Two months ago I returned from a trip to India in the worst emotional condition I had experienced since my teens. I had made the mistake of going back to Darjeeling, where in my 20s I had spent several of the happiest months of my life. I was hoping to meet my Tibetan landlady (and lover) and her son, seven years old at the time I left. Darjeeling, 7,500 feet up in the Himalayas, was truly a jewel of the Raj, an exquisite town of Victorian houses and shops surrounded by tea plantations, facing the biggest massif in the Himalayan range. Not only was Dawa dead, so was her son in tragic circumstances. Forty-five years of rampant, random, cheapest-possible-option development has destroyed the jewel. Only traces remain. Other influences bearing down on me – isolation, the failure of my book to find a publisher, and more – were crushing the life, and faith, out of me. I found myself wishing for death, utterly heart-sick.
With desperation comes inspiration. I remembered that some people from my parish in Auckland had done a pilgrimage in Spain a couple of years ago. Yes! Within days I was in Burgos on the Camino Francés, chosen as a starting point to land me on Maundy Thursday in Santiago de Compostela where the relics of St James are believed to be held.
So God was looking after me after all. What a wondrous, magical thing is the Camino. Especially to do it in the way I and many others did it – alone on the walk, talking in the evening with kindred spirits. Or the opposite – both have their gifts when you’re in a watching and learning state of mind. 500 km, walking every day. With a 10 kilo pack on my back and my guitar slung over my shoulder I resembled a badly assembled dromedary. I crossed two mountain ranges, right up to the high spring snow line. Twice I walked almost 20 kilometres scarcely seeing another person. The old Roman road to Transalpine Gaul, the Via Aquitana, leading into the little village of Calzadilla des Hermanillos, leaves the vehicle roads completely and runs as a harsh, pebbly track straight across the high plains for a four-hour walk through nothing. No houses, no anything but scrub, broken forest and occasional wheat fields. And then, once or twice, the white bullet train appeared and rocketed by. I waved my stick around and leapt in the air like a madman, shouting “Praise God!” at the top of my lungs. Pure impulse; it felt wonderful! Surely, liberation is simply the freedom to respond to impulse.
What an extraordinarily simple and beautiful thing it is to just walk every day. No wonder posties are always happy. Just drop into your rhythm, which in my case was precisely 120 steps per minute, 5 km/hr, and encounter whatever turns up, which is often nothing. Lovely, yummy, rich, meaningful nothing. Walking, thinking, praying, meditating, dictating poetry and ideas onto my phone, always walking, walking. Day after day after day.
Distance comes to mean nothing – it’s all about time. In fact, the distance markers can be wildly unreliable. Shortly after the ´409km to Santiago´ sign I was photographed next to there was one saying 453 km! So you just walk. Unlike most, I didn’t have a guide book, just a print-out from a website which gave me a reasonable idea when I would find the next spot and whether there would be an albergué municipal, as they call the public pilgrims’ dormitories.
Of course there is so much beauty. So many remarkable sights. Like the Cruz de Ferro at the highest point of the Francés in the Léon Mountains. The +/- 9 metre pole surmounted by a simple iron cross dates back at least 1,000 years. The pile of stones at the base is maybe twenty metres long, six wide and four high, the product of a millennium, a pebble at a time. Tradition encourages pilgrims to leave a stone for some person or intention at the Cruz. I stuck a sharp little stone in a split in the pole to thank my dead mother for getting me there/here. (Too complicated and odd to explain.)
Going up to Cruz de Ferro was a hard climb. (But not the worst; that was to O Cebreiro in the Cordillera.) A remarkable thing: I approached the Cruz through cold mist and snow drifts, and literally as I walked away the clouds parted, the sun came out and ten minutes later I was descending through fields and the odd ruin basking in spring sunshine, the apple blossom thick on the trees and the air full of bird-song. It was exactly like the scene out of Shangri La where the travellers descended from a freezing, treacherous high pass in Tibet and found themselves in the land of perpetual spring. I came around a corner and wham! there in the distance was the full stretch of the snow-covered Cordillera. Just like that, completely unexpected. Beautiful. And then I slipped on an invisibly wet rock and smashed my guitar! The descent was wicked and falls are common.
Up till then travelling with the guitar had been special. Almost no-one passes the first 100km of their walk with unnecessary weight, in fact there is a special postage rate to Santiago from anywhere on the Camino to accommodate the shedders. So the pilgrims really appreciated an evening with music.
