Emiliano and Doramas sharing part of the journey. El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.

What can be the comfort of understanding my footprint as just one among the millions?… All I want is what my feet deliver: simultaneous communion with those dead and those yet to be, walking myself, step by step, lower lower, into a deeper consciousness of mortality, each life unbearably small, impossibly brief, while time and history flood ever backward and forward. 

– Kathryn Harrison, The Road to Santiago.

July 2022

Sin prisa sin pausa, Antonello says, plodding on. Neither rushing nor stopping, the octogenarian Italian from Rome walks his ninth Camino when we cross him in a steep section towards Gontan in Galicia in Northern Spain. I started at the tender age of 75, he quips, with my pacemaker! pointing to his heart, beaming a big, childlike smile. Carrying a tiny day pack, he looks like a man on a mission. Nothing will stop him; he has all the time on his hands – and his feet!

The Camino scallop shell sign post. El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.

I heard about the legendary Camino de Santiago from fellow travellers with awe and fascination: timeless pilgrims’ tales, life-changing encounters, priceless spiritual awakening. For over a thousand years, people from all over the world have followed various routes to reach Santiago de Compostela where the remains of the apostle Saint James are supposedly buried. Somehow the idea of walking 800+km over a month never appealed to me till now. After living two full years on the road – including eight unforgettable months learning Flamenco in Andalucia, wandering in Islas Baleares, and enjoying city life in Barcelona and Madrid – it feels right to wrap up my long sojourn in Spain by walking the Way. It will be a break from the hectic travels, a time for introspection, and a further deepening of my spiritual journey…

To feel the pull, the draw, the interior attraction, and to want to follow it, even if it has no name still, that is the “pilgrim spirit.” The “why” only becomes clear as time passes, only long after the walking is over.

– Kevin A. Codd, Beyond Even the Stars: A Compostela Pilgrim in France.

El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.

It is Compostella Jubilee Year. Bonus brownie points to gain merit to vie for a spot in heaven wherever that might be. According to Christian tradition, lands are grown for six years, resting on the seventh, turning it into a sabbatical one. The year following seven repetitions – 49 years – would be a holy gap year when lost things are returned to their proper owners…

Did you hear that? All you have to do is just walk, in awesome company of ageless flowers and bees, a faithful sun and a seductive moon, being never too far from the footsteps of fellow seekers.

Finally, I feel ready…

El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.

Forget about the classic French Way with its summer crowd and heat wave. I decide to take the longer scenic Northern Route from Irun, walking the Iberian Peninsula from east to west, following the Cantabrian coastline, crossing six provinces – Guipúzcoa, Vizcaya, Cantabria, Asturias, Lugo and La Coruña – towards Santiago. Just 824km in all! What is a month in a lifespan, but another dot in my timeless travels

Then, my children want to join, probably out of love to give me a hand (wish it were a foot!) in case I falter. But they do not have 30 days. Who does unless you offer yourself that gift? An abridged 12-day, 300km version would do for now. My son, Paul, and I will walk from Soto de Luina near Oviedo before my daughter, Claire, and her fiance, Tyler, join in Lourenza. It will be an alternative kind of family vacation, not lying on a beach in sun soaked Costa del Sol but walking and meditating. The last time we did something similar was a trek to K2 Basecamp in faraway Karakoram three years back, but that is another vertiginous story altogether…   

El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.
El Camino del Norte route. Spain. 2022.
El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.

The approach is always half the story. Getting to the trail head in the supposedly twenty-third stage of the Camino del Norte is anything but simple. In Barcelona, we set the alarm at 4am to trek to faraway Terminal 1, barely making our early morning flight to Oviedo. Two complicated rural bus connections later, we arrive at a nondescript highway junction in the middle of nowhere in Asturias. But all is good, we see our first Camino sign post! Carrying our day pack and a bulging shopping bag of leftover food from Barcelona, we start our first mile towards Soto de Luina, ground zero of our adventure. We will learn fast that no one except us carries food on the Camino. Each gram counts – a lot – on your feet and shoulders in the long kilometres to come. It is all about efforts and learning to let go. No chocolate croissants and 4pm snacks in a spiritual journey!

Our first Camino sign post! Soto de Luina, Asturias, Spain. 2022.
Day 0: Still all smiles at the first albergue. Soto de Luina, Asturias, Spain. 2022.

A young pilgrim half limps down a short flight of stairs as we put down our packs in the first albergue. We look at his unmistakable “Camino gait” – caused by blisters, foot pain, and whatever other ailments the humbling journey inflicts upon everyone – and smile, not having the slightest clue we will be tottering the same way less than twenty-four hours later.

