By Parson Thru
Somewhere on the road between Sarria and Palas de Rei we encountered an Englishman in his early-to-mid sixties. He was slight and mild-mannered, having the look of a recently-retired professional. I don’t remember what we discussed at that first meeting, or where it took place, but he was one of those people who are easy-going and no problem to get along with.
I remember sitting in a café with him and a very smart woman in her fifties. She was slim, small and as well presented as it’s possible to be after weeks of walking the Camino. She was quiet but very pleasant. Her name was Astrid.
We learned later from another peregrino that David’s wife had recently died and he’d come to walk the Camino from St Jean to Santiago alone. It’s actually difficult to remain alone on the Camino and soon he’d befriended an Australian woman, with whom he shared the journey until Pamplona, when she’d had to stop because of a problem with her hip.
David and Astrid had begun walking together somewhere around Leon. Apart from the fact she was German and walking alone, we knew nothing about her. David told us they’d separately booked into in the Gaudí Hotel in Astorga – it was the same night we were in town, though in a more modest pension. Their walking pace was quicker than ours and if we hadn’t taken the bus from Ponferrada to Villafranca we’d never have caught up with them.
The rhythm of the Camino dictated that from now on we’d continue bumping into each other. There seemed to be a cohort building – people who continually turned up at roadside cafes and in the streets of towns and cities in which we stayed – in the albergues and pensions. They seemed to appear out of the flow of pilgrims with whom we might not pass more than a “Buen Camino”, though that’s how the friendships invariably began.
David and Astrid became Camino companions – like all of us, interweaving threads in a vast tapestry.
Then there were Ursula and Jurgen. They already knew each other through family contacts back in Germany. Jurgen was a successful career-type, who’d experienced a Damascan road awakening and now found himself on the Camino, trying to work out his next move. Ursula was approaching the end of a difficult divorce and had come away to clear her head. She had left everything in the hands of her lawyer and was hoping to retain her home near Stuttgart.
For a while, N and I thought they were a couple, but Ursula was quick to scotch the idea. They simply got along naturally and provided each other with good companionship for the walk. We originally met them enjoying the evening sun outside the albergue in La Faba. Like many others we met, they had walked all the way from St Jean.
We met Andrés and Javier sitting at a junction between Sarria and Portomarin – or was it Portomarin and Palas de Rei? It doesn’t matter. Javier was attending to some soreness on his foot and had his shoe off. We smiled knowingly as we stepped past on our own sore feet and called out an encouraging “Hola!” “Buen Camino!” – to be answered in a stream of Spanish and with beaming cheerful grins.
We kept on bumping into them through that day and all the ones that followed. We’d stop to chat the best we could with my very limited Spanish – neither of the two speaking English. They told us they were life-long friends (I originally thought they were brothers, so similar were they), retired footballers, having played for the same club. I didn’t ask how long ago, but I reckon they were well into their sixties.
They lived in Burgos and had been planning to walk the Camino for years. They didn’t have to venture far from their front doors to pick up the route. Wherever we saw them, they had the same cheerful smile and zest for life. People like Andrés and Javier are such a boost on the Camino, always lifting you out of discomfort-induced introspection just when you need it most. Hopefully, we were doing the same for them.
Kirsten was another of that cohort and someone we’d first seen on the bus from Ponferrada to Villafranca. She and a fellow-German had shared the next room to ours in the San Francisco Hotel – a pension in Villafranca’s historic plaza.
Her blue rucksack, with its attached scallop, became a talisman. Kirsten was a teacher from Berlin. She told us she was from the old East. I don’t know why, but that meant something. I wish I’d ventured to talk about life under the DDR and how that affected her relationship with those from the West. There was something humble and very moral about her.
Like many on the Camino, Kirsten was a seasoned walker and, like many it seemed, had a much quicker pace than me. I’d say we’re probably around the same age – she’s obviously taken more care of herself. She’d taken a year out to walk the Camino, visit her daughter in Canada and travel to South America.
Once we’d struck up an acquaintance, there was an ease with which we could walk for a couple of hours chatting (in English – always an embarrassment to me), pass each other at a road-side stop with a cursory wave, or share a wonderful view. It was this familiarity – so quickly developed – that provided a much-needed salve to soreness, discomfort and fatigue.
I should mention Ziggy. Like Ursula and Jurgen, we met him at La Faba. He was making himself comfortable and preparing his bed as we wandered in, fatigued, disorientated and grateful. A tall, grey-haired, unassuming man, he had a quiet calm about him and welcomed us with a smile.
He’d been seen off by his family in northern Germany and travelled by bus to St Jean – an accomplishment in itself. He kept in touch with his wife and grown-up children by text and email. His look was ascetic, with short, silver hair and beard, but he showed us a photo of himself before the Camino looking clean-shaven and with a polished head. I’m not sure I’d recognise him.
Ziggy was one of those who just appeared out of the multitude, usually about the point where N and I would be asking each other “Where’s Ziggy? We haven’t seen him today.”
To see him walking up was always a relief; such was his contribution to our general well-being. Ziggy spoke no English and we very little German, yet somehow we managed to understand each other – because we wanted to.
These are but a few from the cast of thousands – each day a different mix. From Sarria, the part these characters played in our days began to build.