Today I leave Spain, having spent more than two weeks travelling across the country. I began in France, with a bicycle and a rucksack. I went up mountains and down again, through mile upon mile of vineyards and valleys, across streams and rivers so numerous that I couldn’t count them, through forests and glades and fields and farms. At times there were lots of people around, at others just me and the sound of the wind, or the rain, or bells ringing around the necks of grazing cattle. I came on the Camino for reasons far to dull to share, but for me they mattered, I didn’t of course sort them out, but instead I found something completely different. Perhaps my sense, or the sense I found in this journey was formented a while ago, I think it had its germ in India, where I found country that astounded with richness and beauty, again on the road to Santiago I found beauty, in the land, in the people I met, in the sun and the rain and the warm and the cold. I learnt simple things, how much value there is in a pair of cheap woollen gloves when the wind bites and the rain falls like needles on your skin, how great it is to find a bed, any bed under a roof after travelling all day. How wonderful a bowl of cabbage and potato soup tastes when you’ve not eaten in hours. These are simple things, the most basic of things but how satisfying they can be.
Focussing on one task, each day, one purpose, to get myself and my bike to Santiago became a meditation of sorts, hills and mountains were my obstacles, each of them were a reminder to me that life presents you with challenges and difficulties, that to move forward they have to be overcome, if you want to go forward it takes energy and that from somewhere one needs to find determination, most of all when ones mind asks why. After a day or two I questioned my sanity, what the fuck was the point of cycling 760 kilometres across Spain, how was it useful in any way whatsoever to me or to anyone else? What was the point? Was I trying to prove something? Was I just filling in time because I couldn’t think of anything better to do? And really, was I up to it, was I capable of actually getting to Santiago?
With each morning and a new day all that was important was the journey, the tangled confusions I have carried in my thoughts for far too long were still there, but they became less important, less real, I met people along the way who through their own journeys made mine lighter. to begin with I noticed that many of the pilgrims began their journeys with flags pinned to their rucksacks, a kind of statement, a look at me I am from Japan or Poland or Spain, and the further along the Camino I travelled the more the flags were put away or discarded. It felt with time that borders and identities melted away, people became simply themselves, there was no need to explain who or why or from where. I myself found that whilst early on when meeting travellers the question I wanted to ask most was why are you here, why are you doing this. The answers I was given, more often than not were that people were on the Camino because of their own challenges, because of loss or sadness, because they were looking for something in themselves that they had not found, but my questions in time also faded away and were discarded. It really didn’t matter, why anyone was here, it was simply about the journey.
I liked the people I met very much, warm, friendly, diverse, how often is it possible to sit down to dinner at the end of a long day with a bunch of total strangers and then to talk openly about ones own life and theirs, no agendas, no expectations or games to be played, confidences shared, fears explained, pasts shown the light, futures and desires conjured from misty minds.
There is something special about following the contours of the land, hugging it closely, under ones own feet, or as in my case under my bike tyres, no roads, no cars, just old tracks and pathways, trodden for generations, seeing human life in nature, a part of the landscape not separate to it, old ladies in cotton print dresses, baskets in hand collecting walnuts & sweet chestnuts, men chopping logs ready for winter, grapes being harvested on little hillsides, homes built of stone with slate roofs nestled in the valleys away from the wind, gardens with pumpkins & vegetables, farmers moving cows from fields to milking sheds. & then the trees, Pines & Conifers in the high country, oaks & plane trees, walnut, chestnut, down to the fragrant Eucalyptus at the journeys end, so many woods & copses and forests, where sunlight plays through the leaves, moss like carpets on trees and dry stone walls.
Arriving in Santiago I head for the Cathedral, each day there is a service at midday for the Pilgrims ending their journey. The Cathedral is quite a sight and inside full of hundreds of people, I listen to the service for a while and then wander into one of the numerous little chapels off the main transept , it is empty, dimly lit and quiet. I sit at a pew, I am not a man who believes in God, but here in this quiet space reflecting on my own little journey ,this part of it I feel a contentment, a happiness of sorts that has eluded me for a long while. Two women enter the chapel and sit a few rows directly in front of me, they have clearly done the camino, one is limping quite badly, they sit quietly and one girl looks towards the other, her face in profile shows concern for her friend, she puts her arm around her companion and hugs her tight and they remain sitting that way. I soppy old tart that I am find this moving, tears drip down my cheeks which I wipe away quickly so nobody notices. I am not sad, or melancholy, it’s something different, I leave the Cathedral thinking how beautiful this world is, the light the dark, the uphills & down hills, all of it. One journey ends and another begins……………..