Off to a rough start
We woke up the next morning chilly but refreshed from our night of sleeping under the stars. We came into the main house where our sweet host had hot coffee and breakfast waiting for us. She fretted and fussed over Andy, making sure he got plenty to eat. She was the first of countless motherly figures to do this on our trip.
It’s a heartwarming thing, being shown love and generosity through the language of food.
The other pilgrims from the hostel were headed out already, anxious to start their own journeys. They seemed so prepared. Like they knew exactly what they were doing and where they were going.
Our generous host offered to make us sack lunches but insisted that we get on our way by 8am. We obliged, even though we didn’t really know what we were supposed to do when we left.
Since we arrived late in St. Jean the day before, we took the day to take care of our pilgrim duties. We registered at the pilgrim office and got our first stamps in our pilgrim passports. We also picked out scallop shells to hang from our packs.
The pilgrim passport, or credencial, was for collecting stamps, or sellos along the way. This would prove that you went where you said you did. It also made for a lovely, hard-earned souvenir at the end.
The scallop shell is the symbol of the Camino. It is said that pilgrims carried it because it was a versatile tool–it could be used as a spoon for eating or as a cup for drinking. When someone saw this shell, they knew the person carrying it was a pilgrim, or peregrino.
Receiving my first stamps and my scallop shell at the pilgrim office felt akin to receiving my diploma. Here are the tools for the next journey in my life. Good journey, or buen camino to you!
The volunteers at the pilgrim office also gave us an updated list of contact info for all the accommodations along the way.
These resources had little meaning to me. I didn’t understand why I would need a list of accommodations, phone numbers, or sleeping capacities.
Andy bought a guidebook before we left but we hadn’t read beyond the “getting to St. Jean” section. I had downloaded the app guides on my phone before we left, but I hadn’t opened them.
Who makes reservations? Who plans ahead?
Not these pilgrims!
Why would we want to know what to expect?
Why spoil the surprise?
And how hard could it be, anyway? It’s a well-worn, marked path that thousands of other people were walking with us.
Can’t we just…follow them? What’s there to figure out?
I didn’t consider that things like accommodations and elevation changes would dictate how many miles you walked each day. In my mind, you walk as far as you want and then stop when you feel tired.
I would soon learn how wrong I was.
Later that day…
During our day in St. Jean, we did some exploring with our packs on. It was at this point that we finally realized that our packs were way too heavy.
Like, unsustainably heavy.
Walking around St. Jean’s cobbled streets was exhausting and painful. We knew we would get stronger as we walked, but starting out this way seemed like a bad idea.
We made our way to the pilgrim hostel, or albergue to claim our spot for an actual bed while we tried to figure out how to solve our heavy pack issue. After we went inside I realized I left my insulated water bottle under the bench outside. When I went to retrieve it, it was gone.
Less than a week on this adventure and already I’ve lost something. Not off to a good start.
Andy had found a pilgrim forum run by a man in Santiago, the final destination of the Camino. He offered a storage service where you could ship ahead any items you didn’t want to carry.
So we sought out the post office and the (very kind and patient) woman behind the counter helped us get a box and label.
We sheepishly took it back to the albergue to try to discern important from unimportant gear. You would think we would have been able to do this before we flew across the ocean.
But it didn’t have meaning until that moment.
So we packed the box until it was bulging and handed over the shipping cost, our penance for foolish packing choices. We were relieved at our (relatively) lighter loads.
Still, my pack weighed about 30 lbs and Andy’s weighed about 40 lbs. But this would have to do.
It was so hard to navigate in St. Jean without knowing any French. I couldn’t wait to cross into Spain where I could at least attempt some Spanish.
Spanish felt like my blankie, something familiar that could comfort and soothe me. My Spanish skills weren’t great, but I would have plenty of opportunities to practice.
After dinner, we settle into our bunks, surrounded by strangers. It feels a little like summer camp for adults.
There is a tangible buzz of excitement, restlessness. But there is no talk or sense of community among the pilgrims. Would it always be like this? This isn’t what I had pictured, but maybe this is just one more item on the long list of things I was unprepared for.
People are checking their gear (for what? I wonder), donning sleep masks and earplugs, preparing for an early morning.
We went to bed excited to begin the Camino, but anxious about the unknown.