I’m in the albuerge in Roncesvalles, Spain, hanging out on my top bunk. I had a top bunk last night, too, and so far I think I’m a fan, except right now there’s a man directly on other side of my bed (the beds are sort of in pods, little groups of 4, within a much larger space), and he’s taking a nap and snoring. Loudly. Mira is in the bunk underneath me; I met her on the last few kilometers into Roncesvalles. We started talking because we have the same shoes, and also Deuter packs. She’s American, and Jorge is in the top bunk across from me. He’s from Mexico but is going to college in Pamplona, and right now he’s paging through a brochure he picked up in the tourism office, and telling us facts about the Running of the Bulls (I’ll pass through Pamplona in a few days, about a week before the bulls). The other man in our pod is French, and he’s been walking for several weeks through France. He’s got a neat notebook full of sketches and notes of the places he’s been. He doesn’t speak English, so I’ve been practicing my French.
I’ve had a lot of French practice so far, but more on that in a minute. First: I made it to Spain! I’m not even sure when I crossed from France to Spain, or if there was a marker along the path, or if I was daydreaming or staring at the amazing views and completely missed it. All I know is that I passed a construction worker and I said “Bonjour” and he said “Buenos Dias” and I thought, “Ahh, I’m in Spain.” What a great way to enter a country.
When I got off the train yesterday in Bayonne, I needed to take a bus to St Jean Pied de Port because of the train strikes. I went outside of the train station to see if I could figure out where to go, and I nearly laughed out loud. There must have been 100 pilgrims standing outside of the station, waiting for the bus.
It was actually a bit overwhelming to see that many people who would be starting the Camino at the same time. I chatted a bit with the people around me, but then the bus pulled up and chaos began. Later, someone said it was like the Hunger Games of the Camino: everyone could see that there wouldn’t be enough seats on the bus, so people frantically shoved their bags into the storage compartment and rushed to secure a seat. I never made it on the bus, but that was fine by me. It was too crazy, and an SNCF worker assured us that another bus would be around in about 20 minutes (which was actually more like an hour, but hey, I was still getting to SJPP earlier than I thought, so what was another hour?). It gave me time to talk to the others who hadn’t made the first bus, and I was glad for it. I know that I’m going to meet so many people during this Camino- I’ve already met a bunch- but I was a bit nervous yesterday. It seemed as though lots of people were in pairs or groups, and I felt kind of awkward being alone (although that feeling is already starting to go away).
In any case, so much of yesterday is a blur, and I think it’s because I was so tired. Somehow I got my compostela, checked into the alberge I had reserved, washed a few clothes, showed up for the communal dinner, walked around the town to explore (I found a cemetery!), took some photos. The dinner was in the alberge, and from what I read, it sounded like a great chance to meet other Pilgrims and have the chance to introduce yourself and explain why you are walking the Camino. The dinner was decent: some kind of creamy soup, noodles, a potato gratin dish, lamb chops, a custardy thing for dessert, bread, wine.
But, with one exception, everyone at my table was French. A group of 4 had been hiking for about a week, and one guy started 17 days before, averaging 45 kilometers a day (which is A LOT!). So the conversation was all in French, with a few side conversations between myself and a man from Canada, Jeff. But I tried to speak in French, and it went okay, until one of the men asked me why I was walking the Camino. That question is hard enough to answer in English! I was immediately flustered and everyone was staring at me expectantly, and I’m not even sure what I said. Speedy helped me out, saying something about life transitions and having a middle time, to separate the ‘before’ and the ‘what comes next’ (well, I’m not entirely sure if that’s what he was saying, but I think that was the gist of it). In any case, I was glad when dinner was over. I was already exhausted and overwhelmed with being in a new place and trying to get my bearings, trying to mentally prepare for the next day. Speaking in French, at that point, was a bit too much for me.
As I was trying to fall asleep last night, I thought about what was waiting for me the next day. Despite months of preparation, I felt like I wasn’t ready. I was a bit anxious about how it would all go, if my pack would be too heavy, if the walk would be too long, if I would talk to anyone during the day, if I would like being a pilgrim.
And as I left St Jean Pied de Port this morning, I had a moment when I shook my head and thought, “What it the world am I doing??” And then, “Here goes nothing.”
I’ve already written a ton, so here’s how the day went, in a nutshell: it was amazing. I loved the walk so much. Parts of it were difficult, but when I arrived in Roncesvalles, I thought, “We’re here already?” I think I could have walked for a few more hours. It was probably the most beautiful walk of my life: straight through the Pyrenees, with the views getting better and better around every bend.
Having perfect weather helped. Sunny, with a few clouds, and a coolish breeze as I walked up into the mountains. After the first couple of hours things spread out, and I was walking big chunks completely alone, not seeing anyone in front of me or behind me.
And it was just so good to be walking. My training has definitely helped, but a lot of it is mental: I’ve been thinking about this trip for months, and now that it’s here, it feels so good to put on my pack and go. I don’t have to worry anymore about whether I can do this or not. Because I’m here, and I’m doing it.
There is so much I could describe from this first day, but soon I need to head to dinner, and then a Pilgrim’s mass in the church.
So far, I’m feeling good. I just walked through breathtaking scenery, had a ham sandwich on a french baguette staring out at one of the best views in the world, stopped for coffee in the Pyrenees, took a hundred photos, talked to a dozen people and smiled and said ‘Buen Camino’ to dozens more, and am settled into my bunk, eating a Twix bar and relaxing before dinner.
A good, good Day One on the Camino.