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Walking the Camino de Santiago: Pilgrimage on My Terms (Part I)

By Lu Sobredo

Mother and Son Bonding on the Camino, ©James Sobredo


Walking near the border of France and Spain through the Spanish Pyrenees to the city of Santiago de Compostela was not the vacation I envisaged, not for my first trip to Spain in 2010. However, my husband James, the avid adventurer had other ideas born out of an earlier visit to Madrid and Seville in 2006. It was a decision that turned out to be monumental for the family and deeply personal for me.

This essay is sprinkled with practical hints of lessons learned from the pilgrimage. It is a personal reflection about the physically challenging, emotionally invigorating, and spiritually uplifting experience. It was an experience made increasingly significant because of a life-changing diagnosis that followed three years later, a diagnosis that has rendered me chronically disabled. I sincerely hope this serves as an important reminder to all: act now on your dream to travel while you can because tomorrow is promised to no one.

Friends are talking about it. You have been thinking about the movie: The Way after watching it for the third time. The inspirational movie featured a traditional Camino, It starred Martin Sheen, and was directed, produced and written by his son, Emilio Esteves. Furthermore, you are seeing Facebook postings from travel companies offering different options for guided and self-guided tours. You feel you are ready to take a serious leap and go on the Camino. But where to begin?

Keep in mind, there is not a prescribed way to prepare for the hike or for completing the Camino. You could find descriptions online of what a Camino pilgrimage looks like, and about how others completed their journey. However, how you choose to venture the Camino, which walking path to take, for how long, and more importantly how the Camino eventually defines you must be on your terms. That’s how I ultimately chose to do it: on my own terms, with and apart from my family’s individual experience in the summer of 2010. Mind you, I didn’t know what to expect when we started, except for the physical demands I might encounter. Even so, parts of the journey were more physically demanding than expected. I could have easily waved the pilgrimage goodbye in the early going.

A Loaded Backpack, Photo©James Sobredo
Persistence paid off. Many encounters turned out totally fulfilling, and overall, thoroughly transformative. Learning to make adjustments along the way consequently led to making the Camino my own—a journey filled with pleasure, with discomfort averted or diminished, and one that’s mostly hassle-free.

My husband James is the true card-carrying adventurer in the family. In addition to venturing the Camino with family that summer of 2010, he again did it in the late spring and early summer of 2013 and this time on his own. He walked 800 km across Spain (that’s 500 miles for us who are not familiar with the metric system). He took the route referred to as Camino Frances, or French Way, the same one taken by the family three years before. That wasn't enough for him. After a 500 mile journey, hubby also walked the Portuguese Way, and altogether covered 600 plus miles, for six weeks in 2013. In the summer of 2016, when visiting the western coastal region of Spain, during one of our drives through the countryside, we noticed a couple of pilgrims hiking the Camino del Norte trail. For a brief moment, my husband was tempted, but the path didn't look that exciting to him, nor was it well-traveled. Besides, it wasn't part of the plan that summer. Thank goodness, as I would not have been able to join him. With my chronic auto-immune illness, my only choice would have been to take the bus or train back to Madrid. He plans to walk the Camino again as many more times as his health, stamina and schedule would  allow him in this lifetime. A serious long distance hiker, he talks about other trails and many more miles calling him. It comes as no surprise that he often gets asked about the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, particularly about the trek we took as a family. 

Most of the questions asked by extended family, friends and others are quite practical. These are some of the most frequently asked questions: 
  • What is the Camino, what was it like, why did you go and would you do it again? 
  • What’s the best time of the year to go? 
  • Was it physically taxing? What kind of training and conditioning did it take to prepare for the physical challenge? 
  • How many miles per day did you walk and how long did it take to complete the route you took?
  • What kind of backpack did you take and what did you put in it? 
  • Did you make hotel reservations in advance of arrival, or did you just take a gamble that beds would be available for the night? 
  • How did you manage with the language difference? 
  • What were the other pilgrims like and where were they from? 
  • How expensive was the travel?
Our answers invariably generated many more questions. Asked so often after 2010, hubby finally shared a PowerPoint photo presentation of our Camino adventure with close friends who were genuinely interested. Two of them took the journey in 2015 in a manner unconfined by tradition. I couldn't be prouder of our friends for walking the Camino on their terms.

