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Walking the Camino, 2015: Episode 3
6/1/15: End of the Second Day walking: Zubiri
 
We found a room at the municipal alburgue in Zubiri . But even better, we found a washer and dryer! The warden at the alburgue was grumpy. Too many pilgrims for her, I think. Too many stupid questions. When she reluctantly gave me change for the washer I was too scared to ask her about soap. I didn’t see any near the washer, but there was a small kitchen and dining room where 10 or 12 pilgrims were lounging and snacking. There was a small stove with pots and pans, and a sink with DISH WASHING LIQUID! Our clothes came out sparkling clean with no water-spots at all! And our hands were smooth and lovely too!
 
As I was heading for the shower I saw Bryan and Rita. She introduced me to a couple she had just met. Joe and Amy and their two teenagers, Molly and Sam. They were from Oregon. Amy was recounting the joys of trying to stay up with (and hold back) a 15-year old boy in the middle of Spain. I learned later that Bryan and Rita decided not to stay and went on.
 
After my shower, Max told me we were invited to join Yuyam, Diana, and Ruth for supper. I loved it. The food was spectacular a delicious green soup (peas?), little rice cakes with tomato sauce and broiled fish. And wine. Did I mention wine? We also had lots of wine to celebrate our second day surviving the Way. And exhausting conversation. Exhausting because of all the languages flying around the table. 

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Yuyam was born in Bolivia and now lives in Dubai. Ruth was born in Central America, has lived in Japan, and now lives in Nice in the south of France, working as a chef in a sushi place! Diana was born in Columbia and now lives in Cannes. Three other nationalities were at the table. I was hanging onto the conversation by my fingernails. Did I mention that we had a lot of wine?
 
We somehow made it back up the street to our albergue. I think. I don’t actually remember going home, but somehow I woke up there in the morning.

6/2/15: Third Day walking: Zubiri  to Arre
We were supposed to have breakfast with the ladies this morning. I told Max I just wasn’t up to it. I’m not used to that many words—especially when I can only understand about every 10 th one.   I needed some alone-time. So on this third day walking Max and I were walking together, but not right together. We stopped for coffee in Larrosoana, at a little tienda called Amari.
 
The amazing thing about the Camino is that because you are just walking you are never very far from the other people who began about the same time you did. Some walk faster, and some walk slower, but everyone has to stop for some length of time to rest and recuperate. That means there are any number of opportunities to meet and re-meet the same people. And that means you have the chance to talk with each other. For hours if you want. Max was the most naturally friendly person I’ve ever met. He spoke with everyone we met along the way, and introduced them to me, and photographed them, and learned where they were from, and how many children they had, and what they had for lunch yesterday. Well maybe not that much. But he did learn a lot from everyone we met. It wore me out. I’m much more monkish.
 
Even with skipping breakfast we hadn’t gotten away from Zubiri until 7:30. And I felt pressured to get to Pamplona —the first “big” city on the Camino, where I hoped to buy a flip-phone with a Spanish “chip” so I could call Georgia. Not that I actually knew her phone number. She was going to buy a flip phone in Santiago and somehow we would have to get our numbers to each other. Interesting chicken-and-egg sort of problem. Maybe smoke signals?
 
As I walked along I thought. Before coming on Camino I thought I would use the hours of solitude to think deep thoughts. It didn’t work out that way. At least on this third day I spent all my time thinking about my sore feet: the “dragon scales” from yesterday, and the “stepping stones” today. Hundreds of thousands of people walk the Way each year. With that many feet the ground gets packed down and the grass is killed. Then when it rains there is terrible erosion. So, on this section of the trail they had laid large flagstones for us to walk on. I know they meant well, and perhaps it really did help with erosion, but it was terrible for blistered feet. And I didn’t bring hard-soled shoes. I just had my black walkers with rubber soles. Like the princess and the pea, I suffering with each and every stone under my (very tender) feet.
 
And while I’m complaining let me tell you about bicyclists. They generally travel in packs, and there are two different tribes. One tribe makes a lot of noise—whistling and singing—as they woosh up behind you. The peace and quiet of the Camino is first spoiled by their racket, then the falsely cheery “Buen Camino! ” is like the jab of a sharp stick as they go blowing past.
 
