“If I didn’t know you, I would say you have hit rock bottom.” My brother in law sits on the piano stool while I lean against the sofa. I am on my way out after living with my sister for the past month. “You gave away your furniture, you are living like a gypsy hopping from one underpaid job to the other, you don’t have a roof over your head and you fucked up your relationship.” I played with the keys in my hand, taking off my sisters key as my brother in law summed up the fruit of my labour. “But,” he continued, “because I do know you, I know this is the only way you will find your happiness and I am proud of you for breaking free. I would be shitting my pants if I were you.” I moved my gaze from the keys to his eyes. The expression he held in them made me realize he was being nothing other than serious. This man who I had always considered to be the opposite of what I was, kept surprising me. “Thanks,” I said and picked up my bag. I handed him the key and made my way to the door. With the door handle in my hand I turned around. “You really don’t think I am a screw up?” He shook his head. “I think you are a complete fruitcake,” he smirked, “but I also think you are about to find your way.”
I kept my promise. I went back to the trail, this time heading out alone. I walked on a pair of 10£ shoes as I left my hiking boots behind in Wales where I had worked with a lady with dementia for a while. My backpack was left behind in London, where I was trying to make my new home, so I had to make my way to Santiago with a daypack that I bought in a charity shop and some shitty shoes. None of it seemed important at the time though, the most important thing was that I was going. And I was alone.
A rainbow on the floor at Logrono busstation after an entire night of travelling with horny Portuguese men, worn out Spanish houswives and angsty teenagers off to go on surfing holidays for the very first time, made me realize that I was about to do something extraordinary. I went into the ladies’ room to brush my teeth. It was early morning and people were getting ready for work. The women that came in there checked their hair or applied some more makeup and I grinned at them with a mouth full of toothpaste. I always felt happiest when I was an outsider looking in, an outsider about to go on an extraordinary adventure.
I went out the door of Logrono busstation alone, determined to suffer. After all the shit I pulled over the past year, I felt like I deserved a little bit of suffering. Being alone on the trail was my way of making that happen, a penance of a sort. But the camino doesn’t care much about what you think you do or do not deserve, it just runs through the Spanish countryside, a sleeping giant, pushing people together towards their common goal. I did not get to suffer, instead I came to see myself through the eyes of others; the eyes of complete strangers. Strangers with whom I had no past, no history of drunk drama and suicidal aftermaths, no failures, no disappointments. We were all just backpacks walking the same way every day. We were new borns, being judged for the choices we made on the road, being accepted for them. And by the time we shared bits and pieces of our lives, of our failures, of our broken dreams and hopes and wishes, we already accepted each other for who we were on the trail, and who we were on the trail was good enough. I was good enough.
I feel like I have talked so much about the camino, but not nearly enough. I could go on and on and on, about the ghost towns, about the time New Zealand and me talked about who of our fellow pilgrims would die first in a zombie apocalyps, the time we all ate flowers because Canada said they tasted just like salad, the time we hiked up a mountain drunk out of our skulls and the time Bournemouth held an epic speech that made me cry and a bunch of Irish school kids clap their hands on top of a hill. But it is time for new adventures and I am tired of writing. There is just one more thing I wanted to share with you. A story I would not have believed if I hadn’t been in the middle of it. It is a story about a pair of shoes and a smelly backpack.
If I had been sensible, I would not have walked out of the door on the shoes I found on my sister’s attic. If I had been sensible, I would have saved up for a pair of hiking boots. But if I had saved up for a pair of hiking boots, I would not have walked out of the door when I did. I would not have met the people I would have met, I might have not walked out of the door at all, because aren’t there always excuses why we put our dreams on hold. “I need proper gear first, I don’t have money to travel, I will do it one day, I have no one to go travelling with.”
My shoes went to shit after five days on the trail. They had been causing me trouble long before, making blisters appear on my feet where I had never had blisters before. But the pain was bearable and there were people on the trail with blisters while they were wearing expensive hiking boots. There came a point though, where I was literally walking on the tarmac. This was a problem. I had no money to replace my shoes. The camino was changing my mindset. At home I believed in nothing. I used to. I was the most imaginative little girl once, but for some reason something went horribly wrong while I grew up. Something made the imaginative little girl turn into an angsty teenager and an angry grownup.
