Thirty-Eight More Kilometres

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.

Pain and Intentionality

Walking about 6 hours a day for the past two weeks has brought me a lot of pain. Today is a good example: I trekked 5km on a continuous upslope, and then 12km on a very steep, rocky descent to the town I’m currently staying in. The albergue I’m in for the night is a converted chapel, taken care of by a Spanish family, where there are no bedsheets on the mattress and 20 people sleep in the same room. I took the iciest shower of my entire life because there wasn’t any hot water, and limping down the stairs to the main garden is fairly painful, given that my knees are pretty sore from the downslope this afternoon. The following stagger across the garden due to sore ankles, sore knees, and squashed toes only serves to remind me of the suffering of the day. It’s a variation of my everyday existence for the past two weeks.

Not going to lie, picking my way downwards through the rocks today, painstakingly planning my steps so that I wouldn’t twist an ankle, was pretty discouraging. I couldn’t walk at my usual pace, the sun was only getting hotter, and I knew I would only arrive at the hostel after 3pm: a grand total of 8 hours on the road. My knees were killing me, and so was the fact that there were a bunch of young, energetic kids basically sprinting past me on their way down.

What has gotten me through many days, despite this pain, isn’t necessarily a suddent revelation or certainty about my purpose on this pilgrimage to motivate me forward. Many times, it’s forgetting the pain, becoming numb to it. After a certain point, I get used to it. Accepting the negative parts of the pilgrimage and not dwelling on them allows me to look up from the ground and appreciate the more beautiful parts of it: the endless mountains, the wide blue sky, the metre-high weeds rustling in the wind, an eagle gliding overhead, even the tiniest ladybird creeping over the leaves. Six hours gives me a lot of time to feel pain, yes, but also time to look up and see more clearly. It’s a strange mix of appreciation, impatience, wonder, tiredness, and clarity that I noticed in myself as I walked over the past few days.

One of the things which helped me to look up more and notice beauty in my surroundings has been photography. I didn’t realise how powerful the act of taking a photo could be: it made me actively look for aesthetic qualities rather than just walking and seeing, opening my mind to notice more about where I am, making me more present to my surroundings. It affected the way I saw and remembered things, and how intentional I was about engaging with the environment. Walking gave me more time to appreciate every single part of the journey, much more than any other form of transport could, and photography enhanced this appreciation for and observation of what is around me. While it may not take away the pain, it allowed me to realise that what I saw as negative aspects of the journey were parts of the bigger picture which also included incredibly positive moments, which went more easily unnoticed.

On reflection this is also very easily applied to my life and the convenient focus and dwelling on negativity that is present. While pain isn’t always good, I realised that sacrifice and finishing a goal sometimes does take blood, sweat and tears. Dwelling on them doesn’t help me, especially when there are many other positives that I could be looking up at. If I’m intentional about it.

Walking Alone, Together

One of the first things that I realised while walking during the past week was that I’m not alone. It was one of the fears I had, that this whole month, I would be essentially alone and far from face-to-face interactions with anyone. It’s been the complete opposite of that. Physically, I’ve definitely been surrounded – I spent my first night in a pilgrim albergue (a very cheap hostel for pilgrims) on a bunk bed which was pushed against one occupied by an Italian man. As a woman travelling alone, I was more than slightly apprehensive engaging with a middle-aged man who was literally sleeping next to me, but I realised, later on, that a lot of the fear I had was unfounded. I eventually bumped into the man further along the trail, at a pit stop, and spent the next few days chatting with him when we’d stop in the same hostel or meet each other walking along the way. I’d see the same group of people every morning at breakfast, at rest stops, in the afternoons cooking together or washing laundry as we walked the same distances every day. It was reassuring to be around them, whether on the Camino or in the hostels, knowing that others were with me on this journey.

It wasn’t just physical space that was filled with people; everyone has been extremely friendly on this trip. Countless people that I wouldn’t otherwise talk to would stop to take a break with me, and then in the evening I would talk to them them at mass, or the next day, share a room with them in a hostel, hug each other in the grocery store. A single “Buen Camino!” (standard pilgrim greeting) could extend into hours of conversation as we walked. People I’d talked to for less than ten minutes would invite me to eat their home-cooked food, others opened up about deeply personal events they’d come on the Camino to leave behind. It was a strange bond that I’d never experienced: shared in pain and long distances, and very often, much closer and more genuine than I could have ever imagined.

These friendships transcended lanaguage as well – I met an Italian dad (he was sleeping above me in one of the hostels) and we spent an hour talking over Google Translate, learning about each other, talking about why we came on the Camino, laughing and joking together. I can’t describe in one blogpost the number of amazing, perhaps even God-sent, encounters that I had and continue to have while I walk. It dawned on me, eventually, that walking the Camino is like joining this gigantic, kind, generous and joyful community that travels toward the same goal, over 800km.

It made me wonder why these first-time encounters were so poignant when I’d already been meeting new people all the time, back at home. I realised that, while a part of it was how open I was to these conversations and letting myself be known to others, it was a strange effect of this walk. Perhaps it was the reassurance that I would never meet them again. Perhaps it was the communal experience of walking that brought us together, or the mutually recognised willingness to be open to receiving and giving. Perhaps it was the fact that we had more time to engage and less baggage preventing us from being open and meeting new people, and investing in these new relationships. With all of us far from the comforts and securities of home life, it seemed easier to trust and find commonalities with each other.

