Life Is Different at a Walking Pace, You Notice Things
My family and I recently spent 10 days in Northern Spain, visiting and walking the first and last parts of the Camino de Santiago. It is something that I have wanted to do for many years, after hearing from many friends returning from this life-changing pilgrimage. While we didn’t have the time to walk the whole 800 kms (600 miles) which would have taken around 6 weeks, we did manage the first big walk from St. Jean Pied du Pont in France up over the Pyrenees to Roncevalle in Spain, an epic 20 kms straight up ascent, followed by a grueling 4-5 kms straight down descent. We broke the first day up into two shorter days before slowly making our way to Sarria (via the wonderful city of Pamplona) the last place you can join the Camino and receive your pilgrim’s passport in Santiago. As you walk you collect stamps at various churches, cafes and hotels to complete your passport as proof of your journey.
(The earliest recorded pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela began in the 9th century and was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during the later Middle Ages. Legend holds that the remains of St. James were carried by boat from Jerusalem to northern Spain, where he was buried in what is now the city of Santiago. The 'Camino Francés' or French Way begins in St. Jean Pied de Pont in France and ends in Santiago. The route sees thousands of pilgrims each year with local inns and cafes dotted along the route.)
While we only managed 7 days of walking, I caught a glimpse of what makes this journey so special. In a world of distractions and an overloading of information at every turn, the Camino offers another way. The only goal each day is to rise, don your walking shoes and walk to the next stop. That is all. While there are some Wi-Fi spots along the way, I opted out of posting progress on social media and instead focused on just walking. What happened for us was that we just chatted, away from devices and the busy-ness of life, we were able to share various aspects of our lives, hopes, ideas, and perspectives. As a parent of a 15 year-old, the blessing was in hearing about our daughter’s life, her friends, her teachers, the subjects she was studying in a way I don’t often hear in day to day life. We talked about silly things too, but to just be present to each other was rather beautiful.
Life is different at a walking pace, you notice things - the smells, the colours-, you feel the breeze against your skin, the sun upon your face, hear the birds and insects and get an insight into people’s lives both the residents who live on the Camino and the pilgrims walking the path.
I thought about stories along the way. You often cross paths with the same groups of people, particularly in the last 5 days from Sarria as most are resting in the same small towns. I love hearing where people were from, surprised that as a pilgrim, English speakers were in the minority, the majority coming from other parts of Europe; Latvia, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands. On the first encounter, you might say a brief hello and perhaps discover where people are from, as you meet up again and again, their stories expand, you discover their deeper truths and selves, their vocations, circumstances, dreams and life philosophies. I met an older couple from New Zealand and, over the course of the 5 days, came to learn that their 3 adult children lived in London, Melbourne and Christchurch and that their eldest daughter was a young widow whose husband had passed away suddenly from a genetic heart condition leaving her with two small children to raise. Later, one of the New Zealanders told me again about his ‘widowed daughter’ allowing me to glimpse his pain in that one small phrase.
The Camino has been described as a place to re-invent yourself, in Alexander Shaia’s book Coming Home he even describes the way you are given different names by other pilgrims. How do our stories change when we want to re-invent ourselves? What details do we omit and what do we embellish? I don’t have a good enough memory to maintain any new personas but I could see how people might be tempted.
One of my favourite quotes that I have been reflecting on for over 15 years is ‘it is not necessarily at home where we best encounter our true selves’ by philosopher Alain de Botton. I am immensely curious with the notion that we are perhaps different when we leave our structures, routines and are away from those who know us best. Am I different when I am away from home? When I was 16, I spent a year living as an exchange student in French-speaking Switzerland. While the French is a little rusty, I bought it out in France and gave it a bit of a run. For the most part I could make myself understood and grasp what the French were saying to me. It struck me again, as I pulled out the verb conjugations and tried to recall if ‘voiture’ was masculine or feminine, that I was a different Kristen, when I spoke French. Was I perhaps slightly more polite? Was I a little more charming or was this just wishful thinking?
Most things about walking the Camino are counter-cultural. Why walk when you could drive or fly? Why stay in albergues with others when you could stay in perfectly nice hotels? Why do without Wi-Fi and the internet? Why follow an ancient path of pilgrims when you could just Google about it? And yet, there is something delightful about the way that people still choose to do this and sometimes later choose to do it again. (I met many people walking the Camino for the second and third time.) The experience of those few days on the Camino left me hopeful. Hopeful that not all is lost and maybe the past still has something to teach us.
Kristen Hobby is SDI's Australia/ Asia-Pacific Coordinator. She is also the former chair of SDI's Coordinating Council. She is a spiritual director, retreat leader and mindfulness teacher based in Singapore. She recently completed her work PhD thesis on the topic of young children’s spirituality.