Walking into the Unknown: Reflections of a 77-mile pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago

Walking into the unknown: Reflections of a 77-mile pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago. All photography unless noted is the property of EuroTravelogue™. Unauthorized use is prohibited.
Walking into the unknown: Reflections of a 77-mile pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago. All photography unless noted is the property of EuroTravelogue™. Unauthorized use is prohibited.

Pilgrim’s Log: October 7, 2018

“A pilgrim must make themselves vulnerable. Vulnerability makes you prioritize everything. By thinking in this way when you return home, you may approach everyday life differently. Vulnerability is also where God is. For those undertaking religious pilgrimages, the goal is not the final destination, but closeness to God.” Pilgrim B.
I’ll never forget how anxious I was in the time that led up to the departure for my pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago with Duperier’s Authentic Journeys. Half excited and have nervous or to be quite frank, freaking out, I had no idea what to expect from the hiking adventure that I would soon be undertaking which was going to be unlike any other trip I’ve been on before. And while my experience would undoubtedly be one from a “privileged” point of view, nevertheless I worried about the unknown, most of all the physical demands that I would soon be placing upon my back, legs and my feet, care for which is absolutely critical during any hike, anywhere. Although I’ve been training for nearly two years, I wondered if I could I hike up to 10 miles a day, every day for two weeks. How will I endure?

A rocky path that leads to a road to Glory.
A rocky path that leads to a road to Glory. 

As I would soon come to find out after my first day of walking the Camino, my fears evaporated and I thought to myself, I’ve got this; and then, I wanted more, a lot more, even on the longest, hottest days I still wanted more! Once I tapped into the energy of the Camino, it was all the fuel I needed to keep me moving along; especially with the encouragement and unexpected kindnesses that were bestowed upon me, the camaraderie of fellow pilgrims and the blessings received from above. There I was, on my way and making pilgrimage along the sacred path to Santiago de Compostela just as millions of pilgrims before me have done for over a thousand years, and surprisingly enough, loving every step. It was then that I knew I was a pilgrim!

The Calling

The Camino Calling.
The Camino Calling.
But before I get too far ahead of myself, let me back up to the beginning. My own pursuit of a personal pilgrimage emerged after a few travelogues I’ve read by Richard Halliburton, Jack Hitt, Paulo Coelho, Colin Thubron, but the pivotal moment came after Emilio Estevez’s “The Way.” I knew then that my dream of a pilgrimage was no longer a fantasy, but a reality within my grasp and now that I am back, I can honestly say it was the most incredibly inspiring, physically and emotionally demanding adventure I have ever undertaken, anywhere!

The rhythm of the Camino

Getting caught up in the Camino experience was what I looked forward to with each day’s dawn.
Getting caught up in the Camino experience was what I looked forward to with each day’s dawn.
Every day, I couldn’t wait to wake up to begin a new day on the Camino de Santiago. After a nutritious breakfast and a healthy replenishment of water, I was ready. Our company of pilgrims began each morning with stretching exercises to tone our muscles and once we were limbered up and with a few “Buen Camino” exchanges, we were off. Some in a race, some to amble, and one, usually me, to pick up the rear. But I wasn’t rushing into anything as I wanted to “drink the wild (Camino) air” as Ralph Waldo Emerson (and I) would say, don my backpack, grab hold of my trusted pilgrim staff and check to make sure my shadow, who sure enough, was just a pace or two behind. With the wind against my outstretched sails, I marched westward with all the other pilgrims, most of whom passed me by too. It’s off to Santiago I go!

Sure enough, my shadow was just a pace or two behind.
Sure enough, my shadow was just a pace or two behind.

The Camino Spirit

The spirit of Camino is alive and with every step in my stride, I felt its palpable and pulsing rhythm embracing my body and soul. Through sleepy villages and bustling cities, through wide-open fields of grain and forests laden in eucalyptus and pine, I forged ahead along a sacred path imbued with a numinous quality that can only be appreciated through the experience.


