In this modern world both time and efficiency are always of the essence. Often, it seems difficult not to get caught in this web in some way, and our lives are poorer as a result. I know mine is. Quicker is considered better, as is easier, smoother and any one of a number of words describing the new societal way. Can you imagine a show like 60 Minute Makeover – a television program where the whole house is renovated in just an hour – ever being aired in the 1950s? Apart from the fact that the entire premise of the show may not have been achievable back then (perhaps with the exception of an Amish ‘barn raising’), nobody would have been interested in watching the result. I like that. The fifties would have suited me well.
Back then, the people were still prepared to do the hard yards if it meant quality of product, or even quality of character. Or even if it didn’t! They were willing to take the steps required. No shortcuts. No easy options. These days, a quick look at Google suggests that in just three steps I can have all sorts of success (I’ll choose piano please), become a knight – or a saint – or even make it to heaven. For one extra step, I can have an epiphany, become a star, or again have assorted success. I might stick with the three-step version – it’s quicker! Yet if I were to plug in, say, ‘sixty-four steps to’, then suddenly the options dry up somewhat. (Though, just as a footnote, you can actually learn how to break up with your girlfriend.) It seems that nobody wants to do more than they have to.
What would you say if I offered you something that would change your life? Yes, a million steps to a new life. Would you accept? When you think about it, it’s a huge promise, but it’s also a huge number of steps. What to do? What to do? But this is exactly what the Camino de Santiago offers everyone who chooses to walk upon it. Of course, the saving grace is that each step is literally only a step.
The Camino (or the Way of Saint James) is a long pilgrimage across Spain. The best known route – the French Way – starts on the French side of the Pyrenees and travels 800 kilometres westward before finishing in Santiago. There are no Sat-Navs to guide the way, only a multitude of hand-painted yellow arrows and scallop-shell markers. They do the job remarkably well.
While I’m no historian (or Camino expert for that matter), I am however a proud peregrino (pilgrim) with a worn out pair of hiking boots who just happened to glean a few facts along the way. The roots of both Santiago and the pilgrimage dig deep into the early 9th century. The legend has it that James – as in one of the twelve disciples of Jesus – was beheaded in Palestine, and his body placed by his followers in a boat and set out to sea. The ship eventually made it to the Galician coastline, and a short ox-and-cart ride later, his body was buried on Mount Padrón.
For whatever the reason, all was forgotten for many centuries, until the time clock clicked over to the year 813. True to present-day Camino form, its inception was just as quietly spectacular. A hermit by the name of Pelayo was guided by the stars to the burial site; and the rest is history. The Santiago Cathedral now stands on the very same spot. In those early years, the million steps (perhaps two million, as pilgrims did not have the Santiago airport – or aeroplanes, come to think of it – as an option for their return home) were more to do with securing eternal pardon for their sins. These days, the motivations seem to be less about religion, yet more about the spiritual.
In 1986, there were less than 2,500 pilgrims that walked the trail. Last year – a Jubilee year – the number was closer to 250,000. So what is it that’s drawing people back to the Camino in record numbers? What does it have to offer? To summarise in a paragraph or two is doomed to barely do justice to this amazing place, but here goes.
There are many fascinating cathedrals spread throughout the width of the Spanish land, and of course, the rich history that goes hand in hand with these majestic constructions. There is the gorgeous countryside, ranging from the snow-covered Pyrenees (I wish I had brought more than just shorts to walk in!) at the start of the journey, to the rich earthy plains in the middle, and the lush green land of Galicia to complete the perfect trek. Whether poppies, butterflies, vineyards or the seasons unfurling before the eyes, the beautiful sights are endless.
Add to the wondrous mix, the myths and legends that are heard along the way, the delicious Spanish food (tapas, paella, even the ham and cheese rolls are exquisite) and wine, the wild weather and incredible challenges, then you can catch a miniscule glimpse at what the Camino sets before us on the Spanish table. But for me, while these aspects are quite incredible in themselves, the pilgrimage is really more to do with the personal experiences. It is the people you meet, the stories you become part of, and the things you learn that will radically change your life. Yes, for me, these things are truly the Camino.
