I’ve been pretty clear about how I wanted to approach this pilgrimage experience. I want to challenge myself, not kill myself. I am carrying intentions, for others and myself. I want to walk with God, because I have some things to figure out, and sometimes when you put yourself in a strange environment, you gain a new perspective.
What I’m finding on the ground isn’t so clear. As usual.
A lot of people walk these Caminos. I sort of fantasized that I might be sharing accommodations with a dozen or so people in the albergues-the pilgrim accommodations. We’d be doing our own thing mostly and would meet at the end of a long walking day over a meal and some wine. It’d be all comfie and copacetic.
Well, the Camino is more crowded this year. Maybe 30 or so people walk in my “group.” Albergues are full; bathrooms are full; you basically sleep cheek to jowl with your neighbor. Right now, for example, I’m in a small bedroom with two bunk beds holding 3 grown men and myself.
There’s lots of chatter and lots of socializing at the end of the day, and lots of demand for the shower and potty.
There’s also a Camino culture, of sorts. Most folks have “done” one Camino or another multiple times. “It’s one of the few ways we Europeans can vacation like this affordably,” said a guy from Liverpool. “If I were to walk in England, I’d have to stay in B&Bs.”
While most folks are nice, there’s a bit of a herd mentality. You rush to get up and are waiting at the door for the albergue to open at 7. (They have an opening time to prevent people from leaving at ungodly early hours.)
The fastest, earliest, farthest walker wins, at least a lower bunk, if not Camino points. It’s sort of a vacation with a slightly competitive edge. Folks come from all over Europe, although I’m mostly meeting Spanish, French, and Brits; some speak several languages; some speak only one. This can make communication challenging or in some cases almost impossible.
Spiritual insight #1: this is about connecting with God, not fitting into the scene. So when I feel all awkward and lonely, I have to remind myself of that. To that end, I’m making a greater effort to get to mass during the week. There’s often an evening mass in the villages.
Insight #2: something about the act of walking toward a goal, especially when it’s difficult, really does feel like an act of penance? Sacrifice? Like connecting in some physical way with a greater suffering.
In fact, the experience of challenging yourself physically for a larger goal adds an unexpected element. The physicality makes me feel more vulnerable, at least for now. Some parts are utterly joyous, like walking in the cool morning as the sun burns off the dew. Other parts are hard, like when the path disintegrates into steep rubble or that last hill into town sucks the final bit of energy from your psyche. Then I am dependent and needy in a new and not altogether pleasant way.
At those times, I think of the first pilgrims who walked this road. The hazards were great and the possibility of injury or death were real and present.
I’ve now completed my fourth day of walking, which means I’ve gone through Guillena, Castilblanco des Arroyos, Álmaden de la Plata and I’m now in Real de la Jarra, for those of you who are Camino buffs. The marathoners have sprinted ahead, so the more relaxed folks are left behind and the albergues and hostels are less crowded.
I had hoped to be feeling less sore and walking at a more sprightly pace by now, but I’m still among the slower of the relaxed crowd. I’m fine with that; I’d just like to finish the day without using my walking sticks as crutches.
Poco a poco, as they say.
The walking has been lovely. Great weather; gorgeous terrain. Take a look.