El Camino de Santiago, Spain: Show me the way
About a year ago, I discovered the art of walking. I had been on book tour for more than three years, declaring at every opportunity that I disliked book-related travelling while privately feeling smug about what a privileged complaint that was for a writer to make. What I truly hated were the inane questions, the inane panels and the inane readings. I, therefore, put a stop to all the travelling, holed myself up in a long-abandoned building in my grandparents’ Himalayan hometown and read Enid Blyton fan fiction. “I am researching copiously for my next book,” I would say to anyone who was curious.
When I went stir-crazy, which was often, I would get out of the house for a stroll. At first, I would walk for 10 minutes, and then 15. Soon these walks became a daily affair. Before I knew it, I was writing in my mind as I was walking, and I was walking for 3 hours. I was often meditative when I walked. Ideas came to me. Sentences wrote themselves. When a ramble in the woods became too easy, I walked to the next town, and then to another. When hopping between towns turned too easy, I went on treks; I—err—conquered mountain bases. On all these treks, there was talk about El Camino de Santiago, that pilgrimage in Spain to the shrine of Saint James, being the ultimate walker’s walk. The French Way, a walk that starts from Saint Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrénées and ends in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain, was the most popular, but there were alternative routes, such as the Portuguese Way and the longer Via Regia, which started in Moscow and was some 4,500km long. I knew I would do the Camino one day. I knew I would do the French Camino one day.
Still, I had reason to be cynical about the Camino. I have zero patience for seekers, soul-searchers and proselytizers, and almost every account I read about the Camino declared it the most spiritual experience of the walker’s life. There’s something about The Way, one article rhapsodized. The Camino shows you The Way, another breathless piece quipped. A 2010 movie starring a grieving Martin Sheen was a paean to The Way’s healing prowess. The walk appeared to attract lost souls from everywhere. At the end of the almost-900km walk, it seemed your soul was purged, your sins were absolved and you became God. Or something.
It’s the second night of my walk, and an American teenager has thrown up all over my shirt. The first day, we had crossed over the Pyrénées—they are beautiful, no doubt, but more hill than mountain—before the rains came down in torrents. People I thought I would originally walk with were slow. The American teenager is fast. He has walked 55km in two days. He rewards himself with a beer. And another. And another. And wine too.
We’re poshing it up today by staying in a six-bedded room in an albergue—a pilgrim guest house—that costs €12 (around Rs.895) per person, a grand €2 more than what we had paid yesterday. It’s a brand-new guest house in Larrasoaña, a Spanish town of grand homes and yodelling stray dogs. The night before, our room had contained no fewer than a hundred creaking beds, of which snorers likely occupied 50. Today, though, we are in five-star accommodation—we are sharing our bathroom with only five other people.
The albergue owner isn’t happy with us. “They makes bathroom wet,” he complained to other guests. “And eat in room and laughs too loud.” We are indignant. “There were no shower curtains in the room to begin with,” another American—not the teenager, who’s trying to walk in a straight line in an attempt to prove he’s sober—points out. We wonder if we should talk to the owner. No one wants a confrontation in Spanish because our legs are fried and walking the 50 steps to the owner is more effort than we—with the exception of the American teenager—can expend.
During dinner, the owner smiles at the pilgrims seated at the table next to us. No smiles for us. Without our neighbours’ solicitation, the owner’s wife portions generous second helpings of pork trotters on their plates. We have to ask for seconds. I compliment the food. The owner gives a sharp nod in return.
The American teenager misses dinner. He’s napping. A bad smell greets me back in the room. I see vomit on my guidebook, my trousers and my shirt. Given our history with the owner, I am afraid we will be kicked out. The other American and I clean up what little we can. The sole convenience store in town is now closed, so we steal roses from the garden next door and sprinkle the petals on the floor, naively hoping the fragrance will mitigate the stench. I try waking the teenager up so he can launder my clothes, but he’s snoring. I spend much of the night in the laundry room. There, I narrate the story about the vomit to a religious nutcase I’ve been trying to avoid. “It’s the Camino showing you the way,” he mutters. His eyes shine with hope.
To walk the Camino for its beauty is silly. The views are, dare I say, mostly average, and often ugly. Sure, many pilgrims find the first few days and the last few days picturesque, but I come from the Himalayas. I do not want to be that obnoxious guy, but I compare.
