Walking the Way of St James – being a pilgrim

Here, as way of processing, is an account of my time walking to Santiago de Compostela. It has not been proofread and not all the photos are here yet, and I will do those things at some point, it’s just that point is not quite now (I am getting the train to Madrid)!

Day 1 – “self-sufficiency is not a virtue”

Sarria to Portomarin, 25km

I arrived in Sarria at 9am on July 5th, following a restless night of sleep on an overnight train from Barcelona. I subsequently had a realisation that I had made an assumption that the way from the station to the start of the route, and also how I would acquire a pilgrim´s credential passport (needed to be recognised as an official pilgrim in Santiago) would be obvious.

Obvious it was not.

After questioning why exactly I had allowed myself to be quite so under prepared (I also didn´t know how far I needed to walk or what town I wanted to stop at), I decided to attach myself to a group of five Spanish friends who graciously accepted me into their party. They also, miraculously, had bought an additional pilgrim´s passport (turns out it´s something I should have applied for from the London Confraternity of St. James, oops).

At this point, I had already had a fair few scrapes (see previous post and add changing rucksack the day I left, taking my bike to my new London home but not knowing they can´t be taken on zone 1, and my hiking boots breaking on the way to the station) so, all in all, I was feeling pretty ill-equipped for what was ahead, and not very ready to walk 25km!

It was the next day when the thought in the heading popped into my head. I realised that I wasn´t necessarily worried about being unprepared on my own behalf, but about being able to say that I travelled a) competently and b) independently. Having to rely on other people, and then choosing to walk with a group felt like I wasn´t ´doing travel properly´.

Each time I then felt similarly, I re-told myself that self-sufficiency is not a virtue, and got on with enjoying the way my time away has been so enriched by relying on others.

Day 1 was a good day. I hit the ground running in the metaphorical sense – and walking in every other sense…!

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Day 2 – “it is the journey, not the destination, that is the commitment”

Portomarin to Palas de Rei, 26km 

This day was my first taster of everyone around me getting up at 5am (!!!) to start walking. We got up at the comparatively late time of 6am and I begun the process of, seemingly, re-learning how to walk!

After the first day, all my leg muscles (despite all the stretching) had tightened, my calves and feet ached, and the blister on my left foot was very much making itself known about.

It was possibly the hardest day of walking for me – not because of what was actually involved (the morning was still very overcast), but because my body was still adjusting to carrying so much and walking so far. I found myself praying and meditating on a line from a song which goes ´I want to know Christ/even in his suffering´ a lot this day.

Accommodation on the route is variable! We paid 6-10 euros each night for a hostel, and the day 2 hostel was definitely the worst of the journey (think narrow, squeaky, metal bunk beds, cold walls and floors, no curtains, and unhygienic bathrooms!). I had found the day really difficult physically, so I spoke to the group about parting from them the next day – they were planning on walking 28km and I didn´t think I could keep up. I had planned on walking maximum 20km per day, so I was already a bit ahead, and I had allowed for more days to Santiago than they had. They subsequently joked that this conversation only happened because the hostel was so bad.

In fact, the conversation we had was really quite emotional. I had assumed that I was the sole beneficiary of being a part of the group, but they were visibly upset at the suggestion that I would say goodbye. I don´t know whether they were actually being profound, or if it was the work of Google Translate, but their message in reply included the line ´it is the journey, not the destination, that is the commitment´. They said it would be a pleasure to walk with me even if it meant not going onto visit the city they had planned on going to after Santiago. I was touched.

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Day 3 – “together we go as far as we can”

Palas de Rei to Rivadiso, 26km

Having had the conversation of the night before, it was lovely to see written on a wall the next day the line, “if you go fast, you go alone, together we go as far as we can”.

´As far as we can´ turned out not to be 20km at all, but 26! Having reached 20km I decided I hadn´t reached the point of ´utter despair´that knew I could get to from my experiences of the previous day, so I said we should walk another 2km. Having done so, we saw a sign that said there were only hostels in another 2km. They were all full. So a further 2km it was!

