“El Camino de Santiago is a parable and a reality at once. It makes you simpler, because the lighter the backpack the less strain to your back and the more you will experience how little you need to be alive”.
A friend asked me recently what I had got out of the Camino. I, jokingly, replied “sore feet and a broken wrist” but there was certainly more to it than that. At the beginning, someone told me that you don’t really understand or appreciate the benefits until after you return home. I think this is true. Two years later, my attitude to life has changed. It has taken a while and cannot wholly be attributed to the Camino but it certainly contributed.
There is a saying that the Camino provides what you need. Based on that assumption, a broken wrist was something I apparently needed! I didn’t think so at the time but it taught me it was O.K. to ask for help and I didn’t have to do everything the hard way. For most of my life, I have taken the approach that if I wanted anything done I had to do it myself. In actual fact, I had adopted my mother’s belief system and it was long past its use by date. On the Camino, if I wanted to eat the meat on my plate, I had to ask someone to cut it up for me. At first, I couldn’t even tie my boot laces without help. It is humbling to have to ask a complete stranger to do such basic tasks for you.
I gained a certain notoriety as word was passed along the way that there was a woman walking the Camino with her arm in plaster. I received comments on more than one occasion that I was ‘that lady they had heard about’! It was certainly a talking point with other pilgrims and did make me quite noticeable. However, I have always been very uncomfortable being the centre of attention. There was probably a lesson in that somewhere but I don’t think I learned it!
The hospital experience was also a challenge, at the very least because the staff on Reception couldn’t speak English and I certainly couldn’t speak Spanish. Thankfully, once I had breached that barrier, the doctors were English speaking. I went to three hospitals in total. None of them were easy to find and one was some distance from the Camino. In each, the receptionists were reluctant to allow me treatment as I didn’t have a European health number. I had to be a combination of persistent and helpless to get past them. Being helpless is alien to me!
The mind is a wonderful thing and I now remember the Camino quite fondly. However, reading back over my journal, this was far from the truth. There were many, many days of self pity and wanting to give up. There were many, many tears. Part of this was certainly to do with my arm but also I found that walking alone and reflecting on life stirred up past hurts and emotions once again. I had thought I was overcoming them having spent the last two years travelling on my own and trying to heal. I was ready to move on to a new life and walking the Camino was my idea of the transition between my old life and the new. However, it merely demonstrated that this was far from the truth. I still had a lot of anger and I was certainly not happy.
At these times, my father, who had been a German Prisoner of War in Silesia, was my inspiration. Towards the end of the war, when the Russians started moving west into Poland, the Germans forced all the prisoners to start walking from the camps towards Germany. Whenever I felt that I couldn’t carry on, I thought of him. Unlike him, I had nourishing food, good boots, warm clothes, a bed at night and it wasn’t the middle of winter. If he could survive that experience, I had no right to complain and feel sorry for myself on the Camino!
There were also some surprising emotions stirred about my grandparents, particularly my grandfather. He died when I was 11 or 12 and I didn’t know him well although they lived close by. He served in the trenches, in the Somme, in the First World War. As I was passing through Hospital de Orbigo, there was a parade that included soldiers carrying rifles with bayonets attached. For some reason, this moved me to tears as I associated it with my grandfather and what he must have experienced. There was also one place where rudimentary crosses had been made by pilgrims and attached to a fence. I felt a compulsion to make one for my grandparents. I have no idea why I had these feelings at this particular time but I did.
I carried a rock in my backpack to leave it in the traditional place of Cruce del Ferro. However, when I arrived there, I was reluctant to do so. I later thought I would leave it at Finisterre. Having walked the 3km to the lighthouse from the town, I realised the rock was in the pack that I had left at the albergue. I obviously wasn’t yet ready to let go of my burdens!
Everybody’s Camino is different and until you walk it, you don’t know how it will affect you personally. I am now extremely proud of my achievement in completing the whole distance, given the circumstances. If, or rather when, I do another pilgrimage, I will be at a completely different point in my life, emotionally, spiritually and physically. The idea of another Camino is fermenting in the back of my mind. Maybe next year…….