How often do you know the exact condition of your friends’ feet?
Well I do.
Louise has three blisters on one big toe and a few on the rest.
Dave has a couple of blisters that keep coming back because he always cuts the badges too small.
Marg is blister free (and we hate her for it).
Anita’s got a few sore spots, but she has magic foot wool that keeps the blisters at bay.
Jakob has cracks in his heels..
My feet are scarred too. The topmost layer of skin on my back left heel is replaced with silicone. My big left toe has erected a temporary wall in attempts to resolve recent conflicts with my second toe and my big right toe has seen more needle punctures than a puppy with a porcupine habit. So why the battered feet?
About a week ago, Jakob and I started a pilgrimage, so our feet are showing the natural wear and tear of about 163km of walking. We started our trek in the picturesque village of St. Jean-Pied-de-Port in the foothills of the French Pyrennes.
I have to admit, 163km ago I didn’t have the best attitude. I was pretty certain of 4 things: (1) the trail would be too busy, (2) I would make few genuine friends, (3) I would grow weary of touristy misrepresentations of medieval life, and (4) I would overall find the experience bearable, but certainly not life changing. Jakob would call me a pessimist. Of course, I know that I’m just a realist. Now after a week on the trail, I am reporting the very real fact that I was wrong on 3 of my 4 predictions. Let’s see if you can guess which ones.
No more than a few kms from the start, Jakob and I trekked past a group of three pilgrims. They were blaring music out of their compact speaker and struggling a bit with the steep incline. Just out of earshot we began a somewhat self-righteous critique of “those people.” “Why not just talk to each other?” “Who gives you the right to set the soundtrack for everyone?” “Why can’t you just wear headphones?” We quickly forgot their faces and remembered only the stereotype.
A few kms later, another group of three pilgrims passed us as we sipped water. We chatted briefly. Aussie? Kiwi? Jakob was sure they were from New Zealand. I shrugged my shoulders. A few more kms and they were snacking as we passed. A few more and we were waving at their familiar faces once more and commenting on the beautiful views over the valley bottom.
“Where are you staying tonight?”
“See you at supper then.”
“Yes, see you at supper!”
And just like that, we had our first pilgrim date!
The end of our first day’s hike came quickly and before long, Jakob and I were huddled at a rough wooden table dealing cards and rehashing our day. A short woman with a purposeful walk entered the common space of our hostel/cabin.
“We need to build fire,” she stated sternly.
Jakob and I glanced at each other. Usually we are quick to claim that we are capable Canadians, but at the moment neither of us felt compelled to chop damp wood and kindle reluctant flames. We played dumb and continued our card game. The woman left, apparently deterred by our disinterest. To our surprise, she returned moments later with an armload of wood and explained that she found it under a shelter, protected from the rain. Dropping the logs on the floor, she looked expectantly at Jakob, the only man in the room. Jakob sighed and set down his cards.
“There’s no hatchet. No axe,” he gestured a swinging motion to add emphasis.
“We cut with knife,” the woman explain, hurrying to the kitchen.
I followed, surely she couldn’t be serious. The elderly woman examined the knife drawer with a practiced eye. She selected a large cleaver and handed it to Jakob. His face gave away only the briefest moment of confusion before he got to work peeling thin layers of wood fibres away from the log. The woman shook her head and demonstrated. Smaller strips. She got to work immediately emptying the ash from the fireplace while I hovered helplessly. An elderly German man entered the room, taking in the scene, he dropped his pack and offered his fireplace expertise. Half an hour later, Jakob and the German fellow were busy building an elaborate flammable structure. There were few words exchanged, but a clear master and apprentice hierarchy emerged instantly, with Jakob seeking a nod of approval before placing most of his pieces. I sat at the long wooden table with the project foreman, Lubmila from Latvia.
“I grew up under the Soviet Union,” she explained seriously, “I was taught that when you see an opportunity to improve your life, you must take it.”
I nodded gravely.
“Here I saw opportunity,” she cracked a smile and we both began to laugh.
A few long minutes later, the fire was roaring and we all cheered. The German gentlemen stood up, brushed of his hands, and summarized succinctly:
“Now women happy.”
Jakob nodded in agreement and the French pilgrims upstairs shuffled down towards the glowing common room, bringing all of their socks and laundry to dry by the flames.
That evening we walked the 1km up to the next hostel for dinner. After a quick scan of the dinning hall we spotted a few familiar faces and invited ourselves to join them. Marg, Dave, and Anita introduced themselves. Yes Jakob was right, they were from New Zealand. After some friendly interrogations we found out that Marg and Dave are on a year long trip around the world, celebrating a “significant birthday” and enjoying some empty-nester freedom. Anita is an Aussie turned Kiwi and a close friend of theirs with an equally bold sense of adventure.
