There I was sodden and sulking, having been dropped off at the foggy alpine village of Roncesvalles (population 30), at the start of this ambitious walk I had obviously signed up for in a fit of lunacy.

The interminable rain was running into my jacket and I was wrestling with the bloated backpack as I hunted down my first room for the night. Discomfort gave way to trepidation, then angst, as I slipped on the wet cobblestones. This was no way to begin a pilgrimage, surely.

Of course I should have been more prepared. I had been studying the Camino since I read about it in a book two years ago and it seemed such a romantic notion to brave blisters and brigands for penance and prayers. At least, that’s what happened in the Middle Ages.

The Camino de Santiago, or Way of St James, is the third most important and established pilgrim’s route in Christendom, after the ones to Jerusalem and Rome. Actually, it is named for a network of routes that reach deep into the heart of Europe, even to the God-denying communist enclave of the Eastern bloc.

It made its name for itself because St James the Greater was buried in Santiago, Spain, after his martyrdom in Jerusalem. And that fact alone was enough to draw pilgrims to risk disease, being robbed or killed, just so that they could whisper their intentions in his Cathedral. And yes, earn a plenary indulgence or two.

Even today, those who complete the last 100km on foot (200km for cyclists) earn a certification also known as the Compostela, so named for the field (campos) of stars (stela) that the first pilgrims were guided by.

The physicality of the walk was initially a turnoff for this couch potato, so I can’t explain how the idea took hold. But it did. I couldn’t say I had a religious reason for it. I had no specific intentions in mind to make there. No pressing penance on the cards. And I wasn’t convinced that I needed to walk the length for discernment, as some are inclined to do. Pilgrimages conjured images of heroic rosary-chanting piousness and asceticism, which felt too much like hard work for indolent me.

But I was fascinated.

How could a trek across Spain’s backyard garner such diverse interest from pilgrims of every ilk? St Francis of Assisi was one, Pope John Paul II visited it twice it seems. And across the millennium, the Camino has drawn paupers and royalty, jocks and hippies, corporate honchos and carefree teenagers, Catholics and atheists… and every shade of pilgrim in between.

Even more pertinent was the question, why anybody in this age would walk hundreds of kilometres when you can, well, fly?

Yet it was more than a passing curiosity for me to make the leap from stilettos to hiking boots, ditch handbag for hulking haversack. I decided that my pilgrimage would simply be an indulgent walk with God, if nothing else. No pressure, no justifications, no heroics. I just wanted to be open to the moment, the silence and space…and in the advice of my parish priest, be “surprised”!

For someone who had lived on fixed schedules, targets and measured KPIs for so long, it was a massive act of surrender to what I could only describe as a perplexing uncertainty. But I figured it was as good a time as any to make the leap of faith and just answer the call. I knew I’d be led.

As it happened, I was granted a year off work for a sabbatical, so time was no longer an issue. Fitness could be trained, I prayed. So I started on daily 5-10km walks for a few months. (Not nearly enough to be honest).

If my folks thought I had taken leave of my senses, they were kind enough not to mention it and offered to babysit my 10-year-old while I was away. Most of my pals gave me quizzical looks, a pat on the back and advised me to get premium travel insurance.

So there I was at the starting point of my 790km Camino, shivering with cold and certain anxiety. That is, until I stepped into the gem of a Gothic church, along with 50 other bedraggled souls, for evening mass and the pilgrim’s blessing.

It did not matter that the celebrations were in Spanish, the Catholics contributed their responses in their own language. And whether they spoke only English, Japanese, Korean Russian or Portuguese, we all understood the common purpose we were all on, in getting on the Camino toward Santiago. It was such a joy to see the diverse faces joined in prayer and a reminder of the one-ness of my faith, not simply with my God but the community within which I stood.

While I may not have felt suitably Apostle-like, that blessing to send us forth onto our journey into the unknown felt very much like a nudge in the right direction. And that was a comforting reminder at all the masses I later attended along my trek.

Just as well.

For the first week at least, the journey seemed fraught with more questions of survival than spirituality. The terrain was treacherous with steep slippery slopes to climb, rocky scree to descend. The torrents of mud flowing downhill made for uncertain footing and I had to ford bloated streams where the stone bridges had disappeared under water. The paths were alternately slick, viscous, rocky or all of the above – none of which endeared me to any meditative calm. In fact, if I had been anything less than attentive to each step, I could have got myself pretty injured. It was exhausting.

As it happened, there were two fatalities in the group that started the Camino that same week I did. Both men, over 65, one from a heart attack, another from a fall. I learnt from the pilgrim’s grapevine of the one who threw his back out from strain, the one who was hospitalised for dehydration, and one more with hypothermia from being caught without his poncho.

A few younger guys had to halt their walk to recover from horrible blisters after racing up the first mountain in record time. And others went home because they couldn’t deal with the tendonitis, wrenched ankles and falls on the scree – felled equally by hubris and physical hazards.

I, fortunately, only had to deal with scratches from landing in the briar, mud up to my hips and sore aching blistered feet. Nothing that painkillers and prayers couldn’t help at bedtime.