The day was hard, and the heat was almost unbelievable, but buying some compeed at a pharmacy, paddling in a river, seeing dozens of decorated trucks stream past honking their horns for a festival, the gorgeous light, incredible dinner, and meeting an Irish woman called Joan in the hostel made it all worthwhile!

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Day 4 – “Patatas”

Rivadiso to Perdouzo, 22km

This day was a beautiful day. The light in the morning was stunning, my body had either adapted or given up protesting, and I happened to have more conversations with fellow pilgrims.

The only problem involved happened upon gettting to Perdouzo itself circa 6pm and finding that all of the hostels were full. After an hour of ´completo´, we found accommodation for the slightly more expensive rate of 15 euros (which, let´s face it, is still perfectly reasonable), and settled in for an evening of chatting, resting, and ordering pizza!

“Patatas” is what the Spanish say instead of “cheese” when taking photos, and I feel like it is entirely fitting as the heading for day 4.

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Day 5 – “sometimes the best things are also hard”

Perdouzo to Santiago, 19km 

The quote in the heading is something that José said on the third day, about his favourite thing of the day (paddling in the river) which was also the part of the day that he was bitten by a dog.

It is so apt for the last day of the pilgrimage. It was 31 degrees, uphill in the midday heat, and there was a sense of restlessness in being so close and yet so far. My feet ached, I was thirsty, we missed stopping for lunch, took a longer alternative path that wasn´t waymarked and got lost, and at 3.30 I promptly burst into tears about 3km away from the cathedral! Though this was resolved, there was a tension among my friends which I didn´t understand or have the capacity (lacking any ability for nuance thanks to the language barrier) to ask about. This made the entrance down the steps to the cathedral a somewhat more subdued one, swiftly followed by tears from all members of the group over different portions of the next half hour, and an explanation via google translate which I won´t detail here.

It was an emotional end, but also a joyful one. I went and triumphantly put my broken hiking boots in the bin, we hugged and took photos, had a gorgeous dinner, and received our pilgrim’s credentials. As a group a whole lot had happened and greeting the point of departure was both a relief and a hardship. Ask me more about this if you know me irl.

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Days 6, 7, 8 – “After the Camino comes the laundry”

Santiago de Compostela 

The line in this heading comes from the John Brierley guidebook once again, in the reflection at the end which includes an invitation to think, essentially, to what of the extraordinary will transfer back to the ordinary.

Today and yesterday I have lived according to my own pace. I have spoken to friends over the phone, I have been round the city without a map or an end point in mind, I have slept, been to the pilgrim´s welcome centre and spoken with an Irish nun, and I´ve chatted to lots of different people at the hostel and prepared meals with them. I´ve also done the laundry.

I am so glad to have had this time to settle and reflect. This place, this pilgrimage is a special one. On my first morning here in Santiago an amazing woman, who, incredibly, had walked the Camino from a starting point of having depression and fibromyalgia, burst into tears because the fact that it was all ending had just hit her. It is a place where all the different parts of the human condition are more available and more iridescent. I won’t forget it.

I won´t forget the sweetness of the Mass of Santiago Cathedral, with ministers saying the liturgy in their own tongues, and the kissed cheeks involved in giving the peace. I won´t forget hearing ´Amazing Grace´ sung under the archway, or ´buen Camino´ being said a million times a day.

I will remember this journey in the sound of crickets, of handspan-sized birds flying two inches from my face, and the feeling of hot sun at 6pm. I will remember it by the memories of teaching Alicia how to say ´telegraph pole´and in José tickling people with heads of wheat and stealing other José´s towel . I will remember it by heavily dressed salad, and aching feet.

I will remember it and tell myself that the Camino is made of what grace is made of, and I will tell myself that it is what I want to be made of too. And I will most likely be back!

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2 thoughts on “Walking the Way of St James – being a pilgrim

  1. Alan A. Malizia: Contagious Optimism! Co-Author says:

    Rachel,
    A wonderful and rewarding pilgrimage. It may have had its challenges. But, a pilgrimage without challenges is not a pilgrimage. You have been blessed with good fellow pilgrims and beautiful surroundings along with native citizens who have crossed your path.
    Thanks for taking us along with those memorable photos.
    -Alan

    Like

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