Before we switched the lights off, the Italian next to me expressed a concern for the mosquitoes that might bother us and, against the better judgement of everyone else in the room, the windows had been closed. This meant that we had no fresh air coming into the room. Even the door had been closed and everyone lay on their beds sticking to the foamy bug-resistant mattresses. We should have just opened the windows in the night, but everyone was far too polite and no one wanted to disturb the other restless sleepers. The English man that had first been below me in the bunk bed had swapped with his daughter after she had said that she was scared of falling out of her assigned top bunk. She said that she tossed in her sleep and there were no railings to keep her confined. This meant that I now had the tossing girl below me and was woken at around 4am by her restless movements. Awake and listening to the sounds of the other people, I could hear that most of the people were lying equally restlessly in their beds, so cloying was the heat.
Eventually, I gave up trying to sleep, climbed down and readied myself to leave. Jennifer had decided that she was not going to walk with me to Estella. Instead, she would stay in the albergue for as late as she could and then take a bus to Estella where she would join me. Our morale was very low after the intensity of the previous day’s heat and we had decided to book a hotel room. It would be something really nice to look forward to: a treat for the end of the day and a reprieve from being surrounded by people all the time. I was finding the constant company of strangers taxing and realised that I would not make the whole journey without a few hotel-reprieves by myself to decompress. The thought of walking in that intense July heat again filled me with dread and the thought of walking it alone filled me with sadness. But I was far too stubborn to take a bus with Jennifer. I figured that I would try walk the miles before 11am without taking too many breaks and find somewhere cool to wait for my friend.
Some people in the room were still trying to sleep and I dragged my clobber out of the room and into the corridor where I was able to pack my bag without worrying about causing a disturbance. I walked stiffly down the stairs, put my shoes on and ran into Sabina who was also heading out early. We decided to walk into the dawn together. I was very grateful for the company and did not fancy walking through the dark countryside by myself. Walking through the town, we passed people spilling out of clubs, stumbling home to sleep while we were just beginning the day. We watched their tipsy play, drinks in hands, while they watched us walk, packs on backs and poles in hands. Their night was coming to an end while our day was just beginning. It was an interesting juxtaposition.
We didn’t need our torches as the moon was very bright. The path through the trees and farms glowed in its fay light and Sabina and I walked silently through this serene landscape. It seemed wrong to disturb this gentle peace. We puffed up a hill and descended it again while the sky brightened with the dawn. The temperature was still nice and a cool breeze stirred the dust around us. Sabina kept checking the map on her phone so that we didn’t miss a turning in the dark. It was sometimes difficult to see the arrows on the rocks in the shadows. The sun rose, Sabina changed her shoes as her boots were giving her blisters and we walked on and though a sleeping village. At one empty juncture, an arrow pointed to our right along a path while the road headed straight and appeared shorter on the map. Sabina decided to take this road route and I stayed with the arrows. I felt compelled to follow the prescribed route regardless of the fact that all these options still led us to Santiago. I realised that this route puritanism was rather silly of me, but I wanted to walk every step and follow every arrow without the use of a phone map. It was strange being so alone after the companionable days with Jennifer and then with Sabina. All was silent and empty of pilgrims and cars. There were just fields and a dusty path to tread.
The routes once again converged in another sleepy village where an albergue offered coffee and food. It was the first place along the way that was open and, as a result, was heaving with pilgrims who were all stopping for breakfast. The man and woman at the counter were struggling to keep up with the orders and the man kept running to the baker for more rolls while his wife cooked and made a fast succession of cafe con leche. I was told that the wife had once been a pilgrim herself and had met the man when staying at the albergue a number of years ago. They had felt a connection, but she had had to continue to Santiago and returned to Japan. Instead of moving on and forgetting about the man, she had decided to return to his albergue. Today, they are married and run the albergue together. There were many such stories on the Camino and people liked to tell them, many hopeful to find that same magic in their Camino tale. Maybe the magic lies in the fact that people walking the Camino have mostly committed to being open to the experiences. There is a certain expectation of personal growth and a hope for change, whatever the reasons for beginning the journey. Maybe this opens people up to the possibility of believing in these sparks which may ordinarily be shrugged off as imagination. The magic of the Camino lies partially in our suspension of disbelief and there lies potential for new belief and a space to grow and experience.
I sat next to Sabina for a time, drinking my coffee until she said that she had to leave. She planned to walk further than Estella and said that she wanted to get to her destination before midday. I was about to gulp down my coffee to continue walking with her, when Abbey from Seattle walked in and joined me at the table. We had met a few days before at the airport on the way to Biarritz. She had taken a shuttle to St Jean while I had stayed in town. Sabina left with a ‘bon camino’ and I remained seated, chatting with Abbey until we both left the albergue together.
I enjoyed her company, but she was also planning on doing extra miles in order to catch up with some Swedish boys that she had become friends with. She was very anxious about getting all the miles in and more so seeing as she had less days to finish the Camino than me. I wasn’t sure that I would see her again because I had no intention of walking the huge miles that she needed to do each day to complete her Camino. I was not even sure that she was enjoying it herself. She kept checking her GPS watch and was very pleased with our fast mileage. Both of us were trying to outrun the midday sun and we outstripped many other pilgrims as we frantically headed towards our respective beds.
