The sun was dizzying and the path was unforgiving. I felt very hot, increasingly tired, and my damned water bottle was empty. Forgetting to refill it before those last 7 kilometers was, in retrospect, a rookie mistake. Step by step, with a ghost-like expression on my face, I hurried to my unknown destination. Where was I going? Why was I alone, thirsty, walking painfully towards the smallest of villages in Spain, in a terribly hot afternoon, in May?
I wish I could answer that truthfully. The truth is I can’t.
Last April, I embarked on a one-off journey that would last 35 days. I felt a gloomy, worrying sensation on my spine, when I saw my parents leave me at the Campanhã station in Porto, waiting for a middle-of-the-night train that would take me two countries away. Why?
Well, by then, I could answer this question with the same worn lines I’ve been mouthing incessantly these past few weeks. That wasn’t sincere in any way. I was no longer aware of what I said or did that was, unmistakably, coming from my deep self. The words and thoughts I produced were all well articulated, masked by the multitude of protocols I’ve been spoon-fed over the years, but far removed from my core.
What about my definition of love, you might ask? My overview of that was mechanical and programmatic, like a cog in an engine that simply works – and whose meaning gets lost along the machinery. I felt bad for my distance – but less and less. The crazy part of it all is that I was aware of my worrisome and growing lack of empathy.
The reason I entered that train was simple. I would walk the path of the Camino de Santiago (St. James’ Way), all the way from St. Jean-Pied-de-Port (in France) to Santiago de Compostela (in Spain), and from there to the sea, in Finisterra. This was not, by any measure, an easy task to undertake. It was expensive, it required a lot of time, and it was physically draining. I know there are other activities far more difficult, but this was my notion of getting out of the comfort zone.
The past Caminos I’ve walked were revelatory experiences for me. The first and second were similar – the last 115 km to Santiago, from Sarria, where I experienced a lot of new things. I had never done a pilgrimage in any way, shape or form – and I did it in the company of a school I hadn’t attended, full of people I didn’t know of all ages but mine. The pain was vibrant, both physical and psychological. What did I get myself into? Why all this deliberate suffering? What does the Camino bring to these people that they so gladly volunteer to repeat it, in some cases, twice a year?
I started to understand in the months following my return. I would feel a sense of dread about the everyday rush, the fucking incessant noise that filled the days. Agitated people; misunderstandings, good teams frustrated by bad leaders and good leaders frustrated by bad teams. Itches in society, day in, day out, became full-on rashes on my brain. Listening to music and podcasts with my eyes closed, on my never-ending commutes, I’d try daily to upload myself to an empty, blissful heaven of nothing.
On the 2015 Camino, I talked for a few hours with a very nice north-american lady. She had a grandmotherly gravitas, and listened to me intently on her slow and leisurely pace. Alone, she was walking peacefully the same 850 km road as me, leaving her six children worrying at home. The newest of them was my age, a twenty-six year-old. Her husband had died unexpectedly the past year, and when people asked her if she was doing the Camino for him, she replied:
‘Of course not, I’m doing it for myself! He’s fine, wherever he is.’
We talked deeply about love and passion, about friendship and commitment, about fearing the unknown and our beliefs. I was strangely articulate, and I believe I succeeded in sketching verbally how I got myself in this situation.
After the two first Caminos, I finished my bachelor’s degree. Then I did some videos, the types unfamiliar to me by then. That took a short amount of courage, and the stakes grew from project to project, as did my confidence. My gutsy approach on a project was rewarded with an award, and from that, I got an internship on the Red Cross offices of Póvoa de Varzim, where everything and everybody brought new and surprising learning curves I hadn’t dreamed of before. I started jumping on new things I didn’t see myself doing before. Then, I literally jumped – but from an airplane.
‘Oh, my!’, she gasped, ‘You went skydiving? That’s insane.’
I smiled. Yeap, it certainly was, as it was a fucking great experience. On the very same day I did the free-falling, and shakily learned to walk again on firm ground, a couple of friends challenged me to walk the Portuguese Camino with them. I accepted.
I explained to her how I started saying ‘yes’ to things I didn’t find a justifiable ‘no’ in time. They were something I had acquired only recently. Something like ‘why the fuck nots’, these ‘yeses’ were strangely new, and I filled my year with new experiences. After the Portuguese Camino, I started practicing kickboxing, and learned an awful lot about it, and all the things fighting teaches you about yourself. I learned the basics of guitar. I went dancing in a Póvoa de Varzim traditional festivity. I went grape-stomping. I taught stuff to kids and I monitored them in Red Cross summer camps. I lost a lot of weight, watched my intake, bought a nice watch and perfume, and for the first time, didn’t flinch in front of the mirror. This was a massive change.
