Friday, April 3, 2015

Trials, Tribulations, and Joys of a Would-Be Pilgrim

I was done.



I had spent a year-and-a-half with Erinn's help organizing a student pilgrimage along The Camino de Santiago de Compostela—a hike of one hundred and fifteen kilometers across Galicia, in northern Spain.

The idea was for everyone to experience the life of a pilgrim and, at the end of the journey, earn a Compostela—a certificate of accomplishment awarded to pilgrims who, regardless of religion, have completed at least a hundred kilometers of The Way.

While researching the trip—something that became an obsession—I read many accounts that mention that the gravest danger a pilgrim faces at the onset is to allow one’s adrenaline to take over. In the exuberance of starting the great adventure, many pilgrims push themselves beyond their limits, leaving common sense behind, which often causes an injury that can end the pilgrimage.

That is exactly what happened to me.

In spite of being aware of this peril, on the first day I tried to match the students’ pace. Halfway through the march of twenty-four kilometers, I felt a sharp twinge in my right knee. By the time we arrived in Portomarín, the destination of our first day, the knee had swollen to the size of a small melon. My dream of walking alongside the students and earning a long coveted Compostela at the end of the trail came to a sudden, grinding halt.

As soon as I realized that my personal quest was over, I accepted the loss of the certificate, but I refused to separate myself emotionally from the pilgrims.

To remain connected to the students, to Erinn, and to John Lionet (our marvelous Worldstrides Guide) I had only one option: to experience The Camino vicariously through every one of them.

For the next two days, my routine became as follows: I would join the pilgrims for breakfast, take a group photo before they departed, and wish them a Buen Camino with a line from the film The Princess Bride—“Bye, kids. Have fun storming the castle.”

I would then catch a ride to our next destination, settle down in our hotel, and at the estimated time of their arrival, wait out front to welcome them gushingly.

In other words, since the injury forced me to sit on the sidelines, I happily became the cheerleader.

At the conclusion of each day’s journey, I would have them share their experiences, which they did with generosity. I smiled, laughed, and marveled at their anecdotes; and I empathized with the aches and pains of their feet, knees, calves, legs, hips, and backs.

We all learned that being a pilgrim is a difficult and painful endeavor.

The truly amazing thing is that I never heard a single whine about the pain or the hardships. Admirably, starting with the first step they acquired a pilgrim’s mentality. The Latin medieval greeting of pilgrims—Ultreïa! Et suseia! (onward and upward)—perfectly identified the group’s attitude.

And my ritual of listening to their experiences became the highlight of my days. Learning what they had lived through became a treasured moment, as it gave me the sense of still being a full-fledged member of the pilgrimage.

On the fourth and fifth days, I was able to walk again, but always at a far slower pace than that of my companions. To counter this, I’d get a head start in the morning. Whenever they caught up, they’d ask me how I was doing, say a few encouraging words, and continue on their way. Although they’d soon be out of sight, I was thrilled to have walked a small portion of the journey with them.

For the last day, the day we would reach Santiago de Compostela, I couldn’t join them—my knee was swollen once again and I had to bow out of the triumphant final march. That morning I took one last group photograph before they embarked on the concluding stretch of the quest. As I watched them leave, I felt as if I were a proud parent who had sent his children on a great adventure in which they were bound to succeed.

Once the pilgrims were out of sight, I gathered my backpack and hopped on a bus to Santiago. I visited the Cathedral, paid my respect to the apostle, limped around the medieval part of the city, and eventually found some delightful steps along the main route to the Cathedral plaza.

The temperature was a bit on the chilly side, but a strong sun cut through the cold, comfortingly warming me. An outstanding violinist, accompanied by a guitarist, played hauntingly beautiful Galician melodies that resonated with the Celtic heritage Galicia shares with Ireland. The atmosphere was serene and peaceful. Pilgrims embraced each other all around me as they celebrated the end of their long journeys. The scene was so soothing that, unknowingly, I fell asleep, even though I was sitting upright and with my back resting against a stone step.

When I awoke, I was worried that my pilgrims may have passed by and not seen me. Then, the instant I glanced down the street, I saw them approaching, their eyes taking everything in.

Unexpectedly, another group of pilgrims started to clap and cheer for our group’s arrival. The spontaneous gesture brought a few tears to my eyes and I joined in the welcome as well.

At that instant, I knew that The Camino had turned us into a family, something I had never experienced during any trip in all my years of teaching. A pilgrimage, I now realize, has a way of stripping down the walls that exist between people—allowing us to expose our frailties because of the strong bond of trust that develops with those who walk alongside us.

In walking The Camino together, we had become precious to one another, and although I was unable to complete the journey with the Balboa Academy Pilgrims, they kept me within their fellowship as a full participant of their accomplishment.

As for my not receiving a Compostela … I’ll be back in September, this time starting in Saint Jean Pied de Port, to give it another try.

Until next time, my fellow pilgrims and I wish every reader a Buen Camino.