Pamplona – Zariquiegui – Muruzábal 

I arrived in Pamplona airport on Sunday evening and made my way into the centre to the main municipal pilgrim hostel. There was a sign saying the hostel was full, but I queued up at the reception to see if they knew if any of the other hostels in town had beds. 
In front of me in the queue were four people having an argument. On one side, there were two young women, one Irish, one American; on the other side were an elderly Spanish couple. The argument was in Spanish, so I only understood some of it. The American girl was complaining that the Spanish couple had taken something that belonged to her, that she had a ticket for and they didn’t. I don’t know what it was a ticket for, but she was clearly very angry. The elderly Spanish couple were really surprised at being caught out. The receptionist and the two young women kept shouting at them, asking them “Where are your tickets?” and the old couple were pretending to look through their wallets for tickets that it was quite clear they’d never had, using exactly the same gestures of fake surprise I use at a motorway toll booth when I don’t have enough money to pay the toll and I pretend to look through my wallet as if it’s some kind of surprise that I don’t have the cash, when both me and the toll booth operator know that I never had the money and they’re just going to have to write me a ticket. At first I was on the elderly couple’s side, but then the old man started jabbing the American woman’s shoulder with his finger to emphasis a point and she exploded at him. The old woman tried to be conciliatory, asking the young women if they would treat their own grandparents this way, which seemed to make the young women even angrier. When all four of them were literally screaming, the receptionist moved them aside and I got to the front of the queue. 
He stamped my pilgrim passport. It was late and all the pilgrim hostels were full. He recommended a few cheap hotels and there was one bed left in the first one I checked, which was near the centre. 
Checking into my hotel, I got my first moment of excitement. I was able to forget the stress of getting ready to leave. I was really doing this. I was a pilgrim. Only 710 km to go!
The hotel was cute and old-fashioned and far cheaper and better quality than a one-star hotel in Dublin would be. I went out to get dinner and because I’m predictably awful, the first meal of the Camino for me was in Burger King. 
I was wearing a t-shirt and shorts as I strolled around Pamplona. It wasn’t as hot as I had dreaded. It was cloudy and 12 degrees, pretty much my ideal weather, and everyone around me was wearing coats and long trousers. People stared at me in my short sleeves and shorts and shivered at the sight. I didn’t care. 
I had good wifi and a comfortable bed in the hotel and all was right with the world. 
I didn’t get up particularly early and had breakfast in the hotel, the typical bewildering continental buffet – why is the apricot yogurt next to the tray of salami? Are those biscuits or crackers? and so on. The elderly waiter brought me some tea and also left his reading glasses on my table. 
And so, at about 11:00, I set out on my first day of walking. I’ve planned to start with a few easy days, with an 11-kilometre day to start with. I know I can do 11 kilometres. 
Of course, it was much harder than any walks I’d done at home. The sun came out, my backpack is heavy and I had to walk up an actual mountain to the little village of Zariquiegui. 
As I walked through the suburbs of Pamplona, following the shell markers that show the way to Santiago, it was all fairly easy and I felt good. There is a metal shell on the footpath about every metre and a half, so even I couldn’t get lost. I could see the mountain that I had to climb lying ahead of me, and I didn’t feel too scared, but then the road started going downhill. It dipped again and again. This didn’t make me happy. Every time the road dipped down, the mountain I had to climb got taller. 
Even in the city, it’s easy to spot pilgrims, with their rucksacks and their walking poles. As I was passing a park on the outskirts of Barcelona, I saw a pilgrim turn off the road suddenly into the park and pee against a tree. I didn’t find this strange, but I was surprised when he lay down for a rest on the same spot where he had just peed. People are weird. 
After 5 km, I stopped for an ice cream. The mountain started in earnest after that. It was steep and it was difficult. I found myself stopping a lot. The sun came out from behind the clouds, in spite of the forecast, when I was halfway up the mountain. I hadn’t brought any sun cream with me on the plane because of the liquids ban and I had planned to buy some when I landed, but it was cloudy and 12 degrees so I didn’t think of it and now I was halfway up a mountain and could feel myself burning. There were no shops on the mountain. 
I continued climbing and climbing. And stopping and stopping. This mountain was difficult for me. Pilgrims of all ages were breezing past me. I kept on going. And stopping. I took a lot of breaks. There were occasional benches along the path and I stopped at each one, long enough to stop panting. 
