Saturday, 7 March 2009

Let's get personal

I had lunch with “the girls” yesterday. Well actually only 2 of 5 of them. “Girls” is a euphemism for a group of the brightest, most assertive and at times scariest women I have ever worked with. I met them in my previous professional life. We worked together, became friends and we still meet. Now with children, partners and mortgages their brains are still as large as planets and they are still challenging.

We met in a posh part of London – they live there, I had to travel from the other side of the tracks. We caught up on all the news before lunch. Julie is pregnant, again. Sandra unbelievably is nearly 40. There’s another Sandra who is now scaring people in Holland and Fiona is at home with three children. Kara is still a senior with McKinsey.

But before you could say "red mullet and spinach" they started on their questions about walking the Camino routes to Santiago. I felt the full force of their need for analysis. It went something like this:

“We’ve read the blog, pretty pictures, nice scenery. You actually walk everywhere? Like….walk all the way… no buses or taxis? Do you stay in these pilgrim inns with other people? Do you walk every day? Does someone carry your rucksack? You carry it yourself? Wow. Isn’t it boring? Do you have e mail access?”

It is relatively easy to answer these questions individually but of course what they really wanted to know is: “What do you get out of it? and “Why do you go back for more?”

I find these questions much more difficult to answer because the pilgrimage experience is a complex alchemy of physical effort, daily repetition, being out of your comfort zone, engaging with others on a new level and beginning to experience what is most important in life.

Not every one “gets” this. Take Laurence for example. I’ve known him for a few years. He is liberal, tolerant, kind, very environmentally friendly and has spent his life helping others. One day many years ago he drove to France to start his pilgrimage. He got out of the car, set off on the route and after a few hours it started to rain. Her turned back and returned home. He hadn’t realised he might have to walk in the rain!

But I mustn’t get diverted onto other people. The questions were directed at me. I found myself facing the problem many pilgrims face – just how do you explain the experience to people?

I was aware of that dilemma very early in my first pilgrimage. After a few days I felt a sense of freedom. I was walking surrounded by stunning scenery. I was greeted by friendly local Spanish people who couldn’t have been more helpful. I met a few other pilgrims and realised that in the journey there is a common bound.

But things also started to happen inside me as well. I slowed down. Walking alone I thought about a lot of things in life. Good and bad. And it can be easy to dwell on the bad. But the rhythm of the walking, just putting one foot in front of the other, time after time, washed all thoughts away, both good and bad. Like meditation I suppose.

After a few days the Camino takes over. You have to get up and have breakfast. Then set off for the next destination. There are yellow arrows marking the way. You know the distance to be walked. Quickly you realise how many kilometres per hour you walk on average. For me that’s 4. So if I set out to walk 25 kms in a day that is 6 hours walking plus roughly one hour in breaks. 7 hours. Nearly a working day. But oh so different!

Then arriving in yet another small village. Finding a bed. Is there a church to visit? Having dinner. Then bed. Deep sleep.

Day after day.

The very simplicity has a major impact. Daily needs are taken care of and “wants” turn from a new model of car or mobile phone to whether it will be soup or salad to satisfy the hunger at the end of a day’s walking.

It was on one of these days I realised how difficult it is to explain this Camino experience.

I was walking the Camino Inglés as a break between walking the two halves of the Via de la Plata. It was a hot July day. The day before I had walked along the waterside at Pontedueme and eaten fresh sea food. I started early because I wanted to get the steep climb over the hill to my next destination out of the way before it became too hot. By mid morning the sun was shining. It was glorious. As the day went on the temperature continued to climb. It was hot. Very hot. As I walked up a short but steep incline I was aware just how hot it was.

I followed a yellow arrow to the right, along a forest path. It was lush. Long grass. The trees above forming a canopy like a cathedral ceiling. Cool. Dark. Green. Suddenly like a spotlight on a stage a shaft of sunlight pierced the forest shade and illuminated a cloud of butterflies dancing on the path in front of me.
The intense beauty of the sight in the relief of the cool shade was almost overwhelming. Uplifting.

Afterwards as I thought about it I realised that many other camino experiences are just like that: dramatic, unexpected, magical, deeply spiritual and personal.

I had the idea that one way to explain all of this would be to bring together personal experiences with beautiful photographs and inspirational words. That resulted the wee book the Spiritual Companion which celebrates the 25th anniversary of the Confraternity of St James. (see bottom of the page)

The truth of the matter is that the Camino experience has been so powerful for me I’m still trying to explain and describe it. And so I wrote some stories and then I got a blog.

I’m not bored yet and I hope neither are you.


  1. Thanks Johnnie for setting down your thoughts like this. You have managed to explain so many things that are 'of the heart' and so hard to explain.
    I identified with what you wrote about how walking led you to think about the things in your life, good and bad. Somewhere along my meditative trail I realised that 'being thankful' for the whole chance to walk was an important lesson to take from it.
    I found your description of the beautiful sight in the shade very moving. I know there were times in my walk when I was similarly uplifted.

  2. Hi - thanks for your comments. Explaining the experience is a great challenge for everyone because it happens on so many levels. But that's why we go back for more :)



  3. I've just found your blog, and am looking forward to catching up on your previous posts very soon. In the meantime, good luck with it, and no doubt I'll be commenting more before long!
    As you say, the Camino certainly is a powerful experience. Till later... and thanks for the link.

  4. Hi there - I very much enjoy what you write and I thought the more interaction the better!

    Great to hear from you.