Today I begin the last thirty-eight kilometres of my walk. Thirty-eight! Just three more short days of nineteen, fifteen and five kilometres each (I never thought I would say that walking nineteen kilometres is short), and I’ll be at Santiago de Compostela: the cathedral holding the remains of St James, the Apostle. The past week, realising that the end was near, made me think about the results of this pilgrimage. What I’ve gained, what concrete, specific thing I can say that I’ve learned. How I’ve changed or gained a new perspective.
This question of results is something that has been frustrating me. I was running into a wall the past few days, wondering: “What have I learned? What impact does this have on my life?” I had expectations before the trip of some sort of big change or revelation that I can’t see right now, maybe when I get home and see a change. In the end, I realised it was getting me nowhere, and what made me stop asking this question was a 3.5 hour ascent over 10km, one of the more difficult sections of the Camino. I realised along the way that I had gotten much stronger over the past few weeks (for example, before this trip, I could barely climb Bukit Timah Hill without stopping every 30 seconds for a break). Walking 24km a day for twenty-something days gradually built up my mental and physical strength, making the climb a lot easier than I thought it would be. And it wasn’t until I reached a very challenging obstacle that I realised how much I’d changed.
So I stopped questioning why I came on this pilgrimage and instead just focused on walking. As difficult as it was to tell my mind to stop processing and questioning impatiently, I slowed it down and just enjoyed as much as I could. Slowly, clarity came to me on a lot of the questions I had been asking once I put them out of my head.
Other pilgrims sometimes had clearer answers to my questions. It was easier to see it in them – many people I talked to told me how they came to the Camino to find space to think, a deeper understanding of themselves, or healing from some past emotional trauma. I realised that the Camino provided distance, respite, and simplicity that was sometimes unavailable in our regular lives. This was a common thread of desire for peace wove through many of my conversations: peace that did not necessarily come from conventional, slightly more stable sources. Much of what we were looking for came from the journey itself; after all, if we just wanted to reach cathedral in Santiago, a train would take less than a day to arrive there. But people sweat and ache and hobble through 800km to Santiago, so the journey must be inherently valuable, somehow.
It made me wonder why this pilgrimage had this effect (or perceived effect) of instilling peace. Part of the reason, I think, is the freedom to appreciate the pilgrimage that comes with being directed on the path. It’s simple enough: we follow the clamshells to Santiago, and just enjoy the journey. Constantly walking – whether in farmland, forests, mountains, cities, or industrial parks – has introduced me to all these places very slowly, at my (very slow) walking human pace. One step at a time, I’ve experienced the full, blasting smell of millions of orchids, the unrelenting rain slowly soaking my backpack, the sun creeping over the earth in its heat, the crunching of soil and rock under my shoes, cities gradually build from residential areas to historical city centres, each valley and peak of the hills felt and smelled and seen by me as I climb through the forest. This intimacy with the environment and becoming acquainted with it at a very natural, human pace is an experience completely unlike watching the world flash by, outside a car or train window. As summarised very nicely by a fellow pilgrim, “Walking and thinking is such a human thing to do. Why do people think that doing the Camino is so strange?”
Walking doesn’t just bring me closer to my surroundings. It teaches me how to be by myself, with myself. I’ve spent most of the Camino completely alone, not talking to anybody, just walking and observing. Spending this much time alone gave me the rare opportunity to know my limits, my strengths, my weaknesses and my ability to grow without much outside influence. I realised that alone, I could hear myself, think better, begin to be more reflective and grew less afraid of what genuinely made me, me. Being removed from outside sources of comfort and familiarity, pushed me into exploring more deeply who I was without things I had previously attached to my identity.
The Camino also brought be closer to other pilgrims. As I wrote about previously, it strips us to the plain and simple people we are. From janitors to lawyers to retirees to high schoolers, the Camino (cheesily enough) bring us all together. It breaks down many existing walls, scrapes out our differences, and dumps us unceremoniously in 40-bed dorm rooms. While this also brings an oftentimes uncomfortable level of shamelessness, I’ve made friends while scrubbing clothes, found reassurance in stairwells while stumbling through Spanish phrases, and been ambushed in a lift by large groups of Spanish high schoolers asking where I began the Camino. Getting to know people here is such a natural and genuine process that comes about through the act of walking and travelling together, freed from the normal barriers we put between ourselves. Human-ness is brought out during the Camino, boiled down to its most simple and essential level. We walk, we think, and we do it together. It humbles me to the barest version of myself, and I pray that the last thirty-eight kilometers will continue to teach me this simplicity and bring me peace.