You find your way within as well as without: OK - so I stole that from a DVD called the Within the Way Without but I know now what the title means. Whether you are walking alone or with companions, you walk an inner spiritual journey as well as an outer physical journey. Starting the camino has been likened to a birth. Eventually you emerge - after a long, sometimes difficult journey - a new person. As you slough off all your preconceived ideas and expectations you open yourself to a new experience, a more simple truth and an honest journey. I wanted to share these thoughts and feelings with others but it isn't easy to convey them in an email or an online blog. I often felt that I was walking with members of my family - I would think "Hey, Mom! Look at me now!" (My mother has been dead for 13 years but I still talk to her.) Or, I am sharing with my friends who I send emails to back home. I am even walking with historical figures and the many millions of pilgrims past. In a non-esoteric sense, they are watching over you, sharing your journey and urging you on. You don't ever have to feel alone. We are pilgrims in this journey through life.
Kindness of strangers: You are amazed at the kindness of complete strangers. Strangers who wish you 'buen camino' along the road. Those who include a bowl of figs, nuts or biscuits at the table where you stamp your credential. Farmers who put out apples, cherries or rasberries on the side of the path for passing pilgrims. Those who volunteer to serve pilgrims in the many refuges along the way and especially those who prepare meals for the pilgrims - every night. The priests who say special pilgrims' mass in huge empty churches where only a few old women and a few pilgrims attend. Those who take time to dress your blisters, to tend to your pulled muscles or massage your feet. And, fellow pilgrims who meet you with a smile, offer a helping hand, share their food or plasters. And, the many hundreds of volunteers who mark the way with yellow arrows or pilgrim stickers, ensuring that you do not lose your way. There is an armada of people who work behind the scenes on any trail, be it in France, Spain, Switzerland, Italy and elsewhere.
The triumph of the human spirit: Along the way you see young pilgrims, old pilgrims, small skinny pilgrims and large overweight pilgrims. I saw a young man in a wheelchair in Arzua who had started in Pamplona. I met Lucy from Canada who cried every day for the first couple of weeks and felt that the camino was punishing her with rocky paths, bed bugs, rain and other obstacles. I told her that the camino absorbs everyone's hurts and troubles and that perhaps she was putting obstacles in the way herself - that perhaps she was the pilgrimage. When I saw her walking up the hill to the lighthouse at Finisterre a couple of weeks later, she was happy and excited and confident. Her spirit had triumphed and she had overcome. What a wonderful accomplishment for her! I saw people walking with bandages and plasters, some hobbling with painful feet - but determined to continue.
You learn to ignore pain: You carry on walking even though your feet are sore, the muscles in your legs are throbbing, your back is aching and you are so tired that you are almost out on your feet. I got the most dreadful blisters in the first two days of walking in the rain from Roncesvalles. The Compeed plaster had turned to muck and when I took off my socks, the plasters stuck to them, pulling the skin off my heels. I dressed them and bandaged them and walked in Crocs until I could buy a pair of sandals. I then walked the rest of the camino - about 650km - in sandals. The camino teaches you to carry on - to persevere - to not give up. I came home feeling convinced that if I could walk 650km, crossing 3 mountain ranges, 70 odd rivers on dirt, shale, river rocks and scree with raw, wonded heels, in a pair of sandals - I could do anything!
Learn to accept and not to criticize: This is something I am still learning. Perhaps it takes two or three camino experiences before it sinks in?
"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow mindedness." Mark Twain
I noticed, reading through my notes of my first camino, that I wrote a lot of negative things about places, refuges, food, even about other pilgrims. I called some small pueblos "dumps" and described a few albergues as "septic": I wrote about "loud" pilgrims, and described the menu del peregrino as "prison food". I complained about the few times we didn't have hot water for our showers. What arrogance!
Who was I to criticise? I was a visitor in their country - they were my hosts; some of the 'dumps' are hundreds of years old with a wonderful history. The refuges were renovated barns or old church towers - lovingly restored and staffed by volunteers to provide shelter to ungrateful pilgrims like me - often donativo! And the food - many of the little places you stay in don't have shops - certainly no supermarkets - and all food stuff is brought in by vegetable vans, bread lorries or fish trucks. Locals buy what they can, cook the food for you and it usually costs less than 10 euro for a three course meal. Spain has chronic water shortages and even though local residents might have to go without, they suffer the over 100 000 pilgrims who all demand a hot shower at the end of the day! We must learn humility and gratitude.
All things bright and beautiful: You become attuned to all of nature around you - rising with the sun, massaging mother earth with your feet, hearing the wind in the wheat, a weasel scampering over a wall, bird calls - even a field mouse in the grass. Spring flowers never looked so spectacular or autumn flowers so beautiful. A sunrise gives you a lump in your throat and a beautiful sunset leaves you breathless. Some people avoid walking across the meseta but it is on those long, straight paths that you have time for contemplation and reflection. After a few days, you no longer think - you just ARE - you can just BE.
Time slows down: I read an article that claimed: " Time is only as fast or as slow as your brain perceives it to be, and now researchers are finding that it may be possible to gain some control over the pace of life. It appears that taking your focus off of time will make it seem to slow down." For me, this confirms what I wrote in an article for Odyssey Magazine.
"When you rise in the dark, hit the road before dawn, follow the traverse of the sun from east to west, day after day, you lose all sense of time. You become a part of an animate landscape, in synch with the tempo of the earth. The rest of the world recedes until it plays no part in your life. You walk for hours oblivious of the distance you have covered. Days stretch into long, stimulting periods of time broken up by dawn, stopping for coffee, walking till mid-day, finding lunch, lazy afternoons, early to bed, long night sleeping. The average pilgrim takes between thirty and forty days to walk t el Camino from the Pyrenees to Santiago. One could cover the distance in one day by car, but for you the world has slowed down to a pilgrim pace."
Imagine hiring a car in Pamplona and driving on the A-highway to Santiago. At 100km per hour it would take about 8 hours. So, you have 'done' the camino Frances in 8 hours. If I try to picture that, it is like a high speed, fast-forward film with everything blurred, and sounds a jumbled, chipmunk squeak. They say that speed, distance and time are related to each other because, speed is directly comparable to distance when time is constant. For the walking pilgrim, every day is a 'looooooonnng' day and a week is like a month in normal time and a month is forever.
To be continued .................