But, honestly, the second tribe, those bicyclists who don’t make a sound are much worse. When you walk for hours on a lonely dirt path you invariably meander back and forth. This third day was the first time I was very nearly run down by a stealth cyclist. They missed me, but only just barely. I decided that a group of bicylists, not a group of crows, should rightly be called “a murder.” 

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We walkers decided that “bicycling a pilgrimage” was related to a real pilgrimage about as closely as a day at the amusement park is related to a family picnic. There are people who just can’t stand the quiet. And feel a need to quickly be somewhere else. There were even a lot of walkers with ear buds in their ears. They were being somewhere else too. “Can you hear that bird?” I wanted to ask. “No, I bet  you can’t.” Thomas Merton talked about “Now Here This,” rather than “Now hear this.” Now, not the past or the future. Here, not there. And this, not something else. His emphasis was the present. Being really present. And walking the Camino without earbuds or a radio was the first time in my life that I was really forced for hours on end to be really present .
 
On the Camino you learn that people come and go in your life. Some of them, like the cyclists, come and then go very quickly. But other walkers cross and recross your path. There are new people as well, of course: You catch up with some who were once ahead of you, and people who were behind you might pass you. And you learn to appreciate them all while you have them. They are all special. They all have their story, if only you have the ears to hear, and the courage, like Max, to ask. Some of them you like so much you grieve when they’re gone. Others, not so much. But they are all special. Even the cyclists. I guess.
 
Max and I arrived in the little village of Irotz , 14 or 15 k from Zubiri . It was tiny. There was only one road in the place. But, unfortunately there were two sets of arrows. One pointing the way to Arieta and one up a hill to Zabaldica where there was supposed to be an interesting church. As always, Max stopped to talk with one of the locals as I walked past. I thought he saw me head up the hill to find the church. I expected him to catch up with me at any minute, as he was walking much faster than I was. But, he didn’t, and so without even being able to say good bye, Max was suddenly gone.
 
It was quite a climb to the church, about a kilometer, straight up. There were three or four pilgrims sitting at a picnic table near the church when I arrived. The church itself was locked. I went looking for the office to see if there was anyone who could open it for me. Sister Sandra, from Ireland came with a key and showed me the proper way to drink from a bohjo , a peregrino’ clay drinking pot. It looked sort of like a teapot. You were supposed to hold it over your head and just pour the water out in a long stream into your mouth—not all over the front of your shirt the way I did.
 
Inside the church there was a lovely carved crucifix—almost life sized—with thousands of lime green post-it notes stuck all around it. On each was a petition or prayer of thanksgiving. Pilgrims leaving some of their emotional or spiritual burdens with Jesus. That was another thing about the Camino. There is a Spanish adage that “you don’t need anything for the Camino —you only need to pick up what others leave behind.” It is axiomatic that everyone takes more than they need, and they get sick of carrying it all after a while. That’s why the trail is littered with shoes and shirts and clothes. I think these post-it notes reflect the troubles and concerns that people finally get tired of carrying as well. They leave it with Jesus, knowing that he does care—and he will take care of them. 

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The walk after St Estoban’s church was very quiet. No other pilgrims, and a very lightly traveled path, almost overgrown. But eventually it joined up with the path that Max must have taken, and went through a tunnel under the N-135, a four-lane highway that roughly parallels the Camino. At the village of Arre I crossed a lovely five-arched stone bridge spanning the river Ulzama. It looked like the bridge where Martin Sheen loses his backpack in the movie “The Way.” Even though it was early, I decided to stop at the Albergue Hermanos Maristas just over the bridge. Run by the Order of Marist Brothers, there has been a albergue there since the 11 th century. The town was lovely and I would have liked to walk around more but my feet just hurt too badly. I just couldn’t deal with the middle of Pamplona yet. I did manage to make it to the library though and found that I could use a computer there at no charge. Sent Georgia an email telling her where I was and that I was going to try to get a phone in Pamplona .
 
