As already mentioned, I kept asking myself what I was expecting, what I was seeking. In the film, The Way, as the four pilgrims receive their Compostela, they are asked why they did the pilgrimage, and they all have various reasons. The main character does it for his son who died in an accident on Camino. Sarah has pledged to give up smoking. Joost wants to lose weight because his wife won’t sleep with him. And Jack is struggling with writer’s block. Both before and during the walk I was considering what my answer would be. I did it because I like walking – no, not strong enough; I can walk around Stockholm or anyway in Sweden. Because this walk has a special status, whether you have a faith or not; because thousands upon thousands of people have done it for a thousand years, and I wanted to sense their spirit lingering in the stones. Because I am a pathetically goal-oriented person and want another certificate of achievement to frame and put up on my wall. Or actually because I had just gone through a traumatic period in my life, losing my partner of forty years; because I needed to figure out, far away from everything, what was important in the remaining years, months or weeks, what mattered, what made life worth living. In short, I was seeking some kind of epiphany, not a religious awakening, not a voice from above, but some clarity of thought.
I don’t know what my companions were seeking. I saw Annika in deep prayer a few times, which made me a bit envious, and I happen to know Christina had a mission, but we didn’t discuss our purpose or our expectations. We met many people on the road, and although I am always shy to strike up a conversation, occasionally I said: Do you mind my asking, please don’t feel obliged to reply: why are you doing this? Some people simply said it was a fantastic experience, which is a good reason. We met an Irish Catholic priest, and there seemed no need to ask what he was doing there. We met a Frenchman who had done it many times, along different trails. We met some Swedes. We met Canadians. Quite a few people we kept meeting day after day. Most people who have walked Camino say meeting other pilgrims was half the pleasure.
At one point when a couple passed by us I heard them speak Russian so I said Счастливого пути! and of course they stopped, and we walked together for a while. The woman confided in me; she didn't want her partner to hear. They were very fast walkers, doing 30-40 km a day, so they left us quickly after.
My companions and I had agreed from start, all the way back when were arranging the trip, that we would each walk at our pace, that we didn’t have to stay together, and that we didn’t want to chat. As it happened, we did stay together most of the time, and we had brief chats when any two of us walked side by side, and of course we chatted during our coffee and lunch breaks, but otherwise we walked silently, each immersed in our own thoughts.
Actually, at least for me, on a long-distance walk there is little room for thoughts. Partly because you need to watch where you are going, and particularly by the end of an arduous day you are simply preoccupied with putting one foot in front of the other. Partly because walking is the most perfect way to clean your mind, to get rid of everything that bothers you, until your only thought, like a mantra, is: I am here. Being in nature, walking slowly and paying attention is the attraction for me. We stopped often to take pictures, and while we stood in the same spot our pictures were probably quite different. We would point out some interesting feature for each other, but otherwise let the others make their own discoveries.
As I walked there, hour after hour of uninterrupted silence, except for bird song and wind in the eucalyptus trees, I continued asking myself what I was doing there and whether it was enough to say I was doing it for great experience, but it didn’t feel enough. Every now and then I recited Joseph Brodsky’s poem ”Pilgrims” for myself, as a kind of secular prayer, trying to invoke something both hazy and powerful, something that all those thousands upon thousands of people who had walked and were walking felt, something that I was guessing my companions felt. In the evenings we agreed that the day was wonderful, but didn’t go into detail.
While the awaited epiphany didn’t arrive, I clearly felt a change in my perception of the world and of my life. Somehow everything beyond Camino, everything back home felt petty, insignificant. It is quite common that as you travel your ordinary life fades away, and conversely, after you get home your travel experience, no matter how overwhelming, is eventually stored away in your emotional memory. I knew it would happen when I got home, and it did. Yet when I was there, nothing was more important than being there, and after a couple of days I stopped asking myself what I was doing. As we started walking at the crack of dawn on the final morning I stated calmly that it was my last chance to get the Answer.
There we were, on the square in front of the cathedral, together with hundreds of other pilgrims, and I felt absolutely nothing, apart from being exhausted and hungry. I could sense similar vibes from my companions. We went to our hotel which turned out to be an old monastery or seminary, with cloisters and long stone-clad corridors, and we got our rooms that looked like premium monk cells with iron beds.
After a short rest we went out to celebrate. On the way back we stayed a while on the square, admiring the cathedral bathing in light, under a full moon (there is always a full moon in movies to emphasise dramatic moments; I swear there was a full moon).