We entered Estelle and were immediately swallowed up by a medieval street fair in full costumed swing. From dusty paths, we now found ourselves surrounded by stalls and jugglers. We quickly found a cafe in which to take refuge and just sat, soaking in the cool conditioned air and calm sounds of the music being played over the sound system. It took me a while to realise that the cafe that we sat was called Namaste, which explained the music being played over the sound-system. As we sat drinking smoothies, Abbey become increasingly more agitated. She was flicking through her guidebook checking and rechecking the distances and the name of the town that she was headed to in order to catch up with her Swedish friends. I tried to help but only distracted her and she harshly told me to be quiet so that she could concentrate. I decided to leave her be. I hugged her farewell, but was glad that I would meet up with Jennifer again. My friend was a far more relaxed walking companion.
After Abbey left, I continued to sit in the cool cafe, feeling overwhelmed. I was very tired and sore. I had a horse fly bite on my leg that looked horrible and my legs were stinging from a heat rash. I wouldn’t have been able to walk any further that day even if I had wanted to. I was emotionally and physically spent. One of the women serving the tables saw me struggling and put her hand on my shoulder and squeezed, smiling encouragement at me.
Leaving the cafe, I wondered through the city and walked up a flight of stairs into the church. Lighting a candle, I prayed for myself. I liked to light the candles in the churches and cathedrals and say a prayer for my friends and family. I avoided the electric ones as real candles have more symbolic significance for me. I like that their substance is finite and their smoke rises before dissipating into the ether like my prayers. I had been feeling so emotionally overwhelmed that I’d been welling up since arriving in Estella. It was so very hot and I was sad that Jennifer wasn’t with me. After the intense heat of the previous day, she had been thinking of returning to America early as she was not enjoying herself. It was strange being alone after her company. I was grateful for Sabina and Abbey for keeping me company. I needed them that day. Their paces were faster than mine, but they helped to get me through the day and into town before it became too hot. The previous day had taken a lot out of me and I think I was still reeling from the its visceral heat. Jennifer had been sensible in taking a bus and it was wonderful that we had those options on the Camino.
In the church, I sat in a pew. It was so cool and quiet. I felt safe and wanted to stay there for a long as I could. The street fair was an overload to senses already over-strained by the elements and constant proximity to strangers. A woman at the table at the back of the church saw me struggling and came over to me. She leaned over and asked me something in Spanish which I could not understand. She was trying to console me and I realised that she was was asking me if I wanted a stamp for my credential. I hobbled over with her to a table at the back of the church and she pressed the stamp onto the concertina cardboard passport before realising that that the stamp was upside down. She was horrified, but I laughed and said that it was okay and I really didn’t mind. It made her stamp stand out from the rest. It also acted as a reminder of the time when that church was my refuge and fortified me when I was at my lowest so far on the Camino.
There was a huge medieval festival happening in Estella. I wondered around the stalls and came into a large square surrounded by umbrellas, chairs, tables and darting waiters. I could hear musicians wailing on reed instruments. A drum joined in and I made my way to see them perform. A man was dressed as a white knight on a white puppet horse. He was accompanied by someone dressed as a green bird on stilts and a woman in a sequined outfit with floating wing-like material attached to her wrists and to the back of her dress. I followed the players and crowd back to the river where the performers twirled and pretended to fight each other before returning to the square.
Seeing as I could not check in until 2pm, I decided to enjoy a glass of wine in the plaza under an umbrella while I caught up on the day’s writing. Finishing this, I decided to make my way to our room and see if I could check in early. I had a shower, washed my clothes and felt refreshed. I didn’t want to change into my dirty town clothes and lay on the clean bed sheets, enjoying the sense of peace. I unintentionally fell asleep without even a sheet covering me. Suddenly, the door opened. Jennifer had arrived. I darted up, grabbing the duvet and shouted for her to wait. I was so embarrassed. She didn’t know that I would be in the room, let alone lying naked on a bed. I darted into the bathroom with my clothes and shouted to Jennifer that she could come in now. My cheeks burned when I came out of the bathroom. She just laughed, ‘Well, that was unexpected.’
We sat for a while in the room, talking about how we needed to adjust our mileage while the heatwave lasted for the next few days. Jennifer decided that she did not want to go home early and felt a lot more refreshed from her quiet day. We worked out alternative shorter destinations for the next few extremely hot days and then went to visit the town. Our plans meant that I would be a day late reaching Santiago and I would need to catch up on the miles after Jennifer left and the heatwave eased. But that was a problem for another time. We drifted through the Siesta-empty streets that had thronged with people just a couple of hours before. We had a few drinks and then went looking for food. On the way, we came across pair of actors playing out a medieval skit. They rumbled off with their old-fashioned wagon to the applause of the surrounding crowds and we continued to the bar. Here we were served by an elfin looking woman. Her cheekbones were high and delicate, her hair cut pixie short and interesting tattoos were drawn high up on her sloping shoulders. She seemed fay and fascinatingly out of place behind the bar. Afterwards, we stopped to dip our feet in the river as we walked slowly back to our hotel room. Once inside, the sky began to rumble and the rain to pour. Finally, the air had cool.