This week’s article is from Development Perspectives’ co-founder Margaret Downey. Margaret just returned from 2 weeks spent walking The Camino de Santiago.
A little History
The Camino de Santiago is neither a road nor a highway. It’s a walkway trod by travellers of all kinds for more than 2,000 years. The walk has been described as “the finest journey in Spain, and one of two or three in the world.” The European Union has designated it a European Heritage Route. The Camino de Santiago has its origins in pre-Christian times when people of the Celtic/Iberian tribes made their way from the interior to land’s end on the Atlantic coast of Galicia. For them, watching the sun set over the endless waters was a spiritual experience. As part of their conquest of Europe, the Romans occupied Iberia by 200 B.C. They built infrastructure, including a road from Bordeaux in modern France to Astorga in northwest Spain, to mine the area’s gold and silver. Some of the original road remains on today’s Camino.
Many Christians set out on the road to this remote corner of Europe because of a legend that Santiago de Compostela is the burial place of the apostle James the Greater. As such, it ranks along with Rome and Jerusalem as one of Christendom’s great pilgrim destinations.
Over the last few years “The Camino” appeared to me on the tip of many tongues, with stories of a magical journey through landscapes of exquisite beauty. In late May 2014 it was my turn to “walk the walk”, not as a Christian but as an avid walker with a love of nature and an inquisitive mind. Limited to 2 weeks with my family and my son’s friend Seamus in tow, we set about our path, starting in St. Jean on the French/Spanish border. We chose not to tie ourselves to targets or pre-booked accommodations but rather allow for the road to unfold freely before us. The first day led us 25k over the Pyrenees with a cumulative ascent of almost 1,500m. Although this was the longest and most arduous route it was balanced by the spectacular mountain views and the excitement of a new adventure into the unknown. Laden down with bags and mule like postures we struggled on what appeared to be a harsh start to an epic journey. Feet became blistered, hips out of joint and shoulders arched in pain. I wondered had we made the right decision. With two teenage boys unplugged from cyber-space there was certainly an air of animosity surfacing.
I was struck by the average age profile of the pilgrims; ranging somewhere in the mid 60s. Fit Scandinavian and Germans passed us by with sinewy walking legs whilst others appeared to be weighted down with burden. There was a great sense of togetherness and generosity of spirit as we meandered our way through the undulating landscape. Each on an individual journey whether religious or spiritual or health related it didn’t seem to matter; we were a community!
The Rat Race
Most nights we stayed in simple hostels with shared dorms of anything up to 100people in one room. The option to avail of the evening pilgrim meal for a small price was a welcomed blessing. For the first few days we found ourselves following the recommended daily pacemaker, clocking up 25k-27k a day; leaving us at large Christian run Albergues or municipal hostels. This had its ups and downs! I found there was a panic on the people with the sound of rustling backpacks at 5.45am; the early risers getting a head start. This began to unnerve me….30k accomplished by 12noon. Surely the whole purpose of walking was to take it slowly and to observe oneself and life, “go slow to move further” and all that! The numbers were rising each day entering the hostels and many people were left wearily searching for accommodation; almost as punishment for taking their time. It wasn’t peak season and yet the feeling was becoming all too familiar. The rat race had arrived! I wondered why humans appeared so easily swayed by the common hysteria of speed. Why so driven by nature to get there first? I’m going to assume that two centuries of rampant materialism has played its part. As I mentioned earlier the Camino has been walked for 2,000yrs; there is no first or last, there is only now! Which brings me to a beautiful quote I heard whilst walking “yesterday is history, tomorrow a mystery and today a gift- that is why it is called the present.”
We decided to name our team “Paddy Last” and judge our own success on how we felt and the number of blisters we had at the end of each day. We stopped short of the main towns, bunking down in small Spanish villages, identifiable by the tone of bells and tall church steeples. We were made welcome in small, ancient, thick walled accommodations, predominantly Catholic, where we shared a communal evening meal and large quantities of local wine. Occasionally there was an opportunity to take part in a meditation or church service. I ALMOST envied those with strong faith as they appeared to be approaching the walk with more reverence and humility than the mountain bikers and fitness gurus. I participated in a beautiful meditation on the hill of VILLAMAYOR de MONJARDIN which unfortunately ended with a fanatic trying to desperately convert me. I took the best from the evening and left the rest.
Walking approximately 20k a day became our comfortable pace and although we gained a certain amount of peace from this decision, we also had to deal with the loss of people we had befriended. This is probably the most poignant point that came to light for me. As an enthusiastic socialite I made great efforts with my fellow pilgrims during the first few days. Energetically conversing, finding myself compelled to delve into philosophical discussions about life, death and the in-between but it was unsustainable. I chose not to swop addresses or numbers unless asked and yet in the last few days I found myself becoming more introvert, consciously conserving my energy. By day 7 I had exhausted myself and was becoming utterly bored of my own story and voice. Physically I was fine …boasting about my blister free feet. I barely felt the weight of my back pack anymore but I mourned the people who had started with us and stretched out ahead. I mourned those who we left behind and yet there was a strange satisfaction knowing they were on the path somewhere; reminding me of the words of Siddhartha “The river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth…in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere, and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past, nor the shadow of the future…Siddhartha the boy, Siddhartha the mature man and Siddhartha the old man [are] only separated by shadows, not through reality…Nothing was, nothing will be, everything has reality and presence.”
My 12 day Camino became a condensed version of life, one that very quickly taught me that we all flow on the same river of human hope; One that highlighted how I deal with gain and loss…winning and losing…pain and pleasure. I say “my” because although I travelled with dear ones it was an entirely personal experience.