The People make the Journey: My experiences on the Camino Santiago
In 2019 I decided to act on a long held dream.
More than 15 years ago, I had been inspired by a tiny paragraph in Ruth Sawyer's book, 'The Way of the Storyteller', in which she talks about how the 'Camino Santiago' and ancient pilgrim route through the North of Spain, was one of the main ways stories travelled around the world. Bards lined the route, narrating stories and pilgrims (Peregrinos) from all over Europe, exchanged stories as they walked side by side or as they relaxed in the 'albergues'...pilgrim hostels.
So when my my sister suggested we walk the last 120 kms of the Camino Santiago from Sarria to Compostela Del Santiago, in Galicia, Spain...I was excited. For her it was a religious journey, for me a special journey as a storyteller.
What I didn't know at the time, was just how much the Camino would mean to me, how it would come reside in my heart, and how I continue to journey along with what I absorbed those 10 days.
Below is one of the posts that I had shared with our friends on Facebook as we walked.
"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 and as I was about to grumble about the effort, deflecting my lack of fitness, 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!!” She and her husband were from Ireland, and were walking for a close relative who was on their death bed...but they believed in miracles and that the Camino could deliver one. 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.
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...my sister 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 8th 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?
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 by 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. 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.
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 MLou 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.
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 although there wasn't much we could exchange. I felt that I should give them the St. Thomas medals and prayers that I had carried from Chennai, from Sant Thome Cathedral. The church of Saint James....at Compostela del Santiago, along with the Sant Thome Cathedral in Chennai and St. Peter's in Rome, is one of only 3 churches in the world which is built over the tomb of an Apostle of Jesus. 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 as St. Thomas isn’t a saint who many of us resort to or even quote.
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 it, 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. Donativo albergues enroute make the Camino an affordable journey for everybody.
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. Literally....FALL OFF. The last 4 kms were a drag. I was exhausted and my legs didn’t want to move. I was fading, MLou 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 had said, with that memory, I forced one foot in front of the other, struggling.
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.
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...850 kms.
However, the Camino for me is so much about the people...much like our journey of life, its the people who keep you going.
By focussing on the journey, you focus on the people around you...and what voyage that can be!!