The Broken

“At first, I was worried there would be a lot of broken people out here,” Marg admitted while sipping a glass of vino tinto under the shade of a bar patio.
At the time, we all laughed and agreed. We were all having more fun than expected. Wasn’t there supposed to be some element of suffering in a pilgrimage?

But then things started breaking.

The first thing to break was Jakob’s phone. We were in San Juan de Ortega. Don’t look it up, I can describe the googlemap view quicker than you can spell the name. Somewhere in the middle of northern Spain there is a church, a bar, and a hostel conveniently located all under the same dilapidated roof. This is San Juan de Ortega. I left Jakob and Louise unattended for no more than 30 minutes and when I returned I discovered three things: Jakob’s iPhone screen was smashed, Louise was slumped over on a bench, and the vending machine specialized in beer. Of course my assumption upon taking in this scene was entirely wrong. The phone smash was an innocent accident and Louise’s was suffering only from a cocktail of asthma medication and muscle relaxants. There was nothing to be done about either mishap, so Jakob cracked open a beer, and Louise took a dignified bench nap in the heart of bustling San Juan. Neither one was as concerned about the unfortunate events as I thought they should be, so after a few minutes, I gave up my panicked attempts at problem solving and sat down on the bench beside them.
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Louise’s situation went from bad to worse. Of course she recovered from her temporary semi-coma, but her muscles and tendons refused to cooperate. Over the next day, her witty trail banter was gradually replaced with the sound of her clicking hip. By the time we hobbled into Burgos (km 285), Louise’s left ankle was also inflamed. It seems bodies like symmetry and if a right hip is in limbo then the left has to sacrifice something as well. After six hours of physiotherapy, Louise still wasn’t trail ready.
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The good news was, Louise wasn’t suffering alone. Only about a week before Burgos, Dave had made some sort of comment about those young kids who wear braces on every joint in their body. “They just need to toughen up,” he said. So when he first started feeling stabbing pain in his shins, there was no way he was going to admit to weakness. Over the next few days, Dave’s trek slowed to a limp and by the time we all reached Burgos, he had no choice but to cuddle up with some icepacks and Netflix for five days. Marg and Anita were all too content to trade their polyester quickdry for some cotton sundresses, while quietly admitting that they needed the break too.

Jakob and I decided to take a rest day in Burgos too. While our bodies rested our minds raced. We couldn’t imagine saying goodbye to our Camino family. Could we laugh without Louise? Could we drink beer without Dave? Could we compose eloquent dinner time poetry without Marg? Could we complain about shitty bar service without Anita?
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Jakob did everything in his power to delay our departure. He complained that his heels hurt. So we bought some foot cream. He complained that his shins hurt. So we bought some shin cream. He complained that MY knees hurt. So I bought some knee cream. After running out of excuses, he had no choice but to crack his head open on the hotel window. So I ran frantically out into the street armed with a google translation of “my husband hit is head. Do you have some ice?”

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After the bleeding had stopped Jakob suggested that this was a sign that we should delay our departure. Why break up the family? I insisted that he suck it up. So the next day we had one final family breakfast and before the tears could water down the orange juice, we hugged goodbye and wished each other a “Buen Camino.”

We managed to cover another 75km before something else broke…or should I say broke out. Somewhere in the endless fields of the Tierra de Campos, Jakob noticed some sort of allergic reaction reddening his arms. As a wife, I of course have inherent medical knowledge, which I assume is some sort of precursor to the natural medical knowledge that comes with motherhood. So I assured Jakob that they looked like hives, probably an allergic reaction to something he had eaten. Which was ridiculous of course, since we had eaten nothing other than chicken, potatoes, bread, eggs, and cheese in the last two weeks.

That evening we stayed in what we assumed must have been an (old?) insane asylum. We had no way of really knowing if pilgrims were the only inhabitants since the fortress like building was an endless maze of halls and doors stretched out over five inadequately lit floors. The nuns gave us each a private room and told us that we had to pay extra if we wanted to share a room. I insisted “no we are married. It’s not a problem,” assuming that we were being slapped with some sort of immorality tax. But they insisted. So I pulled out my big girl sleeping bag, took down the creepy saint portrait on the wall, and assured Jakob that I could fend off ghosts on my own.

