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El Camino de Santiago: A walk to remember

Filed in Blog, Spain by on June 3, 2014

There’s no way I could actually put the camino into words, but I guess I’ll attempt… it was unbelievably beautiful. The scenes I saw and the air I was breathing were like nothing I’ve ever experienced. On top of that it was extremely challenging, mind opening, thought provoking and rewarding.

This post is going to sound very contradicting because I have to tell you that the entire time we were actually in a lot of pain, pushing ourselves to the limit and walking up steep hills with backpacks when we could have easily collapsed. Basically my joints and muscles still feel destroyed… but pain is glory, right?

But we’re wimps, honestly. We walked about 105 kilometers over four days. During that time we met people, many who appeared much older than my parents, who had been walking the camino for several weeks or over a month. The entire camino usually takes a few months to complete, and all year long there are people out there from all over the world completing the journey for whatever reason — religious, personal, spiritual or undecided by the peregrinos (pilgrims/what we were referred to the entire way). Armando told us as we started out on the first day that it’s essential to think about our potential reasons for doing the camino while we walked — and “for class credit” or “exercise” doesn’t count. In the end, we would officially mark down our “reason” when we became official peregrinos in Santiago.

The first day was the longest and the hardest. We slept on an overnight train until 4:30 a.m. and then started walking in the dark from the town of Ourense. As the sun came up, we walked up the longest and steepest hill you could imagine, which was ironically named “little hill” in Spanish. If that stretch would have been at any time in our journey other than the very beginning, I think we’d have been crawling. So we went on… During the entire camino, our group of 18 or so would divide into smaller groups or pairs, come together again, eat together, separate again. We felt like a team, but at the same time we could separate to the point of getting lost, which we did — a couple times.

That first day we met together for a picnic lunch in one of the towns, in an open field next to an old stone cathedral. After all that walking, giant loaves of bread, fresh chorizo, cheese, tomatoes and wine were exactly what we needed. And afterward, the entire group passed out in the field in the sun for a good 45 minutes surrounded by the remains of our feast. The scene had to have looked hilarious to passersby.

So the entire camino went as such. We’d walk for hours on end, following the shells and yellow arrows (symbols of the camino), then come together to eat unreal amounts of carbs, walk again, stop to chill at beautiful secluded spots, give each other much needed back massages, stretch and walk again. One of the days we stopped at a river to jump in the freezing bright blue water under a bridge that’s older than Jesus… casual. We’d go hours with great conversation and we’d go hours just being — one foot in front of the other, listening to music or nature or nothing but our own thoughts.

Sometimes we’d stop in towns to grab a beer and put a stamp in our stamp book — all peregrinos receive a book and collect stamps as they go from village to village. And then we’d reach the albergues, the shelters where we showered and slept, which weren’t too much different than your average hostel. Except the second day, after Christina and I wandered off and lost the group for a good few hours/several kilometers out of the way, we finally got to where we needed to be. Our delusional, worn out selves found the entire group drinking wine and relaxing poolside at a beautiful old lodge in the mountains called Casa Grande de Fuentemayor. It was dreamlike — like something out a wedding video. After wandering for hours with our backpacks and pained feet, I literally busted out laughing at the sight of the whole group. It was a “this can’t be real” kind of moment.

All along the camino we’d pass by other peregrinos or people living in the villages and exchange the words “Buen camino” every time. It was just a mutual understanding between everyone along the route and a little piece of encouragement. As we passed one church getting nearer to Santiago, a group of 20 or so people jumped out of the door and came out clapping and cheering for us saying “Buen camino!” and wishing us luck and congratulations. We could not stop smiling for a long while after that. For many more reasons than that, I decided Northern Spanish people are some of the nicest there are.

Finally reaching Santiago on Monday was an awesome feeling. But honestly, most of us agreed that we could have gone for longer… if we started taking it a little slower and tripled up on Ibuprofen. On the fourth day the camino was beginning to feel like a lifestyle, but I also can’t say my body was complaining when we finally got to rest. In Santiago, we visited the tomb of St. James in St. James’ Cathedral (which is the traditional “destination” of the camino — also referred to as “St. James’ Way”), and then we attended the official mass for peregrinos there. It was a surreal feeling being surrounded by all these “fellow camino-ers,” as we more commonly called them, in the exact place where people have been completing their journey for centuries. And after the priest read off a list of that day’s peregrinos to pray for, including “el grupo de estudiantes de Alicante,” they raised a giant incense container up and made it swing like a giant pendulum down the aisle until it almost touched the ceiling of the cathedral. I mean, about ten men in robes were pulling down a giant rope to make this thing swing to the point where we had to lean our heads all the way back to watch it soar across the cathedral. It was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in a church, that’s for sure.

So that’s that. I truly want to come back and do a different part of the camino for a longer time, if the busyness of life allows for it. Well, honestly, it’s more like if I allow it into my life… oh, gettin’ deep there. Basically, the Camino de Santiago was a walk to remember (ha). But really, I’m very glad I did it.

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