By Patricia Gras
MY SECOND CAMINO DE SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA
After 6 years, I decided to do the Camino de Santiago or St. James Way again. The Camino de Santiago is an ancient pilgrimage trail in Spain that’s been around for thousands of years. Religious pilgrims believe St. James the disciple’s bones were found in northern Spain, and interned in the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. At first people would travel there to get forgiveness for their sins. Today, pilgrims do it for various motives, religious, spiritual or personal. Spain has a system of refugios like youth hostels that provide shelter for pilgrims for a minimal fee or contribution. To access them you have to get a pilgrim’s passport. There are trails from all parts of Europe.
The first time I did the camino, I had done the Portuguese Camino which was shorter and easier than the most frequented French Camino which takes about six weeks to complete. I did the first Camino in 2004 which was a special jubilee year. I had no idea what that meant but I found that during that year you could get a plenary indulgence just by going to the Cathedral and Tomb of James, attend mass or do some charitable work and no walking was required!
Since I was not walking to be pardoned. It didn’t matter! I wanted to walk for very personal, non religious reasons.
At the time I was broken in many places. My life was in shambles. I had been frustrated for quite a while. I loved my job but I wanted to do more. My music band had broken up and I couldn’t eat anything without feeling sick to my stomach. A dear friend told me I should do the Camino de Santiago and I had no idea what she was talking about. I just believed her because I was desperate. I was stuck, afraid and had no idea what to do. I decided to do the Camino in the winter so I could be alone most of the time. I had no idea if I could do it and I didn’t know how my feet or body would respond. I just knew the Camino was calling me.
I got some valuable trek information from a friend who is a nun in Spain and who had walked it several times. She told me not to pack more than 14 pounds or 7 kilos. I took her advise to heart and I walked around with a very heavy coat. I was walking an average of 18 to 20 km a day and that was excruciatingly difficult for someone from Houston Texas. We just don’t walk here. It felt strange to do it for so many hours. Everything starts to hurt but something inside of me kept me going. I kept playing mind games so that I could finish the journey each day. I would tell myself if I walked another hour, I would get to eat a piece of chocolate or a croissant or drink a cappuccino! The views were stunning at times, but what I remember most is the silence, the pain and the sense that I was never alone. On the fourth day, with blisters on my feet I fell down on my knees as if I was supposed to pray or something. My knee was in excruciating pain and I could not move. I knelt there in a daze wondering how the heck I was going to be rescued with absolutely no one around. I began to pray and in just a few minutes a car appeared on the road. I waved my hands because I couldn’t even stand and I got the strength to get up when the driver saw me. I asked him if he could please call the police. I said “I can’t walk and I don’t know where I am. “ He said don’t worry, I will send someone to fetch you. I had to trust him. In just a few minutes two young men, volunteer emergency personnel picked me up and took me to the hospital where I was taken care of for free. (That horrible socialized medicine everyone here talks about) They did an x ray and I had a tear in my meniscus. I was ordered not to walk anymore. I cried out of frustration, not pain. I took a bus to the cathedral next day and I heard a voice inside me say I had to come back and finish the trek the following year. I only had about 50 km left to do so it was very doable. The next year I returned with my friend who lives in Germany and had become my best friend in my last year of graduate school in Spain. We finished the trek with a lot of laughter and hardly any stress. I felt tremendous joy and I began a new life when I returned. The Camino had done its deed. The next six years would open new doors but it would not be easy. I would get a new show and it would eventually be distributed nationally but I would have to face a lot of difficult situations perpetuated by envious people who felt threatened. My health did improve substantially but I still got cancer. Fortunately it was the kind that could be cured.
It took me another 6 years to decide to start the 800 miles French Camino which usually takes 6 weeks to finish.. Why did it take me so long to decide? I had no desire to do it again until I felt the Camino calling me again. People ask me all the time, why did you feel you had to do this pilgrimage? I said I don’t know except that I feel I have to. There is an inner voice telling me I need to do it because there are major changes that will take place in my life and the Camino will prepare me for them.
I had no expectations. I wanted to start in the French Pyrenees at St. Jean de Pied. I knew I would need to walk about 25 km a day and that it would not be easy so my friends and I planned to walk for 7 days. Again I had no idea if my body would be able to take this kind of beating. I trained by doing yoga, pilates, dancing and some walking but nothing like 25 km a day. I have arthritis after two ankle and knee surgeries on the right side. I suspected I might have some troubles but I trusted God and my intense desire to do it! Whether we like it or not we are all on a spiritual path and my body was not the most important element of this journey.
