• April 23, 2018
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Walking the Camino de Santiago

It is an ancient route across Spain that has been walked for centuries. More than being a walking route, it’s a time for reflection and soul searching

By Mick O’ReillySpecial to Weekend Review
16:33 January 3, 2018
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Mick O'Reilly.
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Somewhere on this never-ending hill it hits me: I don’t have to do this. I can walk away from Day Three, never have to put another weary foot ahead of the other, never have to feel the pain in my left hip, or feel my rucksack dig into the small of my back, not be cold and damp and tired.

I can just walk away. And no one but me will be any the wiser. Or I can curse loudly again in the middle of this damp eucalyptus woods, suck it up, and begin to climb once more, one weary foot in front of the other.

If I stand still too long, the cold quickly envelopes me, bringing an instant chill in my sweat-soaked shirt.

If I take my backpack off, it brings an instant relief, but putting it back on means many minutes of adjusting it to a position that is just right, not totally snug but bearable for the hills and kilometres still to come.

Ahead of me is the narrow pathway of the Camino Ingles, an ancient pilgrimage route walked by pilgrims for centuries to Santiago De Compostella. That lies 60 km and a full two day’s walking ahead.

Behind me — all downhill from here as my aching feet and hip attest, is Ferrol, another 60 km back and two more days’ walk back to the coast.

I can keep going. Or turn back. Or divert to a main road on the other side of this mountain and find a bus or a taxi.

A song suddenly enters my head: Stand by Me.

I start to sing loudly, here in the middle of the eucalyptus woods, on the side of a steep hill, miles from nowhere in a darkening evening in Galicia, northern Spain.

“When the night has come,” I belt out, “And the land is dark…”

I begin to climb again, head down, pulling my rucksack straps tighter. With every foots’ fall I move closer to Santiago de Compostella. I think life is like that, just moving on, putting your head down and getting on with it.

“And the Moon is the only light you’ll see,” I continue. “No I won’t be afraid…”

It is early November and the Galician countryside has given up its bounty of corn and cabbage, apples and artichokes, most now stored or pickled on the shelves of the few stout farmhouses along this desolate route.

In the summer months, thousands of walkers take this and other “camino” routes across Spain to the cathedral city of Santiago de Compostella. It is there, under the main altar of the medieval cathedral, that Christians believe the bones of St James, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus, are buried. For generations, they have walked these byways in pilgrimage here, seeking spiritual enlightenment.

I am not seeking such an outcome, no epiphany, no life-changing realisation, but I love instead the sheer isolation and physical exertion required in carrying all that I need in a backpack, lacing up a pair of walking boots, and walking for five days at a time, over more than 120 km of byways and hill tracks.

The camino routes are well marked, following a shell emblem that points to Santiago De Compostella. Some even follow roads laid down by the Roman legions. At times, you can almost feel the presence of those who have walked these ways in times before, and there is an energy and spirit here that is almost quantifiable and palpable.

The positive in this, my third such annual “camino”, is that I have no blisters so far. On two previous treks, two different pairs of boots failed to stop the bottom of my feet turning to pizza, making every movement and any footstep a stinging and painful endurance of mind over all that matters.

The negative in this is that I have chosen to do this route, considered the most difficult of the many paths, alone.

Now, in these shortening days of winter, with the clock turned back an hour too, there are no other walkers on this route.

I am truly alone.

Solitude is a soothing salve to my soul now. On the second day, a Tuesday, as I climbed a long and arduous narrow path south from Pontdeume, I did pass a Spanish husband, and wife who took wide and deliberate strides with walking poles. How dare they interlope on my isolation I thought as I passed them, purposely quickening my pace on the ascent. I muttered what thankfully sounded like a cheerful “Hola” while mentally I changed gears to put as much space between them and I as all seven kilograms of my backpack would muster.

I want to be alone.

I did not see them again until the Friday, when they too entered the cathedral square in Santiago some three hours after I collapsed there, fighting back a flood of tears that seemed to well up from nowhere the closer I got to the medieval confines. They were tears of accomplishment, a snotty and tearful acknowledgement that I had set out and completed a physically challenging trek — and endured the mental challenges that isolation brings.

“… just as long, as you stand, stand by me.” I am still singing.

There is a wonder in truly hearing nothing except birds, though I am not sure they would agree with my rendition of this song here and now.

