El Camino – Dispatch 2

Camino – October 3, Day 18

We’ve made our way through the meseta, the high plateau in the interior of Spain, so hot, desolate, and barren. It was quiet there, so quiet that we were afraid to speak aloud. Only the crunch of the stone beneath our feet broke the silence. We would speak of the meseta in whispers. Meseta. Meseta.

Today, Sylvie and I took an alternate route, which was a couple kilometers longer than the main one, but it took us away from the sound of the highway. We walked along the longest stretch of old Roman road that still exists in Spain. I felt a bit like a school boy, pretending I was marching along with those Roman soldiers of old. Emperor Augustus, the first Roman emperor, travelled this exact road; it felt strange and wonderful to walk in the footsteps of such a famous historical figure.

The Meseta

We are more than halfway to Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims speak of the Camino as having three stages: the painful physical stage, the emotional stage, and the spiritual stage. Many people are still suffering physically. We pass people limping every day and help people in the evenings who still have painful blisters and leg pain. It’s difficult to get into the spiritual phase when feeling such pain, although some people are of the opinion that pain is the quickest route to spirituality. It’s not an idea I want to internalize.

There is a routine that most pilgrims follow. Up early at about 6:00, walk to the next town and have breakfast at a cafe, walk until early- to mid-afternoon and check into an alburgue (pilgrims’ hostel), shower, hand wash and hang clothes to dry, cook or eat a pilgrim’s meal at 7:00 pm, and then go to bed. I like the routine. And I like the pilgrim community. Part of my tribe.

The Camino seems to bring out the best in people. Most pilgrims suffer quietly, complain little, and are supportive, friendly, and polite. We cheer one another on with high fives, hugs, and greetings of ‘Buen Camino’. There is nothing that pleases a pilgrim more than when a local says to a pilgrim, ‘Buen Camino’. Two simple words, but the layers of meaning are deep. There is respect in the greeting, even a sense of awe for the task voluntarily taken, and an underlying wish for all things good for the traveler. It is yelled from windows and bicycles, spoken with a wave from local bakers and store owners, and whispered by passing pedestrians in the early pre-dawn light. Buen Camino. Buen Camino. The words ring merrily in the heart.

We’re more than halfway to Santiago, and I admit, I’m getting into the spirit of this Camino.

Camino – Day 28 – October 14

It’s been 26 days since I’ve seen rain. The mornings are cold, cold enough for a jacket, toque, and gloves. But even now in mid-October, the afternoon sun is oppressive. It’s hot. Hot enough that I dream of immersing myself in melting ice cream. Today, I saw a man stick his head under a water spout to cool off. Dogs lay in the dirt, too hot to move except to expose a belly to my caress. By noon, I see pilgrims at the cafes drinking cold beer, wiping their perspiring brows with a sleeve. I want a beer too, but I keep walking.

Early morning on the Camino.

There are a lot of pilgrims on the trail now. To receive recognition for completing the pilgrimage, one has to walk only 100 kms to Santiago. Many people start in the town of Sarria, which is about 117 kms from Santiago. They bring suitcases, have busses carry their suitcases to their daily destinations, and guides give them food and water at places where the trail crosses the road.

At a way marker, someone has written ‘Jesus never started in Sarria’. Jesus never did this walk, of course; the comment is a slight against those who do the absolute minimum required to receive their pilgrim certificates.

The famous Iron Cross, where you can leave your problems behind.

Yet, I see a man in obvious physical distress being guided by the hand of his wife. If he were to complete the 100 kms to Santiago, it would be a major success. His 100 kms of discomfort and pain is more than I can imagine. I wonder if I would have the courage and tenacity to complete it if I were in his shoes. Perhaps he will only do the minimal distance, but still, I am humbled before him.

I’m in Pedrouzo, Spain, just 20 kms from Santiago de Compostela. I’ll be at the famous cathedral by noon tomorrow and my Camino, while not yet finished because of my desire to continue to Finisterre (the End of the World), will nevertheless come to an end for the purpose of receiving the ‘Compostela’ as formal acknowledgement that I have completed the pilgrimage.

Nice views along the Camino

Our group of three that grew to twelve and then dwindled to four and grew to five has now split up for the last couple of days of walking to Santiago. We all need the solitude in these final days. It was an emotional last supper yesterday as we made the decision. We will meet in Santiago on Sunday evening for the pilgrims’ mass at the cathedral.

My Camino has been difficult. More difficult than I could have imagined. Not because of physical pain or exertion, but because the Camino had lessons for me. Lessons that are good for my personal growth, but that are tough on my ego.

I came here to walk with others. Virtually all of my hiking and climbing adventures over the past twenty years have been solo. In addition, I have been living alone for much of the last 13 years and so I have not had to think about the challenges of being part of a group that spends so much time together. I have been exposed to the drama of interpersonal relationships of others as a manager over the years, but have very rarely been immersed in it.

The Camino has shown me that I have some well-developed skills – patience, calmness, listening. But it has also shown me that I need to be conscious and wary of how my humour and intensity affect others. I have said and done things that have hurt other people’s feelings, caused angst among friends, and, although difficult for me to hear, has contributed to interpersonal drama. I haven’t done it purposefully, of course. I’m not a mean person by any means. And yet tears have been spilled because of words and actions.

I’m thankful for the feedback from my friends. It’s difficult to hear about your faults, especially on the Camino, where emotion is already high. But if not here, where? And when? Let this be the place. And the Now.

Such a peaceful path.

Tomorrow I arrive in Santiago. But I must prepare mentally, emotionally even, for the arrival. It’s been an amazing journey and part of me does not want to see it end. I am sad that it is ending, but I don’t want to arrive at the cathedral feeling sad. I want to arrive with a feeling of elation, humble before Saint James, without whom this pilgrimage would not exist, and thankful, both for the opportunity to live the life I’m living and for the acceptance of requests and intentions I have made on behalf of my friends and loved ones.

So tonight I will be thoughtful and meditative. And tomorrow, my feet, so sore, yet loyal, will carry me to my destination.

Buen Camino.

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