I have heard it said that the only baggage you have on the trail is the baggage you bring. This is true on both counts and I am painfully aware that the heavier load is not the nine-kilogram backpack. Yet, perhaps this gives the first insight into why people are drawn to this million-step adventure. Another way of stating this (as mentioned by the host of one of the hostels I stayed in) is ‘you don’t do the Camino; the Camino does you’.
So I ask again; what does it have to offer? Where would the journey take you in this life? Would you be the same person at the end? I can answer that one; the answer is no. For me – and you need to remember that I’m not an avid walker – there’s something about going at a pace that our bodies (and arguably our minds) are made for. Within a handful of days, the mind quickly learns of the multitude of natural restrictions placed upon it by the human body. It quickly becomes apparent that there’s just no point stressing about how to get to the next town more quickly. If it’s 50km away, then no amount of planning or thinking will get you there on the same day (as long as you’re committed to the million steps!). So, what tends to happen is that surrender will take place, and with that surrender – an acceptance of our human limitations – a lovely peace results.
As the days and the miles unfold, the peace and joy are inevitably greeted by a happiness and thankfulness for this experience we know as life. Miracles start to pop up everywhere; beautiful, extraordinarily ordinary little miracles become part of your day, and everything becomes vibrant and alive. It is perhaps the true world – and your connection with it – that you knew was there, but all too fleetingly experience. And within this surrender, you can see the perfection in all things; the efficient and the inefficient, the quick and the slow, even the delicate flowers and the barbed-wire fence.
Is the journey a bed of roses? No, it isn’t. It is extremely difficult in parts, hugely frustrating (especially those snorers in the hostels), and for me, nothing short of an emotional roller-coaster ride. But would I change a single thing about the experience? No. I loved every moment of it, even the many times that I truly disliked. There’s just something about being where we are meant to be, or living closer to our nature – or perhaps even just living simply – that encourages us to enjoy each moment with peace and joy as our (more constant) companions, even when the going is tough.
A million steps to a new life? You bet! So why does society choose three steps versus even 103? I guess that, even though we’ve lost our way, we still crave the simplicity that will extract us from the complicated. Perhaps too, we are looking to weed out the inefficiencies in our attempt to find perfection. When you look at it from that angle, it’s a pretty noble quest; it’s just that we’re looking in the wrong direction.
The Camino turns our focus within, to a place where even the most complicated things reveal true simplicity, and the inefficient is perfect. It is a place of joy and peaceful stillness. From this deep well rises a lovely tune, and though the melody is different for each pilgrim, the music both guides and inspires, resulting in a new and improved outward life. For me, this renewed belief and courage resulted in the first baby steps toward a book-writing career, but that is a mere shadow compared with the internal changes that take place. There is no one particular step when these things kick in. Step by step, they evolve over the journey.
One final question if I may. Do you need to be in Spain to take this pilgrimage? No, of course not! The million-step plan is really all about the repetitious surrender to each and every step – each and every moment – of our lives. It can and will work anywhere in the world. But if you want a handy head-start, the Camino de Santiago is the place to be.
A master and a student were discussing their upcoming pilgrimage across a foreign land. “My son, what step will be the most important along the journey?”, the master inquired.
The student’s face brightened. Being a good and learned student, the young man knew the answer. He quoted the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”, says the student. “Therefore the first step is the most important.”
The master smiled knowingly and shook his head. “The one you are on, my son, the one you are on.”
For further information regarding the Camino de Santiago in Spain, you can visit www.roadtosantiago.com.au
Born in Melbourne, Brad Kyle is an accountant by trade, but a writer by nature. His first book – Memoirs of a Pilgrim (Zeus Publications) – is the inevitable result. His second book is for children, Herbie and the Tune (Pick-a-Woo Woo Publishers; Distributor – Brumby Books). Brad has travelled the world extensively over the years, fuelling his thirst for knowledge beyond these shores and this life as we know it. After his Spanish adventure, Brad has returned to his home city, and now lives with his beautiful wife, only minutes away from the house of his childhood.
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