On the Camino: Searching for a Shell

Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of photo essays about Path Walker’s recent pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

Distance to Santiago: 500 miles.

I am on a French train heading south, looking for a seashell. I am looking for others who are on the same journey.

The train rolls into the station before our last stop and then they start to appear. Men and women, young and old, with great thick backpacks and walking poles and many questions. I get on the next train and we all look at each other in comfortable silence. It is clear now that we are all together and slowly the train starts to come alive with various dialects. We roar through French countryside and Asian tourists snap photos while a couple with a German flag on their backpack sleep soundly. K and I are the only Americans on the train and we strike up a conversation with two Italian women to our left.

People always have questions about what is ahead and when they know you have traveled the path already, they frantically pick your brain about dangers and tips. I am excited and I share a bit about my experiences, but ultimately I say very little of the actual journey. It is their Camino and I will let them build, journey, and paint it as they wish.

By the time the train rolls into St. Jean, I am overwhelmed as the memories rush back. We grab our things and look to seek out an old friend.

St. Jean de Port is beautiful, quaint, and uncompromisingly hospitable. Pilgrims are buying last-minute things and attending Mass and making themselves ready for the mystery that begins at tomorrow’s first light.

I open a familiar door and see through a window that Monique is busying herself in the kitchen. I smile to her and she puts down her apron and opens the main albergue door.

“Monique? I stayed with you last year. Is Jacques here?”

Monique embraces and welcomes us as her husband Jacques rounds the corner with his hands in the air.

Jacques has a natural warmth and his face shines with a big French smile as he offers us tea and asks us questions. We make arrangements to stay and he carries K’s bags up to where our fellow travelers are asleep on bunk beds or skimming through guide books.

Jacques invites me to coffee as K showers and we talk of all things Camino and how life has been in the past year. I feel like I am catching up with an uncle, though Jaques and I have only met once before.

K returns downstairs and Monique warns us to be back for dinner as we exit to the streets of St. Jean. We walk through hills and over walls while taking in the foggy majesty of southern France.

We are in good spirits and share some fruit we bought from the market and dream of what begins tomorrow. After finishing a last supply run, we walk past the pilgrim-filled bars and taverns to our lodging.

We sit at the table and make conversation in English with our fellow pilgrims and dinner guests. The woman next to me is in her 20s and from Korea, and the man to my left is a former priest from Montreal. As we all introduce ourselves, Jacques notes that 10 countries are represented at our table of 13.

Dinner is served and Monique treats us to several courses of Basque and French cooking. Each course ends with Jacques offering everyone seconds and then calling my name and handing the serving plate to me to finish it. The table laughs and I greedily wolf down the remains of salads, seafood, and bread.

Conversation is lively and a man named Neil talks to us at length about his experience walking the path backwards. He says the marking became much more difficult when walking the path reverse. It sticks in my head when he says, “I was just looking for the next arrow. Before that I was afraid I was lost and I didn’t know where to go.”

As dinner winds down, Monique passes around a bottle of a pear-flavored liqueur, which is overpowering and horrifically acrid. The Korean girl simply reads the bottle and passes it on as Jacques prepares his nightly routine.

He launches into a dance of movement as he explains the schedule for tomorrow morning and where to leave donations. He is clearly enjoying himself as he explains quiet hours by saying, “I run no discotheque.”

K and I clean dishes with two Norwegian women. It is a honest 15 minutes of work and then we sit at the table with Jacques and Monique. Monique thanks me for finishing each plate and Jacques drinks tea and tries to recall my traveling party from last year.

It is warm, beautiful, and quiet and part of me wishes the next day could be spent in the quiet of St. Jean with our hosts and not navigating the Pyrenees. However, we are pilgrims and a great journey lies ahead.

K shows Monique her shoes and Monique disappears and returns with hiking boots, which she begs K to take. After much arguing, Monique wishes K luck with her cross-trainers and embraces us both. We head upstairs to sleep.

K asks me if a stranger had just offered her shoes. “Was I supposed to mail them back? Should I have offered her money if I wanted them?” We both know that Monique just wanted us to be safe and that the boots were a gift she was happy to give. We just discusse the incident to savor what great people we are amongst before settling into our room of 18 to sleep.

The goodbye embrace with Jacques and Monique will come tomorrow. As will the perilous climb over the Pyrenees. But for now, there is sleep. I listened to the snoring of my roommates for two hours and then drift into my own silence.

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