Sometimes alone and sometimes with others, I walked along but with every new day, came a new friend, new friends that hailed from all corners of the world and all of whom etched their mark and enriched my Camino spirit through the camaraderie we shared. Actually, it was easy to meet fellow peregrinos because even before the first exchange, we already had something in common—we were pilgrims on a pilgrimage to Santiago.

To name a few: Freya from the UK was my very first Camino friend, Alexandre (I loved the sound of his name, "Ala shan dray") from Brazil, Uta from Germany, Aiesha from Ireland, Suten from South Africa, Danny from New Jersey, but it was Julian and Cesar from Spain whom I would remember most because I met them three more times before the end of my journey. Many of the others I saw once or twice more and some never again.

Meet Danny from New Jersey. This young lady is 70 and walked from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, nearly 475 miles before this photo was taken.
Meet Danny from New Jersey. This young lady is 70 and walked from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, nearly 475 miles before this photo was taken.

And Suten from South Africa.
And Suten from South Africa.

And Pei, who was my first friend on my last day to Santiago.
And Pei, who was my first friend on my last day to Santiago.

Standing in front of a 900-year-old Cypress, my friends Julian from Seville whom I would meet up with three more times before the end of my Camino, and his friend Ramo from Italy.
Standing in front of a noble sentinel of the Camino—a 900-year-old Cypress tree; my friends Julian, from Seville whom I would meet up with three more times before the end of my Camino, and his friend Ramo from Italy.

There were also a few peregrinos of the bovine kind along the way to Tricastela.

La Fuente del Peregrino is an albergue with a little pilgrim stand just inside. It was here that I met Jean and Laura.
La Fuente del Peregrino is an albergue with a little pilgrim stand just inside the door. It was here that I met Jean and Laura.

In Ligonde, many of the pilgrims whom I had met during my first six days on pilgrimage seemed to converge at La Fuente del Peregrino for a Camino family reunion of sorts. It was wonderful to see their faces again and to exchange a few more “Buen Caminos” as well.

Delicious café con leche and yummy cookies too. It was just the fuel I needed for a mid-morning break.
Delicious café con leche and yummy cookies too. It was just the fuel I needed for a mid-morning break.

Reflections

When I walked alone with only the sound of my footsteps echoing in the silence of my sylvan surroundings, I often looked inward as much as I did outward. It was during these times of soul searching that my Camino experience overwhelmed me with raw emotion and the tears poured out, some of regret but most of the gratitude I felt toward my fellow pilgrims, the undulating terrains of northern Spain’s countryside, and most of all, God above for answering my prayers to undertake this pilgrimage to Santiago. Oftentimes, I cried alone and other times, I laughed out loud. If anyone but a pilgrim would have witnessed my carryings on, perhaps I may have been certified and locked away. But I am not alone in these kinds of experiences for those who have walked before me know of the emotional intensity that can overwhelm you at any time. All you can do is open your heart and surrender to the Camino.

Cruz de Ferro

Here, upon this mound of rocks with a weathered pole topped by an iron cross, pilgrims pray and toss their symbolic “burdens” of stone.
Here, upon this mound of rocks with a weathered pole topped by an iron cross, pilgrims pray and toss their symbolic “burdens” of stone.
The penultimate moment of profound reflection came at the Cruz de Ferro or Iron Cross on my second day of pilgrimage. It is here, upon this mound of rocks with a weathered pole topped by an iron cross that pilgrims pray and toss their symbolic “burdens” of stone they no longer want to carry in this life. Some carry them from home while others find them along the Camino. With a prayer and oftentimes a tear, they let go and rejoice in their freedom, I tossed mine as well. It was cathartic.

Pilgrims rejoice in their new found freedoms after letting go of their burdens.
Pilgrims rejoice in their new found freedoms after letting go of their burdens.