Here in eucalyptus woods somewhere near my next overnight stop at Hospital de Bruma, black and white magpies flitter easily. In pine woods, there are fewer birds, and the denseness of the trees and their interwoven branches make it more difficult for them to fly freely.

In the hedgerows surrounding fields where corn has been harvested, or where apple trees have cast off their fallen fruits, teals and scoters dart gleefully, swallows and songbirds chirp and chatter.

Here, in the hills, the birds seem bigger.

There are rustles too in the ditches, and the occasional small newt or mouse runs for cover before my oncoming footsteps.

I carry a computer tablet in my backpack, a concession to the modern reality that we all must work, though its use is limited to evenings and early mornings. On my mobile phone, there is a route map, an app that has been developed by some entrepreneur eager to make a few euros from this and other ancient walkways. I check it mornings and during walking breaks, if I can get a signal.

There is a routine to this pilgrimage that must be followed, I discipline myself. On average, we all can walk five km in any given hour. Here, carrying a backpack, on rough paths, uphill, and with legs that grow wearier with each passing hour and day, the pace is closer to four every hour. My rhythm is to walk for an hour, stand and pause for three minutes, then walk for another hour — then sit and drink a half-litre of water and rest for 10 minutes. Then repeat the two-hour cycle. On any given day, I’m walking for six hours or more.

I have three basic speeds.

I have a confident stride — third gear — to which I mentally keep beat, sometimes telling myself: “Left. Left. Left, right, left” as I march along.

Then there is my second gear, shorter strides that I use when initially climbing hills.

And when things get bad or when the hills never seem to end, I shift into first gear, a slow and steady even step.

That is my discipline.

The indiscipline is the mental doubt that arises when, at the top of a hill after a long upwards climb, there is a bend, and yet another hill.

The darkness of doubt always comes when I’m in first gear.

If there’s one thing I have come to realise on this and other caminos across Spain, if there’s a hill on the horizon, you’re going to be climbing it.

And this hill near Hospital de Bruma has almost broken me.

No one will know.

I am suddenly struck by the feeling that I should have done more for Dermot, a good friend of mine who battled so hard with a body ravaged by cancer before he passed away.

I begin to cry and find myself talking loudly to no one in the woods and everyone in particular, telling him that I should have done more, was sorry I missed his funeral and promising to get in touch with his wife, Caroline, and their two children.

Here, as the clouds come lower and begin to shroud this high hill top, I am growing angrier at life, venting that it is unfair and takes the good ones too early. The isolation is cathartic, and I begin a spleen-venting tirade against those that I hold a grudge.

The track continues to climb, winding its way past blackberry bushes that still hold tasty bursts of fruit that turn to a seedy, sumptuous and smeared mess on my fingertips.

When it rains, the kilometres must still be walked. A poncho cape covers most of my torso and the backpack. The rain dances off it, running down and inevitably settling into my boots and socks. Quickly, my feet become wet, and there is a danger too that my soles will then become soft, fertile for blisters in the inevitable wrinkles and soft ridges of skin. Socks are padded in the places where blisters most often happen, but the wetness overrides those soft cushions.

Despite trying to be cheery, rain saps my energy and soaks up what little positive energy I can muster.

It is miserable. And lonely. And cold.

Then I think of others less fortunate.

There are those who live in tents, in refugee camps, with nothing more than canvas over their heads, with little hope in their hearts, and no likelihood that their lot will improve anytime soon. This walk is of my own making, an adventure no matter how arduous or wet that is not without end. Tonight, there will be hot shower, a soft bed, food and a change of clothes. Each is a luxury that I relish; all are luxuries that so many others in this world we share would so deeply cherish tonight.

There is a beauty too in this countryside, one that seems devoid of children, and where the old seem to be the only ones now who inhabit the isolated hamlets where this camino passes.

The young and their offspring have left for cities and opportunities and an easier life than tilling fields and hewing wood. In one small farm outbuilding, an elderly couple sit on overturned enamel buckets and peel the husks from corn, winterfeed for their livestock somewhere nearby.

At another small holding, I pass an ancient white-haired woman, who offers a cheery “buen camino” as she is bent double with a rake, scratching at the ground beside her farmhouse. At another, a vintage farmer piles butternut squash in a trailer and we exchanged pleasantries as his two dogs leap at my thighs.

