a pilgrim, a sojourner
Updated: Sep 23
A few years ago I watched a film "The Way". Not a great film by all critical accounts but I liked it. It introduced me for the first time to a pilgrimage walk called "The Camino" from St Jean Pied de Port in southern France across the Pyrenees to Spain and then west to Santiago de Compostele, 800km. There was something about the idea of a pilgrimage and carrying your possessions, the open road, it spoke of adventure and discovery. As I had two months left of my sabbatical it was agreed, by my leadership team, to let me walk this ancient pilrimage path. I had 8 weeks and chose to start in Arles (near Marseille).
My early days were a lonely pain filled misery. I carried too much weight in my pack, I was contantly getting lost (anyone who has tried to follow the red and white stripe 'GR' markings on France's walking routes can empathise), oh and I was unfit. It was either freezing cold or scorching hot and the cost of food and a bed in France was seriously damaging my wealth.
I was still on my own when I crossed the Pyrenees by the Col du Somport, an ancient route which was still 1m deep in snow when I tramped through it. I was tired and hungry, it was late and the path markings had been covered by a late snow flurry. I was lost and afraid. When I finally crossed into Espana, there was a hostel only 100m from the border, it was such a relief to find it open, warm and and welcoming, I cried.
Up to this point my pilgrimage was a journey made alone. I met a few people but most of my time was spent in my own company. I met for one night Ulricht from Stuttgart, we were sharing a room in a Convent in Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert. I met a Swiss couple and an Italian man with the most amazing moustache I have ever seen. When I arrived at Puenta la Reina the number of pilgrim / walkers multiplied by fifty. I was used to 6 or 8 people but now I stayed in a hostel with beds for 450.
I had got used to being on my own, in my head I wanted to be on my own, I was enjoying being on my own and so, on my own I was once again and lost. Well not exactly lost, in Spain the Camino or The Way is marked with huge yellow arrows painted on walls, kerbs, road signs, the road, trees in fact everywhere. Just on this occasion the arrows were a little contradictory and my guide book less than helpful. After careful consideration of all available data I took off down some steps towards a long and inviting path leading off straight as a ruler into the distance. I have no idea what stopped me but I looked down this treelined path and just couldn't be sure, I hesitated. Behind me a young Spanish girl probably going home after school, headphones in and head down.
"Pardon senyourina, Camino Santiago" I said pointing and smiling.
"No, your way is broken, that is Camino" she said pointing in a totally different direction.
Of course what she meant to say was "You are an idiot and you are going in the wrong direction". I thanked her and off I walked, climbed a fence and splashed through a stream, climbed another fence and fell onto the proper path. Emm "your way is broken". I know it was not good English but something was bothering me. In fact it bothered me for a year.
I walked 46km that day. The sun grilled the left side of my face to a nice medium / well done (walking west means the sun will always be to my south or on my left) my feet were killing me, my legs ached and later in the evening it chilled down and started raining. I was really tired and fed up. I kept asking myself, why was I doing this, who cares and in my head a voice "just give up, no one will know". The last 1km was in the town where I hoped to stay and the road was cobbled stone. If ever there was a road surface designed to make the pilgrim suffer it is cobbled stone. The first hostel was "completo", oh how I hated that word, it means "full, get lost, carry on walking, loser". The second hostel was completo. The third hostel had four beds left, I took one. The hostel was cold, had no hot water for a shower and no food. After my cold shower I got dried in a cold room standing in an inch of cold water with plasters and bits of bandage floating on it. The 1km walk to the bar was in the cold rain and so was the walk back. The dormitory was cold and so was my my bed. This was my worst ever day and I wanted to stop and go home, pack up, give up, chuck it all in. To top it all, for some reason I couldn't get to sleep, I woke up late, aching and hating this stupid idea and that stupid film. I figured I could go to Barcelona, sit on the beach and provided I turned off my Iphone locator no one (except the CIA) would no where I was.
The next morning, sore and really really ticked off I sat at the front door and carefully put on my boots, said "adyos" and stepped out into brilliant sunshine and Paula, a thirty year old Canadian who asked me to go for a coffee with her. This was not what it might first appear, she also asked Carlos from Costa Rica and Max from Austria. With absolutely nothing better to do than walk 30km I said "wee no sorry see no I mean yes". That invite and coffee, croissant, chatting in the sunshine in some tiny little cafe in Los Arcos, Spain was the the moment it all changed. My whole pilgrimage was divided neatly into two polar opposite experiences, the first solitude and second people. This was the start of my new journey, the one where I met people, talked to people, ate with people. Paula left for home a few days later, Max was on a very slow go and I left him behind, Carlos I would meet another four times, the last of which would be in Santiago. Along the way I would meet Lena from Denmark, Marian a bloke from Naples, Tobie a woman from Baltimore, Robert a bear of a man from Austria, Eve from Budapest, Jay from South Africa, Silke from Worms, Louis from Berlin, Margot from Nuremberg, Aimee from somewhere in the US and Sam from London, Ken from Dublin and ... well it goes on and on. Koreans, Italians, Polish, Kiwi's, Australians, Canadian's some I liked and some not so much. These were the people I walked with, there were numerous others who crossed my path for a moment.
I had started my pilgrimage thinking it was a "spiritual" walk. A time for reflection, prayer and Bible reading. The destination was an adventurous 1,200km (800 miles) walk and as I strolled in to Santiago and the square with the cathedral I would know my journey was over and I would be filled with joy and praise.
Eight weeks after I started I limped into Santiago. The Galician bagpiper busker 'piped' me under the archway and into the square in front of the impressive Cathedral, I cried. My walk was over and although I hurt and wanted the pain to stop I didn't want this pilgrimage to stop. I wanted to carry on because the destination wasn't Santiago or the cathedral, the destination was the people I met on the way. People who shared food and wine, we talked, laughed, sang, danced and shed some tears along the way. We were, for such a short time, friends of the closest sort. I cried when I lay down on the cobbled stone in front of this incredible cathedral, I cried for my arrival and I cried for my loss.
I cried because I finally knew what it is I had been looking for all the way. I found I was no longer lost.