A friend of mine asked me to write about my travels backpacking across Spain after I spent the summer on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. What is the Camino, you may ask? According to the American Pilgrims on the Camino literature, it is an eleven-hundred-year-old pilgrimage route that leads across all of Northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela, where many believe repose the remains of one of the original Twelve Apostles, Saint James. You might call him James the Greater, Santiago or St. Jakob–they are all the same figure from history or legend, depending on whom you ask. If you’ve seen previews for the recent film release, “The Way” starring Martin Sheen, The Way they refer to is Camino. Specifically, I traveled the branch of the Camino known as the French Way, the most well-known of the routes.

I planned to be gone from June 18 to August 27, so my goal was to be a cargo minimalist. A digital camera was my only technology. No cell phone, no iPod, no iPad, no laptop. I do not consider myself to be a technophobe, but I did not want any high tech distractions on my journey. This was supposed to be a mental, spiritual and physical challenge, after all. I seriously considered not bringing my camera, but as you can see from the photos, I am glad that I brought it.

No maps, no guidebooks. A young Polish man I befriended on the Camino asked me about that a few weeks into my pilgrimage. When I told him no, I didn’t carry one, he surmised, “It’s because you speak fluent Spanish.” I hadn’t given it much thought until then, but I believe he was right. I do speak it fluently, natively. I am from South America. It is helpful to speak the native language when you are backpacking across Spain, but by no means mandatory. Most pilgrims I met who were not Spaniards did not speak the language. Plus, they had me to help them when needed.

The backpack felt perfect on my back. Less than fifteen pounds, easy to walk down the aisle of an airplane with, quick to fit neatly in the overhead compartment. Black and gray, sleek and elegant. My only consistent companion on the road.

©Marcelo Sanjines

Fast-forward to the first albergue (similar to a youth hostel, but for pilgrims of all ages, and usually staffed by volunteers) on morning one. I am in Saint Jean Pied du Port, some twenty kilometers from the Spanish border. I awaken at 5:30am to find that half of the pilgrims are already packing and leaving. We slept in “literas,” bunk beds stacked in multiple rows. The dormitory held about twenty beds per room. I always try to sleep on the lower bunk when I can, for several reasons. My backpack always fits under the bed.  It’s still pitch black at this hour, even in the summer. I fumble with my sleeping bag, my liner and my toiletries. Packing in the dark is a skill that would become second nature within a week.

I walk down the cobblestone street and note the clock tower: 6:35am. My Canadian friend and I begin the climb to the crest of the Pyrenees, inexorably approaching the famed fountain of Roland…

©Marcelo Sanjines

You get the idea. I could readily turn this article into a multi-part series. Thirty-three days later I finished the 800 kilometer sojourn across Northern Spain. I’m hooked, I can’t just stop, so after four days’ rest in Santiago de Compostela, I continue to Finesterra (from the Latin for the “End of the World”), then Muxia (not to be confused with Murcia), then Fatima in Portugal, then Sevilla, Cadiz, Granada, Córdoba and Madrid back in Spain. These post-pilgrimage treks were a combination of hiking, buses, trains, and hitchhiking.

In Carrión de los Condes, I helped a German friend, Phillip, pick out new shoes. His feet were not going to make it, otherwise. He spoke no Spanish. I was happy to serve as interpreter. At the sporting goods store, “Camino Sport,” I decided to do the same, and that choice saved my journey. The boots I had been using until then were ideal for the Pyrenees, but I was, as the saying goes, “mainly on the plain” now. They were beginning to give me tendonitis. The pain was substantial, but part of me thought: “All Pilgrims suffer to some extent on this Camino.”

In retrospect, that was nonsense. Blisters, backaches, soreness, exhaustion, those were normal. Bolts of fire down my shins were not only unnecessary, but completely avoidable. The new athletic shoes transformed me into a new man. Thereafter, the Camino became a joy once more.

My German friend carried an impressive backpack easily three times the size of mine. He had everything one could possibly imagine needing. I remember asking if he had fingernail clippers, something I had forgotten to pack. He proceeded to extract what looked like large stainless steel pliers that easily weighed one kilo by itself. I laughed gratefully and carefully avoided taking off an entire knuckle with that monstrosity of a tool.

On the Camino, I did add a few items: a scallop shell, two pilgrimage credentials (a means of tracking your progress and proving your participation at journey’s end), a rosary, a medallion, two bottles of water (one liter each), a deck of cards (a gift from four amazing friends from Córdoba), one small key to the lock on the long-lost gym bag (in the hope that I would get the checked bag back one day), one cardboard tube with three completion certificates, the aforementioned hiking boots I retired, now dead weight on my pack. (My penance for not planning better footwear. See? All pilgrims DO suffer!)

I used my backpack as a pillow, a foot rest, a table and anything else that needed doing. In several towns closer to our destination, it served as a place holder in line for beds at albergues that typically only opened in the afternoons.

I am happy to say that nothing was ever stolen from my pack on the Camino. Many times, I would leave it at the albergue, having unrolled my sleeping bag or liner to demonstrate to fellow pilgrims: “This bunk is taken.” I would proceed to shower, do laundry, eat out with friends or explore the local sights.

©Marcelo Sanjines

The light weight of my full pack came in handy on several occasions. At one point, a thirteen-year-old young man was having difficulty with his legs. I suspected tendinitis like the type I had previously encountered. We were less than ten kilometers to the next albergue and his father was considering stopping. The dad was already helping out an 82 year old pilgrim and carrying his own pack. I volunteered to take on his son’s pack, and strapped it to my chest. For the rest of our trek that day, I wore the two packs together.

Hiking five to eight hours each day reprogrammed my body into a calorie-burning machine, as we should all be. I ate and drank like a king in Spain (granted, that wonderfully healthful Mediterranean diet), and was shocked to find I had lost quite a bit of weight upon my return.

The symbol of the Camino de Santiago is a scallop shell, and the Way is marked by yellow arrows and stylized shell designs, yellow on blue. The idea is that all paths lead to one destination: Santiago de Compostela. For me, the symbolism went deeper: all philosophies, all religions, all motivations for doing the Way did indeed point to One Destination. Call it God, Nature, the Universe or the Collective Consciousness of Humankind, but you need to experience it. I learned the meaning of pilgrimage for both the religious and the non-religious. It is a journey that tests the body, mind and spirit. Now that I know The Way exists, I cannot live without it. I miss everything about the trek across Spain, from the meditative rituals to the constant well-wishing of fellow pilgrim’s exclaiming “Buen Camino!” meaning “Good Way.”

I plan to do the Camino again next summer, preferably with my 20 year old daughter, Andrea, and/or my 47 year old brother, Alex. If I can get them to join me, it will be on the French Way again.

When I returned to Seattle at the end of August, several people asked me if I had brought back any souvenirs. Besides the small items I just mentioned, I did not. My memories and my photographs are the true extent of my keepsakes, along with writing this article, which has been a welcome opportunity to revisit my travels in my mind’s eye.

Gracias, y Buen Camino.


©Marcelo Sanjines

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