Sunday, 21 March 2010

Camino Scales

Out walking yesterday. Skies grey and tepid air. Rain was never far away. The path was concrete and the 22 kms seemed a long way to go. There were few other walkers. Maybe they were sensible. Instead others took their place. All day a procession ran past in both directions. The runners moved smoothly and quickly. Baggy shorts, an old t-shirt, good shoes and defined muscles spirited their fit bodies past. But the majority were joggers clearly new to the enterprise. These came in all shapes. Mostly big. They sported yards of new lycra sometimes stretched impossibly in garish colours which matched the beetroot red of their faces. Sweat dripped. The joggers were uniform complete with high energy drinks in bottles which seemed to wrap around their fists like plastic knuckle dusters. Perhaps to fight off the fat? That was hopefully the objective of many of them. Why else would they put themselves through the obvious pain? All of their faces were set in an earnest panting grimace as they rippled along. Some grunted with the effort. As I strolled peacefully by the river I wondered why they do something which they clearly don’t enjoy and which appears to be very painful. How many just give up because it is all too difficult?

I’ve pondered that too about pilgrims. This week the question is back in my head as I’ve read a number of comments on pilgrim blogs and message boards from people who just didn’t like the Camino experience. Criticisms range from the litter on the Camino Frances to the challenges of sleeping in a busy albergue with 30 other strangers. No privacy, queues for the toilets, snoring are all listed in the case for the prosecution. One article I read complained that the local people weren’t welcoming and don’t speak English. Why this comes as a surprise in Spain bewilders me. I hope they never visit rural China. The food too is singled out for complaint. Too little choice. Too large portions. Too many fried potatoes. Too much meat. I’ve heard people complain about all of these things usually loudly in Spanish restaurants. I always feel like telling them to simply ask for the A La Carte Menu and to stop complaining about the quality of a meal which is going to cost them all of 8 euros for three courses included bread and wine. Maybe they usually go to nice local restaurants in New York or London where they pay $11 or £7 for the same volume of food and drink. Then there is the litany of more serious irritants. The clicking of walking poles on the trail, the hum of music from earphones as someone with an iPod passes or the heinous offense of being seen with a mobile telephone in your hand let along talking into it.

I suspect however that many of these negative concerns are inspired by the real challenges which all of us can encounter on Camino. Some people just don’t expect the weather to be bad, the hills to be steep or their feet to get blisters. These are among the real trials of the Camino. That’s why I think the documentary by José Alvarez has such an apt title - El Camino de Santiago: no un camino de rosas. Those of us who have walked know it isn’t a bed of roses.
Among those are some of my pilgrim friends. Rebekah is out there on the Camino Frances at the moment walking through those first days of pain and adjustment to being on pilgrimage again. I vicariously shared the recent Camino of the Solitary Walker as he walked the Via de la Plata. Challenging at the best of times he had to contend with the worst weather Spain has had for many years. Silvia from South Africa is amongst the most experienced pilgrims but walking in continuous rain brought blisters on a scale she had never known before. Andy walking the Camino Levante from Valencia had to cope with illness. Then there are the people I know who just gave up. Like me, a couple of years ago. With a chest infection flaring up again I was faced with two solid weeks of continuous rain ahead. I was outside of Burgos. Miserable. It was a Sunday. A bus came and I was back in London that evening. Best to live to walk another day, don’t you think?

Those who have walked know that after a long day our feet will be sore but these and all of the other difficulties are more than out-weighed by the benefits. The Solitary Walker says he tries to give himself to the serendipity. To the good things which happen. Vistas, a sense of freedom, meeting local people who are genuinely helpful, encountering other pilgrims also making the Way.

I thought about how to describe all of these things which counterbalance the inevitable challenges of the Camino and alI I could do was come up with a long list of incidents which taken together seem altogether too magical. So in my search for what pilgrimage offers us I turned to someone whose prose is more descriptive and beautiful than mine. Hermann Hesse wrote in his little book Wandering:

“But I smile, not only with my mouth. I smile with my soul, with my eyes, with my whole skin and I offer these countrysides, whose fragrances drift up to me, different senses than I had before, more delicate, more silent, more finely honed, better practice and more grateful. Everything belongs to me more than ever before, it speaks to me more richly with a hundred nuances. My yearning no longer paints dreamy colours across veiled distances, my eyes are satisfied with what exists. The world has become lovelier than before.“


  1. I think that 'smile with the soul' nails it really. I can look at pilgrim's photos on their blogs and see a radiant smile from somewhere deep within that speaks "Camino".
    I think some people embark on the Camino after reading a book, and have a romantic idea of what it will be like. But when the feet hit the road, the reality is that you will be dealing with sore feet and tiredness. For those of us who keep going, it is all counterbalanced by that peace deep within. If you are one who loves walking out in the landscape, you quickly know joy. And you hold memories of kindness forever.

  2. You sweetie! Thanks so much for the couple of mentions. Those complainers you talk about... Oh, well, there will always be complainers (you see their entries every now and again in the albergue comments' books). There's a simple solution to all the snoring, the packed dormitories, the crowded kitchens... Walk at a different time of year. On The Via de la Plata I had the problem in reverse - not enough pilgrims..!

  3. And thanks for the mention too.

    For me I suppose there is a bit of a love/hate relationship with the Camino - it's really tough, but it is counterbalanced by being deep and important and transformative. The love outweighs the hate by far, and the Camino is in my soul (or is it the other way round?).

    Thanks for this post, it's provoking many thoughts,


  4. Love this post, John, so just have to add my thoughts. I feel it's largely the challenges that add meaning to Camino, that lead to a sense of achievement and joy, plus all the little serendipities, of which there are as many as you want to let yourself see.

    My quick list . . .
    ..Feeling of being really alive/ of not feeling my age/ of every little incident taking on a more memorable and significant meaning/ of peace with my world/ of connectedness with the 'earth/soil/ of the pace of life slowing down / of connection to centuries of pilgrims who've walked these very paths.
    .. A greeting by name from hospitalero, Javiar, at Puente Duero . . at the end of a long, hot day, with me in the bad books for getting us lost.
    .. Vistas, always vistas/ gorgeous photo opps / locals tilling the field
    .. Animals . . donkeys, horses, birds (not dogs)
    .. Music . . . cowbells, churchbells, birdcalls, someone singing, me singing!! (Waltzing Matilda)
    .. Lady who opened the bar just for us / cafe con leche
    .. The bread van appearing just when we were starving
    .. Looking back at where we have come from/ always amazes me
    .. Butterfly on a wildflower/ hairy caterpillar crossing the track/ a discarded knee high boot/ 500m later, a second discarded knee high boot! Did I mention 'cafe con leche'?
    .. Meeting and connecting with people from all around the world

    I could go on .....
    Thanks for a great post.

  5. I am so grateful for the postings of you veterans of the Camino. As my first Camino approaches, so does my uncertainty as to what the heck I am doing! And at my age (58)! I am an army veteran, so no stranger to sore feet and bad food and crowded sleeping conditions. What I think I fear most, and, by the same token, what is most adventurous to me, is the language barrier. What I look forward to most is meeting people like you and all those who have posted above. What a great fraternity to be a part of.