I hoped Hendaye would be a quaint French village to bid me adieu with a proper sendoff to Spain but it had more of an industrial energy that I couldn’t walk through fast enough. Buildings were boarded and the blaring of the trains stopped me from enjoying the last moments in a country that had sheltered my heart over the last month. The transition from France to Spain was more jarring than I anticipated as if the border between the two was an invisible portal and I was stepping between one distinct experience and the next.
The first handful of steps in Spain is where I finally found consistent signs of the Camino. Yellow arrows, scalloped shells, cement markers, stickers, grafitti. Everything was leading me through the stone city of Irun to the Albergue on the edge of the city. Knowing I was finally in reach, I could feel the aching in my boots differently. My mind immediately went to the tips of my toes where I could feel the first blisters forming. Arriving at the Albergue meant kicking off my boots and tending to my assumed wounds.
I was one of the first to arrive and waited outside of the locked gates. As more people arrived, I could sense an overall excitement while I was feeling immense fatigue. These Pilgrims were here to begin the Camino while I was two days into my journey. It was difficult for me to initiate conversation after spending so much time in silence. My brain was still thinking and responding in French and it would take time for me to acclimate to listening to and speaking in Spanish.
The doors were finally opened and those of us waiting outside shuffled up the stairs into the common area. The Hospitalero, who only spoke Spanish, asked for my ID and my Credential. This request for information was assumed, as I knew this was going to be the routine of arriving at an Albergue each night. As he filled out the Pilgrim register, I scanned my surroundings, drinking in the culture of the Albergue. This particular one was two stories, with a kitchen on the first floor, a couple dorm rooms, and shower facilities. After signing my name, I gathered my things and was led upstairs to my assigned room by another volunteer. It was a large dormitory with 20 to 30 metal bunks that creaked with every movement.
Boots were required to be left outside the door, bags weren’t allowed on the bed. We were given a paper sheet to put over a plastic-covered mattress that resembled more of a sleep pad than a desirable sleep surface. All I brought with me was a silk sleep liner and after noting how many open windows there were to the room, I anticipated it being a very cold night. I dropped my things and rinsed my feet before having to inspect the damage.
One of the Pilgrims shifting his bags in close proximity to mine noticed I was limping around the room. He spoke to me in Spanish, but I let him know I only spoke a little. Hearing English for the first time felt like a song falling on my ears despite the brokenness of his words. He asked if the culprit was blisters.
Suddenly, I had seven Spanish men hovering around me all sharing their personal remedies for blisters. Feet care and footwear are hot issues and points of contention on the Camino. I was getting my first dose of those strong opinions sitting there in the center of the dormitory.
The man who spoke English who I seemed to trust rather immediately pulled out a needle and thread and encouraged me to pop it.
Never pop your blisters.
Pop them, but leave the thread in so it drains.
Your feet are in trouble.
So there I am, watching a stranger I met mere seconds before sterilizing a sewing needle and dousing blue thread in iodine. Without asking if I were ready, he grabbed my foot and thrust the needle through the surface layer of the blister, being careful not to let the eye of the needle tug on the skin on its way out. The blister immediately relieved itself of the fluid building and I watched beads travel the length of the thread. He carefully trimmed the ends, leaving it in place. I stared at this string living under the skin from the top of my pinky toe and begrudgingly accepted popping blisters was a new reality I would be required to adjust to.