Why in the world would one embark on an ancient pilgrimage in the early autumn of 2017… in a faraway country… with very little indication of whether you will even find a bed at nightfall to lay your weary body down on? Because frankly – in hindsight even more than in advance: it is an amazing, awesome and unforgettable journey.
The Camino de Santiago had started beckoning to me many moons ago. Not urgently, nor forcefully. Rather gently, nudgingly, compellingly. My psyche had embraced the call with growing warmth until it knew the time had to come for me to fill the shoes of a pilgrim crossing through a crucial passage of life…
Wikipedia’s description is apt:” The Camino de Santiago (Latin: Peregrinatio Compostellana, “Pilgrimage of Compostela”; Galician: O Camiño de Santiago), known in English as The Way of Saint James among other names, is a network of pilgrims’ ways serving pilgrimages to the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain, where tradition has it that the remains of the saint are buried. Many follow its routes as a form of spiritual path or retreat for their spiritual growth.”
I felt instinctively attracted to the Portuguese Camino (‘path / road’, ‘journey’, ‘way’). It is somewhat apart from the rest; it heads straight north, slightly inland from the Atlantic Ocean, ending at Santiago de Compostela in Spain as do all the others. I would walk along this way… and I am so happy that I did, for the Camino Portugués is perhaps the ancient route that is most intimately linked with the passages of St James (San Tiago) as he faithfully and persistently carried his Message of Hope into Roman and other heathen territory.
What was it I was longing for, hoping to find on my pilgrimage? I wanted distance – from all that is familiar and customary and un-daunting and sometimes stifling. I wanted solitude and new horizons. I wanted silence. I needed space. And – most importantly – I wanted to escape from my comfort zone in every possible way that would ‘qualify’ me as a true pilgrim.
Primarily I was intent on the prospect of taking on this adventure in a world away from my own, where I could see and smell and taste and feel and hear the colours and sounds and customs of other worlds. Yes, it meant I would travel abroad… but it would be somewhat different: no frills, no luxuries, no freebies, no guarantees. The perks and rewards would be those of the heart and the soul!
I needed a silence to settle in my head and my heart, while I would head for a destination with other, presumably somewhat like-minded humans from across the globe. Yes! This is one of the beautiful mysteries and powerful traits of the Camino de Santiago – the Way of St James: it calls and attracts pilgrims-at-heart from all the corners of the earth. They do not congregate or group. They rub shoulders. They share whatever the mutual moments and memories have to offer. They share the communal spaces offered at pilgrim’s prices by rustic havens. And they are like friendly, passing ships in the night.
I would have gone alone, if it had so happened. But I had joyfully embraced my daughter’s resolve to join me. It was good. We now have a priceless shared memory of an experience much more mystical than the mundane, and of a road less traveled.
My daughter, Nadia – my fellow pilgrim – is by no means a mirror image of me. But occasionally during our journey she held up an ever so essential mirror for me! On the Camino I could drop my guard and face my demons (without a trace of make-up!). And maybe I did the same for her?
What did I find?
Where do I begin? How do I define!
Perhaps bird song tops my list. It accompanied me throughout the pilgrimage and I was fascinated to think that Santiago and his companions, and those who came after them most likely heard those very same sounds so many centuries ago.
Church bells ringing! – a memory so vivid that it will surely remain indelible for years to come. In villages and valleys, on hilltops, in cities, towns, just everywhere we moved there was the comforting and compelling sound of chiming bells. And my pilgrimage was concluded with an ever so significant stay of two nights in an albergue in Santiago de Compostela in the proximity and within view of the destination Cathedral, whose quarter hourly chimes aroused in me a heightened awareness of the Camino’s significance: surely not only to me, but to each one who has joyfully found its co-ordinates!
I found trees and forests, streams, farms, hills and valleys, vineyards, orchards, maize fields, flower boxes, ancient Roman bridges and cobblestone pathways, steep uphills and even more challenging downhill slopes, chocolate box scenery, stealthy cats, lazy watchdogs, delightfully down-to-earth cafés, delicious coffee, affordable beer and Brie cheese, delectable baked delicacies…
There were cathedrals! So many… so beautiful… so preserved. And around the corner from our destination cathedral we found the most divine drinking chocolate imaginable.
I discovered reserves of perseverance and endurance when feet and body ached so much that my mind found them to be almost unbearable. But I also found that I could cry without restraint and admit without hesitation how small and vulnerable I am in the comprehensive tapestry of the tenacity of saints.
I found brief companionship and kindred spirits.
I felt how good it was to be empty and still.
I rejoiced in simplicity.
And after reaching Santiago de Compostela with hundreds and hundreds of pilgrims who had, like me, patiently and persistently made their way there, I queued quietly and eagerly on aching feet for the certificate that would place the seal on my endeavour. That would declare me a pilgrim with mission accomplished.
We are all pilgrims in one way or another. To have been one in this Way of St James – the Camino de Santiago – was a privilege that I will long cherish.
(All photos by Nadia Krige)