Help yourself with whichever bunk bed you want. The receptionist will come at 7pm, Sergio, a twenty-year-old engineering student from Madrid, says before slow walking into town for a late Spanish lunch. We warm up our last portions of Cantonese fried rice with ribs and finish the yoghurts and apples, trying to reduce the load of our extravagant food bag.

Just as we are ready to lie down for a much needed nap, Katia strolls in, mumbling jumbling in Italian, asking about her transported bag. The indefatigable sexagenarian polyglot globetrotter Bulgarian is doing her 12th Camino, having already traversed some solid 10,000km and still clocking up some more. We magically pull up salami sandwiches, dried prunes, and cookies from our bag to share, listening to her Camino stories, when Ivor arrives, hauling his cart, heaving and puffing. The long-haired art and English teacher began the odyssey in his home turf of Aviles in leather sandals and socks upon the unconscionable recommendation of a dear friend. Within a day, blisters mushroomed in the gaps of his soles. It was either buying a cart or quitting, he figured. We are glad he chose the former. What a character!

As the afternoon draws on, pilgrims trickle in one by one. Those who started their journey in Irun – and did not quit – would have already walked for close to three weeks. Michael has been walking since March (!) from his home city in Germany including a break in New York City while Jorge, a Spanish expat working for the European Food Safety Authority in Italy, enjoys his week-long “break” from his wife and children. Why not? There is no need for a reason to walk the Way, the Camino finds you, they say.

El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.

Are you heading to Cadavedo tomorrow? Sergio asks us. I am calling the albergue to reserve a room for four of us together with Katia. What a sweet fellow! We will come to enjoy this most unique and pleasurable aspect of Camino life, of strangers coming together like good old pals, sharing fleeting moments in our journey to Santiago.

10pm: lights out. We ease into our new twenty-four-beds-in-one-room environment, preparing ourselves for what is to come for the next 300km, walking and sleeping with fellow pilgrims. The room is surprisingly quiet. No one is fumbling through bags, or snoring, yet. Camino fatigue is something our body would soon know intimately!

Arriving in Soto de Luina. El Camino del Norte, Asturias, Spain. 2022.
Albergue de peregrinos de Soto de Luiña. Soto de Luina, Asturias, Spain. 2022.

Day 1 Soto de Luiña to Cadavedo (23 km, 8am-3pm, 7h)

Not a soul stirs when I am jolted awake by the 5:30am alarm. Who said pilgrims are early risers, trying to beat the heat and arrive early to get a bed? No one seems to be in any hurry to begin a new stage. Paul is catching up on sleep from his late night outings in fun Barcelona. I lay in bed until sounds of shuffling steps indicate in no uncertain terms that our Day 1 is finally here.

In the delightful company of Sergio, Ivor, and Katia, we enjoy a leisurely breakfast until 8am. I take my time, Ivor says, sipping his tea, being the last one to leave after us. Everything is new today: the Buen Camino app with each stage’s itinerary, a succession of tiny villages through bucolic Asturias – Albuerne, Novellana, Castañeras, Ballota – and, of course, the Camino itself. Despite all the reading, research, and documentaries, we have little expectation on how the journey will unfold. Enjoying each moment and arriving at our destination each day seem plenty enough.

Alas, despite our efforts, we still have at least 3-4kg of food. Why do we carry all that weight? Show me a pilgrim’s bag and I can tell you a thing or two about the person! My obsession with nourishing food must be rooted in my parents’ trauma from experiencing famine in their younger years. Or, owning my responsibility, I should say I am unable to let go of what matters to me. Trust, trust the Camino will provide for you!

Camino Lesson 1: Tread light. Shed unnecessary weight!

Paul has three blisters, from walking around Barcelona in new sandals, not a recommended way to start the Camino! My old left shoulder blade pain comes back instantly, from hauling all that extra food. Otherwise, it is an easy first day, passing through spectacular Playa de Silencio and beautiful country trails.

The municipal albergue in Cadavedo is a no-frill refurbished old house, but we are grateful to share a quad with Sergio and Katia. Ivor finally walks in shortly before 6pm and head straight to the pharmacy for more bandaids. I retreat to bed at 7pm while Paul enjoys chatting with Sergio, both among the youngest on the Camino in their prime at twenty. The moon is shining full and bright; tomorrow is a new stage.

El Camino del Norte, Asturias, Spain. 2022.
Day 1 from Soto de Luiña to Cadavedo, only 280km to go! El Camino del Norte, Asturias, Spain. 2022.
Playa de Silencio. El Camino del Norte, Asturias, Spain. 2022.
El Camino del Norte, Asturias, Spain. 2022.

