AlongEl Camino, I met some interesting characters. Here are a few of them:
In the distance we could see them. They were taking their time, ambling along the long dry track, two packs. As they got closer we could measure them against other walkers who strode past them - these men were huge. By the time they got to us it was obvious they were true giants and as they set down their packs and took up our offer of water and sweets, I felt small beside them.
Their philosophy unwound as slowly as their pace had been and with a subtle humour which quickly made you relaxed in their company. They were walking without any concern about time, masters of the dimension rather than slaves to it, which turned their Camino into an extended meditation.
"We've given up our jobs..."
"Suspended, rather than given up..."
"Your life might be suspended, but mine is upon this rough road..."
"Ha, so is mine right now but..."
And so they gently teased one another as they sipped water and those who stopped enjoyed the atmosphere generated by these two and within a few minutes there were so many people standing chatting with us that we had to steer them to one side so that those walkers who didn't wish to halt for a free drink could pass oby.
It isn't easy to walk The Camino. You need guts even to think about it, for it involves a lot of planning and yet one day along The Way I met a woman who had not guts. That isn't my assessment, for who am I to judge anyone?
She told me her life had been useless - as a kid she'd been psychologically bullied by her elder siblings, whom both parents sided with, annoyed she had been born in the first place. At school she had arrived with an inferiority complex which simply ensured her classmates treated her in the same manner.
Dulled by constant depression caused by low self-esteem, she didn't concentrate and hence did badly in all subjects, which made teachers treat her in the same fashion. These continual negative loops engrained her bad sense of self.
Then one day in her teenage period, somebody actually noticed her. A woman, which was better than a lustful man, but a woman who nonetheless lusted after her shapely body. Pining attention, craving the love she had never had, she welcomed the woman and although not inclined to want such intimacy from somebody of the same sex, she found a way to accept what was happening.
This simply reenforced the attitudes of those she had grown up with - she was a freak, here was proof. Her entire family and social network, for we all land within one, even lonely people like her, rejected her. She moved away to the large city her girl friend came from and she immersed herself quietly in the gay scene.
One evening three years later, she was distraught as her lover went off with another woman. She found herself sobbing in the male bar-tender's arms and within the week, smiling between his bedsheets. He'd had a mirror life, ending up as gay too. This was their first encounter with somebody of the opposite sex and they discovered it felt right.
It was he who had heard about El Camino and he who organised every last detail. The Walk was their honeymoon and it came immediately after a fantastic marriage surrounded by those few people they had come to trust. He was one day ahead, giving her, after a week's blissful walking together and staying in a string of romantic hotels, a pre-planned chance to be on her own and discover herself as she walked.
The day we had talked, she had found me sat beside the path drawing. I didn't seem threatening and this had encouraged her to open up for the fist time to anyone but her husband. I asked if I could record, anonymously, her words in my sketchbook and she laughed and said, "Yes. But no mention of country, city, anything that gives me away. We are both starting anew and want the past to be another country."
I admit the noise a group of young walkers made disturbed me, but I wasn't the only person the ten people irritated. Everyone was talking about it. The loud voices full of cheer and enthusiasm echoed around the hallowed site, bouncing off the ancient walls, consuming the sense of peace it had held for centuries ... until five minutes ago.
I wanted to go over and say something, for this had happened in a restaurant the previous evening when just four people had entered and destroyed the atmosphere by recounting in great joy all the things that rattled around their self-obsessed minds. But my wife didn't want me to interfere and this being her Camino, I pushed the irritating thoughts from my mind.
It was then that I slowly sank back into the peace I had enjoyed a few minutes before and it made me think. We can chose to be positive or negative and our attitude changes how we see the world around us. As I calmed, I realised my wife had not shifted her mood. She was as cool as ever. That, I realised, is what El Camino is about.
I wasn't sure what they wanted, nor it seemed, did they. They stood in the small square, packs weighing them down, faces vacant. I asked a few questions, trying to work out what it was they required, but language was a barrier, neither they nor I had any words in common, although I attempted Hindi, Swahili, a phrase or two in Spanish, French and English.
