It was dark, people were getting ready to leave their homes and pour into the city in order to drink and dance and hit on other people, or hit them, depending on the mood. V and me were on the roof, watching our neighbours joining the crowd, listening to their drunk conversations, empty bottles rolling down the street.
There was a chill in the air that night and I was wearing V’s fake fur coat over my whimsical summer dress. We had a fire going on the roof, despite complaints from our downstairs neighbours that the protective layer was getting too hot and the lamps were coming down.
This was our revenge for them keeping us up at night. This, and opening their parcels when we were drunk.
I was proper drunk now, laying on my back, staring at the stars. We stargazed a lot, V and me, back in the day. Smoking and drinking the night away, while figuring out the meaning of life. Orion was her favourite constellation. She had a memory of her father pointing out the hunter in the sky to her. All the memories I had of my father were made up.
I handed V the bottle back after making some remark about the state mankind was in, clumsy eye hand coordination setting in. My mind was chaotic, loud, never quiet and highly associative. V was still sitting up, staring into the flames. My finger traced the stars that made up my favorite constellation; the big dipper.
“Why are you on the floor?” V asked, handing the bottle back. I was surrounded by pebbles and moss and dead insects. “Why are you sitting up?” I asked back, followed by a silence and then the scraping of a chair on the tiles. I watched her getting closer, chucking her cigarette in the fire and laying down beside me. I handed her my cigarette and she took a draft. “I feel like breaking something again,” I said, taking back the cigarette. “I know,” she replied, and took my hand in hers.
We stared at the sky together, our bodies close, our hands warm and fingers intertwined. V was like a sister to me. We shouted at each other when we were angry, we held each other’s hair when we puked and we made each other tea when we got dumped. She was one of the few people I could sit in complete silent with. She was also the only one that knew about my self destructive tendencies.
He was sitting on a rock in a shaded bit of the trail, the woods on both sides of the trail. Tom was from America and the first thing we noticed about him was the distinct tattoo on his lower left arm. It was the pilgrim’s shell, brightly coloured in orange and yellow. The way he was sitting on the rock, his arms folded together on his knees reminded me of a wizard.
“Hello,” he said. A thick southern accent. “Hello,” we replied, waving our hands in the air. “Do you need any help?” Tom looked a bit lost even though the track was pretty narrow and straight forward where we bumped into him. “Nah, just taking a breather,” he paused, looking at our packs. “I’m not eighteen anymore,” he added. “Neither are we,” we smirked, setting down our packs.
Tom was retired. He was walking the camino for a second time after getting lost on his first attempt, not reaching Santiago because he ran out of time and didn’t we always. “What made you return to Europe?” we asked, pealing an orange and handing him a slice. “One thing really,” he answered, “I wanted to finish the camino.”
We had not been on the camino long enough to understand it’s magical attraction to second, third and even fourth time walkers. We did not understand the brotherhood of pilgrims that formed on the road to Santiago. I don’t think we understood completely when we left the trail in Logrono a week later. We had tasted bits of it, in the conversations we had on the road, the friends we made and left behind again. We felt like were fine on our own; just the two of us. We radiated this, well I did anyway, S. was more open than I was on the trail. She was making friends. I only started really talking to people on the last day when S. took a bus to Logrono and I hiked the 18 miles alone. My mindset had changed. I opened up again.
I started really early that day, it was still dark outside. S. was awake and we said goodbye with a hug. I was excited and scared at the same time. The camino was growing on me. I was starting to find pleasure in putting my boots on in the morning, the simplicity of walking, eating when you want to eat, carrying your life on your back, not being bound to anyone else’s itinerary. I enjoyed the sense of freedom.
I remember passing a cemetery in dusk. It was one of those ones I recognised from movies about the Wild West. The walled ones with the black gate in the middle, flowers pinned to the iron work. It was in the middle of nowhere. I wondered about the people that lay buried in it, I wondered about the lives they had lived, whether they had been more happy on the countryside than I had been before I moved to the city.
The sky was dark blue, the sun would come up soon. I spotted the group of base ballers in the distance. We had seen them before, young kids, younger than us late twenty somethings. There were five of them most of the time, sometimes there were more. They were carrying a bat and ball with them and played games on the road. Their energy seemed to have no limits.
