It’s been an awfully long time between posts on this blog. But I have an excuse – I have been off exploring. Among other things, I walked the Camino pilgrimage in Spain, something that’s been on my hit list for a while. I was very happy to have this article about my walk published in The Age Spectrum:
Hiking 800 kilometres across Spain was my idea. Several friends had done it. All said it was life-changing. I didn’t need a walk to change my life, my motivation was more mundane. My husband, my two sons and I had decided to travel for six months. We liked to walk and the Camino would be cheap. Done deal.
My main mistake was not allowing enough time. It shouldn’t have been hard with six months to spare, but flights out of Santiago were so much cheaper a few days earlier. Thirty days will be plenty, I decided from the distance of Australia. We don’t have to do it all.
But as soon as we start, not finishing is unthinkable. It is a mission. We have to complete. We do the maths. Twenty-five kilometres per day with no rest days will bring us in on time. We are all fit and used to walking, we’ll be fine.
‘A hell day. Collapsed in albergue,’ reads my journal. We are used to wilderness and hills. The hard surfaces and endless stretches of flat terrain wear us down. My boots disintegrate, leaving deep blisters as a mark of their passing. My sons and I remain stoic but my husband, an intrepid and enthusiastic bushwalker, moans constantly. ‘I only want to finish so I can tell people how bad it is,’ he says. I take to walking well away from him. I have enough to deal with. ‘I wake up with a horrible cold, a deaf ear, a sore knee and a HUGE bedbug bite on my cheek. Only two more thirty k days and we will be back on schedule,’ records my journal. We feel like prisoners on a forced march. But we will not stop.
We bond in shared mirth at our guidebook, which was pressed upon us by a delightful American woman at the start. Our guide, John Brierley, suggests that we attach a sign to ourselves – ‘I am a pilgrim who walks in silence. Peace be with you.’ He meets the devil – identified by his black-feathered staff – on the track and cries with delight upon locking eyes with a silent shepherd. In our weakened state, we also find the trackside graffiti hilarious. ‘Don’t quit before the miracle,’ says one scrawl and ‘If God wanted us to stay in one place he would have given us roots,’ declares another.
I’ve had better walking, I’ve got to say. It is pretty in parts, but nothing compared to Tasmania, New Zealand or Scotland. But still, it grows on me. The albergues – dormitories where we spent the night – are a revelation – remodelled mediaeval churches, mudbrick hillside cottages and architect showpieces. Many ask only for a donation and throw in breakfast and dinner as well. Most of the wardens, or hospitalleros, are big-hearted and generous. They practice what they preach. One night in an ochre-walled town we drink too much red wine while the hospitallero farewells the sun with his bagpipes. Other wardens, like the one we call the coffee Nazi, have clearly had enough of pilgrims.
The towns are remarkable too, each one distinct. Some are seedy like Wild West towns – red-dirt streets framed by looming cliffs. Others are pretty, all cobbles and flower boxes and bright-blue doors. Ancient villages clinging to hillsides remind me of Nepal. Opulent cathedrals and churches are a given, as is the twiggy mess of stork nests in their eaves.
The other pilgrims are also extraordinary, though often bizarrely annoying. Valentino, a handsome middle-aged Italian, struts up and down in underpants and gold chain and snores like a chainsaw. The over-religious Australian, ‘I’ll thank God by taking a photo,’ Cynthia and the ‘I’ve got five Camino apps, but this one is best,’ Seattle guy are also memorable. As is the English mountain bike rider determined to ride her bike on every inch of the track, no matter how narrow and rugged. ‘You can feel the power on the path,’ she says. We become very fond of a young German couple who turn up magically with information whenever we lose one of our party. This happens more often than you’d think, considering the whole way is marked with yellow arrows. The spirituality and niceness of everyone gets a little wearing at times. Where are the bogans, we wonder?
They say that everyone cries or finds romance on the Camino. Some do both. My moment comes without warning at the Iron Cross, the highest point on the walk. It is the place where traditionally pilgrims place a stone in memory of those who are not with them. I trip on a rock and fall flat on my face in front of the cross – the metaphor is not lost on me. Then, remembering my parents, who died within a month of each other, I start to cry and don’t stop for over half an hour. A nice American woman helps me up and insists on taking my photo. I look miserable, covered in dust and tear-streaked. The Camino has broken me.
Later, my husband cries too, when watching a child play hide and seek. He finds it poignant. I think we may both have Stockholm Syndrome. My younger son escapes unscathed but my older one falls for a Turkish girl he meets in Leon and, skipping the last section, hitchhikes to Santiago to be by her side. A few days later we run into him by chance outside Santiago Cathedral. He is perched on a stone wall smoking a cigarette and looking melancholy. He doesn’t want to talk about it.
I asked my husband the other night how he feels about The Camino now. ‘It was a profound experience,’ he says and he’s not even joking. ‘It was humbling.’
‘I wouldn’t mind doing The Camino again,’ says my younger son out of the blue as we chat on Skype one evening. Oh memory, you are a fickle beast. I’d do it again too.