Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Coming 'home' to the Camino

Sometimes, when a person is on the cusp of a life-changing event or decision, it really can be an incredible experience just to take stock and get away.

Breaking free from your normal life and routine, if only for a few days, can give you a whole new perspective on things. It’s been amazing to come across so many old friends in recent weeks who suggested I should go to walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain when they heard I was on the verge of taking voluntary redundancy.

Redundancy, for some, is such an awful, threatening word. It’s one that has become too familiar in the newspaper industry in recent years. For others, it’s a chance of a new beginning, an exciting time when new opportunities present themselves and, ultimately, it’s all about perspective. 
Santiago Cathedral

What seems like a crisis at the time can often teach you the lessons that need to be learned in life – or the crisis can open up new doors.

After months of soul-searching, the time has come for me to make a big change in my own life. And I feel that those months of soul-searching, during what should have been a wonderful sunny summer in Galway, have taught me a lot about my own life and how to deal with it.

I’m one of those people who can tend to worry too much, or not really put my trust in the universe.

Anyway, today I feel like a bit of a cheat, because the opportunity presented itself to visit two wonderful Spanish regions, Cantabria and Galicia, and sample some stretches of the Camino over the past week.

I got to sample some of the wonders of the walking routes, without immersing myself in the main walk (the French Way) which takes some pilgrims five weeks to cover from the French border to the Cathedral in Santiago.

Instead of taking to the pathways, weighed down by a rucksack each morning, a small group of us were whisked from stretch to stretch, our bags neatly stored away in minivans before being driven on to the next hotel.

But it was great to meet like-minded souls and to realise that my future is no longer set in stone. Like many others who have taken to the Camino, there was time for soul-searching, for taking stock, for realising that sometimes good company, spectacular scenery, and a chance to enjoy a long walk are all you need in life.

People tend to open up more, too, when they meet people they might never see again in their lives. Stories were swapped and fears were put in their proper perspective in the company of people who, like me, have travelled all over the world.

When you have your health, there is so much to treasure in life. When you walk in silence for hours on end, or share your worries with a stranger, you sometimes realise that so many of the things you worry about are not really that important, either.

It's incredible the people you meet along the way. People take to the Camino for a variety of reasons, from spiritual to religious, to maybe a simple desire to meet new people or to have a quiet time. Or even just to have a healthy, low budget holiday, based around long walks every day. 

Friends and family members had already described the sense of camaraderie, and the life-long friendships they have made, on the road to Santiago. From the elderly retired Swedish man, walking in memory of his late wife, to the young person who had just lost his job. 

Everyone has a different reason for walking and yet everyone has so much in common along the pilgrim’s way. And I know people who go back there from Galway or London every year.

We met a steady stream of walkers on the way to Santiago, all of them united by a common bond. “Buen camino” the pilgrims would call out to each other, perhaps before sharing a beer or a slice of bread at a pit-stop in a small village on the road to Santiago.

In rural Cantabria, I came across some of the most gorgeous places I’ve ever seen. Off the beaten track, in the little town of Potes, surrounded by mountains and hills, it was easy to imagine just putting the bag down for a week or ten days, relaxing and walking, and soaking in the views.

A group of us took the cable car up to Fuente De, 23kms away, and the man next to me said he had conquered his own fear of heights. A few years ago, he never would have dreamed of being able to take that cable car to a height of 1,078 metres. Seven or eight years ago, he would have sat and waited for us at the bottom.

Each of us has fears to conquer and this man’s pride at simply making a cable car journey inspired me to take stock of my own recent fears.

On the coast, we found beautiful walks devoid of any walkers on sunny September mornings. There are fantastic places to visit in this part of Spain if you don’t want to mingle with thousands of walkers, but many people also enjoy the sense of community on the main pilgrims’ way.

Over 5,000 Irish people officially ‘finished’ the Camino in Santiago last year and it’s easy to see why. This part of Spain is only a short flight away and the camaraderie among the pilgrims seems a million light years away from our normal worries in this era of globalisation, Facebook, Twitter, and mobile phones.

I only got a taste of the Camino last week, and our local guides informed us that there are many other caminos in Galicia for those who want to get away from it all. You could walk all the way from La Coruna, on the northern coast, for days on end and hardly meet a soul.

In the square outside the Cathedral, it was uplifting to see emotional pilgrims reach the end of their long journeys. Perhaps over the previous days or weeks, they had found the answers to their troubles.

Yep, I felt like a bit of a cheat, taking in sections of the Camino de Santiago, before staying in luxury hotels. But I also got a chance to explore some of the most beautiful landscapes in Western Europe, amid a growing realisation that I will return to the Camino some day.

It’s that kind of place, that kind of experience, which helps to put so many of our normal daily worries into their proper perspective.

Dealing with the loss of a job, a partner, the death of a loved one, or a big change is all part of this crazy adventure we call life. And people seemed far more alive, open and honest as they shared their stories with the pilgrims on the medieval route.
The more disconnected we get via 21st century technology, the more people want to reconnect with those around them. Which is probably why the Camino has become as popular in recent years as it was back in the 13th century.

Buen Camino!

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