We’d imagined that the camino would be an endless succession of travellers’ tales as we moved along in a happy throng of pilgims, slipping easily into conversation with whoever took our fancy.
It wasn’t quite like that. The walking required concentration and effort as we climbed and dipped on a variety of surfaces – from tarmac to stony shepherds’ paths – through wooded hills and farmland, ever watchful for the next yellow arrow.
People walked determinedly, purposefully. Many had been on the road for a month and had already covered more than 400 miles by the time we joined them. Now they were scenting journey’s end. They were young, too, surprisingly so. We had pictured middle-aged pilgrims, but the majority were in their twenties and thirties – and Spanish.
But there were older walkers as well, and a good smattering of other nationalities. At our first stop, on the first day, we got talking to a spirited young Australian and her Dutch companion. They had four weeks’ walking behind them and we longed to know what it had been like for them. But rather than regale us with their stories she wanted to know about us, where we were from and how long we had been going. We told her we were a mere two hours into our journey. She sent us on our way with a warm smile and words of well-wishing and encouragement.
Later that day we fell in with a solitary Englishwoman, a faded upper-class rose. She was at pains to assert her independence, though we sensed her need for conversation. There was a story there but neither of us felt inclined to hear it. Perhaps towards the end of the journey we would have welcomed her company more than we did. But this was the first day and the camino hadn’t yet begun to pry us open.
On the second day we travelled for an hour or so with a pair of older New Zealand women, both Steiner teachers. The one I walked with began to tell me about her adult son who had become schizophrenic through drug abuse. She related her story with the detachment of someone who needs to protect themselves from the rawness of the truth. I was startled to find myself thinking that as a fellow pilgrim I should be doing something more than simply listening. There was obviously nothing for me to say, so for the rest of her story I concentrated on listening with as much empathy as I could.
On the third day – at nearly thirty kilometres, the longest and most exhausting day of the journey – we walked for a while with a Spanish father and daughter. Helen was in her late twenties and had been working as an education officer for the Spanish embassy in Niger. Blas, her father, ran a sports shop in Madrid. A lean seventy-year-old with an easy stride and a broad grin, he seemed to be bursting with the joy of his daughter’s company. She was equally happy to be spending precious time with him. She carried the heavier pack and attentively, though unnecessarily, placed a hand at his elbow when they came to a road. Their easy companionship and affection for one another touched us both.
These encounters and conversations, brief as they were, were gradually revealing a broader consciousness of which, like migrating salmon, we were as much a part as everyone else on the journey. It was this, perhaps even more than any personal determination, that drew us out from the shelter of the eaves and back into the rain with ten kilometres still to go on that last morning of the Camino de Santiago.
To be continued …