The Camino took my guitar but, typically, it returned it too, not only fixed but improved. I wrote to Camps, the manufacturers in Catalonia, with photos showing that only the table was broken and asking the cost of repair. Shocked by a two sentence reply saying it was uneconomic. For a €750 guitar! I didn’t believe them but had no idea who would affordably fix it. At English craftsman’s rates, assuming they would even be able to fix a flamenco guitar properly, it was a no go for me. But the albergué in Sarria, just over 100km out from Santiago, has walls and shelves full of woodcarvings made by the owners. Craftspeople. As I was leaving in the morning it occurred to me to ask them. Yes, there was a celebrated instrument maker just two blocks away! I checked it out as I went past. Closed. I knocked. No answer. Oh well. The urge to walk was irresistible, so off I went. Then I arrive at the albergué in Portomarin, my next stop, go to produce my credencial, the pilgrim’s passport which is stamped along the way. Not there! The one thing you do not want to lose, after your real passport, is your credencial. I call Luis and Beatriz at the Sarria albergué. Yes, they have it. Onto a bus back. The walk from the bus station takes me past the instrument maker’s workshop. Open! And yes, he will fix it, for $150, more or less. And he did. Incredibly well, and modified the bridge for more accurate tuning and a lower action into the bargain. I took a bus back to Sarria after Santiago, collected my beautiful new guitar and was treated to a performance on the xanfon, the traditional Galician hurdy-gurdy. Lust flared in my heart for the beautiful thing, made by Xerman’s own hands. Three thousand euros. Oh well…
Honestly, I could tell half a dozen such stories, as could most serious pilgrims. The only experience to which I can compare it is my time taking teachings from Lama Kalu Rinpoche. Like others on the same path, I found that things happened around me, unlikely stuff, to illustrate a point I was working on or to give me the sense that I was being looked after. Spooky? Believe it!
Finishing is hard. For most people there’s no apotheosis. You just stop at the Cathedral, and it’s over. The next day you feel wrong – you should be walking. For me it was a huge moment, engulfed with gratitude for the continuing existence of this ancient, holy, mysterious method of healing. I charged into the cathedral, tears streaming down my face, threw myself to my knees at the first pew and sobbed my heart out. No-one seemed to take any notice. I guess it’s common.
The crying thing. Strange. I had this thing going on which I can only describe as splacxnomai, the Greek word in the New Testament usually translated as compassion, or sympathy when referring to Christ’s reaction to, for instance, the misery of the leper. But what it really means is a shaking of the bowels (the ‘noble’ bowels – heart, lungs, liver and kidneys.) I was very far from sad but cried at the drop of a hat. If the hat was hurt, so to speak.
They showed a clip of the Boston bombing on a TV in a bar, followed by a row of crosses memorialising the dead. Whoops! Here we go… Crying at television!! Crikey! It was a bit embarrassing, as you can imagine. But what goes with it is wonderful. Wonderful. I met another pilgrim, a devout Christian woman, in the cathedral at Santiago who was experiencing the same thing.
Sadly I feel my shell slowly growing back. Inevitable and probably necessary.
Now I’m back in Bristol, I’m well, and mainly I’m clear. Physically clear, like water from which everything has settled out. Of course, bump the jug enough and it goes muddy again, but the knowledge that the Camino is just a 24-hour bus and boat trip away means I will never get that desperate again.
What a gift it is. In Léon someone mentioned that of the 160 Holy Grails in Spain, two historians had just published a book establishing that in all likelihood the one at the Basilica of San Isidoro in Léon is the actual, real cup Jesus used at the last supper. I immediately jumped on the net and yes, it does seem very likely. So off I trotted to the Basilica, on the Camino so I had my full kit – backpack, guitar and baston, the pilgrim’s staff (endlessly useful, as it turns out). Said a little prayer, after which I was approached by the the delightful, elderly Fr Timeo. A musician? Yes. And a poet? Sometimes, yes. Aah, and a pilgrim. He launched into a paean to the saintliness of the pilgrim. I didn’t demur; it was making him happy. As far as I could tell, he was saying that we pilgrims benefited not only ourselves but all the faithful and we must be supported in every way. The basilica, he said, had a prayer group, a ‘spiritual army’ of twenty-four men and twenty-four women whose sole task was to pray for the well-being and safety of the Camino’s pilgrims. Words are cheap, you may think, but he followed through by insisting on buying me breakfast! I don’t usually eat breakfast, so I just ordered a coffee. No. I had to eat. A croissant, then. He took nothing, having already eaten. I was deeply touched, although relieved when he left, my brain aching from the constant flow of Spanish.
And the grail? Unfortunately a) it was in the adjacent museum, not the church and b) big disappointment: since the book was published they have hidden the real one and have a copy on display. I asked at the desk and the attendant confirmed that it was actually in the building. It felt very strange and mystical, to be standing close to Christ’s cup. I returned to the basilica and prayed for my faith to be returned to me in its fullness.
And it was. Thanks be to God. And now I’m starting to cry. Oh well, that’s life these days. Joy.
Faith yes, but not religion. See: Oops. Lost the reference.
And now for the pictures at : A first cut of pictures from my Camino