Words can’t possibly describe my experience walking El Camino de Santiago, though I will try here. It was one of the most physically and mentally challenging journeys I have ever taken. It also proved to be one of my most satisfying experiences.
I walked a path traversed by a million pilgrims over 1200 years. I became part of a living history as I walked through the same forests, passed the same villages, crossed the same rivers, climbed the same hills, slept and ate in the same albergues (shelters or hostels) as pilgrims did a thousand years ago.
As I became part of the El Camino path, the path also became part of me.
I didn’t know what to expect before the trip. I was hoping to get some clarity and peace of mind on my father’s battle with late-stage Parkinson’s disease, a struggle that has engulfed my family for the last few years. I was eager to walk El Camino, even if partly just to get away. I was badly in need of a reset.
But El Camino gave me more than a reset; it also gave me an opportunity to get a glimpse of my own capacity to endure. I learned I am more resilient than I think I am and that we all are more capable than we know or give ourselves credit for.
I kept notes on El Camino throughout the walk. The notes started off very random – The sights and sounds of my personal experiences. From particular “Wow” moments to overall impressions, however, I found El Camino affected me in profound ways. It would be my privilege to share some of those ways with you.
The things I saw:
1. The bluest blue sky ever, sometimes holding aloft white fluffy clouds: As the old saying goes, “you don’t know what you miss until it’s gone.” I didn’t realize how much I missed seeing a blue sky and breathing in fresh air, especially just coming back from two months in Bangkok where the city was dealing with the worst pollution in Thai history. Seeing the blue sky (and an infinite ceiling) while walking El Camino really uplifted me.
2. The blue sky graying as the weather turned to rain (and then back again): It signified for me the impermanence of our circumstances, but that we still had to keep walking whether good or bad weather.
In life we all face a dark time when things are not going well. But these dark times always pass, too, and the good times will return. Indeed, often having experienced the bad, we appreciate the good even more (No Mud No Lotus).
3. Sunrise: In Granada, we often get up late so we rarely see a sunrise. During the El Camino, we usually started the day’s hike in the dark before sunrise. We witnessed the sun peeking through the trees, then rolling and spreading across the land to reveal the beautiful landscapes of mountains, forest, and small villages while hearing birdsongs and roosters. The view captivated me. It was moments like this that made my pilgrimage experience so special and meaningful.
It also signified hope; we all have dark moments but eventually the sunlight will shine to eradicate the darkness and reveal the beauty that is in front of us all along.
4. Dense forests of oak, chestnuts and eucalyptus trees, often set on mountain slopes covered with different shades of green from light to dark, accented by brown, naked trees about to bud for spring that added depth and nuance to the landscape: Growing up in Thailand, there is no spring or fall season, so one sees a year-round, almost single shade of green jungle. It’s beautiful, but almost too uniform.
5. Charmingly small, timeless villages, with beautiful Romanesque churches and cruceiros (ancient stone crosses set on pillars throughout Galacia, placed to protect pilgrims): You can’t help but wonder how many travelers just like you these structures have watched pass by them in their lifetimes.
6. Galician traditional horreos (long, rectangular storehouses built of wood or stone and set on pillars to protect grain or hay): Even as they serve a commercial purpose, their “mini-church” appearance (often adorned with a cross) seems to connect the physical and spiritual worlds.
7. Houses made traditionally by stacking slate stones on top of each other, next to stone walls laced with weeds and ferns along the path: It’s impossible to tell if such structures are ten, a hundred, or even a thousand years old, yet somehow, it’s clear it doesn’t matter.
8. An old Roman bridge over a river: Stories in all cultures consider the crossing of a river or stream as a turning point, if not a moment to reflect on one’s direction. El Camino gives one plenty of such opportunities physically and spiritually.
9. The signs of spring. Light green leaves starting to bud from withered brown branches, tiny yellow flowers, freshly-blooming wisteria joining big, white Easter lilies that had already crescendoed: It was nature’s fulfilled promise to always renew.
10. People, whether walking alone on the trail, whole families walking together, husband and wife duos (including one pair from Ireland who had done part of El Camino for one week each of the last five years until they completed the full route), two sets of daughters and mothers walking and bonding, groups of old friends walking together, new friends meeting for the first time and deciding to partner, even new loves formed on the trail between people of different nationalities.
Whether first-time walkers (like us) or veteran walkers who could not get enough of El Camino, we were all different, all with different stories, group configurations, and different paces, yet somehow, in this time, we were bonded, sharing the same path toward the same destination while cheering each other on. We were all the same…peregrinos.
11. A Rainbow: We walked through the rain on our last day and were greeted with a rainbow as we entered Santiago de Compostela. It reminded me of the saying “there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.” For me, the pot of gold was to reach Santiago safely (and not get hit by the fast Galician drivers) so we could rest our feet!