Here, in Galicia, it is the annual All Saints and All Souls feast days on the Roman Catholic calendar, a time when relatives bring flowers to graveyards and church grounds to remember relatives who have gone before to meet their maker. There are many small churches and many small graveyards, but now there are fewer to remember the many who have gone before. Who will remember these people one day?

I am struck by the sadness that seems to envelop this terrain; it is one borne from the isolation and desolation of abandoned homesteads and boarded up cottages that are falling into ruin. It seems a life too hard now for the young to endure, but it is one that has an honesty that is humbling to me in my search of isolation.

Here, new saplings have been planted on stretches of hillsides that have given up their older trees to loggers and lumberjacks. Past homes that are only occupied by the comfortable in the summer months, vines still hang and climb over palisades and summer patios, grapes withered and unharvested by hands too used to convenience. In fields, crops of brittle and wilted corn go to waste, no hand to harvest them and no one to remember their planting.

The barking of hounds — good, solid and hoarse animals — is a welcome sign that humanity does exist and still resides here in lonely redoubts, where every vehicle has a tow bar or is attached to an animal trailer.

At several overnight stopovers, I meet Jakob, a fellow pilgrim who has walked from Hamburg and has counted 79,000 discarded plastic bottles along the way. He was a chef and walked out on his job, he couldn’t handle the psychological pressure. Me? I couldn’t handle the psychological pressure of counting discarded bottles.

Jakob once lived in a cave beside the sea for six weeks, he tells me. He’s carrying 20 kilograms on his back and has a tent. He smells like he hasn’t had a bath or shower since leaving Hamburg in the early summer. He’s heading to Santiago De Compostella, then walking on to the south of Portugal for the winter. That’s a lot more steps and countless thousands more of plastic bottles to count.

By Thursday evening there’s a quiet sense of euphoria within me. I have put more than a 100 km behind me, and the last stretch into Santiago de Compostella is just 19 km — a veritable stroll — and mostly downhill.

On Friday morning, it is raining once more, which means donning the poncho and bearing down on the wet road ahead. Within an hour, the weather has broken, and blue skies are now pushing clouds aside, laying out a warm welcome for this weary pilgrim’s soul.

The quiet pathways gradually give way to modern roads where trucks trundle by, carrying logs from forests such as mine, where isolation is so wonderfully embracing, to flooring factories for new homes where the landless live.

And as the cathedral takes shape ahead of me the buildings grow older and the streets narrow to passages that that stood sentinel to history through centuries, I cry. Those on the streets, waiting for buses, going about their comfortable lives, have seen the tears before in the countless others who have passed this way down through the years.

In an archway beside the cathedral, a busker briskly plays Galician bagpipes, seemingly an honour guard for my arrival in the cathedral square. I pose for photographs and make a few calls then lie on the cold stone cobblestones in the foreground of the cathedral.

I soak up its cold energy, feel the presence of the past, share the sanctity of its stone. It is my reflection of the weary, the satisfaction of the mission accomplished, a personal challenge conquered, a better understanding of self and soul, of worth and place in the world. Not the grounded world, but one where generations have come and gone, walked and wondered, where flowers have been laid for those who have gone to meet their maker.

After a hot bath and a meal, I make my way inside to the confines of the cathedral proper, where a gaggle of mostly middle-aged American visitors on a religious tour of Europe are taking a guided tour. They too have made a pilgrimage here, but one that is on a coach with commentary at the press of a button and a recorded rosary on their lips. They too line up to see the bones of St James and tick that off their spiritual itinerary.

Under the altar, in the shrine where the bones of St James are kept, there’s a plaque that marks the spot where Pope John Paul II prayed.

I don’t think I will pray here, for I don’t know what it does entirely mean to pray. Does anybody? Is prayer a silent thought that goes unanswered? In all of my 57 years have my prayers been heard?

Does anyone ever hear those silent thoughts? And how do we know? But I do light candles and think of those that mean a lot to me, and hope that they are kept well and safe on their journeys through life. We are all pilgrims, after all, and this destination now at these old bones has been all about the journey. My own bones are tired now, but I long once more to walk alone. And to know that life is about taking the next step — and the one after that — our pilgrim’s progress to our maker.

Based in Madrid, Mick O’Reilly is the Foreign Correspondent for Gulf News.