Life has been very full over the last four months with very few long pauses to allow me to write about my experiences in detail.
I decided to write a short overall update of what has been happening and then I will fill in the details in the future.
Walking the Camino de Santiago
So, since finishing my tour of the UK I headed to a small French town called St Jean-Pied-de-Port to begin the Camino Frances – a long distance pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela cathedral in Northern Spain.
This has to be one of the true highlights of my sabbatical so far and of my life. The opportunity to walk uninterrupted for five weeks, carrying all my worldly possessions and never knowing where I would sleep was a constant adventure.
Walking in October was a perfect time of year, following the arrival of Autumn. The weather was sunny but not too hot and the path had plenty of pilgrims to meet but not the huge numbers that summer attracts, which lead people to race to find accommodation.
Starting out on the first day over the Pyrenees was really memorable. The early morning mist soon burnt off and I loved taking in the early morning mountain views and wildlife. I spotted a red squirrel balancing on a telephone wire and heard the distant sound of cow bells gently ringing.
This day tests you in many ways. It is the first time I was properly carrying my rucksack and realising how heavy it was. It is the day with the steepest terrain, but the lowest physical fitness. It is a good way of preparing you for what is ahead. It is a day when unexpected friends are made and unlikely connections are forged.
A small band of people came together. First, I got chatting to a newly retired US army officer, then we met a British tour guide who loved his beer, regularly stopped for a puff on a fag and brought a huge bottle of mustard in his back pack and then we met up with a Korean artist living in Paris. It was this set of people that I would laugh and cry with over the next few days. We soon became family through adversity and sharing several miles together.
The Camino, which means “The Way” is a migration of people without maps following yellow arrows and relying on albergues (cheap, basic hostels often run by volunteers) for a bed at night, aiming for the Cathedral in Santiago which is reputed to house the bones of St James.
Motivated by many reasons, from spiritual to wanting to loose weight – this an ordinary, yet extraordinary, act of walking brings an eclectic mix of people from all over the world together in a common purpose.
So many nationalities sharing their history, knowledge and culture made me richer as a person. I really saw we are human and fundamentally the same.
We all want the warmth of a smile, a hug, a good conversation. I also saw real kindness and often came across Camino angels. People who would help you when you couldn’t help yourself. From being given a bunch of beautiful flowers, to a fellow pilgrim offering to sew a hole in my clothes and an old couple waving me in the right direction when I had lost my way.
You can set out to do the walk alone, but it is the small kindnesses from people that will transform your journey from a self-only based walk to a communal and memorable experience.
The Camino allows you time to start tuning into your self. To notice simple things, beautiful things and to be more alert to the moment.
It teaches you very quickly to let go of stuff. I spent the first week working out what I could get rid of to make my bag lighter. It teaches you to live lightly. There is a wonderful freedom that emerges. You walk in the same set of clothes for over a month, you often smell and don’t shave in places you normally do – and people don’t mind because they are the same.
There are tough times too. From the continual snoring to the near death experiences with combine harvesters, mouth ulcers, blisters and bed bugs. People amazed me. Despite a great deal of adversity nobody moaned. They simply found a way through or round the problem and where at all possible carried on walking.
It is so hard to summarise this experience as every Camino is different and filled with so many wonderful memories. For me it was a heady mix of movement, landscape, faith, nature, beauty, stories, friendship, community, history, food, red wine, self-exploration and discovery and more red wine.
“every Camino is different and filled with so many wonderful memories”
Parting company with so many good friends and looking back at the 500 miles I had walked seemed almost surreal. I headed home for a few days to wash clothes and re-pack for the next stage of my sabbatical further afield in Asia.