I was waiting on my friends when a middle-aged woman strolled into the bar and ordered a red wine. This being Spain, the seating arrangement in the establishment was rather hectic — I was already perched on the edge of the fireplace — so she borrowed a chair from another Spanish couple and set it down close to me. Inspired by my rather lonely and melancholic temperament at the moment, I ordered a beer and slumped back to my place at the fireplace. I was perfectly content to stare at the painting of the Basque shepherd on the far wall and compare his anxious indirect gaze to the same gaze with which the Basque man who sat beneath the painting looked at his wife. The woman, however had other plans; after I sat back down she said hello and asked how I was doing, in English, thankfully. Grateful for non-painting-related human contact, I slid over on the fireplace next to her like I was Tom Cruise sliding in his socks in Risky Business. Her name was Pauline, a retired lawyer from Amsterdam who worked as a hospitaler in the local Albergue. Forty-five minutes later, after meeting her husband Ben — who bought me another round — I had made two more friends. This, Pauline assured me, “Is the spirit of the Camino, we are always glad to share what we have and share our experiences.” Even with the Basque man hung on the wall staring anxiously at us, I was sure that I had tapped into something honest — something human.
Standing in the church in St. Jean Pied de Port, it was hard not to feel the power of the Camino pressing down on you. The gothic arches soared upward, bringing us towards God, while the candles and stone altar anchored us to the Earth. Staring like this, at the grandeur facilitated by the church, something seeps into your bones and draws you into the Camino. We want to get started, to get walking towards our destination, towards Santiago. There is a certain je n'est sais quois in the churches here. A connection with the earth, or with God, or something that touches us spiritually.
At dinner we made friends with two other pilgrims named, Jose-Manuel and just Jose. Although, they only spoke Spanish, we didn't let language be a barrier for a new friendship. They shared their purpose for pursuing the Camino. Jose-Manuel had been recently divorced, and was seeking himself along the Camino. He was looking for clarity and a new purpose. Jose has been on the Camino multiple times, simply for the adventure and to meet new people from different cultures. He told us that the Camino is not only one culture, but a mixture of many different cultures, so we will see different faces. And although they all may look different, they are still pilgrims. Later, we were blessed to be given a private tour by the Father of the church in Roncesvalles, who told us that "in this walk, you have no masks, you are just who you are, no longer defined by society, you are just a pilgrim.
One thing that stays with me as I write this, and will stay with me for a long time, is the feeling that I got at the start of the Camino. We passed pilgrims hiking through town with their packs latched to their back, the "pilgrim's meal" served at every restaurant, and the golden arrows on the ground pointing the way towards Santiago. It truly felt like we were sharing an experience with all of the people that we passed. The air was alight, buzzing with excitement for the days to come and the road ahead. I was moved when I realized, truly saw, that the pilgrim's road is not lonely, it is filled with hopes and emotions of everyone on it. We all may move separately along the path, but we experience the power of the Camino together.