”Quite a lot of them say that they’re here for a bit of exercise or to explore the local cuisine. But I tell you, the closer they get to Santiago, the more quiet and emotional they get. Something touches them. Happens every time.” – Driver, luggage transfer entrepreneur in Arzúa
At the end of May, I watched the citizens of Ponferrada cross the town square at paseo time. All stopped to have a salutary drink at the water fountain. Toddlers were picked up to have their own sip, teenage girls stopped the flow and then released jets of water, tossing their hair and screaming with laughter, making sure the boys noticed. The pilgrims, peregrinos gave right of way to the locals.
I was setting off the following day to walk the last 210 km of the Camino francés to Santiago de Compostela, and I was nervous. Thunderstorms were expected in the mountains, I was uncertain of my physical strength and halting Spanish. What gave me hope was the wide variety of other travellers who gathered on the terraces of bars in the soft evening light. Many were in their sixties, others in their twenties, some hobbled, some moved with confident grace, and they spoke all the languages of the Western word. All had a calm, alert air about them, not the tourist torpor that foreigners in warm climes often succumb to. Two dishevelled, bearded men in walking boots approached each other from opposite sides of the square, shouting with joy at the unexpected reunion. As they hugged, backpacks bobbing up and down, they exchanged news of others they had met on the Way, which albergue they were intending to stay, and where to meet up for a beer after a well-deserved shower.
As I sat there fingering the stem of my glass of albariño, hopeful but uncertain, I didn’t really understand that within a week I too would have internalised the identity of a peregrina and the purposeful calm that comes with it. But to get to that happy state, I would have to go through all the usual stages first.
The Way is now, as it has been for centuries, crowded with people who are all seeking something. Some are seriously sick, some are heart-broken, some are just lost in their lives, some are in the hopeful early stages of a new life. Nowadays, most are happy to share their personal reasons for being there, but very few- Latin Americans excepted - will speak publicly of God. One of the first things that I had to accept was that it was not possible to always tell who was there for spiritual reasons, and who was there just to shed a few extra pounds - to begin with, anyway. The great levelling influence of the Way is indeed a blessing. Whether we had lofty religious ideals or not, we were all faced with the same 20km or so of blister-inducing walking day after day. It wears away narrow-minded spiritual fervour just as effectively as stubborn rationality, and only then can the ageless, gentle spirit of the Way enter us.
As I began to write this post, I read through my travel diary. The inner trajectory of the journey is easy to trace there – the nervousness, subconscious expectations, the struggle to accept that they will not be fulfilled and it’s not like I expected, then making room for the great silence, the shackles falling away through a significant conversation, the ever-increasing joy and inner space, the humble, triumphant arrival, and the difficult adjustment at departure.
The Camino is very rewarding simply as a holiday. The food is terrific, it is easy to find good accommodation, and it’s very beautiful. But that's not really the point. What the Camino is actually about is companionship and the sense of belonging to a loving, supportive human community. All the normal rules of society are relaxed. No-one gives a toss what you do for a living, there is no competition, the sick and the slow are aided and treated with respect – as they bloody well should be: there are families with wheelchairs and baby buggies crossing the Pyrenees. The human will is incredibly strong when it is aided by God’s mercy – or the Camino’s energy, if you prefer. It is all about kindness, honesty and sharing, either in conversation or in the smiling “Buen Camino” tossed over one’s shoulder on a steep trail.
An important, recurring element of the Camino seems to be a significant conversation with another traveller. Often it feels like a visitation, a major blessing, that you keep returning to in your mind for a long time afterwards. I’ve never seen so many grown men cry as I did on the Camino. Several recounted to me that their Way started to change only after they broke down physically, threw down their stick in exhaustion and thought, “Sod this. I’m taking a taxi out of here at the next town”. At that point, someone joined them, another traveller who supported them and shared their heart and hardship with them, and any thought of taxis was forgotten.
Yvonne from Arizona, a stunning beauty in her 70s and a Camino veteran said that “for a lot of people, the Camino begins as a physical feat, and once that starts to go okay, it turns into an emotional journey. There’s a lot of time on the trail to go through your private stuff. Only once you find some sort of balance with that, will the spiritual element have more room in you. You’ll see, the closer you get to Santiago, the people will start to change.” She was right in many ways. The most important change is not, of course, in the other peregrinos, but in you, through acceptance, humility, gratitude and joy. In this, Camino is a microcosm, a compressed projection of the map of our entire lives.
There is a lot of talk about the “right” way of doing the pilgrimage. Hard-liners say that you need to sleep in albergues, carry your own backpack and not plan ahead, let the Way show you how. There is much to be said for the albergues, the most important thing being that you can meet others to walk and talk more seriously with. There is also a lot to be said against them – the bed bugs, the lack of privacy, the lousy quality of sleep. It seems to me that the hard-liner attitude to the Way suits some very well, but is counter-productive for others. The key thing is to remain alert to what you really need each individual day. I can see how the messy albergue Way appeals to the boy in the man, it is almost a return to childhood. For me, at this particular point in time, the opposite was true on the Way: it was time to learn to be good to myself, to tend to my body and my heart. I, like many others, am very good at physically punishing myself in a daily life of motherhood, chores and hard work. Thus, on the Camino I booked ahead, in order to be able to relax and concentrate only on getting to my evening destination, sure of a lovely Galician grandma having made a pretty bed for me under the eaves of an ancient farmhouse, with a pot of stew on the stove. This approach also meant that I spared my joints and let the brawny local lads ferry my luggage to the next B&B. I had quite enough to be going on with, just carrying my office worker bulk and day pack and water there.
In a way each journey is exactly the right length. The Way will inject us with what we need, regardless of how long we spend on it. But I’d say that the longer the better. My 210 km was not quite enough, for a number of reasons. For the first week or so, a lot of headspace is still taken up by all the things you left behind to get there and by all your unanswered, vaguely understood expectations, and the body is only adjusting to the rigours of the road. The countryside is stunningly beautiful, and pretty town follows pretty town. Just as you are getting seriously settled into your Camino, you arrive in Sarría, the last point from which you can walk to Santiago and still get your certificate of Compostela. Suddenly the trail is crowded with newbies as well as all the travel-hardened peregrinos who have followed other routes to get that far. The countryside becomes more residential, suburban, and the Way follows major roads for quite long stretches. The atmosphere changes in many ways, for better and for worse. Really, it’s just the end stretch. That is why it would probably be better to walk at least 300 km or three weeks. It sounds like a lot, but isn’t really. In fact, the more you feel caught in the web of the visible world, the longer you should plan your Camino to be. The ideal would be to buy a one-way ticket to St. Jean Pied-de-Port, for example, and start walking. When you’re done, you’re done.
On that first evening in my bed in Ponferrada, I scrawled a hopeful note, thinking of the square at nightfall. “If the world were organised around spirituality, this is what it would look like.” The following days tested and proved that thought many times over. At the other end of the Road, as I watched the huge incense botafumeiro swing over our heads in Santiago cathedral, I felt that indeed, the camaraderie aided by the energy inherent in the Way is a picture of how we need to go on as a species, if we want to go on at all. As so many before me, I took home that conviction with me. If we can do it on the Camino, we can do it anywhere.
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