The Camino de Santiago was one of the most difficult and also one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve ever embarked on in my life. Imagine waking up at the crack of dawn, getting dressed in the dark, packing your sac, and trusting in your swollen and blistered feet to make it to the next town, sometimes 30km (18mi) away, to rest your head at night.
The Camino de Santiago is one of the most popular pilgrimages in Europe as it leads to the burial site of one of Jesus’ 12 apostles, St. James. Legend has it that shortly after St. James was beheaded in Jerusalem in the year 42 AD, his remains were brought to Galicia by his seven disciples on a boat for burial. It wasn’t until centuries later that his body would be found again. In 813, the light of a bright star guided a shepherd who was watching his flock at night to the burial site in Santiago de Compostela. This is where the name Compostela comes from Campo de Estrellas or Field of Stars. King Alfonso II was immediately notified and in honor of St. James, he ordered a cathedral be built on the spot where his remains were said to have been found. The discovery of his tomb in the 9th century compelled many Christians from all over Europe to pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela to worship his relics. Every year, more than 300,000 pilgrims earn a Compostela (your accreditation for completing the pilgrimage) coming from over 100 countries.
The route crosses Spain reaching Santiago de Compostela from 12 different routes starting in France, Portugal, south of Spain, and some pilgrims even come from Switzerland. I decided I wanted to walk for a week on my own before I met up with my mom in Leon (the halfway point along the French Way, one of the more popular routes). I made my way to the medieval town of Burgos, Spain to start my journey.
Mi camino comienza~ My journey begins
Day 1 of my pilgrimage was one of the hardest days of my life. I had over packed my backpack and my walk began through the meseta, (a desert known to be one of the hardest, hottest, and most desolate parts of the Camino). Not pacing myself, I decided to walk 28km (17 miles) my first day. Not a good idea. I trained for this walk along the greenbelt in Austin, TX before arriving, but nothing can really prepare you until you throw yourself out there. That day, I stopped numerous times along the way thinking I was going to pass out or die of heat exhaustion. I laugh now as I think back at how frustrated, alone, and miserable I felt. I remember thinking, “what the hell did I get myself into?”
Day 2 I woke up with a pulled leg muscle from over exerting myself with the weight. Great, I was only just starting and I had already managed to injure myself. I made my way out of the first town I slept in, limping slowing and inching along like a tortoise crossing the road. Fortunately, I was sent a guardian angel, Olivier Bermound from Provence, France who happened to look exactly like Jesus Christ himself! He came right up to me with no hesitations, “Hola como estas?” Sweating, limping, and in pain, I wasn’t really in the mood to chit-chat. After he told me he was from France, I was thrilled to practice my French as I would be moving to France right after finishing the Camino. Olivier didn’t speak very much Spanish or English and my French was barely comprehensible, so our conversations were quite interesting to say the least.
As we limped along the meseta (or shall I say I limped), I kept telling Olivier to go ahead and to not worry about walking at my pace. Olivier ended up staying with me the entire 7 days and 180kms until I made it to see my mother. I would stop frequently into every chapel and church we passed to offer my gratitude and to say a prayer. Olivier, not being religious or spiritual, would patiently wait for me to say my prayers before continuing along our way.
Along our walks of silence and basic language barrier communication, I once asked him why he had decided to walk the Camino de Santiago. He told me he didn’t know but that he thought it had something to do with finding himself and the freedom he needed. I found it ironic that a non-religious French man who may or may not believe in God, would decide to walk a highly spiritual route to find himself. I didn’t pressure or probe for more.
At one point along our route along a particularly long and desolate road with no shade under the blazing sun, I remember I was literally so physically spent and exhausted that I told him I could not and would not walk anymore. At this point my leg and foot was so swollen, my shoe barely fit and my foot was full of blisters (rookie pilgrim). Olivier had managed to tear something in his knee and was now also limping with the help of a walking stick he found along the way. We were still very far from the nearest albergue for the night so I told him to leave me and that I would find the energy to keep going later on alone. Of course he didn’t leave me, he sewed up my blisters with a thread and needle, told me to snap out of it, and to keep walking. So we did.
La Ermita de la Virgen del Rio
After about an hour, we finally reached a resting stop at this beautiful ancient 12th century Ermita de la Virgen del Rio. The rest of the Camino after this moment was different, something had changed in him and in us. This was the moment God touched our lives and gave us encouragement to keep going, he was walking with us. I’ll include Olivier’s own words in a letter he wrote me explaining what he had experienced:
After praying and meditating, I felt alleviated of my pain, powerful and strong to keep going and to get to our final resting point for the night. Being Catholic myself, prayerful meditation always makes me feel better so I didn’t think twice about my experience inside the Ermita. It wasn’t until later when Olivier mentioned to me that he had felt something strange in the old chapel, that I realized he had encountered a spiritual experience. I asked him what he felt but he didn’t know how to explain it and he said he would rather not talk about it. I didn’t pressure him to tell me. He later wrote me this letter almost a year after our walk together. I’m sharing only a small piece of what Olivier expressed to me in his letter. Enough to show that he had been touched and He was listening.
The rest of my route was planned alongside my mother starting in Leon. I was excited to finally see a familiar face and the loving nurturing warmth you find in your momma after a difficult day. Olivier left me at the train station so I could meet my mom in the next town as I was behind schedule with my injured leg. As we said our goodbyes, someone came up to us and told us they kept seeing us along the Camino and that we reminded him of Jesus and Mary. Olivier has the serious Jesus look..me, Mary? I was convinced their auras were surrounding us and walking with us.
As I boarded the train, I turned to say goodbye from the window but he was gone. Nowhere to be seen. I looked to the left, looked to the right. Vanished in thin air. Was he really my guardian angel? Yes, he was. He was sent into my life for a reason. To care for me and encourage me when I thought I could not go on, to accompany me when I felt alone and scared. To share laughs and stories with along the solitary 180kms together. Olivier was my Earth angel. I cried of gratitude and of pure joy having encountered such a beautiful friendship halfway across the world, in another country far from home.
The rest of the Camino with my mom was filled with surprises and excitement. We did something different everyday. We ate paella, visited an old lady’s private home for a drink and hors d’oeuvres, walked through sunflower fields and vineyards, I fell sick with a fever (for being stubborn again and walking far too long under the heat), took a tour of the Castle of the Knights Templar, walked through valleys and mystical forests dotted by windmills and cows, drank the local beer and wine, and met some beautiful people from Spain, Italy, and Argentina. We walked through a number of sleepy Spanish farmlands and towns: Villar de Mazarife, Astorga, Molinaseca (our favorite town), Villafranca del Bierza, Ponferrada, O’Cebreiro, Sarria before finally reaching Santiago de Compostela.
Entering Santiago was like stepping back in time with old Celtic music dancing in the air and hundreds of pilgrims laughing and rejoicing over their arrival in the streets. We were given our Compostela and then we visited the Cathedral of Santiago to attend mass and see St. James’ tomb. We prayed, reflected, and thanked the Lord for our safe arrival to Santiago.
After 17 days and 420km (260mi), the Way had shown me how to be selfless, the beauty of sacrifice, it taught me to be open to new and uncomfortable experiences even if they’re painful. It was an adventure that humbles you and allows for self-reflection and introspection on what really matters in life.
This was not the end of my Camino, the real Camino would start when I returned home after this spiritual experience. As Olivier says, because the camino starts from the home, the goal is not the arrival, but the way. It serves to help us see our place in life in a different way.
My mother, Marisol Lacayo, is currently selling packages to the Camino de Santiago through her travel company Dream Your Journey . If you’re interested in more information visit her website www.dreamyourjourney.com.