Caminante, no hay camino…

Posted on July 19, 2011

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Puesta del Sol El Burgo RaneroOne year ago today, Juan and I began walking.  We set out walking from St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, in the French Basque Country.  We walked up the Pyrenees.  We walked down the Pyrenees.  Then we just kept walking.  We walked across Spain.  All of Spain.  Five hundred miles of Spain, until we hit the Atlantic coast.  And then we stopped.

El Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James.  It’s an old pilgrimage route that leads to Santiago de Compostela, the huge cathedral that stands atop the remains of — you guessed it — St. James, of the James & John disciple variety. Vineyards and the Old Roman Road James apparently took the gospel to the Iberian continent.  Centuries later, as religious fanaticism in Europe began to grow, the devout began to walk to Santiago.  Doing so supposedly gives you a get-out-of-purgatory free card.   (Should St. Peter ever question us at the golden gates, we’ve got the certificates to prove it).  Bringing French, Italian, and German nobles and knights across Spain in the name of Christendom was also a handy way to keep back the Moors.

Whatever the historical religious/political reasons for this path, nowadays the Camino serves as a type of modern-day pilgrimage to get in touch with nature, with spirituality, with culture, and with oneself or, in our case, ones partner.

Let me tell you: 33 days of walking 25-30 kilometers a day (8 – 9 hours) does not necessarily cultivate romance between a couple.  Juan and I thought it would be a fun, romantic adventure serving as a kind of extended honeymoon.  HA.  More days than not, we found ourselves fighting on the road or marching on in silence, despairing over the heat, what to eat, tendonitis, sunstroke, and the weight of our packs.  Only to arrive at an albergue where we had to wash our clothes, make our food, be locked in by 10, sleep in bunk beds surrounded by old men who snore too loud, then get up and do it all again the next day.  The physical stress so much walking puts on your body causes emotional and mental stress as well, which at least for me was really hard to handle.  NOT glamorous.  NOT romantic.

Campos de Girasol, PamplonaAnd yet.  Looking back, all of the memories I have of walking the Camino are absolutely lovely.   I don’t remember the weight of my pack but rather the sturdiness of my boots.  I don’t recall the soreness in my back but the newfound strength in my calves.  My memories don’t focus on the sometimes tortuously long hours of walking, but on the sweeping, breathtaking views of France’s green mountainscapes, Navarra’s lush pastures, Pamplona’s sunflower fields, Rioja’s rust-hued vineyards, Burgos’s arching gothic pillars, Castilla’s rolling wheat fields, O’Cebreiro’s stoney villages in the cold pink dawn, Galicia’s enchanted eucalyptus forests, and the tears of our dear friends as we laid our eyes at long last on the looming Cathedral of Santiago and laid our tired bodies on the plaza floor.

Old Stone HomePeaks of the PyreneesLooking back, neither do I remember the stress, the sick-of-each-otherness, nor the arguments with Juan.  Instead I remember that we walked 500 miles together.  I remember all we shared: many a pilgrim menu, bottles of wine along the Najera riverbank, cured goat cheese sandwiches for lunch, a plate of paprika-spiced octupus in Melide, group dinners and inspiring conversations with new friends from around the world, magical musical sunsets, dreams for the future.  And all we did: exploring ancient ruins, protecting each other from the rain with makeshift plastic-bag ensembles, sketching pastels and writing reflections, playing on community bicycles, learning more than we ever wanted to know about ecclesiastic architecture, basking in awe at Spain’s exceptional blue skies, exchanging footrubs at the end of the day, connecting with each other more deeply. I remember how we always said, “if we make it to Finisterre without killing each other, we’ll know we can make it through anything,” and that we indeed arrived hand-in-hand at the so-called end of the earth.

Overlooking Santiago

I mention all this because, before starting out we didn’t really know what we were getting ourselves into.  It turned out to be the journey of a lifetime.  And isn’t that kind of how relationships are?  When you meet someone, fall in love, someone from a different background, a different country, and you have no idea where that relationship will go… Well, you find out where you’re going as you go.  Sometimes, you go through really hard patches.  But at the end of the day, it’s a rewarding adventure.  The exciting, beautiful, growing parts become far more important and more memorable than the difficult or challenging parts.  In fact, it’s often because of those challenging parts that the destination is so so sweet, and the journey so fulfilling.  Your journey is made as you simply move.  Maybe you’re not prepared, don’t have a map, but the truth is that life has its way of presenting us little symbols and arrows that help us follow our gut.  So you place one foot in front of the other and find your way as you go.

This idea was the theme of a poem — to continue with this recent Machado kick — that became a meditation during our long pilgrim days of walking the Camino:

Caminante, son tus huellas            Wanderer, the only path 
el camino, y nada más;                    is your footsteps; there is no other.
caminante, no hay camino,   Wanderer, there is no path-
se hace camino al andar.        the path is made by walking.

Al andar se hace camino,                By walking you make your path,
y al volver la vista atrás                 and stopping to glance behind,
se ve la senda que nunca                 you see the road
se ha de volver a pisar.                    that will never again be trod.

Caminante, no hay camino,           Wanderer, there is no road,
sino estelas en la mar.                     only foam trails on the sea.

I highly recommend you listen to Joan Manuel Serrat’s version of  this poem in his ballad, “Caminante no hay camino.”   Seriously, a really great song.  And a good addition to your repoirtoire of the trovador music that is so beloved throughout Spain and Latin America.  This just may be the beginning of a mini Troubadour Tuesdays series.

With all that in mind, I wish you lots of hard, happy adventuring with your significant other, or for that matter with yourself.  Buen Camino!

Campos de Trigo, Castilla

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Posted in: Poetry, Relationships