When the inevitable idea of making the full Camino got into my head, I couldn’t find a viable ‘no’. After the Red Cross internship, the opportunity was there, waiting for me, and calling me by name. I eagerly awaited, preparing it for months, and sure enough, the time came and I didn’t back out, even somewhat fearing it.
‘Do you believe all of this was a coincidence? A lucky draw?’ she asked.
‘I don’t really know.’
‘I believe things happen for a reason, and everything is written beforehand by God. What do you believe?’
I paused for a moment, and replied:
‘Serendipity, I guess.’
I told her I believed every possible ramification is in front of us, and we are free to choose whichever. There is no surefire way of doing anything. Our path isn’t laid on front of us, step by step. We mess up, we create, do the unexpected and then – some years later – all your life’s episodes start making sense as a whole. It won’t make sense for quite some time. You just have to make the best choices, work hard and someday you will find serendipity – discovering you made all the right choices by accident – and in retrospect, all the wrong choices were right ones too, because they made you the coherent being, the well-rounded human being you hoped to become one day .
When I touched the subject of romantic love, she noticed my skepticism. I find it exists only in art. I know what you are thinking – maybe romantic love exists and I need to be proven otherwise. I know for certain I prefer being alone than enduring something mediocre or terrible just for the sake of it, like a lot of people do or expect you to. People are animals, they do what their nature commands them to. They try to justify things to themselves, and change. I know I’m happy, and my feelings are in control. I feel like I need a great reason to give up being a whole, and surrendering a sensitive part of myself to a member of the opposite sex just because nature built me that way, and gave me the coordinates of sexual attraction. I know everybody wants to be loved, and I’m no exception. But Love is way bigger than coupling feverishly.
And in the Camino I got to see everything in action. All the attractions, all the distractions danced in front of me. Being in the Camino for a month gives you an excellent microcosm of life, and the complexity of human connections. The mutual fight for bringing down the language barrier, and all the proof you need people are the same everywhere. I got to meet people from Australia, New Zealand, the U.S.A., England, Italy, France, Switzerland, South Korea, Czech Republic, Germany, Japan… from all ages and walks of life. I was extremely lucky that some fully-fledged friendships were formed. It was absolutely amazing.
It was worth all the pain, injury, the thirst and fear – all the hours and hours walking aimlessly, all the rain and fog, all the mud. I wrote like a madman, took thousands of photos, and recorded a lot of video too – although those mediums are short-ranged and can’t fully embrace the meaning of the Camino.
The Camino is, on itself, a voluntary setback. You put yourself on a situation very different from the one you’re accustomed to. Your habits enter a shock-like stage, and burden you until they are ousted and become a memory, replaced by the new Camino day-to-day routine. I can explain –
At first you miss your bed; you miss home, and your friends. The days pass and you learn to overcome your distance to comfort – and then you get used to being there, sharing a room with dozens of snoring unknowns. Waking up and leaving a bunk bed between 6 and 8 A.M., even if it’s raining, and walking for hours, at least a good amount of km every day. Your body aches. Your feet are in pain. But you keep going.
The Camino opened my eyes in unexpected ways. I got to re-evaluate all my values and ambitions, and think about them anew. That alone is absolutely priceless. Think of a house filled by all your belongings, all your relations, all your fears and ambitions. Now, start taking stuff from that house until it’s empty. Take down the walls and look closely at the foundations. Kick them and see if they stand proud and strong. If some crack, mend those cracks, and make them stronger. Are they worthy and capable of supporting your future? Great, now put everything back in. I can guarantee you will reorganize everything, and see all your stuff with new eyes. Everything is new.
I sure as hell felt like it when I returned home. The thing is – I’m still reorganizing everything, and my head is all messed up, frankly. I miss the Camino, even knowing that on the Camino, I missed home. I want to get away again – somewhere far and very different, so I can learn a lot more.
And what is the Camino, really? It’s not a point in space and time. It’s a bit of a riddle – a road to somewhere, or something that moves. Every single day, somebody starts it and somebody quits it. Somebody cries tears of pain or joy. Somebody opens their arms, grinning profusely, in a beautiful landscape. Friendships are formed with iron-like strength, and weak relationships are torn apart. Yeah, a girl I met witnessed one such case, where a German couple started together the Camino, and some days later, 8 years of intimacy met their demise. When you get rid of the noise, facades find their end.
In short, you question all the things you took for granted, and some of them you find aren’t worth enduring at all.
I listened to a lot of music, in particular the Pink Floyd discography (thank you Spotify). Their unbelievable album “Wish You Were Here” struck a deep chord with me. As I read about it, I found out it was about madness. Being distant, close, yet far removed, on the cold, machine-like society of today. I thought about how I was so absent-minded from myself before the Camino, and the never-ending risk I’m in of becoming robot-like again.
I can feel it, creeping over me like a shadow, winning me little by little. That neurotic, unquenchable thirst of being sincere and enjoying the fucking moment like a human being would.
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