Saturday, April 27, 2002
El Camino de Santiago, 2002
The Camino 2002 - A Retrospective Journal
I was on my way to Spain. After two and a half hours at Gatwick airport – just enough time to check-in, browse at WHSmith and enjoy a last KFC (damn my greasy addiction) – I was sitting in the window seat of the 12:20 Easyjet flight to Madrid feeling tired, dazed and apprehensive. I hadn’t had much sleep the previous night, and in all honesty I didn’t know what I was doing. At that precise moment, my plans were totally insubstantial; I knew only that I was flying to Madrid to begin a long, indeterminate journey across the North of Spain following an ancient pilgrimage route known as the ‘Camino de Santiago’.
Most people know of the Camino from Paulo Coelho’s The Pilgrimage: an account of his personal ‘experiences’ searching for a sword somewhere on the route to Santiago. My journey had no such aim. I knew only that now was the time for action - walking the Camino was a conscious attempt to abolish laziness and lethargy, and a continuation of my new-found faith in signs and the universal magnetic consciousness.
I stared at my brand-new copy of the Lonely Planet’s Walking in Spain, which contained a short section on the pilgrimage, outlining a 28-day route. It seemed like a remarkably short amount of time to cover 738 kilometres.
A girl with a pleasant and friendly exterior sat down next to me. She had shoulder-length brown hair and distinctive Spanish features - more European than Mediterranean. After we’d taken off and my usual plane-crash anxieties had been quelled, I stared out of the window wondering what the hell I was going to do when I arrived in Madrid. I didn’t know where I was going to start the walk, and my faith was waning slightly; without a scrap of tangible research, I'd brashly told friends and family that I was going to walk the whole route.
“From St. Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela. That’s 738 kilometres; all the way from the Pyrenees to Galicia on the West Coast of Spain.”
I had a nice colourful map on my wall depicting the route, printed from a website URL I couldn’t remember. But in my heart I had faith that events would ultimately direct themselves, and despite the usual paranoia and doubts that haunt an unplanned journey, I was right.
I smiled at the girl next to me and offered a weak greeting. She was friendly enough, and told me in accented English that she was returning to Madrid to catch the connecting train to her home in Asturias. She spoke fluently and told me that she had studied in London, remarking with curiosity when I told her that I was intending to walk the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. She seemed surprised, and told me she thought it would be probably be quite rainy; not a particularly reassuring sentiment as I had no waterproof clothing.
I told her that I thought I would probably be starting in Burgos – a city a third of the way on the route from St. Jean to Santiago de Compostela. The pilgrimage is famous throughout Spain and much of Europe, and during recent years its cultural importance has continued to intensify as awareness of the walk has become more widespread. Most Spaniards (and Europeans for that matter) have heard of the pilgrimage, and as it turned out, so had the man sitting next to her.
He interjected in Spanish, and it soon became evident that he'd overheard our conversation. He looked to be in his early thirties, with short dark hair and a strong tan. The girl translated for me, saying that he claimed to have walked the Camino five times, and that next he planned to walk to Jerusalem. There was apparently no need to buy food on the Camino; the ‘refugios’ supplied nourishment for the poor pilgrims who passed along the trail. This was reassuring, though I was only to encounter this cosy reality twice in the five and a half weeks that I spent walking.
The man seemed warm and encouraging, though possessing of a slight arrogance, and told me – with the girl’s help – that I would need to get a pilgrim’s Credencial. I already knew this; it was described in Lonely Planet as a gatefold document, without which one would be denied shelter in the refugios. The man said it was possible to obtain one from the San Francisco el Grande; a large church in central Madrid. This was all good information. And so very convenient…
They began to converse in Spanish and I drifted off into a heavy, sleep-deprived slumber. The humming, filtered air of the plane did not sooth my anxieties as the scenery of Europe continued to shift far below. When I opened my eyes, the terrain had turned golden-brown and glowed with the heat of the Mediterranean sun. Here and there I spotted small settlements and streams. Though barren, it provoked in me a small flicker of excitement; the thrill of unfamiliar familiarity. Already, the journey was beginning to crack the shell that had inhibited my emotions for the previous six months; a shell which had been further intensified by exam stress and habitual pot-smoking. I was nervous but ready to face the challenge I’d set myself. I stepped off the plane, thanked the girl and the man, and headed for baggage-retrieval.
At baggage retrieval
“You from London, then?”
I asked the question partly through friendliness and partly through desperation. The guy was clearly English; he'd been speaking to a friend on his mobile phone whilst waiting for his bags. He wore combat trousers, had short spiky, waxed hair and an eyebrow piercing. I still had no idea what I was going to do when I left the airport.
“Yeah mate, just here to meet my girlfriend. And yourself?”
“Not quite sure yet.” I sighed. “I’m here to walk the Camino de Santiago. It’s a pilgrimage up north. Have you heard of it?”
He gave me a sideways glance.
“…No. A pilgrimage, is it?”
I decided to change the subject.
“You here for long?”
“Just a few days. Gonna be staying at a mate’s flat, he’s showing me around town.”
“Yeah, do you know any good places to stay? I have no idea where I’m going.”
“No, sorry. I’d say you could sleep at my place, but it’s not my flat, y’know?”
