Many lessons learnt from Camino Walk

Our group of five walked along the Mersata (with dry savanna-like terrain without any trees) for five days, found it boring and hot and the three of us then left the young couple to board a train for Sarria which is 100km from our destination, the city of Santiago (San Diego means St James in Spanis

Mar 17, 2023

Thomas (second from left) with his daughters and son-in-law visited old churches and UNESCO Heritage sites along the French route of the Camino.

By Thomas Ong

I first walked the Camino de Compostela in 2018, at age 75. My youngest daughter and her husband were planning to walk the whole of the French way (route), 800 km in six weeks, from St Jean Pied de Port in France to Santiago in Spain, and they invited me to join them for part of the walk. My two companions and I flew into Madrid and took a bus to Burgos city from where we joined the young couple who had, by then, walked about 300 km.

Our group of five walked along the Mersata (with dry savanna-like terrain without any trees) for five days, found it boring and hot and the three of us then left the young couple to board a train for Sarria which is 100km from our destination, the city of Santiago (San Diego means St James in Spanish). After walking for seven days, we were elated to reach Santiago Cathedral where the remains of the Apostle, St James, are interred. I can say that all our aches and pains evaporated upon seeing the majestic Cathedral.

My second walk was in November 2022, with my three daughters who live in different parts of the world. It was a great opportunity for bonding. We spent a few days chilling in Porto (home of Port wine) in Portugal before we took the train to the town of Vigo for the walk along the Portuguese way, 105 km to Santiago.

I had read that the Camino (Camino means “walk” in Spanish) was a sort of “self-directed” pilgrimage, without spiritual director, hymns, Rosary or prayers. Of the 600,000-700,000 pilgrims who walked the Camino annually before the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority were non-Christian youth. These days, young people are searching for spirituality and meaning in life outside of any formal religion. Others who walk the Camino are searching for answers to their problems or seeking divine guidance in making important decisions in life.

In my first walk, I carried a backpack of seven kg (slightly more than 10 per cent of my body weight). It comprised of three sets of walking clothes, underwear, socks, two sets of pyjamas, warm and waterproof vests, basic toiletry items and some snacks. It is important to have good walking shoes and quality socks, as well as a hat and a light plastic poncho.

In the morning, we had our breakfast around 8.00am - 8.30am and allowed the early crowd to depart before us. We started walking around 9.30am, at a slow, steady pace and stopped to have coffee and snacks whenever we felt like it. It was free and easy, and some of the breaks were up to an hour, depending on the intensity of our chat among ourselves and with new friends we had found.

By 3.00-4.00pm, if we felt a little tired, we would look for accommodation for the night. In the first walk, we chose hostels with dormitory-type of beds called “Albergues” which in 2018 cost €6 (RM2870 to RM3830)for a bed plus a simple breakfast with coffee. Dinner was extra, but always came with half a bottle of red wine per person, and dinner is usually the time pilgrims sit down together to share their experiences and insights from the day’s walk.

The walk took us through the countryside and small villages which are approximately eight km apart. There are many old churches and UNESCO Heritage sites, farms and vineyards, majestic ocean views (the Portuguese way) and many streets of cobbled stones.

It was good to leave the noise, distractions and attachments of this world behind, even for a few days, to allow us to reflect on our real life’s journey and to listen to our inner voice. No doubt, many pilgrims who are searching for answers, had their quest fulfilled. That is the attraction of the Camino — a quiet time and place to discover or re-discover oneself, free even from the chatter of prayers or the singing of hymns.

The quietness is only interrupted by the sound of birds or the occasional ringing of church bells. In our life’s journey, we are too preoccupied to stop and smell the flowers. Life is an opportunity to leave a mark wherever we go, even if it is just a smile with a passing stranger. In the Camino, there is no ice to break and communication transcends language barriers. Lasting relations from brief encounters between pilgrims are not uncommon.

There are similarities between the Camino walk and our life’s journey. We can make life simple, uncomplicated, by removing attachments and distractions. In both instances we are mere pilgrims, walking through a foreign land that we cannot call home. The journey is as important as the destination and is to be enjoyed (lived) to the full.

Life should be lived fully and consciously during each moment, like during the Camino walk. Somehow, many pilgrims shared that they stopped worrying about their work and problems, the past and the future, during the walk. Human beings tend to think too much of the past (usually with feelings of regret) and worry about the future (which often brings anxiety and even fear).

During the walk (but not so much in life), I had a strong feeling that God was walking alongside me, guiding and protecting me. There may be the presence of angels who we cannot see along this sacred path but believe me, there are countless stories of angels in human form who appear out of nowhere to assist or counsel pilgrims in trouble or who have lost their way.

The Camino has changed me in some ways. It has taught me that my needs are small (all my worldly goods were carried on my back). Since my return from my first Camino, I have stopped hoarding things and am on my way to becoming a minimalist. I came home and gave away half my clothes and almost all my prized books. In the year following that, I did not purchase anything for my personal use, including new clothes and books.

The Camino has taught me that pain and suffering are only temporary and can be borne cheerfully. They usually end when we arrive at our destination. So too, in this life, our troubles and health issues will come to an end one day. Meanwhile, we should joyfully offer them up for God’s noble intentions, like for the salvation of souls in purgatory.

I started the habit of praying for my sick friends to be healed. In the first walk, I carried a prayer stone for two young boys with health issues and God healed the first one and made a way for the other one. In the second walk, I carried 12 prayer stones for my friends’ healing.

Another way the Camino has changed me is that I listen for God’s voice as a way of daily meditation. I try to be more conscious of the presence of God’s spirit in me. I know God wants to speak to me and prompt me to be a part of His plan for humankind. He will lead me to heal the sick, give a word of prophecy or perform all the other charisms if I am able to recognise His voice and obey His prompting

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