my camino experience

The mission has been accomplished.

Shortly after noon on Aug. 12, I marched into Santiago, the final destination of St. James Way, commonly known for its Spanish name El Camino, an old pilgrimage route. It took me 13 days to complete 311 km, starting from Leon.

I loved every minute of it. Hard not to, really. For someone who lives constantly in Beijing’s smudgy air, I can’t describe the pleasure I had of walking under a vast open sky. I was lucky to have mostly sunny days. For several days, the sky was a dome of blue, without even a cloud. The mountainous scenes are stunning. I passed through villages with rustic charms and medieval towns, such as Astorga and Santiago, blessed with plenty of historical monuments.

I was very lucky not to have suffered from any blisters or injuries. I had the right walking socks and shoes; my backpack was light with bare necessities. I took my time, enjoying the scenes without hurrying the journey like some did. I stopped for tea, juice or cake whenever possible. After lunch, I often took a nap, on a bench, in the shade of a tree or by a running stream. Once on a raining day, I took a long break at an open tent deep in woodland. While finishing a book I was reading (on flat areas, I learnt to read while walking), I listened to the pitter-patter of the rain and breathed in the fresh air. What a joy!

I had long heard how friendly and kind the pilgrims were towards each other. I experienced this on the first day in Leon. I shared a room with an actress from London named Katty – in Albergues (accommodation for the pilgrims) you usually share a dormitory with a dozen others – I expressed my concern that I didn’t bring enough warm clothes. She immediately offered me a long-sleeve top, which was given to her.

I laughed all along the way. The Camino is extremely sociable. I teamed up with a group of people, Patricia, a linguistically-talented German teacher and her German friends, Olga, a lovely Spanish girl from Madrid and Christian, a Norwegian photographer. (The poor guy suffered terrible blisters but nothing reduced his great sense of humour.) I was grateful to have been adopted by this Camino family. In the beginning, I didn’t book any accommodation. I wanted to stop when I felt tired and I wanted to check into somewhere I liked. Towards the end as more and more people barged into Camino, you had to book a place. Patricia, being so organized, decided where we’d stop. Olga would call and book for six beds. Each day, I was given an address. We set off at different times in the morning and turned up at the same place, with me being the last to turn up. We would meet for dinner.

During the day, I walked mostly on my own, in my own pace. I met all sorts of people.

Some come to the camino with a special quest. A lady from S. Africa did her camino as a way to honour her mother who passed away two years ago. As in Camino tradition, she brought a stone from home and placed it under a cross along the way. Others did Camino because they reached a cross road in their lives, facing choices in their careers or love life. One German man had been battling with his business partners; a lady from East Europe had issues with both her marriage and her job; a sweet gay man from Canary Island wants to have children and a family in a traditional sense but has no sexual desire towards women. Others treat it as a normal hiking holiday. For whatever the purpose, you’d certainly get something out of Camino. I can’t imagine a better way to explore Spain.

I didn’t particularly like the last four days. Suddenly more people – mostly young people – joined in:in order to get a certificate, you need at least four days’ worth of stamps collection in your passport/credential. The roads were packed with joyful and noisy travelers. The atmosphere felt more like carnival instead of Camino.

I did have a little drama – an allergy reaction. One morning, I find rashes all over my body. Patricia and a pharmacy thought it was the reaction to mosquito bites and I was given some very mild cream to stop the itching. The cream didn’t help at all. My situation got worse, rashes flaming up and my whole face puffed up. Patricia decided that I needed to see a doctor and dragged me to a medical center. (I would have gone to a pharmacy for a second opinion.) The doctors, horrified at the sight, reached the conclusion that the allergy was caused by something poisonous, most likely by some poisonous spiders. I was given an injection and a prescription to a stronger cream.

God bless the Spanish free medical care system, such a bless to the pilgrims. At the medical center, a notice read: if you are a pilgrim, please take a shower before receiving doctor’s attention. Some of my fellow travelers do smell. Once I had the pleasure of sleeping right next to an eccentric English man in his 70’s, who always wore the same woolen socks, one red and the other grey. I never noticed him doing any laundry. The smell and the snoring all around me was so overwhelming that I decided to sleep on chairs at the reception instead of my own bunk bed.

It’s remarkable how one can get used to anything. In the beginning, I tried to have my private room as I had trouble to fall asleep with a roomful of people. After a while, I slept through the night no matter what.

Despite these unromantic details, my Camino has been a memorable experience and I already plot to do it again, with my girls.

see attached pix

5562, me in front of a famous cross where people leave the stones they bring with them.

5560, a cyclist in front of a statue of an medieval pilgrime and a shell – the symbol of the Camino

5625, with my camino family, Patricia (blonde) and Olga

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