The first day would most likely be the toughest. We would have to hike up 1400 meters in the Pyrenees and then go down to Roncesvalles in Spain. It didn’t take long at all to realize the difference between my physical shape and that of my friends who live in Europe and walk or run a few hours daily. They were a bit frustrated with me and it was understandable. I had come totally unprepared in their eyes. My backpack was the wrong type. I was carrying too much weight and they weren’t so sure my shoe size was the right one for the hike. They suggested I buy a new backpack and send off the old one with half the weight. When they met me my backpack weighed 20 pounds. I had no idea. We were forced to start the day late, which is a real no no in this Camino because your body needs to be in the best shape possible to withstand 6 to 9 hours of walking and that’s only doable if you start early in my view. It took us hours to get through the French bureaucracy to send off the old pack with the extra weight. We started walking at 10 am instead of 7. I was going at such slow pace my friends said they would have to leave me behind because they didn’t want to risk their lives which I totally understood because they walked twice as fast as I did and as much as I may have tried I didn’t feel I had the stamina they had to continue at their pace. I bid them farewell and told them not to worry. I knew I was running a risk. If you end up walking in the mountains at night, it can be very dangerous, but I also knew this was my journey and I didn’t have children like they did. I also had a cell phone, flashlight and no fear. I figured if I was no supposed to make it, this was not a bad place to cross over to the other side!
The next few hours were grueling to say the least. I would have to pace myself because I could tell I wasn’t used to the altitude either. However, in the heavy fog, I felt like I was in heaven. I was carrying a holy spirit cross with me which I held tight in my hand every time I felt I was having a hard time moving forward and the message that I kept hearing was have faith, have faith and don’t give up now.
I also forced myself to smile every now and then so I would feel better and it worked! After about 7 hours, I saw a car driving towards me. When I looked in the back seat, my two friends were sitting there and invited me to join them. They explained they could not see a thing and they were not about to go down the mountains without proper vision. I totally understood and was glad they had made that decision. They were two kilometers ahead of me and we needed another 9 km to finish but we called it a day. When I arrived my ankle was throbbing and I asked for ice. I knew this was not going to be an easy task and I told me friends as I had said the day before. ‘This is my journey; please by all means go ahead of me. “ My goal is to finish each day even if it takes me 3 or 4 extra hours.”
The next four days I would walk, my friends would join me at different points, talk to me, entertain me and make sure I was alright. I was grateful. I didn’t feel they had to do that. After all I was not in shape and would have slowed them down considerably. Every day was physically more demanding. I began to have blisters and my right foot would get more swollen each day. I had no idea what was going on with it but I just knew I was in pain. I did find this out about myself. I never stopped.People would all walk faster than me, but they would also rest and stop more. I knew I couldn’t do that. I knew if I did, I would not be able to finish the daily trek. At one point I overheard a large family say (yes, in Europe, some families walk together for fun for few hours on the weekend!) “This poor lady walks real slow” They kind of felt sorry for me and I would just smile inside. I knew I was walking real slowly but I also knew I would get to my next destination. On the same day, the patriarch of the family said to me. “You are a champion. You never give up.” This would give me hope to continue the rest of the days I would be walking. I felt his was a clear message I was doing it my way and that I would be okay. That day I arrived at the same time the family did. When they saw me, they smiled right back!
On the fifth day, my foot began cramping and I knew that was not a good sign. I decided to stop and see if I could rub it down so I could finish the next 9 km I had left. We stopped at a bridge and I overheard this man quoting a bible verse real loudly. He had a Mexican accent and I just said. Hey, I live in Texasand I can hear you are from Mexico. He agreed. I was in so much pain I was practically in tears. I said, “I have to stop. I am in too much pain.” He said it is no coincidence you are here. My friend and I are osteopaths and I am here to take care of your ankle. For the next hour he rubbed my ankle and we both prayed I would make it. I then asked him what I should do. He said you have no solution because you’ve had surgery. I said should I quit? He said, “This is your journey, only you can answer that. “
Those five days, I had seen some of the most beautiful scenery I had ever seen in my life. I had spent countless hours alone, thinking, praying, smiling and also crying. I had moments of despair and moments of joy. I overcame the pain and just kept going. Once in Estella, a small town in Navarra (the Basque country) I knew I had to quit. I asked myself why I was killing myself. God would not want me to hurt myself. I had no idea if my injury would be irreversible and I was certain I wanted to finish this trek eventually and get to Santiago over the years. I knew it would take time. There was no reason why I needed to hurt myself to do the pilgrimage. I told my friends I was sorry but I had to turn back. They both agreed and I could tell they were relieved.
The most important lesson I learned in this particular part of the journey was that expectations make us unhappy. I did not have any expectations for myself except to do the best I could. I was not disappointed. I did what I could do. I also learned what I didn’t want to do next time and what was possible for me. I achieved my goal. I walked as far as I could and I listened to my inner voice. It was loud when it told me to have faith, to trust and it was also loud when it told me to quit.
I spent the next three days with my best friend from grade school. She a director of a schoolin Madrid. She is one of the most intelligent women I have ever met. She is a happy religious sister with a very loving disposition. She let me sleep for two days. I only got up to eat. I got myself together, went to the doctor, the hairdresser and was able to relax and recoup before going back to work. I knew something major would happen after this Camino when I returned. My inner voice told me so. The voice kept telling me. “Trust me, Trust me, Trust me.” I knew it could be painful, but I also knew there was light at the end of the tunnel, just as there was light at the end of this journey. I was surrounded by love, compassion and understanding. I couldn’t ask for more. I also knew I would return to the next phase of the Camino, just as I would return to the next phase of my life. I knew the Camino would call me again and challenge me to take the next step without knowing how or when. I just had to trust.