Our readers share tales of their ramblings around the world.
Who: Shankar Chaudhuri (author) of Glen Ridge, N.J., with friends Shailendra Ghorpade of Montclair, N.J., and Pradeep Saxena of Mountain View, Calif.
Where, when, why: The Camino de Santiago is a network of walking paths leading to Santiago de Compostela, the burial city of Saint James, in Galicia, Spain. About 225,000 people make a pilgrimage there every year on foot, horseback or bicycle, covering varying distances. Last year, I made a long trek to Santiago on Camino Frances (the French Way) beginning in the Pyrenees. I completed my walk in two phases. For the first phase, I began my trip in Roncesvalles, a Spanish town in the Pyrenees, and ended it in Logrono. It lasted about a week and a half. During the second phase, I walked from Leon to Santiago in 15 days. On average, I walked 14 to 16 miles a day.
Highlights and high points: In Spain, the French Way is a 500-mile route to Santiago that most pilgrims embark on in Roncesvalles. The journey beginning in the Basque-dominated area in the north, followed by flatlands in the central regions and then through the high mountain ranges in Galicia, exposes one to the immense diversity of flora, fauna, scenery, terrain, culture and cuisine of Northern Spain.
An early high point of the journey was the ascent to Alto del Perdon, at an altitude of about 2,400 feet, in Navarre. A sculpture dedicated to the pilgrims at the peak reads, “where the path of the wind crosses that of the stars.” The panoramic view from this vantage point was stunning and on a clear day it could extend all the way to the Pyrenees.
No less stunning was the descent. The entire downhill walk until we reached the ground was laden with valleys of poppies, rapeseed flowers and wheat plants. In one particular spot, the clouds, the undulating rapeseed fields and the green wheat plants seemed to be in communication with each other, as if in a joyous celebration. This picture stayed with me during the rest of my walk and gave me much inspiration to finish my journey to Santiago, especially during the periods of self-doubt that many pilgrims go through.
Cultural connection or disconnect: The Camino was a melting pot of pilgrims of diverse nationalities and backgrounds hailing from all corners of the world. Along the journey, everyone greeted each other with the phrase “buen camino,” which literally means “good way” but is used to wish a happy and fulfilling journey.
The camaraderie among the pilgrims was very strong. Whenever anyone needed anything, there were about five people extending their hands. Among the people we befriended were two Korean housewives from Seoul, an Italian doctor from Verona, an IT professional from Poland, a writer from D.C., a New Age guru from Northern California and a young Norwegian lady who had come on the journey in memory of her husband, who had died four years ago.
Biggest laugh or cry: I’m neither a Catholic nor a very religious person. Yet, watching the swinging Botafumeiro dispensing clouds of incense against beautiful music at the Pilgrims’ Mass at the cathedral in Santiago was a particularly moving experience for me. There were few pilgrims who were not teary-eyed at this event. Perhaps the emotion of having completed the journey was as overpowering, as was the realization that it was about time to say goodbye to newfound friends. At the beginning of the Mass, a list of names of the pilgrims who have qualified for the Compostela — or certificate of completion of the journey (a minimum of the last 63 miles on foot) — in the last 24 hours was read out along with the names of places where they came from and where they started their pilgrimage.
How unexpected: Seeing people of all ages and physical conditions making the trip took me by surprise. It gave me a new appreciation for human endurance and resiliency. We saw children accompanying parents on this long trip. We also saw one pilgrim making the trip with his golden retriever. We saw a Belgian man intent on making the entire walk barefoot. We also saw a couple from Australia doing the trek to celebrate the husband’s 80th birthday. We saw how people simply carried on to reach their next destination despite bleeding knees, blistered feet or various other physical limitations.
Favorite memento or memory: My greatest gift from the walk was the realization that despite our outward differences, we are so much alike. We walked, conversed, confided, wined and dined daily with people of every conceivable origin and background, always feeling like we had known each other for a long time. This spirit of intimacy and conviviality permeated our entire trip. We felt at home everywhere.
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