Day 2 Cadavedo to Luarca (16 km, 8am-noon, 4h)

Mornings are the best when everything is fresh, with the dew on the flowers and the smiles on our face. The pack feels light until it pulls your back. We enjoy our last gourmet chocolate croissants from Barcelona and head out at eight.

Today is a short stage. Katia and I chat and dance the whole morning, missing a discreet scallop shell sign on the ground until a local villager puts us back on track. Barely half an hour later, we veer off again, this time towards a beach, naturally! Paul and Katia decide to linger a little longer while I back track till I find my way again. Lesson learned!

Camino Lesson 2: Stay focused on the path! If you get sidetracked, turn back before it is too late!

Day 2. A brand new morning without memory. El Camino del Norte, Asturias, Spain. 2022.
Sharing part of our journey with fun-loving Katia. El Camino del Norte, Asturias, Spain. 2022.
Hydrangea in full bloom. El Camino del Norte, Asturias, Spain. 2022.

I enjoy my solo walk through forest trails and descend upon the pretty coastal city of Luarca just before noon. The albergue is bustling with pilgrims of all sizes and shapes and their transported suitcases. Time to enjoy a classic Asturian bean stew with blood sausage/fabada, followed by grilled ribs and cake. Strangely, all that walking actually cuts your appetite; we have to pack half of that fabulous food away. Alas, it is already time to say goodbye to our dear friend, Sergio, who is stopping here for now, happy to return home to his comfortable bed.

What time are you waking up tomorrow? Katia asks. Five thirty! I reply. It’s a long stage over 30km. She turns to the group sleeping next to us who is setting their alarm at seven. I’m going with them! she decides. That must be the difference between Day 3 for us and Day 23 for her. Why all that hurry?!

Paul has four blisters now. Everything hurts, he says. This must be how growing old feels like… I only smile. What does a twenty-year-old know about aging, walking the Camino or not?!

Did you see this one? Uh oh! Stay focused on the path! El Camino del Norte, Asturias, Spain. 2022.
Arriving in the picturesque town of Luarca. El Camino del Norte, Asturias, Spain. 2022.
Always a joy to see an albergue! El Camino del Norte, Luarca, Asturias, Spain. 2022.
A typical Asturian bean stew with sausages/fabada. Chez la Pepa, Luarca, Asturias, Spain. 2022.

Day 3 Luarca to La Caridad (30 km, 6:30am to 2pm, 7h30)

The day is just breaking as we leave the city of Luarca. The dawn view of bucolic Asturian countryside makes such an imprint on our still-fresh mind. It is one of those magical moments of sheer beauty and purity on the Camino as the sun lovingly rises again while we stroll through acres of corn and bean fields. The path and you, graced with the company of others.

Why do you walk the Camino? Paul asks Bjarne, Erwin, and Dieter who lead the way this morning on our Day 3.

I’m just here to accompany my cousin, Bjarne replies. Family love and support, there is never enough of that to go around. Some moments for reflection, Erwin says. Tragedy, bereavement, career change, life at a crossroad… Rough patches and touch times, hardly surprising reasons that apply to almost everyone in the Camino of life.

Know that you are never alone…

Dieter who walks slowly due to foot pain almost quit after the airline lost his pack for a week. But here he is, more than half way through in his budgeted two-month journey from Irun. The trio plans to stop in Navia after 20km. They have time, they take time…

Day 3: leaving Luarca at dawn. El Camino del Norte, Luarca, Asturias, Spain. 2022.
Magnificent morning view of the Asturian countryside. El Camino del Norte, Asturias, Spain. 2022.
Sunrise on the Camino del Norte, Luarca, Asturias, Spain. 2022.
Paul, Bjarne, Erwin, and Dieter sharing a beautiful morning on our Day 3 to La Caridad. El Camino del Norte, Asturias, Spain. 2022.

All of a sudden, a stocky pilgrim zooms by. You can tell from his pack, speed, and confidence that he knows the Camino like the back of his hand. Jose, from Northern Spain near Andorra, is walking his nth Camino, having done practically all the variants. It’s mental, this Camino, not physical, he keeps saying. Those who walk 50 or 60km a day are not strong; they are crazy! Suffering from a heat rash in his crotch and soldiering on with a penguin gait, Jose has a heel-wide blister on his right foot that is causing him excruciating pain. Medico, manana, medico! Doctor, tomorrow, doctor! he groans.

Strolling through bucolic Asturias. El Camino del Norte, Asturias, Spain. 2022.
El Camino del Norte, Asturias, Spain. 2022.