It took me a while to muster the courage to overtake them. They were the first people I bumped into by myself.
“You are walking alone today,” the kid holding the bat noticed as I was in the middle of passing his group by. Irish. I loved the Irish accent. He had been swinging the bit of wood for a while now, sometimes balancing a small ball on it.
Irish was a handsome kid, bright eyes and dark hair, great walking pace. “Where’s your blond friend?” he hit the ball in the air again and caught it when it came down. “She took the bus today. Her feet were proper fucked. We’re going home tonight.” I took a swig from my water bottle and offered it to him.”Why are you leaving?” he asked, taking the bottle. “I ran out of money,” I told him, “and I am trying to be a responsible adult about it.” He took a swig from my bottle before handing it back to me. “I didn’t bring enough cash either,” he said, “but I will finish it all the same. The camino will provide right?” His manner was light. He didn’t strike me as a believer.
We talked a lot, heavy subjects following each other up in high speed. I liked him, he was wise beyond his years, knew exactly what he wanted out of life and was convinced he would get it. I always liked people that seemed to move through life in a carefree way, the ones that stayed young forever. I envied them. They had the same problems we all had, but decided to deal with them in a different way. This is why he would sit next to the road holding up a hat and I was going home. I lacked the balls, I worried to much about what might happen. We talked about many things. Education, travel, aspirations. People open up easily on the camino. No one has a past or a future. There is only the present. And in that present everyone is equal.
“My ex girlfriend was great when it came to the crazy things in life,” he said, changing the subject from brain aneurysms to love. “We hiked amazing trails and drove around south america in a camper van. She just couldn’t adapt to real life. Getting up in the morning to go to work, you know. Sipping skinny latés during the commute there.” He tossed the ball in the air again. “And this is fine, this was absolutely fine with me, until it came to a point where she opposed that life on herself and started being miserable about it all day.” I looked at him, the ball landing in his hand, and wondered whether I was like Irish’s ex girl, happy on the trail, happy when I experience different cultures, when live seems to be moving forward all the time, travel, always in need of new impulses in order to keep my brain alive, to keep it from dying in the queue at the supermarket on a saturday afternoon, at the office, while washing the car on a sunday. I wondered whether I would make the same mistake by joining the rat race, being miserable for the rest of my days. Some of us just weren’t meant to live sedentary lives. Some of us were always lured away by sun-drenched elsewheres. “Don’t go crazy Dutch, no one is forcing you to sip skinny lates and go into an office filled with twats in ties. It is up to you to find your way.”
Irish and me split ways in the next big town we passed through. He was going to explore the town a little. I was on a schedule. “Buen camino mate.” “Same to you Dutch, I hope you make it back here one day.”
I felt good. Revitalised. I felt like I was connecting to things; to the road under my feet, the people on that road and myself. So many times I had felt like I was split in half. Like my true self was out there in the world and I was still looking for it, like Peter Pan and his shadow, it had gotten away from me. Today on the road, it felt like I had retrieved it for a little while. Like everything came together and I was actually there, in the present, instead of worrying about the future and regretting the past. I was happy in the present.
S and me only spend a week on the camino together. But in that week we were closer than we ever were, and I felt grateful for holding her hand on the road, while we both cried, energy flowing between the two of us, even if it was for two minutes or so. I loved singing stupid songs with her while walking down the hill like we owned it. I learned a lot about my friend, I saw her bloom and she inspired me to never give up, always keep walking. And she was right, as we were walking, my tears started to dry up and I started enjoying the act of putting my feet on the hot Spanish soil every morning at six ‘o clock.
When we set off on our adventure we had great expectations. These expectations were never met, but instead replaced by experiences we needed more than the reasons we had for going on the walk in the first place. I learned more about myself, about my friend, about human kindness and connections in that one week on a strange road in a strange country, than in the years preceding it back home.
The camino was the first step into a new life, where I discovered I was indeed a dreamer and when my hormones dictate my mood, a total drama queen, but I also discovered great things can happen when you have the guts to walk out the door and actively pursue your dreams, no matter how silly they might seem.
The camino did not fix my life, but I started walking towards realizing my dreams, and that was more than I had done the ten years before.