When I set out on my 120km Camino ‘pilgrimage’ (via ‘the way’ of St James) to Santiago de Compestala, I had no idea what to expect and nor, if I’m honest, did I really have a clear reason for doing it, other than it seemed like a good way to see that part of Spain and I secretly liked the idea of calling myself a pilgrim. By the end, I certainly smelt like a pilgrim but I also realised that this “way” was way more than just a walk. It has been said that you can take what you want from the Camino, but it will give you back what you need. Thankfully it did not give me any tragic zip off pants or chafing, but it did give me a big dose of humility and a lot of time to ponder life. As it turns out, this ancient journey is the perfect metaphor for life, with lessons delivered daily, along the ‘way’.
I detest the hackneyed phrase … “life is a journey not a destination.” You see, I suffer from travel sickness and have never been a fan of journeys (real or metaphoric). I hanker to arrive at my destination, impatient to unpack my bag and put my toothbrush in the designated cup by the sink. Perhaps this predilection for destinations over journeys stemmed from my parents love of road trips. I endured many a family-driving holiday, squished into the back seat of our old turquoise blue Ford, together with my sister, a mountain of pillows and the world’s largest esky. There was no air-con in our car, which was far from ideal in the stifling heat of Brisbane summer and I can remember the feeling of my sweaty bare legs sticking to the vinyl seat. My survival mechanism was to sleep, waking only for the requisite (and compulsory) stops at ‘places of interest’ like the scenic lookouts, Botanical Gardens and local museums. After these pit stops of ‘enforced family fun,’ I would actively will myself back to sleep only waking to ask; “Are we there yet?”
Given this distaste for journeys, a 120km walk may seem like an odd choice, but the allure of this ancient pilgrimage, together with (if I’m honest) the challenge of saying I’d done it, got me over the line. My Camino ‘journey’ was broken down into about six 20km days. On days one and two, I set my alarm for 6am and was out the door by seven … eager to get some miles under my belt early and reach my destination. I powered through all but a few of the rest spots and cafes and stopped only at the most impressive of churches or monuments along the way. I mowed through the k’s in record time, only to arrive at the Spanish equivalent of BF Idaho and realise that there was the square root of F all to do there. I found myself wishing that I had taken my time … talked to more people … stopped for more breaks and taken in more sights along the way. Because as it turns out, the journey was where it was at and all the things along the way were the main attraction. The daily destinations were just punctuation points in the journey. It took me til the halfway point of the Camino (and life) for that message to sink in. Apparently, the Camino, like life, is not a race and in fact the real winners are those who savour the journey not those who arrive at the end first.
My own company is something I have become quite comfortable with over the past four months, so walking the Camino alone was no biggie other than the small issue of navigation. I sit somewhere towards the top end of the spectrum for the navigationally challenged, so I was worried that I might end up in Santiago, in Chile instead of Spain. But as it turns out, you are never alone on the Camino. Hundreds of pilgrims follow the same path each day, all united by the shared goal of reaching (the Spanish) Santiago. I was comfortable walking alone … on my own journey, but supported by my pilgrim tribe if I needed them. I delivered hundreds of “Buen Camino’s’ along the way. That’s akin to the Spanish way of saying “G’Day … have a good walk” It’s like the soundtrack of the Camino and to the pilgrims it’s more than just a throw away line. It conveys empathy and encouragement and inspiration and connection. It reminds you that you’re not alone. It also reminded me that my Spanish was rubbish and that it is hard to be witty when you only know five words.
As I sat in the final pilgrims mass (conducted entirely in Spanish) and looked around the cathedral, I was overwhelmed by this feeling of unity amongst diversity. This cavernous space was overflowing with people of all ages, all nationalities, all colours … and not an “ism” in sight. Exhausted pilgrims united by a shared sense of accomplishment, a spirit of adventure, overwhelming gratitude and a slightly rank smell. Some of the most interesting stories I heard came from people, whom on face value I might have assumed I had nothing in common with. But The Camino is a magical equaliser. No one cares what you do, what car you drive or where you live. They care about who you are, why you’re there and the story you have to share. It was so refreshing to strip back all the pretence and the labels. For one blissful week we were all just pilgrims with way more in common than we ever would have believed.
I’m not sure if the Camino delivered me any lightening bolt flashes of inspiration but I do feel different for having done it. In the end, it wasn’t the end that mattered at all. It was all the bits that came along the way. I’m still not sure what my path is from here, but I feel confident to just start walking and see where it takes me.