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A Backpack and a (Nokia) Brick: A Pilgrim’s Reflections on the Camino

Last spring I set out from St Jean Pied de Port, a sleepy hamlet in the dewy foothills of the Pyrenees, to walk nine hundred kilometres across Spain.

Somewhat unnervingly, I managed to reduce my life to just five kilograms worth of belongings. I was armed with my rucksack, 2000s-style Nokia brick, digital camera, and no comprehension of Spanish whatsoever. Possessing something of an inclination towards the Romantic, I left my iPhone at home.

Thus it was that I took my first steps on that six week journey. I embarked on the Camino de Santiago, an ancient Christian pilgrimage to the relics of the apostle St James, in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Unfortunately, my motivations were not religious — at least not in a conventional sense. I do not believe in a god, nor do I disbelieve in one. I am eminently and contentedly agnostic. After a few glasses of wine, however, I often declare self-importantly that I am a Catholic – a word derived from the Greek for ‘universal,’ or ‘whole’ – in its truest sense: an integral member of the whole, and a lover of the universal.

It was in this latter vein of religiosity that my incentives for undertaking the Camino stemmed. In the three-and-a-half years prior to my first steps out of St Jean, I had been variously consumed by anorexia, severe bouts of depression, an exercise disorder, and an array of other ailments in a similar ilk. It seems that I have something of a penchant for vices. When I began my venture, I was physically healthy, but, mentally only tenuously so.

The fissures I had cleaved through my body, mind, and sense of self had begun, cautiously, to reseal themselves. But the chasms beneath were deep, and the protective epidermis a gossamer-like sheath. They clung to me loosely, threatening to tear apart once more at the slightest inclemency. What I longed for, and what I was walking the Way to find, was something to fill the abyss: something to make me whole.

It has been eight months since the conclusion of my Camino. Alas, dear reader, I fear you will be disappointed. I did not undergo a Pauline conversion. I remain imperfect, corporeally constituted, and fundamentally flawed. As I sit writing this, with just a few hours remaining before the deadline, I can attest to the fact that my pilgrimage did nothing to guard me against the temptation of choosing fleeting pleasures over the arduous realities of work. But the process has generated more of a steady metamorphosis than an overnight transmutation. And it happened in a way I did not expect.

Having left my iPhone behind, I had imagined that – in lieu of the noise of social media, the news, and messages – I would be free to delve into the annals of my own psyche and burrow out the maggot-like strands of festering rot that had wormed their way into my subconscious. I pictured myself alone, striding across the Meseta – an infamous hot, dry, flat stretch of the Camino – deep in thought under a beating sun, physically weary but mentally lucid. In the silence of the journey, my problems would present themselves to me with dazzling clarity. It would then only be a simple matter of solving them.

The truth, however, was that I was almost never alone. The very first morning of my pilgrimage, I was awoken at 5.45am by the glare of a flickering halogen strip and a topless and pot-bellied middle-aged man garbling a boisterous Italian monologue amid furious mouthfuls of chocolate biscuits. These were not, I thought, circumstances conducive to introspective analysis and temporal transcendence. Two nights later in a dormitory containing over a hundred people in Pamplona, the snores were so loud it seemed the apocalypse was nigh. Clearly — I rationalised, as I tossed and turned upon disposable bed sheets — the anti-christ had risen out of hell, according to the auguries of Revelation, to wrench from earth the foundations of the church I struggled to sleep in.

Yet, as the days went by, I grew increasingly indifferent to communal sleeping and, yes, even showering arrangements. In fact, I came to be strangely comforted by their familiarity. Arriving at my hostel in the mid-afternoon, having trekked up to thirty-five kilometres in forty-degree heat for the seventh consecutive day – my feet rubbed red-raw and blistered on every inch of available skin – my preoccupations would evaporate upon sight of a friendly face. I would stagger into my dorm and see James, my self-proclaimed “Camino father”, a sixty year-old bricklayer from Southampton; or Curtis, a free-spirited San Franciscan who carried a ukulele that protruded joyously out of his rucksack. Rather than preoccupation with my own thoughts, I would find myself deep in conversation with people who just hours before had been strangers.

I was walking one day with Stephen, a forty-year-old man from Portland. Within thirty minutes, I had both his and his husband’s entire life-stories, including the information that he and his husband lived very happily with a third boyfriend. But such it was, I met people from all walks of life, from all over the world, of all ages. They shared their most intimate troubles with me, and to my surprise, I responded in kind. In preparation for this article, I texted some friends I met whilst walking to see how they reflect on the journey. Curtis told me he found himself “equals with [people] old enough to be [his] parents: comrades and confidants”.

Josh, a forty year-old American, who I shared many a laugh and pint of Estrella Galicia with, said that he was “surprised how easy it was to befriend people fifteen years older and younger than [himself]” and that he witnessed “very introverted people open-up and share vulnerably”.

Freddy Wickham, whom I did not meet whilst walking, but goes to St Andrews and also completed the Camino this summer, admitted he was “overwhelmed by how everyone went out of their way to be kind to each other” and “welcomed [him] in”.

But why? I wondered. What was it about this microcosm of existence that made people so willing to share? Why would Anna tell me that the ink of her tattoo was infused with the ashes of her daughter, who just twelve months previously had taken her own life? Or Maria, who told me that one of the two shells she carried on her backpack (carrying a shell is a pilgrim tradition, emblematic of St James) had belonged to her former husband who she had divorced prior to him dying in Burgos whilst walking the Camino the previous year. Why would I, so adept at suppressing and concealing my emotions (including from myself), choose to share my experience of anorexia - something I had been so cripplingly ashamed of, paralysed in self-isolation for fear of its exposure - with Nancy, a sixty-year old Feldenkrais instructor from Norway?

Never had I felt such a strong sense of community. And yet we were strangers, connected to one another by nothing more than the parity of our journey and its routine. We were a curious kind of nomadic tribe.

We had power in simplicity. Each day we walked, talked, ate and slept. With so many miles ahead, there was no further horizon than the immediate. We were all subject to the same imminent realities: hunger, thirst, sore feet, and weary legs. In the words of Ermenia — an Italian woman in her sixties, whose house I would stay at a month a month later whilst backpacking through Italy, and and whose son’s graduation I would join her to celebrate – “when we walked together there were no prejudices to divide us”.

It was of no significance to Ermenia that I was the age of her children. The Camino facilitated openness because, within its safe confines, there was no judgement. As I sat on Cape Finisterre, watching the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean, there was nothing anyone could tell me about themselves that could surprise me.

We were all simply human: lost, broken, and confused, trying to find our own way along The Way of St James.

My troubles were real, but they were nothing unique in the grand scope of the human condition - nothing insurmountable. They did not need to define me. I had listened to others without judgement. They had listened to me in kind and accepted me for who I was. What reason did I have to judge myself anymore?

For all I had searched outside myself for something to fill the visceral void, I found that the answer was within. The answer, of course, was love. But I could not have known that without the friends I walked with. I am not proud of how I behaved during those difficult years, but I am no longer ashamed.

I am not angry at myself; I do not feel guilt or regret. I do not close my eyes and grit my teeth and blame myself. That is how the Camino healed me — or, more appropriately, how it continues to heal me. The safety and vulnerability I felt on that walk enabled me to share the darkest parts of myself. I learned that others still considered me worthy of their love.

I learned that I was worthy of my own.

Photo: Ivan Blanco Vilar

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