That night a cold wind blew into town. The evening air was even colder in the Romanesque stone church where we sat and listened to a beautiful guitar concert.

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While my mind and body relaxed, refreshed by the music, my shins tensed up, resistant to the sudden cold. By the time we made our way back to our asylum accommodation, I could barely hobble. The next morning I rotated and stretched my ankle nervously. Something was not right.

Twelve hours later, we were in the midst of what must be the most purgatorial stretch of the Camino: seventeen killometers with no potable water fountains, scarce shade, and not a single hill or curve in the road to disrupt the horizon. We stopped briefly on the edge of the gravel road to munch on some cheese and bread. Between mouthfuls we muttered half-hearted ‘buen camino’s to the endless ant-like line of pilgrims. At some point, I put my glasses in my pocket and switched to sunglasses to better cope with the desserty conditions. Bending down to pick up my pack, I heard the unmistakable sound of cracking plastic. Sure enough, two hairline cracks ran through the plastic frame of my glasses. My first thought was a vain one: “Shit! I’m totally going to be that nerd with the taped glasses.”
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By the time we reached the village of Calzadilla (km 388), my right ankle had lost almost all range of motion and Jakob’s rash had spread. There were now at least 65 distinct welts covering big patches of both his left and right arms, dotting his legs, and tracing across his waist and chest. It was 10:30 in the morning, we had only walked 17km, but we were ready to call it a day. Jakob explained our maladies at the check-in desk as if we were entering a hospital emergency room. I interrupted just as Jakob began explaining the swollen bites all over his body. No way would they take us in. No way would they willingly invite what must be bed bugs into their hostel. The young man at the counter grimaced.
“I am going to do something special for you,” he began filling out the paperwork, “you can have the disability room. See your rash and leg pain aren’t all bad. Tonight you get a private room.”
We breathed a sigh of relief. Not only were they not going to turn away a cripple and a leper, but they were offering us special treatment.

We spent the rest of the day sitting around a bar table at the edge of town. The scene looked like some sort of sad marathon finish line where the crowds were too tired to cheer, but if you sat down for a drink they were more than willing to commiserate. We watched as familiar faces and people we now counted as friends trickled over the small rise into town.

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It felt like a finale to us. We were able to wish well to our friends who were continuing on that day and we smiled with relief at those who decided to join us for one last night together.
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We technically had time in our travel itinerary for three more full days of walking to cover the remaining 78km into Leon. But we had had enough. We walked the 10km to the next town with bus service and relaxed into the air-conditioned oasis of modern transportation. Out our window we couldn’t help but stare at the long lines of pilgrims struggling under the hot sun and the weight of poorly adjusted packs. I couldn’t believe how miserable they all looked. Hadn’t we all chosen this path? Wasn’t this supposed to be fun? No, not exactly fun. I guess it was supposed to be healing. Yes, healing. Because we’re all a bit more broken than we’d like to think.

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The Pessimist

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.IMG_7415

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.
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The Joyful

He was sitting on the edge of the highway when I saw him. Cars sped by, but he was motionless. His heavy black robes fell like curtains over his folded knees and a single scallop shell hung from his neck. A wide brimmed hat hid most of his serene face. Must be from an ancient monastic order, I thought to myself, probably doesn’t speak English.

Sitting outside a pizzeria, the cloaked figure appeared again, walking briskly this time. My curiosity got the better of me and I wanted to catch his attention. Do I smile? Do I wave? Do I dare to say words that he certainly won’t understand? He smiled and a hundred wrinkles creased his face. I smiled too, assuming that this was as far as our communication could go. He nodded and raised his hands to his chest, bowing briefly in a respectful namaste. My hands fumbled in confusion. Who is this smiling monk man? What religious order does he follow? What country does he come from? How many Caminos has he walked? In what God does he believe? His bare feet slapped the cobblestones as he strode away. Each sole marked with the colours of the earth.

At the garden gate, at the place were we would stay that night, I saw him again. He was kneeling in the grass, playing the part of a masseur for an aching pilgrim. I reached for my phone to capture the bizarre scene. He looked up and smiled. My hand retreated from my pocket, embarrassed to have even considered snapping a candid shot of someone so sacred.

