Next time I go on a pilgrimage, I'm bringing my Kindle

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In the summer of 2009, I walked the Camino de Santiago, starting in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France and ending 455 miles later in Santiago de Compostela. It took me 22 days. Some of the biggest challenges came right at the start.Here are my journal entries from the first couple days.

Sunday, May 17

2:25 pm

On train to Bayonne, though at the moment, it’s still in the station. Nice mauve tones and things that flip up: foot rest, tray, cup holder.  Just as many backpacks (with those lethal walking poles) around me as suitcases.  Wonder if they’re all going on the camino?  And if any of them are lugging around a bag of freshly purchased toiletries and makeup?  Forgot my new collapsible brush-mirror.  Hit me this is the first time in years I’ve been anywhere without a mirror.  As of yet, it’s not liberating -- mostly as I sense my chin is slightly too red.

7:22 pm

On train waiting to depart Dax. On last train, around 2:20, suddenly realized I hadn’t eaten since morning and accordingly went to the buffet car.  Closed!  And not to reopen, even though we had four hours to go to Dax.  We pulled in here at 19:00 and I followed the signs to BAR.  It was empty, except for the attractive, brown-haired lady wiping the counter, and a young woman with tightly pulled back hair and greenish eyes who observed me with the same sort of expressionless interest my cat shows me.  But when I smiled and shrugged, she smiled Mona Lisa like back.  I went right to the “sandwich” display case -- saddest, ageless remnants of food ever.  Five round, thin pastry-type things with either slices of desiccated ham or apple (couldn't tell which).  I stared at it with a biologist’s eye, not a gourmet’s.  Their only companions were four brown icing donuts.  The bar woman communicated to me, no food. Closing in “sanc” minutes.

I said, “Donut?” She looked like a judge about to make a guilty ruling, but the young woman, watching me all this while, repeated, “Doh...?”  I ran (well, took two quick steps) back to the case and pointed: “Donut.”

“Ah.” She translated to the barmaid, who said, “You don’t eat here?” (Actually, I have no recollection of her saying that in English, but I know that’s what she meant.)  I nodded and she slipped a donut into a little paper bag.

I finished that then went to a vending machine on the station platform and got a bag of cheese-horns, which were truly disgusting and feel as though they’ve coated my stomach.  But the bag said, “Sans ... sans ...” so I had hoped that meant without artificial flavourings, saturated fats, etc., but it must have meant taste.

Now the train's passing through green farmland.  No hikers on this train -- seem to be all locals.  A little pig-tailed girl with thick glasses was crying when I got on and I smugly detected not the slightest aversion to her.  I even smiled sympathetically at her, which seemed to catch the eye of the woman opposite me.  Turned out she’s the girl’s mom, but you’d never have guessed it until she told the girl, “Shhhh...” and fixed her hair.  Now that’s a mother.

Kids quietly playing some handheld game.  Unfortunately, they keep failing at the same place, so the classical theme song keeps just missing the crescendo.

Hotel Room in Bayonne

10:06 pm

How nice! Hotel guy knocked at my door.  I was topless taking photos (not of me, but of the river), and said, “Yeah?”

“Books. I have books.”

“Hold on!”  Put a towel around myself and opened the door.  Two romance novels and a promising crime novel -- might buy it off him tomorrow.  Had asked about a bookstore 30 minutes earlier when I went down to get a bottle of water.

Monday, May 18, Bayonne Train Station Cafe

11:40 AM

So much for an early start!  Or for starting the camino today, for that matter.  I’ll be lucky if I get to St. Jean Pied de Port before the information shop (or whatever it is) closes.  So will have to stay in St. Jean Pied de Port tonight and start early tomorrow.  

Ah, there’s an obvious hiker: middle-aged, glasses, blue aerodynamic shirt, garish red hiking pants and huge backpack.  He just did the same circuit as me -- walked and looked around, then wandered into station area.  Probably be back once he finds the public toilets are closed.

There are some outstandingly attractive people here. Only noted women, except for one mesmerizingly pretty guy last night, who was having dinner with a woman just as attractive.

Ah, here comes the hiker, as predicted. Now at bar ordering something, like I did. Perhaps the camino does start here.

