arriving at the albergue in irun i experience the first sweet, simple taste of what the next few weeks are going to be like. i experience the daily process of finding the albergue, leaving my boots at the front door, getting a stamp in my passport, paying a donation, taking temporary ownership of a bed (top bunk or bottom?). i get the sleep sheet and my sleeping bag out……..by the time the lights go out at 10 pm, i am tucked up in bed. my first night inhabiting the new, strange space of the pilgrim is exciting, and i lie in bed, eyes open, listening to the various snores, snorts and rustling sounds of my fellow caminantes as they wander through dreamscapes towards the 6.30 a.m wake up call. first, a cheery “buenos dias!!” from the hospitalero as he pokes his head in the door and switches the lights on. he then begins to play celtic music on speakers throughout the albergue, calling us out of our warm beds, ready to march. from this, a commotion emerges, as people get ready to start the walk, some for the first time, some continuing on, having already started in france.
during this activity, and in between stuffing things into my backpack, i converse with people, and before too long i have found the first of my walking partners- selke- a german university student.
….selke is half way through a degree in medicine and is doing the camino because she is considering dropping out and needs some time and space to think……
as we leave the albergue and take our first steps in the early morning light, another pilgrim, pascale, joins us and we begin to walk, looking for the yellow arrows that are about to become such a fundamental part of this walk. my backpack feels like a slab of lead on my back and it is an american pilgrim by the name of don who kindly helps me adjust the straps. when he does, it makes all the difference in the world.
…lesson number one: make sure your backpack is strapped close to your body and above your hips so that you can ease the load on your shoulders…
seeing irun behind me in the knowledge that i will only be moving forward is reassuring because i have now started and can already feel momentum building. other pilgrims move up from behind, pausing momentarily to call out “buen camino!!!” before pushing ahead. at this very early stage of walking, i notice a certain competitiveness emerging in my mind, one that eggs me on to keep up with the others. of course, this is not what it is about for me in my heart of hearts…it is about following my own rhythm, honouring my own pace.
looking around me on that first day, as we walk through thousand-shades-of-green forests, a wave of gratitude sweeps me away, breaking open my heart, allowing the green to flood in. the terrain is challenging, up and down, and although my body feels alive and oh-so-happy to be moving, i also feel that i am yet to gain strength in my legs, in my back. but the will is there, firing me on. i know strength will come, all i need to do is keep putting one foot in front of the other and breathing.
the guidebook tells me that on the first day i could walk to san sebastian, but i am wary of the inertia that this might invite. widespread use of guidebooks means that waves of pilgrims will congregate accordingly at certain points, bubbles of people moving towards santiago. i want to hop from one bubble to the next to stop stagnation from creeping in and to keep the experience as dynamic as possible. so, when i arrive at pasaia (about 10 kms from san sebastian), and i see that there is an albergue next to a church on the hill above this gorgeous seaside fishing town, i decide the stay there the night. that afternoon, the cloudy skies open up to reveal a gloriously infinite blue. i fall into conversation with a dutch pilgrim, mandy, who is walking with her husband and son, and we spend the most divine afternoon sitting in the sun, feet on the grass, drinking cold beer and chatting about life…….a brilliant first day of walking………….