Saw Joe and Amy and Molly and Sam again—just coming back from the grocery store. It was too far away for me to attempt a walk so I sat on a low stone wall in the park beside the library and watched the Spanish families enjoying the beautiful weather. It was a simple greenspace with a couple of statues and benches, and a few trees. The children were all playing with tops on the sidewalks. No kidding. Not an iphone in sight. Nor a video game. Little wooden tops. They would wind them up with string then throw down on the pavement, then pick them up spinning with a loop of string. My father would have been so proud. He so wanted me to learn how to play with a top, since that had been his favorite toy in 1915. In 1955 I wouldn’t have been caught dead with one, but now in the 2015 they were “in” again. At least in northern Spain. 

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Tried to find a restaurant close-by with no luck. I resigned myself to no supper, and turned back toward the albergue. On the way I met a Frenchman named Jacques , heading into town. He told me that he had learned of a nice restaurant one block over. I told him I’d love to eat with him but that he was going to have to stroll very slowly if I was to keep up. We each had a three-course meal with a nice wine, a glass of scotch, and dessert for 26 euros each. It was sublime. Even better than the supper with the ladies; and certainly much better than anything I could have picked up at a super mercado !
 
Walking back to the albergue using my poles I could tell that my arms and legs were getting stronger. If only my feet would heal I think I could make pretty good time. But the blister on the sole of my left foot had now completely broken and threatened to get infected. It was about the size of a silver dollar and sore as all get out. Almost as sore as my black toenails and swollen little toe. My arms and legs were ok, but I was afraid I was going to have real problems with my feet.
 

 ( to be continued)

Walking the Camino, 2015: Episode two
5/31/15: First Day walking: St. Jean Pied de Porte toRoncesvalles
 
Breakfast was at 7am. Joxelu had emphasized that the doors would remain locked until that time. No leaving early. “You need a good breakfast before walking the first day—you won’t get anywhere with just a cup of coffee and a croissant.” So we stoked up on ham and toast and granola with fruit, and lots of coffee in addition to the croissants.
 
In our wanders the day before, we learned that there was a pilgrim mass at 8am. Anne and Phil decided to join Max and me, and then Bobby and Rosheen did as well. It was a lovely solid little stone church, probably built sometime in the 12 th or 13 th century. There were only a few small stained-glass windows—The walls were massive in order to support the roof. This little church was built long before those flying buttresses were invented to transfer the weight directly to the ground.
 
I loved the mass—even in Basque. You always know what’s going on, even when you can’t understand a word. And afterward the priest called us up to receive a blessing. And as a final farewell there was a lovely organ postlude! 
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We six then started across the bridge and up the hill—stopping only in a little ­tienda to buy some snacks. Oh my gosh! What a hill! On the edge of town we started UP. It felt like 45 degrees. Thank goodness the weather was beautiful and the road was paved. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to start off in the rain, or in the sleet. I thought there would be the occasional flat areas where I could catch my breath. But no, on the Route de Napoleon each step was a step UP. After 30 minutes, I could hardly breathe. Everyone was in some level of distress, except Anne and Phil who were fit and quickly far ahead. I could tell that Max was hanging back to help me. But I was becoming his anchor. I thought I was going to be the one helping everyone else, and here again I was the helpless one. I tried to persuade him to go on ahead. I told him that my virtue was tenacity: I would make it to Roncesvalles, and I would make it all the way to Santiago. I would not quit. I might have to curl up in a tight little ball somewhere for an impromptu campsite, or spend several days somewhere recuperating, but I would make it. He wasn’t impressed. My labored breathing and red face persuaded him I was going to die on this first day and he would have to pay for another one of those little roadside crosses we kept seeing. Rather than that he said he was going to be my papparazo—documenting my camino with his camera. That was his excuse for sticking to me like glue. 
 
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The morning haze had cleared  away and the sky was now a lovely blue with puffy cotton-ball clouds, so close that if you stood on tiptoe, you could touch them. I borrowed some sunscreen from Bobby at one of our stops and did an absolutely pitiful job applying it to my legs. I ended up with the most unattractive blotchy sunburn I’ve ever had—even worse than those from my youth in Savannah. I looked like a leper with white sox for the rest of the Camino.
 
