One Month

It’s been one month since my last blog post here, and 6 weeks since I returned from Spain. In a large part it feels like forever ago. And that also feels like a very bad thing. Like it’s all in the past and it’s slipping away already. 

But I don’t have much time to worry about that right now. I’ve got a PhD to do now and it’s too hot inside and out to do much work, so that’s a daily struggle right now. Spain is also having a heatwave, which means I am very grateful I am not walking the Camino this month! Even sitting in front of my computer doing work is too much effort; walking anywhere is sheer torture. I do miss air conditioning most of all right now, though at least I have a fan.

I have managed to go through and label all of the mass of photos I took and put them into a semblance of a slideshow. I’ve also emailed any useful photos to the people I walked with and I’ve been keeping in touch with them. It seems I’m not the only one wondering if it was all just a dream.

But then, for no apparent reason, a moment comes back to me; sometimes an image, sometimes a feeling, and it’s like being back there again. I hope those don’t vanish as time passes, and I am already itching to walk again but will have to wait a while. But soon. I need to go soon.


Mi Camino

It all begins with a movie. Or perhaps with the pilgrims. It matters little either way. What I do know is that, in the winter of 2012, basking in the bitter sunny cold that had descended over England, I rented a recently released movie, by Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez, called The Way. I did not rent it for the plot line, but rather for the actors. But I fell in love with it for the plot.

If you have not yet seen the film, I humbly suggest it. It is a well written, well acted, and well shot story of a father and son who never saw eye-to-eye and of one man’s journey to complete his tragically deceased son’s walk along the Camino Frances to Santiago de Compostela. Along the way he meets an interesting cast of characters, discovers a great deal about himself and his life, and a great deal more about his departed son. It is a beautifully moving story that would strike at the heart of anyone who sees it. For me, it appealed on an even greater level.

I went to bed that night with a thought it my head and woke in the morning to one of the clearest moments of understanding I have ever had. I would walk the Camino Frances, the 800km route from St Jean Pied Port in southern France to Santiago de Compostela in western Spain and I would do it in honour of my thirtieth birthday, more than a year away. I felt this gave me time to prepare physically, but mentally as well, but that morning I was completely ready to start walking.

30 Days. The month of May, 2013. For my 30th birthday. It made more sense to me in that moment that anything had for years. A dream that I could actually fulfil. I knew it was slightly mad and entirely amazing (as were the reactions of most people I soon told), but I could not, for the life of me, think of any better way to start a new decade of my life. What I hoped would be the best decade yet.

The story of the Camino has many paths. There are many routes (the Frances is only one, though the most popular) and many crossroads. There are many reasons to walk it, and not all of them are religious. Whatever reasons you have are your own. Whatever you learn along the way is for you to know and understand. But there is one guarantee to all who walk the Camino: you will learn something about yourself, about others and about the world that you never knew before. And you will be a better person for it.

I walk for myself. I walk for the family who gave me a beautiful life. For the parents that have supported all my crazy dreams. To see a country I have never seen. To meet people from around the world. To share an experience. To prove that I can do it. To meet a challenge. To overcome a struggle.

But, mostly, I walk for myself. My way. My Camino.

[This was written 12 months ago to the day. It is still, every word, valid.]

The Things List

Things I will no longer take for granted:

-hot water
-shops that are open 2-5pm
-internet access
-that the corner shop is 200ft away from my house and the grocery store is 200m
-being able to sleep in without being woken by noise
-that I don’t live with a snorer
-that I have a bathroom door that shuts
-electrical outlets
-unlimited food
-breakfast before walking 8km
-clean clothes (a washing machine)
-being warm (not that I took this for granted anyways, after the winter England had)
-the option to not leave my house for the day

Goodbyes and Endings (and Beginnings)

So ends one camino, and so starts another. The word, in fact, means journey, as is life itself. It feels such a strange thing to be back in my room in England, which I have not seen for 37 days. It feels too easy to fall into routine and to view it already as I would any other holiday. But it wasn’t any other holiday. It has changed me, in ways perhaps it will take a while to understand.

But then, everyone I talked to in the last few days felt the same way. We are all together in this, in many ways. All of us will face the challenge of getting back to life and integrating this experience with everything we left behind. Now, however, we have each other and new friends can be the best of help. I do feel like it is the people I met along this journey who will be the biggest part of my life from now on. You can know someone for years and never know them in the way you would if you walked a camino with them. We see each other at our worsts (sick, miserable, naked 😉 and at our bests and take everything in stride. There are many people I met along the way that I would never have become friends with in another situation, but in this we are, because we can understand each other better than people who have not had this experience. Shared experiences breed friendships, I think it can be said.

For now, however, I will concentrate on the little things for the next several days; I’ve gotten very good at that. Laundry to wash, a sleeping bag to air, grocery shopping, sleeping, cleaning, emails and getting back into the swing of things, without diving in the deep end again. Might as well enjoy a few more stress free days before next Monday. Reality will always intrude, sooner or later. I hope I catch up on sleep before either of those arrive.

Santiago de Compostela 2

I actually slept pretty well, even through the early riser who left before 6am (to walk or catch a plane, I´ve no idea). We had a breakfast at our usual hour, but only had to walk 100ft for it, instead of 4km!