The sun is out but not harsh and the last ten kilometres feel interminable. We meet Czarina, a Chinese American on her third Camino, when we finally make it to the municipal albergue in La Caridad. Paul passes out immediately on his bunk bed while Jose moans with pleasure in the shower. Soon another mother-son duo, Diletta and eight-year-old Eric, join us. We find ourselves in a celebratory mode, having made steady progress of 30km in a day, but we forget that it’s Sunday in Spain when everything is closed. Paul grabs a plain cheese-plus-dubious-meat bocadillo/sandwich and an ice-cream from a local bar while I nibble on whatever remaining in our pack.

By 7pm, I am already half dozing when Franck drops by to say hi. I met your son earlier, he says. The 47-year-old Belgian is walking his 9th Camino, having debuted some twenty-seven years ago.

Wow, I would love to hear all your storiesanother day, I say.

The Camino is small, we’ll meet again, he replies. I won’t talk about it again. I lost my wife and children last year in a car accident…

I am so sorry…

To take stock, find direction, or come to acceptance… Is that why people return to the Camino? What does it offer that we cannot find elsewhere? Is it in part what Anthony de Mellow describes: The love of laughter and intimacy with people to whom you do not cling and on whom you do not depend emotionally but whose company you enjoy? How do we carry those beautiful connections and experiences with us after we leave the Way?

There is so much pain and suffering on the Camino, Paul says. But I also see how Franck enjoys even the smallest joys. Isn’t the trick then to be able to do so before/despite all that suffering?

Half way through the Camino, my son has his major moment of awakening. Our happiness does not depend on anything. The eternal life is now. Everything else is just an illusion!

Last minute, Paul threw a copy of Hermann Hesse’s Siddartha in his pack. It is uncanny how much of what Hesse wrote exactly a century ago echoes the Camino. Paul on his way to Damascus – oops, Santiago – and is saved!

I have always believed, and I still believe, that whatever good or bad fortune may come our way we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value.

– Hermann Hesse, Siddartha.

Paul and his “Siddhartha” double on his way to Damascus, oops Santiago! El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.

Camino Lesson 3: There will always be pain. Keep going!

Day 4 La Caridad to Ribadeo (23 km, 6:30am-2pm, 7h30)

The forecast is rain but thankfully the clouds stay put for us. We take the blue variant to reach Tapia by the coast and make a pit stop to enjoy calorie-filled churros and fresh baguette. Paul is taking it slow today due to achilles tendonitis and I finish the walk into scenic Ribadeo with Czarina, regaling her previous Camino experiences. We say goodbye to Asturias as the bridge takes us to the next beautiful province of Galicia.

Drunk on our Camino experience! El Camino del Norte, Asturias, Spain. 2022.
An overcast Day 4 en route to Tapia. El Camino del Norte, Asturias, Spain. 2022.
Keep going! El Camino del Norte, Asturias, Spain. 2022.
A high-calorie breakfast of churros. Tapia, el Camino del Norte, Asturias, Spain. 2022.
Only 229km to go! En route to Ribadeo, El Camino del Norte, Asturias, Spain. 2022.
Taking a break, 5km before arriving in Ribadeo. El Camino del Norte, Asturias, Spain. 2022.
The bay of Ribadeo. El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.

Dim sums would be great now, Paul says upon arrival. Funny how we obsess about food during arduous journeys. Alas, lunch is unappetizing pre-cooked pasta and chicken stew. We decide to have dessert first: two Magnum bars each!

It is not even 3pm when we spot a motionless fellow pilgrim in his bed, with his unopened pack. Do you think he’s OK? Paul asks. Are his eyes open? I say. Kind ofhalf-open.

Are you OK? I ask the guy.

I’m totally OK! he replies, to our great relief.

Arek, a 24-year-old robotics graduate hailing from Poland, has been hiking 50km days since Santander, damaging his feet and morale. I’m just resting, he explains, because I plan to wake up at three thirty tomorrow morning. Now his eyes are wide open, giddy with excitement to treat us to his Camino tales of getting lost, finding himself in a town at night, being picked up by a local resident, and staying with his family before finding the scallop shell sign again the next morning. He shows us his Polish regime of a litre of tomato juice, bean stew, and whatever else super-size-me breakfast AND another large can of beans that he carries for lunch. We thought we were idiots, carrying all that food! Pilgrims come in all sizes and shapes. Jose might have a point: walking 50km a day is probably not the wisest thing!

Camino Lesson 4: Some days are tough going while others less. Find your pace.

Getting his credencial stamped at the municipal albergue. Ribadeo, el Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.
“Are you OK?” “I’m totally OK!” Meeting Arek at the albergue. Ribadeo, el Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.
El Camino del Norte, Asturias, Spain. 2022.