About 8 kilometers up the mountain we came to the alburge Kayola, where Rosheen and Bobby peeled off and got a room. The view was amazing. St Jean was far down below and there was a peaceful mountain meadows surrounding us. But the hillsides were so steep I’m pretty sure  the sheep were bred with two legs shorter than the others so that they could stand up straight.
 
 
We’d been on the Way for about 4 hours. Another kilometer and Phil and Anne checked into the Alburge Orisson, where we stopped and for an extended break. That was where I had my first experience of freshly squeezed orange juice: Naranja. There was a machine that would grab a fresh orange, squeeze and filter it  pour into a glass, and pick up another orange. Drinking liquid sunshine.
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In the coming days and weeks I decided that Anne and Phil, Bobby and Rosheen were much wiser than Max and me. At the time I thought they were stopping much too soon. I should have seen the circling buzzards as an omen. The next time I walk the Camino I’m going to remember to make first night reservations at Kayola or Orisson. We weren’t yet even at the top; it was thirteen more heartbreaking kilometers to Col de Lepoeder.  And then came the downhill.
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If I thought the climb up was horrible—my hips and thighs ached with every step—the trip down was purgatorial! My toes kept slamming into the fronts of my shoes, the ground was rough, and the trail was so steep. Thank goodness I had let Matt Coriale persuade me to bring two walking poles. I used them to lift myself up every uphill step and ease myself down every downhill step.
 
Over the top, in Spain, Max and I came to a fork in the path. To the left there was a “shorter” but steeper dirt track. To the right a sign said the Way was much longer, but along a paved road and not quite so steep. Max went left. I went right. We planned to meet again in Roncesvalles in time for supper. As I walked along by myself, I had the first inkling of what I had let myself in for. Joxum had been right. This was going to be a pilgrimage with physical, emotional, and spiritual obstacles to overcome. But I was determined, God willing, to make it all the way to Santiago, and do it only on my two already-aching feet. But I had to confess that an ambulance seemed a real possibility now!
 
Memory is such a strange faculty. As I walked I remembered Yeats’ poem, “When you are old and grey.” I remembered reading it out loud to Georgia when we were courting at Mississippi State. What an odd poem for a courting poem, but there you go. And then in Dublin before we got on the plane for Spain, we found a WB Yeats exhibit at the National Library. They had set up a room where you could listen to the great man reading his own work. It gave me chill bumps to hear him read:
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,           
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
 
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
 
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
                And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
 
And now the reference to the “pilgrim soul” and “pacing upon the mountains overhead” and “ a crowd of stars” made me wonder if Yeats had ever walked the Camino. The word, compostella, after all, means “field of stars,” and referred both to a place where a meteorite had hit Spain in pre-history, as well as the Milky-way which marked the path for the medieval pilgrims. Isn’t it strange how our lives seem to be circles inside circles, patterns inside patterns?
 
Paul had told me that even if I walked slowly I would get to Roncesvalles in 8 hours.
 
I limped into the albergue in Roncesvalles at 9 hours and 30 minutes. And it was full, but they had put overflow Portacabins out back, each with four bunk beds. After checking in (and getting my pilgrim’s passport stamped!) I selected a bottom bunk and went looking for the shower. I could hardly walk. Several toenails were red and swollen and one had turned black. After a nice hot shower I went in search of food.

I was too late for the pilgrim meal. So I ordered a sandwich and a Cervesa Grande at the bar and went outside to enjoy the evening. Bryan, from Ireland, saw me and waved me over to his table. He introduced me to 5 or 6 other people he had just met, from Hong Kong, Missouri, Denver, Canada, etc.  I would see them all again and again over the coming weeks. We were all hurting, but no one was ready to throw in the towel. There was a lot of excitement in posing by the road sign that announced there was only 790 more kilometers to go!
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As I was drinking my second (or third) beer someone came up behind me and and gave me a bear hug. It was Max! He was so relieved to see me again. He had been sure that he would have to organize a search party to look for my poor dead body. It seems like there are a lot of people worried about me. Perhaps I should be more worried as well. Max’s path was supposed to have been shorter than mine, but of course, he had stopped along the Way to help three ladies who were having trouble. Yuyam, from the Arab Emirates and her two friends from Central and South America. He went to check in and get settled. I chatted with my new family for a while, then limped off to bed.  Had no trouble whatsoever falling asleep. Dreamed I was trying to walk down the face of a cliff.
 