I kind of feel a lot of the Camino is wasted on me. I’m just not a big fan of nature. I like the mountain views. And there are some beautiful flowers and fresh air and birdsong. But to me, nature is the source of mud and filth, the source of sunburn and dog bites and wasp stings and nettle stings and volcanos and typhoons and locust swarms and malaria and rabies and earthquakes and hurricanes. Birdsong is all well and good, but the internet is better. And TV is better than flowers. 
Anyway, eventually, I saw a sign saying it was only 0.5 kms. I was nearly there! But the closeness of the destination didn’t speed me up. I kept plodding and panting and stopping and then I saw a bench. I sat down and a handsome young man bounded up to me. He was German, a 20-year-old, who told me he was having one last adventure before he started studying finance at university and got a job in a major bank. I was panting, but he looked lively. I asked where he’d come from. Zubiri. He had walked 20 km more than me that day. And the 31-kilometre hike including the last 6 km up a mountain appeared to have taken nothing out of him. 
He went ahead of me to Zariquiegui and was sitting in the hostel bar when I checked in at about 5:00. I was aching all over. It had taken me six hours to walk 11 km, one hour to walk the first 4 and five hours to walk uphill for the last seven. 
There were 2 beds left in a dorm of 18 people, both top bunks. I had a shower and went downstairs to the bar. I chatted a bit to the various Germans, Dutch and Canadians who were there. I was starving by the time dinner was served. I hadn’t had a lunch, just an ice-cream, and I had climbed up a mountain! Many pilgrim hostels have a pilgrim menu, a three course dinner with pretty much limitless wine for about €10. Last night, we got a chicken broth for starters (it was really just hot water with two pieces of chicken floating in it – but I didn’t care). Then I had meatballs with fried potatoes and fried peppers. Nom nom nom. And a flan for dessert. 
The wine was flowing freely and everyone else was having some. I just couldn’t. The idea of alcohol when I was so tired and sunburnt was just gross. Some of the pilgrims had been drinking beer since they arrived at the hostel at 2:00 and were now knocking back wine too. Bleurgh. I like alcohol. But not when I’m tired and I know I have to get up early the next day. 
This all reminded me of a boy I met when I was 15, a boy called Roger. When I was in Irish college in the Kerry Gaeltacht, I didn’t fit in very well with the other boys in the house. I was a nerd. I always put my hand up in class. I chatted to the teachers during break time. I chatted to the Bean an Tí in the evenings. But I was a puzzling nerd and I didn’t quite fit the nerd profile properly. I smoked cigarettes constantly. I was able to converse knowledgeably about Oasis and Blur and Pulp. I was obsessed with Pulp at the time. The other boys didn’t know what to make of me and they largely just ignored me.
But not Roger. Roger was intriguing. He was from Dublin for one thing. I had never known anyone from Dublin and I don’t think I’d ever been to Dublin. For me, Dublin was somewhere on the way to my Grandad’s house in Dundalk. In the early 90s, Irish TV was obsessed with drugs, specifically with Dublin’s heroin problem, so if I associated anything with Dublin, it was heroin addicts. In fact, it’s still one of the first things that comes to mind when I think of Dublin. And other people my own age from various parts of Ireland agree – their first impression of Dublin when they were growing up was that it was a land of heroin addicts. Roger was sophisticated and he was one of the first people I’d ever met who helped me realise that Dublin was like Cork, and Dublin teenagers did all the same things Cork teenagers did. 
He intrigued me. Even his name was fascinating. “Roger” has a thrillingly exotic Protestant ring to it. Roger also used to sit on his top bunk in the house we shared in Irish college, wearing just his boxers. Sometimes he moved in such a way that you could catch a glimpse of testicle, the Holy Grail of my teenage desires. One day, Roger took me aside, to give me some “serious advice”. He told me that I had the potential to be cool. My hear lifted. He said I had the potential to be cool if I would just lose weight and drink more alcohol. I totally believed him. A month later, I had my first alcoholic drink. 
Last night reminded me of Roger. Maybe if I had some of the wine, I wouldn’t appear so aloof and separate. Maybe I should drink and then I’d be cool, like he told me. But I just couldn’t face it. I went to bed, ready to collapse and leave the pilgrims to their wine-fuelled chats. 
