There was really no need to set an alarm for the morning. Music began to play gently through the sound system at 6am and roused us, with quiet groans and mutterings, out from our beds. Then lights came up and people began springing or stumbling into action. Bags rustled and people sighed. One woman made her way awkwardly into the bathroom on the balls of her feet, legs akimbo. She wasn’t the only pilgrim suffering. Many people just lay prone in their beds, unable to dredge up the energy to even get started.
I was aware that I needed to get a move on as I had already paid for a continental breakfast and needed to go to the cafe before rejoining Jennifer. She had decided against having breakfast and would instead use the time for herself. She didn’t miss out on much as breakfast was an odd and uncomfortable affair. People sat around the table grunting and grumpy. I expected them to at least pass around the plates of Magdalena cakes and slices of cheese and ham. But strangely, no one did. Wanting to be helpful and maybe initiate a more communal spirit in my fellow pilgrims, I picked up the plate of little cakes and offered it to the woman next to me. I thought that she would then pass it to the next person. But she just took one cake and put the plate back down in front of her. No one asked for it, but instead reached over each other to grab the stationary cakes. I decided to give up trying and asked a man for the jug of orange juice. A man sitting to the right of me reached into the bread basket and handled all the chunks of bread before finally finding the one he wanted. I gobbled down my food, grabbed an apple and left quickly, feeling very uncomfortable. Back at the albergue, I finished packing my bag and left with Jennifer, quite disconcerted by the strangeness of the other pilgrims. I wondered at which point the pilgrims would feel comfortable enough to feel a sense of togetherness and openness. I felt that my efforts had been rebuffed and left the monastery with a somewhat sour feeling. At least the day offered a more gentle journey. It was still a long way to walk, but the inclines and declines where easier to manage on tired, wobbly legs.
Not far along the way, we came into a village and looked into its only two cafes before deciding to go back to the one we liked. We turned around and walked against the tide of pilgrims. Some looked at our approach with horror and mildly panicked eyes, thinking they might be going the wrong way. But we smiled and waved our reassurances. Walking into our chosen cafe, the man behind the bar welcomed us and made us coffees while chatting to us about the other South Africans he knew. He kept insisting that I didn’t sound like an Afrikaaner and I tried to explain that I don’t sound Afrikaans because I’m not Afrikaans. I am South African, but I am English-speaking and from Cape Town. We spoke in circles like this for a while and I realised that it would have been much easier to just say that I had lived in the UK for ten years and my accent has adjusted. The South African language cultures and histories are very particular to the language itself. The owner gave us our wonderful coffees with some good advise on the final descent of the day.
We took a number of shady stops and ambled our way to Zubiri in the heat. Along the way, we saw a man from America who was walking with his daughter and vlogging his journey. At one point, he took out a drone and began flying it towards a herd of sheep. This caused them to all run away in a wild panic. We came across him again at a caravan selling drinks and snacks. It was just before the final descent that we had been told about by the bar owner. The American was sitting in the shadow if an umbrella and started talking loudly to his phone. This, of course, left a silence when he had finished which was then filled by people asking him if he was, indeed, a vlogger. With great relish, he said that he was and would love to interview the three Shetland Scots sitting under the umbrella with him. They laughed and said that they didn’t mind and he sidled up a little closer. He was so loud and opinionated and very clearly ignored Jennifer and me sitting on chairs in the shade a bit further down under the trees. We had not wanted to insinuate ourselves into the other groups of pilgrims. The American may have overheard us earlier in the day discussing our opinions on the drone and sheep. Looking at my Californian friend, I rolled my eyes and said rather facetiously, ‘You gotta love Americans.’ She sighed, ‘On behalf of all my countrymen, I apologise. He may be the stereotype, but he’s not the normative.’
Walking down the steep decline, we met another vlogger with a massive fur covered microphone. It stuck out like some bizarre fluffy animal. From then on, he became known as Fluff to us. This differentiated him from Unfortunate Stereotype in all future discussions. Before setting out, I had been thinking of interviewing people to capture their stories, but I’m glad I didn’t. Most people were happy to share bits of why they were walking. Some shared more than others. Even I would not divulge the complexities of why I was walking. It just seemed both too complicated and ordinary. Many had deeply personal stories and someone prying into their reasons seemed rude and indelicate and I quickly abandoned my plans.
We came into Zubiri in the height of the heat. There is an old and beautiful bridge that crosses a river in which we saw pilgrims sitting and splashing. The municipal albergue was closed for renovations and beds were short in the town, but Jen and I managed to found an affordable albergue run by a woman called Maria whom we found to be the epitome of hospitality. Stepping into an albergue, we had been told by an English brother-sister pair already waiting in the reception area for their assigned beds that there were still two beds left, but we had to wait for Maria to return from lunch. Maria finally returned and told us that there was, in fact, only one bed left and, seeing our concern, suggested that we take a private room in the house opposite. There wasn’t much difference in price, so we took it and had showers while the machine washed our clothes. Finally, we left to pay Maria. She hadn’t told us her name, but I had read reviews on her and I put and two together. While handing her the cash, I asked if her name was, in fact, Maria. She said that she was and I explained that she was famous. She thought that funny, but looked a little pleased.
Room fees paid, we decided to explore the town for a bit. First, we walked to the bridge and dipped our toes in the river water. Then we went looking for a bar. Sitting on chairs in the shade of a building, we found the English siblings. Jennifer and I joined them with a bottle of wine and spent some time chatting with them before deciding to find another bar that was serving dinner. The waitress was brisk and rude, but at least the conversation was interesting. The siblings told us a bit about themselves, but they seemed like lost souls. They spoke with very little excitement and no aspirations. Their stories were of drifting along the currents of life and they didn’t seem to enjoy it. But they didn’t seem to want to do anything to change it. I didn’t want that to be my story. I didn’t want my life to be adrift. It seemed very directionless, lonely and quite sad.
We mentioned to them that we had seen the vloggers and they laughed. They told us that they too had seen them but on the last descent. One of the vloggers had been looking at something when the other one rounded the bend. Both had been recording at the time and captured each other videoing the encounter. The English brother said that it was like some vortex just opened up as they stared down the lens of the opposite camera.