6/1/15: Second day walking: Roncesvalles to Zubiri
I woke up about 6:30 or so. I can’t really be sure since I didn’t have a watch and time was already starting to seem sort of irrelevant. I found that I would get up when I woke up. Eat when I was hungry. Stop when I was tired. And fall asleep when I couldn’t keep my eyes open any more. Outside it was misty and hazy, but not really raining, thank goodness. First person I saw was Max. He was looking for his poles. He’d left them somewhere. As it turned out, I had found them and turned them in to the hopitaliare. I waited with our packs as he went to fetch them. We decided to skip breakfast for the moment and pick up something to eat farther along. That became typical. It encouraged us to get away quickly in the morning, and it gave us an excuse to walk fast—so that we could get to the next village for a café con leche and breakfast. The problem was, however, that this morning I was in no shape to walk quickly. And yet, as I limped along behind Max it occurred to me that my toes were hurting so bad that I didn’t even notice how much my hips were hurting. Weird thing to be grateful for.
 
Just outside Roncesvalles, the path was unpaved and ran parallel to a beautifully moss-covered ancient stone wall. On the other side of the wall were open woodlands and beautifully manicured fields. At first the path meandered generally downhill. We stopped at a little tienda about 3kilometers along the Way to buy some food and coffee. The proprietor was playing opera classics on an old phonograph. Loud! I envied Max’s ability to talk with him pretty easily. Max’s portuguese was close enough to Spanish, I guess, for them to communicate. He spoke with just about everyone on the Way—either in Spanish or Portuguese or English. French gave him problems, but even then he would find some way to communicate. Amazingly outgoing, friendly, and helpful. I’m sure he’ll be the President of Brazil some day.
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As we walked we tried to figure out the camino signs. There were arrows, of course, but a scallop shell on a deep blue background was often used. But looked at in another way, it also looked like a shooting star or meteorite. We came to a little village, Espinal, about 6k from Roncesvalles, where the path joined the village streets. The scallop shell was attached to the façade of the building just ahead of us. The “hub” of the shell was on the left. We thought that meant to go left, so we did—up another hill. At the top of the hill we saw two women sitting in lawn chairs outside a small tienda. They looked at us curiously. It was another intersection, but one without any arrows, or shells, or red and white bars that the French use to mark the path on the Camino Frances. Max asked them which way we should go. They smiled and pointed back down the hill—the way we had just come.
 
“So,” we said to each other, “the ‘rays’ of the shell point in the direction of the path!’” At the bottom of the hill we met some other pilgrims also wondering which way to go. We imparted our new-found wisdom proudly, and walked (or rather limped) into the center of town—stopping only to have our picture taken in front of the village church. IMG_2951 - Copy.JPGAt the outskirts of town we met a car driving toward us. It was the village postman I think. She rolled down her window and pointed back the way we had come. We’d again misread the signs and passed the turnoff. Pretty humbling to get lost twice in such a small village. There is a saying that on Camino one person won’t lose their way; but two people will. We proved it true—talking and talking and not paying attention to the signs.
 
Outside Espinal the Way went back up again, then down steeply. My poor toes. I used the poles with each step trying mightily without success to keep them from hitting the insides of my shoes. From Alto de Erro to Zubiri we walked down the back of a dragon—stones poking  up through the ground like spine plates, and at just enough of an angle that you were always on the verge of twisting your ankle. It truly would have been impassable without the poles. A 300 meter downhill torture chamber.
 