In addition, much of the walking happens on the road or along the road, with cars whizzing by at full speed. There’s also that sickly sweet smell—is it compost? Carcass from a slaughterhouse? Rotten food?—that accompanies us throughout. On a 40-plus-degree-Celsius day, when muscles I didn’t know existed are making their presence felt, I see people posing for selfies with the most mundane landscapes as their backdrop. It takes a certain kind of person—and the Camino is full of such people—to be invigorated by the plain wheat fields of the meseta (plateau) at noon and the industrial hideousness around Burgos.
We are averaging 30km a day. There are blisters and bandages, limps and aches. Soon, we start considering 20km days as easy days. It’s liberating to do nothing but wake up in the morning, put on your shoes, strap on your backpack and walk. It’s so simple, so basic. As you do on these walking expeditions, we’ve found a group of like-minded people. It’s our Camino family, we semi-joke. None of us is religious. Those of us who claim to be spiritual declare we have a difficult time rustling up our spirituality on the walk. Because we feel we may have consumed a dozen pigs each in the few weeks we’ve been walking—the pilgrim menus are almost always unreasonably cheap and spectacularly bad—we occasionally cook in the albergue kitchens. Sometimes, the albergue is donate-as-you-please and there’s free food. Volunteers come from all over the world to help make pilgrim experiences better. They are full of positivity and good cheer.
Cultural idiosyncrasies and biases rear their head. This new American, for example, goes around devouring everyone’s food, and asking for seconds, while never offering his. When I remark on the lack of black people on the Camino, a Spaniard remarks, “I’ve seen two-three Somali-looking people. Ha, ha.” No one bats an eye. An Eastern European family with two toddlers and a howling baby has decided it’s acceptable for them to stay in an albergue room. How is it okay to have children in a dorm room? we reason. The baby screams. The father snores. The toddlers play catch. The mother shushes anyone who’s talking. The talking, you see, is preventing the baby from falling asleep. Across from my bed is a 50-year-old Finn who naps in his skimpy underwear. He wakes up with a turgid erection, which the children eye with wonder. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? What’s right? What’s wrong?
We have all seen the woman. She’s a Camino legend. She’s young and petite and blonde and has sparkling eyes. She’s walking the Camino barefoot. There’s a rumour—you know, a Camino rumour—that she’s deaf and dumb. I spot her in an albergue one day. Her feet are covered in bruises. I see blood. We are divided in our opinion about her project. She’s doing it to seek penance, someone says in approval. More power to her, someone adds. Some of us are less convinced. Isn’t it dangerous to walk barefoot? It’s hot, and a good portion of the walking is on dirt paths. The tarmac on the highways can be scorching. Isn’t she endangering herself? The Camino purists jump to her defence. A few other people praise her for putting her physical prowess to the test. It’s like running an ultra marathon, someone says, and that’s inspiring. A practical soul remarks that sleeping with infected feet in the same room as hundreds of other people is unhygienic and irresponsible. That’s selfish, he says.
One of us in our Camino family has a tale. “It’s a quintessential Camino story,” he says.
“I am looking forward to this one,” someone remarks. “A Camino story.”
“Don’t laugh,” he chides. “I nearly cried when I heard the story.”
A few days before, the storyteller had encountered a man who had terminal cancer. For someone with cancer, the older man looked upbeat and positive. He had walked the Camino four times before. He was looking for some kind of closure and had almost given up hope—or so the story went—when he encountered the barefoot woman. It was a sweltering day, his questions were still unanswered, and he was ready to give up when she smiled at him. “In her eyes, I saw an angel,” the man said to our storyteller. “She was walking barefoot. She was in so much pain for God and yet she was smiling. I knew she was an angel sent by God.”
We are quiet. It’s a powerful story. We all have stories. And because this is the Camino, that hallowed walk that only the blessed few make, we share our powerful stories more freely. We’ve all had struggles and pains. We talk of lost loves and missed chances, about dreams for ourselves and dreams for the world. Our usual rambunctiousness is missing. I talk about my writing, about how much I dislike it now, about the pressures, about whether I’ll discontinue it after a few years....
The next day, someone informs us that the angel fainted. We are worried. Could this be dangerous? It turns out she’s fine.
“And she’s not walking for God,” the pilgrim tells us. “She’s doing it for an art project.”
It feels like a strange mixture of frat party and summer camp. We start walking early—one day, I am woken by an albergue volunteer because I’ve slept past 8am, when everyone is kicked out—so we can avoid the heat. We try to reach the day’s destination before 2 in the afternoon, and then we celebrate with drinks and something piggy. It’s a cycle.
