A very long walk
As some of you may know, I completed a ‘Camino’ earlier this year, so I thought I would share with you some of the experiences and reflections that came out of that month long walking journey.
I won’t go too much into the mechanics of what is a ‘Camino’ – suffice to say that, in its most common form, it is a long walk or trek across the North of Spain that actually starts in a small village on the French border and goes all the way to a city called Santiago de Compostela, some 800kms in distance. The walk (or Camino) originated about 1200 years ago as a pilgrimage after the remains of Saint James The Apostle were supposedly discovered on the site of where the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral is located today.
Since those early days, countless millions of people have undertaken this pilgrimage, and made “The Way Of St. James’ something of a phenomenon. As I said, I’m not going too much into the history and details of the pilgrimage – if you really want to know more, you will find a great deal of material on this subject in Google; there have also been many books and guides written about this subject, as well as a bunch of movies and documentaries that are available.
This journey that I undertook was somewhat disrupted; I actually started it in April 2014, but unfortunately broke my left arm after 8 days of walking, and had to return home to get it fixed. Not to be deterred, I thought I would have another go at it this year, so I left for Spain in early May and resumed from where I left off – some 200kms from the official starting point in St. Jean Pied De Port (France). I was fortunately able to finish the 650 km walk by early June this time, having walked to the official destination of Santiago de Compostela, and then a little bit further to a place called Finisterre which is on the Atlantic coast of Northern Spain; Finisterre is so-named because in Roman times it was at one point considered to be the end of the world; Finisterre literally translates to ‘Land’s End’ in Latin.
I would often be asked ‘Why are you doing this’ inferring it would be a fairly arduous task for a person at my stage of life, and my standard answer would always be pretty consistent – the adventure, the challenge and the sense of achievement. Now whilst these responses are valid, meaningful and still hold true to this day, it became increasingly evident as I was progressing through the various villages towns and cities of Northern Spain that there was another emerging reason for undertaking such an exercise.
Yes, I did receive a huge sense of achievement in having completed the task; after all my walking buddy and I had been planning this sojourn for more than 3 years; it ended up being quite a complex, involved and intricate exercise. If you think about the numerous aspects and dimensions of such a project – what do we take, when do we go (time of year), how do we get there, how do we get back, how physically (and mentally) fit do we need to be, the stopping points for each stage, rest days …… the list is very long and extensive.
Yes, it was a fabulous adventure. Every day began without any really accurate idea of what was going to happen – what was the weather going to provide, what was the terrain ahead going to be like, stops for food and rest, what roads / paths / tracks were we going to take (there are sometimes too many options), etc., etc. So every day was certainly an adventure, not the least of which was the language hurdle – because you’re walking through predominately rural communities and regions, English is not commonly spoken. Without doubt, one of the most enjoyable aspects of the adventure was being able to see and experience the Spanish culture, tradition and society first hand – the Churches and monasteries, the museums, the countryside, the quaint and sleepy little villages, the farms and vineyards, the wheat fields, the sunrises and sunsets – again the list is broad.
And it was definitely a challenge, on so many different levels; the camino throws up so many challenges to so many people in so many different ways, whether it be the difficulty of the terrain, the various aches and pains you’re suffering at any point in time, the blisters and the tendinitis (I fortunately didn’t suffer too much on this front); we found out early in the piece that the weather can be a real challenge – the first few days of last years’ walk were quite wet and so you do your best to stay dry (which is just about impossible); in fact I know of a number of people who have done this walk multiple times at the same time of year as we did, and they experienced both snow and rain one year and blazing heat another. So you see, you really need to be up for anything, and that certainly is part of the challenge. I can definitely attest that there is no shortage of challenging circumstances on the camino; and this, as some of the more experienced walkers will tell you, is a key aspect of the mystique of the camino; you can never really predict or foresee what will happen at any given moment; you just put one foot in front of the other, and deal with situations (good, bad or indifferent) in the best way you can.
Having now walked the camino and having reflected on this task, I now realise that the compelling and overwhelming learning that I took away with me was that this camino is very much about the people you come into contact with. It cannot be stated strongly enough – it really and completely is all about the people. The camino is a hotchpotch of people of all ages, all nationalities, all backgrounds, all religions (some were not religious at all), all cultures; in fact I would be hard pressed to think of, for example, a nationality that I did not come across – Koreans, South Africans, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, German, Chinese, Bangladeshi .... the list goes on.
It would appear that this camino somehow collects and collates the experiences, the backgrounds, the cultures, the knowledge, the intelligence and the personality and character of each person who submits him or herself to the task, and like some huge number crunching computer, sucks in all this information and spits out an individual experience for each participant, one that is markedly different from person to person. In fact, so often, you would complete a particular stage, and somehow catch up with someone you’d met, maybe on a previous day, and talk about that stage just completed, and your perceptions and experiences could be totally different; of course the explanations for this would be very much dependent on so many factors such as each persons’ state of mind, their physical state, other people they may have come across, the way they slept the night before ..... All these factors colour your perceptions of the journey.
