By Denise Chng
From the moment I discovered an ancient pilgrimage path in Spain in June last year, the attraction of walking hundreds of kilometres towards an assured destination grew on me daily.
My eagerness to go on a month-long journey on foot across the steep slopes, lush valleys and forests of the Pyrenees, and through countless small towns and villages, was part of a subconscious quest to find depth and meaning in my life.
At the age of 33, I was approaching – prematurely, perhaps – what seemed to be a mid-life crisis. The increasing demands of my personal, family and work life often left me drained, with an unexplained emptiness. Grinding away on the treadmill, I would often find myself asking: Is this all there is in life? Will this bring me fulfilment?
That was when the Camino called to me. I thought it would hold the answers to some of my questions. The Camino became not only a physical but also an incredible spiritual adventure. It was one of the best things I did for myself.
Camino de Santiago (translated as The Way of St James) is a journey towards Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. Legend has it that a pilgrim was guided by following a star to the spot where the relics of apostle St James were found.
Hailed as a holy city from the ninth century onwards, Santiago became an important Christian pilgrimage destination and began to draw pilgrims from distant parts of the world.
Pilgrims take weeks or months to travel by foot or by bicycle to Santiago. There are many routes, but the most important and popular one is Camino Frances (The French Way).
Although one can start from anywhere on the path, one of the most popular starting points is St Jean-Pied-de-Port, the last French town on the French-Spanish border.
The route from there includes the difficult but breathtakingly beautiful climb of 1,300m up the Pyrenees over to Spain.
Not willing to shortchange myself on this once-in-a-lifetime challenge, I chose this path, walking a total of 600km or roughly the distance from Singapore to Penang – all the way to Santiago in September last year.
But my inner journey had started earlier. Deciding what I needed to carry with me was a big decision. I had a target limit of 8kg for my luggage, which required me to separate my needs from my wants. It was a lesson in discipline – to eschew attachments and stick to essentials.
I carried with me a bottle of water, two walking sticks, a pair of slippers, two sets of clothes, a sleeping bag, light toiletries, a camera, a guidebook and my diary.
I began to wonder if my life needed some serious repacking as well. Along the way, I saw fellow pilgrims leaving behind, or ripping pages off their books as they finished reading them, to shed weight.
I, too, learnt to shed my excessive desires on the road. I said constantly to myself: “Keep it simple, sweetheart.”
On my first day of walking, I walked 27km in 12 hours, including the arduous climb of 1.3km up the Pyrenees. I stopped every hour to rest my tired back and blistered feet, and managed to arrive last at the Roncesvalles albergue (pilgrim hostel on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees) after the sun had set.
Situated next to a rustic gothic monastery, the albergue, which was once a mediaeval pilgrim hospital, housed 120 bunk beds packed closely together. It cost me 8 euros (S$16.90) to spend the night there.
The albergue, which was once a mediaeval pilgrim hospital, is now a hostel for pilgrims.
After the sympathetic hospitaleros (volunteer wardens) of the hostel inspected and stamped my credencial del peregrino (pilgrim’s passport), I had one hour to have my dinner and shower – both much needed – before lights went out at 10pm.
As I lay down, I thanked my feet for not failing me and reflected that I had been lucky. During the peak summer season, such hostels are often full, forcing pilgrims to walk further, sometimes many kilometres, to the next available one.
And so, even though I had to sleep next to a scruffy, snoring, coughing fellow pilgrim, I felt blessed to have shelter at all. I was to count many small blessings on the road to Santiago.
When I woke up the next morning, I contemplated resting for a day. My body was hurting and could have done with another night’s sleep without further punishment. But to my horror, the wardens wanted everyone out of the hostel by 7.30am so that they could make space for incoming pilgrims.
So, still half-battered, I limped out into the morning light.
I met a fellow pilgrim, a young New York lawyer, who looked in even worse shape than me. It did not take him long to hop into a cab to the next big town, Pamplona, famous for its bullfights. “I’m doing it MY WAY!” he declared.
It made me think how we all live our lives our own way, and there are many ways to do it.
As I embarked on my second day on the road, I wondered what my way was. And while I searched my heart for the answer, I searched also for little yellow arrows and scallop signs (a symbol of the Camino) pointing me towards Santiago. I wished the arrows in my life were as obvious.
For the next 28 days, I trekked through lonely highways, little beaten paths in forests, mountainous mud tracks, quaint small villages and bigger cities buzzing with life.
Miedaeval churches like the one below are a welcome sight from the lonely highways.
I soaked myself in nature’s wonders, appreciated the mediaeval churches and admired the “outdoor art” (such as handmade crosses, words of encouragement in graffiti and letters of prayers) left by pilgrims who had walked before me.
One of my frequent dilemmas was whether to stop to smell the roses or rush to get to my next bed. This was a metaphor for what we often encounter in our lives – to linger on and enjoy the moment or to go forth and achieve.
In a larger sense, our ultimate destination is obvious: We are all going to die one day. Our lives are about how we get there; it is about our journey.
Sometimes, our over-ambitious attempts to achieve force us to slow down. On the Camino, I learnt this from another pilgrim, a Swedish yoga teacher. She had rested in bed for more than three days because she had torn her knee ligaments from walking too much, too fast.
She explained to me: “I did not listen to my body nor did I stop to look around me. All I wanted to do was to get there. Now my body has stopped me, and I have all these wonderful people taking care of me. The Camino is teaching me the lessons I need to learn.”
And then, one beautiful day, when I was, again, worrying about my next bed, a French travel-guide writer who had walked all the way from Rome for about 120 days, said to me: “What’s there to worry? The sun is shining. Have faith. Everything will take care of itself.”
True enough, I always had a bed to sleep on every night. I started to trust and have faith. And somehow things fell into place.
As someone else told me: “On the Camino, you may not get what you WANT, but you will always have what you NEED.”
As I learnt, day by day, I grew stronger, both in my physical strength and in my heart.
The feeling of arriving in Santiago 30 days later was exhilarating. Even though I had arrived, I wanted to continue walking. It was then that I realised I wanted to be more of the
person I had discovered when I had been on the road to Santiago. I had felt humbled by the beauty around me and sure in the faith that there will always be someone ahead of me, someone behind me, and angels to care for me when I need help.
Camino de Santiago taught me the road to my heart. And that all my answers can be found within.
The writer, a Singaporean, used to work as a full-time brand valuation consultant. After completing her pilgrimage, she decided to continue travelling and to embark on freelance work and travel writing. She is now living and travelling in the Quebec province of Canada.
5 things to do
1 Do try and start from St Jean-Pied-de-Port, even though it is the toughest part of the journey. The scenic path at the top of the Pyrenees is well worth the effort.
2 Do take along two walking sticks. They help to spread the weight and balance on tricky terrains.
3 Do wear a comfortable, well-worn-in pair of waterproof trekking boots.
4 Do make sure your backpack allows you to shift the weight to your hips. This helps to take the pressure off your shoulders and back.
5 Do go with an open mind. Attitude is the most important equipment to carry.
1 Don’t follow the rhythm of others, but your own.
2 Don’t decide to give up at the end of the day. You often feel better and find that it is possible to continue the next morning.
This article was first published in The Straits Times on September 02, 2008.