I have been surprised at the solitude of the Camino to date. This is from several points of view.
Firstly, the camino follows country paths. It avoids roads and highways, though sometimes crosses them, sometimes follows them for a very short distance (a few hundred metres), but it prefers to keep its distance. While the road/highway wends along the valley, the camino will parallel it some distance away, most often along a path higher up along the hilltop or across the hilltop. Sometimes the path is a farm track between orchards, sometimes a relatively unused road (local farmers only), sometimes it follows a fence-line up or down beside an orchard or property. Of course, each stage of the camino starts and ends in a town. Sometimes it passes through a town/village along the way. But there are some stages when the pilgrim walks entirely through the countryside, never passing through villages or towns. Sometimes the only people one might meet are the farmers going about their work in the orchards (currently, they all seem to be using chainsaws to trim the olive trees, presumably to keep them down to size for easier picking; often, I will only hear the buzz of the chain saw and not see the operator who is hidden among the trees). So the camino is basically a path through the countryside, which, mostly, I have entirely to myself.
Secondly, the Camino Mozarabe upon which I am embarked is not as well known as some of the other pilgrim routes. The most popular is the Camino Frances, which begins in France. Another is the Via De La Plata, which begins in Seville and which this camino will join in Merida. Another goes through Portugal. And there are many others besides. My particular interest in this route was to visit Cordoba and Toledo, places of historical importance in Christian-Muslim relations. No doubt I will post more on that from those places. But because the Camino Mozarabe is not so well known, there are very few pilgrims. There may be more later in the season, but at the moment there are very few. So again, most often, I am alone.
In a visitor’s book in the albergue at Pinos Peunte on Day 1, I noted a couple of young Frenchmen a few days ahead of me, and another one or two pilgrims some days ahead of them. There was a young Basque Spanish cyclist who caught up with me on Day 2 in Moclin, where we both stayed the night in the same hostel, who covers two or three walking stages in one day on his bike so is already some days ahead of me. There was the 75 year old Dutchman whom I met at the bookends of Day 3, who continued on when I had a rest day. He is a fast walker, so I am not likely to see him again!! And there was another young Spaniard on his bike whom I met in passing today, not a pilgrim as such, but happening to be coming and going on the pilgrim path. I expect to meet more pilgrims when I join up with the Via De La Plata, but for now, we are few and far between.
There is a third sense in which I experience solitude, and that is linguistic. Even in the midst of a crowded town or a bar or a restaurant, I do not understand any of the conversation around me. My Spanish is non-existent. Most Spaniards in this area have no English. I get by with basic greetings, signs and nods. I use some Italian, some English, the occasional Spanish word, to get my question across, but then do not understand the answer! I rely on gestures and picking up words here and there. It has served me OK thus far. No doubt, I will become more familiar with the daily words as I go along.
I was amused in one shop where I asked in rudimentary Spanish (supermercato?) for directions to the supermarket. The owner recognised my lack of fluency and asked if I spoke English. I answered with some relief that I did. He asked where I was from. I said “Australia”. I returned the compliment and asked where he was from. He replied, “Pakistan”. He explained that it was Sunday and the supermarket was closed. I thanked him in Urdu. He was speaking to a friend on the phone in Punjabi. I overheard him saying that this “ghora” (= English/white person) had spoken in their language. It amused me to think that although I cannot sustain a conversation with any Spaniard, I actually shared three languages with this shopkeeper, English, Urdu and Punjabi!!!
I do not mind the solitude. I quite enjoy it. I am accustomed to being alone. It is part of the celibate life! Besides, as I posted earlier, I am walking through the Cathedral of Nature which God has created. So that is a comfort along the way.
Sometimes I also think of the many pilgrims who have done this camino before me, one of my brothers a few years ago, and hundreds of others, in recent years, in years past, in centuries past. So there is quite a host of people who accompany me! And there are family, friends and others who carry me in their thoughts, hearts and prayers.
But I do admit that I did enjoy some brief conversations with my fellow pilgrims, the young Basque Spaniard who had functional English, who introduced me to the bar as a place for getting a good meal, and the very friendly elder Dutchman who shared his own camino experiences and was most encouraging. I look forward to meeting more pilgrims along the way as the season advances and the pilgrim paths meet.
Without being alarmist, I am also conscious that the camino path is isolated. That realisation makes me extra careful, for if I had a bad fall, it could be days before another pilgrim happened along, or before a local farmer passed that way. As a further precaution, I have also entered the Spanish emergency number in my mobile phone so that I could call for assistance if needed.
I start every day with the sign of the cross and a prayer to be kept safe along the way and to have safe arrival at the day’s destination. I am sure that God is with me along the way.