Day 191 – 7 Sept, 2015
At first light, I found myself sitting on the tarmac of CDG looking out the window at the pink horizon with knots in my stomach about where I was headed – Bayonne, then to Biarritz by local bus, then to St Jean Pied de Port by mode of train and bus in southern France. Still foggy-headed and a bit jet-lagged, I was a total imposter. I watched a couple of guys with trekking poles and teeny rucksacks saunter down the aisle. They were wearing modestly aged hiking boots and zip off pants. Clearly, they were pilgrims. Previously, I had struggled to cram my medium-sized bag into the overhead compartment. My giant backpack was safely stowed in the hold. No one was going to mistake me for a pilgrim wearing jeans with nearly 30 kilos of luggage.
I felt so unprepared and like I didn’t belong. The train ride was even worse. Nearly every person I encountered had all the markings of a pilgrim. When I finally reached St Jean Pied de Port, everyone consulted their guide books and simultaneously started walking the same direction. I had a guidebook, but seeing as I had not opened it yet, I just followed everyone else. Typically, I would be the most prepared. I would be the one who can offer advice or give directions because I’ve read the book…twice…and maybe even memorized parts of it. My arrival in St Jean was not like that. I had an injured foot from walking too much in Paris. I had about 20 kilos of too much luggage. I didn’t have a place to stay or have any idea what to do first. What am I doing here?? was the scream I kept hearing in my head.
I followed the crowd of would-be pilgrims directly to the pilgrim’s office. This seemed like a good place to start. It was about noon on Monday and a temporary sign on the door said they would return around 1:00. Standing in the queue, I met Felix who told me that the pilgrim’s office could help secure us accommodations. We just had to wait. When it reopened, I was near the front of the line and was paired with a kind English-speaking woman (meaning, she was not French) who helped me sort out some odds and ends. First, she stamped and signed my Credencial, the little paper book that all pilgrims must carry with them to Santiago, retrieving stamps along the way. Just receiving my Credencial made me feel less like a fraud (if it wasn’t for all my dumb luggage). Next, she gave me a pamphlet with all of the albergues in each of the towns we would pass through. It also stated the distance between each town, the number of beds in each town and the facilities to be expected there. Last, there was a simple chart, showing elevation gains and losses over various distances and suggested stopping points. The rest was up to me. She gave me directions to the Municipal Albergue up the street and said I would only be allowed to stay for one night. This is common for municipal hostels, limiting the stay. Many of them only cost €5 per night, specifically for pilgrims, and it’s their way of keeping the traffic moving forward. Because of my foot (and my luggage), I knew I needed more than one night so I asked her for advice. She gave me a list with more suggestions for private albergues, wished me luck, and told me to come back if I had a problem, but not before warning me that the weather was expected to turn by Thursday and to try to cross the Pyrenees on Wednesday if I could. Good to know…
I quickly scanned the street for a place to stay. I needed something close so I wouldn’t have to tolerate the stares of more well-equipped trekkers than myself. Two doors down, there was a cute little house with a chalkboard sign, saying they had availability but didn’t open until 4:30. There was a table in front so I decided it was fine to wait. And wait. And wait. Time dragged as I watched other people scurrying around to the supermarket for snacks, to the trekking store for rain gear or last minute supplies. I just sat there as if I was already ready to go. At 4:15, a little mousy woman with dark unruly hair and dark-rimmed glasses emerged only to change the sign to read the opening time as 5:00. WTF! Fine. What’s another 30 minutes at this point?
At 5:10, the same disaster of a woman came to the door and beckoned me inside. I paid up front for one night and she began reading off her list of house rules.
1) do not touch the cats, talk to the cats, feed the cats, allow the cats upstairs (I never saw any cats and now think she has imaginary cats)
2) there is one bathroom for women to shower but the toilet in this bathroom is only for men. Women are not allowed to use the toilet in the same bathroom where they shower. Huh?
3) no one is allowed to set an alarm before 7:00am
4) between 6-7pm, it is her break and everyone must vacate the property. No exceptions.
I grudgingly agreed to everything. I had waited all day to stay at this weirdo place. The rule that annoyed me the most was having to leave already at 6:00. I had only just arrived and I was so tired. My desire would be to go directly to bed. At 6pm on the dot, I grabbed my bag and Crazy Lady met me at the door. She asked me if I would like to stay during her break and taunted me with it as if she was presenting a golden ring. Yes, I very much wanted to stay. She said she would allow it, but only if I stayed in my room the whole time, didn’t leave, didn’t answer the door, didn’t talk to anyone (especially the cats). “Yes, yes, whatever you say. I will go to bed right now and promise I won’t move.” I slept long and hard the whole night through.