All I got was polite smiles and formal laughs. Then it occurred to me - they wanted to eat. I pointed round the corner and mimed eating and their burst of laughter showed I was right. Off they went and I followed them, for I too was hungry.
The cafe was bursting with activity and sound as walkers came and went or sat before huge plates of food. At the counter I discovered language was again a barrier. The servers had no words of English and my stumbling Spanish was limited to five sentences and a clutch of extra words, but by pointing, as was everyone else, I got what I wanted.
Sat at a table, consuming my tortilla and coffee, the dominant language was a simplified English - 'Globish' they call it and it emerged from people seeking to communicate around the world and removing tenses from English and using a small vocabulary - Pidgin refined to suit people from everywhere. At my table a Mexican communicated with an Italian, a South Korean, a Romanian and two Russians in Globish and they understood one another.
The Camino melting pot was working. I found myself talking in the shortened phrases. Noticing the couple I'd originally met, I waved and they sat next to me and began attempting to learn the easy rules of this new language which resides in the present tense and in which the past is indicated, for example, by 'yesterday' and the future by 'tomorrow'.
Perfect! Perhaps in a decade or two Globish will be based on Mandarin?
She looked at me as if I were about to do something dreadful. Wondering why, I sipped my coffee but she continued to stare at me. Glare is the word. I went back over what I’d said, but could think of nothing.
She sipped her glass of wine and stared into the distance. “I began thinking I ought to end it.”
I let her silence ring between us.
“But how, I wasn’t sure. Then it came to me. Suicide.”
”Oh,” I gasped quietly.
“I set myself a time. I got everything lined up. It was a calm decision. You see I couldn’t keep sleeping with men or women for money.” She burst into tears and suddenly gripped the table.
Not knowing what to say, I let my hand touch hers, quickly, just enough to show sympathy.
She seemed hardly to notice. “I wanted to say goodbye to friends, so went round to see my closet but it took a bottle of wine to admit how I made my living. They all thought I was a well paid private detective doing secret night work.”
Admiring her fine features, I wondered what it was that made attractive women do such things.
She lifted her eyes and stared, it was as if she was looking through me. “Another bottle of wine and I was sobbing, revealing my plan.”
I wondered how anyone could think of ending their own life. It takes enormous dispare and loss of hope, more than I’d ever known.
“We talked all night and by the morning I had decided instead, to walk El Camino to heal my soul.”
“I’m glad you found this solution.”
“Yes. I’m discovering more of myself the more I walk. I’ve discovered love, it is in everyone I meet.”
She touched my heart with a smile all those she had slept with had wanted, but which now shone upon a passing dog.
His face was stern, his demeanour stiff, you instinctually didn't want to sit beside him, but there was nowhere else and so I nudged myself in, carefully laying my coffee and brownie in the tiny space. He didn't budge, which made it hard, so I politely asked him to give me a little more room. He grunted unhelpfully, turned, glared at me and held my gaze without moving.
Then he smiled and his face became one of wonder and you knew you were lucky to have settled by this person. His eyes were deep, opening to yours, his voice was soothing honey and his words well chosen.
"Oh, do forgive me! I was miles away."
Not wishing to intrude, I thanked him and mentally bashed myself for judging somebody who I'd never met before. We humans are programmed to make hasty analysis of each other and, survival has proven it is better to be negative and get it wrong that the other way round and end up in trouble.
After awhile he said, "I was thinking of my dead child. A year ago she left us and my wife is now in a psychiatric institution, depressed so badly that she has no will to live. And so here I am trying to heal my shattered life."
They were all chatting and laughing and swapping stories from the day's walk and as I sat sketching, I watched others choose to sit at the cafe next door rather than there. Their voices echoed back and forth, bouncing off the ancient monastic walls, drowning the peace which had existed when I'd first arrived.
