An unlikely pilgrim

This is the second of two essays submitted by Michelle Coram, runner up of Eureka Street's Margaret Dooley Award for young writers.

Camino de SantiagoThe person is a whole, but it is not a closed whole, it is an open whole … it demands by its very nature to social life and to communion – Jacques Maritain.

My pilgrimage was never meant to be meaningful.

The Camino de Santiago, in Spain, is over a thousand years old and trodden by tens of thousands of pilgrims each year. For me, though, it was simply a cheap holiday. A safe walk to do as a solo traveller. And, I'd been told, a sure way to get fit. I didn't believe that the remains of Saint James had somehow managed to end up in Santiago de Compostela. And I wasn't expecting any miracles.

So I feel like a fraud collecting my pilgrim passport in Pamplona — a document that gets you into the less-than-salubrious pilgrim accommodation along the way. I hand over the equivalent of about $12 for my bunk and dutifully accept my first stamp.

My first impression is of a basic backpackers hostel. But there are some differences too.

I listen to three nuns, in habits, sing grace before their meal in the common room.

I inhale a pungent mix of stale sweat and tiger balm.

And I watch a German woman tend an English woman's blisters.

'I'm doing this for my son, you know,' the English woman says. 'He died last year.'

'I'll be praying for you and your son,' says the German woman, lotion and bandage in hand.

I'm perplexed by the exchange. They can't have known each other more than 48 hours. I slip away to my bed. It's clear no-one else regards the Camino as a budget boot-camp, and I don't want to be found out as a fake.

The next morning, I set off, just me, a backpack, and a walking stick I call Jimmy, my one nod to the saint this walk is supposed to be all about. The path is simple enough — a dirt track, marked by yellow arrows. A cheery hola and buen camino greets me as the first (of many) pilgrims pass me on the trail.

I'm not sure why everyone is being so friendly. I'm not feeling particularly chipper as I tackle my first big hill. My feet are starting to hurt already. Saying hola or buen camino to every pilgrim that passes me is going to make me insane.

It only takes an hour or so to develop my first blister, and I pull over to sit down and assess. Every single pilgrim stops to check on me. I am asked, in about five different languages, if I am okay. I answer in English that I am. The lack of a common language in no way hinders the conversations.

Still, I am determined to do it on my own. I load myself up with food and water from supermarkets — bars are scattered along the path, but I'm embarrassed to go in. I smell bad, I dropped out of my Spanish classes, and I don't know any other pilgrims. Public toilets don't seem to exist in rural Spain, and I find myself diving into blackberry bushes when the need arises. It's a prickly experience, to say the least.

After the first day's walk I email my friends back home and try to explain the Camino. I decide it is like a roving time-out room for adults. I cannot help but reflect on what I have done (that would be the impulsive use of frequent flyer points that got me here) and what I haven't done (that would be learning Spanish and getting fit).

The second day is less like a time-out room, and more like a good, old fashioned thrashing. I start the day hurting and then I go and make myself hurt some more. Somehow I push through the pain and make it to the hostel. After dinner I hear bells and instinctively follow the sound to enter a church. I'm glad to sit down and rest my throbbing feet.

The language barrier during Mass is quite useful. Unlike at home, there is no chance of me being offended at the priest's theological position. I feel welcome here even though I do not understand. I watch the older Spanish women go to communion, faces lined, bodies hunched over and hands clutching their rosary beads. I wish that faith was contagious, perhaps like a divine form of measles. I fear that modern life has vaccinated me against believing in anything that can't be explained.

My church attendance must be having some kind of effect, because I find myself making deals with God as the days roll on. I don't really believe in God as an Old Man in the Sky, but the image works for me as I bargain like a naughty child might with Santa.

God, it has been a long day. Lots of hills. I've said hola to everyone and smiled and waved. I went to Mass last night. Is it possible that tonight's hostel might actually have a shower with hot water?

Of course it didn't. Still, removing the peregrina (pilgrim) scent has its own pleasure, even if it's done with cold water. 'There is no pleasure without the pain,' a hospitalero (warden) smiles at me as I limp into the hostel. I am beginning to think he might be right.

God, I like potato. I like eggs. But I have had tortilla bocadillos every day for two weeks now. I never thought I'd say this, but I'm craving broccoli.

As I sit with a fellow pilgrim in a small restaurant that night I explain to the cook that I am vegetariana.

The cook frowns, and asks, Huevo? Papas?

Eggs and potato. Again. She doesn't look like someone I should argue with and I don't know the word for broccoli. There is only one answer.

Si, I say. I won't be rushing in for a cholesterol check the minute I get home. And I sincerely hope I'm not developing scurvy. But guilt-free eating is one of the few benefits of walking 20 kilometres a day.

Gracias, I say, and mean it, as the plate piled high with fried eggs and chips is placed in front of me.

God, I really need a good night's sleep. That Spanish guy in the bunk below me … well, he's big. Really big. I saw him quaffing red wine in unpilgrimlike quantities at dinner. The risk of him snoring is as huge as he is. Please don't let him …

Snore? The word doesn't begin to do justice to the sounds he makes. It's a herd of pigs below me, surely, not one man. It's definitely a herd of pigs. But what were they doing? Eating, drinking, emptying their bowels, mating, or being slaughtered? It was hard to tell. Mercifully, physical exhaustion is its own anaesthetic, and the herd of pigs disappear into the dark, distant night.