Day 5 Ribadeo to Lourenzá (30 km, 7am to 2pm, 7h)

When we wake up at six, Arek is long gone, leaving behind a sweet little note plus a few bandaid tapes for Paul. Random acts of kindness and generosity always go a long way.

Paul’s morning routine of attending to his blisters! Ribadeo municipal albergue, el Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.

Today, we say goodbye to the sea and inch inland. It is my favourite stage, strolling through scenic country trails, despite the length and almost 800m elevation gain. Franck catches up on us and we meet Marta, a young Spanish expat working for the UN on climate change. In such joyous company, one barely notices the kilometres or even the sloping gradient along the way…

Mornings are our favourite moments! Day 5 on el Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.
Strolling through beautiful Galician countryside. El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.
Day 5: en route to Lourenza. El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.
Paul enjoying the company of Marta and Franck. El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.

I can hardly hide my excitement when my daughter, Claire, and her fiance, Tyler, whom I haven’t seen for two full years finally arrive. Generous Franck treats us to a pilgrim combo meal of eggs, fries, and meat, all washed down with a delicious local wine. Marta and Hermann, a history teacher from Switzerland, sit at the next table where Doramas, from Gran Canaria, magically pulls out his clarinet – that extra kilo that he has been hauling since Irun – and starts playing Les Copains D’abord

It was their only litany

Their Credo, their Confiteor

Friends first

At the slightest blow from Trafalgar

It’s the friendship that took the quarter

It was she who showed them the north

Showed them the north

And when they were in distress

That their arms were throwing S.O.S.

It looked like the semaphores

Friends first

Meeting good friends

– George Brassens, Les Copains D’Abord.

The Camino is an action-packed joyride through the roller coaster of life, with the safety belt more or less securely fastened, till the adventure is over and it is time to return to hard, solid ground. It is like a vintage sweet wine that one savours slowly over time, letting its full-bodiedness fill the palette before settling in the soul. I see how the Camino can be addictive. Having tasted the elixir once, you get greedy! Barely into our journey, we are already at risk of becoming future Camino “junkies”, plotting our next, longer route…

Checking in with Ana and getting our Camino stamp. Auberge Triskel, Lourenza, El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.
Finally, Claire and Tyler arrive! Dominique helping us to check in. Auberge Triskel, Lourenza, El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.
Doramas playing Les Copains D’abord and Desafinado. Lourenza, El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.

The suave last notes of Desafinado flow from Doramas’ horn, lingering in this sweet evening that no one wants to end. But end everything must, leaving behind only fragments of memories that we carry with us long after the walking is over…

Camino Lesson 5: Whenever possible, share the burden!

Day 6 Lourenzá to Gontán (25 km, 7:30am to 2:30pm, 7h)

We enjoy a slow wholesome breakfast with hot chocolate, juice, bread, yoghurts and fruits before setting out for another long day. It is a steady climb to Mondonedo where most pilgrims make a long stop to visit the cathedral or take a strong coffee to prepare for the next steep ascent. We see Katia again who has been hiking with the bigger elderly group from Luarca; brave little Eric, the youngest pilgrim, with his mom; and always the lively gang of Franck, Doramas, Marta, Hermann, Sebastien, and Mady…

Enjoying a wholesome improvised breakfast on the Camino. Lourenza, el Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.
Day 6. Lourenzá Cathedral. El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.
Tyler, Claire and Paul, three of the younger pilgrims on el Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.
Doramas enjoying a water break. El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.
A photo pitstop at the Mondonedo Cathedral. Mondonedo, el Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.
Eric, 8, the youngest pilgrim, and his mom, Diletta (behind). El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.

In Mondonedo, we take the less steep but 6km longer complementario route, winding through long stretches of forests and asphalt roads that are torturous for the knees, gaining 1000m steadily. It is a long, exhausting day. Paul has to make brief stops to attend to his achilles tendonitis and cool his overheated feet.

Cooling off his overheated feet! El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.

Can you take me a picture, please? suddenly someone asks. Make sure you centre me within the white frame!

I have seen the quiet solo elderly pilgrim in two earlier stages, with his tiny blue daypack. If not for the signature Camino shell that he is carrying, one could easily mistake him as a local villager going for a leisurely day stroll. At 83, Antonello has walked close to 10,000km of Camino and shows no sign of slowing.

Why do you walk the Camino? Paul asks him.

It’s a gift from God! he replies.

At his age – at any age – everything is a gift from God.

Camino Lesson 6: Cherish each encounter along the way.

