It's been a few months since I've returned from my pilgrimage, and I'm surprised by the impact it's had, and how often I think about it. Here is my final reflection on my walk, and the two moments etched in my memory at the end of my pilgrimage; both moments of complete vulnerability, absolution and contentment.Read More
Each day on the Camino, I've been writing in a small journal about the trip. This is quite strange for me as I very rarely keep records of my journeys, but something at the start made me sense that it would be a rewarding part of the experience. It became an important part of my daily routine that framed the rest of my walking. I tended to wake up around the same time each day, usually waiting for all the other pilgrims to finish rustling, packing and leaving, then I'd depart the albergue (pilgrim hostel) around 8am, bee-lining to the nearest cafe for a couple of cafe con leches and a napolitana de chocolate whilst reflecting and recording activity or thoughts on the previous day. The added benefit of writing was that most of the other pilgrims had walked ahead, leaving me to enjoy the way mostly to myself. It's not that I didn't want to walk with others, it was just that after a few pretty intense but terribly exciting few years, I needed some quality time alone. It might surprise you that there are now over 250,000 people walking the Camino each year, with the June/July period being the busiest. That is a lot of people, and especially the last 100kms, I often found myself in a long, stretched out trail of pilgrims. But the times where there was no-one in sight on the way in front or behind were the most perfect for me.
It struck me wandering and wondering along one day just how important it is be comfortable in your own company, and to be able to enjoy it. It really is the most important relationship that you will ever have, but for me it has taken time to come to peace which who I am and to actually like the way I am, actively choosing the qualities in me.
Over the years, I've formed a belief that our concept of self is more flexible that we actually think. We often have a fixed idea of the kind of person we are, with special quizzes and tests to confirm our suspicions that we are in this "category", or that "box". On the Camino, we are all pilgrims, with unique experiences that have shaped us, but the act of walking unites us all regardless. Each time we cross paths though, we are able to choose how we relate and connect. Is it a simple and polite "Buen Camino" or an opportunity to share more. Back home, I've always thought that each day gives us the opportunity to interact in the world the way we want. Are we the introvert or the extrovert? The agreeable or the provocateur? Each time we choose. I think this is what is the most exciting about life. It's not only is it "choose your own adventure", but also "choose your character". Who is the person you want to be in the world? Do you want to inspire? Heal others? Be a trusted friend? How do you want people to remember you and what do you wish that they would say when you are not in the room? What will be your legacy? They are questions that fuel me every day to make the most of each moment, and never miss the opportunity to inspire.
There is one special point on the Camino that is very significant for thousands of pilgrims; their moment at the Cruce de Ferro (the Iron Cross), which marks the highest point on the way to Santiago.
This pile of stones under the tall cross have been carried by pilgrims along their walk from all over the world. It is an impressive monument, and I spent a lot time just sitting and reflecting there. Many of the pilgrims I'd met shared what their stone meant to them, representing what they wish to leave behind from their life. Some were the weight of the death of a loved one or destructive relationship, others a enduring mindset that no longer served them. But just what did this stone that I'd brought from Australia represent to me? I realised that I had a very strong sense of contentment in the person that I am, and my past has shaped it and I bring it all with me wherever I go. And so, my small stone from the eastern coast of Australia came to represent all that I was willing to leave behind: a small piece of me to mark that I am also at home here, as I am wherever I go. Each place I've traveled has always felt so familiar, and my "nomadic life" of moving around across my life has allowed me to continue to grow and be at home wherever I may be (Spain is firmly on my list of places to live one day now!). It is an incredible feeling of security in myself, and one I hope to help other people to foster in themselves too. None of us are really broken, but the symbolic act of leaving behind what has physically weighed us down in our lives, and the feeling of lightness as each of us begin our descend down to our final destination. But more on the growing analogy of the Camino to our lives later.
I've been walking across the north of Spain for the last 24 days along the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pagan and Christian pilgrimage. It is so strange to type that I've walked around 550 kilometres so far, with another 210 to Santiago de Compostela, plus about 100 to Finisterre; the end of the world, well at least it was the end of the known world then. I've met hundreds of other pigrims from around the world over the last few weeks, who all undertake the walk for different reasons. Some religious, some spiritual, others to enjoy some space from a busy life at home. But many walk the Camino to find the next step in life.
The countryside here is so beautiful. Today for example, I walked over a mountain covered in wildflowers of yellow, purple and red. Other days find me meandering along old country roads surrounded by wheat fields swaying and twisting in the wind. It is amazing to just stop in my tracks and take the time to marvel at nature. The fresh air, sweeping panoramic views coupled with walking 20 to 30 kms each day, makes for a epic journey. I am overwhelmed by gratitude for this opportunity to experience the Camino, for my health to walk it, and the joy I am able to experience in the ever changing scenery. Simply awesome.
They say that the Camino works on you in mysterious ways, bringing out what you need to confront in your life. Perhaps it is due to the routine of walk-eat-wash-sleep that is shared by all the pilgrims, or the mystery of an ancient soul-line stretching across the old world which allows what is suppressed by the grind of daily life at home to surface and confront you. For me, I've had to confront physical pain. Coming over the Pyrenees from France, my feet swelled up and my shoes were too small (were perfect for hiking in Nepal a few years back though!). This left them covered in blisters, and as I hobbled into Pamplona on Day 3, I had to buy shoes another two sizes bigger. Of course, new shoes need to be broken in too, so new blisters under blisters made the pain excruciating quite often. What was the lesson the pain was trying to tell me? I was frustrated that my body was refusing to allow me to continue at the pace and distance that I desired, ans as I tried to continue to push through the pain, my feet would just get worse. My body was telling me to slow down. If fact, it has probably been telling me that for a while at home too, as I continue to persist in my daily life at a fast pace, driven by passion and a strong sense of purpose. If I only wasn't so damn strong-willed, and listen to the limits of living in a body. As I slowed down, somedays only walking 3kms, the pain would dull and the pace allow me to soak in every step in this beautiful walk, almost meditative.
A few weeks later, I stayed at an albergue (pilgrim hostel) where a renowned healer lived, and he took a look at my feet before I began again for the day. As he held my feet, he said that the Camino had a way of letting the body and mind work through and let go of what has bottled up in the world at home. For some, it is confronting personal demons, unresolved issues or attachments. For me, it was pain that needed to be expressed. He reminded me that pain doesn't exist in the feet, but in the mind. The act of walking and connecting with the ground, coupled with gravity, made the feet the perfect place to push out what needed to be expressed. he said, after a few days walking slow in my sandals for plenty of air, I would be fine. And he was right.
There is a mystery in the Camino, and I observed many others working through challenges of life, love, and meaning of life. The focus on walking one step and then another (I estimate that I'll have walked 2 millions steps by the end) is the perfect opportunity for each of the thousands of pilgrims that travel it each year to find their way to a sense of personal renewal and absolution.