Two pairs of socks pulled on over my iodine soaked and plastered feet. Runners stepped into swiftly – the faster I do it means the less pain I must endure. Laces looped and knotted up. Backpack thrown over my sunburnt back and clipped into place. Poncho and jumper hanging over the straps. Cap pulled down over my face. Step one, step two…..walk.
213km is our aim. We have seven days before our flight takes off back to Dublin, with or without us on board. We are two twenty-one year old girls with no religious motivations. We will walk the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage from Porto in Portugal to Santiago in Spain.
Here are some thoughts from the road.
Step one thousand, step one thousand and one….
Up at half five or six every morning to walk out into the rain. Greeted by rolling green hills, orange tiles, ceramic paths, terracotta flower pots, beautiful ruins, bags of cut up fish, overgrown plants engulfing Portugal’s attempt to modernise, cracking tarmac, beautiful architecture, wrinkled and tanned faces. This is Portugal. No phones, no wifi, thinking, laughing, getting lost, finding your way, the constant smiles from strangers, no makeup, no hair dryer, no hair straightener, no mask to hide behind. No distractions. This is me.
This little adventure of ours is a stepping stone into real expeditions, one with a safety net of yellow arrows and hostels to cocoon you if you panic or mess up. My walking companion Eimear lacks a sense of direction and map skills, I’m only a little better. It is a taste of the realities of what it could be like in the real world of adventure. Yet I cannot but be grateful for her presence, I would be lost in all other senses of the word, without her. Then it is the choice of tent or hostel – one room housing 40+ people, which looks like a workhouse or a hospital in the middle of a warzone or the solitude of a tent which we would have to carry on our backs. We opt for hostels this time. To everyone around we are ‘the crazy Irish girls’. In xxx -large rain jackets which we purchased off a mechanic on day 2, carrying no sleeping bags, getting excited by different flavoured callipo ice pops ,carrying tiny backpacks, wearing runners instead of hiking boots, shorts and t-shirts from Primark, no walking sticks, singing all the time and walking fast, really fast. We are here to wing it and succeed. We have no profound reason for coming. We just want to walk.
Each evening we enter a hostel full of older men walking around in their white cotton panties, we sprint to get into the group showers first so we can bar the door shut before other naked ladies arrive. Eimear and I are no exception to the Irish fear of nakedness , we time grabbing our clothes so we do not glimpse each other in the nude – it is synchronised showering. After the shower we massage our heel calluses and calves, thread and bandage our blisters and climb onto the plastic covered mattresses to try to fall asleep before the snoring opera commences.
Sometimes we find ourselves lapsing into a comfortable silence, taking pleasure in the simple things. In the ache of every step, in the noise pressing in on us from the constant cock crow, to the church bells chiming, to the click, click of others walking sticks. We embrace the utter joy of taking off our runners and letting our feet breath , watching them spread out and reshape like the scientist in ‘Xmen: First Class’ who has more than five toes but squishes them into a normal pair of shoes every day.
On day 4 we cover 43km by accident, as a result of some bad directions and our lack of Portuguese. It was too much. The last 5km I was a hobbling mess, nursing six blisters on my left foot and four on my right. We cross into Spain and hardly register it. That day we had walked over a mountain in the first 18km, stood in a stream in our runners to sooth our aching feet, shed a few tears and called home. When all seemed lost, I receive a tweet from a friend of mine – ‘congratulations on completing your first marathon!’ – Boom, step ten thousand, step ten thousand and one…onwards we go.
Bon Dia, Bon Dia, Bon Dia, Bom Camino… the people here have wowed me. There was the girl on the metro who rang her friend to translate directions for us. The boy who asked us if we wanted to sail along the coast of Spain with him. The guy that saw us pushing ourselves slowly up a hill, passed us in his red van, slowed down, did a u-turn, came back and passed us a hot french baguette out the window of his car. The man who gave us two shells – the symbol of the Camino. The old women waving from her patio and blowing a kiss. Two Americans – father and son doing the pilgrimage together. Adam the wise Polish legend who is on his seventh Camino. The two Germans Christine and Jan each here for personal reasons who have joined our entourage and together we four will reach Santiago.
Eimear is gaining speed while I am starting to slow down. But we are a team, and the slower pace means we get a chance to appreciate a country, it’s easy going lifestyle and its people. Day 6 – 32km. We discover a little hot springs fountain – Eimear takes off her shoes, she has tan line for the first time ever just above where he sock sits… it turns out to be dirt. Apparently if you drink the water of the fountain you will be married within the year. Christine proceeds to knock it back. Me, Eimear and Jan take a rushed step backwards. We take ninja pictures along the way, have light saver fights with the walking sticks, I pull the petals from the foxgloves that line our path. Each morning we rise and make porridge for breakfast, the four of us functioning like a family, sharing everything, taking turns, rubbing in sun cream and fetching water.
The last day has pounced upon us, one last 32km stroll. We take it slow, stopping for lunch at an outdoor bar in the middle of nowhere, a Swedish man plays the accordion, there are men letting off fireworks in the day time, I am drinking coca cola and eating my last Spanish omelette. The four of us walk into Santiago. No fuss is made, no big celebrations, a group hug and then we get ice-cream and sit on the ground in front of the cathedral. It is sunny for once. Around us others celebrate their finish.
We did it.
One lesson learned.
I can do this. I can do anything.