Eighty-three-year young Antonello and Paul, sharing a moment on the Camino en route to Gontan. El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.
“Where are you going?” a local villager asks. “To Santiago!” El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.

Day 7 Gontán to Vilalba (24 km, 7:30-11:30am, 4h)

After a full week, I finally find my Camino rhythm, awaking at six, walking at seven thirty, at 4-5km/hour, depending on the terrain, breaking camp early to shower, do laundry, lunch, rest, and journal, and retreating to bed at 9pm. It is so comforting to follow a routine in this otherwise experimental environment of spending entire days just walking. I seem to have crossed a threshold that pilgrims talk about. All my pain is gone. What remains is a deep sense of joy, peace, and gratitude, for my robust health and the opportunity to experience the Camino with my family, in such marvellous company. Antonello is right, what a gift from high heaven!

Day 7 to Vilalba. El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.
Crossing onto the other side, physically and metaphorically. El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.

I listen to Glenn Gould’s forever graceful Goldberg Variations before switching to Dave Brubeck’s uplifting Take Five. Just as I ease into a meditative mode for my final approach to Vilalba, Franck materializes out of the woods.

Finally, I get some of that rage out of my system! he says.

I do not remember how I respond, being uncertain how I would have reacted in his place amidst such unfathomable tragedy. How does one heal from such trauma but through acceptance and a huge overdose of self-compassion?

Imagine someone makes the radical decision to walk the Camino ad infinitum till the end of her life, with all the amazing encounters, realizations, and necessary farewell along the way. Would the person get one step closer each day to herself and to peace, by walking?

Camino Lesson 7: Invest in new pairs of better-fitting socks and shoes! Remove stone – or sand or anything that hurts – in your shoes!

Here is my book of forgiving

The pages are well worn

Here are the places I struggled

Here are the places I passed through with ease

Here is my book of forgiving

Some of the pages are tear-stained and torn

Some are decorated with joy and laughter

Some of its pages are written with hope

Some are etched with despair

This is my book of forgiving

This book is full of stories and secrets

It tells how I finally broke free from being defined by injury

And chose to become a creator again

Offering forgiveness

Accepting that I am forgiven

Creating a world of peace

– Desmond and Mpho Tutu, The Book of Forgiving.

My Day 7’s thought experiment: What if I go on el Camino ad infinitum? El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.

Day 8 Vilalba to Baamonde (22 km, 7am-12:30pm, 5h30)

Paul wakes up early to leave for a solo day. Since Claire and Tyler enjoying walking together, I go at my own pace when I am greeted by a surprise morning visitor: a deer!

Camino Lesson 8: One day at a time. You never know what each new morning brings!

Claire and Tyler in Vilalba.El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.
A typical Galician cemetery. El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.

I see Katia one last time before she buses to Santiago tomorrow to avoid the crowd of the last 100km. At a junction, I cross paths with Lewis and Marissa from the USA and we share an hour or so together, talking about solitude, community, and spiritual journey…

One last photo with Katia and her walking companions. En route to Baamonde, El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.

When I arrive at the beautiful albergue, I find my famished son snacking on chips and candies, awaiting check-in. Lunch is urgent and our short day’s efforts are amply rewarded by a tasty menu del dia of pasta soup, fish fritters, salads, and almond tart of Santiago at a popular local bistro.

Enjoying a nourishing lunch at a local bistro. Baamonde, el Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.
Our favourite dessert: almond tart of Santiago! Baamonde, el Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.

Back at the bustling albergue, Paul enjoys a long, enlightening chat with Lewis who went through a similar phase of spiritual crisis. What advice would you give to a twenty-year-old? Paul asks. We do not think ourselves into a new way of living. We live ourselves into a new way of thinking, Lewis replies, quoting Richard Rohr. What a gift to live twelve long days into a new way of being!

We are not going in circles, we are going upwards. The path is a spiral; we have already climbed many steps.

― Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha.

One step at a time on El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.

Day 9 Baamonde to Sobrado dos Monxes (32km, 6:30am-2pm, 7h30)

We set off in the dark at six for the longest stage of our journey, crossing long stretches of beautiful eucalyptus forests and uninhabited villages dotted throughout the Galician countryside. We have come to enjoy our Camino routine of walking: all the fresh mornings, beautiful nature, amazing encounters, and unforgettable conversations. I am almost feeling sad that our journey will soon be over in a few days…

Camino Lesson 9: Know when it is time to say goodbye.

Morning light en route to Sobrado dos Monxes. El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.
Day 9: the long trek to Sobrado dos Monxes. El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.
A long stretch of asphalt road en route to Sobrado dos Monxes. El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.