The going was tough, but as the frigid storms gave way to scorching heat, I realised my hard-edged survival instinct turned into a gentle awakening and the undulating, uncertain terrain mirrored movements in my mind. 

Then in the second week, the clouds cleared and I learnt to pace myself. The 20km-38km days saw me walking for up to ten hours on end…mostly alone, but always in sunshine.

Over the next several hundred kilometres across Spain, the craggy mountains turned into meandering mesetas (plateaus) and plains, and back to woodland green. The clear skies put leaf and landscape in sharp, vivid relief. Tiny villages with homely ancient Romanesque churches competed with the soaring gilded Gothic Cathedrals for my attention.

The going was tough, but as the frigid storms gave way to scorching heat, I realised my hard-edged survival instinct turned into a gentle awakening and the undulating, uncertain terrain mirrored movements in my mind.

On some days, I climbed whole mountains and traversed the length of Singapore without seeing more than 10 people. The expanse of space, both physical and internal, was just what I needed.

While I made friends with the odd pilgrim, as with other walkers, we did the journey with a rhythm and pace of our own. Our passing greetings of “Buen Camino” evolved into lovely chats over picnic breaks or dinner when we landed in town. There was never a need for awkward small talk.

Conversations when they happened, went deep and wide – with exchanges over the Euro crisis, death penalties, mass attendances back home and the general state of the universe. Along with discussions of the UEFA cup (happening then) and blister treatments, of course.

The caged city girl in me learnt to lower my defences, to be open to the moment…and to the characters the Camino sent me. And in them, I found wise words, unusual charity and even moments of Grace.

Take Frenchman Gilles, for instance. His day job over seeing 15,000 staff has him jet setting across the arctic to tundra. Yet he’d park his bespoke boots as happily in a swish hotel, as in a 7 Euro a night hostel, slumming it with impoverished students, just so he could ‘give back’ to the Camino at every level. He felt a duty to share his blessings.

Then there was the Polish vet who was fulfilling a vow for his sickly son by taking a roundabout walk from Warsaw to Rome, and then to Santiago, without credit cards. He camped in the open and worked on farms for food. And he did it with his dog, Leo, a 25kg haversack of surgical gear and a heart fuelled by hope.

There was also Sato-san and his pal Inoi, staunch Buddhist retirees and ex-Fukushima volunteers who were walking the Camino to thank the world for helping with the post-tsunami relief. They’d bow deeply to anyone toting a Japan-made camera, and tweet a tune on their bamboo flute to liven up things on the trek.

It turned out to be a surprisingly liberating walk of delight and thanksgiving….in 2 million steps. An affirmation of love received. 

Once I got over the physicality of the endeavour, the trials of the trek became moments I could identify with in the highs and lows of my life. As I scrambled over rocks, minced down the scree, or ambled over rolling hills, the effort triggered in succession, frustration, exhaustion, pain, joy and delight. Then I realised, I was working through some of my surfaced memories or wishful dreams as I traipsed along.

It was cathartic to say the least. The repetitive action of putting one foot in front of the other became almost meditative and there was a lightness in the steps even if my ligaments and muscles screamed. Pilgrims are meant to walk through the pain, it seems.

When I started the Camino, I anticipated it to be a walk of discovery at best. At worst…a purging, expiation of guilt, relief and even a dreadful mourning of losses in my life. But after being alternately frozen in the mountains or toasted on the mesetas, after trudging through 35km days and working through my second tube of Bengay muscle rub, I realised it had been little or none of that.

Despite the blistered feet and peeling sunburn, it was an elegant walk. It was a walk of love and gratitude, graced by the memory of many joys big and tiny, from my past and my present. It turned out to be a surprisingly liberating walk of delight and thanksgiving….in 2 million steps. An affirmation of love received.

I had tapped into an inner strength that I had clearly drawn from above. And it was simply because I had opened myself to become more aware of His presence and promptings – a heightened mindfulness.

It touched me deeply to recognise how the rhythm of my dialogue with Him came easy, whether I was walking on the gusty plains of the plateaus or in the silence of the verdant forests. While I’m not one to read too much into signs and symbols, I knew this from watching the butterflies pose patiently for my photos. From being roused by birdsong when I was faltering on the steep climbs. From the surge of tears at the base of an iron cross (Cruz de Fero) midway on the Camino, when I fully internalised the true intent and meaning of laying my burdens at His feet. It was a renewal, and rejoicing I had not expected.

From that point on, 400km and halfway into the trek, I realised I had completed the true purpose of my Camino. Reaching Santiago and earning the pilgrim’s certificate was no longer the point. Living the moment and celebrating it, was. A calm joy and consolation had taken over and the whole rah-rah idea of ‘getting there’ all but dissipated.

Of course I was delirious as the next sweaty pilgrim when I landed in the cathedral square. I won’t pretend that the Camino was a spectacular answer to my prayers or a blinding epiphany in any way. But it was certainly an intimate journey of sanctifying discovery within myself and my faith. A journey made conscious by the effort of putting one foot in front of the other and being open to his Grace.

Rachel Tan
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