(Subtitle: The Day with the Banana Camera)
Let me qualify the main title of this post for a second. Day 1 of the Camino de Santiago is far from easy; aside from my 31 hour labour and delivery (I love you Son) this 25km mountainous route to an altitude of 1,450 metres has been my most mentally tough physical challenge to date. Even a 100km sleepless charity walk from London to Brighton had an impending end the following day. And the 160km Nijmegen Marches took just 4 days, the finish line always mentally in reaching distance. Beyond this particular Camino day however, from St Jean Pied de Port across the French/Spanish border to Roncesvalles, over 5 weeks of walking and just under 800km still lay ahead to reach Santiago.
What I mean by simple is that, in one day, life for me was suddenly stripped back to its basics. At home only days before my boiler and hob were both playing up, I was waiting for repairmen to come, packing for my trip with one hand while on the phone with the other dealing with an online identity fraud issue. At the bus station in Belfast beginning the first leg of our journey to Dublin I was still taking calls about it.
The Pyrenees it seems aren’t interested in any of that multitasking modern age nonsense.
Just leaving the beautiful town of St Jean the exit to the town is up, after marvelling at the lovely houses, farm animals and domestic pets it is up, around the next bend up and when you think you’ve reached another mountain peak, up even steeper again. The stuff of importance in this moment is taken literally one step at a time. Regulate breathing, fix crease in sock, adjust rucksack, snack, drink water, stretch, take off/put on layers, navigate loose rocks, stones, steep drops, a little ice and look for large rocks at strategic points to pee behind unnoticed. Basic, uncomplicated, simple.
What is also simple are the pleasures that this unique experience offers. Beauty: breathtaking mountains, sapphire blue sky, horses and cows jingling the bells around their necks as they move, unperturbed by the pilgrims weaving like ants intruding on their mountain paths. And humanity: strangers offering greetings of ‘Buen Camino’ even though they can barely catch their own breath, pilgrims demonstrating innate kindness, like Exploradora instinctively stopping to ask people who are struggling if they need anything from her rucksack and offering words of comfort whether they do or not.
After such a long day the descent into Roncesvalles was punishing and felt a little like adding insult to injury (especially for the knees) so the arrival into the town will be for me, and I’m sure for many, a very fond memory. A strange, contradictory, exhausting but exhilarating and amazing day.
The other simple aspect of the day was humour (and to date, as we’re on day 7. It’s the first day I’ve have strong enough WiFi to upload this post). This example is of unintentional humour; I’ll blame the effects of the climb and the altitude for making me giddy. At Orisson, only a few kilometres beyond St Jean, I noticed a view at a water break worth photographing. It was only with hands in front of my face about to frame the shot I realised that a small group of people were looking at me curiously wondering why I was holding a banana in front of my face. My camera still in my rucksack, I turned to an American lady with a twinkle in her eye and we both laughed until tears came. Although I suspected it was a ‘you had to have been there’ moment, when Exploradora returned from her stretching spot as I told the tale she creased up similarly and the banana camera day is now etched into our shared history database. Silly, simple. Life affirming.