In a little wooded glen we found a picnic table and met up again with the three ladies Max had helped on the trip down the mountain into Roncesvalles. Yuyam saw me trying to bandage up blisters that had formed on the bottoms of my feet. She became my first medico. She punctured the blisters with a needle and thread to drain them, then leaving the thread in the blister, bandaged them with something called “esparadupo,” much like “mole skin” that you find in the States. They felt better, but my toes were starting to look really bad. Red and angry looking. She lanced blisters that had formed on them as well then showed me how to correctly tie my shoes so that my toes wouldn’t keep hitting the front. And then for good measure she showed me the correct way to use the poles. I had been using them to lift me up and ease me down each step. I was supposed to be using them more like an extra “leg” so that I could take some of the weight off my hips and feet with each step. Sort of like crutches helping each leg as they went up and out. This was her second camino. I doubt I could have finished had I not met her. Using the poles correctly absolutely revolutionized going uphill!
 
We had planned to walk all the way to Larrasoana, but after 9 hours on the Way, I was whipped. Poor Max. Zig, the anchor was holding him back again.
 

 (to be continued)

Walking the Camino, 2015: Episode one
5/30/15: Dublin to St. Jean Pied de Porte
 
Georgia and I were traveling to Spain separately. She was flying directly to Santiago via Aer Lingus while I was flying to Biarritz on cheapskate Ryan Air. Every thing on Ryan Air costs extra. He wanted to charge us for bathroom privileges but the FAA wouldn’t let him. If he could have found a way, he would have charged us for the oxygen we were breathing! As it was, we needed a shoehorn to get into our extremely un generous seats. I was wedged in between a trim lady-pilgrim from Dublin and a haphazardly shaved French Basque. The Basque informed me that both the Spanish Basques and the French Basques think of themselves primarily as Basques, but doubted there would ever be a united homeland. The French Basques have no realistic path to secession, and the Spanish Basques are little different from those other regions of  Spain chasing the illusive dream of independence. But like a dog chasing a car, you have to wonder what they would do with it if they ever got it. 
 
The fellow-pilgrim introduced herself as Anne, and said that she was traveling to Spain to walk the Camino with her friend “Phil,” (short for Philomena) who was also on the plane. They were both probably in their early 60s. I offered to trade places with her friend so they could sit together. “No thanks,” she said smiling, “Phil and I will be seeing plenty of each other over the next couple of weeks.” It was going to be a two-week Camino for them—Anne was getting a hip replacement and wanted to walk some now, in case the operation didn’t go so well. “What did your doctor say about that plan?”I asked.  “He said I should carry a lot of pain meds with me,” she laughed.
She was the first Pilgrim I met. I would eventually meet hundreds of them, but she was, in some ways, typical. We instantly formed a bond. I would come to find that when you walk 20 kilometers a day, 12 to 14 miles, day after day, and spend the rest of your time eating and talking with a constantly shifting constellation of fellow pilgrims you have lots of time to share the things that are on your mind—especially the important things, like why in the world you are out there walking hour after hour!
Most of the pilgrims I met were at some juncture in their life, some crossroads. Just finishing high-school and preparing to enter college, or just finishing college and preparing to enter the work-force. Or perhaps contemplating getting married, or getting divorced, or grieving the death of a loved one, or trying to get over a failed relationship. A turning point in life. The end of one chapter and the anticipation of another. Me, if I live to be 100, then I would turn 66 and 8 months on camino—exactly 2/3 of my life. I wanted the opportunity to look back, and look ahead to see if a “course correction” was needed. In addition to this, I planned to pursue my deacon’s vocation, and make myself useful to the other pilgrims. That was my intention—to help those I met. It didn’t work out that way, and Anne was the first person who showed me what my pilgrimage was really going to be like. 
 
“How are you going to get from Biarritz to St. Jean Pied du Porte?” she asked. I had no clue: “I think there is supposed to be a train or a bus or something,” I ventured. I was planning to ask when I got to Biarritz. She snorted. “We’ve made a reservation for a taxi to carry us. Perhaps it’s not full yet and you could join us.” I quickly accepted. Anne was the personal assistant to some big businessman orpolitician in Ireland. She was a definitely a take-charge person. 
 
