity to drink the rest of mine which, till now, I had been drinking at a reduced rate as it was looking quite depleted.

About half an hour later I meet her at the tap and we walk the rest of the way to Orisson together at a more leisurely rate although there’s more of a spring in my step after eating the energy bar.

Orisson is a well-known albergue on the French Route and it’s run by a man who is a natural at the job. His welcome is upbeat and friendly as he takes our details and matches them against his reservations. We’re offered a double bunk bed in a nine-person dorm and Cecilia chooses the one near the window which will give us an unbelievable view of the sunset and the sunrise across the valley. What we don’t know now is the fact that this area doesn’t suffer from light pollution and tonight will be clear so our bedroom view of the skies is like a window on the universe. Cecilia generously offers to take the top bunk again so my nocturnal wees should be conducted with minimal disruption.

It’s gone 4 pm which is close enough to 5 pm and that enables the ordering of beer and wine which we drink on the roof of the refuge. It overlooks the peaks and valleys of the Pyrenees and gives us a perfect view of the lengthening shadows cast by the setting of the sun.

As we settle we’re joined by two lovely American ladies whom we’d met fleetingly in our dorm when Cecilia was taking a snap of what turned out to be an admirable bruise that I’d sustained on my hip when I fell a few days ago. We’re also joined by an equally lovely lady from Venezuela who is now a naturalised American living in Florida. She’s a skin specialist and certainly looks after us in the next couple of days as we get higher and the sun gets stronger. When she tells us to put on the sunscreen that’s exactly what we do. I like her a lot. She’s called Mary and she jokingly adopts me as her big brother and walks with us to Roncesvalles Monastery. What she doesn’t know is that my sister died a couple of months ago and she was called Mary – she would have liked this Mary! 

Over the next hour, Cherry drops an interesting snippet into the conversation about the drug that she’d been working on before she retired. It’s a cancer treatment and since Cecilia had a cousin affected by the very cancer the drug is designed to target and I lost my beautiful wife Linda to cancer and Kathy and Becky have a close family member currently fighting the disease, her short explanation left us in tears. Not of despair as she initially thought and apologised, but of hope as we, in turn, explained that there was no need for an apology as it was a positive message for the future that we all very much appreciated. We like Cherry.

There are many positive things that happen on the Camino and this was certainly one for me.

The evening is spent with a communal meal where, towards the end, when a little wine has been taken, we are encouraged to tell the others our name, where we’re from and why we’re doing the Camino and it’s wonderful.

You’re given a spoon and if you have the spoon you can talk. If you prefer you can just hand the spoon to the next person so there is no pressure to speak. The results are emotional and fascinating.

I won’t put all the details here but I can say there are people from South Korea, the USA, Canada, Russia, China, Taiwan, France, Spain, Ireland and UK. There are three couples who are father-and-son and one father-and-daughter together with husband-and-wife and just mates and three people who seem to be doing it by themselves. It was interesting that I didn’t hear anyone say that they were walking the Camino for God although that may have been implicit. I hope I’ve given you a flavour of the evening which included great conversations throughout the meal.

As we left the dining room twilight was fading and the stars and planets were revealing themselves in a clarity I’ve not seen since a winter’s night as a child at Castle Hills where there was little or no artificial light. What a way to end the day…

Sleep came easy.

Enjoy the snaps.

Love G x

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