My reflections on walking the Camino de Santiago Compostela, Spain
In June 2012 my dear friend Sue invited me to join her on the Camino, the ancient pilgrimage that traverses northern Spain from St Jean in the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in western Spain. After much deliberation, a few weeks prior to Sue’s planned departure I said ‘yes please, I would love to join you!’ The back-pack was purchased, as well as comfy walking shoes. After packing far too much and with great excitement, Sue and I set off on the 27th June. After a journey via Istanbul and Madrid, we joined the Camino in a small town called Sarria, and in total we walked approximately 110km to Santiago, which qualifies us as ‘pilgrims’. The full distance for the Camino is 780km and takes 6 to 8 weeks to walk. We covered the distance much faster than we expected so we carried on a further 50km to the coast, to the very ‘end of the world’ at Finisterre, the official end of the Camino.
LAY OF THE LAND
The section that we covered spans a part of north-western Spain called Galicia, which is beautiful rural country. Soft rolling hills of the greenest green make up much of the landscape. Hand-built stone walls line the fields, wild flowers abound along the path, oaks, aspens and pines provide a gentle canopy, and wind farms dot the horizon as far as one can see in many places. This area is picturesque, and we were blessed to have idyllic walking temperatures of approximately 22 deg C, plenty of sunshine and some rain towards the end of the journey. It was a sheer joy to walk the path, feeling at one with everything around us. Symbols of the religious and spiritual are ever present, a cross around every corner, pensive Mother Mary’s watch over graveyards and reminders of the Knights of the Templar adorn buildings that are centuries old.
God is in everything I see
Tiny villages and hamlets dot the route. Many farms appear deserted and there is an eerie quiet in many of the villages, as younger people have left to work in the city, and only the elderly remain tending to the dairy herds, and farming their own produce. The accommodation en route was simple, clean and very affordable at 10 to 15 euro per night. Aubergues, or ‘refugios’, are open to Camino pilgrims only and presentation of our ‘pilgrim passport’ was required to gain access. We did not experience lice or bed bugs, in fact nothing like it as in most aubergues we were issued with a disposable sheet and pillow case, to be placed on already very clean beds. Dormitory life was surprisingly pleasant. Pilgrims respect each other’s need for quiet although a symphony of snoring did occur at certain times of the night! Hot water abounded, and the food although not gourmet, was enjoyable and affordable.
AN ANALOGY FOR LIFE
Aside from the ‘form’ of the experience, friends and family ask ‘so, how WAS the Camino?’ My answer has been ‘wonderful, in every way’, because it was. Sue and I marvelled that we did not find a thing to complain about; that said we did approach the experience with a positive attitude and we expected things to be wonderful! That doesn’t mean it was all wonderful; there were hard times, but on reflection I see it all as having been wonderful because of what I learnt there. I now understand what many people have said about the Camino, that it is a metaphor for life itself. This is why pilgrims talk about ‘my Camino’, much the same as we say ‘my life’. I’ve realised that every day of our lives is a Camino, and every lifetime is a Camino, and I’ll draw some analogies for you here and give you some insight into the lessons I’ve learnt, which I believe are lessons for all of us.
My Camino, my life, is what I make of it
Sore feet, blisters, aches and pains, sunburn, heat, cold, bodily administrations, uphills, downhills, well days, sick days, enough sleep, not enough sleep, euphoria, despair, comfort and discomfort make up the Camino for most people. Metaphorically, life is a little like that, isn’t it?
Fellow ‘peregrinos’ (as they call Camino pilgrims) are extremely diverse. They are young, old, of different races, different nationalities, diverse religious and spiritual beliefs, some athletic, some cumbersome, some handicapped (including the blind), some walking the Camino, some cycling it, some alone, some in pairs or groups, some with dogs, some in boots or walking shoes, some in sandals, some with all the hiking gear, some with the tiniest of backpacks, and even some travelling with babies. No-one is the same, but they all have a shared interest – undertaking the journey, which is rather like life.