And then all of a sudden, with an open mind on the camino and the believe that everything would be fine if I only started walking, to Santiago and beyond; kept walking toward something as much as away from something, a mindset, a life half lived, suffocated by my own dormant mind, hung a pair of shoes in a tree. Proper shoes. The ones I had always wanted to own but could never afford. A pair of genuine lace up leather boots. I had looked up at the right time, being absolutely content in that moment of time, laying on my back surrounded by my new friends, a break from walking, in the grass under a tree. The sun shone bright in between the branches that showed traces of early spring. “Look,” I said, pointing up, “Christmas has come early this year.” I climbed and tugged. Size 5. My size.
It didn’t end there.
We were hiking up a mountain that had been looming over us for days. We knew we had to cross the damn thing, and we knew it would be a challenge. This is the day my charity shop backpack broke in half. The straps, both of them, snapped simultaneously. “Don’t you worry,” I told my friends, “you won’t be carrying my stuff for long. There will be a backpack hanging in a tree up the trail.” I smiled, remembering Priest boy’s words from a couple days back. “The camino will provide,” he had said, raising his glass to all of us. Priest boy was quite the character. He was the loudest, most foul mouthed, nicotine addicted father I had ever come across in my life, he also turned out to be right about a couple of things.
I fell behind on that mountain. It’s the climbing. My lungs are made for the flatlands and I had to accept I would be the last one reaching its peak. I knew that I would make up for lost time once the trail started to descend. It was foggy, the conditions were absolutely magnificent and I could not capture any of it since my camera had broken down a couple of days earlier. This was actually a good thing. It was like one of my senses was disabled. I had come across a blind lady during my work in health care and where her sight was lost, she gained excellent hearing and smell. The other senses take over. This was the case with me on the camino. Because I could no longer capture, I gained. I focussed more on the conversations, on the sounds, on the smells and touch. The dew on my skin, the sounds my new boots made in the mud. The echo that carried across the mountain came twenty minutes after transferring my belonging in my friends backpacks. “Backpack,” it said. “Backpack,” it repeated
“I’ll be damned,” I mumbled when I approached New Zealand. There it was, on the end of my friends arm, dangling in the air. “I found one in the bushes.” I came closer and inspected the bag. “It’s broken but we can tie it back together and it will hold your load for the day,” New Zealand said. “Now then Dutchy, would you be so kind to turn some water into wine or conjure me a new camera per chance?”
Priest boy’s words ‘the camino will provide’ stayed with me for the rest of the trip, reaching far into my life afterwards. They say that the camino never ends, and I try to think of this when I face a challenge in my life. I think of trees and backpacks hanging in trees, of new friends waiting to be made, of love under every pebble, even in places where you don’t expect to find any.
On the plane home I felt hungover but also very accomplished. I went back after hanging my shell in a tree. I kept to my promise. I finished what I had started. And in the end all of the bears on the road left for the woods. And it didn’t matter that I was on a budget, that I had left a job and that I could not afford the expensive gear people wear on the billboards of outdoor shops. I hiked Poon hill in a fake leather jacket with a bunch of layers made up of regular shirts and cardigans, following the fancy flashlights my travel companions were carrying and getting distracted a lot by the millions of bright stars in the pitch black Nepalese sky. I walked the camino de Santiago with a cheap army issue backpack that broke in half on a mountain but got stitched back together with a little help of my fellow pilgrims, went on that hike with a pair of 10£ shoes and ending up with some proper leather ones that were hanging in a tree.
In the end it doesn’t even matter if you don’t have any travel companions to go on a trip with you, you will meet so many beautiful ones on the road, people with likeminded mindsets and adventure running through their veins; people that were pulled away from their lifes back home by some strange force that gave them itchy feet.
Wander, explore, be amazed and fall in love; with the trails, the different cultures, the different foods, with the people. So that by the time you are a ninety something your old, you have something to be grateful for.
text and photographs by Rebecca Rijsdijk