I wanted to go over and ask them to tone down their voices, but who was I, I was driving, not walking and my crutches hardly compensated for the packs they bore. A woman from the other side of the world settled beside me, saying she sought a little distance form the volume. We chatted about her day, about her toils, about this scene unfolding before us.
"They are young," she smiled with the wisdom of age, "to them El Camino is more than a sort of pilgrimage."
"At their age I walked the Himalayas seeking Truth," I said a little too haughtily.
Noticing my teacherly tone, she laughed, "And it looks like you didn't find it!"
Hesitant, rather a little hurt,a little defensive, I said, "Do we ever find Truth?"
"Perhaps it is this," she waved her hand at the bright young men and women howling so loudly.
"Certainly this is The Now, so certainly they are part of it," I wanted to say something wiser, but couldn't find the words.
She smiled, "Accepting them for what they are is also part of it."
I sketched an elegant bridge wide enough only for a loaded mule. It elegantly rose to reach across a river trickling over rounded rocks which showed the capacity to flood viciously. I closed my sketchbook when a rich bunch with huge cameras surrounded me and one person used my head to balance their camera.
I took twenty steps and went into a cafe. Sitting at a table for four, I wrote down some of the comments walkers had made. As I worked and ate, two women sat beside me, having laid their loaded packs against the wall. They were engaged in deep conversation and they continued as if I wasn't there. After a while, I asked how long they'd walked and they told me less than a week.
One of them said, "My husband died of cancer last year and this year I was diagnosed with it."
"She's a brave woman and I've come along to help her get to Santiago."
"But you're ill too."
"Fatal. Six months left, but I feel fine."
Lost for words, I stumbled, asked how the Camino was going for them.
"It's healing us. I starting to feel cured of anxiety."
"And I've gained spirit for what inevitably lies ahed."
Humbled, knowing how lucky I was, I went up and over the bridge, then turned and went back up to the apex where I stood watching the water pass on by.
They strode ahead with great intent and as Le Van Blanc wound her wheels along the road, they looked up and waved heartily. How long had it been since I’d last seen this intrepid couple, a week, ten days, more? Yet here they were far in advance of my wife’s more leisurely Camino, covering several kilometres in a single hour and continuing day after day. Oh to have their energy!
We had first met at the edge of La Rioja and I had been impressed by their cheer and vitality. Exhausted, they gave me energy. I had slept high in the hills tucked into an ancient quarry where the echoing gunshots of night hunters and their braying dogs continually woke me. And I was slightly down in the mouth after Le Van Blanc’s dramatic breakdown upon a steep hill - a total loss of traction as her gears went fut and gravity took her bulk backwards in an instant, smashing me into a medieval house. Thank god it was made of granite. Had it been wooden I would be spending the rest of my life chained to their sink to repay the repairs - at least the garage bill was affordable and the bodyworks done upon my return home not too dramatic.
And here they were striding out as if high upon laughing gas, eating up El Camino as if it was a walk around the park. They shot past younger people with lighter loads who struggled upon the flat expanse as though it were a vast mountain. They laughed, they chatted, they had eaten something the rest of us needed. And they were in a hurry because of a deadline, a conference somewhere far across the globe. Yet they were in a space which their speed didn’t indicate and they reminded me of an ancient Zen statement I had once attempted to live by when my life was hectic - “Whether you work at speed or slowly, do it with the same attention and inner peace.”
That, I knew upon talking to this vibrant couple, was their inner experience. Fast as they might have been, chatty as they could be, inside, they maintained an enviable peace.
Driving along the road I spotted an old man struggling with the load he was carrying and pulled Le Van Blanc over. In stumbling Spanish, I asked if he wanted help. His weary eyes lifted from the path, adjusting slowly to the creature I was. It took his rational mind a few seconds to register my words and discover he didn’t understand them. I asked again in English. Again, incomprehension. I tried French and the man’s eyes lit up.
“Non, non, merci. This is my Camino, I must bear my own cross.”
“Perhaps, but your body is enough to lug up this hill, allow me to take your rucksack to the summit.”
