“Nice one babe, real nice.” He didn’t sound angry and there no longer was sadness in his voice either. G was a smart man, he had expected things to end this way; in a drunken haze and utterly humiliating. The boy opposite of me in the toilet didn’t look at me while he zipped up his trousers. He passed G by with is head bend down, mumbling an half arsed apology before wandering off into the night.
There was no point in telling G that despite what it looked like, no one had sex with anyone that night. There was no point at all, because this wasn’t the first time I had fucked him over, it was just the worst time, the worst possible way, if there was such a thing. I don’t believe in regret, but if I could take back the pain I caused G, I would do it, without blinking an eye. The split was inevitable though. It had all lead up to this, seven years of doubt, frustration and self loathing.
I sat down on the lid of the loo, with G. still on the other side of the door, the stench of alcohol on my breath and mud on my sandals from outdoor wedding dancing. “Why?” he just asked, it was a simple enough question. “Why?” he repeated. “I don’t know,” I sighed, wiping away the tears from my eyes.
The last couple of weeks we had done really well. I had been a proper girlfriend and he had been a proper boyfriend. And why wouldn’t we be ding well? I had a man that ticked all the boxes. G was handsome, creative, funny as hell, kind and warm hearted. There was no reason for me not to love him in a way he deserved to be loved. No reason whatsoever.
I had always gone for the bottle when things got too much inside my head. My brain had always been overly active. It was always anxious about not being in the right place at the right time, doing the right things with the right people. Once or twice in my life it had clicked, when I had been in the right place at the right time; on V’s roof looking at the stars together, with E on a midnight dip in the lake, with S singing songs in her car. There had been moments with G when I thought I had won the jackpot.
I had come off the booze for a little while, quit the smokes, really making an effort to sort out my head. But lately I started going for the bottle again. I had plenty of excuses for it; ‘alcohol makes me create better work,’ ‘alcohol helps me sleep,’ ‘alcohol quiets my mind.’ The truth was, it numbed the pain a little, or at least postponed it until the next day, when I woke up in a pile of collateral damage. And now it had enabled me to sabotage my relationship in such a way that it was beyond any kind of repair.
We woke up when the fog was still clearing. The air was humid and the air was fresh, like we imagined mountain air to be. We come from the lowlands, the flatlands. We think speedbumps are hills and hills are mountains. Both S and me were excited to climb the big one outside of the town. It looked like Everest to us.
The only people on the road were the mad ones; mainly pilgrims and some locals going to work at a god forsaken hour to provide the town with fresh coffee and baked bread for their breakfasts. We were tired. S looked sleep deprived and I figured my face looked pretty similar to hers, sleepdust still resting in the corner of my eye.
First lesson learned on the camino; never enter a dorm without earplugs. The bunkbeds are filled with snoring men, women that talk in their sleep and bunkbeds that screech every time someone rolls on their other side.
We spend the night in an ‘albergue’ run by a remarkable lady. There were more cats than people in the hostel. I don’t trust cat people. Someone once told me that cat piss does funny things to human brains. Her brain seemed a bit unstable too, but this attracted me to her and I listened to her voice while she explained the house rules to our fellow pilgrims, watched her bracelets dangle together while she stamped my pilgrim’s passport.
We made it to the start of the trail. We were ready. Our packs were heavy but our spirits were light. We already made a pilgrim friend yesterday, or S. did anyway. I only made the littlest possible social contact. I tried to avoid talking to people. I wasn’t interested in their reasons for walking, or what their stupid names were, or where they were from. Despite all this, the camino has a way of forcing people together. And we made a friend on our first night; Ian, a Brit. We bonded over tea bags, and a shared a fondness for the island he was born on, the island I was planning to move to.
Ian said goodbye to us in the cold morning breeze. He was quicker than us, better prepared. He had walked the camino twice already. He warned us that walking the trail was addicting. I watched him walk off while S filled her water bottle. I needed a cup of tea.
