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I did it my (Camino) way

By RICARDO PAMINTUAN Published Jun 23, 2024 7:09 am

Santiago de Compostela, Spain—Ah, the Camino de Santiago! The very name rolls off the tongue like a melody, promising spiritual enlightenment, cultural immersion, and a smidgeon of physical exertion. Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James) leads pilgrims like me on a not-so-merry adventure to the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, northwest Spain. The pilgrimage has been a significant spiritual and cultural journey for centuries, attracting travelers from all over the world.

Here I am, a man in his 50s, a passive Catholic, and a self-proclaimed Spanish-speaking Chinoy whose last serious use of the language was in the oral exams in college, on a religious quest that, according to the guidebooks, can be done even by my kids or my mother. The wimp in me opted for the supposedly “easiest” Camino Frances, a “mere” 115 kilometers of foot-slogging from the sleepy town of Sarria to Santiago.

I couldn’t have gotten lost in the woods even if I wanted to. “The Way” is littered with stone markers with ubiquitous scallop shell and yellow arrow symbolizing the Camino.

After a quick breakfast, I set off with all the zeal of a seasoned pilgrim. I certainly looked the part with my waterproof hoodie and hiking shoes; backpack filled with essentials like water, snacks, first aid kit, towel, slippers, an extra shirt and joint support; and a walking stick. My belt bag held my passport, wallet and other passport: my credencial del peregrino or pilgrim’s credential. I need at least two stamps per day on this passport, from churches or merchants along the designated trail, so that I may get a certificate of completion upon reaching Santiago de Compostela.

The first 500 meters were always the best: I had the path to myself, and I savored the smell and the coolness of the morning, as well as the sound of my feet on gravel moving with the rhythm of the singing birds. An old man selling wooden canes gave me a sharp look when I took a photo of his products. No wonder he had so much in stock. Sometimes, it’s the sight and smell of manure that greeted me. Don’t worry, you get desensitized to it after a while.

At the Camino de Santiago, I had a certain degree of devoutness I have never felt before.

I couldn’t have gotten lost in the woods even if I wanted to. The way of “The Way” is littered with stone markers with the ubiquitous scallop shell and yellow arrow that symbolize the Camino. In other places, there’s simply a yellow arrow painted on stone walls pointing the way for the geographically impaired. These are the VIPs of Camino de Santiago symbols, guiding pilgrims all the way to their destination. The scallop shell, or “Vieira” in Galician and Spanish, is plastered everywhere—walls, sidewalks, tiles, tunnels, you name it. Think of its lines as the ultimate GPS, with all paths leading to Santiago de Compostela. As more and more people join the walk, the signs become superfluous. Just go with the flow and you won’t get lost.

Interactions with fellow pilgrims

Now, if you’re like me, who prefers the seclusion and tranquility, I did not take pleasure in the company of chatty walkers. While I was navigating a rather steep, rocky route, a group of millennials surrounded me like a pack of lions about to pounce on a wildebeest. One of them, a lab analyst in Barcelona who wanted to practice her English, started asking me questions about the Philippines. Anyone who has ever tried to sound smart, calm and composed while scaling a 30-degree ascent would know that it is impossible. Eventually, the sweat mingles with the panting and slurred speech.

At another juncture, a nice Irish family would quickly pass me by (mouthing Buen Camino, the customary greeting), wave at me while drinking beer at a bar in the next town, and then catch up with me again a few minutes later. They could have at least offered me a glass of beer as I walked non-stop. A shirtless teenager trying to impress the girls in his class nearly pushed me aside as he ran up and down the jagged path. I passed him by an hour later while their school medic treated his swollen ankle and bruised knees. The tortoise beat the hare yet again.

The scallop shell, or vieira, is plastered everywhere—walls, sidewalks, tiles, tunnels, you name it. Think of it as the ultimate GPS, with all paths leading to Santiago de Compostela.

And nearing the end of the line, another Spanish señorita walked beside me like a cheerleader: “C’mon, man, just a few steps to go!” She said she wanted to do volunteer work in the Philippines, i.e., teach children English. She let me walk ahead when I told her everyone knows English in the Philippines.

To be sure, some encounters were welcome, like those who offer to take your photograph. Twice I was mistaken for a Korean by couples young and old, twice they requested me to take their picture, and in return they took mine. That’s reciprocity in diplomatic terms, amigo. After a particularly long stretch of hiking through a pine forest, a Japanese man bowed low, thanking me profusely for showing him that it’s okay to pee in the woods. I bowed back; it’s better than shaking hands.

Pilgrims journey through green fields

As I trudged wearily into the heart of Santiago, my aching legs forgotten at the sight of the imposing cathedral looming over the old town, I had a sense of achievement, a certain degree of devoutness I have never felt since my First Communion. The only thing to do is validate this whole journey by securing my certificate of completion, in Spanish and Latin. In whatever language, old and older, these pieces of parchment said one thing: I, Richardum, did it.

What is my takeaway from this whole “kill me, heal me journey,” to borrow a phrase from my friend Anna?

Enriching? Absolutely! I may not have understood every historical monument or local tradition, but I soaked up the atmosphere like a sponge (albeit a slightly disoriented one). And the landscape! Galicia’s greenery unfolded before me like a vibrant tapestry, each stage offering its own picturesque charm. As for the fauna, well, let’s just say that at some point, I was beginning to look less like El Toro and smelling more like one.

The stages were indeed moderately difficult—emphasis on difficult—as promised by online reviews. No hard climbs, they said. But they forgot to mention the endless rolling hills that left my calves screaming for mercy. Nevertheless, the call of charming accommodations at the end of each day kept me going. Sure, they may have been small family hostels or rustic inns, but after a day of trudging through fields and forests, they felt like five-star hotels.

And here’s where Andrea of Santiago Ways enters the scene. Andrea planned my Camino, including the baggage transfer from one stop to the next. You want longer days and shorter walks? That can be arranged. Too weak to finish even one stage? A vehicle is on standby to rescue stranded pilgrims. The accommodations weren’t shabby either. Want to ride a bicycle instead of walking? Sure, that’s possible, but you’ll have to take a longer route.

For hardcore pilgrims, DIY is the name of the game. I met a few of them along the way: they slept in their sleeping bags wherever they wanted; they did their “thing” away from prying eyes; they bathed God knew where; and some of them were stoned like Woodstock relics. If God works in mysterious ways, this must surely be one of them.

To all you would-be pilgrims, I say this: embark on the Camino de Santiago with an open heart, a sense of humor, and a sturdy pair of walking shoes (a special shout-out to Columbia footwear for protecting my fragile feet). With grit and determination, you’ll not only conquer the Camino but also create memories to last a lifetime. Buen Camino!