The next morning, the first alarm went off at 6am. A group of Israeli pilgrims had checked into my room while I was sleeping and they all started to stir shortly after 6:00. I pulled the covers back over my head and thought smugly, “somebody’s going to get in trouble for breaking the rules…” By 7:00, they were all nearly on their way when Nutjob stormed into the room, directly to my bed, ripped the covers off, and demanded to know what I had done to the light. What light? What did you do with it?? What are you talking about? She looks under my bed and sees a cheap plastic stick-on light rolling around on the floor. This is when I noticed the other beds have a light affixed to the wall above each of them. Mine must have become unstuck either before or during my stay, although I certainly never remember seeing it attached. The Psychopath berates me for a few minutes for breaking her light and then demands I leave immediately. It took me a few beats to realize she was serious so I got up and began organizing my bag. The unjust accusation started to eat at me while I was packing. I’m such a rule follower. Always. Even dumb rules, I follow them. I was only at the place because I needed 2 nights and now I had to start all over. Grrrr. With my gear packed, I went down the stairs to be thrown out like a lady when I was yelled at for the second time and I couldn’t stifle my own outrage. I responded with a few choice words of my own right before she shoved me out the door. Well…that’s a first. I promptly burst into tears.
I shuffled back into the pilgrim’s office just past 8:00. This time I was paired with an elderly gentleman who only spoke French and worse Spanish than me. He was completely overwhelmed with my sobbing and didn’t know how to help. We tried to speak Spanish to communicate but I was too distraught and he just kept saying tranquilo, tranquilo (relax, relax) which only helped to make things worse. When a better-equipped person was available to talk, I had effectively calmed down. I disinterestedly explained my injustice – I had ceased to care. I just wanted a place to stay. I was redirected to a different albergue and after a quick call from the office, they would hold a bed for me to check in immediately.
This is when I met Allison. She was from Ireland and was shaking like a leaf. Scheduled to leave that same day, she couldn’t compel herself to start walking. What if I can’t do it? What if I don’t have the right gear? What if my legs turn to jello and I melt into a puddle halfway there? Do I have enough food? What about water and medical supplies? The Pyrenees are daunting, no doubt. This is only made worse by the incessant weather-checking and chatter in St Jean. By the time you depart the town, you are doubting your capability to walk at all, let alone 30 km the first day. Allison was only going to Orisson, a mere 8 km. She had made a reservation so that she wouldn’t have to walk the entire way to Roncesvalles the first night like the rest of us. Yet, she still couldn’t go. I confessed to her that I was also nervous and scared and unprepared. I showed her my excess luggage after all. I spent nearly 2 hours gently coaxing Allison to leave, encouraging her and empathizing too. This was somewhat therapeutic for me. No longer was I alone in my feelings of inadequacy. It gave me a purpose to help her take her first steps. When she finally started walking, she made me promise to find her in Roncesvalles the following day. Now it seemed I was also committed to leaving on schedule, on Wednesday, because I had made a promise.
Later that afternoon, the post office was virtually empty when I stepped inside. I had meticulously evaluated every item in my possession to determine if it walked or drove to Santiago. Every bit of weight mattered. Walking items would be carried on my back. Driving items would be shipped through international post. I tried to skimp enough so that I could still carry my iPad and camera, but in the end, they both were put in the shipping pile. My phone would have to suffice as camera and everything else. I was left with about 10 kg of weight and I was happy with the lighter burden. Two pairs of pants, a skort, 3 tops, a raincoat, a fleece, hiking shoes, and flip flops, essential cosmetics, sunscreen, sleeping bag liner, duct tape, water bladder, head lamp, knife, and a Panama hat. Of course, the post office didn’t have a large enough box to accommodate the remaining loot so I was sent on a wild goose chase to supermarkets and sporting goods stores in search of my own box. I tracked down a large enough box that appeared to be damaged – nothing some packing tape won’t fix!
An hour later, this task too was nearly complete. I carefully wrote the name of the recipient on the carbon copy form. I didn’t know this person but I was told he worked for the pilgrim’s office in Santiago and for a small fee, I could ship him all my stuff for safe keeping while I was walking. It felt a bit like a scam, but what choice did I have? A little faith.
That night I slept in fits, if I slept at all.