Heather Conn Blogs

spoutin’ about by the sea

Present or absent? The way of friendship on the Camino

When my husband Frank left our Pamplona hotel room at 4 a.m. to catch his flight home, as we had planned, I felt sad but eager to continue on the Camino. It was day six of my pilgrimage, and I knew that a friend was arriving that night, June 1, to accompany me on the rest of The Way.

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a birthday rose for my friend

It was her seventieth birthday and we were going to celebrate that evening; I had bought her a long-stemmed rose and card. To mark her special milestone, we had chosen 2013 to walk the Camino together, after talking about it for years. That spring, she had invited me to join her for a day of informational workshops about the Camino. After attending an excellent event hosted by the Canadian Company of Pilgrims, I felt more inspired than ever to go. Now I looked forward to our reunion and a new phase of my trip.

By late afternoon, when she had not arrived at the hotel, I asked the man at reception if he had any messages for me. No. A few hours later, I asked again. Still nothing. I had received no emails on my iPhone. Assuming that she must have missed her flight, I figured that she would arrive the next morning. I knew that she was travelling without a cell phone, so I could not contact her; unbelievably, I didn’t have her flight information.  Assured that nothing serious was wrong, I felt disappointed that we would not be together on her birthday to celebrate.

The next day, after still not hearing from her, I wondered if she had decided against the trip. Originally, she had wanted to go later in the summer, but I had said it would be too hot and crowded then for me. The previous month, health issues had made her decide not to walk the Camino, but then she had changed her mind. Did she reschedule the trip to her liking, after all, and not tell me, knowing how angry I would be?

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The view from our hotel window in Pamplona

I checked again at hotel reception, my email and phone for messages, but nothing. The next morning, same thing. Not wanting to spend yet another day in Pamplona, I wrote in my journal on June 2: “[It] looks as if this will be a solo trip.” I gave her rose to the man at reception, who looked stunned. “Give it to your wife or mother,” I told him, in Spanish.

Impatient to head out, I left just before 9 a.m., leaving my friend a message at reception in case she arrived after my departure.

Alone, I walked out into heavy winds on my first Camino day without rain. As someone who has always relished solo travel, I felt partly pleased at this surprising change of plans. I like the freedom to move at my own pace, answerable to no one. Because my friend walked much more slowly than me, I had wondered, while still in Canada, if our different paces would cause friction.

On the first few days of the Camino, I had already recognized that walking the route brought out my competitive side; I enjoyed passing people on the trail. I had felt impatient waiting for my husband, who walked much more slowly due to a previous knee injury. Chastizing myself for this perspective, I later paid little attention to the notion of being ahead or behind. We were all on our own path, travelling at our own speed.

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Frank took this photo during the rainy first days of the Camino.

In the following days and weeks, I alternated between anger, compassion, and forgiveness towards my friend. What had happened to her? Why didn’t she contact me? Sometimes I wondered if she was just a few days behind me on the trail. In a notebook for pilgrims provided at one roadside stop, I even wrote to her: “Where are you?”

Some mornings, waking up angry, I focused on releasing my irritation while starting to walk. With each step, it was easier to let go. I realized that in absentia, she had become a spiritual teacher on my path. Her silence and not showing up became external mirrors for my frame of mind each day. Was I going to let her absence control my mood?

As I walked, my mind had endless time and space to imagine an array of scenarios from confrontation and a severing of the friendship to joking about it decades later. I had the power to choose how I would respond to this situation, ranging from self-pity to self-righteous triumph. My mind would determine the quality of my process, both on the Camino and everywhere. I, alone, was responsible for how much light and shadow I brought to my experiences.

As I met and walked with various pilgrims for consecutive days along the way, I realized that if my friend had been there, my connections with these people would likely have been very different. Perhaps I would not even have spent much time with them. I felt grateful for these encounters, realizing that solo travel often provides opportunities for people to reach out when they might not otherwise. Strangely, I felt like thanking my friend, whose absence allowed me to make these new friendships without her.

Yet I still felt annoyed at not hearing from her. Along the way, as different people asked why I was walking the Camino, I explained the story. Many were aghast. The pilgrims in their twenties, in particular, were incredulous that in today’s plugged-in world of social media, my friend and I had not communicated.

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Only 50 kilometres left to go . . .

On day 30 of my pilgrimage, four days before arriving in Santiago, I finally found out what had happened. In an email, Frank said that my friend had left a phone message at our home, sounding terrible; since he had been away for several weeks, he did not receive it until he got back. She had been found unconscious near downtown Victoria, suffering an adverse reaction to a recent change in medication, and had remained hospitalized for days.

I felt grateful to know, at last, that she was okay and why she hadn’t come. For almost my entire Camino journey, her fate had symbolized the unknown for me. Her absence, indirectly, was my gift, to help me deal with the unexpected.

Upon my return, we reconciled by phone. Our friendship continues.

October 18, 2013 at 2:39 pm Comments (3)