This essay is an attempt to address the questions most commonly asked of our family. Written in two parts, it covers: (1) what the camino is—describes what the Camino is about, including how we came to know about it; significance of the Camino—a personal reflection; and (2) lessons from the Camino—a list of do’s and don’ts learned that might help others preparing to venture the Camino pleasurably and mostly-hassle-free.

What is the Camino?

The Camino de Santiago, otherwise known by the English name—The Way of St. James, was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during the Middle Ages. It dates back to the 9th Century (year 814) at the time of the discovery of what was believed to be the tomb of Apostle James. There are several ancient pilgrim routes across Europe to choose from, and they all lead to the city of Santiago de Compostela at the Cathedral where St. James is believed to be buried. 

How did we find out about the Camino? In 2006, my husband, James Sobredo, a university professor in California, found out about the Camino on one of his research, university related travels in Spain. As often the case, he struck up a conversation with interesting strangers, some of whom have become friends and are now part of our ever expanding honorary family all over the world. On this trip in 2006, he ended up standing in line at the Madrid-Barajas airport with an emergency room physician. They were both returning to the U.S. and a lengthy wait at check-in gave them both an extended time to get to know one another. The physician had just completed two weeks of the pilgrimage along the Camino Frances from the French border, and had to bail out. He told my husband that he had planned to walk the Camino in five weeks, but both of his feet developed blisters that made it painfully difficult to continue. The scholar that he is, James was inevitably obsessed about finding out more. The adventurer in him began to visualize his own turn on the Camino. And the goal of also taking along his family was firmly planted. Five years after the professor and the physician’s consequential encounter, my husband, our son, and I traveled to Spain. And our Camino adventure began. 

To prepare for the Camino, my husband searched for relevant sites online. That proved helpful in deciding what items to take on our hike. Once on the trail, we also found practical guides from brochures that we picked up for free or at a nominal donation at churches, museums and gift shops. These days, more than ever before, I see internet sites that are full of options about taking the adventure on foot, bicycle or by bus for different stages of the trail. In the old days, folks even rode on horse back. I remember mostly hikers on foot, and some bicyclists, but not a single horseman/horsewoman in 2010. 

I understand that christians have been taking the journey for centuries. Pilgrims believed that walking the Camino enabled one to gain entrance to heaven. Having lived a Catholic upbringing, the concept of gaining heavenly indulgence from sacrifice is not foreign to me. Whether the pilgrimage helped those in the Middle Ages who also pillaged, plundered, tortured or worse in their lifetime, only the departed would know. That prevailing belief that walking the Camino helped gain entrance to heaven most likely consoled troubled souls. 

The prospect of hiking the pilgrim’s path was most appealing to me in light of my Roman Catholic upbringing. Completing the full or portions of the Camino in modern times earns you a certificate called the “compostela.” However, I was not necessarily motivated by the certificate I would gain at the end of the journey, although I did, so did my husband and our son. Nor did I seriously believe that I would gain entrance to heaven and receive indulgences as a result. Although one shouldn't be faulted for being wistful. What appealed most was the whole premise of walking the same path where pilgrims of old had walked, and getting a small glimpse of what it might be like to make such journey, such sacrifice and offering to the heavens of sorts. I suspect that due to harsh conditions, unpaved trails, and extremely challenging terrain of earlier centuries, many were likely unable to complete the journey, but died trying.

In modern times, chances are, pilgrims who walk the Camino would reach their destination as many others have done. As my family has done. The trails are well marked with the iconic symbol of a scallop shell and painted yellow arrow, pointing in the direction to the city of Santiago in Galicia, northwestern part of Spain. These days, even rural towns have conveniences at pilgrim’s disposal. The growing options of making some or all the hotel arrangements in advance or choosing a guided tour through a travel company take away the risks, guesswork and unnecessary discomfort. For my family, doing the Camino the tourist way would have taken away the sense of adventure and the meaning of it all. We attempted as best we could during our journey to honor the practices of our predecessors without endangering the family’s safety. Our Camino was self-guided, with none of the accommodations arranged in advance. That is not to say, others shouldn’t opt for as much comfort as possible, and altogether remove the guesswork.

Resurgence of the pilgrimage came in the latter part of the 20th Century. The most popular route is the Camino Frances, from the French/Spanish border, through the interior of Spain. That was the route our family traveled, which included the challenging climb through the Spanish Pyrenees. One doesn't have to be Roman Catholic to go on the Camino. These days, folks do it for their own personal reasons to experience a journey unique only to them. Yes, for many, the journey has a spiritual or religious motivation and significance. 

