I’m back in Berlin.
I’m unsure, really, how to write about this experience. Not without coming off as all starry eyed, naval-gazing, new age hippie pilgrim. There’s just too much in it all. I haven’t had time to digest my experiences.
And I regret those former two posts. They were sloppy and all over the place. That’s what I get for mostly writing from my phone.
Do I write about my days? Do I write about what the Camino taught me? Did it teach me anything? What would you like to hear, readers, about my experiences? (Other than a packing list and a general guide. Those will come.)
For now, let’s talk about the final few days. My trip ended very differently than how it began.
Everything changed after arriving in Sarria, when I approached the 100-kilometre finish line. Many people (especially Spanish) choose to start their journey here, since 100 kilometres is all you need to earn your Compostela (pilgrim’s certificate). So while groups were showing up bright-eyed and bushy tailed, ready to tackle The Way, my crew of four were slowing down and suffering.
At that point, I was walking almost exclusively with the married Alabama couple (Clay and Elizabeth), and the Italian (Rachele). I had shin splints galore. Clay had an everlasting cough. Elizabeth’s ailments varied day by day, but were not limited to puking on the side of the road. Only Rachele was holding up rather well.
I started out my Camino getting up every morning before 7 AM and setting out not long after. Now I’d be lucky to have left the albergue before 9:30 AM. Before, I’d have arrived at my next albergue by 2 PM; now, I’d be lucky to arrive by 5.
But the final days were beautiful, without much incline, and so they were enjoyable. The pleasure of falling into a rigid routine is something I’m unfamiliar with as a freelancer.
Awake: shove sleeping bag into sac. Brush teeth. Pull on clothes. Drink a café con leche, eat a sugary muffin. Walk for hours, invent games with your fellow pilgrims to pass the time. Stop for café con leche and a tortilla. Arrive at an albergue, secure bed. Shower quickly, don dry clothes. Wash the clothes you wore that day, or at least pretend to. Head out to the supermarket. Cook. Play cards. Sleep.
I loved it.
Our final night in O Pedrouzo had an air of excitement about it. It felt like Christmas Eve, all this built up anticipation without really knowing what was going to happen. Clay cooked us our final meal (quesadillas…who knew I had to turn into a bum to eat so well?). We played cards, drank some beer, and went to bed.
We took the last day slow. It’s a mere 20 kilometres from O Pedrouzo to Santiago – an easy distance at that point. The whole time, we quizzed each other: what was our favourite thing that happened on the entire trip? What was our favourite part about the experience? Who did we wish we had spent more time with? The walk didn’t take long, and before I knew it, we were trudging through Santiago de Compostela. While winding though the narrow streets, I caught sight of the cathedral tower, and it all started feeling real.
Almost the entire façade of the cathedral is covered in scaffolding at the moment. Go figure. And as soon as we arrived, there was a downpour. We huddled under the awning of a building adjacent to the cathedral, quietly taking it all in. I was emotional – there was a photo gallery devoted to the refugee crisis in the walkway of the building. It was a good reminder that although I did suffer on the walk, it was nothing compared to these pilgrims of a different kind. I am privileged, just to have the option to complete such a walk.
After lingering about, we went to the pilgrim’s office to get our Compostelas. The elder gent serving me was all smiles and warmth. He congratulated me and handed me my paperwork. And I did it. 708 kilometres, I did it.
It’s not an overstatement to say this is one of my greatest achievements. To know that I can do something like this, to know that I’m capable and able…it’s changed everything for me. I did not know I had it in me. I was fully prepared to leave after a week. I am amazed.
I imagined arriving in Santiago to be like purgatory, or heaven. Bumping into people that made the journey there so special. I wasn’t far off, at all. There was an air of elation, like we all belonged to a secret club. We saw people we walked with, dined with, played cards with. But I never ran into two of the people I wanted to see the most, Terri and Gerrard. The others had left long before me.
I went to the pilgrim’s mass at the cathedral the next morning. It was beautiful, but touristy, as to be expected. I don’t have a religious bone in my body but I’ve spent more time in mass over these past few weeks than I have in my entire life. I went with Elizabeth once, in a tiny Spanish church. In a mountainside town, I listened to some Gregarian monks chanting. Here, in Santiago, things were more grandiose. Priests and sisters, alter boys. At the end, they swung out the giant incense – the main attraction. Everyone’s phones and cameras came out. A thousand flashes capturing a sacred moment.
I had meant to go on to Porto to fly out, but the others wanted to rent a car and drive to Finisterre, the original End of the World. And I thought, when will I have the opportunity to be in this place with these people again? So I decided to go too. It meant an extra day in Santiago, and I decided to try emailing Terri one last time to see if she was around. She was. Meeting her again in front of the cathedral was one of the highlights of my journey. A farewell closure I didn’t know I needed.
I was wracked with food poisoning that night, but we won’t go into it. I was miserable. I didn’t think I could drag myself out of bed at 10 AM to hop in the car and go to Finisterre, but I did. I dozed, wrapped in my sleeping bag, barely seeing the ocean.
We stopped in Muxia and I managed to teeter five feet from the car, where I sat on the ledge by the lighthouse and tilted my face to the sun and closed my eyes. I have missed the ocean so much, so I just sat there for an hour listening to the waves.
I thought, this is my church. Not in a lofty building surrounded by strangers. Overwhelmed with gratitude, I cried.
Me and the gang rented an Airbnb on the beach, and spent the afternoon there sprawled out in the hot sand, dozing. I heard someone laugh and looked up to see Andre the Giant making his way across the beach. We had walked with him for days, but lost sight of him near the end. His absence was felt – he’s impossible to ignore, he’s a big personality. He was stripped naked except for his shorts, having decided to go for a swim. We all laughed and shook hands and chatted.
(It’s funny what the mind gives you. I did see Gerrard again. Days after Spain, I dreamt vividly of encountering him in Santiago, and I hugged him goodbye like I had wished to. I woke up smiling.)
That evening in Finisterre, we went to the lighthouse on Monte Facho at the End of the World.
Driving up the road, we passed other pilgrims we had walked with. It was like the last ascent, everyone making his or her way to the sunset. An air of finality. We passed the mile marker zero, and found Andre sitting with a bottle of wine at the cliff’s edge. Then we watched with everyone else as the sun spread its rays across the Atlantic Ocean, and slowly dipped behind the horizon. I was acutely aware that it’d be rising not long after in Newfoundland, on the edge of North America.
Everyone applauded, wine glasses clinked. And finally, I was done.