Today was a ´go to mass and buy all the things we didn´t yesterday´day. We started with a brief pop into the cathedral while it was quiet, then to the pilgrim´s office (also while quiet). It was sort of surreal and didn´t take long, but I have my Compostela, the pilgrim´s certificate that says I walked at least the last 100km of the Camino. I will have to frame it, I guess, and put it with my other degress at M&Ds place. Seems to me almost as much of an accomplishment as a master´s degree (in the department of effort, that is).

Naturally, we rewarded ourselves with another tour of the shops (more money spent! I am helping the Spanish economy, that is my reasoning). Then we went to get a seat for mass, and a good thing too; we got to the cathedral at 11:10 and it was already a quarter full. But we got seats about halfway down the north side nave and settled in to wait. I went down to see the crypt with the (supposed) remains of St James, in who´s name we walk the Camino. The priests were there praying before mass and it was very beautiful, if crowded.

Finally, with a packed (even standing room was hard to find) church, mass started. I didn´t understand very much, though I have a general idea of what was said. It was much more focused on the pilgrims and the pilgrimage than the other masses we have been to, which was very nice.

And then the moment we had walked 800km for and could only pray would happen, they swung the burning Botafumeiro above our heads. I videoed the whole 4 minutes naturally. What an amazing thing to see and smell as the smoke filled the church. At the end they swung wide all the massive doors at the end of all three naves so pilgrims and tourists could pour out into the sun. I won´t say I had a religious awakening or anything, but it was a beautiful and memorable experience.

And then we went for tapas at an amazing bar where you just point to the tapas lining the length of the bar and they heat them up for you; whatever and however many you want. The gang went there last night and we are planning on going again this evening. Our last night. Tomorrow we leave at 7am for the airport and a long travel day home. And it will truly be the end.

Santiago de Compostela

It´s hard to put into words such a feeling. The guidebook I´ve been using (which has proven useless or plain wrong on more than one occasion) says that people feel different things on arriving in Santiago. Relief, joy, disappointment; the list goes on. And on. No two people will feel the same way.

I cannot quite tell you how I feel. It is a combination of many emotions overwhelmed by a continued feeling of disbelief. A large part of me thinks I will get up tomorrow and walk another 20km. That I am not – cannot – be there yet. And yet I am. After 34 days, 630km walked and 160km trained, I have reached the end of the Camino Frances. And everyone we know (who finished) is here.

Perhaps it will feel more real tomorrow when I pick up my Compostela; my pilgrim´s certificate, and say to them that I walked from St Jeam Pied du Port, which will be entered in their record books. Perhaps it will feel real at pilgrim´s mass. Perhaps not. Maybe when we get on the plane on Wednesday. Maybe when we get home to England. And perhaps I will never quite be able to believe this experience happened. It seemed so impossible that first day and now it is very real.

Whatever emotions I feel in the coming days, weeks, and months, I will hold onto the memories that have become snapshots in my mind. And maybe one day, when the memories start to fade, I will come back and walk another Camino. Or perhaps the same one. Who knows?

I sit here in my hostel room looking out across to the cathedral which dominates the skyline as the bells toll 10pm and the sun continues to shine in the west, beyond Finis Terre. It´s a beautiful night in Santiago with not a cloud in sight. There are red roofs as far as the eye can see. It is a beautiful city and I am here.

Pedrouzo, Arca, O Pino

Perhaps by tomorrow I will have some profound words of wisdom from this journey, but the only thing I could come up with today was: ´three Americans and three Canadians walk into Santiago…stop me if you´ve heard this one before.´Not exactly the wit of the century. Maybe by tomorrow I will have come up with something better.

For now, we had a hot walk today which ended in shorts and a t-shirt for the first time. Tomorrow should be hotter still and we will try to leave about 6:30am in the hopes of making the centre of Santiago by noon and avoiding the worst of the heat. At least we have no concern about bad weather the rest of our stay here in Spain. Should be stunning the next two days and only cloudy the day we fly. At last. Still, even with the varied weather we´ve had my tan is pretty good if…obvious in where it ends. Tanlines are unavoidable!

My cold has progressed to an annoying cough that hits me in fits. Senja went through the same thing (and still is). I´ll keep taking the meds we got as they seem to work and hope I don´t keep anyone up at night.

The albergue we are in today (our last one) is perched in a valley of pine and eucalyptus trees at a low elevation. We had a pleasant walk today on dirt track through little villages. Tomorrow we have that for the first 15km, but the other 6 will be along busy roads into Santiago. Just because it is the end doesn´t make it prettier! At least until we reach the old city. I am trying to prepare myself for noise, traffic and plenty of people, but that´s hard. It´s been a long time since Leòn. But perhaps this time will be different because it is the end and by Tuesday we will be tourists in a city of tourists.

But for today I have enjoyed stopping to smell the flowers (and the cows), enjoying the quiet and can sit here at the window on a city of trees for the last time. I have fallen in love with this place. Each province we have passed through has had it´s own beauty, but Galacia is the most stunning. It reminds me of two homes in equal parts and the people are so friendly. I think I will return here one day and see it again, perhaps  by means other than foot!

Just one final step to take on mi camino.

June 2, 2013