Every pilgrim one meets whether on foot or bicycle exchanges with you an encouraging ‘Buen Camino’ which means ‘good Camino/good walk’. Occasionally you may hear, or see written on a wall, the word ‘ultreya’ which means ‘strength to you’. Many local folks also greet you with a ‘Buen Camino’. Every person on the Camino is there by choice and their reasons for doing the walk are all entirely individual. For some it is for the physical accomplishment (although this is not common), some are walking to work through a great loss or difficult change in their lives, or to mark a milestone, some are there for religious or spiritual reasons, some do it merely for the ‘joie de vivre’ and the adventure of it. Unlike many activities in life, the Camino is not a competition. As is human nature, there is some pride in adding up the kilometres covered every day and the sense of achievement that comes with that.
There were people we encountered who were walking the Camino trail in the opposite direction! No one stopped them and said ‘hey, dude, you are doing this WRONG!’ We hailed them with a ‘buen camino’, meaning ‘good on you, keep going, have strength’. We could apply this to all those non-conformists we meet in life, surely? Each and every person’s reason and the lessons they learn on ‘the way’ are unique and every pilgrim respects the other for just showing up and participating. How would it be if we exchanged a ‘good journey, well done you’ with every person we encounter in life?
CARING AND COURAGE
What struck me was the acknowledgement and care shown by pilgrims for one another, and also the respect that was extended to us by the people who hosted us in the ‘aubergues’ and at the coffee shops and restaurants we stopped at. We were warmly greeted by these proprietors and of course by fellow pilgrims. On the path, people were aware of each other and if we saw someone limping or struggling, we’d exchange a few words, checking that all was well. One incident which stands out for me is when Sue and I stood at the bottom of a rather steep hill, just checking it out and galvanising ourselves to tackle it. At this moment a tall German man who we had encountered a short time previously joined us on the scene. We called him “our red monk” as he wore a very large red raincoat, and well, he looked like a monk. Our red monk appeared, hugged and kissed us both, placed himself between us and grabbed in each hand one of ours. Then he walked us to the top, assisting us with his loving energy and strength. Mission accomplished, laughter, more hugs and off he went. We had other meaningful interactions with fellow pilgrims, and of course between us Sue and I were constantly checking on each other – ‘how are you doing, did you sleep OK, would you like to stop, why don’t you try this, it may help’, in addition to all the emotional support and perceptions that we shared with each other.
‘When you meet anyone, remember it is a Holy Encounter’
As I see it, in this adventure we call Life, every person we encounter is here by choice (some of us believe that, some not), and everyone is on their own journey. We all walk this journey not knowing what to expect from one moment to the next, which if you think about it takes a great deal of courage. What is around the corner? We never know.
Will there be a huge hill to be climbed, or a steep and rocky path downwards that requires skill and leaves one with shin-splints? Will it rain, must I prepare for that? Is this pain in my leg going to get worse, or can I simply make an adjustment to my backpack? Should I rather prepare for a blister (the worst), or chance it and then address it when it may be too late? If I take the wrong path, will I find my way back and will I be alright? Will there be shelter when I need it? Will there still be space for me in the refuge? Do I have enough supplies to sustain myself if it gets tough? Sometimes on the Camino, the corner we took revealed a field of wild flowers, a tonic for the soul. Sometimes the corner revealed a pile of manure, some depressing abandoned machinery and an impending cloudburst. We kept going ever eager to see what was next. Isn’t that what we all do in life? We humans are courageous beings!
One thing I learned is that I am a lot stronger physically than I expected. In addition, I learnt that it takes spiritual strength to admit that you can’t continue with something. I struggled with a bug I picked up in Santiago and expended much mental energy on this ‘I can’t be weak, can’t let Sue down, must push myself through this, must be strong’ and so on. My ego can be very exhausting. Finally, with the prospect of a hill-climb in the pouring rain I had the thought ‘girl, who are you trying to impress here?’ and I turned to Sue and asked if she would mind carrying on by herself and I would take a taxi to the next town. The planets did not stop revolving, I noticed. Sue in her inimitable style said ‘no problem’, gathered up her rain gear and back pack and set off with enthusiasm for the next 10km in the rain. My body was grateful to me for letting go of my pride.
Letting go of ‘stuff’ was a feature of our experience. We realised we had packed too much at the very start, and Sue immediately abandoned two books at the first café.
