No Present like the Time

There’s a moment in The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel when hotel entrepreneur Sonny says, “No present like the time!” The misquoted cliché applies easily to a recent experience. Over some 35 days, I walked the pilgrim’s path across northern Spain. Camino is Spanish for ‘road’ but it’s come to refer to an ancient way, marked by yellow arrows, that leads from St Jean Pied de Port in France, across the Pyrenees Mountains and westward to Santiago de Compostela; ‘St James of the field of stars’.

When a dear friend shared her intention to walk the camino, I thought, “I would like to do that.” To cut a long story short, after a year of training, planning and list-making, we set off on a sunny morning from the pretty French town of St Jean Pied de Port.

We carried the minimum in our backpacks − an achievement for someone who had never flown ‘carry-on’. Hiking sticks proved their worth every day and my vocabulary soon expanded to include terms like albergue (pilgrim’s hostel), tortilla (delicious at breakfast, lunch or tea) and café con leche (coffee with milk). Nourishment was very important!

Most people with whom I shared my plan showed interest, and those who knew me well kindly refrained from showing surprise, doubt or outright disbelief. Let me simply say that physical exertion is not my strong suit. However, I walk, and all the camino requires is walking – all day, almost every day, but nevertheless − it’s just one foot after the other, right?

Yes, and no.

The aspect I had anticipated most was simplicity. Rise – dress and pack – walk – breakfast – walk – snack – walk – lunch – walk – arrive and book a bed – shower – wash clothes – relax! This might include journalling, checking email, resting or chatting to other pilgrims. Sometimes there was plenty to see, sometimes the perimeter of the town was only a ten-minute stroll. It was surprising, having walked for at least half the day with an early start, how quickly we could walk again, sans backpack. Dinner was early by Spanish standards, usually in the company of fellow pilgrims, and we would be in our sleeping bags, if not asleep, well before dark.

Only once was there no room at the inn. It was truly horrible. After walking 31 kilometres and arriving in a dry and charmless town, neither albergue had beds. Our party of three must have looked so distraught that an innkeeper offered to phone ahead to the next town, where there was only one albergue, to reserve beds for us. In 30+ degree heat, we had to walk another three kilometres. When we arrived, the albergue’s grounds included a small pool where pilgrims could sit and soak their weary feet. Bliss!

I’d like to say that I thought about how refugees and asylum-seekers must feel, fleeing persecution or conflict and unable to find a place to call home.

I’d like to say that I recalled the story of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter and being offered a stable.

I’d like to say I thought about all the people who are homeless and whose lives hold little security or promise.

However, I didn’t think about anyone else. I was too hot, too tired and too anxious to think beyond what I knew was a temporary hiccup in a wonder-full experience. Clearly pilgrimage had a lot to teach me.

I did encounter many teachers, often fleetingly.

There was Siobhan*, who had nursed her husband until his early death and who had two young adult sons, one with a serious addiction. She was walking “to learn to forgive”.

There was Patrick*, a young Irishman, whom I initially judged as something of a Billy Bunter character who just might not make it. How wrong could I have been? He was a camino veteran and he walked for two weeks each year because he feared life becoming too easy and convenient for a young, well-paid single man like himself.

And there was Katie*, also Irish. A good part of the population of Ireland seems to be ‘on the road’! Thanks to the influence of the Loreto Sisters, she was studying to be a teacher. The world needs young people who want to teach with the passion Katie exuded.

These cameos indicate that the gift of my camino was the opportunity to meet and engage with all these people and so many more. My companion Carole would say, “Tracey collects stories”, and she was right. In the words of the venerable Caroline Jones, “I carry the stories like a sacred library. Once someone has told me their story I cannot do other than keep it and treasure it.” (An Authentic Life ABC Books 1998).

As well as collecting stories, I was reflecting on my own, always through the prism of the faces of family and friends. I had invited the most significant people in my life to pray for me, each on a particular camino day. I prayed too, and often my prayer was a reflection on the gift of that person. The farther I walked, the stronger became the sense of these invisible companions, including my father in heaven, who would have so enjoyed sharing it all.

The camino, of course, was not all stories and ‘aha’ moments, although there were plenty of those. Some days the sun was too hot, the road too steep, the backpack too heavy and the destination too far away. On day one, I wrote in my journal: “The scenery was spectacular but oh, it was hard. Really hard. ‘Walk lightly and easily’ said the guidebook, with no mention of gasping for air!”

Weeks later, after an equally challenging section, I wrote, “Today we are walking on top of the world!”

Was the cathedral at Santiago an impossible dream? At times, and yet, suddenly, we were there! There are rituals on arrival. You join a queue at the pilgrims’ office to present your credencial and to be questioned about your motivation. You emerge with a certificate inscribed with your name in Latin. While you look forward to sleeping in a-place-that-is-not- an-albergue, you wander around the city, with a silly grin for every pilgrim you meet.

The next day we visit the scaffolded cathedral. It’s very grand, very gold, very Spanish and eventually, very crowded. We attend Mass in a small chapel, with an Irish priest presiding and then take prime positions for the pilgrims’ Mass. The Mass is the Mass, so we can participate easily. Everyone’s waiting for the flight of the botafumeiro (swinging incensor) and it doesn’t disappoint! At once thrilling and a little threatening, and swathing us all in incense, it has become the most powerful symbol of a completed camino.

So, what next, now the feet have recovered and the backpack is packed away – for now?

For me, it means that the daily challenge of walking the camino is replaced by the daily challenge of living the camino − open to the stories, infused by prayer, balancing solitude and companionship, motion and stillness, and taking the ups and downs in my stride.

Anyone who has the present – the gift – of the time to walk is blessed. It was, and is, a buen camino.

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Tracey Edstein

Tracey Edstein is the editor of Aurora Magazine, the official magazine of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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