Seville to Guillena
Friday September Eleven, 2020
At the beginning of any journey it’s impossible to know where you’ll arrive at the other end, despite your best intentions. Sure, you have ideas of what’s awaiting you at your destination, but it would be a shame if all those expectations were met without some surprises thrown in for good measure. And it’s those unexpected surprises that I’m equally excited and trepid about in the days and weeks ahead of me…
From Seville my destination is 1,000km and about six weeks ahead of me, so to say that it is an abstract concept to me is an understatement. My destination is such a distant idea that I haven’t really given it a lot of thought throughout my planning for this expedition. I would like to think that this is because I’m focussed on the journey itself, and not the destination, but perhaps it is simply a lack of imagination on my part that I can’t anticipate what awaits me in six weeks’ time in Santiago de Compostela.
With months of anticipation, planning and training behind me I went to bed last night with a degree of certainty settled in my head. I know what I’m doing, after all, I told myself. I woke up before 7:00am, a lot less certain, and long after 8:00am I was still no closer to leaving the apartment. I packed my bag once, then twice, and then a third time – rethinking the positioning of my scant belongings over and over again. Where was the weight sitting, and how would that work with my posture and my stride? Was everything balanced? Did I really need so many pairs of underwear? (I’ve already decided that the answer is no). Was I procrastinating? Oh, Hell yes. And then I procrastinated some more by phoning my parents to tell them that I was off and that I’d be in touch when I finished the days walk. And then there was another quick squizz at Instagram and Facebook before I finally committed to strapping the pack on my back and setting off from the apartment.
I made my way to the Cathedral – the launching point for every pilgrim undertaking the Via de la Plata – and took a quiet moment to observe what I was about to embark in. The moment didn’t offer up an awful lot though as I am still quite uncertain of what it is I’m actually doing. Yes, sure, I’m walking 1,000km to Santiago de Compostela, but what does that actually mean? I thought about all of those before me who had set off from that same point, anticipating something poignant in the moment, but again nothing profound leapt out at me, and so I took a selfie (as you do) and walked to the right and towards my first scallop shell.
Leaving Seville felt like a Boys Own adventure of sorts – peering about constantly for the mythical symbols that would guide me towards my destination. Sure, I had a guidebook in the side pocket of my backpack and of course an App on my phone that would have lead me easily from the city, but I told myself I wanted to take a less convenient approach to my departure. I wanted to let the ubiquitous yellow scallops and arrows that denote the Camino lead the way for me. And they did. Without fail. They seemed to offer themselves up to me gladly, and I very quickly learnt how to read their instructions on the walls of buildings, on the sides of concrete gutters, on metal railings and even spray painted onto atones along the way. More importantly though I learnt to trust that their appearance would come when necessary, and that until I saw another shell or arrow, I needn’t alter my course.
With the city behind me I entered a parched landscape that seemed more apocalyptic than typically Spanish. I’d read enough from previous pilgrims to know that my departure from Seville would be one of the least scenic points along the Via de la Plata, so I didn’t feel short-changed in any way. Plenty of what I’d read already had even warned me about the feral dogs I encountered about an hour into my journey – at least a dozen of them, lead by a ferocious looking alpha who made sure I knew I wasn’t welcome on his spot. His posse backed him up with a cacophony of angry sentiments and made me fearful of canine potential for the first time in my life. It didn’t help that I met them at a fork in the road, and for the first time there was no easy yellow marker visible for me to work with. And so I carried on straight ahead, only to arrive at a large yellow cross that clearly denoted I’d chosen the wrong route of the two available to me. And so around I turned to face my tormentors once more, walking briskly past their patch with faint assurances that I meant them no malice.
In time I reached a landscape that I felt matched my expectations better and was excited to finally be on my way, despite the fact that I’d been walking close to two hours already. As I stepped away from a highway and into parched farmland I was greeted by a dead-straight gravel path that cut through the rolling landscape with eerie precision. The dried dead stalks of some unknown crop filled the fields for as far as the eye could see on either side of the track and framed my view for what seemed like an endless traipse towards the horizon. The undulating landscape meant that the path would disappear ahead at the top of a rise in the distance, only to show itself again as a dead-straight line ahead of me as I crested each of the rises. This taunting went on for hours until, well and truly ready for some variation and a respite from the baking sun overhead, I finally arrived in Guillena.
I arrived at the Alberge Luz del Camino hot, bothered and potentially a little dazed after so much unfiltered sun. It was closed, and so I phoned the number posted on the door and spoke to the attendant who appeared ten minutes later to let me in, much to my relief. She showed me around the building describing all of its many features in a stream of Spanish sentences that felt like a race to the finish. My grasp of Spanish is appallingly poor, but I was doubly in the dark at the sheer speed in which it is spoken by the woman. Thankfully for me the bathroom clearly looked like a bathroom and the kitchen clearly resembled a kitchen. She let me choose my bunk bed from one of the many empty rooms available in the hostel and then took me back downstairs to check me in. She noted my New Zealand passport, seemed to shower me with approving platitudes (or so I imagined at least) and then she gave me the first of my credential stamps. I let myself have a small moment then as she returned the stamped passport to me. Its presence told me that I was on my way – a symbol that tied me to all the pilgrims who had passed before me, and all those who would follow me.
Once my credential was stamped my host made a rapid departure, leaving me all alone in a 40-sleeper hostel. I don’t think silence has ever felt so intimidating to me. I made the most of it though and as soon as I’d washed the days dust from me in an extraordinarily long shower I lay myself horizontal on the bunk and slept for a good couple of hours.
I awoke to angry feet that felt the need to remind me they had been mistreated and were considerably out of sorts. Great bulbous blisters had appeared on each of my little toes and were balanced perfectly by equally bulbous blisters on both of my big toes also. Everything below my ankles seemed to have a grievance and I dared not fixate too much on the idea that I had only completed Day One of many. I told myself that a night of sleep would render everything anew in the morning, ready for another day, but I secretly didn’t believe my own propaganda.
I put them back into shoes with all the care of a mother swaddling a new-born baby and took them out for one more walk through the town to find a meal, which I’m already thinking of solely as fuel. It consisted of steak and chips, with cold, cold beer, and I felt like it was one of the most deserved meals I’ve ever eaten. Three courses were finished in no more than twenty minutes, proving that I was as hungry as I was desperate for more sleep. All dining niceties went out the window and I ploughed through my food with an urgency that would’ve appalled my mother. But such was my desperate desire for more sleep that I didn’t care.
And so sleep is what I did. Hours and uninterrupted hours of it.