We didn’t know it at the time, but Ian was in pain. He was one of those people that suffered in silence. The kind of people that are so strong and brave that you forget that they are suffering. We caught snippets of his pain in between the conversations we had with him about mundane things. He probably wore a suit a lot in his normal life. He was alone. He had had a girlfriend but her daughter didn’t get along with him. They broke up. He missed her every day. It was almost always love that made us walk, or the lack of it. People on the camino were almost always in pain, whether they realized it or not. Curious children and hopeful teenagers turned into adults that wondered where their dreams had gone. Ian understood this, he had lived this.
The camino felt alien to us on the first day. We had talked about going on this trip for such a long time and now that we were actually there, reality caught up to us. The first day was the toughest, or so S’s guide book said. I did not have a guidebook, neither did I have the proper hiking gear for this trip. S worked in an outdoor shop and she knew a thing or two about proper hiking gear. She had equipped me with a spork and a beautiful knife and flask for my thirtieth, and I had X’s tin mug, another birthday present, dangling from my pack. Other than that all of my stuff came from the local supermarket, because it was summer and I was the Queen of cheap summer deals. “I will finish this trail on sheer determination,” I had smirked in S’s living room. “Great, but for the love of God please use my old hiking boots,” S had answered, eying my sneakers with a suspicious look on her face.
The physical effort it required for us two Dutch girls with way too heavy packs to get up that first mountain after St. Jean distracted me from the pain in my gut. I carried my now ex boyfriend’s photo in my wallet, with a teabag label S had given me at Bordeaux airport. It said: ‘a broken heart holds many secrets.’ I kept it with his picture. I think I already realized by then that it was not my heart the label was talking about.
Relationships are complicated things for people that suffer from hopeless romanticism. I thought being with a man would save me. I was in love with the idea of falling in love and tended to do that a lot. I usually bailed after a year. With G I stuck around for seven, or maybe it was the other way around.
Being with a lover that is not supposed to be yours can do the opposite of saving you. This didn’t mean I never loved him. And this is why I cried during the first couple of days on the camino.
I stopped crying after the Pyrenees and was on a mission by the time we reached Pamplona. Determined to sweat all the evil out of my system, I tied up my boots (thank Christ she had insisted) and left S behind with a couple from Germany and two handsome boys from Knoxville. I needed to walk, really walk, not this ‘hangover on Sunday’ pace we were doing with our new travel companions.
I caught up with our friend Ian again on a dusty trail. He walked faster than us but he needed more breaks than we did and walked the same distance each day. He heard me coming because he stepped aside the narrow track to make room for the faster walker, his expression becoming more friendly when he recognised me. “Good god woman, I thought I was being overtaken by an athlete.” His hat was hanging from a string on his back, his balding head glistened in the sun. “I am the mother of athletes today my friend,” I smiled and stomped on without stopping. I changed my mind and turned over my shoulder: “Tell S I love her when she catches up with you.”
Sweat started dripping down my back, the pilgrim’s shell S’s mother got us ticking against my tin mug. Walking the same pace for miles, without stopping gets me into a trance. I listened to the rhythm of my footsteps in combination of the ticking of the shell, the crackling sound my backpack made and I forgot about the life I left behind for a while. For the first time since we set out I smiled a genuine smile. I was on my way. I was walking, not away from things, but towards them. I was putting one foot in front of the other. I was doing what I had set out to do instead of just dreaming about doing it, talking about doing it, and then forgetting about it, replacing it with another plan until I got stuck in a web of forgotten dreams and unfulfilled promises. And I was enjoying every second of it, even the seconds that hurt, the seconds that caused blisters, thirsty throats and dry eyes. Every single second under the blistering Spanish sun.
On the road to Pamplona is the second article in a small series about ‘El Camino de Santiago,’ an 800km pilgrim route across the north of Spain. Stories and photos by Rebecca Rysdyk