So basically I follow seashells, blue signs, yellow arrows, and occasionally red and white stripes. It’s so simple. I wish real life were a bit more like that.
El Camino de Santiago de Compostela is a network of ancient pilgrimage routes culminating in the city of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. Medieval Christians traveled to pay homage to the city of Santiago because the relics of St James, the disciple of Jesus, were buried there. There are many routes to Santiago - before planes, trains, and automobiles, people used to start from their doorstep and walk to Santiago and then back home again. Because of this, there are traditional, well-loved paths all throughout Spain and Europe that lead to Santiago. Thanks to American films like The Way, or books and documentaries in Korea or Germany, etc the walk has been popularized and attracts people from all around the world. Nowadays, it's perhaps less pilgrimage-y and more famous-long-distance-walk, which some 200,000 people walk each year for leisure, fitness, and soul-searching.
Perhaps the most familiar route to Santiago de Compostela is known as the Camino Frances, which begins in France. Lots of routes through France come together in St Jean Pied de Port, a little Spanish-French border town in the Basque country, and it’s from here that lots of pilgrims begin their journey to Santiago. This is where I started my pilgrimage on 27 September 2016 and began my 600 mile trek westward.
It’s said that “pilgrims don’t say, 'Please,' they say, 'Thank you.'” In days of old, pilgrims would rely on the generosity of churches, monasteries, and local people for food and refuge. However, because of its growing popularity in recent years, the Camino is very commercialized - as evidenced by the advertisements for cafes and accommodation that pollute the way. There are villages/pueblos with food and budget or luxury accommodation every six miles or so. In many places, the Camino’s tourism keeps these crumbling pueblos afloat. Yellow arrows and scallop shell symbols adorn the route to guide pilgrims to their destination. So too, graffiti and messages of encouragement frequent walls, underpasses, and posts. At other points, slips of paper with prayers or confessions are pinned underneath stones, and every few miles small stacks of rocks align the path’s edge.
Its popularity means you’re always in sight of a handful of people, either in front or behind. Guidebooks suggest stops and daily distances, so pilgrims tend to settle into groups walking at their same pace. Familiar faces at midmorning coffee stops become fast friends by dinnertime, thanks to the bonds of blister chat and shared experiences of pain and beauty. Camino veterans share advice with Camino virgins. And as with any trail walking, we developed nicknames to refer to different pilgrims on the way. We identified people by their snoring or the color of their backpack, their profession or some notable feature [walking barefoot, unique walking stick, etc].
In passing, we’d wish each other the traditional, “Buen Camino!” Pilgrims, with our heavy packs, grungy clothes, bad tanlines, walking poles, and dusty shoes, stuck out look sore thumbs, but despite that, most locals greeted us with enthusiasm and encouragement.
Walking ever westward meant my left side was significantly tanner than my right. I carried everything I needed for forty days on the road in my thirty liter backpack. A handful of clothes and a bar of soap can actually get you pretty far in life. People I thought I’d never see again somehow reappeared, and I was amazed at how much I shared in common with complete strangers. Everyone seemed to be in transition – leaving one job for another, finishing a degree, entering retirement.
It didn’t take me long to realize how much of a planner I am. And after several months of logistics and thinking ahead, it was a welcome relief to only think or worry about the day that I was in. And even then, I didn’t need to worry – there was always room and there was always time. I attempted to do away with time altogether, but in the end couldn’t bring myself to part with my watch.
Traveling by foot is slow and boring, and no matter the distance the last three kilometers are always the hardest. You accomplish in an entire day walking, what you’d accomplish in less than an hour’s drive. Walking forces you to notice everything [like all the hydrangeas or the walnuts and figs hanging from the trees above] and it makes you get into your head and heart. Contemplatives use walking as a meditative practice. Something about putting one foot in front of the other engages your body and frees your mind to contemplate life, yourself, the world, and the Divine. My pilgrimage was much less profound than I expected, but meaningful nonetheless. It stripped me of all the stress of the last months’ focus on moving and uprooting my world and led me into the excitement of moving home.
There’s so much to say about the Camino - too much for one post. My journey falls into a few distinct phases, and so I’m going to summarize each phase in a separate post – with lots of pictures, of course. I hope you’ll stay along for the ride, er walk. Buen Camino!