By CLARA HAYES
When my cousin first asked me to go on a walking holiday with her across the Camino de Santiago, I actually thought she was joking. For she knows too well the only place I ever walk is down the high street with shopping bags in my hands and high heels on my feet. But, she pestered me and said “it would be good for me.” Personally, I thought a night on the tiles while sipping Champagne would be better, but I heard her out. After all, she was my best friend.
After a few strolls along the beach having girly chats with my cousin, she won me over. I agreed to walk over 100 kms across The French Way of the Camino from Sarria to Santiago. She had all the plans, as it is something she’d been wanting to do for a long time. And looking at the bigger picture, the timing couldn’t have been better for me. For I still had the echo of my ex-boyfriend in my head saying I’m “too high maintenance” and a heavy weight in my heart from the break-up. It had been over 3 months since he told me he’d had enough of my “nit-picking” as he called it and just left. Since that day, I’ve questioned myself. How did I not even see a sign that it was coming? I thought we were happy. Now, if Facebook is anything to go by, he’s happy with “What’s Her Face” and I’m well, just miserable and lost.
Apparently, however, new challenges are good for growth so I bought some new walking shoes and a fleece jacket (so not my style) and booked the holiday (if that’s what you’d call it).
On arrival in our hotel the first night in Sarria, I was pleasantly surprised. The hotel was big and modern and just like one I’d book myself to stay in if I was on a nice weekend away. I remember thinking that maybe this pilgrimage “thingy” wouldn’t be so bad after all.
The first day out on the Camino was one of our longest. I was thrown into the deep end: 23kms from Sarria to Portomarin. Leading up to the trip, I had done a few practice walks with my cousin. However, I had never walked continuously for 23 kms ever before in my life! I was certain that I was going to keel over and die. But, after a couple of hours walking, we stopped for coffee and got chatting with other pilgrims on a sunny terrace. Maybe it wouldn’t be too bad after all. I mean, we were already 7kms in at this stage. We continued paso a paso for another two hours before we stopped for lunch. At this stage, my stomach was growling and I felt ready to devour a feast. Luckily for my cousin, the food was good; if not, I would have been a nightmare as I’m the first to admit that I’m moody when I’m hungry. After lunch, we set off again. Amazingly, we had already covered 13kms. It’s actually surprising how quickly the kilometers go by when you’re chatting and enjoying endless scenic views. Regarding these, you’d have to have a stone heart not to be inspired by the beauty of nature along the Way. There would be one more coffee stop before we arrived in Portomarin with aching legs and feet but with hearts throbbing with pride. I had made it. It was the longest walk of my life—and I was alive to tell the tale.
Each day, we stuck to the same pattern. Before 8:00 a.m., we were up-and-out on the Camino to get as much ground covered before the sun got too strong. Around 10:30 a.m. came a coffee break followed by lunch around 1:00 p.m. And then, there would be another coffee break shortly before arriving in whatever small town was hosting us on that night. Every day that passed, or should I say that I survived, I began to believe more and more that I would make it to the end, the jewel in the crown – Santiago. I would get to see the epic Cathedral of St. James! With every step, I felt like I was walking further away from my problems back home and closer— to the answers. Closer to a new version of me. A me who is stronger, less obsessed with material stuff, and better able to appreciate the beauty of life’s little pleasures, even the beauty in just walking and spending time with a loved one.
Step-by-step and day-by-day, we moved closer to our destination. And a strange thing was happening to me. The lines were becoming blurred as to whether my destination was a physical place, like Santiago, or rather, if it was a place inside of me. I say this because it seemed every day out there, just walking, I learned things about myself that I never knew. For example, I supinate when I walk. Imagine, I’ve been walking for over 30 years and I never knew this random fact about myself. And while getting to know myself physically, I also came to learn about myself both emotionally and mentally. I know that I can be a bit of a moan at times, but even the fact that I know this helps me to keep it at bay. I also know that even through the moaning and whining, I am strong enough to get through challenges bigger than I have ever taken on before. I am confident of this. I am more confident of many things. I am certain that when I stood dwarfed in front of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, I was bigger than I have ever been. Standing there, I felt proud in the knowledge that, in completing my pilgrimage, I deserved to be there. Having traveled outside my comfort zone, my comfort zone was now bigger.
And so am I.
I want to thank my ever enduring cousin Gail for her love and support and the team at Follow-The-Camino for organizing such a magical trip for me.
CLARA HAYES works in a pharmacy in Dublins’ City Centre and enjoys socialising with friends and attending events like fashion shows and cultural events. She comes from a large Irish family of 5 siblings and has a huge extended family hence, her best friend being her cousin Gail. Her father owns the local shop in their community which is newsagents so she grew up servicing the local customers and continues that into her present work life.