El Camino de Santiago — The Way of Saint James — is the pilgrimage on foot to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where Saint James the Elder are entombed. The Camino has existed as a spiritual pilgrimage for well over 1,000 years. In medieval times, completing the arduous journey could “pay off” a debt of sin, making amends for any wrong the pilgrim had done.
The medieval peregrino (pilgrim) almost always walked the Way for serious religious reasons, finding lodging and food where he might, and depending upon the kindness of strangers. But today, modern peregrinos have more varied goals, such as physical challenge or self-discovery. We sleep in hostels with hot running water, instead of in stables or under the stars. A popular route is the Camino Francés, with a starting point in St. Jean-Pied-du-Port, although there are many other routes.
I chose the Camino Portugués, a 150-mile trek up the rocky coast of Portugal and into Spain. I was not seeking spiritual enlightenment … only solitude and physical challenge. The route required 10-12 miles of walking daily, on paths as varied as rough cobblestones, muddy hillsides, tree-lined sidewalks and dangerous roads. Without a map, a pilgrim simply follows the yellow arrows and scallop shells painted onto trees and boulders and sidewalks, trusting that the route will lead them to Santiago de Compostela.
So at age 55, I set off alone from the coastal town of Porto. I hugged the untamed Portuguese coastline in almost complete silence, encountering few others on the journey. Wearing my backpack and my scallop shell – the symbol of a pilgrim – I wandered through fishing villages and small towns, where people seemed to still live in the 19th century. Old men bringing in their catches on wooden boats, grandmas cleaning oysters by hand, children squealing as they played on the docks, the mournful lighthouse foghorn, calling the fishermen in from the sea.
They would see my scallop shell, hanging from my backpack, and smile at me. The children would wave shyly, peering at my funny hat and my heavy hiking boots. The old ones would tell the young ones, “She is on her way to Santiago. God bless her. Bom Caminho (Good Journey).”
The people who live in the cities and towns dotting the Camino have a long relationship with the legend of St. James. They believe that a pilgrim on the Way is under his protection; to harm a pilgrim is a terrible sin. To help a pilgrim – to offer food or libation or lodging – will please St. James, and result in more blessings for their families.
In the beginning, I found this attention rather quaint, but pointless. After all, I was working on the mental and physical challenges of the trek; the religious or spiritual aspects didn’t seem connected to me at all.
As I passed through a tiny village on the third day, a man dressed in rags stuffed chunks of fresh baked bread into my hand. I tried to give him money, but he shook his head, aghast that he should be rewarded. “St. James will provide for me,” he said happily in Portuguese. “Bom Caminho.” A thin little girl threw her arms around my legs, slowing me down to give me apples and cheese. A priest standing in the doorway of a tiny stone church blessed me as I walked by.
It wasn’t until I crossed the International Bridge into Spain on the sixth day that the spiritual power of the Camino was revealed to me: I got lost. Somehow, I’d made a wrong turn, missed a yellow arrow, and was now wandering in the woods, the sun sinking fast, with my hostel nowhere in sight. My phone battery had long since died, and I was exhausted, having already walked 14 miles.
I sat down under a tree, growing afraid for the first time since I left Chicago. How far from the city was I? I didn’t know. Where had turned wrong? I couldn’t tell. I fingered my scallop shell and thought about all the pilgrims through the ages who had found themselves lost in the dark, but found the will to keep going. I snacked on grapes and bread, the gifts of strangers. And after resting a bit, I got to my feet. I would do as all pilgrims had done for thousands of years; I would trust St. James, and keep walking.
No sooner had I made that decision, four elderly gentlemen came out of the woods, laughing and talking and sharing a bottle of wine. They came to me at once, and although we couldn’t speak each other’s language, they understood that I was lost. They gathered me into the center of their little group and walked with a little way deeper into the woods, where they showed me a footbridge, an underpass and the route to the city of O Porrino. “Buen Camino,” they called out in Spanish, as they disappeared back into the forest.
It was many more days until I arrived at the grand Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. I found that my entire attitude had changed as I walked the Way. I was filled with gratitude for all the people who had so little themselves, but shared their food and love with me. Instead of keeping to myself, I waved to fisherman and other pilgrims, taking pictures of their beautiful boats and farms.
At the Cathedral, I visited the shrines and dodged the crowds. Tourists gushed about how sacred the golden artifacts were, but I knew the truth. The real transformation had already happened, as I walked on the Way.
About the Author:
Kay Bolden is a travel writer, blogger and newspaper columnist who encourages women to travel solo and discover their inner strengths. Follow her travels on her blog, KayBolden.com, or on Twitter @KayBolden.
She has successfully published 2 books(Check links below) and the 3rd one about Camino de Santiago will be available on Amazon on August 11.
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At age 55, I set out alone on the Camino de Santiago. Unlike religious pilgrims, I was not seeking God, but three weeks of silence and solitude. The Camino, however, had other plans for me. Available on Amazon August 11, 2017.
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i) She Lives in You! The Kathleen Bolden Story is a memoir of community organizer, civil rights activist and social justice warrior, the late Kathleen Bolden.
Disclaimer: *Contents in this story is Authors personal views and presentation.
** All pictures by Kay Bolden
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