A ‘seeker’ for many years, one thing I quickly realized on my quest for spiritual truth was that authentic ‘learning’ is actually inner transformation. We may not always be aware what it is that we gain from an experience, yet something changes in the way that we go about life, and in the way that we make our decisions. If an experience alters the way we look at life, at each other, at our environment, if it moves our perspectives into a deeper mode of seeing (whether we are spiritual seekers, medical doctors, farmers, etc), then we have done more than just learn, we have become wiser. The camino journey had many lessons in store for me, and they started right away, as I began my 800 km trek.
I left home for Paris on the 3rd of May, with a backpack weighing about six kilos. Pilgrims are advised to carry 10 per cent (at most) of their body weight, and are offered prepared lists on all of the camino forums by helpful camino ‘veterans’. We are warned not to exceed those limits as it doesn’t take long before the weight of one’s backpack becomes a miserable burden, especially on the many daunting mountain slopes that are part of the 800 km Camino Frances. I packed under 10 per cent, as I had to get a connecting EasyJet flight from Paris to Biarritz, and needed to ensure it would fit their cabin hold requirements. I didn’t take any toiletries, as they’d have been confiscated anyway, and I knew could buy them in St. Jean Pied de Port.
I arrived in St. Jean Pied a Port (meaning ‘Saint John at the foot of the mountain pass’), so excited, I could hardly keep the grin off my face. With pack on back, I bounced up the winding streets from the station like a kid at Christmas, waiting for my first glimpse of the ancient walled town nestled at the foot of the Pyrenees. I’d read about it in both Shirley Maclaine’s and Paolo Coelho’s books and I’d devoured every internet source I could find in my camino research.
Entering the walls of the town renowned to be the start of the Camino de Santiago, the sight of it made my heart stop in my chest. With a need to capture every cherished moment of this experience, I could not stop taking photographs. St. Jean Pied de Port was once a part of the Spanish province of Navarra and today, the Basque language is still spoken here. It is quaint, it is holy; it is sanctified by a thousand years of pilgrimage. With a heart filled with gratitude and a joy I hadn’t felt in a long time, I obtained my pilgrims passport, my pilgrims shell and a sturdy walking stick, and I settled into my accommodation.
Later, I went shopping. Unable to find hotel-size samples of my various toiletries, I bought the normal (large) bottles of shampoo, conditioner, body creams, facial wipes, and many other things that after much agonizing, I felt I couldn’t live without. Along with all this added weight, I also bought enough food to feed Napoleon’s army. I was, after all, walking the same difficult and dangerous route taken by this French military man and his army, and my daughter had convinced me that I’d probably get lost, fall over a cliff and if I didn’t die, then be stranded. It’s an unfortunate truth that many pilgrims before me had either been injured or had died on route, and I didn’t appreciate the thought of starving to death on a freezing cold mountain.
On the morning of the 5th of May, I was out of the door at first light and disappeared into the mountain mist that had descended on this historic town. I followed the brass road markers that indicated the camino route. My pack was now very heavy, and getting it onto my back without falling over was not an easy task. But I needed my toiletries and the food. There was no way around the issue of the weight unless I discarded most of my clothes, washed in the mountain streams, and chose to rely on other people’s generosity, rather like the Saddhus of India. Since I didn’t fancy myself in that role, I would simply have to tolerate the extra kilos.
Following the arrows out of town, I began the most arduous part of the whole 800 km camino journey. I found myself on what felt like a vertical climb at the start of the 25 km Route Napoleon, a path that leads through the most unbelievably beautiful countryside crossing the Pyrenees into Roncesvalles in Spain. Although I was mentally prepared for this, and had trained in the gym for three months before, it was still a physical shock to the system. The sheer slopes combined with the weight of the heavy backpack, slowed my pace considerably. Along with many others challenged by the precipitous inclines, I huffed and I puffed, the sweat pouring off me until I arrived on shaky legs to my first albergue accommodation, an extremely long 8 kms later. The next day, I ended up in Roncesvalles, over the mountain in Spain, having put the worst behind me.
It was only four days later, after much pain and feeling desperately overwhelmed, that I confronted the issue of my backpack weight. Pilgrims are warned that the first week of the camino is the most physically demanding and after that, assured that the body re-adjusts. Walking into Pamplona, I was a physical wreck and fighting back tears. I wanted to be home in my bed. I wanted the warm love of my husband and daughter, and I wanted the familiarity of all my ‘things’. I found my accommodation and decided to stay for two nights in order to pull myself together both mentally and physically. My family wanted to Skype, but I refused, knowing I’d howl like a baby and upset everyone. As it turned out, a good night’s sleep, a hot meal and plenty of wine were just the ticket, and the next day I was able to think beyond escaping my ‘torment’.
With steep mountains at every turn, I’d come to dread the uphill climbs. I sat down and began a big self-talk session which resulted in me coming to terms with the mountains and their challenges. This was, after all, not some romantic fairy-tale hike I was taking. It was a challenge to the issues that lay embedded in my psyche. I wanted the challenges, I wanted to transform myself and my life, and so complaining about the pain that resulted, and placing myself in opposition to what was occurring wasn’t going to do me any good. Embracing the slopes as spiritual healers of the spirit would be far more helpful. To approach them with dignity and gratitude would be giving myself a gift. This shift in perspective lifted my spirits enormously, and my passion for my camino journey returned.
I was also forced to examine the contents of my back pack. The weight was ridiculous, but to discard my belongings, I first had to discard some ancient beliefs that had been weighing me down for as long as I can remember. I began by challenging the idea that I had to look perfectly manicured all the time. To my mind, if I didn’t have silky smooth hair, a face smothered with make-up and pleasant smells wafting from my body, people would not accept me. Looking down at my scruffy walking shoes, leggings and sweater, I hardly looked the picture of glamour anyway, and the other walkers and albergue owners had not treated me any differently on the journey so far. That had been a pleasant surprise to me, that people actually related to me, not to the way I was dressed. I’d always believed that I had to be physically presentable before anyone would take me seriously, before anyone would listen to what I had to say. I learned this from society, and this concept is magnified in the corporate world where I worked for a very long time.
On the camino, the conversation is different to that in ordinary life. People want to know who you are on a deep level. We were all seeking something that lies beyond the surface of this life, and we delved into each other to find it. No one noticed my facial flaws when I was free of make-up. No-one cared that I lived in the same clothes day after day. In fact someone even remarked that when it came to camino living, meticulous cleanliness was over-rated anyway!
So I discarded my extra sets of walking clothes, and donated a heavy jacket and all of my toiletries to a happy American tourist who was sharing the same dormitory. I bought some soap and deodorant in miniature sizes and when I donned my backpack the following morning, was able to throw it over my shoulders with relative ease. I packed only what I needed in terms of that day’s food supplies, and threw out all the ‘emergency’ snacks. If I got into trouble, there were always people around who would be willing to help me. That was another idea that I discarded, the one which had me convinced that I have to be self-reliant at all times. This lesson and many later ones encouraged me to reach out to others and let them into my world. As I walked the road to Santiago it felt good to know I could never be alone even though I was a solitary walker.
With the weight of my illusory ideas well and truly lifted, I felt a lightness of being that strengthened me enormously. It seems ludicrous now that I had allowed myself to carry all this mental baggage around with me in my daily life; it became obvious to me then that the unexplained heaviness that human beings feel as we go about our lives is attributed to unexplored ideas that have no real truth behind them.
The camino is a wonderful friend that will always be a part of me. This was just the beginning of my transformation, the start of the release of the dark pockets of gloom that had haunted my heart for many years.