Jiab and I walked the French route, which extends for hundreds of kilometers across the northern part of Spain. We stayed in hostels, carried everything on our backs, and every evening collapsed in exhaustion with our feet begging, no mas.
It was one of the greatest experiences we ever had.
We were off the internet grid and never missed it for a moment. We bought fruit at local stands each evening, then ate it the next day as we watched the sun rise while setting out for the new day’s adventure. We walked by evidence of those who had ventured this way long before, including medieval Christian cross markers, Visigoth keeps, and even Roman bridges. We were overcome by the smell and silence of eucalyptus forests, tempting us to just stop and stay like lotus eaters on an odyssey.
Best of all, though, was the people. Every day we saw the familiar faces of those who matched our pace, as well as new ones whom we caught up with or (more often) passed by us. Everyone took time to greet each other, find out where one was from, and maybe even share a couple of olives.
Walking El Camino is an athletic challenge where everyone has the same goal, to finish, and yet there is no competition. We all go at our own pace, and we all encourage each other with wishes of Buen Camino!
I asked Jiab what she remembered as the most challenging part of the adventure. She thought about it all, the days of long treks, sometimes in rain, the slow-grind uphill slopes, the steep ravine descents, even the snoring fellow hostel guests.
“The mental challenge,” she replied with sureness.
She’s right. Feet begged each morning not to go back into shoes, and back muscles groaned as the backpack slid on, but there was no doubt that the mind, and its willpower to stay the course, was commander of this voyage.
Willpower’s greatest allies, however, were other people. There were times on the trail that Jiab and I were tired, or annoyed with each other’s different walking paces, but then someone would wish us Buen Camino! and we would be back in sync with similar spring in our steps. Two Italian men took time off their hike to wish Jiab buon compleanno on her birthday (with lots of hugging and kissing); a Brazilian family conversed with us in a merry-go-round of Spanish-Portuguese-English. We walked with an Irish woman who shared about her work promoting women’s rights in the workplace. And there was Dieter, a German factory foreman we met the first couple of nights on the trail. We didn’t see again until we eventually came into Santiago, where we were suddenly greeted by a roaring yell as Dieter, who had gotten there days before, welcomed us with hugs as if he had known us for years.
The challenge of El Camino is personal, but it is shared by all. Knowing we were all in it, enduring the same thing and wishing each other well, made it do-able.
One year later, we get up well after sunrise knowing that there is no need to get up early (except for spoiled cats demanding their morning attendants). We forage the refrigerator, and then choose one of the same four rooms from which to navigate much of the rest of the day through an electronic screen.
Our challenges, from online language lessons, to writing, to Jiab practicing guitar, are not immediately necessary, and so the lethargic demon whispers “do it later” in our ears.
We still need mental fortitude to keep going. We don’t know when this will end, and an unsure journey is far tougher than one with a definite end point with a Compostela certificate waiting to congratulate you.
We are tired, maybe not physically, but emotionally, and the idea of an empty day (whatever day today is) is as daunting as a steep hill rising before us.
On the Camino, coming across a memorial to a pilgrim who died at that spot reminds you of how serious the challenge is. Nowadays, our Netflix-binging is sometimes interrupted by a text that a friend or acquaintance is now infected and lies on the edge of life, or has even lost the battle.
We feel loneliness, guilt for having it better than others, anger that the sun is out and we can’t be hiking under it, and sympathy for those with bored children; it’s a roller coaster of emotions.
Yet, it’s still our travel companions who buoy us up, even if from a distance. We use social media to chat with others, especially those living alone. A young boy in our apartment block was serenaded with “Feliz cumpleaños” from all our windows. We’ve made new friends shouting across balconies. The 70-year-old woman whose terrace is separated from ours by a wall offered to share some of her wine stash.
So, now the entire world is traveling along one road, all staying in our homes and yet all marching towards the same goal, the goal to return to whatever was “normal” before the lockdown.
In Spain, we remind each other we are all separated, yet together, by stepping out every evening onto our balconies and clapping for the front-line medical people, the workers in the food stores, and each other.
It’s our way of saying Buen Confinamiento.
And I wish it to everyone in the world.