What the Camino Meant to Me

Spain and Family 
For my family, walking a traditional Camino was not only an opportunity to go on a pilgrimage, it was a way to discover Spain inexpensively, and deepen our family bond and our connection with the land. Additionally, the journey pushed my physical limits, but I managed to rise to the challenge with a lot of help. We each gained from the experience personally, fell in love with the food, the country and its people. What more could we ask for?

It's amazing what happens when you let the universe surprise you with its grace. That first time for me and for my son was all we needed to begin to embrace the Spanish part of our heritage. We have been told from elders that our ancestors left Spain and settled in the Philippines in early part of the 19th century. My husband’s maternal great-grandmother came from Spain, but we don’t yet know much about her background. My own maternal great-great grandfather came from Spain, along with a brother who settled in the northern region of the Philippines, while he settled in the Western Visayas, the middle islands of the country. Family stories included how my Spanish great-great grandfather was instrumental in cultivating villages in the Visayas. I found clues which suggested that his brother’s family was part of the principalia in Luzon, the country’s ruling class in the days prior to the Philippine revolution. Once settled, no known contact was made by the two brothers or their families, not until the 21st century, four generations later. Cousins four and five times removed, connected when a descendant from Luzon came to prominence when he was inducted as a new Catholic Cardinal in Rome in 2012. Some from my branch of the family attended the ceremony (known as investiture in the Catholic tradition) in November 2012, and photos from that momentous event showed an uncanny family resemblance even with four generations separating us. The common belief among the reconnected families is that we are descendants from two brothers who lost touch in the 19th Century. Descendants finally connecting is something I am still processing with awe and glee. I can’t help but wonder what my elders, who are now in heaven, would say. 

I know of at least one elder who is joyful about the discovery—our still spritely 88 year old aunt who beams every time she’d talk about my great grandmother and great-grand uncles, children of our ancestor from Spain. She’d say, my great-grand uncles fought in the Spanish American War in 1898. Females were not allowed to fight in the war, but that did not stop their sister, my great grandmother from going on horseback to bring supplies to the battle zone. This Spanish lineage was something I more or less took for granted having lived most of my life as Filipino in America. But with increased interest in getting acquainted with the land of my Spanish ancestor, and as a-somewhat-hesitant beneficiary of my hubby’s passion for outdoor adventures, I surely have my own take on what the Camino was like for me. And it is this perspective of a novice adventurer curious about her ancestry that I offer to the new or hesitant “would-be-pilgrim.”

The Camino and Personal Growth
What I did not expect from the Camino was how it forced me to live in the moment, and yet not be paralyzed by discomfort from the hike. Living in the moment meant I did not miss out on the allure of the land and its people. The journey took us through gloriously poised towns with old Cathedrals, and expansive countryside of rolling hills. We walked through quaint hamlets, farmlands, and occasionally, modern highways. 

Walking the Camino: Through Farmlands and Rolling Hills, ©James Sobredo
Quitting was not an option during some stages of the walk. When walking uphill in the Pyrenees, I swore I couldn't move another muscle. Had I succumbed to the physical will, my family would have been stuck wrapped in the cold of night in an unfamiliar terrain. Luckily, when physical demand became too much during the trek, pilgrims encouraged each other to keep on moving. For my husband, setting up camp in the Pyrenees would have been an exhilarating test of survival. As fortune would have it, my adventurer husband experienced a test of his own as he traversed the Pyrenees again in 2013, and this time while it was covered in snow and ice. Soaking wet and cold, he and his fellow pilgrims managed to reach the next town for warm accommodations and sustenance.

Walking the Camino forced me to push myself without regard to my perceived limitations. I learned what it was like to live empathetically in the moment without losing sight of the goal. If not for photographs taken along the way, friends might not have believed what we went through. There were days when we walked in non-stop rainfall. Thank goodness for rain gear. We navigated muddy trails, and crossed once-dried up brooks flowing with life. Navigating tall stepping stones across small streams was not daunting for hubby and son, but it was for me, so I took great care not to fall in the water. Balancing on stepping stones was more challenging because of my fear of heights. There were also days of walking on concrete trails as the sun shined with a vengeance. Those days left me feeling parched and faint, but I was cautious in rationing my water supply until the next water source. It was unpleasant, but absolutely doable.