While I might not be best friends or get along naturally with all of these pilgrims, I realised quickly that the degree of natural compatibility did not restrict the goodness that could be shown to each other, or the friendships made despite these differences. I think it’s helped me to let go of some of my jadedness and recognise again the precious uniqueness that’s easy to miss if I don’t take the time to know someone new. This week has reminded me to look forward to these new encounters and to seek new relationships with the people around me that come into my life unexpectedly. It doesn’t sound like a huge epiphany to me, but I think it’s something I needed a reminder of. So much goodness and great adventures can be found in the people around me, and being on the Camino with a simpler lifestyle eased the obstacles that would usually hinder these genuine interactions: perceived barriers imposed by age, occupation, language, beliefs, physical distance, and material goods and their tendency to distract me. While many of us are alone, we still walk together, I’ve realised the value in approaching others in simplicity and as my genuine self, even if it becomes more difficult upon returning to a “normal” world, without the simplicity of the Camino.

The fear of being alone at the beginning of my journey was great, and one of the things I asked in my prayers was to not be alone. Personally, I think that they were answered, and so far I have been reassured of company and support whether or not I can see people walking ahead of me. I’m truly grateful for all the friends I’ve made and all the kindness I have been blessed to receive, and can only think that I have been accompanied by my God through the wonderful people that I have met. It’s been an incredibly peaceful first week, and I look forward to the next few legs of my journey  and the people I’m going to meet.

Packing Light

Pack light. Less is more. You don’t need much – just the essentials.

This was my mantra as I packed, two days ago, for the Camino de Santiago – a walking pilgrimage spanning 800 kilometres through northern Spain. It’s important to pack lightly because I’ll be walking over 20km per day, for 28 days straight, in order to reach Santiago, the endpoint of this pikgrimage. More baggage makes for a more painful walk – which is why I’m writing this on the notes app on my phone instead of my laptop.

This necessary austerity forced me to reconsider what I was planning to bring on the trip and evaluate which items would be most essential on my journey. Especially the bigger items – my laptop, which would make updating the travel fellowship blog much easier, and my camera. Writing my packing list alone required hours of research, reading other pilgrims’ advice and thinking through the scenarios in which I would actually be using these items. Through the process, I realised that I sometimes didn’t put as much thought into the baggage I’d taken along with me the past semester: commitments, time management, priorities that I let gradually creep into my backpack and weigh me down more than benefit me.

This pursuit of simplicity is therefore one of the reasons that led me to apply to walk the Camino de Santiago for my Travel Fellowship. Reflecting upon the past semester made me realise how little space and time I had away from distractions, clutter, and noise: almost like standing in an RC lift indefinitely, surrounded by colourful posters 24/7. I remember managing 15 different micro-goals at once, balancing a Tower of Babel of commitments and readings, constantly jumping from one task to the next. It left me with little time to fully absorb, reflect on, and understand a tumultuous first year of college, something that, in the past, I was more likely to do. My faith helped with that – as a Roman Catholic, reflection and prayer are two essential facets of my life that I forgot about in the flurry of my first year in college. While still having this inward desire to turn towards my faith, it was mostly overshadowed by things that were right in front of me; I was distracted very easily by the outward pulls of the world and forgot about the importance my spirituality previously held for me. The physical simplicity of the Camino de Santiago mirrors the inner simplicity I believe would help me – freeing me from the unnecessary to see, more clearly, the important.

These outward signs of inner changes are what I hope to foster during this pilgrimage. Having a clear sense of direction, with every physical step taking me towards the end goal. Enjoying this journey and making the best of it by lightening my load. Depending on the goodwill of volunteers managing the pilgrim hostels, finding a community of pilgrims that journeys with me to that goal despite our different nationalities, beliefs, backgrounds. Having faith in myself and in the route despite my doubts and fears. All these are relevant to the inward and outward journeys I hope to make over the next few weeks, and attempting to navigate on my spiritual journey both in the context of this pilgrimage and back at home, in Singapore.

Finally, while this is a deeply personal journey into myself, reflecting on the pilgrimage also makes me curious about how others experience it differently. What affects them, why they chose to walk it, and how it may impact their spirituality, if they even see it that way. One local I spoke to told me, “Every person has a different pilgrinage. Even though you’re all on the same route, you all experience a different pilgrimage.” Without understanding more the experience of other pilgrims, I will not be able to fully immerse myself in this pilgrimage and see how this Catholic tradition has been adopted and adapted by very diverse people.

These objectives, exploring the effect of the outside on the inside, developing my personal spirituality, and understanding how other pilgrims experience the Camino, are my main focus as I walk toward Santiago. I will document them in the Travel Fellowship blog, my own personal journal, and photographs, and collate them into a booklet of reflections at the end of this trip. A very personal and intimate book pondering the journey that I make during this month.

So, in summary, what does this pilgrimage do? In my journal entry from last night, I wrote, “It literally strips me of everything familiar, everything “normal”, sends me into the unknown Outside perhaps to turn inward instead.” Maybe I’m afraid of what things it will strip from my life, but I’m here, and I’m realising that my backpack needs to be light. I hope you’ll enjoy reading about my journey on The Way as much as I do writing about it!