“Five euros for a massage,” another pilgrim explained, “only five euros and he will take away all your aches and pains.” I watched from a distance, still unsure how to ask all the questions I wanted answered. To those who weren’t alarmed at the sight of a grinning monk, the deal was too good to refuse. So my husband laid down on the grass and took his chances on the monk massage. I heard him tell a bit about our life. He spoke quickly, like he would to someone who spoke English everyday. So I got up from my observer’s seat and pulled a lawn chair up close. Like a swim coach overseeing a meet, I leant over my knees and interrogated the masseur monk. He smiled from his place on the grass, his palms pressed into my husband’s shoulders.

“I’m from California,” he said, in a voice forty years younger than his face.
“What sort of monk are you,” I cut to the chase.
“I’m a joyful monk,” he explained, “if someone asked me: ‘Are you a Christian?’ I would say ‘no.’ If someone asked me: ‘Are you a Buddhist?’ I would say ‘no.’ Still yet, if someone asked me: ‘Are you a Christian?’ I would say ‘yes.’ And if someone asked me: ‘Are you a Buddhist?’ I would say ‘yes.’” He laughed and looked up at my face expectantly. Clearly I wasn’t the first curious pilgrim to cross his path.

“Which religious texts have you read?” I pressed on, aiming for a straighter answer.
Without hesitation he rambled off an assortment of major religious texts. Pausing for a second he added, “none of the Jewish stuff though.”
I didn’t press that point, but I was curious why he had also omitted the primary Christian text.
“Have you read the Bible too?”
“Ya but it’s mostly crap,” he admitted with a laugh.
I raised my eyebrows. What sort of monk walks the camino and hates the Bible?
Noticing my surprise, he offered an explanation, “the only part of the Bible that’s any good is Jesus’ words. What people should do is just get one of them Bibles with Jesus’ words in red letters. Skip everything except the red letters.”
An eavesdropping pilgrim pulled out his smartphone. “Just the red letters? Where do you get one of those Bibles? I might actually read that.”

I smiled and tried the reconcile the scene before me with my own love for the Bible and my belief that it is (in it’s entirety) the word of God. In a way, I had to agree with the monk. If you were going to read just one part of the Bible and you couldn’t stomach the whole crazy story, then I guess the words of Jesus would be the right place to start. In a split-second, I made up my mind to agree.
“Yes, read the words of Jesus!” I nodded enthusiastically, “he was a pretty great guy.” I turned to the pilgrim who had entered our conversation. “You can find those Bibles everywhere. The Gideons give them away for free.”
The monk began singing a song about Gideons Bibles as he massaged my husband’s calves.
I laughed and launched into another question: “When did you decide to become a monk?”
The monk thought for a moment and then began to recount a story that most people would only tell their closest friends. His life was once much different. He was a band leader and a husband. He was married for twenty years before it all fell apart. His unique combination of aspergers, bipolar, and alchoholism meant that his fists sometimes had a mind of their own. He spent some time in jail before he realized he needed help. When he got out, he set out in search of God. He read everything he could find, and joined a variety of religious communities. He was given a new name and a new life.
“I am called ‘The Joyful,’” he explained with a grin, “With a personality like mine, there are only two things I could be in life: either an entertainer or a monk. So now I am an entertaining monk.” He bobbled his head, making his wide brimmed hat dance.
I laughed again.

“So why did you choose to do the camino?”
For that he had a quick answer. “Most people do this walk for themselves. They want to get away from something or find something. But I am doing this walk for everyone else.”
I nodded, noticing his particularly thorough massage work on my husband’s battered and dirty feet. I couldn’t help but be reminded of another man, who, 2000 years ago, showed love by kneeling on the ground and touching weary feet.  I couldn’t help but wonder if I would do it. It was easy enough to sit in my lawn chair and discuss religious texts. But would I kneel on the ground and put into action the words that I professed to follow?

It’s been more than a week since my encounter with “The Joyful” and I still can’t quite figure out what to make of it. Should I be sceptical of his story? Should I be ashamed to have agreed with a man who dismissed a large portion of the religious text I follow? Should I just take inspiration from his joyful and compassionate spirit? I don’t know. But I do know that I saw a glimpse of Jesus’ words in action. The red letters come to life. And that I will never forget.

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Camino Family

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?”
“Orisson.”
“Us too!”
“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.
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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.
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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.”
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