I first saw a sign for the Camino de Santiago somewhere just past Biarritz; a bunch of yellow spikes jutting out in the shape of a scallop. I didn’t know about scallops back then. In fact I didn’t know much about the Camino other than what I could dredge up from my 20 year old memories of Paolo Coelho’s Pilgrimage.
The Pilgrimage wasn’t to be the only throwback from the late 1990s, though. Because before long other 20-year-old ghosts would start calling to me. Was there a loop in time somewhere? A kink in the ribbon of my history?
None of this was apparent back in January though. Rotty and I sat, noses pressed to the windscreen of the van as it hugged the curve of the Atlantic. And at some indeterminable point on the A63, road signs switched from French to Spanish. I grinned at the quirky entity that is Europe. Love it or hate it, (and I love it) there is something incredible about the multitude of carefully preserved cultures, languages and histories squashed into this gnarled shoebox of a continent. It is a rich place, Europe; the wines, the cheeses, the roads throbbing with intermingling stories...
Now, back in France I’d planned to head south from here. To plough on down to Valencia for some winter sun for my chilled old bones. But something happened just past San Sebastian. Was it the the magnetism of the sun’s own path? Or was it the call of the Atlantic? I don’t know. All I know is we were pulled westwards. And westwards we drove.
Thus the north coast of Spain spread before us like deep green tapestry. Oh what roads we traced Rotty and I! They were asphalt cords tying together a breath-taking landscape of grassy slopes, stone villages and a writhing coastlines. The tyres of the van whirred from the misty lakes of the Basque country to the pea green fields and rocky inlets of Cantabria. Many a morning I’d let Rotty out for a pee, only to find a mountain path so beguiling, we’d end up walking it for two hours before my stomach barked at me to go back and eat breakfast.
I didn’t quite get it then, because I didn’t really know where the Camino was, but as we drove down the north coast of Spain, Rotty and I began to trace what is known as the Camino Del Norte. Yes. There’s not just one Camino, as I was about to learn, but a network. A mesh of paths all leading to one rather mysterious place: Santiago de Compostela.
It was amidst the towering peaks of the Picos de Europas that life began to slide back on itself. Sitting in my van, gaping at the huge shards of rock that cleaved apart the landscape, I recalled an old friend of mine called Sue. I hadn’t seen her since – you guessed it – the 1990s. We’d shared a flat together in North London back when we were newly qualified languages teachers, and when NQTs could actually afford to share a flat in N1, albeit a submerged rabbit hutch.
Twenty years ago, around the same time I moved to Turkey, Sue had moved to Spain. I knew it was somewhere in the north. I thought it might have been Galicia.
We hadn’t spoken for years. She had no idea about my blog or my books. No idea that I had up and left Turkey. I searched my email contacts and found an dubious looking address from ages ago. Shrugging, I flung an email far into cyberspace, not really expecting much to come of it. So when a mail pinged back into my inbox a few hours later, I blinked in surprise.
“YES,YES,YES Of course I would LOVE to see you. It would make my year! We live 4 kms from Santiago de Compostela... I would never forgive you if you were in this part of the world and we never met up!!!!”
Something inside me exploded when I read the mail. Was it a rush of past affection? Was it the capital letters (because Sue most certainly does speak in capitals, large bold letters littered with plenty of exciting punctuation and warm hugs)? Or was it, as another angel put it later on, the needle on the compass in my heart swinging to show the way? For no apparent reason I began to feel very excited about meeting up with Sue. I was sure she held a gift for me. I thought she might lead me to a magical plot of land, or something. I was wrong.
A few days later, Rotty shuffled over to her self-appointed post at the passenger window. I hugged the steering wheel. And we ploughed on westward, still pulled by something I didn’t quite understand. Though now at least we seemed to have a goal: Santiago. The region of Asturias slid into the rear view mirror along with its massive peaks and lakes in the sky. Unknowingly, we were also still tracing the Camino Del Norte, a pair of pilgrims, six legs and four wheels between us. But on pilgrimage to what?
We chugged into Galicia. It was a coastline which was half Cornish, half Scottish. A mythical littoral of coves and slippery crags. I wouldn’t have been in the least surprised to see Merlin standing on one of the barnacle-encrusted rocks, waving to me.
Then something wasn’t right. Rotty was tired. Didn’t want to walk. Began to pick at her food. I upped her meds. The night before we turned onto the highway for Santiago, her nose leaked a little blood. And I knew the parasite of leishmania was trying to make a comeback, though I wasn’t unduly worried. We were heading for the city of Santiago the next day. Somewhere with a vet. And a place to stay.
Pulling up in front of a beach, I watched the copper disc of the sun dropping into the frothy folds of the Atlantic. I thought it was a good place to overnight. There was even a tap. Rotty and I leaped out of the van and made for the sea shore. Shiny black rocks lined the cove. I found a hollow in them with a small tree growing over it, roots trailing. Reclining in the hollow, I watched Rotty sitting on the sand staring at the horizon like some wise old sea captain. The rock held me. I felt the Earth’s hands on my shoulders. Her breath on my cheek. Galicia was speaking to me.
The next morning, as I typed Sue’s address into my Sat Nav, I glanced at Rotty. Her nose was clear. And I sighed with relief. I shut up the van, closed all the cupboards, packed all the stray food into the fridge, and filled up with water from the municipal tap. Then I turned the key in the ignition and pulled onto the highway, to Santiago de Compostela.
Atulya K Bingham
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