In the tiny airport I met Philomena, and Anne’s other friends: Bobby and Rosheen, Rita, and Bryan. All were from Ireland. Rita sent a text to the taxi driver saying they needed one more space. She got no reply. And when the taxi arrived Rita asked the driver if they had room for one more. The driver said “No.” So Anne took me by the arm and started frog-marching me to the place where I would catch the bus that would take me to the train that would take me to St Jean. Before we could get there, however, Rita came running up to say that there had been a mixup. The driver had gotten her text, so when we’d asked at the terminal if there was room for another passenger the driver thought she needed two additional seats. She only had one, so I was in! 
 
What a fun ride. Bobby and Rosheen were a young couple. Rosheen always took a retreat in June, and this year she decided to walk part of the Camino. She persuaded Bobby to come along. He was dubious but it was obvious that he was completely smitten and would have walked across the sands of Hell if Rosheen had asked him. They were lovely together. 
 
Philomena was also charming. She and Anne had been friends for years and often traveled together. She was a teacher in Northern Ireland and her face bore the lingering sadness of all that she had seen during the “troubles.” 
 
Bryan was also a teacher—a teacher of 14-year-olds in Dublin. Perfect. Portly, red-haired, and with a friendly open face. The perfect personality for teaching kids that age. Funny, and completely uninhibited in his speech, but rock solid in his love for kids and his belief in the value of what he was doing—helping them become the people they were meant to be.IMG_2900.JPG
I expected to go off by myself when we arrived in St Jean, but the Camino always supplies us with what we need. I was caught up in this gaggle of Irishmen and swept along up a very steep street to my first Albergue: Beilari. Joxeim (“Joseph” in Basque) welcomed us, took our names, and told us to come back after we had picked up our passports from the tourist office, which was just across the narrow street. It, of course, was closed since it was after 2pm and siesta had begun. We used the time to take a little tour of the village, to the castle at the top of the street, to the church at the bottom of the street,  and to the bridge over that lovely babbling brook prominent in every single picture of St Jean. Someone had chalked footprints on the bridge overlooking the water, with the words: “Tenez-vous ici, Profitez de la vue.” (Stand here, enjoy the view!) Someone had put a line through “Vue,” and changed it to “Vie,” life. 
 
The tourist office was bright and clean, with a collection of scallop shells in baskets and on the wall opposite the door. Down the center of the room from the door to the back wall there was a low counter with 6 or 7 people sitting in chairs facing the open part of the room. A friendly-looking 70- or 80-year old man motioned for me to sit. He asked me if I spoke English. I admitted that I did. He apologized for his English but said that his name was Paul and that he would register me. And the rudimentary questions began. “What is your name?” “What country are you from?” “Your address?” “Your passport number?” “Are  you traveling on foot, on bicycle, or on horseback?” And then one that wasn’t quite so simple. “Why are you making this pilgrimage?” Indeed. Even before I’d begun: the big question: “Why?” 
 
Anne had said on the plane that she had been intrigued by the Camino for years and had recently met a Spanish waiter who said “Everyone starts the Camino as a tourist, and finishes as a pilgrim.” She, too, was evidently at some crossroads and wanted some time away from her everyday world. She needed to slip into something like Shakespeare’s “green world,” for some time apart. She said  it wasn’t a “religious” pilgrimage for her, but it was “spiritual.” 
 
I certainly didn’t feel like a tourist, and “spiritual” felt too “Shirley-Maclainey” for me. I’m not her. I’m very Catholic, and the Camino is a very Catholic walk through very Catholic parts of Spain, visiting hundreds of ancient Catholic churches and Catholic cathedrals. So I told Paul that mine was a “religious” pilgrimage. He smiled. He started to tell me about how to call ahead to make reservations or call for a taxi. I told him I didn’t have a phone and wasn’t planning on using anything but my feet to get to Santiago. If I took a motor vehicle, it would have to be an ambulance. He smiled again. 
 
