The Italians offered me earplugs once we were settled in the hotel room. They admitted that they snored, and rather loudly at that. In hindsight, this was great training for what was to ensue on the Camino. Had I read any sort of Camino guidebook prior to arrival, earplugs would have been my first purchase.
They were up early and headed out before I was dressed. Another drill exercise for me, as most Pilgrims would be up and on the road far earlier than these friendly Italians. Not comprehending the necessity to get out of the gate quickly, I fiddled around the room and slowly meandered to the station to catch the small local train that delivered most pilgrims to the Camino starting line in St. Jean Pied du Port (‘at the foot of the Pass’), in the Pyrenees foothills.
St. Jean is a little French border town that is picture perfect, with narrow streets, a citadel atop a hill and the traditional village church. This was proud, autonomous Basque country with boundaries extending into Spain. The Basque have their own distinct culture and language.
There was an official pilgrim office where one purchased a Camino passport and the customary shell worn to denote Pilgrim status. The shell signifies all the Camino routes, ultimately leading to Santiago and unites all treading these routes. The passport was required to gain access to a Camino hostel bed.
A gratis scale hung from the ceiling to weigh-in pilgrim backpacks. Recommended weight was less than 10% body weight, or for most around 6 to 8 kg. Was that with a full water bottle or empty? I emptied my water bottle in attempts to drop more kilos. Fail!
A friend had recommended a hostel near the Pilgrim office. Luckily I chanced a bed by default after a late cancellation. Score! This hostel embraced the Pilgrims as family and encouraged them to set an intention prior to commencing one’s personal Camino.
Dinnertime started with a round-the-circle introduction and sharing of one’s reason to do the Camino. Motivations ranged from gaining insight, helping with big decisions, working through a relationship’s end, to processing the death of a loved one, etc. At minimum ten countries were represented. A few bi-lingual Pilgrims assisted with translations. A toast (Salut!) of hearty port followed.
A Hollander requested a moment of silence for those that died in WWII, as done in his country annually on this night, May 4th, at 8 pm. This solemn minute only added to the gravity of the venture to be started in the am.
This was no longer just a very long walk, but a possibility to transform one’s thought process and personal philosophy, should the challenge be taken. Gratitude started to swell at such a precious opportunity. Ruby slippers were not on my feet, but I felt I was heading for my ‘Oz’ and the Camino was my yellow brick road.
Lights were out by 10 pm. As my head rested on the pillow, which earlier had a carefully laid towel and name card upon it, I listened to the quiet settling noises of the mix of countries represented in this dormitory room. A bonding started that night which would continue throughout the Camino, be it those present or those met en route. Our shells and credentials linked all, whether desired or not.
What was I really embarking on in the morning?