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.
A couple of months ago I returned to Australia from Africa where my Mum and I went to explore an tackle the climb up Mt Kilimanjaro. When I'm asked how it went, the two things that come to mind are "epic" and "the hardest thing I've ever done in my life". As mentioned in previous blogs, we chose to climb for a cause, supporting Plan International's gender equality projects in Africa helping education for girls in Uganda. Knowing that it was for a purpose bigger than us definitely helped in the early hours on the final ascent.
We were a group of 10, with me the only guy, and Mum the oldest woman. She became somewhat of a rockstar to the other younger women climbing and the group of Tanzanian male porters supporting us. Apparently, not too many 60-something people scale mountains, but she is pretty unique.
Travelling in a single line, we traversed rainforest, along ancient craters, through shrubs and across alpine deserts. My intention for this walk was to be as mindful as possible, climbing with intention and really immersing myself in my surroundings. Almost meditative. What was unexpected was the response from the mountain. On the third day, I broke away from the group to connect deeper with the walk, and after about an hour, I found myself in a powerful rhythm, with every step connecting with this incredible icon of Africa. I was so moved by the spirit of Kilimanjaro that seemed to reach out to me and beckon for me to listen. My heart raced, my limbs tingled as I powered up this steep slope, jumped onto a massive rock outcrop, and stood out looking out across the continent, with the magnificent Mawenzi peak towering over me. I was incredibly alive in this one moment that lingered forever. As I gently turned, across my shoulder I caught my first glimpse of the peak we were destined to reach: Kibo.
It was as if two guardian souls were watching me experience something so profound. Just amazing. So, I sat down overlooking the valley and wrote:
It took us 3 days to ascend from 1897m to 4720m above sea level before our final push up to the peak at 5895m. After arriving at Kibo Hut at about 5pm, we prepared for dinner, and lay to rest before waking at 11pm to start our climb at midnight. We were blessed with a full moon to guide us, which made it all the more special. We zigged and zagged up the rocky rubble of the mountain, ever so slowly. After a short time, we started to notice the profound impact of the lack of oxygen, the cold (minus 20°C) and the exhaustion started to set in. One of our group turned back, then another. After one short rest, I was hit by a wave of dizziness and started to sway and stagger. This was altitude sickness starting to set in, and consciousness seemed like something that could slip away like water through my hands. How would I be able to make it another 7+ hours to the summit? On reflection it is quite a scary experience, but something in me was determined to make it. In that moment, a peace came over me where the decision to make it or not was taken away. It was up to the mountain if it wanted me to make it, turn me away, or take me away. Death seemed just a natural likely option, of which I was completely ok with. And so, with one step in front of the other ever so slowly, I continued. The connection with the mountain I'd experienced earlier echoed through me and gave me the strength to surrender and trust that I had little control over what would eventuate. It also gave me strength to take each step with my Mum as altitude started to take a firm hold of her too.
After 6 hours of painfully slow climbing, our feet and fingers freezing to the point of no feeling and fear of frostbite, we clambers over boulders to reach Gilman's Point at 5685m and catch the sun pierce the African horizon. It was all so surreal as we glanced down into the ancient volcano and the surrounding glaciers. After another 2 hours we found ourselves at Uhuru Peak, the top of the African continent.
It is hard to remember the extent of the feeling of having made it; the emotion cannot be easily described. I remember the six of us that made it huddled together in a group embrace of support. All of us on the trip felt a deep bond as we shared a personal odyssey that pushed us to our edge.
I'm full of gratitude to the amazing team of guides and porters from Marangu Hotel who looked after us so well. Thanks also to Intrepid Travel for organising the trip and supporting us with our fundraising. I am grateful for being healthy enough to embark on the trip to begin with, and the opportunity to share this trip with my Mum.