“Hello!” I look up from the painful task of applying more antiseptic and a plaster to a blister. An hour after leaving the albergue in Tosantos where I spent the night, I already seemed to have gained another to add to the many that are firmly embedded on my feet. The shout comes from Andrew, a friendly Canadian that I met on Day 3, alongside Megan, an equally warm New Zealander, just older than me, who I walked with for several days before losing her outside Logrono. She’d only been walking for a week and I hadn’t had a chance to say goodbye. Andrew, a therapist, a father of two, and a wealth of knowledge when it comes to religion and spirituality, was incredibly interesting, and I’d been sorry not to see him again after a supper time when we’d been the only two pilgrims who’d turned up to a “pilgrim dinner” at a strange local bar in Cizur Menor. He came bearing a letter from Megan, who’d hoped that we’d bump into each other again, and the pain in my blisters felt instantly less.
This was one of those strange coincidences that seemed to be frequent on the walk, and reminded me of Megan’s comment that on the Camino, you often seem to come into what you need. I wondered what lessons this taught me about daily life, and thought perhaps that the things one needed on the Camino were a lot simpler than the demands of everyday life: food, water, sleep, solitude and silence, and company. It’s also much easier to be thankful for a simple meal and the joy of a hot shower after many days of walking, than it is in inner-city London, where a wealth of food from all cultures, a diverse social life, and many home comforts, are somewhat easier to come by.
I fall into step beside Andrew, and we catch up on the last few days, whilst we both hobble along. I’m still persevering with my Meindl walking shoes, determined to get my money’s worth out of them, but Andrew’s now in sandles and socks, his boots tucked firmly away in his rucksack. He’s stayed in a range of accommodation, enjoying the big cities and the friendly group of New Zealanders that he met along the way. I’ve stayed mostly in parish albergues attached to old churches, often sleeping on a mattress on the floor, and enjoying the communal cooking and prayer that comes along with them. The night before I’d stayed in Albergue San Francisco de Asis on the edge of a sleepy village with an ancient church carved from the rocks in the hill beside it. We’d cooked risotto together and said evening prayer in multiple languages, reading letters of motivation and intention from pilgrims that had come before. Mine had been from a lady asking for prayer for her Camino because she wanted to offer thanks for the life of her late father. Others had said their intention was for reflection and still others stated their lack of direction in life and hoped that the Camino might offer them some time to reflect.
One of the highlights so far for me had been a couple nights back in Granon, where I’d spent the night on a mattress in the bell tower of San Juan Bautista Iglesia, next to my friend Marie, a funny and interesting lady in her early fifties from France, who spoke no English and laughed at my attempts at French. We all cooked a delicious pasta together and I learnt some more Spanish, as well as a few words of Polish and Italian. I loved the sound of the many different languages and the warmth between people of all different nationalities. We played the guitar and drank plenty of wine (for in Spain, it’s both cheap and good) and headed into a pitch black church, where we passed around one candle, and gave thanks for the day, each in our mother tongue. It was moving and atmospheric and added to the gradual inner changes that walking the Camino seems to bring.
Still, walking beside Andrew this morning, and comparing our different experiences, I said to him, “But do you feel like you’re on a pilgrimage?” He said that he wasn’t sure, mostly because he didn’t know what a pilgrimage was supposed to feel like. I admitted that I felt the same. And yet, we both felt that there was something strangely transformative about the whole experience. The simple rhythm of days spent walking, showering, doing laundry, eating, praying, and sleeping reminded me of the need to fulfil basic needs in life before unnecessary activity, and the small but frequent acts of warmth and hospitality from both fellow pilgrims and the albergues that I’d stayed in, reminded me of the importance of generosity and the power of hospitality. And as I approach the start of theological college in September, the community atmosphere and welcome of the albergues that have been accepted as part of the mission of many Catholic Churches along the way, remind me of the need of the church to adapt to its communities and often global society it is a part of and to offer what it can, with openness, with warmth, and with gratitude for the people and gifts given to them. It is a privilege to walk the Camino de Santiago and it reminds me of the even greater privilege of the life that many of us lead daily in the U.K. and I hope that something I might think about as I walk during the next month is what to do with that privilege.