The pilgrimage became a gateway to important life events. I experienced Spain for the very first time and did so partly through the Camino. I am told by friends, it was an enchanting way to visit the land of our Spanish ancestors. I couldn’t help but smile in agreement. Memorable too, was walking the Camino with our teenage son, a period in our lives we would never recapture with him. 

Fortunately, my husband purposely planned an abbreviated Camino so as not to overwhelm his family. Besides, the professor had to make time for a scheduled conference in Madrid that summer. Knowing what I know now about my health condition, I am grateful that my husband persuaded me to take the journey then. Venturing the Camino again under my current medical circumstance, although not impossible, is not likely to happen anytime soon. 

Walking the Camino reinforced my belief in the kindness of people. It also reinforced the importance of a reliable footwear. Sadly, my trusted expensive boots failed me twice. My seemingly well-tried and true hiking boots fell apart during the early part of the journey. Of course, my own MacGyver aka dear hubby came to the rescue with duct tape until we reached the next town. 

Duct Taped Boots, Photo©James Sobredo
The small town of Larrasoanna did not have a big department store, so I couldn't buy a new pair to replace my dilapidated boots. What the town did offer were very kind-hearted folks who lived by the plaza right across the albergue where we stayed for the night. I knocked door to door armed with a smile and my limited Spanish to ask for super glue or anything close to it. 

Even though I trusted the Universe, I knocked in visible panic. The first door that finally answered belonged to an expat, an American retired school teacher who married a Spaniard. She taught and lived in Spain for 40 years, and she considered herself Spanish. Her husband had a workshop in their home and surely he must have some kind of glue. She asked I come back by by 5:00 p.m. when he returned home from work. I did. And with super glue in hand, I and a fellow Camino hiker, a young man from Barcelona glued the soles of my shoes together. Pilgrims from Spain teased me to no end certain that my boots were made in the USA, as no doubt Spanish made shoes would have been more durable. I smiled as I shrugged my shoulders out of politeness. 

Call it serendipity. My family and I didn’t know about the movie: The Way. We learned about it from the retired school teacher. She mentioned that a few months earlier, a film crew was at the hotel owned by their daughter. Knowing it would be on our trek out of town, she encouraged me to stop by the hotel where part of the filming occurred. Hubby did take a photo of me in front of that hotel. And of course, my family watched The Way as soon as we discovered its limited release in a theatre near our home in California.

 Featured Hotel in the Movie: The Way, ©James Sobredo
The Camino eased my fear of the unknown. After the first night at the monastery in Roncesvalles, the next couple of stops left me feeling afraid that there might not be enough beds in the next town’s albergue or hostel. Somehow we managed to find a place, each and every time. So we stayed with the decision not to make reservations in advance during our Camino. It was after all, part of the traditional journey which relied heavily on the kindness of strangers. The Camino taught me to go with my instincts, accept the goodness of the Universe with grace, trust the spirit, stay open to serendipity, have faith in the generosity of others, and grow in the human encounter. In modern day, with the resurgence of the pilgrimage in 1987, and by the time of my husband’s repeat journey in 2013, many more pilgrim accommodations and food places were operational in small towns and cities. Old and new municipal or private hostel, albergue, and hotel of varying size and quality now abound. 

And who could forget my family’s food experience? Regardless of the size of the town, food in Spain was amazing and strongly influenced by regional cuisines, cuisines influenced by the region’s unique and complex histories. The Camino not only introduced me to an array of Spanish dishes, it made me yearn to partake again and again in Spain’s food scene. And why not? In was wonderful to discover that Spain is a gourmet food hub of Europe, if not the world.

What did the Camino mean to me? Whether the Camino was a catalyst or affirmation of personal growth, I'm not entirely sure. Important were lessons learned from the journey. Lessons of living in the moment, transcending perceived limitations and fears, trusting in the kindness of others and embracing glimpses of serendipity were all priceless experiences. And all the while being one with family in Spain, the land of some of our ancestors.

* TO BE CONTINUED...This is only the first part of the essay. The full post containing the DO'S AND DON'TS from lessons learned will be published mid-April, 2017.

©Lu Sobredo, writer/editor 

Guest Editor: Adrian Sobredo

Photos: ©James Sobredo, 2010


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