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Finding Joy on the Camino Santiago

Updated: May 23, 2023

This is the 2nd in a series of posts that I had shared on Facebook about my experiences on the last 120 kms of the Camino Santiago that I had done with my sister in April/May 2019. It was a journey that left a deep impression on me and I hope to do it again soon.

Read the first post, written by my sister Mary-Lou Navaratanam, here.

Galicia, Spain, May 1, 2023

A pilgrim with a backpack and trekking poles walking on the Camino Santiago. The route is flanked by trees.

As I huffed and puffed up a slope, another peregrino next to me, did the same as if in in sync. We both laughed in embarrassment.

As I was about to grumble about the effort, she turned to me with a smile, saying, ”Isn’t it just great that we can put one step in front of the other, and wake up each morning!!” Gosh, I thought!! What am I grumbling about? Buoyed by this, my feet moved quicker and before I knew it, we were at the top of the hill.

A path through green fields with blue skies in the distance. A pligrim walks along the left on the path

Yesterday was going to be our longest and toughest. We had an almost 25 kms walk. The weather started out great, cold and misty as we walked through forests and farmland. But then the sun came out, and it was scorching. Yes, Chennai girl me, used to 35 degrees plus humidity, could not take the direct sun in 25 degree Galicia.

After the first 3 hours, every step was quite an effort. Soon we were walking along highways, a well trodden pilgrim route, Mary-Lou and I marvelled and wondered at this route and how it was probably marked by the footsteps of the thousands of pilgrims who walked this journey since the 8 th century. How did the first pilgrims find their way? Did the path they create, help later planners chart the routes of the roads and highways?

Stone houses and a path through a village along the Camino Santiago

Although the scenery to one side was stunning, and at times it seemed like the clouds were at a lower level to us, we were walking along a highway, and this did bring me down a bit. Fuelled on freshly squeezed orange juice, I plodded on, Mary-Lou doing much better than I was, her stride longer, quicker and more buoyant. I couldn’t keep up. A muscle issue that plagued me from about 3 weeks ago, flared up now and again and I had to stop frequently to stretch.

One of the top things about the Camino experience is the people you encounter and just like the Irish lady above, I met many more yesterday who are clueless about the role they played in our Camino.

-A peregrino has to get their ‘Camino passport’ stamped enroute. This is proof that you passed through the towns on the Camino when you go to get your Compostela or certification of completion at Santiago. Stamps may be collected at churches, cafes, bars or albergues and are very very important. Our travel agent had suggested a small cafe at Ventas de Naron. We went in, ordered lunch and got our passport stamped. As we left we noticed a little church close by and a long queue waiting for a stamp.

A small stone chapel with a bell and small stone cross on the roof. Pilgrims line up outside its door.

We could hear laughter and a loud voice speaking in Spanish. But we couldn’t see what was happening. As we got in, we noticed that we were in a tiny church, so tiny that it didn’t even have windows. There was a statue of Mother Mary and a picture of a man in the costume of the Knights Templar. We then noticed that the picture was of the man who was stamping the pilgrim passports and that he was blind.

My sister Mary-Lou was very moved, as he reminded her of our Papa....both blind, but both determined, eager to meet people and eager to do things. She asked a Spanish speaking pilgrim to tell him that our father is also blind. This moved him so much that he reached across to give Mary-Lou a huge hug and four prickly kisses, his moustache just like Juan from ‘Mind your language’. I was on the receiving end of a hug and kiss too as he yelled ‘Templar, Templar’....asking if I’d like a stamp of the Knights Templar. This encounter buoyed me and kept me going for a few more hours, marvelling at his ability to find his own joy, despite his limitations.

Pilgrims walking on a path through fields. There is a bit of fog along the horizon

As we walked on we saw two women and a young girl. They turned out to be German, three generations walking together. The grandmother, in her 70’s shared a truly special bond with her daughter and granddaughter. There was so much love between them, the grand daughter often walking hand-in-hand with her grandma. We kept bumping into them enroute, and feeling a connection with them, I felt that I should give them the St. Thomas medals and prayers that I had carried from Sant Thome Cathedral in of only three churches in the world to be built over the tomb of an apostle of Jesus. (St. Peter's, Rome is one and we were walking towards the other...Compostela del Santiago)

The grandma couldn’t understand much, but once her daughter translated what I explained, she was thrilled to receive the small gift from Chennai. We were surprised to find them looking for us this morning as we walked the Camino. The mother was excited. She showed us a little note which she had received from her son who was back home. It was a quotation he sent her, one by St. Thomas. We were struck by this, and felt that this connection was meant to be.

St. Thomas isn’t a Saint that many of us resort to often. So it is rare to hear a quote attributed to him.

He was the 'doubter' amongst the apostles...not believing that Jesus could have risen from the dead. The original owner of the term 'doubting Thomas'...often used for skeptics.

Buoyed by the love of the three generations, we walked on towards a sign that said ‘free hugs’. Trigger happy with my phone camera, I stopped to click a picture when a man sweeping outside, yelled to someone inside...’Free hugs, free hugs....there’s someone here for free hugs’.

Before I knew what was happening, a young girl, bursting with energy bounded out and wrapped me in the tightest hug ever. ‘Come in, we have free lemonade for the pilgrims.’

Urging us to stick a pin on their world map,..they were happy to have pins on India, although I’m sure that many Indians have passed this way. It was a donativo albergue, which means you pay whatever you can. It was being run by volunteers who cook, clean, give hugs and help pilgrims along the way....spurring them on just like they did for me.

While these encounters kept me going, towards the end of the 25 kms trek, I felt that my legs below my knees were going fall off. The last 4 kms were a drag. I was exhausted and my legs didn’t want to move. I was fading, Mary-Lou was always ahead of me and I could not catch up. I thought of a friend I had made in Sarria, a Lutheran pastor, Susanna. ‘Every step is a prayer’, she said.

Then, I heard voices singing in Spanish, much like our boisterous renditions of ‘Down by the river side’, enroute to our school picnics to Aarey milk factory or Powai lake. I don’t think that bunch of teens know just what they did for the unfit peregrino from India. They sang with gusto, in Spanish and my feet moved in time to their song. Soon, they were onto ‘Volaré’, voh-ho.....Cantaré and my heart sang along. I remembered the many Bandra Sing-songs and sang to myself as they sang on. Their song energised me and made my legs hang on for dear life, pushing me foot in front of the other.

A pilgrim in a grey bucket hat, wearing black, poses against the backdrop of a stone bridge

Nine hours later, we were at our hotel, happy to reach finally.

A relaxing swim in a thermal pool, pampered our worn bodies and delicious food nourished is in preparation for the next day.

However, the Camino for me is so much about the people and I went to bed admiring the couple from the Isle of Mann who had come on the Camino just to share a little bit, the last 100 kms with their daughter, who was walking the entire Camino Frances from St. Jean Pied Port

Four pilgrims smiling at the camera. 3 women and 1 man

Read our next post in the Camino Santiago series here...

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