This guy looks not unlike a murderer -- the unassuming, “kept to himself in the family house after the parents died,” type.  Chin looks like it had pretensions once, but any definition now eroded away.  At the critical point, it melds into neck.  Thick glasses make his small eyes look almost normal-sized, but too close together.  Looks about 52 and is alone.  Unshaven and short hair, little mouth drooping open (or perhaps he just took a sip of latte).  At certain angles, the light reflecting on his glasses eradicates his eyes.  He speaks French.

Gonna say yesterday on train to Bayonne, saw one girl reading a French novel.  Then another.  Thought, “How pretentious.”  Then remembered I was in France.

Ah, two more pack animals.  I’m definitely the youngest of the lot so far.  I should ask them about the trail start, etc.  Left my guide book at home, along with my mirror brush.

Realized today that the waist belt of my pack at its tightest still doesn’t touch my waist, so all the weight is on my shoulders.

Dark brown hair and brown eyes seem to be the look here -- like in southern Romania. Whoever that original ancestor was really got around!

Tried to get my ticket stamped, but the machine refused.  At last asked train lady worker.  Tried auditory charades again -- showed her my ticket, mimed sticking it in slot, and beeped.  She laughed and then smiled when she saw how crumpled it was.

"I got nervous."

But probably it was more those three lattes.  She got it stamped and now I'm on the vibrating train (it's not moving yet), surrounded by grey-haired men with huge shells strapped onto their backpacks.  No English speakers as of yet.

12:02 pm

On the way to St. Jean Pied de Port!  Just passed trhough Ularitz.

St Jean Pied de Port cafe

2:35 PM

Got my passport and map.  Start tomorrow.  Now enjoying...hold on.  Oh, well, kinda enjoying glass of white wine and waiting for pizza.  Two car train from Bayonne with grey-haired Europeans.  Pray I can outwalk them, as we'll all likely be starting at same time.  Did hear one young American voice coming out of a refugio, complaining/querying the cost of something. 

From the station, I followed signs to "centre ville”.  Reached a main road with the first clusters of confused looking backpackers looking down at maps, then up at road signs. Followed clusters instead of signs until their density levels indicated I was right outside the official start (bureaucratically speaking) of the camino.

Backpacks (all huger than mine, but so are the people) lined the back wall, hiking poles protruding from each like protective thorns.  Along other wall three or four tables pushed together, a middle-aged official (volunteer?) behind each, sorting out the pilgrim with map and passport.

Ended up standing behind the murderer from Bayonne.  I asked him if this was a queue and was relieved when he spoke no English.  "Italiano."  Then a couple got up from the closest official's table and he made to sit down, but the official said, “English.  No Italiano. English or Spanish.  Italiano there."  He pointed at guy at furthest table. 

I cried out, "English!" and made my way past the other people who'd been ahead of me.  His English was rudimentary.  Like, he indicated a point on the way to Roncesvalles and said, "Forest.  Beautiful view.  Danger.  Slippery.  Last year, woman dead."

He asked if I needed a place to stay (too late to start today.  He said 9-11 hours to Roncesvalles and "extremely difficult").  I said yes.  He said talk to the lady one door down on the right.  But, as other pilgrims were waiting at the door, I kept walking.  Happened to look in open door of another refugio and saw adolescent sitting, slope-shouldered, on top bunk and that decided me: I'd get a regular hotel room.  Probably be sick of communal living by this time next week.  So, 40 euros for top floor room (no elevator).  They didn't even ask me my name -- the young man just showed me up.

On entering the little room, I said forlornly, "No CNN?"  He looked around and then understood. "No, no tv."  But, at least I have a shower.  Thank god I stole that book from the other hotel.  Also regretting I didn't bring a French phrase book.

Don't yet know which path to take tomorrow, but will be glad to get started -- St Jean Pied de Port is rather oppressive, though less so now, maybe now that the hordes of identically clad (like me) pilgrims have disappeared and the postcard shops closed.  Nothing but identical cafes and refugios.  

Hmm...the waiter or whatever here sings as well.  A musical people.

Walked a bit out of the old town and saw down below a horde of tour buses -- suppose it carries people's crap and then takes them around for little jaunts at each destination.

Gosh, I hope I can find another book before finishing this one. What madness to assume I could go without!

"The 'now' was both specific and general, at once the next hour which somehow had to be filled, and the rest of a life which seemed increasingly predictable and pointless, in a vaguely cosy way." - Verga, author.

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