He took out photocopies of tomorrow’s walk to Roncesvalles, up and over the Pyrenees and into Spain. It had little photos of landmarks I should look for. He emphasized that it was a difficult walk, especially if I was not in shape (he glanced at my doughnut-shaped middle) and that there are some especially dangerous parts—especially if a fog comes up. It was easy to miss the signs, and that would be dangerous. If I had any doubts I should turn back and double-check. But he was also reassuring: thousands of pilgrims just like me had started out from here, and made it all the way to Santiago—800 kilometers away. He said that even if I walked slowly, I should get to Roncesvalles in 8 hours. I thanked him, and asked him to autograph my shell. He smiled, and using a mechanical pencil, printed “Paul” in a very small and precise hand on the inside of my shell. We shook hands. “Buen Camino,” he said. I found there was something wrong with my voice. I couldn’t speak. 
 
We all met again outside and went to register at the albergue. That would become the norm. First thing to do when you arrive somewhere is to “find a bed.” Since I hadn’t been walking and wasn’t yet sweaty, I skipped over step number two “taking a shower and changing your clothes.” We moved directly to step three, “Finding somewhere to get a little ‘smackeral.’” 
 
Some of our number didn’t feel like they yet had enough stuff to carry and wanted to go do some shopping. I just wandered, taking some photographs. Then shopping over, we all gathered around a long outdoor table sampling the local beer-on-tap: Cervaza! It flowed freely, and life-histories were freely exchanged as well. I learned that in Ireland, America is called “Punckony,” and I learned that you can tell what part of Ireland someone comes from by how they toast each other: “Slainte,” Cheers! It could be “Sloynte” or “Slansha” or “Slawnta.” I laughed and laughed at the stories from the trenches of the Irish education system. A perfect start. It was Camino time. Which means no time passed at all until we were supposed to be back at the albergue for supper. 
 
We sat around the dinner table and played silly games to break the ice. We threw imaginary balls from one to another. When you caught  the ball you needed to introduce yourself with a personal story then throw the ball to someone else. There was Anne and Phil from Ireland, Kevin and Cerys, from Wales but now living in the south of Spain. Kevin was short and intense, and Cerys tall and mellow. There was Steven, their tall and slender friend with the comic face and sky-blue eyes, who’d come because they had praised the Camino so highly. There was Lars and Gitte, another Mutt and Jeff couple from Denmark, and several others. The world was well-represented at our little table. Throwing the imaginary ball, we were told to tell say why we were on Camino. There was no getting away from that question. Joxeim, told us that we were forming our first Camino-family that night, and we needed to prepare ourselves, both physically and spiritually for what was ahead. The Camino was not just a physical journey; the more difficult journey would be the interior one. We needed to start that one tonight. 
 
Max, from Brazil, arrived late. He’d taken a train from Madrid to Pamplona, then  had a hard time getting from Pamploma to St Jean. He arrived just as supper was beginning. He said that he was 47, approaching the halfway point in his life, and “between jobs.” He needed some time away to discern what lay ahead. Like my situation. 
 
Supper itself was vegetarian. We started with a clear broth made with leeks and onions. an ensalada mixta, the first of many that I would have, though Joxeu provided some shredded ham for those carnivores among us. And we had brown rice with beans. Large white beans, cooked until they were very soft. And a tomato sauce that made everything taste good. Delicious crusty bread, of course. And wine, of course! How could one have a meal without wine? 
 
After supper we helped clear the table and do the dishes. I decided to take a shower after all, and hit the sack. There was a co-ed room for the showers with 3 or 4 curtained cubicles. It was sort of hard to keep your clothes from getting wet but there was a little shelf in the shower-cubby where you could put things while you washed and dried. I used my handy-dandy microfiber towel for the first time. It worked! About the size of a large postage stamp it nevertheless soaked up most of the water on my body—leaving me just a little bit damp. Just enough for my tee-shirt to stick to my back as I tried to put it on. I put on clean undies and my Walmart-special “exercise silks.” I was planning to use three sets of clothes. One for lounging around in the evenings and sleeping in, and two for walking—alternating each day. 
 
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Joxiem, taking pity on my poor elderly feet, had assigned me a bottom bunk. There were 8 of us in the small room: four bunk beds. I think there were 3 or 4 other rooms. I thought I’d have a hard time falling asleep, but with my earplugs and facemask I was sound asleep before anyone even had a chance to snore.
 

 (to be continued)