“That would be to fail!”
I knew better than to try and disrupt somebody’s world view, no mater how crazy I thought it. I smiled and purred Le Van Blanc onwards, seeking something to sketch. An hour or so more I returned and found him not much further along and slumped in the road’s dry gutter. Parking dangerously on a steep corner, I offered help.
“Non, monsieur! How many times must I tell you - this is MY Cross!”
I wished him well and drove away, puzzling over belief and how it blinds us to what is. He was well over 70, he was unfit, his sack was far too heavy for anyone twenty years younger. At his age his heart might not take it. But then, I reasoned, who knows his history, perhaps he was dying of cancer, escaping a dreadful life or a boring existence? And in any case, anything might kill us in the next hour - anything from that proverbial bus to an earthquake, so why not the possibility of a rapid self-inflicted death upon El Camino?
Blisters are a topic all who have walked the Camino will be familiar with. I saw many shapes and sizes of of blisters and the worst I saw were born by a woman who wore a smile. Or was it a grimace?
Her ankles looked as if a rat had been at them. Where the rest of us have a continual curve from the sole of our foot to the tendon, she had a depression you could sink a couple of coins into. Blood long congealed tainted her skin, it looked painful. I asked her how it had got so bad.
"It started as a small blister and I did nothing."
"When was that?"
"A week ago."
"I did nothing. I believed God would sort them, after all, I am on a pilgrimage.."
"Don't they say God helps those who help themselves."
"Yup. And my blisters got worse each day."
"You should have rested, let your body repair itself."
She looked baffled by her own inaction. "Now I can't walk at all. It hurts even to move my foot," she held it up as if she'd not seen it properly before.
It was a boiling day and walkers looked weary as they made their way along a path following an imposing road busy with loaded trucks which generated what might have been welcome gusts had it not been for the stirred up dust. I locked Le Van Blanc and walked over towards a cafe popular with truckers, a good sign.
Cheery men sat chatting and eating huge breakfasts and at the counter I stumbled over my poor Spanish as I pointed to what those burly truckers were eating. In walked two dust coated young women. Their packs bumped the truckers, knocking over a glass of wine, but the walkers were too tired to notice. The men smiled, winked at one another and quickly used their napkins to clean up the mess.
At the bar the women laid down their rucksacks and asked in English what there was to eat. Baffled, the barman made a guess and pointed at the other tables. The women rapidly drank back the water the barman had set down for them and shoved their packs towards the nearest table. Everybody smiled at them. They, weary as heck, looked back vacantly.
Their huge breakfasts were consumed at a gallop and they ordered more and people smiled. Bit by bit they woke up to where they were and began to smile back at the other customers. Bit by bit the colour drained from their faces as the water, coffee and food returned them to normality. Replete, they paid and walked out light of step under those packs which had dragged them in. Everyone cheerfully called, "Buen Camino!"
They sat at down my table, bearing cups of coffee. I felt a little shy, having received heavy looks from walkers as I'd parked Le Van Blanc a few minutes previously. They however, smiled. She said, "Your van features in our Camino blog!"
I laughed. Along the way many waved as I drove Le Van Blanc respectfully along the tracks, these were people who got to know me as I looked for places to sketch and many had sat chatting with me as my pages filled. Such walkers recognised the passing van and me as a man with crutches who was following the route my wife was walking.
Feeling less self conscious in their presence, I asked my companions what they had gained from El Camino, for we had long passed the half way point. They went silent and after couple of sips of warming liquid, she said. "Nature has been prominent along the route." She took another sip. "That's made me think about our relationship to it."
"The frogs! They're in every bit of water and the birds are in every bush!" He chuckled, "that's the sign of a healthy environment despite the intensive farming."
"We own vast hectares and caught in the usual economic loop, we get as much from every square metre as we can."
She laid her cup carefully upon the saucer and said, "We've decided that if farmers in northern Spain can respect nature, so can we."
"We're going to spray as little as possible."