That first night, we probably should have given them fair warning: you won’t be able to shake us off. We should have told them that we would likely interrupt our travel schedule if it meant staying on the same itinerary as them. We might even slow our pace or delay a departure. Upon arriving in a new village we might even ask anxiously if any other pilgrims have seen three Kiwis looking somewhat lost or lonely.
“Oh you’ve seen them?” we might say, “yes, they are looking so sad because they have misplaced their Canadians.”
On our second day on the trail we traversed the Pyrenees and rescued a damsel in distress or a jomfru i nød (a mermaid in need). We had just made the steep descent into Spain and were dusty and exhausted, waiting to check-in to the hostel. A lone pilgrim ahead of us seemed to be having some trouble. She had no cash and there was no ATM in town.
“This is going to be a problem,” she mumbled under her breath.
The clerk looked sympathetic, but remained resolute. He suggested that she begin the 4km walk to the next town.
Jakob leaned over and whispered, “we should pay for her.”
I gave him a skeptical look. Twelve euros is a lot to just throw around. Jakob ignored my hesitation and marched towards the counter.
“We’ll cover her stay,” he offered nonchalantly.
She spun around, surprise and gratitude written across her face.
“You need dinner too don’t you?”
She hesitated and looked down, “yah.”
“No worries! We got this.”
Her name is Louise, she is 24 years old, she is from Denmark, she’s got a crazy sense of humour, she’s served in Afghanistan, and she’s barely left our side for the last five days. For the first few kilometres there were some indentured servitude jokes, but even after the money was settled up, we still couldn’t seem to part ways. At this point we rarely make decisions around food, accommodation, foot care, or travel without consulting her. The deal works something like this: Louise makes sure we don’t starve, Jakob makes sure we don’t get lost, and I keep everyone well informed with useless facts and inspirational quotes from the guide book. Needless to say, we are all quite content with the arrangement.
A couple of days ago our camino family, Dave, Marg, Anita, Louise, Jakob, and I were inching past the 20km mark for the day when Dave pulled out a compact bluetooth stereo and offered to lift our spirits with a little country music and rock and roll. My eyes widened as I put it all together. Those hooligans blaring music the first day were our beloved Kiwis. We laughed awkwardly and admitted to our snobby prejudice that first day. The Kiwis seemed pleased to have rocked our boat a little. So we turned up the volume, picked up our tired feet, and sang along to George Ezra’s “Barcelona.”
The only prejudicial assumption we regretted more was the time we ran into our Latvian grandma again and she gave us another one of her classic bossy pieces of advice.
“You must skip down the hills,” she stepped one foot in front of the other and demonstrated an awkward lope.
We smiled and laughed, immediately dismissing her suggestion as the crazy ramblings of an exhausted pilgrim.
“No, no,” she insisted, “I am not joking. It is really better to skip. I fly down the hills. Passing everyone and they ask me how I do it. I tell them I skip down the hills.”
The next time our knees were straining and our shins were aching from a restrained downward descent, we heard Lubmila’s stern words in our heads and decided that if anyone knew how to ease suffering, it would be someone who survived the Soviet Union. So we gave it a shot. Louise tried it first. Then Jakob. Then I joined in. We’re now known as the crazy pilgrims who run down all the hills and I have no doubt everyone else secretly wishes we would fall flat on our faces. Still, at every opportunity we try to convince others to convert to our skipping ways. Dave and Marg are the most recent converts. Anita is next.
While our camino family is pretty tight (Jakob and Dave bought matching shirts and have been known to call each other “young bull” and “papa bull,” we do have room for a few extended family members including a couple of Britts, a few other Canadians, and some Aussies. We call it the Commonwealth plus Denmark. In a typical day we each leave at our own pace. Jakob, Louise, and I get up at the crack of dawn and usually stop for breakfast about 5km down the road. Just as we are finishing our café con leches and hot chocolate, a couple other Commonwealth pilgrims are bound to stumble in. Of course, we stay and chat and just as we are finally strapping our backpacks on a few more familiar pasty faces will likely find their way to our table. It is in this rhythm of ‘hello’s and ‘see you later’s that we pass most of our days. In the evening we track each other down in some sort of central square, bring out the wine, and munch on pinxos (basque version of tapas). Even the bustling city of Pamplona started to feel like a small town when we strolled past bars full of familiar looking pilgrims and eventually managed to gather the whole Commonwealth gang together.
Each morning when we head out there is a brief moment of tension. How far are we going? Where will we be stopping? What if we loose track of each other? But I have to believe that our paths crossed for a reason, and they are going to stay entangled for as long as they need to be. By the time we do say “good-bye” it will most certainly be a “see you later.”