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Camino Frances (Part 2) : The Hills are alive...

Updated: Jul 13, 2019

It was the 25th April 2017, the day I met my first "Camino Angel". Marco from Amsterdam, Holland were were both overnighting at the Albergue du Pelerin in St Jean Pied de Port. We struck up a conversation while having a cigarette (yes I still smoked then). Marco told me how he had spent months preparing for this, training on hills and climbing stairs in and around Amsterdam. He was lean and looked very fit as opposed to my curvy (lets not say plump or overweight) build. I had not trained as such. I had done one (yes ONE) 5 day hike totalling 60 kms and then many short trail walks in and around Cape Town. My plan was to "slow stroll" the Camino doing around 10 - 12 kms (6-7 miles) a day. I had no time limit as opposed to Marco who needed to finish by the end of May. So here we were, the 'very well prepared pilgrim' and the 'unprepared pilgrim', the 'time-constrained pilgrim' and the 'time-unconstrained pilgrim', two people more opposite you wouldn't find. #walkingthecamino #pilgrim #caminoangel #thefrenchway #pyrenees

That evening I was scouting the town for a place to have dinner when the crowd from the Coach beckoned me to join them. I don't remember all the names save for Suzanne and Lola from the USA, but there were about 12 of us all around the table, sharing and chatting while savouring French cuisine. This was my introduction to mealtimes on the Camino. For those who know me well will know that at the core of my fabric is family and this meal was familiar, as familiar as a family meal.

I awoke early on the morning of the 26th to the shuffling of pilgrims trying quietly to get dressed, packed and set off for their journey. This was a sound I would come to love and hate. Hate most of the time, as there are many pilgrims who simply don't have consideration for others or who just simply can't move about quietly. Then love because when the journey is over and you wake on that morning that you no longer need to walk, it's that sound you miss most.

After a communal breakfast provided by the Albergue, I set off on my Camino. I was excited and anxious. There was a strenuous 8.9 kms (5.5 miles) to Orisson ahead of me, pretty much uphill all the way (and oh how I just love the hills - not!). I had decided to send my back pack ahead to the Albergue at Orisson and just carry my water and a warm jacket in a light weight day pack I had packed for city sightseeing along the way.

Walking out of St Jean Pied de Port I heard someone call my name. It was Marco. I thought he had left much earlier and was long gone. So we set off together on what was to become a fantastic two day walk over the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles. This is referred to as the Napoleon Way. Marco very soon realised that I was not using my walking poles correctly and offered to show me how to. Using the poles correctly made my uphill struggle so much easier, it literally took 30% of the weight off my feet. He then also showed me how to tackle the uphill.... by zig zagging. While you may in the end walk further, its not as steep an elevation as when walking directly up the hill. My Camino Angel had taught me two critical things that would make my whole Camino more comfortable. Most importantly it resulted in me loving the uphills where in the past I avoided that kind of hike.

We chatted and talked, Marco sharing his life story and me so easily sharing mine. I had spent my whole corporate life being told that I needed to listen more. Here on this Camino, there was no difficulty in doing that. I found myself listening, really listening like I had never before, leaning into his story, feeling his pain and allowing him the space to talk. It was easy to listen and surprisingly just as easy to talk. There is something about talking on the Camino that is raw, honest and so freeing. It doesn't happen with everyone, just with a few 'Camino Angels' (as I came to call them) you encounter along the way. It's a combination of the walking, having a good listener and connecting with someone where there is a total absence of judgement or criticism. I found myself opening up at a deeply emotional level. A level I guarded and protected for most of my life - it was surprisingly liberating.

The walk (or shall I say climb?) to Orisson ended up being 12,5 kms (7.7 miles) instead of 8,9 kms (5.5 miles) and it took me about 5 hours with many (and I mean many) stops. Fortunately there was the most incredible views to photograph and enjoy. I was so glad I did not have to carry my heavy back pack - it would have killed me.

I had been told that a stay over at Orisson was a must. That it was where you would meet your 'Camino Family'. This was exactly the case. Jean Jacques (owner of the Albergue) prepared an evening meal for all pilgrims. Seated at 3 long tables (there must have been around 60 pilgrims at the meal), you had to stand up and introduce yourself and state the country you were from. Yes - many of these pilgrims I bumped into along the way and some I never saw again. But the core of my Camino family came from those around the table that evening. I will introduce you to them in the blogs to come.

Marco and I set off the next morning and continued chatting and experiencing the Pyrenees together. There were many pilgrims on the route, some walking at pace and some strolling as we were doing. I had expected Marco to move on but he stayed with me slow strolling to Roncesvalles. We had amazing conversations.

We arrived at around 2pm having successfully navigated a very steep downhill off the Pyrenees. It had started snowing just as we approached the Monastery and the world around me slowly transformed into a winter wonderland. A perfect ending to a perfect day.

We checked in and I was subjected to my first Municipal Albergue. Although it had recently been refurbished, the floors (and there were three) were a maze of double bunks accommodating some 100 pilgrims per floor. I settled into my bunk, took a shower and found the laundry where I washed my clothes from the day before. This would become a routine each day along the Camino.

Late that afternoon, Marco found me to say his goodbye, he needed to move on and get back to his plan of 30+ kms (18 miles) per day. As we hugged, we cried. He thanked me for showing him how to slow down and 'smell the roses', how to stop and notice small things along the path and turn your head to take in the scenery. It is very humbling when someone shares with you the lessons you taught them and personally receive their thanks. Very humbling. I would never see Marco again. He did check in on me via WhatsApp from time to time and sent me his picture in front of the Cathedral in Santiago when he finished.

That evening the communal meal was with a whole new set of pilgrims. Anibal, a Mexican journalist stood out for me as I would see him again a few times and then walk a distance with him too.

I had conquered the Pyrenees! I went to sleep with a very happy heart, meditating to drown out the strangest of noises of a room full of pilgrims .... this was going to take some getting used to.

In the morning I would set off, carrying my back pack and without booking ahead (yes this is the way most pilgrims roll and I wanted to attempt it).

Not even knowing how far I would walk....