Santiago de Compostela | You don't choose a life. You live one.

You don't choose a life. You live one.
Imagine this. After five days of walking through the mountains of Spain on ancient Roman roads with nothing but a sack on our backs, a worn down walking stick, and our bruised and bleeding feet we arrived to the final hill overlooking Santiago de Compostella. Our dirty faces, and raggedy clothes hung from out bodies as we hunched over from the magnitude of the pilgrimage. Then we saw it. "Santiago de Compostela?", one of us asked. -  "Si", another cheered. "Si" we began yelling. Arms in the air "Si! Si! Si!". Yes we had arrived, just five kilometers from the Cathedral, and the burial chamber for Saint James. We began running down the hill, jumping, yelling "yes" in Spanish till we arrived at the city limits. Days earlier we were no one, strangers, but  today we were the heroes of our own stories, finishing a chapter of our lives.

Upon arriving at the Cathedral of Santiago, I dropped in the pew with exhaustion and stared up at Jesus hanging above the alter. Jesus and I had many conversations on The Way, many of which were very ugly. Indeed as a skeptic of all things supernatural, I tended to be quite vocal in my anger with this imaginary apparition as I screamed at him into thin-air while walking, tripping, falling, or getting yet another rock in my shoe. One hill after another I'd triumph over, and curse into the clouds and demand defiantly "is that all you got?" My foot was cramping, my arm is bleeding, and head pouring in sweat, and his answer would come in the form of another hill, twice as high, just minutes later. Yet in the end, everything placed in between me and Santiago de Compostela became nothing more than the fleeting memories of pain and anguish, as the once doubted success of my journey became accomplishment

Camino de Santiago
There were times of beauty, wonder, and then times of starvation, cold, and exhaustion.  Mornings are filled with conviction, and evenings often with self-hate. That's not to say some don't make the pilgrimage look effortless. Some journey with thousands of dollars in name-brand equipment, some with none at all. Some spend months on the Camino, others race to the finish. The truth is each journey is unique to the pilgrim. The reward is either your heaven or your hell. I've seen marathon runners and trained athletes quit after three days in tears, but witnessed 70 year old men with triple bypass surgeries arrive in Santiago with pregnant women. There's no amount of training or prerequisite that makes you ready for walking the Camino. You don't choose this life, the Camino chooses you. You're always just inches from a broken ankle, a sharp fall off a cliff, or dehydration. Destiny may decide your journey, but freewill determines your success.

Back in Brussels, my classmate counterparts took off for swimming and drinking in Budapest, Venice, London and Rome. My fall break began when I boarded a Vueling flight for north west Spain. A single ticket, and a backpack with three pairs of clothes followed me as I stepped off the bus in the isolated small town of Sarria. That day I began walking the week-long trek of 118 K (approx. 75 miles) to Santiago de Compostela. Along the way I met lots of wonderful people, ate lots of great food, and witnessed parts of the world reserved for those lucky few who travel this same road. Those who live this life.

I met divorcees, cancer patients, people from all over the world. I had dinner with strangers, ate octopus and drank bottles of wine. I spoke in German, French, English and Spanish though I only speak a bit of three of them. I took the long way round, and lived my life a kilometer at a time. I rested on rock walls, crossed ancient rivers, and felt every emotion from anger, to exhilaration. Whether a week, or forty days on the Camino, you live an entire lifetime on the Camino. A world destined to fade into a story, your legend, upon your return home.

One day in the future you'll be sitting on your child's bed, telling them this story how mommy went to this magical land where she followed an 8th century Roman brick road adorned with yellow arrows and shells to this golden cathedral of this great and powerful man. Likely they'll turn to you clutching Baum's Oz asking "did it really happen?"

"Oh yes my dear, such a place does exist."

This is when you kiss them on the head and tuck them into bed, and before you close the book you read the page and chuckle...

"A place where there isn't any trouble. It's not a place you can get to by a boat or a train. It's far, far away. Behind the moon, beyond the rain. "

As you walk out of the room, and shut off the light, a tired little voice whispers into the darkness "it was never about getting to the end, was it mommy?"

"I walk the Camino everyday sweetheart."

The Camino's beginning is actually its end. The moment you arrive is when you begin living your life one step at a time.

In 2016, I returned to the Camino: Read it here.


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