by Matthew Karren
“Oh wow, yeah, those are really visible.”
I rolled my sleeves back down.
“How did you get those?” he asked.
I explained that when you’re walking the pilgrimage, you try to stay out of the heat of the day. To do that, you wake up at 6 o’clock in the morning and walk your 25km to the next destination. If everything goes according to plan, you get there at 1 in the afternoon and you will have just missed the 31 celsius weather that comes on in the afternoon. However, when you’re walking due west that early in the morning, and the sun rises in the east, you constantly have the sun at your back which translates into ridiculous tan lines on your neck, arms and calves.
My tan lines, as well as the half healed scars on my feet had become conversation starters while I was attending a youth camp about a month later.
Graduation from high school can be harder than it seems. Students can get so wrapped up in the idea of having finished school, and finally being able to leave, that they fail to realize how much structure school creates in your life. As soon as there is no daily schedule, no homework, no deadlines, and no school after the summer, they start feeling pretty lost. I was one of those students.
To prevent stress from all these crazy and sudden changes, me and my father wanted to plan a trip for the week after my last exam. He needed a vacation, and I needed something to do while waiting for my results. We narrowed our options down to a handful of interesting places we could visit, and we finally settled on walking a large part of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
I didn’t bother doing any research about the history of this pilgrimage beforehand like my dad, because I was studying for my exams. Instead I had to pick it all up from conversation with other pilgrims on the journey. I learned that the reason the clam shell was the symbol of the pilgrimage was because Saint James, the biblical apostle of Jesus Christ, was shipwrecked off the western coast of Spain, and did not survive. When his body washed up on shore, it is said to have been covered in large clam shells.
I learned why some of the pilgrims argued that the road to Santiago should start in Aachen, Germany instead of St. Jean, France where most people decided to start in the modern day. They argued that in 812, the great Frankish king Charlemagne, who had recently been crowned Holy Roman Emperor, and who lived in his court in Aachen, decided to visit the grave of Saint James in Santiago as a pilgrim. Since then the Catholic church has regarded the pilgrimage to Santiago as the most important, and will even offer full indulgences to pilgrims during the years when St. James day falls on a Sunday.
On an exceptionally difficult walk down a mountain and through scorching heat, we passed through a city which had been a historic stronghold of the Knights Templar, who had taken it upon themselves to guard the religious pilgrims on the perilous road to Santiago. We sat in the shade of the buildings sipping our coca colas and marvelling at the impressive castle.
At one point I asked my dad why there seemed to be so many Koreans walking the pilgrimage in comparison to other asian nationalities. He explained that about a century ago, the pilgrimage was almost never walked anymore, until a man decided to walk it and write a book about it. The book created a resurgence in popularity, and by some chance caught on in Korea much more than in other asian countries. We figured out that the Camino de Santiago was to Koreans what Paris is to the Japanese.
I started learning more than just the history of the Camino. I learned that walking over 300 kilometers in fairly new hiking boots is a terrible idea. The fact that we had to completely quit walking halfway to our destination one day, the fact that I now have no fear in popping my own blisters, and the fact that my feet still aren’t fully healed all attest that this was maybe the hardest lesson I had to learn.
Another lesson we were forced to learn was not to trust our guidebook. Whoever wrote the thing must’ve been slightly mislead. On our day walking up the Cantabrian mountains, we had planned to stop in a place called Foncebadón at the top of the mountain. The guidebook had led us to believe that it would be much bigger than it actually was. Even though there were spectacular views from the terrace of the café, the town wasn’t much more than the café. Later that day we were convinced that we would be able to stop in a place called Manjarín, very close to where the descent down the mountains began. At one point we saw a couple of rundown barns and a small ‘refugio’ in the place where Manjarín was supposed to be. Apparently it was so small it didn’t even have a sign coming into town. Luckily we were having a good day and we were able to go halfway down the mountain to the next proper village, but we vowed not to trust the guidebook too much after that day.
I learned not to be too uncomfortable around other people, and not to worry too much about privacy. If we stayed in a room with another fifty people in bunk beds, we wouldn’t care. I started not caring about their loud nightly noises (even though my dad had a bit of a harder time with that). I learned not to be too weirded out by lacy women’s underwear hanging from my bed, which belonged to the woman in the bunk under me.
I tripled my knowledge of Spanish on the Camino. Up until then I knew ‘Hola,’ ‘Gracias,’ and a wide variety of Spanish names for different kinds of Mexican food. Now I can say, ‘Yo no sé,’ ‘Yo quiero dos Coca-Colas por favor,’ ‘Nosotros somos peregrinos,’ ’Hola,’ ‘Gracias,’ and a wide variety of Spanish names for different kinds of Mexican food.
Finally, I learned a lot about myself. I learned how to make my mind slow down. I learned how to be almost completely disconnected from technology and the internet. I learned how to keep going through pain. I learned to appreciate a great many things that I didn’t have while on the road. I learned that I can keep going for another 10km if I’ve had another Coca Cola and a plate of Tortilla de Patatas. I learned how to paint Spain. I learned how to have a meaningful conversation with a complete stranger.
The funny thing is, I hadn’t realized that I had learned all of this until I was back home.