We were huddled under a bus shelter in Paris, barely escaping a downpour and frantically searching a departures board when we met our first pilgrim. His voice was nearly as loud as his florescent orange backpack.
“Ye goin’ te Bayonne,” he inquired with a lilting Irish accent.
“Yes!” we smiled relieved that we weren’t alone in our search for the right platform.
Before long, we got to chatting. Like us, he was on his way to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to start the Camino de Santiago. Also, he was Danish, not Irish. After years of working in Cuba with an international crowd, he admitted that his accent baffled even the most adept globe trotter.
Yet his country of origin was hardly our biggest surprise. He soon admitted that he hated tiny Spanish towns. “They’re all the same,” he waved dismissively, “once you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all.” He much preferred big cities.
Jakob and I looked at each other with confusion. Why spend five weeks walking through rural Spain, munching bocadillos in tiny taverns, and sleeping in parish monasteries if you’d rather be in Barcelona?
Seeing our puzzled expressions, he continued: “well I’m not planning on taking the full four-five weeks, or whatever the book says. I figure if I can do it in two, why not?”
We didn’t know how to lecture a casual bus stop acquaintance on the true meaning of a pilgrimage, so we smiled and nodded. If he wanted to rush through a potentially life changing experience and eliminate a bucket list item, then that was his business. Realizing that we were on very different paths to the same place, I began looking forward to the social solitude of a bus seat, where I would no longer be under the obligation to continue this awkward small talk. Meanwhile, Jakob was all too eager to pry further into the motivations of our first pilgrim acquaintance.
Jakob got his wish, since two hours later, we still hadn’t set off for Bayonne. We were now standing in a small circle awaiting hourly updates from an overly casual bus operator. Our tiny group had acquired two additional members, a young woman from Clermont Ferrand, and another from Calais. I have no idea why these two decided to join a grumpy Irish/Dane, and a couple of tired Canadians, but they stuck with us like they had been assigned as our translators. They were the ones who informed us that the bus delay was due to a broken rearview mirror.
By the time we piled onto the bus, it was midnight, the Dane was singing a half-hearted rendition of Micheal Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” I was searching for my ear plugs, and Jakob was already mostly asleep. We all settled in for the ten hour night bus, eager to leave behind rainy Paris and disembark in the sunny south. We bid each other goodnight and goodbye, sure that with our opposing ideas about pilgrimage, our paths were unlikely to cross again.
Fifteen days and 286kms later we caught sight of a familiar face in a busy Burgos street. It was no surprise really, after sharing bathrooms and bedrooms, tables and trails with hundreds of strangers over the past two weeks, almost any face could look familiar. But Jakob has a better memory for these sorts of things.
“Hey stranger,” he called out.
The man looked up casually and smiled, “well if it isn’t the Canadians.”
“Weren’t you planning on being in Santiago by now?” I thought to myself. He was a good 500km behind schedule.
He didn’t wait for my condescending questions, but offered his own summary of the past two weeks. As it turns out, he couldn’t get enough of the Spanish countryside! He even planned on coming back to spend more time in all of the picturesque little villages. He had also taken the time to upgrade his gear. He invested in a higher quality backpack, picked-up a sleeping bag, and shipped unnecessarily bulky items to his destination. Jakob and I were astonished. We thought we had recognized the pessimistic Dane from a distance, but once we were up close, we realized he was a different man entirely.