The kilometres fly. We’ve done the hills. That’s for your body, someone says. We’ve done the desert. That’s for your mind, she says. We’re now in the hills again. That’s for your soul, she says. I am incredulous at that kind of belief. I’ve begun wondering if I’ll take anything from the Camino. These days have been a blast, sure, but shouldn’t this walk be more? I look at the people around me—the meticulous journal writer, the King James Bible reader, the rosary twiddler, the self-published poet who finds inspiration in a brown leaf—and feel a stab of envy. The walk has been little more than a laugh riot for me. It’s frustrating.
I isolate myself from the group for a few days so I can feel. It’s easy to walk alone—the trail, with its ubiquitous yellow scallop shells, is the best-marked walk of my life. For a few days, I walk faster, longer. I make an attempt at reflection. Life has been good so far. This writing thing began as a joke, and it’s worked out. I don’t know if I want to do it for life, but I’ll do it for some time. I know I have one more book in me. It’s there somewhere. That may be my last book. I don’t want to say “Buen Camino” to people I overtake. I don’t want to talk. I plug my headphones in and listen to Bipul Chettri, the greatest musician in India today. The Nepali words seep in. I try translating the lyrics into English. There’s something about wildfires and Himalayan rains. There’s something about chance encounters.
And just like that, I “write” the first sentence in my head. I write the first sentence of the third book! And then I write another sentence. I know the plot. It will likely change, but I know what direction the book will move in. The characters—ah, why didn’t I think of these characters before?—whisper to me. They scream. They sprout wings, dance. I’ve “written” five pages, seven. I’ve written nine. I’ve written the perfect first sentence.
For a big chunk of the last 100km stretch before we reach the cathedral at Santiago, we are annoyed. Far too many people walk this stretch so they can get a certificate of completion. We call them cheaters. We hate them. We’ve walked so much more than they have, and they, too, receive certificates!
We start waking up later, trebling the number of our coffee breaks. We love the ridiculous walk too much to want to end it. We are afraid the end will be anti-climactic. Some of us want to go to mass at the Santiago cathedral. Others want to celebrate with champagne and a fancy hotel. The cathedral is imposing in the way many European churches are, but doesn’t take our breaths away. As we get to the cathedral courtyard, we exchange hugs. “We’ve done it,” we say. We think that’s how the walk is supposed to end.
And then we look around. A pilgrim is bawling. Behind him is another bawler. A man is weepy. A woman is sniffling. A girl says something to herself as she tears up. Group after group arrives and breaks down. We see tears and hugs, people kneeling on the ground.
I look at my family. “Feel anything?” I ask. Nothing. We get our certificates. I joke it is the biggest accomplishment of my life. Someone says something about someone getting a Camino tattoo to mark his achievement.
“What’s next?” one of us asks. “A tattoo for graduating from high school?”
It’s been a good journey, but we are walking on farther. We want a bigger challenge. For the most part, the walk, long as it may have been, had been easy. We decide it will be a good idea to walk a three-four day trail in 24 hours. We try to get a few hours of sleep in the storeroom of a bar, almost get attacked by a dog the size of a bear and dance a bit at an all-night fiesta ridiculously named Americana, but manage to cover the distance in 24 hours. We walk some 93km in 24 hours! We are proud. We celebrate.
“It’s been fun,” one of us says. “Favourite moments?”
We list them in turns.
We make a list.
“Most intriguing people?”
Someone names A. Another names B. Another person mentions a woman who picked up a dog—no one knows if it was a stray or belonged to someone—on the way and named it Camino.
I say the angel intrigued me the most.
“Oh, I saw the angel a few days ago,” someone says. “And …”
“Are you kidding me?” We know this will be interesting. “Why would you not tell us that?”
“I completely forgot. Well, listen to this.”
We are all ears.
“The asphalt became too hot for her. She was wearing sandals. In fact, she’s been wearing sandals for several days now.”
Fly to Paris and connect to Biarritz via a domestic flight or the TGV (‘train à grande vitesse’ or high-speed train). Then take the train to Saint Jean Pied de Port.
‘Albergues’, pilgrim hostels, are common and offer a cultural experience unique to the Camino. Reward yourself at the end of the walk by staying at the Hotel Eurostars Araguaney, located within walking distance of the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral.
Aira do Camino in Triacastela stands out for its excellent food and vegetarian options.
Prajwal Parajuly is the author of Land Where I Flee and The Gurkha’s Daughter.