"Maybe go organic?" she winked. 3.
She was exhausted, but he was determined to keep going. Agenda was written across his face. She slid along like ghost. Seeing me sketch a coat of arms she sighed heavily in recognition - we had met two weeks before in a pharmacy and I had translated her needs to the baffled person behind the counter. She had been stern, telling me what she required, not thanking me for delaying myself to help.
But today all that pride was gone. I smiled and in an attempt to delay her, chatted about the walk. He stood by tapping his stout stick into the cobbles. It turned out they were Born Agains. Or rather she was religious in the classic manner and he had dragged her to his way of thinking. You could see it in his fervent eyes. In hers which looked at you rather than judged you.
After four long, long minutes for him, but a flash in time for her, he said with strength, "If we don't hurry we'll not get to the hostel in time!"
It was perhaps 11am. We were standing in a town and were surrounded by hostels. But, no, he had decided to keep on marching for another hour (at normal pace) to another location. She sighed once more and looked wearily at me, then she smiled, "How lovely to have lingered. I hope we meet up again."
In her smile I could see she had changed, the stiff persona in the pharmacy back in France no longer stood before me. Another being had emerged - a more empathetic person.
I started from the wooden balcony at Orisson, suspended above a drop into a buckled agricultural world farmed for millennia by the Basques. Each step made me marvel at the mountain people who run up slopes so steep you felt about to tip over backwards.
Leaving my vehicle, Le Van Blanc in the small parking area, I swung my crutches with enthusiasm, but within a couple of minutes I was overtaken by a man carrying a heavy rucksack. He was sweating.
I tried to keep up but was defeated. However, as I levelled with him he wobbled. Dropping my crutches, I jumped, grabbing his arm. The slope from the road was sheer, He’d not noticed me and turned, muttering, “Let me go.”
“Sorry.” I steered him into the far side of the narrow road. There we slumped on a patch of grass that wasn’t too steep. Everything, it felt, was veering towards the vertical. It was as if some beast from hell had tried to tip the world so as to spill its inhabitants into the deep dark valley below.
When we’d both gained sufficient equanimity, he told me his pills cut the oxygen in his lungs, “But," he smiled, “five minutes rest every fifty paces and my blood is revived.” And up he got.
Grappling with my crutches, I attempted to keep up, but he was twenty paces ahead before I’d got my rhythm. The advantage of walking with this man was that I was soon in a position to win. Not that it was a race and I was glad it wasn’t because five hundred metres of this killed me for the day.
Glad for his sake that this was the only such slope on the entire Camino, I waved him onwards and dropped back to Le Van Blanc, who was pleased to see me. Rather, I was pleased to slip into her driving seat after a cup of tea on the auberge’s terrace.
I walked towards the arching medieval bridge upon whose low wall walkers rested. Some removed their boots with glee, others were munching snacks, other were hauling rucksacks onto their backs. I used my crutches as a shooting-stick seat, extracted my sketchbook and began drawing the dynamic yet peaceful scene.
When done, I walked across to the far side, avoiding the trinket vendor, but his smile was genuine and unable to be cool, I found myself looking at a wooden medallion of the Basque symbol and as we chatted in broken English, I bought it for my wife. He told me they all liked the walkers. My instant scepticism was turned over when he said, "They have been here for over 1,000 years. Like the swallows in spring, they cheer us up for they smile no matter their suffering."
The faces upon the bridge were divided into three. Those arriving wore without exception, relief; longer residents were indeed mostly smiling; the departing all looked determined. Another sector who walked up the slope beyond, were struggling, but those nearing the top of the incline had conquered the sloth of rest which had slowed their initial steps.
Having spent my fitter days solo trekking with a tent through the world's mountains chains, I had, when passing through popular sections as I made my way to remote ridges, met many walkers, but this walk generated something else. Something extra special. My new companion said it for me, "El Camino transforms people. By now they've been on the road for ten days or more and like a meditation retreat, the magic has worked. Look at them!"