I blame Martin Sheen. I really do.
In the film ‘The Way’, released last year, the American actor walks all the way along the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St James) - all 790 kilometres of it, running from St Jean dePied on the French border to Santiago in western Spain - without breaking a sweat or, seemingly, even getting wet. He strolled it.
Of course the wife keeps telling me that I have the attention span of a gnat when it comes to planning. She bought me this great book - ‘A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino Francés’ - which spells out in great detail the trials and tribulations of undertaking such a trip but I now admit I didn’t even read it in any great depth. I dipped in and out of it. That was a bit of a mistake.
So having adopted the Sheen approach I found myself one Thursday afternoon a couple of weeks back on my own, high up in the Pyrnees with sleet falling, snow on the side of the road, a rucksack that was soaked through and weighed a ton, and fog coming in. It was, to put it mildly, potentially very dangerous as I had got separated from my two companions - my brothers-in-law - and was dressed totally unrealistically for the weather conditions - a light rainproof coat that was not rainproof over a very wet T-shirt. And it was freezing cold.
After having climbed up mountain paths all day starting out in bright sunshine - I sweated buckets at that time- I was all but exhausted when I finally found a marker which informed me I still had a three hour walk over tough terrain, some of it little better than goat tracks, to get to my destination for the night. Believe me it was not a little jaunt to be enjoyed at that stage.
Pub Talk Plan
It had all started so simply. About a year earlier when we were sitting over a pint in the Orchard Bar in Letterkenny my younger brother-in-law, Eamonn ‘Jock’ McLaughlin, originally from Glentogher, Carndonagh, said he planned one day to walk the entire Camino. I suggested I might visit Mars around the same time, but the irony went right over his head. He was serious. And he suggested that I join him for at least part of the way.
Originally what was half baked soon became a reality and before I got time to back out the flights were booked. We even got Billy, Eamonn’s older brother, roped in. He still wonders how that happened.
One other thing - I supposed people will be wondering if this was some sort of religious pilgrimage so let me explain that I’m not religious, and Eamonn or Billy wouldn’t be noted huggers of altar rails either. But as the man who wrote the definitive guide to the Camino, John Brierley, puts it recent headlines reveal the collapse of attendance ‘in nearly all Christian churches of every denomination’. People have become disillusioned, even bored with organised religion.
The contradiction is that the numbers entering the Camino de Santiago have soared and the pilgrim figures have risen from 5,000 in 1990 to well over 200,000 in 2004....and have risen even more rapidly since. People, obviously, are looking for something.
You Can Find it!
And you can find it. On the Camino you meet people from every nation. On the first morning in the hostel in St Jean Pied De Port the warden asked three young people where they were from - before answering the young man with two girls looked around extremely cautiously before answering very quietly, ‘Israel’. Maybe his hesitancy had something to do with his country’s treatment of the Palestinians. Who knows.
Later that day I came across one of the strangest sights of my six days walking - two monks knee deep in muck wearing sandals. What was totally surreal was that they were accompanied by two guys in army fatigues. I later learned they were from, I think, Lithuania.
And the number of people from South Korea bordered on the amazing. All those Irish Columban missionaries must really have succeeded in converting that country’s people to Catholicism.
In fact, it was downright odd on one occasion - we can across a young Korean girl walking on her on her own in the middle of a forest, carrying a huge rucksack that was about the same size as herself and, apparently, she neither spoke Spanish or English. It must have been very isolating for her but she smiled serenely and went ‘Buen Camino’ to everyone who said hello.
In the Albergues - local name for the hostels - at night it was a veritable United Nations. Around a table I talked to two elderly Australians - he was in his 70’s and seemed to have early Parkinson’s - an American, two Dubliners, a Danish couple and a Swedish lady. A couple of glasses of wine surely helped with the language barriers.
And you hear all sorts of stories. An Irish woman told me that her marriage was in trouble almost from the wedding, her husband having affairs on a regular basis. When she got cancer some years back she thought that this would finally bring him to his senses but in the midst of her turmoil she found him cheating again.
“I hate him now,’ she told me.
She obviously is on the journey for her own reasons.
Not That Friendly
Along the way we had mixed experiences with the locals. I would contend that the Camino is getting a bit commercially exploited. For example in St Jean on our first night we got ripped off, the three of us getting a bill of 54 euro for some ham and bread. A third of that would have been too much.
In Estella, in the Basque country, we fancied a pint before going to bed - the hostels closed at 10p.m. - so went into a local put but were asked to leave by the proprietor who told us he was closed despite there clearly being any number of locals sitting in. It was singularly unfriendly - though it could be that local heroes, Barcelona, were playing Chelsea in the Champions’ League that night.
But we also met some lovely people, and there were places where we got two cups of coffee, two large savoury bogadillos (fresh baked sandwiches) and two glasses of wine for eight euro. In Ireland we would have paid double that.
Now after the blisters and the burning feet I can look back on the experience and definitely say I thoroughly enjoyed my limited experience - myself and Bill did about130-140 kilometres - of walking the Camino. It’s something I will, if I live long enough, tell my young grandchildren about when they are older.
As I write this Eamonn, who is walking for the Donegal Alzheimer’s Society, is likely to be St. Juan Ortega - that’s if he is still on schedule. He still has about three weeks walking to do, and there’s a storm coming his way.
I hope he has plenty of stories to tell when he reaches Santiago. And I hope he has plenty of iodine and a good needle to burst the blisters.