This beautiful blog post was written by Anne Manchester, one of our Buen Camino pilgrims. She describes her journey, along with her reasons to walk the Camino. Why do people decide to walk the Camino de Santiago? A wonderful experience that provided her with powerful lessons that will stay with her for the rest of her life.
Why do people decide to walk the Camino de Santiago?
Those who undertake at least the last 100 kms to Santiago de Compostela, the capital of the community of Galicia in North Western Spain, receive a certificate or pilgrim’s credential. To apply for this, you have to state your reason for becoming a pilgrim.
1) My reason was initially curiosity
The reasons to walk the Camino are often religious, spiritual or cultural. But the fact is there are as many reasons for doing this pilgrims’ walk as there are people doing it. My reason was initially curiosity. I had been thinking about doing it for years. Then I heard about a company called Marly Camino, which runs a variety of walks, of various lengths, with everything arranged. What could be easier? And the dates I chose for my one-week Buen Camino experience (June 9-16) dovetailed well with my three-week continuing education tour of Midi and Provence.
2) Becoming part of a tradition that has existed for centuries
Pilgrimaging to the site where the Apostle St James (Santiago) supposedly preached the gospel and where his remains are buried is incredibly moving and humbling. There are many possible pilgrimage routes to Santiago – through Portugal, along the northern coast of Spain, the southern route or the primitive route, to name a few. Ours began in Sarria on the French route.
3) An Inner Journey begins
Each of us (there were 14 in my group, all of them from the United States but me from New Zealand) were given a letter before we set off. “Dear pilgrim, welcome to your inner journey. Doing the Camino is a gift life gives you, which allows you to truly enjoy time to yourself, with no hurry. It invites you to reflect, to re-assess your priorities, to realise what is most important to you in life, and to get to know yourself and others better.
“Walking through life with an open heart makes us more receptive and allows us to see things from the point of view of love. Everything that happens on a daily basis is significant and unrepeatable in its own way. Remember that every step of every stage is an encounter with yourself. We hope that on the Camino, you find your own Camino.”
4) Each day a form of meditation
And so I began to see my Camino as a special gift – a time to be truly present to myself and the world around me. I tried to make each day a form of meditation. Walking an average of 20 kms over five days, I tried to be completely conscious of the world around me – the sights, sounds, aromas, how my body, mind and spirit were feeling.
5) The beauty of nature and the world around us
I revelled in the rural sights and sounds around me, as I watched the villagers bringing in their cows for milking, herding them up the road back to the fields or working in their productive vegetable gardens. I enjoyed the sensations beneath my feet as I crossed from forest paths of soft fallen leaves, to old flag stones and cobbles or sealed roads. Always there was sweet bird song and often the smell of newly turned rich earth. I listened to the soft cooing of doves in the hay barns, the clucking of hens, the cawing of crows. Even the tap, tap, tap of my walking pole became part of my meditation, as well as the gentle rattle of my pilgrim’s scallop shell hanging from my back pack.
Familiar sights along the way were the horreo, the traditional Galician granary constructed of wood, stone and concrete or brick, used to store fruit, grain and meats to protect them from moisture and animals. While some are still used for storage, many are now more decorative than functional. Then there were the cruceiros, monuments consisting of a stone cross set on a pillar at crossroads or in churchyards. Churches and chapels were the hearts of the many villages we walked through. When they were open, we would pause a while, enjoying the coolness of the stone interiors, and would get another stamp for our pilgrim’s passport. Gradually I filled six pages with stamps from the manor houses we stayed in, cafés I ate in and churches I visited.
6) Being part of a true international Community
I was part of a true international community moving in a slow, steady stream towards our goal of Santiago. Sometimes there were many pilgrims on the path; other times I might walk two kilometres before seeing another soul. Always we greeted each other with “Buen Camino” as we passed or we talked awhile about our journeys, where we were from and how far we had come. As we shared meals and experiences, our group grew closer too, helped immeasurably, I believe, by the sweetness and sensitivity of our Venezuelan guide Ignacio.
7) Delicious food
Some of the dinners we were served were memorable. One very stylish meal consisted of peppers stuffed with shrimps as a starter, a main dish of salmon served on creamed potato with pesto and crème brulee for dessert. And the local wine was great too. This was not a weight-reducing walk!
8) Hearing about people’s motivations
Hearing about people’s reasons to walk the Camino, their motivations for setting out on this journey was always interesting and often very moving.
One of the most impressive was the story told to a few of us by two middle-aged guys from Liverpool. They were on a 1000 km-sponsored walk to raise money for London’s Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital. Theirs was a pilgrimage of gratitude, as the stepdaughter of one of the men had had a life-saving heart transplant operation late last year, aged 16. The two men were walking huge distances per day, sometimes up to 50kms, and carrying large packs. Their efforts made ours feel like a walk in the park in comparison!
Another day I met a family of seven from Alabama. Dad was pushing a double pushchair with two toddlers, as well as carrying an 18-month-old baby in a backpack, and Mum was holding the hands of their two young daughters. They were all so cheerful though the parents admitted that sometimes the children got a little scratchy.
I spent a little time with a young woman from Boston who had joined her cousin on his last week walking the whole pilgrimage from St Jean on the border between France and Spain. She was not used to long walks or carrying heavy packs, and was finding the heat difficult. At one point, the track branched into two options. She came to the left with me, but unfortunately that particular route went down a very steep rocky path – almost a ravine – that could be quite treacherous when wet, I learnt later. No wonder we were the only pilgrims who had chosen to reach Portomarin via that route!
9) Arriving in Santiago – The Botafumeiro experience
The climax of the whole walk was arriving in Santiago in time for the pilgrims’ midday mass. Our group was fortunate to have a couple of reserved pews. This was because Marly had paid for the Botafumeiro or huge incense burner to be swung over the heads of the congregation at the end of the mass.
This experience was one of the best reasons to walk the Camino. Its origins date back to 1554 during the time when pilgrims would sleep inside the cathedral to shelter from the cold and rain. Straw would be spread on the floor to provide some warmth. The botafumeiro or smoke thrower came about as a solution to a public health issue, to disguise the smell of the pilgrims who may not have washed or changed their clothes for months. Whatever the reason, watching the eight men or tiraboleiros heave on the heavy ropes to firstly lower, then raise, then propel the botafumeiro through the cathedral is a most impressive sight and I feel privileged to have witnessed it.
Gratitude was the strongest emotion I experienced during my pilgrimage – gratitude for being alive, for having the physical ability to do the walk, for the opportunity to share it with pilgrims from all over the world, for the life I have in New Zealand with my husband and other loved family members and friends. The Camino taught me to be surprised, to appreciate the small things, to rejoice in the joy of living slowly and being part of nature. With a bit of luck, the lessons I learnt will stay with me for the rest of my life.
What about you? What are your reasons to walk the Camino?