The Camino is “a spiritual journey where people walk across nearly 800Km, on an extraordinary pilgrimage that has been taken since the 9th century. In fact the path is older than that, it follows the Milky Way and, before Jesus was born, pagans were walking across northern Spain in a born-again ritual. They would finish at Fisterra (the end of the world), burn their clothes, and watch the sun fall into the infinite sea next to La Costa de Morta (the Coast of Death). This ritual symbolized a pilgrim’s death and rebirth. Tradition has it that the remains of the apostle Saint James are buried in Santiago de Compostela. The Way of St. James became one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during medieval times, together with Rome and Jerusalem, and a pilgrimage route on which a plenary indulgence could be earned.”
There are many routes “Pilgrams” can choose from, usually with a minimum of 100km. the most famous route (and most crowded) being The French Way can take over 30 weeks covering over 800km. Though we could have chose a closer city in which to begin, we opted for the less crowded route, from the Portuguese border covering just over 120km in 6 days.
After saying farewell (and unloading a few items we had over packed) to Siobhan’s parents in Porto, we took a train to Valenca, Portugal. Then we walked from the train station, through a 13th century fortress, over a bridge that crosses into Spain.
In Tui we picked up our Camino Passports that require a minimum of two stamps each day (proving we did the walk). We began our Camino alongside a couple from San Fransisco who had begun from Lisbon! They shared stories of how poorly the trail was marked in Portugal, and were glad to have some English-speaking companions for a change. After a few hours they stopped at a cafe and we continued on. This would be a constant theme: come across a couple, group, or solitary hiker and chat for a while, then leap frog each other from cafe to cafe the rest of the Camino. We made friends with a Canadian group from Winnipeg led by a quick-witted older gentleman who was quite a character, a fellow PT and OT from Florida who gave Siobhan some great career advice, and a young Texan who boiled my competitive spirits, just to name a few.
The Camino itself takes many shapes, from walking through parks, vineyards, cobblestone towns, along highways, and through forest, with a yellow arrow or shell always pointing the way.
On average we would cover 20km a day. Whereas most pilgrims actually plan their entire trip, having their belongs sent to the next town or Albergue/ Hostel, and many even reserving their walk through a company that handles their luggage (some have vans along the route to supply them with water or snacks or foot treatment), we decided to carry our 30lb packs and find accommodations as we went. This proved to be more challenging than we had anticipated. Siestas became a common theme for us.
All in all, the Camino for me was was a new way of traveling a foreign country, at the slowest pace possible, by foot. Though it was amongst fellow foreigners from all over the world, it was a great introduction to the laissez faire lifestyle that is Spain. It was also a reminder of my mom’s voice telling me my eyes are to big for my stomach, followed by a reminder of how my pride and competitive nature are my biggest motivators. I can’t wait for the Alps and the Himalayas!
The few things I had read about the Camino included mention of the spiritual and reflective nature of the walk and how powerful it had become to many of the people who had made the journey. As this was just a small blip of a much larger trip, and considering the fact that we wouldn’t be walking for very long, I did not go into it expecting any kind of profound epiphany or spiritual growth. I was looking forward to some exercise and nice scenery. BUT (and you knew there was a “but” coming) even the short six days we spent walking to Santiago de Compostela made more of an impact on me than I had anticipated.
A few things contributed to this. First, a few days before starting the trail I had lost the charger to my phone, thus eliminating the possibility of listening to music or podcasts. Second, Richie and I discovered that we walk at different paces on different terrains so there were long periods every day where I was alone with my thoughts. Third, carrying a 30lb backpack everywhere I went was harder than I had thought it would be, and I needed lots of mental distractions to keep my mind off of my aching joints. Lastly, the day before we started the Camino, I heard that the mother of a good friend of mine had passed away after a long battle with cancer. I had never met my friend’s mother but this was on my mind for much of the trip, facilitating thoughts of my own parents, my family, mortality, and the general nature of relationships. Now, I didn’t come up with any ground-breaking theories or a plan to completely change the trajectory of my life, but I did come to some personal conclusions and and realizations that I might not have, had these factors not been in place.
Although I loved meeting new people, seeing new places, and trying new foods and activities along the Camino, this was probably what I got most out of the walk. It was a reminder to unplug and allow myself adequate time to mull something over. I realized while walking that I had time to actually finish a thought, come to a conclusion, relfect on the conclusion, and draw a connection to real situations in my life. I definitely don’t allow time for that in my every day life (because who has that kind of time anyway?) but maybe there is something to be gained by giving yourself a long period at some point to just “be”. I hope I can do it again someday.