Whilst contemplating the writing of this summary of our trek, my thoughts first went to a checklist of the more mechanical aspects: what to bring, how to prepare, budget, daily routine, Spanish culture, history and food. (This information is available on many websites & all of the guidebooks.) Like a magnet, my thoughts kept funnelling to the essence of the Camino, which is held in my heart, and coupled with a deep feeling of honour, gratitude and love that I was able to share this wonderful experience with my daughter, Shelby. The Camino de Santiago is known to have profound effects on a person’s outlook, teaching another sense of time and solidarity.
We were guided along The Way by bright yellow arrows as we walked the 800 kilometre/500 mile medieval pilgrimage. The Camino Frances which we followed, started in St Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees Mountains and down to Santiago de Compostela in the northwest of Spain.
The Way offers a unique opportunity to let go of the complexities of modern life and to detox- if you choose- from the internet, news, and other such distractions. In turn, this allows serenity for inner reflection and the time to gain a fresh perspective on what’s necessary and important, and what isn’t. You’re also given the chance to put every day stresses aside with no major decisions to be made. The Way is a journey where everyone can find their own kind of spirituality.
Many of the people I spoke to were looking for answers to their current problems in life or a way to make a decision at their present crossroad. I don’t know if it does help in that way: however it does give ‘time out’ and shows that life can go on while these questions/ problems exist. There is also something inherently seductive about a centuries-old journey which has enticed adventurous souls from all over the world to undertake this pilgrimage. I have read that the Camino will offer you a gift every day… if you pay attention and are open to receive. Expect A Miracle.
The guide book warns you not to over-extend yourself during the early days of the trek. After nine hours and nearly 30k on our first day, I was totally exhausted and went straight to bed. Perhaps I should have heeded the guidebook’s advice. However, no advice could have prepared me for the sheer physical, emotional and spiritual challenge that lay before us.
Did I receive a gift on the first day? I was thankful just finishing and having Shelby with me! Then, upon reflection, I remembered earlier standing on a plateau overlooking Spain and France. The panoramic views were breathtaking with patchwork-quilted valleys, mountaintops and mist. Yes, everyday there was a gift if you kept your mind in the present. These gifts were to take many forms: natural beauty, lessons learned, great food, friendships made, and, if lucky, an ‘aha’ moment or two.
On most days, birdsong filled the air and wildflowers turned the verges and fields into a palette of artist’s colours. However, the trek wasn’t always a holiday for the body. My personal ball and chain was a combination of an ankle strain and severe blistering. Maybe it was naiveté, maybe lack of mountain training, or maybe it was just ignorance, but the reality of the rocky, uneven and deeply-rutted ankle-twisting paths were something I hadn’t anticipated. So there I was about 10 days in, booted and saddled-up, ready to attack another day’s trek, when I spotted a Spanish guy looking at me very sympathetically. His concern was focused on my obvious foot discomfort, my awkward gait and slow movements. He approached with what I hoped would be some sort of secret Spanish blister remedy. Wrong! He said to me, ‘The Spanish say that on the Camino, blisters are sins working their way out of the body”. I thought, “Hhmmm…with these blisters, my karma slate must be pretty well restored to a neutral position by now!”.
We walked an average of 27 kilometres each day and, by just taking things in our own stride, life’s simplicity became intoxicating. We soon developed a strong sense of serenity and expectance as we put one foot in front of the other…and there was an awful lot of that!
Even the most trying times were filled with discovery. I remember stopping to give the feet a rest, swap socks and take a break from watching where I was going to step next. As my focus shifted from head down to head up, I was shocked by the extraordinary colours all around me. Expanses of green, dotted with small budding flowers, with a stream to the right and a vineyard to the left created a perfect frame. This natural beauty the Camino offered to us on an almost daily basis was only matched by my daughter’s very patient smile, as she would regularly wait for me on the top of the hills.
The number 1 gift on the Camino was, by far, the people we met; other people, and the Spanish. The Spanish were truly respectful of the pilgrims who travelled from all over the world to walk 800 kilometres across their country. I found them to be most generous, helpful, friendly, and warm. And their culture…well, it was extraordinary! As for the other pilgrims, you start to see the same faces on a daily basis, all sharing the pilgrim greeting of “Buen Camino”, roughly translating to “beautiful journey”. A number of special people joined our mobile village, each leaving an indelible impression on our hearts.
This phenomenon was expressed most succintly by Dwight Asuncion, a member of our pilgrim family: “They say familiarity breeds contempt, but on the Camino familiarity breeds warmth. The maxim ‘sharing is caring’ is perhaps most apt to describe the ‘community’ on the Camino. The sharing happens in a myriad of ways: information, survival/first-aid tips, resources, openness, encouragement, motivation, and of course a good laugh!”.
At the end of each day, it was time to relax and congratulate each other on another day’s successful walk. Everyone looked forward to the banter, the laughter, and the camaraderie – we were all in this together.
I’ll bring this peek into our adventure to a close with a toast our friend Steve offered after an evening meal. The quote is sometimes attributed to poet Ralph Waldo Emerson and goes something like this: “What lies behind us, and what lies before us, are tiny matters compared to what lies within us”.
By Sam Pinkerton