I spent 20 minutes trying to get into my top bunk. I just couldn’t. Every time I tried, the bed just came crashing down on me. And I can’t lift my bodyweight up with my shoulders. It would take a crane to get me up onto it. I went back to the dining room and sheepishly asked a table of Germans if anyone could swap with me. One young woman kindly agreed. I got into my bottom bunk and played with my phone for a while. 
After about 45 minutes, all the other pilgrims came to bed. I had a German woman on the bunk above me and two more opposite us. My bed swap had obviously split the foursome of friends up. I started drifting off to sleep. Suddenly, the bed above me shook vigorously and all three German girls coughed simultaneously. Then they started to giggle. I didn’t know what was going on. A few minutes later I started drifting off to sleep again. Again, just as I fell asleep, the girl above me shook the bed vigorously and all three girls started fake coughing. This happened a third time and I figured out what was going on. 
As I was falling asleep, I was starting to snore. The girls were deliberately waking me up so that they could get to sleep. I suddenly felt less sleepy. I lay awake for the next four hours as everyone else in the room gradually fell asleep. Eventually, I fell asleep, but I can’t say it’s the greatest night’s sleep I’ve ever had. 
The Camino timetable is weird. The hostels lock you in at 10:00 pm and they kick you out at 8:00 am. Because people are trying to walk for as long as they can before the midday sun, and because they’re racing to get the bed they want at the next hostel, they tend to get up between 5:00 and 6:00 am. I dozed on as everyone left the room. When I got up at 7:15, I was the only person left in the hostel. 
I had a little breakfast and asked if there was anywhere I could get sun cream. The woman at the hostel said there was no shop in this village, but she was sure I could get it in the next village. 
The next village was over the mountain peak and was 6 km away. I was going to get burned again. I started out. It was about 2 kilometres to the peak. It’s definitely easier to start your day with the uphill than it is to finish with it. But it still totally winded me. I sat at the top of the mountain for a good half an hour recovering. 
Then came the downhill. Who knew that would be so hard? At least I could breathe normally, which I can’t do when going uphill. But the downhill was so, so steep. And it was all gravel so it was impossible to find my footing. 
I walked slowly. Very, very slowly. Taking tiny steps. Other people were marching past me, but I knew if I sped up I would fall and if I fall I might not be able to carry on. I shuffled, tiny stone, by tiny stone, down the mountain side. Then it got even steeper. I stood, paralysed, not knowing how to proceed. In the end, I decided not to walk the next few metres. I sat on the ground and shuffled my bum down the mountain instead. It worked. I finally got to the next village without having fallen over. 
I had lunch in this village – a pork and cheese sandwich and looked for the shop. They didn’t have sun cream, but they did have after-sun moisturiser, so I couldn’t defend myself from the sun, but I could at least start repairing the damage that had been done so far. 
I kept on walking, my sunburn really beginning to hurt now. When I got to the next village, I decided I just had to stop. If I stayed in the sun any longer, I’d get heat stroke. I had planned to go at least another 4 km today, but I made the right decision. I had a long cold shower and immediately felt better. And because I arrived at 2:00 and not 5:00 pm like yesterday, I got to choose a bottom bunk and didn’t have to beg earlier arrivers for one. 
This hostel is lovely – big and comfortable with plenty of areas to sprawl out and cool down and lots of cold drinks available. There’s even a pool, but unfortunately I don’t have my swimming togs with me. The owner told me her whole life story as she checked me in. It was adorable how proud she was of the place. 
There is a “supermarket” here. Finally! Sun cream! It was closed for the siesta when I arrived, but at 5:30 I made my way over there. It wasn’t really a supermarket, more of a big warehouse for fruit and vegetables with one free-standing set of shelves that had cornflakes, bleach, light bulbs and bags of rice on it. I couldn’t see any sun cream, so I went to ask the shopkeeper. She reached under her counter and drew out a bottle. It was covered in dust. She got a tissue and started wiping the dust off, but it had caked on. She smiled apologetically and offered it to me for free. I’m not complaining. 
Tonight’s dinner was wonderful. A huge salad, Spanish omelette, pasta, pork, bread, fried peppers and ice cream for dessert. 
I’m in bed now, comfy, slathered in aloe Vera and ready for whatever tomorrow will fling at me. 

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