Surrounded by the sound of strangers breathing deeply or snoring in their bed, I lay in the dark, sleepless and excited to see Jennifer again and begin my epic adventure. Jennifer and I met over a decade ago while backpacking Ireland and Northern Ireland on a Paddywagon tour bus. We had discovered in each other kindred adventurous spirit and our friendship had endured over the many intervening years. We had not seen each other since parting ways in Dublin all those years ago. Jennifer lived in America and I had first lived in South Africa before moving to England. The distance between us had eventually been reduced by Facebook and Whatsapp.
I had been vacillating indecisively about walking the French Way. I had booked flights, the hostel in Biarritz and a pilgrim room in Santiago which I could cancel if I did not, in fact, go. All of these provisions could be cancelled or discarded without worrying too much about the expense as the flights had been booked months ago and had therefore cost relatively little. I was not yet committed as it was such a huge endeavour. It would require me to spend a fair amount of money on travel and also on the cattery. Then, out of the blue, Jennifer emailed me saying that she had some free weeks in the summer and was I available to do something exciting with her. I mentioned my half formed plans for the French Camino. Jennifer replied immediately and within days, she had booked her flights and a bed in St Jean: and like that, I too was committed. I was going to France and walking to Santiago.
The hostel room in Biarritz was stuffily hot and I, growing bored, left it and its slumbering occupants to sit in the common area with a book. Here, I kept myself occupied until it was time to take my bag and leave the hostel. Not wanting to disturb the others in the room, I had mostly packed everything the night before. I just had my clothes and toiletries on hand at the top of my bag. I also needed to shove my sleeping bag in. This had resulted in some awkward tossings as I disturbed the quiet sleepers. It was very dark in the room and I used a torch to aid me, hoping that I had everything. However, at some later point that morning, I realised that I had lost my watch. I was annoyed. It was new and was a replacement for the one that had stopped working just before I left. Like my mother, I am jinxed when it comes to watched. I lose them or they just stop working.
While waiting in the common area, I boiled the kettle in the kitchen area and drank some of the instant coffee that I had brought with me. I had the torch propped up on the table acting like a lamp. And there I sat on a bar stool. All was quiet and still until the front door suddenly swung open and a man came stumbling in. I jumped, grabbing my pounding heart and screamed, ‘Oh my God!’ The tipsy man who had just barged in cocked a smile at me, chuckled and stumbled off through a door to his bed.
After catching an early morning bus to the train station, figuring out how the ticket machine worked, realising what the correct name for St Jean’s train station is and catching a train to Bayonne, I realised that I had some time to play with before catching the connecting train to St Jean. Happily, this allowed me to explore Bayonne a bit. I stepped into a cafe and ordered a coffee and pastry before realising that everybody inside the cafe were drunk and had most likely not stopped drinking all night. The party had just wound down and I had wondered in at its tail-end. Blearily, two women were counting out a table full of coins. One of the women looked up and saw me. She stumbled over and asked me in broken English if I could please help her. She haphazardly explained that she wanted be rid of all the change that she had accumulated and saw that I had a ten euro note. I didn’t really want to weigh myself down with all that change and I tried to fend her off. But she wilfully interpreted my polite smile as one of affirmation as she began to pour the coins onto my table. Instead of forcefully telling her to leave me along, I wondered if maybe the Camino was expecting something more from me. Just a day ago, I had decided that I needed to learn to manage the unexpected better. If I said ‘no’ to this experience then what would I close myself off too in return? Feeling a bit like the sap, I exchanged my 10 Euro note for a purse load of coins. They rolled about on the table and some had to be retrieved from the floor. When the many coins were safely crammed into my very small wallet, the inebriated woman grabbed hold of my face and planted an unsteady and slobbery kiss on my cheek. Later, I paid for my breakfast with a multitude of ten cent coins and noticed while standing at the bar, that it was covered in a mass of black flies that were walking about its sticky surface. The barman smelt of beer sweat and I was happy to leave.
Bemused, I walking out and crossed Bayonne’s bridge before returning to the train station. I was able to unload myself of more coins by buying a couple of baguettes to share with Jennifer at lunch. Back at the platform, the train to St Jean slowly filling up with other pilgrims. My pilgrimage was starting to feel a lot more real. The train stopped in St Jean and I walked out of the carriage and found Jennifer waiting for me. It was a wonderful and long anticipated reunion. We had not seen each other in almost a decade.
I’d read a number of books while doing research on the Camino. They describe the first day as exceedingly hard and they are not exaggerating. The way just goes up and up and UP. Then it goes a little tantalisingly down before going UUUUUP again. There is a place to stop if you want to break up the first stage and is a safer option as it could be very dangerous to be stuck out on the mountains if exhausted and if the weather is bad. But Jennifer and I were feeling really great. We sat under an umbrella on the raised outdoor section, surveying the spectacular panoramic view of the valley and mountains and discussed our options for the day. We were still feeling strong and the mild sunny weather energised us. So we decided to continue. I drank a refreshing beer, refilled our water bottles and used the toilet cabin. We then proceeded to continue climbing up.
I was a bit ahead of Jennifer on the climb and had come to a number of switch-backs. Here, I came across a man dressed all in black and wearing a hooded sweater with ‘Star Trek’ splashed across the front. He saw me and said, ‘Hello. The way goes that way.’ Pointing down the path, ‘Don’t follow me. I’m going a more direct route.’ And with that, he walked into the ferns, music playing from the speaker hanging from a carabiner attached to his belt. But the path zig-zagged up the mountain and I soon saw him again, stepping back onto the trail ahead of me.
He looked at me a moment, stunned and said, ‘That didn’t go quite as planned.’ Wanting to be polite, I smiled and I walked past him without saying too much. Meanwhile, eagles flew in towering circles up on the thermals and the bells chimed from the necks of horses, sheep and cows. The scenery was incredible and we took many opportunities to stop, rest and soak it all in. One such rest-stop found us on our backs with our feet propped up on our bags, easing the blood back out of our throbbing feet. Some young men walked passed and laughed. They hadn’t been sure of what we were in the distance. Sheep? Goats? Wolves? The sight of us lying in the dust with out legs up was an unexpected sight, but we all could appreciate their surprise. Jennifer and I later passed them similarly sitting in the dirt further along the path having a picnic.
Finally, we descended, stumbling from sheer exhaustion. We lurched, one foot in front of the other down the final few kilometres which stretched on interminably. I was so tired that I was struggling to focus my eyes on anything but the rocks in front of me. We paced ourselved, stopping to sit on convenient logs where we could. But it was getting later and the clouds were starting to drift like tentacles over the path. What if we got to the albergue and found that it was already full? I don’t think that I would have been able to continue another 5km.
Walking into Roncesvalles, we came to a beautiful albergue run by Dutch volunteers. They had space for us and we paid £15 each for a clean bed and hot showers. Feeling more refreshed, we had a pilgrim meal in the nearby hotel’s restaurant, but I was too tired to eat. The fish came whole and fell apart while I tried to eat it. This left me with lots of little bones to try sort through. It was just too much effort and I left it lying on my plate. I needed to go to bed.
As we were finally settling into our bunk beds, the lights were switched off and we were all beginning to drift off when the loud shrieks and giggles of a woman could be heard followed by the rumble of male voices. I watched the men follow the loud woman towards the bathroom and then watched them proceed back, all talking while they went to and fro. They then proceeded to talk and laugh loudly until someone told them in no uncertain terms to take the party elsewhere. I fell into an exhausted and dreamless sleep.