The conversation had run its course. We said our “goodbyes” and “good lucks” and went our separate ways. I wished I had a place to stay and someone to meet who could tell me what to do, where to go, how to live my life. I went to the information counter at baggage retrieval and asked the attendant to mark a place on the map where I could find a decent hostel. He indicated some streets around Sol station and I headed for the metro system; I was later to discover that ‘hostel’ actually means ‘hotel’ in Spanish. On the way out of the elaborate transit system, opposite a huge map of Europe crisscrossed with red flight paths, I found a 20 Euro note on the floor. I took this for a good omen.
Though I really had no plans for the next 24 hours, my adrenaline was keeping me positive and I felt ready to begin my journey. Escalators took me down to the subway. Madrid’s metro system is more eye-pleasing than many other European cities - and certainly much cleaner and more efficient than the London Underground. It reminded me of the platinum efficiency of the Metro system in Washington DC.
I was still feeling woozy from the flight as I stood on the platform, but immediately spotted the unmistakable form of an English traveller waiting for the inbound train. I wondered if he had come in on the same flight as me. While waiting for the check-in desk to open I’d noticed four girls also waiting – they’d been on the flight, but I hadn’t seen them since. I waited until we’d boarded the train, and then after thoroughly checking his attire for confirmation of his English status (his sneakers were a dead giveaway), I struck up a conversation.
"You're English, right?" This kick-started our relationship with a degree of formidable efficiency, and I soon discovered that he was Ian from Brighton. I showed him the spot that the clerk had circled on the map, and he Ian said he was heading that way anyway. I asked him whether he was on holiday, but he seemed unsure of how to explain his agenda; he said he wasn't technically on holiday, but that his situation was complicated. He'd been recommended the Hostel Pan American down the road from Sol station, so we navigated the Metro while exchanging pleasantries.
I already knew from his attitude that he would be easy company, and we quickly agreed to share a room to keep the costs as low as possible. Ian had been to Madrid before and knew the Metro well enough to get us to Sol without wasting much time; we emerged into a broad concourse intersected by a two-way road system, extraordinarily quiet for the time of morning and surrounded on all sides by gold merchants proclaiming good prices for Oro, internet cafes and a large statue monument. Sol is Madrid's primary starting point for a good night out; the area is in close proximity to most of the up-market shops and bars, and one side of the square is dominated by a large clock, under which most of the population of Madrid congregate for New Year's Eve.
I felt relieved that I’d so quickly found myself a companion with purpose, and felt myself sinking into a false sense of security. I was putting off the inevitable though; I still had no concrete plans, I was carrying a heavy backpack that was already weighing me down and I had only the vaguest sense of purpose.
On the train we had started discussing our reasons for being in Madrid; I’d immediately told him I was there to walk the Camino de Santiago, to which he remarked with surprise and said that a friend had told him about it.
As we walked up the street in the bright September sun, he continued to tell me his story. He’d recently left his job in dubious circumstances, decided he needed a holiday, but without the cash to fund his trip he’d taken out a new credit card and gone over limit to buy as many gold rings as he could from Argos. He’d heard that Madrid was a good place to sell gold, and his ingenious scheme was to sell the rings for profit, then head south for a month of surfing and sunbathing. I nodded attentively while he told me his plan, thinking all the time that this was probably the most ill-considered and fanciful scheme I’d ever heard.
But we were in new territory. I had so little idea about where I was headed that time almost seemed to be standing still, it had no meaning or context in this situation. Perhaps thats why I spent so much time trying to decide how to proceed - that, or a complete lack of confidence.
A couple of days later, Ian still hadn't been able to sell his gold rings, despite the omnipresent 'Compro Oro' signs around Sol station and the surrounding back streets. Every day I spent in Madrid made me feel more nervous, more anxious to start my journey proper, but without direction or the wherewithal to make a decision. The centre of Madrid was vibrant but strangely austere, with tapas bars on every corner strung with disembodied pigs' legs and tourist shops selling overpriced paella. On our first day, we'd both bought chorizo bocadillos and I hadn't been impressed; dry flavourless bread with chewy, fatty weird slices of sausage.
We'd ended up moving our residence to a cheaper hostel somewhere on the outskirts of the town centre, and spent a couple of pleasant days chatting to fellow backpackers and searching for restaurants that served dinner earlier than 8pm (a rare commodity in Spain). A pleasant weekend, but I couldn't help feeling that it was little more than procrastination.
The morning I was due to leave we sat on a bench near the hostel, drinking coffee and trying to make a decision. Ian had been making phone calls and was considering accompanying me on the first leg of the Camino as a cheaper alternative to his surfing adventure. I was reassured by the idea of continued company, gripped by growing doubts about my ability to navigate my way to the relevant refugios with non-existent Spanish. I was possessed by terrible images of myself lost in darkening, unfamiliar towns, unable to communicate with anybody.
A girl with severe motor-neurone disease walked by, and my sense of anxiety began to increase. I needed to make a move, my gut was screaming at me to get going.
I was due to catch the train to Burgos, having decided that I would simply never make the distance all the way from southern France to Galicia in western Spain. It was a disappointing decision, but a decision nonetheless. And that's the only way to start a journey.
Walking the Line
The ground came up to meet my feet again, every step intensifying the dull, numbing ache that had set in half an hour after I'd left the refugio that morning. My shoulders screamed a similar protest; the socks I'd bound around the shoulder straps as makeshift padding did little to ease the pain.
I was three days into the Camino, having finally embarked from St. Jean Pied de Port in Southern France. Ian had finally decided not to come, and I'd left him at the hostel that morning, heading for the station sleep-deprived and confused.