Many people arrive in beautiful Santiago de Compostela every day, having slowly walked or ridden for hundreds of miles across Spain. Some have travelled from much further away, covering thousands of miles on an ancient network of paths that lead here from the farthest reaches of Europe. Many complete the journey for religious reasons; but most simply because the trail is there and for some reason they want follow in the footsteps of millions of others.
It feels fraudulent to arrive in this square amongst such celebration and relief, having ridden just from the train station, despite the amazing journey from France to Leon. To make matters worse, on the 7 hour train journey, which might have taken 5 days riding or perhaps 15 days walking, lush forests and hills that really needed to be ridden passed by the window in a blur. Only limited time stopped me finishing the journey, which feels so frustrating.
I chat to the owners of the bar in the market, and help them correct the English on their sign. The girl is an architect but because of the economic situation her pay is very poor, other architecture jobs are incredibly hard to find, and so she also helps run this bar, as well as having a third job. Times are tough. But she is chirpy, smiling and happy, as are virtually all the locals I’ve met on this trip. As night falls, the streets of Santiago are filled with tourists and local families alike. This is a common theme across Spain – its so sociable, so family orientated. In the evening, everyone – young and old – is out on the streets eating, drinking and enjoying themselves together, despite the lack of jobs and poor pay. There is still a wonderful sense of community. It feels so different from home. It feels so much more the way that it should be.
I feel quite emotional at reaching the end of this journey. Its more than just the usual end of holiday blues with the looming nemesis of work in a couple of days; its more to do with the nature of the trip and the people I’ve come across. I feel that I’m just getting started and want to carry on doing this for a while longer. Every day I have met people from all walks of life who have chosen to take time out – perhaps a week, a month or a few months – to follow an ancient footpath through Europe. Some are here for a holiday, some for religious reasons, but most because they want to take, or have found themselves given, a pause from ‘normal’ life.
In Santa Domingo I met Esther, a Spanish girl who had walked a section of the Camino a few years before and who found herself a year or so into a pressured job that had not turned out as she had expected. Unhappy, but unsure what her alternatives were, she thought back to when she had most recently been truly content. Realising that this had been her previous time on the Camino, she quit her job, and travelled to St Jean Pied du Port to start walking, to give herself some time to enjoy living day-to-day, slowly contemplate the options, and be open to possibilities. Perhaps life is too short not to make those kind of decisions.
I also met, at different times, a couple of American students who were walking for the summer before heading to college. They were both taking their time, not forcing themselves to cover big distances each day. They would be up early, walk until lunchtime and, and then stop and enjoy the place that they had arrived at for the afternoon. They both independently said this was probably the only time in their lives that they would be able to take their time like this – the only time when they wouldn’t have a deadline, or a holiday limited to one or two weeks at a time. This really struck a chord with me. How depressing, and how ridiculous: a life of chasing deadlines, until you retire. Never any time to step back, to consider the alternatives, to explore.
On the Camino, and I imagine on other similar overland journeys, there are no nagging jobs to be done, no demands on time from other people, no office politics, no over-crowded commute, no struggle to fit in exercise around a busy working day. There is just a daily purpose to walk, or ride, along a path, and the simple needs that support that purpose: water, food, and shelter. Its refreshingly simple, and I suspect, fundamental to human nature.
Whilst my experiences with others will have been much more fleeting that those of the walkers who often spend a number of days travelling with the people they have come across, I am still struck by the friendliness and openness to possibilities that many of the people I have met seem to have. On a simple level it makes it much easier, on a daily basis, to be open and engaged with others. When I arrive back in London I’m struck by how miserable everyone looks on the way to work in the morning, on how difficult it is to even make eye contact, never mind interact, with anyone that you meet. On my first week back in the office I feel physically sick and exhausted sitting at a desk all day in a stuffy, air conditioned office, staring at a screen. It all just feels so wrong. I desperately want to be outside, to be moving, to be exploring.
I guess this all just adds to a desire that has been building over the past few years. Before I leave Santiago, I write the last notes in my diary telling myself to not let the openness, the desire for change, and for fulfilment, to leave. To not lose the understanding that it is natural to want to go and explore, to be physically challenged, to be outdoors, to have time to rest, time to contemplate life. That these things shouldn’t have to be crammed around the edges of a week filled with desk work, the commute, the gym and the pub. That these things are more fundamental to being human than any of that stuff that currently seems to fill my life. I tell myself to follow this through. To break free, if only for a while. Perhaps even just for 6 months or a year; but to make that break. I can always come back to ‘normal’ life. I will never regret trying something different for a little while.