The 1000-year-old Sobrado dos Monxes Monastery is a total haven: air-conditioned refurbished luxury bunk beds with private lamp and socket; a large, clean, and fully equipped kitchen; a sunny courtyard and sprawling grounds to socialize or meditate. We go fetch eight ice-cream bars and cones to celebrate the end of this long stage and chill for the rest of the day. I meet Brent, a fellow sociologist, for an impromptu, extended conversation on travels, research, and spirituality. What an enjoyable evening, yet another Camino gift!

The magnificent 1000-year-old Sobrado dos Monxes Monastery. El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.
Diner sur l’herbe at Sobrado dos Monxes Monastery. El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.

Day 10 Sobrado dos Monxes to Arzúa (19 km, 9:30am to 1:30pm, 4h)

After awaking early for ten days in a row, we decide to take it easy, enjoying a long, slow improvised breakfast of bread, peanut butter, juice, and yoghurt. At nine, we are the last ones to leave as Father Laurence closes the gate to get ready for Sunday mass. The end definitely feels near…

Sobrado dos Monxes Monastery, El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.
Taking it easy on our Day 10. Yeah, the end is near! Sobrado dos Monxes Monastery, El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.
Enjoying an improvised slow breakfast. Sobrado dos Monxes Monastery, El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.
Day 10: the end is near! El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.

In Boimil, I am distracted by a weekend marathon and follow the wrong variant. Just as I make my u-turn, I spot a tall, slender pilgrim continuing his way. Are you going to Arzua? I ask. It’s the wrong way!

That is how Finn and I meet, at a crossroad off trail. The Dubliner had planned a cross country road trip in the US but decided to do the Camino instead due to Covid restrictions. We walk the remaining 10km together to Arzua, chatting pretty much about everything under that morning’s sun from health to books, his odyssey to the Burning Man Festival in Nevada, my Iceland to Iran trip and journey to documentary photography, his father’s sudden passing and my minimalist living. When you are in such good company, the Camino walks itself, requiring almost zero effort!

Camino Lesson 10: It’s the people you remember. Share your journey with generous and loving people (without attachments)!

Meeting Finn at a crossroad. Arzua, el Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.

Everyone arrives just in time for a deluxe family lunch of roast beef and red wine and almond tart, lovingly prepared by the well respected octogenarian matron chef at Restaurante Carballeira. I feel so tipsy that I could barely trek the 1km back to the albergue where, at 4pm, all other pilgrims are snoring and fast asleep!

The legendary Camino fatigue hits your body like nothing else! Albergue de Camino, Arzua, el Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.

I know you are tired. But Come, this is the way.

– Rumi

Day 11 Arzúa – Santa Irene (18 km, 8:30am to noon, 3h30)

We are once again the last ones to leave. Die-hard habits are hard to kick; we enjoy slow breakfasts! Arzua is where the French Route joins el Norte. What a shock to see crowds after spending ten days in relative calm and peace in the company of mostly solo pilgrims. It is a short second last stage to reach the albergue just outside Santa Irene to avoid busy Pedrouzo.

Oscar making music, en route to Santa Irene. El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.
Inching close to Santiago. El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022. –

I share another few km with Finn this morning, chatting about sound baths, Vipassana, and butoh dance before meeting two fellow Canadians, Madeleine and Marc, from Quebec who started their journey with their customized cart in Le Puy-en-Velay in France, 1500km away!

Camino Lesson 11: Enjoy each moment that the journey brings.

Madeleine and Marc, from Quebec, hauling their cart from Le Puy-en-Velay, 1500km away! El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.
The last 40km to Santiago. El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.

Day 12 Santa Irene – Santiago de Compostela (22 km, 8am-2pm, 6h)

Finally, the last day is upon us in our approach to Santiago! A foggy morning adds further mystique to the end of our Camino experience. It is impossible to describe the complex emotions one feels in those last kilometres. The efforts but also the joy, a sense of completion but also fully knowing a new Camino is about to begin…

What is your Santiago? Claire asks.

Nothingness, like Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot would be my immediate response. But this is not an easy question. Maybe we only get to know the answer in the years to come…

it looks like the end

it seems like a sunset

but in reality it is a dawn…

when for the last time

you close your mouth

your words and soul

will belong to the world of

no place no time

– Rumi

The final approach to Santiago on our last day! El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.
Saying goodbye to the Galician countryside. El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.
The last 5kg to Santiago!
The interminable last few kilometres. El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.
Almost there! El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.

