MELIDE, A CORUNA, GALICIA, SPAIN
Jets streak thin contrails across an effervescent blue sky while on terra firma below, the myriad shades and textures of green waft agricultural smells of “dampened earth” (Brierley, 2015). The fattest and most glistening cattle siesta semi-permanently, at times rising to feast on a smorgasbord of leafy lush greens. Bells chime on the hour from the many churches that line the Camino de Santiago de Compostella. On one of the stamps that I collected en route, a star contains a copy of one of the original motifs serving to guide the pilgrims or pelegrinos to Santiago: a star surrounded by the Latin “Lord, show me your way”. The modern, ubiquitous yellow arrow and shell reflect the multiplicity of routes revived in the 1980’s by el Papa in an attempt to unite Europe. The camino is not without moments of frustration and also moments that are hard to articulate – moments of joy, revelation, or experiences of the divine? I recall a few of those fleeting moments below:
THE “UP” MOMENTS
Trees with Lights
Annie Tinker talks about a moment she describes as “seeing the trees with the lights in it.” In much more articulate language, her depiction of this moment describes how for the briefest and fleeting moment in time, she was overwhelmed with a sense of being completely present to the elements of light and nature as she saw this tree. I too saw a “tree with lights in it” one afternoon, exhausted after the descent from the Pyrenees. I had taken the less frequented route and saw a tree illuminated almost from within it seemed. Concentrating to find my footing, I lost sight of the tree and the moment was gone. Tinker recalls Walden (by Henry Thoreau) in the way it is written, bringing about the present moment in such beautiful figurative writing. Similarly, the Four Letters of Love by Niall Williams has been a highlight of literature for me this trip. This ability to stop and appreciate nature only really occurs though when we take the time to appreciate the moment as it occurs in the present.
An infected toe caused us to rethink our approach to the Meseta, the laborious long and flat stretch between Burgos and Leon. A blessing in disguise, we hired bikes to provide relief to the injured toe. Antibiotics and three days later, we had shot through what takes normally eight days on foot. On one of these mornings, we had left the cloud of pelegrinos behind and the open crisp morning stretched on before us the fog lifting veil-like as our numb fingers cut through the still dawn air. I will not forget the sun rising and peeling away the mist before us, and at one creek crossing, the road dipping at a slight incline to speed us ever faster through the icy air.
Refractions of the divine
The Leon Cathedral is sometimes referred to as the Sistine Chapel of Spain, not for its use of paint but the amount of light entering through a ridiculous number of stained glass windows. Leaving the audio guide behind, I was lost in the myriad refractions and reflections of light entering the nave illuminating a medieval recount of the biblical narrative. The choral piece playing in the background provided ample opportunity for one of those divine encounters despite the milling crowd glued to their earpieces. I got lost looking up at the ceiling and the light streaming through the glass, wondering what a God was really like. These temple builders had a pretty good crack at presenting something glorious like one of those Revelation descriptions or something out of Isaiah.
Walking into Pamplona on a route used by pilgrims for centuries past, I had quite the moment. On hearing the Cathedral bells chiming to welcome midday as we crossed the river. A calling perhaps? Something within me found that experience of “deep calling unto deep.” Hard to articulate exactly what but I felt quite overcome with joy. It’s one of those moments you can’t repeat and beyond scrutiny of the objectivity of logic and fact. It was as though the feminine side of the divine had reached out to say welcome. I see you. You are wonderfully and intricately made. I know you intimately and you are welcome. Welcome to this journey where you’ll have your ups and downs.
THE NOT SO UPS
Of frustrations? Of the not so ups but rather the downs?
I found that there is apparently no meaning to life. The trilogy in five parts by Douglas Adams humorously distils the answer to 42 but the question was lost in the experiment called earth. I’ve got to be honest, I couldn’t stomach the whole book, it was far too long-winded and ended up nowhere in particular but I think that was Adam’s point – there is no meaning life according to him. I’ve found otherwise but in his humour he talks about “quadrophonic sound.” As though it could be more clear, the bass of some snorers in the albergues and paroquials puts rock concerts to shame. Some nights, it’s pretty bad and even ear plugs don’t cut out the full extent of the sound. I for one, won’t miss the quadrophonic snoring.
Flashlight to the face
“The only thing worse than wet socks…” It became a saying one summer between my brother and I as we’d jokingly out compete for the “only thing worse than…” and they ended up getting rather outlandish. I’d add one of the worst and most annoying things was a flashlight to the face as fellow pilgrims awake early to make an early get away. A little outrageous and perhaps a first world problem but there are better ways to wake I think.
Living out of a bag
I won’t miss packing and unpacking my backpack each day. It’s a bit of a rigmarole putting your life possessions in a bag only to put it all back away the next day. Certainly, there are worse things, like a flashlight to the face or other non, first world problems but this one I’ll be happy to leave behind.
I write this with three days remaining on this pilgrimage. I’m over it to be honest. I’ve seen my share enough of cathedrals, endless picturesque villages and agricultural scenes. I’ve paid my dues, I’ve walked the distance and am ready for it to finish. And yet, I know that I will also be sad to see it go. The rhythm and simplicity of it all. One pelegrino epitomised it by contrasting her two pilgrimages. She explained that the first time round read the guide book religiously, trying to make the stage each day and reserved a bed each night. She didn’t bring the guide book the second time, she said it was simple, “you just have to follow the little yellow arrows. That’s it.” Like that yellow brick road, oh the analogies continue ad infinitum but it simplifies life when you think of it in terms of opportunities to
 Camino refers to the way in Spanish (you may recall the Martin Sheen film a few years back of the same name) while Santiago refers to Saint James the apostle. Saint James was allegedly buried at this place and a further myth regarding Compostella also needs to be explained to get the full title: a shepherd boy allegedly found the burial place by means of starlight. Compostella therefore refers to starlight.