The days merge into one another. Get up. Change from sleeping clothes to walking clothes. Ease reluctant feet into boots. Have yoghurt or bread for breakfast. Put on backpack. Walk. No big decisions. Follow the yellow arrows. Rest when you need to rest. Eat when you need to eat. Walk. Surrender to the rhythm. It's simple, but hard. Life at home is cushy, but complicated. I decide it's a fair exchange.

The faces become familiar, and I am the one calling out Hola! I stop in all the bars and discover the joy of a mid-morning hot chocolate and a toilet with toilet paper. With a dose of humility, a smile, and a phrase book, I can make myself understood by the bartender. I'm not sure why I was so determined to avoid the hospitality of the locals and the friendship of the pilgrims.

One evening, I lend my jacket to John, an Australian fellow who decides everything in his backpack needs a wash. John, in turn, has the ingredients for potato and leek soup. John sits in my clothes as I eat his food. Alone, it's a struggle. Together we have more than enough. The loaves and the fishes story suddenly makes sense.

The end is looming for all of us, and hot topic in the hostels is the compostela, the certificate that proves you have completed the pilgrimage.

The catch is that you need to convince the authorities that you are an authentic pilgrim. 'Stamps aren't enough —you need to prove that you are properly religious, not just a tourist,'a fellow pilgrim warns. Properly religious? My wavering faith doesn't make sense, even to me. I don't think I can explain what I believe, in Spanish, to a stranger. Despite the many miles, and many stamps, I worry that the compostela is going to elude me.

I arrive in the pilgrim office in Santiago and line up waiting to be spoken to by an official. It feels a bit like Judgement Day.

The lady behind the desk calls me forward. I am prepared for the interrogation. I have a phrase book. I brace myself. But there is no judgement from the official, just a welcoming smile.

'And how was the Camino for you?' she asks.

I can handle anything except kindness. Her gentle words break through my final resistance to the word pilgrim. I start to shake, the room starts to spin. I can barely breathe, let alone speak. Tears stream down my face. The official nods. She gives me the certificate.

Later, I take the bus to Finisterre, a little fishing village at the western tip of Europe. As its name suggests, Finisterre was once quite literally regarded as the end of the earth.

I take part in one last Camino ritual, watching the sunset from the lighthouse. As the last streaks of light disappear into the ocean, I have an overwhelming sense of sadness. My fellow pilgrims are already dispersing to the distant corners of the world.

The Camino community might have been ever-changing, strange and more than a little smelly. But it was a community nonetheless. Every pilgrim who said hola and buen camino. The Spanish snorer. The locals who fed me and bore my mutilation of their language with such patience and good humour. The hospitaleros, often volunteers, who made pancakes and tended blisters, day after day after day.

I turn on my phone as I sit in the dusk, and see a little envelope appear. It's a text from my brother.

'Congratulations! Now you can sin all you like for a whole year!'

I'm not sure he has got the concept of indulgences exactly right, but I smile. There has been another community with me on this journey. The community waiting for me at home.

My friends sent long emails to cheer me on when they really should have been working. My uncle, a retired farmer, sent text messages to me every single day. And my parents made horribly expensive calls to my mobile phone to make sure I was okay.

I realise that my family and friends have been part of my pilgrimage despite their physical absence. It gives me hope that my fellow pilgrims will still be part of my life, somehow, whether it's through the wonders of the world wide web, or the simple memories that are now part of me.

The fusion of ancient ritual and modern technology makes for an appropriate ending. The thousand-year-old Camino is the best antidote to the lonely stresses of modern life I've ever encountered.

As I get on the bus to leave Finisterre, I watch two pilgrims embrace. 'Buen camino for the rest of your life,' says one, as she slowly lets go.

And so a new journey begins. The journey home. Buen camino.

Michelle CoramMichelle Coram is an Adelaide lawyer. She has had a number of articles published in Australian Catholics based on travel and her experiences as a volunteer overseas with the Iona and Taize communities and at a reconciliation centre in Northern Ireland.




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Existing comments

Congratulations! I was crying by the time I finished reading.
Margaret Bartley | 13 December 2007

I love the description of your pilgrimage!
russell walsh | 13 December 2007

Dear Michelle, I have walked the French way twice and am planning to do the Via de la Plata in the spring. Your account freshened me up again!
John wordsman | 14 December 2007

Thanks, Michelle. A wonderfully evocative, moving and funny account. Keep travelling and keep writing!
Meg Hegarty | 14 December 2007

Dear Michelle, I laughed and cried simultaneously and realised what our mutual friend had missed when she was too ill to do the pilgrimage. Well done.
Anne Foale | 15 December 2007

Wonderfully written with feeling, one of the most refreshing articles on the very heavily blogged subject.
Joe Chan | 16 December 2007

thank you, Michelle for sharing your journey in such a human way.
Bob | 17 December 2007

beautiful description of the simultaneous journeys of body and soul together. thanks.
sarah agnew | 17 July 2008

Thank you so much, Michelle. Incredibly honest and moving. Moving? I felt the blisters with you! The pilgrimage continues.
Norma Brown | 17 November 2008


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