My mini-pilgrimage on the Via de la Plata started with a big grin under a blue sky. Before leaving home I had been worried. The burnout had ruined my energy levels, I hadn’t been working out (not even doing yoga) in four months and the few training walks I did make had often left me exhausted for the rest of the day or even week.
But that was Belgium. As it turned out, I left a lot of my worries and fatigue somewhere between home and Spain.
“Sorry madam, these doubts are not allowed in carry-on.”
“Excuse me miss, please straighten your self esteem and roll up the blinds around your heart, we are preparing for landing.”
Now I was in Sevilla. My bag got a shell and my credential got a stamp. And as I closed the door of the (very recommendable) Hostel Triana behind me and looked up to the morning sky, I could smell the energy of spring in the air. It felt so good to be back on a Camino!
Walks out of big cities are never fun, but that day it didn’t matter. I was a pilgrim again, after six years, and not until I set my first step did I realise how much I had missed it.
That first stage was a day of very familiar firsts. The first arrow. The first passer-by (a bicyclist) to wish me Buen Camino, the first barking dog, the first wishing for the dog to be behind a fence, the first wee in the bushes, the first popping my head inside an albergue,…
One Canadian man had arrived before me. Then an Australian woman walked in, and an Australian man, a Dutch woman, a Canadian couple,… We were all (except one) down to our second, third, fourth, tenth (!),… Camino. All of us pilgrims who had fallen in love once. All of us pilgrims who had gladly returned.
We had our first (mediocre) pilgrims menu together. Then we had our first night in the squeaky bunk beds, our first share of earplugs and snoring, our first breakfast on coffee and toast.
On the second day I walked with the Australian woman, whom I’ll call J. I liked her from the very start as she was a warm and honest person. I can’t even remember what we talked about, I just remember being happy to have met her. I also remember constantly walking in awe, pointing at flowers and trees and fruits saying: “Isn’t it beautiful?” and J would beam and nod and smile “Yes, it is perfect!”
The road led us through fields and orchards, so gorgeously laid out one ‘d be let to believe they were designed like a garden. It was quiet there, nothing but the singing of birds and the buzzing of bees. And it looked like the land where fairies live: a place where miracles happen.
On the third day J and I were joined by another Australian, male J, as we set off for a 30km journey to Almadén de la Plata. It was the first time in my life I walked a distance this long, but I wasn’t worried. I knew that if I took my time and had a lot of breaks, I’d be fine. It did surprise me, however, that my two friends decided to stick with me, as it was clear they could walk much faster and much further. I wondered if they worried that my cripple ass wouldn’t make it, but I was also very happy to be in their company.
Male J told us he was walking the Camino in memory of his wife, who had passed away because of cancer. Through the walk he was now raising funds to support research and treatment. I was very moved by his story, and I assumed that apart from funds, J was also trying to find some peace for himself, or some answers. I still think about his journey a lot. Because he is still walking as I write this, and I hope the Camino will be generous to him, as it has always been for me.
There are some moments in life were we meet someone, or experience something, and without really knowing why or how, it feels right: as if it’s meant to be. I usually can’t explain it at the time. I just feel a sense of importance, an impact, a tiny shifting in the universe – and it makes me happy and confused all at once. While walking with J and J towards Almadén de la Plata, that’s the emotion which came over me: a peaceful gratitude, the conviction that I was exactly in the time and place where I was meant to be. That I was meant to meet these people. And it made me curious to find out why.
The arrows led us alongside a calm and curvy road for the first 15km. Most guidebooks described it as a horrible stretch of walking, but there was barely a car or a cloud to be seen – the scenery was pleasant and the chats uplifting. Then the Camino veered right, into a nature reserve full of cork trees and flowers. It was one of the most memorable stretches between Sevilla and Cáceres, in terms of quiet and beauty as well as company. At the very end – a steep climb and equally steep decent – let us into the village.
When I walked my first Camino, I found it hard to get used to the quiet and “boredom” of the long afternoons. This time it came as a true blessing from day one. The lovely routine of walking, washing, eating and sleeping cleared my head and brought a sense of simple being that I had missed for too long. I had my portable watercolour set, my sturdy diary full of blanc pages, some audiobooks I never listened too and my senses, which I listened to a lot.
I think one of the great benefits of walking a Camino is that it brings back simplicity to life. It centres around the bare necessities: primary needs as well as time to just sit and watch the world go by. Conversations seem more honest and deep on a Camino (at least with the best part of people). Self reflection, stretching, resting,… become a ritual. Being at mercy of the weather and seasons brings connection and acceptance.
And yet to all that, the road adds a sense of adventure. Surely, there are waymarkers in abundance and facilities especially for the pilgrim-breed, but regardless, you are never in the same place twice. Every day your eyes see villages they’ve never seen before, you talk to people you have never met, you leave behind what became familiar the night before and set out again to an unknown horizon. It is this duality, this perfect compromise between comfort and adventure, routine and unknown, that leads my heart to peace on a Camino. For I am very dualistic in nature and more often than not I suffer an inner struggle between one me that wants to go and explore earth while another loves that blanket in the sofa so much it never wants to leave.
Another very cliché but indispensable Camino truth is that with so little tasks and possessions, it becomes much easier to be grateful. I’m ashamed to admit that, even though I really try to count my blessings in every day life, effortless gratefulness is a sensation I rarely feel at home. Not in the overwhelming way I feel it on a Camino, not with such ease. The beauty of the sunrise, the fact that my right foot doesn’t hurt, the softness of a pillow, the thrill that is receiving a bed with sheets!!! Oh what a blessing not having to unroll that sleeping bag for once! And yet there is one thing that outranks it all: a hot shower with plenty of pressure.
A while back I joined my local Kundalini studio for a rebirthing meditation. It was an odd experience I won’t elaborate on, however I guess it was supposed to make you feel nurtured, taken care of, being loved, ready for life, re-energized as if breathing that very first breath all over. And every time my soar body stood under a hot shower on the Camino I smiled and thought: “Nothing has ever rebirthed me like this!”
If I’d have to describe the Camino in one sentence, that would probably be it.
To be continued.
More (and following) entries of this trip under the tag Camino2017.