One year ago a good Italian friend told me "Hey, I'm going to walk to Santiago de Compostela!". "Really" I said. "Awesome! I would love to do it too". I immediately reminded the book from Paulo Coelho, "El peregrino de Compostela" ("The Pilgrimage" in English) that I had read many years before. I actually don't remember anything about the book except for a thought that came to my mind... "Wow, does this really exist? I would love to do a pilgrimage trip like this". Just think about it, walking for days and days without worrying about anything else, without thinking about anything but just being there, aware of the present moment, aware of every step without analyzing the situation, just being there.... Sounds good, no? That to me is walking meditation and that's the way I saw the experience in my mind. One year later I found myself sitting in a restaurant with the same friend getting some of her tips to start my own trip :-)
My plan was just to be alone and walk alone to be able to enjoy every moment without distraction, just to be with myself. That's why I chose the "Via de la Plata" route, the same route that my friend did, a route to Santiago not as popular and crowded as the French route but that is getting more and more attention every year. It is a pretty lonely route. It starts in Sevilla and ends in Santiago after 1,000 Km... I love that number!!! I didn't thought about doing tourism, visiting beautiful cities or meeting nice people. I was just looking for the opportunity to do nothing but walk. I didn't try to find out about the history of the route and I even had no idea that Santiago (St James) was one of the apostles. Not surprisingly, once I reached Sevilla to start walking I realized that I was not properly prepared, I didn't even have a map or a guide book! At least I had that meeting with my friend, otherwise it would have been a real mess.
So, how was it? Well, it was just fantastic. It's unbelievable how many things you can see in just one day walking and I walked for a total of 38 days. So many beautiful landscapes, so many different trails, so many sunrises and sunsets. I walked on the sidewalks, on the main roads, on the national road, on the forest, on the mountains, I walked through farms next to the cows, I walk on stones, gravel, mud and grass, I walked on every type of terrain that you can imagine. I walked for hours and hours and even days and days without any company, without seeing any other pilgrims except when I reached the "albergues" at the end of the day, but even then in some occasions there was nobody except me. And although it was not my plan I was happily surprised to see so many beautiful cities and villages and even better to have made a few good pilgrim friends. The last three days I decided to walk together with my pilgrim friends, it was a different experience but just great.
"Walking 1,000 Km is a challenge, but the real challenge is to be present here and now"
As soon as I left the center of Sevilla and found the first arrows I felt some joy and peace of mind.. "yeah, this is what I want to do". I tried to focus on just being there and forget about anything else, about any future plan or about the past, just trying to be there. It was not so easy, my mind is so used to be distracted all the time so I tried different things to keep my mind in the present moment. Sometimes I would just observe my breath and if that was too difficult then I would count every breath after each exhalation. A couple of times I reached 1,000 breaths! And it really helped. Sometimes I would just count my steps, like a solider, "left, right, left, right, left, right" or "left, two, three, four, left.." There were some days when I didn't need to do anything, I would easily be able to just observe my breath and be aware of me walking and of the surroundings. Sometimes the landscape and surroundings were just so beautiful that I would just contemplate. But in many occasions it was just too difficult especially when the hard days came, it didn't matter what I would do my mind would still be at 100,000 miles(km)/hour thinking about just anything.
To get some inspiration I would read this thought in my mind when I was starting the day or during the day. I never wrote it before but this is more or less what it said:
"It doesn't matter how many kilometers you walk or how far you want to go
It doesn't matter how slow or how fast you walk
It doesn't matter where will you sleep or when will you eat
It doesn't matter if you are alone or not
It doesn't matter when will you leave or when will you arrive
All that matters is to walk and just to walk"
Of course, these things do matter, I just use this kind of thinking to avoid these things becoming the center of attention in my mind. Sometimes I would worry too much about what I was going to eat, at what time or in which place but reading this in my mind would help me to forget about it and just enjoy the journey.
Always alone but never lonely
For me walking alone was just great, I just loved to have had all that time just for myself especially when I would arrive at an empty albergue. I never ever got bored and I never felt lonely and I didn't even have an mp3 player with me. But when the days get ugly it can become a bit tough. I remember that after several days walking alone I realized that I was not really alone. I would love to say that I was with the "Holy Spirit" or something like that. Not at all, It was like if I were walking with another guy, a very annoying guy. He wouldn't stop talking, and he could repeat the same conversations all over again and again all day long. Isn't that annoying? And even worst he would constantly remind me off all the bad decisions that I had taken. "Why didn't you buy a new bigger backpack? Just to avoid paying for check in luggage? This shoes are not good, you should have used your own trekking boots instead of buying new trekking shoes!! Cheap plastic flip-flops? You should have made sure that they were really comfortable, you should have bought sandals instead like all the other pilgrims!! Your passport is wet! Why didn't you put in a plastic bag?! What?! You are tired?! You have pain in your legs? Oh.. poor you.. Did you notice that 50+ years old man walking without a problem? How embarrassing!". I could have this conversation in my mind again and again. Luckily this didn't happen every day, only during the tough days, but you know this is also the kind of things that makes the experience unforgettable. Having on the phone a good friend or a small chat with another pilgrim would help to put things in perspective and just laugh :-)
If you've gotten inspired to do your own "Camino" then you can visit the "Via de la Plata FAQs" post for some tips.
If you would like to have a quick look of a sample itinerary and read more about my experiences you can read the "Via de la Plata Itinerary"