“When I close my eyes, it feels like I’m in Spain.”
This quote from a peregrino (pilgrim) during a sun streaked break on the second day of walking illustrated the common conundrum of the Camino- it was far from the Spain familiar to many from our package-holiday filled youth. Instead, we had found ourselves somewhere in the Spanish nation with West of Ireland type scenery, an area disconnected from the “real” world of college assignments and wifi. In this new place, one could experience snow, sun and drizzle before noon and the task of walking 22km was suddenly considered a reasonably easy feat. During Reading Week, 100 Trinity students, divided into four different routes, began a quest to complete over 110km of the Camino while raising funds for VDP projects in Zambia.
The Camino de Santiago is not merely one route that leads to the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela in Northern Spain. Instead, there exists a large assortment of routes available that all lead to the same final destination. The legend behind the beginning of such a pilgrimage can be attributed to St. James as it is often told that his remains were carried by boat from Jerusalem, with his final resting place now a place of rest and relaxation for the hundreds of thousands of peregrinos that complete the pilgrimage annually. Many participate in the Camino for religious reasons while others opt for the chance to experience something totally new. Some cycle, some trot along on horseback while most favour travelling by their own momentum- by simply placing one foot in front of the other until the Cathedral is in sight. The most popular route is the French route, which one group from Trinity conquered. The other routes include the Portuguese, the Northern and last but definitely not least, the route which I participated in, the Spanish route.
When discussing my experience with a pal over a cup of joe upon my return, she queried about the presence of adult guides. “Who showed you all where to go?” She exclaimed. “Ples” I replied. We didn’t need any outsiders to show us the way- that responsibility laid with our brilliant route leaders, three people on each route with the important information, tales of Caminos gone by and all the antiseptic wipes that one could wish for.
Their advice of how to reach the finish line victorious was simple: follow the shells. Like hapless Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, we kept our eyes peeled for a bright yellow hue. Instead of a brick road, our gaze focused on spray painted arrows and the iconic shells. Spotting a shell or arrow after a period of feared aimless meandering was like reuniting with an old friend- all the memories of the good times came flooding back as one could carry on easily as before.
Many varying myths and legends exist about how the scallop shell became the unofficial symbol that accompanies every pilgrim’s journey to Santiago. Many believe that it acts as a metaphor with the lines marked in the shell and meeting at one centre point representing the reunion of all the routes in Santiago. Some tales attempt to link the shell with St. James’ final journey, including the story of how a storm hit the ship carrying the body of St. James. The body was lost but was found on the shore, unharmed but covered in sea shells. A similar story reveals the near drowning of a young man on horseback, again ending with his covering of shells after his miraculous survival.
Walking the Camino is no trot down to the shops to get the messages. Yes, this is glaringly obvious. On the first day of walking, mere minutes into the four day journey that awaited us, a fellow pilgrim and I spotted a sign on a building ahead of us. “Dis Real” it declared proudly “20 metres.” It grew apparent to us immediately that in 20 metres, dis became very very real. At the beginning of the Spanish route, we were greeted with an extremely steep hill. Picture the scene: it’s your first day of walking, your bag is feeling heavier than your heart, it is dark and you are cursing yourself for not actually doing any practise hikes. However then you share your feelings with whoever is in the vicinity and voila! An instant bond forms between you and the other person.
People who you may have creeped upon pre-Camino in the Facebook group are suddenly your constant companions who you share food, accommodation, twenty four hours a day and blister pads with. Bless. 24 people, including my classmate and I who decided to go together on a whim, joined forces to tackle the Spanish route and by the end of the trip, very strong friendships, as well as a nostalgic WhatsApp group, had formed. The same trend was echoed in other route groups. United forces formed to create strategies to deal with current issues in our society, songs were sung, games were played. It is difficult to find an environment where it is easier to form friendships especially when one day essentially feels like three and private jokes are quickly formed and uttered constantly for the rest of the trip. Example: Who said that? (Yes, we were all thinking it but I wrote it.)
In Charles Dickens’ epic novel “A Tale of Two Cities”, the reader is greeted with one of the best opening lines ever penned: “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Had old Charles ever found himself leaving a monastery/ hostel at half 6 in the morning, he may have written the very same thing. The Camino presents an eclectic mix of experiences from elation to despair as well as challenges and changes in plans. We missed our train on the very first day and after frantically leaping from the wrong train, spent seven hours in the station waiting for the next one. However, we can now all laugh (maybe) as friendships were formed in the bleak fluorescent lighting. The accompanying soundtrack of the Spanish route included the guttural barks of many a guard dog, all locked safely behind gates. Until late one night after 37km, one dog wasn’t safely secured and decided to give chase. Even the most frustrating of incidents morph into hilarious anecdotes when recounted in the hostel that evening.
The good times naturally outweighed the bad. It is almost always a hyperbolic statement to warn that one is about to experience the best week of their lives but in this case, it was universally agreed upon that that was indeed the case. Ambling along carefree with friends discussing deep thoughts while eating whatever you purchased from the supermercado that morning- as Lizzie McGuire once said “this is what dreams are made of.” From a glass of tinto to some “viscous shots”, refreshments were available for each and every peregrino during a quick break along the way as bars and cafes were always willing to offer a warm welcome to some weary walkers. Others favoured the ever dependable 50 cent carton of vino.
At the beginning of the pilgrimage, each participant is given a pilgrim passport which is stamped along the way in hostels and cafes. In order to earn the Compostela certificate in Santiago, it is necessary to have walked at least 100km or cycled at least 200km and to confirm that it was walked for religious or spiritual reasons. A certificate of welcome is issued in the case of cultural or non-religious/spiritual reasons. The feeling of entering Santiago and being deemed worthy of receiving the certificate is a euphoric one.
The elegant cathedral dominates the simple plaza it stands in. All four Trinity routes arrive before the mass at 12 and assemble before the cathedral, forming a jubilant scene-so jubilant in fact that a tourist asked if it was possible to take a picture of a few pilgrims as it had grabbed her attention. Sitting in a pew at the mass, glancing around at the tired but exultant faces of my fellow pilgrims while listening to the soft Spanish tones of the priest was an incomprehensible feeling. The journey was incredibly over but I knew the effects of our epic journey would be exist for many moons more through the photos, the necessary oversharing, our fundraising efforts and the constantly told tales.
During the walk, fellow pilgrims and others encountered along the way greet each other with the simple statement “Buen Camino.” Intended to wish each other luck, it literally translates as good path. These phrase, intrinsically linked with the journey, sums up the experience with ease. It truly is a good path and definitely the best decision many of my fellow peregrinos, including myself, have made during their time in college.