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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Buen Camino

In June, I had the opportunity to hike/walk about 50 miles of Spain's Camino de Santiago, also known as the Way of St. James.

It's been a month since I got home from this trip, and the experience is just now beginning to sink in. Although I walked only a small portion of the route, it was an amazing experience. And now I find myself thinking a lot about my mini-pilgrimage. Travel on foot offers some great photo opportunities, as well as a reason to challenge myself physically. Some sections of the trail were challenging (one day's walk was all uphill) but rewarding, and hiking day after day is something my body isn't used to. But what made the greatest impression on me was the people.

I walked with a group of 12 hikers from the United States, including physicians, a  professor, an artist and business people, a good bunch of people all around. Our group, strangers at first, quickly formed friendships and became a group of like-minded hikers, each with his or her own reason for walking the Camino. We took photos of each other and shared stories and first aid supplies. Sometimes I walked alone; at other times, I walked with someone.

We traveled a section of the Camino each day, passing though small villages and rural areas, and then rode in our bus to our lodging for the night. We toured magnificent cathedrals and an ostentatious bishop's palace designed by famed Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi.

Along the way, I met pilgrims from all over the world: Australia, Italy and other countries. I encountered a man doing the walk on crutches, while his wife or girlfriend carried the heavy backpack with their belongings. We had a delightful female bus driver for most of the trip. Our guides -- one Basque, the other Spanish -- were wonderful. The people we encountered during the walk -- bar owners who let us use their restrooms without charge and without complaint, everyday people out and about -- greeted us with 'Buen Camino'. We visited an ancient Romanesque church, and the elderly priest offered to bless us as he had pilgrims before us. One of our group read the blessing in English, and then the priest read it in Spanish. At the end of our journey, I stood and listened for several minutes to the beautiful sounds of a Chilean opera singer who now lives in Compostela. Known as the 'soprano of the archway', she was singing for tips. I bought a copy of her CD, which I listen to nearly every day, despite the fact I don't like opera.

I was especially struck by David, a man who has given up all worldly possessions to help pilgrims. He lives in an ancient Roman ruin, wears a T-shirt and shorts (no shoes), and collects unwanted items (clothing, food and drinks). He accepts anything pilgrims no longer want (clothes, food, bottled drinks) from pilgrims, and then he offers them free to anyone who wants or needs them. He accepts donations and uses whatever he collects to buy more food and drinks for the pilgrims. David calls his home La Casa de Los Dioses (The House of the Gods). 

One of our guides said he can see the happiness radiating from David and described him as the happiest person in the world. He has nothing of value, and he gets his joy from giving to others. I enjoyed some watermelon juice at his little stand before depositing some euros in the collection box.
To me, David is the embodiment of the spirit of the Camino.

One of the amazing things about walking the Camino is realizing that the pilgrimage routes (there are several) have been traveled by the faithful since at least the 9th century A.D. The pilgrimage to the shrine in Santiago de Compostela became the most renowned of the medieval pilgrimages. And it became customary for those who returned from Compostela to carry back with them a Galician scallop shell as proof they had in fact completed the journey. Each member of my group was given a white scallop shell painted with a red cross of St. James at the beginning of our journey. Many of us tied the shells to our backpacks. At the conclusion of our trek, each of us was given a brown scallop shell from the ocean by the coastal town of Muxia, one of the final pilgrimage destinations after the cathedral in Santiago.

 In addition to my two scallop shells and more than 1,000 digital photographs, I brought back, as I usually do when I travel, a coffee cup and a pair of turquoise and blue scallop shell earrings. So now, every time I make a cup of tea in the morning or wear my earrings, I will be reminded of my journey along this ancient pilgrimage route. I'm not sure what drew me to this hike/walk, what I expected to get out of it or even what I did get out of the experience. But I do know that walking this ancient route trod by millions of pilgrims across the century had an impact on me.

The Camino ends here, at the ocean near Muxia.