I know it is not a profound insight but I was cold and wet from the rain, my feet were tired, and the backpack seemed to be growing heavier and heavier by the second; the rainbow was a great ending of a wonderful journey.
The things I heard (or said):
1. Buen Camino. The universal greeting to pilgrims, whether from locals or fellow pilgrims. It literally means “Good road” in Spanish, but it can also mean “Have a good path,” path being both physical and spiritual.
2. Ultreia! I first heard it as we got closer to Santiago. It’s more of a cheer than a greeting, meaning “Let’s go further or go beyond!” It is an encouragement to pilgrims to keep going, to go beyond what they think they can do, and to dig deep.
3. Oh shit! Said by me when I saw a very steep hill after we walked twenty kilometers to find out the albergue we wanted to stay in would not be open until next week. We had to walk another 4 km up a steep uphill to the next town. In the city, I might have complained, argued, or sat there in disbelief. Instead, I exclaimed, but then strapped on the backpack and kept going.
4. It is about getting out of my comfort zone. Said by an Irish woman we met the first day who was traveling alone, it really captures for many the reason we do things like El Camino.
5. I am like a baboon. I take care of my woman. Jim said this after lending me his walking stick and gloves, along with carrying some of my stuff, in his backpack. It made me chuckle as I struggled up a hill. The journey was better when you walk with a partner who has a sense of humor.
6. No one is an asshole on El Camino. Jim’s deep, philosophical summary of El Camino.
7. Stop and smell the eucalyptus. I said this to Jim when he was concerned and calculating how far to the next stop. What’s the point of getting there if you miss everything along the way?
8. I walked so I can figure out what to do next with my life. Said by a young Korean man, with a finance degree and a high-powered entry sales job. Sometimes you have to drop out to decide if you really want to stay in. Meanwhile, he met a young woman from Taiwan along the way, and we last saw them laughing and hiking off together.
9.I lost both my pilgrim and actual Korean passports so I had to start over. A young Korean woman explained her situation to us, and while most would take this as a sign to give up, she said it with a shrug, not realizing her modeling determination and grit.
10. The non-human sounds that played like the theme song of El Camino:
- Animal sounds – the chirping of birds, cows mooing, dog barking, roosters crowing (who crow in the afternoon, too!), sheep bleating, and the purring of the cats all served to welcome, wish one well along the route, and remind us that they, too, are a part of El Camino.
- Gurgling of water streaming by – a reminder that nature rolls on, whether we are there to be a part or not.
- Distant church bells – a reminder of the passage of time and that man’s search for connection with the spiritual can go on whether one is on El Camino or not.
- Rain drops – each pit/pat is an unwelcomed sound to a hiker, yet together they make a beautiful rhythm, even as the tiny drops unite into a force that cannot be ignored.
11. Laughter – It’s universal, and one doesn’t have to speak the same language to join in, enjoying the moment, being in the moment, with those that coincidence has put together.
Comfort and meaning along El Camino:
In addition to my visual and hearing perceptions, I found I was moved by El Camino in other ways. Even as El Camino demands you push yourself, physically and mentally, The Way takes care of its own, as the saying goes, and I found comfort amidst the challenge in many ways.
1. Yellow arrows: We constantly looked for the yellow trail markers that can be anywhere – on a rock, a stonewall, affixed to a barn, by a tree trunk, etc. It guided us and let us know if we were on the right path.
Isn’t what we are all looking for in life: some kind of a sign, a gentle guide to let us know we are going the right way, walking the path meant for us?
2. El Camino markers with scallop shells to indicate how many more kilometers until our final destination. Not just informational, they were inspiring, even reinforcing that one was part of a greater group all seeking something, even if not the same thing.
3. Fellow pilgrims we met on the path:After a while, if we didn’t see anyone, we got nervous and wondered if we missed a marker or yellow arrow. It’s good to see others are seeking the way (and maybe reassuring that we are on a path to get there).
4.The sun peeking through the dense forest trees behind us. It gave me comfort with the sun rising behind me that we were walking toward the west. Even if one is alone, if you know how to look for it, nature indicates the way.
5. Small cafés in small villages, where we often stopped to take a break. We were always greeted with a warm smile, an encouragement, and a hot, caffeine-boosting café con leche. Amazing what the power of a ten-minute encounter and encouragement from a total stranger can do.
This post turned out to be the longest blog and the hardest one I’ve ever written. It is because I couldn’t possibly capture El Camino’s spirit, or my experience, in a short post (something other writers try to do in whole books!). It is like trying to fit an elephant into a tiny box: it’s not possible.
The best I can do is relay a small part of it, and then invite you to see, experience, and feel the rest for yourself. Then you’ll understand why, when two people meet who have both walked El Camino, they merely nod and smile at each other; they understand what each experienced, and understand that there are not enough words to capture what happened.