Of course, when you talk about such a melting pot of people like the camino really is, then it is not surprising that you come across individuals stories developing along the way. For example, we met a French man, quite early on in the piece who was in his late fifties or early sixties, married with 2 mature age kids, in a stable relationship, and in a good job; he decided to do the camino because he had had some quite negative experiences (he wouldn’t specify what) with his Catholicism when he was a boy, and so he wanted to do the camino and end up in Santiago De Compostela to officially renounce his religion. This was quite staggering to us, that a person would go to all that effort, but there it was – that was what he was going to do. As a footnote, we caught up with him after Santiago De Compostela (he was also walking to Finisterre), and had dinner and some drinks with him, and interestingly, he did not do as he said he would – i.e. denounce his religion ????.
We met another Ozzy lass who had been working in London for the last couple of years and was now heading home to Brisbane; however she had decided to take on the camino before going home, and so again I caught up with her about mid-way through the walk. As it turned out, she had met a guy from Brazil early on in the walk and fallen in love with him; he had previously made firm plans to only walk for a couple of weeks before going home and resuming his job; when I met up with her, she was busily trying to re-arrange flights from Brisbane to Brazil, as she decided to join him and continue their relationship, rather than go home. Now let me tell you that reorganising flights and travel details is not easy even in Australia, but doing that in the back blocks of rural Spain with dodgy wifi, not much of the language, different time zones etc. and on a mobile phone was close to impossible. Where the story ended, I’m not sure, but I know she had arranged her flights to Brazil, so one can only imagine.
Without doubt, one of my absolute highlights of the camino was attending Mass, celebrated by a Jesuit priest (Father John) that we had met along the way. This priest and another close friend of his, who was a lecturer, were leading a group of philosophy students from Boston College (USA) through the latter stages of the camino. Jose and I had met up with this group the previous day at a tiny rural village called La Laguna De Castilla and had started swapping stories over a beer or two. Father John made it known to us that he was going to celebrate Mass the following morning at another small village called O’Cebreiro, which was about 2 or 3 kms further up the mountain, and so we said we’d be happy to attend. Jose and I got to O’Cebreiro a little early, had a quick breakfast and went looking for Father John. I was expecting that he would celebrate Mass at the small church in the village, but instead he chose a spot in a park, overlooking a valley which was shrouded in cloud – the village is high up in the mountains and looks over a number of valleys in an almost 360 degree direction. The sun had just risen, it was quite a nippy morning, and the village itself was still not quite awake; the only real activity was that of pilgrims moving thru the place on their way to either breakfast, or their next destination.
Father John had no altar to celebrate Mass on, so he decided to use our back packs, all piled up strategically to form an altar. We used other local objects such as stones to hold down cloths, and there in this small park overlooking a mist covered valley Father John celebrated an open air Mass. To say it was a surreal experience would be understating the situation enormously; there was such an air of reverence, respect, holiness, sharing and brotherhood that embraced the participants; many pilgrims who were travelling thru, saw what was going on and joined in with the celebration, and they also commented later they felt this strangely strong bond amongst all who attended; as I said it was truly an uplifting experience, one that I still count myself extremely fortunate to have been a small part of. Of course, after the Mass, we all embraced, took pictures and exchanged pleasantries and went on our way, and unfortunately never met the group again, but that experience will always stay with me. I reflected later on the symbolism of the altar made up of back packs, which in a sense represented all the things that we carry through life, be it on the camino or in our normal daily lives, and these were, at least for a short while, symbolically carried by our Lord during our celebration; I’m not sure that was Father Johns intent, but it certainly represented a powerful symbol.
These are just some of the many, many stories that we came across during the camino. There are of course a host of others, such as the lady from Brisbane who had suffered from cancer and had beaten it, so she was now using the camino to ‘recalibrate’ her life compass to see what the next stage of life held for her.
And that, in the end, I feel, is the point – the camino has this strange, curious ability to throw things up at participants, to challenge in unimaginable and unexpected ways, to thrust many beautiful experiences in front of you (and some not so beautiful!!!). Probably, the decisive learning of the camino is that it is very much an accurate reflection of life itself and the journey that we all have to make, in our own way, under our own speed, guided by our own principles and values and ultimately making the best of the resources we have around us, whether that be our families, our friends, our faith communities and our God.
On a practical note, I took many photos along the Camino. I've posted a couple in this article. If you are interested you can see many more at http://bit.ly/1LKedsv.