Sarvaan walks the Camino de Santiago, a test for feet, relationship, aloneness and faith
It felt surreal to think my legs had taken me so far. Had I really just walked across the breadth of Northern Spain? Had I really conquered those mountains, meandered through those endless wheat fields, cut across vast dusty plains, now just blurry images on the uneven horizon of my mind? Had I really just discovered what I am capable of after all these years? What an epiphany it all was! Eloquently put by a fellow pilgrim “You go from living 140 km per hour to 5 km per hour and you observe that which you have never seen before – Life!”
I first heard about the Camino de Santiago while at the Osho Meditation Resort in India. I can’t remember who it was that told me, but I can remember being instantly fascinated by the idea of an adventure of this magnitude. An 800 km journey on foot along an ancient trade route which follows the stars of the Milky Way across Spain, once walked by Celtic tribes thousands of years ago in search of barter and wisdom.
It would be after the time of Jesus, however, that this route would begin to have more of a worldwide significance. After the crucifixion, one of his disciples, St James, went on to preach elsewhere, most notably in Spain before returning to Jerusalem where he was shortly thereafter beheaded. His body was supposedly brought back to Spain for burial, in the area in which the current city of Santiago (San Tiago = St James) now resides. As legend goes, he was laid to rest under the beautiful cathedral there.
Over time, pilgrims set out from distant Christian lands to pay homage to the Saint in Santiago. Stories returned of miracles, especially in the area of healings. As word spread, popularity increased, as well as donations. The Knights Templar were dispatched to protect the pilgrims, to build cathedrals and increase the wealth of the church. When the Templars became too powerful the church felt threatened and struck them down. The route was left unprotected, giving thieves and bandits free reign to harass the road weary pilgrims of the day. In no time at all, the road to Santiago de Compostela was all but forgotten, with only the most desperate miracle seekers and devoted Catholics making the pilgrimage.
In the early 1980’s however, things began to change. Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho wrote a popular book called The Pilgrimage, outlining his own walk along the Camino. He shared with readers common aspects of the path – overcoming pain and fear, building courage, gaining wisdom, and of course the interesting cast of characters you meet along the way.
Before he wrote the book, the Camino could easily be described as obscure, with only a few hundred people making the trek each year. But year after year the numbers increased, and last year, the year I walked the sacred road, an estimated 200,000 people did it with me.
Today, the Camino de Santiago is the third most significant pilgrimage route in Christianity, behind only Rome and Jerusalem. In many ways, The Camino is the same as it was in antiquity, save for a short detour or two. Most pilgrims embrace the simple aspects of the walk, packing light, going slow and living on little. It’s a monkish existence but one that bears incredible fruit. On the other hand, modern day trappings have bored down on this sacred quest with advertisers, opportunists, and bureaucrats an unfortunate part of the modern day package. Regardless, it is still a place where able bodied seekers can make deep self discoveries. Anyone, young and old alike, can embark on this 4-5 week journey and find answers to life’s biggest questions.
A little more than a year after first hearing about it, I made preparations to walk it myself. In April 2010, I set off with my beloved Eva from Croydon Hall, an Osho center in Southwestern England and we made our way to France by bus. Paris is the official start of the Camino Frances, by far the most treaded of the dozens of routes to Santiago. However, we didn’t want to start from Paris, opting instead to begin at a more traditional place – St. Jean Pied De Port.
St. Jean is a peaceful Basque village tucked high up in the French Pyrenees Mountains, just 20km from the Spanish border. Its close proximity to Spain, coupled with the fact that it is the most difficult stage of the entire pilgrimage, make it the perfect place to start. If you manage to make it through the first day, you have the confidence of knowing that you can take whatever the Camino throws at you. Also, if you manage to keep walking past Santiago another 100 km to the sea in Finisterre, (as many pilgrims do) you own the distinction of having crossed an entire European country by foot.
Leaving St. Jean, the first 20 km presented us with a brutal uphill climb, meandering along a small country road. The scenery was spectacular, full of grazing sheep and wild horses feeding off of expansive green slopes while enormous griffin vultures ominously soared overhead. Unfortunately for us, a fierce wind bore down on us the majority of the afternoon, as if to keep us from conquering the peak, making an already difficult climb even more grueling.
By the time we reached the halfway point I was already fatigued and taking more frequent stops. During these rests I would take in the sights, but most of all I would look back in the direction I had come and marvel at the majestic Pyrenees I was leaving behind me, incredulous of the vast amount of distance I had covered, thinking to myself “Wow! How far I can walk!”
When we finally dragged ourselves into the small Spanish village of Roncesvalles, we collapsed in the first two chairs we saw, experiencing a tired relief like no other in our lives. The worst was behind us no doubt, but how would we muster the energy needed for the morrow?
Our accommodation was called an Albergue, which is basically a hostel, similarly full of bunk beds, but catering exclusively to pilgrims. Literally hundreds of them dot the routes to Santiago, some of them offering refuge for hundreds of years now. These days, (with few exceptions) pilgrims never need to walk far along these well marked routes before running into one.
That particular Albergue was a restored 12th century church, in which 100 pilgrims on 50 bunk beds slept in the same room. That night we slept well despite the cacophony, or rather symphony of snoring sounds reverberating around the stone walls all evening. At 6 am our wakeup call came in the form of angelic music, reminding us that we were on a mission for the god within.
Soon we were packed and on the road, walking with a nice young man we met the night before. Mark had the mentality of Zorba the Greek. He was good company, talkative yet still a good listener and infinitely curious.
While the conversation was easy, the walking was not. There was a lot of soreness and fatigue left over from the previous day’s walk, but it went by fairly fast while swapping stories of life on the road. That afternoon we cruised into town to find the municipal Albergue full, so we found another small and inexpensive private one and settled in for the night.
All of these shelters have their own unique style and energy, but some go above and beyond in their uniqueness. One Albergue was famous for its monks who received pilgrims by washing their feet. Another assigned one volunteer to each pilgrim for the purpose of treating them like a King.
Eva and I quickly took a liking to Parochials, as they had a much more communal feel than the state run (municipal) or private Albergues and were solely donation based. In one such Parochial we were welcomed with a sign on the donation box that read “Give what you can, take what you need.” This said it all for these wonderful places that embodied the true spirit of the Camino.
Text by Sarvaan