I had several instances of pulling out items from my own backpack and abandoning them, in order to lighten the pack and relieve some back strain. Before dispensing of these previously thought ‘necessities’, I reminded myself of the saying “if you think you need something, you need something you don’t need because you have everything you need”. It was liberating to let go of ‘stuff’ and manage on the basics, both with clothing and with toiletries. I feel life is a continual ‘letting go’ too. Letting go of expectations, of pre-conceived plans, letting go of relationships that no longer serve us, letting go of loved ones who have passed on, letting go of our children and what we want for them, letting go of our attachments to success and to youth, letting go of anger, grievances and guilt, and letting go of a myriad other perceived needs, attachments and addictions. All we truly need lies within us.
What we did realise is that we deeply desire to feel connected to family and friends. Sue and I had decided we would not be in contact by phone with our families and friends too often; we would check for messages perhaps once a day. This we felt was a part of our ‘letting go’ of things that fill our daily lives at home. After a couple of days we were both sneaking regular peaks at our phones, me more so than Sue at first. Eventually I asked myself, why should we be disconnected from our loved ones and friends? Where is the benefit in that? Is this some step on the road to spiritual mastery? No. Just as in life, we yearn to be connected to one another, to always feel and know that connection. Love and connection; what else matters in life?
For every pilgrim on the Camino the destination is Santiago de Compostela. The aim is to reach the ancient cathedral in the old city in time for the daily noon ‘pilgrim’s service’. That is the culmination of the journey. The morning of our approach to Santiago, we set off before sunrise as we were determined to get there in time for the service. Walking through a quiet forest in the dark, with a full moon lighting our way was quite magical. We did reach the city in time and it was a wonderful moment to arrive at the cathedral. I felt deeply moved and full of gratitude for the opportunity to have walked just a small section of the Camino, a pathway steeped in mystical and mythological history; a route thousands of others had walked over many hundreds of years.
The spirit is a place unto itself, a journey without distance
The cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is a little over the top in size and style for my tastes but that aside, when you walk into it, your whole being goes “aaah..” The light streaming through the arched windows is beyond beautiful. The pilgrim service is conducted in Spanish with some Latin so it was incomprehensible to us, but that didn’t matter at all. An elderly nun, dressed in her black habit, surprised us when she started to sing, accompanied by the organ, in the most angelic tones. She gently encouraged the congregation to participate. It is difficult to describe the effect of this moment, and it’s something I will never forget. This nun sang with a sweetness and clarity of tone I would imagine would be heard in heaven. Tears came, and Sue had the same experience.
As we sat listening to the nun I thought to myself, yes, this is what it is all about. This reaching the cathedral, being bathed in this light with this wondrous music, is akin to, or symbolic of the essential yearning of all human beings, to reach our ‘Home’. Whether we are conscious of it or not we all yearn for that re-connection with ‘That’ which is more than us, the Divine if you will, that something that we can’t quite put our finger on, and that we forever long for. Our pilgrimage in this life is the search for that, and many of us seek it in so many different forms and distractions, until we discover it isn’t anywhere ‘out there’ at all, because it resides within the temple of our heart.
YOUR LIFE IS THE WAY
On reflection, the biggest lesson I re-learned (note ‘re’ as it is a question of learn this, and learn it again) on the Camino was that we should honour the personal journey of our fellow travellers, and respect the courage that is required by every person who undertakes this pilgrimage we call ‘Life’. Let’s be honest with ourselves, we don’t always do that and we are so quick to judge. We know not the intensity of another person’s blisters, their aches and pains, their fears, their joys and their tribulations, and what is ‘right’ for them, their own soul’s purpose. We know nothing about other people actually and why they do the things they do. Isn’t it arrogant to presume that we do know? Their decisions, their sufferings and the longings of their heart are theirs, not ours. What I do know for sure is that we are all here having a shared experience, and our fellow pilgrims at the end of the day are simply due our appreciation and admiration for the courage of showing up and participating in this journey we call Life.
As they say on the Camino, ‘your Life is the Way!’ It’s awesome to know that my life is what I make of it. What an exciting prospect this is and what adventures will lie ahead? Would walking the full Camino be part of that adventure? I would like to think so. Walking a pilgrimage is not on everyone’s bucket list, but I found it an enriching experience in so many ways. If it appeals to you, know that you can do it because you are already a pilgrim!
For details on walking the Camino, please visit the website of the Confraternity of St James in South Africa www.csjofsa.za.org You are welcome to contact me for further info.