In the weeks leading up to my departure, even though I longed for what I hoped the experience would bring, I was filled with fear about travelling alone, and if my flight had not already been booked, I might have backed out. Each night before bed, as I completed my routine with a variety of potions and creams, I thought about how few of them I could take with me and how little control I would have over my daily life. How was I going to deal with the loss of all the small, almost unnoticeable, comforts and crutches I relied on each day and settle for not much more than a sleeping bag and a toothbrush?
When the day came I took the first flight out of Cork to London Stansted to get a connecting flight to Biarritz. I had decided to stay overnight at the airport hotel in Biarritz, which meant that I wasn’t actually in Biarritz; I felt more in limbo, in a space between two worlds: the familiar one I had left behind, and the new world that awaited me.
The following morning after a hot, restless night, I took a bus from outside the airport to the train station in Bayonne and boarded a train for the relatively short journey to St Jean. When I arrived less than an hour later, I followed the rucksack-bearing crowd to the Camino office to complete the formalities. One of the volunteers, a lovely man with a little English, helped me, and although I didn’t understand much of what he said, I figured I knew enough to get started. With my details recorded, I was given my Credencial (Camino Passport), which meant that I could stay in the pilgrim-only albergues along the route. His advice was that in the morning I should take Route Napoléon, the harder, higher and more spectacular of the two routes out of St Jean, to my first overnight stop at Roncesvalles, twenty-five kilometres away.
With the preliminaries completed, the same volunteer led me and two other pilgrims to the nearby albergue and we were shown to a basement dorm with three bunk beds. When I looked around the little bare room, the reality of pilgrim hostel life began to sink in. There was no comfort in sight. Checking the ticket number I held in my hand, I identified which of the blue tubular-framed bunks was mine, before I tentatively laid out my sleeping bag for the first time. Then I placed the items I thought I would need later – my earplugs, torch and toiletries – at the bottom of the bunk. Actually I could have emptied out the entire contents of my rucksack for I was carrying only what was absolutely necessary. As the three of us unpacked, we exchanged information in response to questions that would be repeated again and again over the coming weeks: where are you from? Have you walked the Camino before? How far are you walking? The most obvious question – why are you doing the Camino? – was one I asked sparingly. For me, the answer was very personal and I imagined it might be so for others too.
As well as being the official starting point for the Camino Francés, St Jean is a significant tourist town. But I wasn’t a tourist and I wasn’t really interested in exploring; I was only pretending. Truthfully, I was filling in time until I could leave. Over coffee I looked at my guide book and maps, although I felt unable to absorb any of the information. Oh my God, five weeks! At that moment, five weeks felt like a lifetime.
On my way back to the albergue in the evening I noticed the church and realised that I had passed by it earlier without actually seeing it. Inside, the atmosphere felt magical as the church was beautifully lit by an abundance of long, thin white candles. With lots of people talking and taking pictures, I could have been quite distracted, yet I relaxed quickly as I felt the connection with God immediately.
Despite the buzz around me, I felt a still presence and realised I wanted to set an intention for my Camino. Although I didn’t know what it was, I just knew that it would come if I sat and gave it time. At the altar, I lit one of the long white candles and placed it before me. Then closing my eyes I waited. In time the word sincerity came to me loud and clear. Tears flowed down my cheeks as I promised I would walk the Camino with sincerity; it was my promise to myself and to God.
Back in the albergue dorm, I made my first novice pilgrim error when I began talking to one of my room-mates in the semi-darkness without noticing that someone else was trying to sleep. Oops! I was to learn in the weeks ahead to enter dormitories quietly, as pilgrims sleep at all times of the day and night. That night I slept better than I expected, and I was very surprised to find when I got upstairs to the dining room the next morning that the adjoining dormitory was completely empty at 7 a.m. I wondered what the hurry was, and at the same time I began to feel I was running behind before I had even started.