Preparing to toss my burden of stone at the Cruz de Ferro.
Preparing to toss my burden of stone at the Cruz de Ferro.

The Camino Provides

“The Camino provides” is a common blessing known to all pilgrims who understand that the Camino doesn't give you what you want, it gives you what you need, and I can personally attest to the fact that the Camino provided from my first day to the last, from the friendships I made to the unexpected kindnesses bestowed upon me by benevolent souls. Perhaps some were angels such as the kind grape picker who was hard at work in the vineyards and paused for a moment to offer a weary pilgrim a handful of grapes. At that moment, it was manna from heaven, the sweetest and most delicious grapes I had ever eaten. Actually, the Camino abounds with heartwarming moments like these and each one justified my faith in humanity more and more!

Pilgrim refuges

At the end of a long uphill climb, I stumbled upon a Camino oasis, David’s Oasis to be precise, a pilgrim refuge that offered all kinds of refreshments and a retreat from the sun.
At the end of a long uphill climb, I stumbled upon a Camino oasis, David’s Oasis to be precise, a pilgrim refuge that offered all kinds of refreshments and a retreat from the sun.

The Camino provides yet again .... It was my first day on the Camino and most of my walking was uphill to the Cruceiro Santo Toribio and just when I was at the point of utter exhaustion from my first day’s hike, the uphill climb with the sun beating upon my head, I arrived at a Camino oasis, David’s Oasis to be precise, a pilgrim refuge that offered all kinds of refreshments and a retreat from the sun. While I had no idea how much further I had to go before the 1 p.m. check point, I broke stride anyway for a respite replete with fresh lemonade, a spigot to wash my sweaty face, and a place in the shade where I met up again with my friend Alexandre whom I had met earlier in the day. With renewed vigor, I was back on the path.

Cruceiro Santo Toribio or Cross of Saint Toribio commemorates the location where the fifth-century Bishop Toribio of Astorga fell to his knees in a final farewell after having been banished from the village.
After my stop at David's Oasis, I arrived at my 1 p.m. checkpoint at the Cruceiro Santo Toribio or Cross of Saint Toribio, a stone monument cross that commemorates the location where the fifth-century Bishop Toribio of Astorga fell to his knees in a final farewell after having been banished from the village.

Actually, there are plenty of these little pilgrim refuges, most operate on a donation basis and they seem to pop up when you need them most—for a quick café con leche, a cookie, or a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice by the owners all of whom offered welcoming smiles that lit up the world!

Reluctant at first, Mama agreed to let me take her picture. Just look at her smile!
Reluctant at first, Mama finally agreed to let me take her picture. Just look at her smile!

And look at the spread that welcomed a weary pilgrim.
And just look at the banquet that welcomed a weary pilgrim.

It always seemed that just when I needed it most, I would stumble upon a little pilgrim stand like this. The Camino provides.
It always seemed that just when I needed it most, I would stumble upon a little pilgrim stand like this. The Camino provides.

One of the best places along the Camino for a quick boost of café con leche.
One of the best places along the Camino for a quick boost of café con leche.

The Arrival


After 77 miles of walking along the Way of Saint James over the hills and through the forests on a sacred path from Leon to Santiago, this weary pilgrim arrived at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela where I humbly stood in awe of its majesty and in awe of all the pilgrims surrounding me who converged here in this field beneath the stars. As soon as I spied the cathedral’s towers, I started to cry and then again as I stood in line waiting to enter the cathedral via the south portal in which all pilgrims would pass. Completely overwhelmed with emotion, I stood there alone crying and rejoicing in my personal triumph, but most of all to give thanks to all those who blessed my journey and safe arrival.

The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela where the bones of the Apostle Saint James lie interred beneath the altar.
The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela where the bones of the Apostle Saint James lie interred beneath the altar.

At top center is one of many statues of Santiago that adorn the cathedral. Below him, a star, symbolic of the stars that once led a hermit to discover the Saint's relics over a 1,000 years ago.
At top center is one of many statues of Santiago that adorn the cathedral. Below him, a star, symbolic of the stars that once led a hermit to discover the Saint's relics over a 1,000 years ago.

