Do things for people not because of who they are or what they do in return, but because of who you are.
Harold S. Kushner
Next morning as I left the monastery I passed a large box. Pilgrims threw everything into it that had weighed them down over the Pyrenees. One could clothe an entire monastery from its contents. Socks, trousers, cameras, pullovers, coats, and beanies spilled out of it. Clearly I was not the only one to have struggled on that first day.
I crossed the stone-flagged courtyard of the monastery in sleet. Under the first arch I stopped and covered myself and my pack with the poncho, strapped on my gaiters, took a deep breath and dived on down the hill. Others swarmed past me intent on reaching Larrasoana, 25 kilometres away.
All the muscles and joints in my body were aching. Every few steps I had to stop and adjust my gear. My shoes were too tight. Rain blurred my glasses. The wind filled my poncho and steered me off the path. My belly rumbled and I feared that the illness that had gripped me in Bordeaux was returning.
To distract myself from my woes I thought about what I could leave behind if I saw another discard box. In the monastery I had only used a sleeping bag liner because the dormitories were so well heated. The sleeping bag weighed 1.5 kilos and was way too warm, but I’d borrowed it and could hardly throw it away.
The laces on my gaiters came undone. I bent to retie them but they had swollen in the wet and refused to tie tightly. I tried to squat closer to them. Suddenly I was on my back in the mud. The sleeping bag strapped to the bottom of my pack had dragged me off balance. Now it was my turn for tears of frustration. Stuck on my back in the mud, in the rain, I was unable to gain traction. Out of the corner of my eye I spied a fence. Steady on I told myself, just hold tight, do up the laces with a treble knot this time and get up, gracefully if possible. The sleeping bag was definitely on the discard list.
Out of the forest, before Burgete, I came on Terence with Connie, whom I’d met in the shower line the night before. Connie was suffering with a painful knee. Big bear Terence was walking with her, pushing her to keep at it. His gentle encouragement also helped me to go on through Burgete. I hadn’t practised walking with my walking sticks much at home and now I was discovering muscles in my arms and shoulders that I hardly knew existed. My legs were tired and my head spinning with the enormity of what I had taken on.
Into Viskarret I dragged. The guide book advised me that the next town with accommodation was 16km and four hours away. My legs, arms and head all mutinied. They could hardly walk another step let alone four more hours. I studied the guide. No mention of an albergue in Viskarret. My heart sank. I couldn’t possibly walk another kilometre.
A few metres further on I entered the main part of the town. Ahead was a wrought iron gate. Two hands shaped a heart in the metal. “Corazon Puno,” I read, “open at midday.” I looked at my phone. 12 o’clock. Relief, but was there a bed? So many had been ahead of me.
I rang the bell.
“Yes, yes, of course there is a bed. Let me take your wet poncho. Leave your boots here. Wash your trousers and hang them here in front of the heater.” My host was all practicality.
I left my mud-encrusted boots and walking sticks near the door. Istvan steered me upstairs to a hot shower and a warm bed and I sank in to his kindness gratefully.