In the morning we had breakfast in the refectory with valved ceiling, among dozens of other pilgrims, and you could just about imagine that there was a monk in the pulpet in the middle, reading suitable texts to keep us focused. It was a good start of our final day.
Our first mission was to get our Compostelas, and we went to the pilgrim office, which was a disappointment. We were not asked why we had done the walk. We filled an online questionnaire, submitted our pilgrim passes full of stamps, paid three euros and received a beautiful document with our name on it. The moment lacked solemnity. I guess it’s inevitable given the scale. We learned that on that weekend 8,000 pilgrims arrived in Santiago. Issuing Compostelas was computerised and efficient. Of course we were still happy and proud and took pictures. (The second document, by the way, is the certificate of distance, stating that I have walked 120 km from Vilalba to Santiago. Unlike the Compostela, it is written in Spanish).
Our second task was to get tickets for the Holy Door. Again, in the movie the pilgrims arrive and approach the cathedral door – you are encouraged to do it on your knees, but that’s not mandatory – walk in, put their palm into the palm imprint on the pillar and supposedly feel something tremendous. The door was closed, and we were told we needed tickets for particular slots, but we couldn’t get any sensible information about where to buy those tickets. We were going to midday pilgrims’ Mass, and before that we had to check out, and Christina was the only one who persisted – and succeeded! We split, and I went early, but at half past eleven the cathedral was already full – what had I expected? I managed to find a narrow stone step by a pillar and texted my companions where I was; they found me and sat on the floor.
I am well familiar with Catholic mass so it was easy to follow, but the sermon was in Spanish, far too long and tied to some local event, and I was getting bored and disappointed. Then came a very efficient eucharist, given the huge crowds in the cathedral, and that immediately felt better as a confirmation of togetherness (well, that’s what communion means. Note that I don’t believe in transubstantiation). And then! Then I realised that the best part was still coming, the part I had been waiting for and thought wasn’t coming at all, the part I saw in the movie and wasn’t sure really existed. There were eight men in purple cloaks.
The botafumeiro, the gigantic incense vessel, started swaying, pulled by the eight men, and where we were sitting it rose just over our heads, higher and higher, up to the ceiling, and that was the moment when I felt I was in the right place, that was what I had come for. No epiphany, no religious awakening, but a deep spiritual experience that I shared with three people who had become close friends, as well as all the people I didn’t know at all but who were there for whatever purpose; and thousands upon thousands of pilgrims in the past thousand years. It was truly sublime. Many people took pictures and videos, but I just wanted to be in the middle of it. As we rose to go, I got us four together in a big hug.
After that, going to see the Portico was an anticlimax, and when we finally found the palm imprint we were not allowed to touch it.
Following late lunch we decided to separate and stroll around on our own. I think we all needed some private time after the experience. I didn’t have any particular wishes, and unfortunately I discovered too late that there was a guided cathedral roof tour: all slots were booked. I went around inside the cathedral looking and taking pictures of less prominent features. Some side chapels were even more beautiful than the main altar. I went to the cathedral museum which wasn’t very interesting. I bought a bar of local chocolate. I sat on the square watching people.
Then it was time to get back to the hotel from where a limo would take us to the airport hotel we were staying at for the night. Brief exchange of experience, nothing profound.
The trip home was uneventful for some of us and dramatic for others. But that’s another story.
I know it will take me a long time to fully understand what I have lived through and what the consequences might be. Just as home felt remote from Camino so does Camino feel far, far away in both space and time. While there, I was in an emotional bubble, cozy and protected, free of responsibilities other than walking on. Right now my feelings oscillate between: I want to do it again and walk the whole way, and: I have done it, I don’t have to do it ever again.
Would I recommend it to a friend? (A TripAdvisor kind of question). It’s certainly not for everyone. The movie is based on poetic licence: no one can walk Camino without proper training. The protagonist would have got bleeding blisters on the first day and would have been unable to walk at all for the next week or two. That is, unless he had a heart attack at the first steep ascent and dropped dead. So if you intend to do the walk, make sure you are physically fit. Travel agents offer excellent free self-taught training programmes. But even if you are well trained and walk 15-20 km a week, as I do, it doesn’t mean Camino is for you. It is a very special kind of pursuit. I have in my account mentioned some reasons people do it, and I have shared my own thoughts. One thing I can definitely advise. Don’t say: ”I have always dreamed of doing it, one day maybe…” If you want to do it, do it now!