The excitement is palpable when we finally catch a glimpse of the spires of the Santiago Cathedral from Monte de Gozo merely 5km away. Somehow the last stretch is always the hardest; the long descent into Santiago feels interminable. We are now almost limping at 2km/hour and stare at the long winding stairs leading up to Seminario Menor with dismay. Oh no, not this now! Up we haul our exhausted body for one last climb and check in our private room with a stupendous view. How good it feels to put down our packs and remove our boots! A celebratory lunch will have to wait till the following day as Claire feels nauseous after all those efforts. Paul and I head out for a treat of rabbit over rice and almond tart of Santiago. A perfect sweet ending!

First glimpse of the Santiago Cathedral! Monte de Gozo, 5km from Santiago, Spain. 2022.
Yeah, finally, reaching our destination! Santiago, Spain. 2022.
The view from my room! Seminario Menor, Santiago, Spain. 2022.
A celebratory lunch. Santiago, el Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.

We made it! After months of preparation, twelve days of endurance, and 300km, we find ourselves in front of the grandiose Santiago Cathedral with fellow pilgrims who hug and cheer, like war veterans who have known the trials and tribulations of victories and defeats small and big…

We head to the pilgrims’ office the following morning with our credencial filled with stamps – and sweat – to get our Camino certificate before attending the 9:30am mass where the priests perform the iconic swinging of the botafumeiro/incense burner traditionally used to stave off the pilgrims’ smell!

A celebratory lunch is in order at the restaurant of the Hospital Real de Santiago de Compostela that has served pilgrims for the past 500 years. One by one, we say goodbye to our friends who continue their onward journey – Diletta and Eric, Finn, Pepe and Sylvia, Waldi, Marc and Madeleine – until we are left with our self again, ready to take the next step…

The reason why I do not know anything about myself, the reason why Siddhartha has remained alien and unknown to myself is due to one thing, to one single thing–I was afraid of myself, I was fleeing from myself… One must find the source within one’s own Self, one must possess it. Everything else was seeking — a detour, an error.

– Hermann Hesse, Siddartha.

Camino Lesson 12: No one can walk your path. Keep going. Buen Camino!

Cathedral. Santiago, Spain. 2022.
We made it! Cathedral of Santiago. Santiago, Spain. 2022.
Paul, the vlogger in action. Santiago, Spain. 2022.
Congratulations on completing your Camino pilgrimage! Getting the Camino Certificate, Pilgrims’ Office. Santiago, Spain. 2022.
Swinging the botafumeiro, the heaviest incense burner in the world in the Santiago Cathedral. Santiago, Spain. 2022.
Attending mass to celebrate. Cathedral. Santiago, Spain. 2022.
Cathedral. Santiago, Spain. 2022.
Cathedral. Santiago, Spain. 2022.
Cathedral. Santiago, Spain. 2022.
Cathedral. Santiago, Spain. 2022.
Hospital Real de Santiago de Compostela. Santiago, Spain. 2022.
Brave little Eric who completed his epic Camino from Irun to Santiago. Santiago, Spain. 2022.
Pepe and Sylvia. Santiago, Spain. 2022.
Saying goodbye to three fellow Canadian pilgrims: Madeleine, Waldi, and Mark. Santiago, Spain. 2022.

I know I have the best of time and space, and was never measured and never will be measured.

I tramp a perpetual journey, (come listen all!)

My signs are a rain-proof coat, good shoes, and a staff cut from the woods,

No friend of mine takes his ease in my chair,

I have no chair, no church, no philosophy,

I lead no man to a dinner-table, library, exchange,

But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll,

My left hand hooking you round the waist,

My right hand pointing to landscapes of continents and the public road.

Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,

You must travel it for yourself.

– Walt Whitman, Song of Myself.

El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.
Paul finding himself on the Camino. El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.
Love birds Claire and Tyler on the Camino. El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.
Santiago, Spain. 2022.
Time to say goodbye! Tyler, Paul, and Claire at the Santiago Airport. Santiago, Spain. 2022.

I take one step at a time, gonna leave my past behind

On this pilgrim’s walk I found, it’s a pilgrim’s walk I found

Admitted that I couldn’t, was the hardest part

Only god can heal a life, mend a broken heart

So I turned it over to him, and he said pass this way again

And I’ll run this race till I find a place,

Of could have been

And it’s a pilgrim’s walk I found

Well I’ve not get around, but I think I’m gaining ground

I take one step at a time, gonna leave my past behind

On this pilgrim’s walk I found, it’s a pilgrim’s walk I found.

– Pilgrim’s Walk

El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.
Buuuuuen Caminooooo! Sobrado dos Monxes Monastery, el Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.
El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.
El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Spain. 2022.

Next: Berlin!

All Content © 2022 by Jennifer Chan