The physically-challenging Camino de Santiago makes for an uplifting mid-life pilgrimage 2
From left: stone pathways are typical on a pilgrimage route that began in medieval times; the author with his trusty backpack and trekking pole.
Travel

The physically-challenging Camino de Santiago makes for an uplifting mid-life pilgrimage

A network of routes that have been around since medieval times leading to the grave of Saint James the Great in Spain, the Camino or 'the Way' is for those looking to connect to something bigger while getting fit in the process. 
Brian Banta | Feb 06 2020

A few years ago, as I neared age 40, mid-life crisis kicked in. I developed an intense craving to do something physically challenging; something exciting; something that welcomed my second half, while still holding on to my youth. This was not uncommon among my peers, as visible through the growing numbers of friends who were taking on marathons, triathlons, and CrossFit throwdowns on my Facebook feed.

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Serendipitously, I had recently watched a Martin Sheen starrer called The Way. Sheen plays an elderly man who travels to Europe to pick up the remains of his kid (played by his real-life son, Emilio Estevez), who had died while attempting the Camino de Santiago. He then decides to pursue the Pilgrimage himself to honor the memory of his son and to help him cope with his passing. 

The film impacted me on multiple fronts. The beauty of Spain, a country many Filipinos are drawn to due to our colonial past, was celebrated and omnipresent in the film. The determination of this old man to persist through the arduous 780 kilometer trek from the French Pyrenees to the capital of Galicia, and the solemnity and individual spirituality of the voyage interested me. Plus, like most of us, I had a few pounds to lose, so I decided right after watching the movie that there was no better adventure to welcome my forties.

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Step one of the Camino is picking up a Credencial, or Pilgrim Passport, which the author did at the Lisbon Cathedral.

My research revealed that the Camino was a network of routes that led to the grave of Saint James the Great in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Spain. There were dozens of routes to Saint James’ resting place, which hundreds of thousands of pilgrims set out toward every year by foot, by bike, or even by horse. I decided I wanted to trek it, though I didn’t have the 30 to 35 days that it normally took to traverse. My wife would kill me if I did that. I could get away for about a third of that.

I took to planning with furor, joining the Camino de Santiago Philippines FB group, digesting blogs and online guides, and examining my network to see who else had previously followed the Way of St. James. I decided on the Camino Portugues, a trek that I’d start 280 kilometers from Santiago in Porto, Portugal—after a proper Port wine-induced sendoff. This was a celebration, after all—six days of which would be in Northern Portugal and six days in Galician country. And, fine, the opportunity to eat pulpo a la Gallega, razor clams, paella and other delicious seafood dishes to my heart’s content played into the route selection, too.

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As dawn breaks, a lot of Peregrinos are already on their way. 

I spent the next few months walking 10 kilometers several days a week within my village, and attempted a 20 kilometer walk a few days before leaving Manila. I felt ready physically, excited emotionally and overjoyed spiritually. This would be an adventure for the ages.

I drove to Porto in early September to begin my Camino. (Note: I’ve heard the Camino during the summer months is not a fun feat.) Armed with my 12 kilogram backpack and my credencial (a Pilgrim passport, or booklet, that needs stamping once a day initially and twice a day over the last 100 kms to prove I had indeed walked what I claimed), I left my hostel in Porto for the first destination, a 20 kilometer walk away.

I stopped for a hearty lunch right at the beginning, thinking carbo-loading was wise. It was then that I discovered the menu del dia for Pilgrims, an incredible deal of a starter, main, fries/rice, dessert and drink (at night, wine) for only 5 euros! It's a steal—until one gets tired of papas fritas or French fries, by day 5 or 6. By 1 P.M. I was ready for what I estimated would be a five-hour walk based on my practice hikes back home. I was prepared with Spotify playlists and audio books, neither of which I ended up using much. Most of that first day’s walk was spent in awe of my surroundings: the lush forests I was traipsing through, the quaint villages where locals would greet me with a "Buen Camino," or "Have a Great Way," the cobblestoned trail and old stone churches harking to medieval times, and the passing chats with other pilgrims, or peregrinos, until different gaits and paces led to even quicker goodbyes.

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Churches are a dime-a-dozen on the Portugese Camino.

By the time I had followed enough of the yellow arrows that marked the way to the end of the first stage and found my albergue (Pilgrim hostel) for the night, it was 7:30 P.M. My estimate was way off! I learned then that the late bird definitely misses out on the worm, as all 40 beds had been already allotted to pilgrims who got there before me, forcing me to bat my eyelashes and look as kawawa as possible in hopes of a Heaven-sent mattress materializing for the night (which it did).

And the pain, oh the pain! My knees were on fire! After a quick shower and hand laundering of my walking clothes (you carry what you bring, so daily washing is a must), I could barely hobble to the restaurant outside. I had a meal before plopping down in a windowless dorm room with 19 other weary, snoring travelers and their 38 smelly soles. Fortunately, the mind forgets and the nostrils adjust. 

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Some pellegrinos choose to go on the Camino on foot while others go by bike.

The next morning came and at the crack of dawn, 40 phone alarms began ringing and sleepy pilgrims began their morning pre-Camino routines. Mine became a bathroom attempt, followed by picking up my (hopefully) dry clothes off of the laundry line, dressing up, then lathering my feet with anti-blister foot cream (blisters are definitely a peregrino’s worst nightmare, even worse than bed bugs) before putting on my toe socks (don’t make fun of them until you try them). To my great surprise, after about 5 minutes of setting off, I realized that my trembling knees were not complaining, as if divine intervention had interceded again.

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The Way is marked by yellow arrows, bringing out powers of observation reminiscent of childhood treasure hunts.

I learned so many more lessons during my Camino; too many to tell within this story. With so much solitude comes so much pondering. And with so much pondering come so many revelations.

At the end of every day, a new body part ached with gusto: my knees; my calves; my feet; my thighs. Welcome to 40, I thought. This is what you wanted, you idiot. Then, on day, 5, I arrived at the hostel with no pain. The body endures and small miracles happen. This was one of the lessons the Camino taught me.

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"The body endures and small miracles happen. This was one of the lessons the Camino taught me."

Over a year later, one revelation stands out. During my Camino, through the many pilgrims that I ran into, I learned that the Camino de Santiago is a way for people to do many things: a way to get fit; a way to recover; a way to connect to a greater purpose and power; a way to self-examine; a way to make up for past wrongs.

Regardless of why one attempts the Camino, truth is sought. As my four-year old’s favorite singer Lizzo says, sometimes truth hurts. But sometimes truth uplifts. And always, truth reveals. "Buen Camino!"