We arrived by noon just in time for the Pilgrim's Mass and blessings were bestowed upon peregrinos from all walks of life and from all corners of the world, united here in Santiago to celebrate our personal victories and our arrival. During mass, the priest warned us of the importance of being “present” and living “in the moment,” and to resist the distractions that isolate us from friends and family. In today’s world this couldn’t ring truer for all of us.

The botafumeiro and pulley system mounted just below the cupola.
The botafumeiro and pulley system mounted just below the cupola.

Following his sermon, more priests gathered near the altar, one with a small shovel and it was then that I knew they were preparing for the botafumeiro ceremony, an absolute spectacle to behold in person. I was frozen in awe as the large incense burner climbed higher and higher, from one end of the transept to the other. With the chorus resounding throughout the hallowed halls, the moment was sublime and as the cloud of incense dispersed, I felt blessed to be here, to have witnessed a ritual that has been celebrated for hundreds of years. Yet again, I cried for this moment that I had prayed would come to pass in my lifetime. I am crying now as I write this knowing how truly blessed I am to have been on pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago, to have attended the Pilgrim’s mass and received the blessings with my fellow pilgrims from all over the world. As long as I live, I will never forget my Camino.


Final words


Never did I want for anything except more hours in the day, and the night, to walk the way; for the unknown became the known and getting caught up in the Camino experience was what I looked forward to with each day’s dawning. And although I am a little sad that I am at the end of my pilgrimage, my first pilgrimage, I was assured that it’s only the beginning of a new Camino through life and that this Camino would be the easy part, as I would soon find out upon my return home. Once the Camino wraps you in its warm embrace, it becomes part of you forever. There's no letting go and I am fine with that!

Midnight at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. It was so peaceful sitting in Obradoiro square and reflecting on the day of my arrival.
Midnight at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. It was so peaceful sitting in Obradoiro square and reflecting on the day of my arrival.
There is an old Chinese proverb that reads, “He who returns from a journey is not the same as he who left.” Well, I have changed and although I didn’t realize at the time, a transformation was taking place every day as I grew spiritually closer to God. For I firmly believe that He had blessed me many times throughout my journey, gave me strength when I needed it most, empathized with me during moments of sorrow and rejoiced with me in my triumphs.

Soul searching and reflection along the Way of Saint James.
Soul searching and reflection along the Way of Saint James.

But that wasn’t the only change, I discovered I had more patience and acceptance for things beyond my control, more forgiveness; and increased compassion for all those I’ve encountered along the path. With every opportunity that came along, I reached out to perfect strangers to make sure they were OK, to extend a helping hand when they needed it, or just to greet them with a “buenos dias,” “hola” or “Buen Camino.”

To all of my new friends and pilgrims I met along the Way of Saint James, to all the people who enriched my life through kindness, understanding and friendship, to Juan-Carlos and Duperier’s Authentic Journeys for making this pilgrim’s dream a reality, I am eternally grateful! Above all, I want to thank God for answering a pilgrim’s prayer. And now, it’s time to pay it forward!

It was then that I knew I was a pilgrim!
It was then that I knew I was a pilgrim!

Farewell to the Camino, for now

Although I have returned from the Camino de Santiago, not a day goes by that I don't think about my journey. If you've ever walked along the Camino, you know exactly what I mean. And while there are many things that I will miss dearly including the moments of solitude and reflection, there is one that I will miss the most—the exchange of a greeting that I have grown to love, Buen Camino!
Buen Camino!
Buen Camino. Photo by Eileen Powers. Used with permission.
Buen Camino. Photo by Eileen Powers. Used with permission.

Be sure to check back here soon for "A day in the life of a pilgrim traveling with Duperier’s Authentic Journeys." I promise you it will be a most delicious read!

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