Sunday, 5 October 2008

The end

There should be moments of great emotion; revelations about life, ourselves or both. Our way of behaving in the world should, Damascus-like, be transformed. Yet thoughts and emotions rarely occur at the scheduled moments, but at the right ones.

We had all the superficial milestones: the "last hundred kilometres" post; "only three more days to go"; the "last time I need to wash out this t-shirt". Deliberately we left ourselves a long last walk into Santiago, wanting to arrive tired and feeling like we had walked a long way to get there. We woke to a perfect shimmering sunrise and strange nerves, as if it could all still spoil.

It didn't. The sun slanted through eucalyptus forests right to the city's edge. The soft sandy track had kept back some steep ascents for a final fling, which we enjoyed in our familiar quiet. Only at the approach to Santiago did the scattered individuals become a stream of movement in a single direction. Most people stop at Monte de Gozo, a giant accommodation centre that permits them to walk the final five kilometres to the Cathedral next morning, refreshed. We didn't stop, and so our final five kilometres, like the first five months, we walked alone with ourselves. In the city streets school children and workers were heading home for the late Spanish lunch. They were indifferent to us: pilgrims in Santiago are like pigeons in London.

I had expected the Cathedral and its main square, the Praza do Obradoiro, to be a noisy circus ring of souvenir sellers, cafés and tour groups. But there were none, just a scattering of other stunned people with laden rucksacks or cycles and a beautiful, reverent silence. Inside the Cathedral, too, smaller than I'd imagined, a contemplative peace wrapped around us in contrast to the chattering museums that other Spanish cathedrals have become. When I later learned this was a short-lived drawing of breath during lunch, I was even more grateful that such was our arrival.

Even so it was impossible to know what to think or feel. Numb. Complete. Astounded. Relieved. Lost. Grateful. Sad. Not sad: we had finished where and how we had always hoped to finish.

But gratitude was overwhelming. In the dark crypt with its silvered coffin I muttered a spontaneous "thanks!" David was similarly moved by the centuries-old gesture of filing past the golden and jewelled statue of our old Saint Jack to give him the customary big hug and a kiss. The feelings continued through the next day's noontime Pilgrim Mass at which a nun sang with the voice of a fragile angel and American priests made the Botafumeiro swing with glee.

For a few hours I couldn't even look at the shop windows of jewellery and gifts, much less contemplate buying such unnecessary things ever again. But after an Australian-sized tapas bar-crawl with Paul and Kim, I achieved closure - or oblivion.

Then we came to Finisterre, the end of the once-known world, and in a much anticipated moment of symbolism out on the rocky headland each burned one item of the clothes that have done duty for nine months. It is here, in the tiny, ordinary fishing town with mild headlands and blue-green seas that we have found some of the silence needed to consider our journey.

I'm not sure I can claim we have changed at all. It's rare that an experience like this changes people deep down. A frequent comment from those who completed the walk a while ago is a melancholy "I did change ... for a while ...". Nor do I expect the people we have spent time with to remain friends for long. Camino friends are not for life. The experiences that bring you together are too intense and too different to sustain into normal life. Perhaps the most we can hope for is that inherent but previously worn out characteristics become strengthened.

So I hope we continue to loosen the ties that bind us to shops and acquisitions. I hope we can lighten our load in the world.

I hope we continue to have increased respect for the environment and its resources, especially water and fuel. My repulsion in the face of some of the squalor we have encountered, even here in western Europe, makes me sure that no one anywhere should have to live with squalor. Yet I have learned that I'm not the sort of person to carry out development work overseas: better to increase the support I can give to those better able to do it.

I hope we can continue to lead a slower life with more time, daily, for each other and for other people. Even without the regular terrors and exhaustions that bred my prayers for help and sighs of thanks, I hope I'll still take time to look beyond myself. Whether you call it prayer in a Christian, Jewish or Muslim mode or the power of Buddhist positive energy, the knowledge that people were wishing me success was sometimes the only thing keeping me going. So I hope I'll find space to stop and cast a thought or two in the direction of people, known or unknown, who need the extra strength. And the first person I'll direct those thoughts to is Alan, a teacher from Kosi Bay School in South Africa. He has decided to take time for reflection by walking from Cape Town back to the school in north eastern South Africa. With nothing like the infrastructure surrounding the Camino de Santiago that is a challenge indeed and there will be times he'll need the thoughts and strength of others to help him through. Believe me, I know.

4th October 2008

4 comments:

Steve and Reena said...

Congratulations to you both on an incredible achievement.

I was just explaining to my Dad that you'd set off on New Year's day and were just arriving at the end of your walk. I think he said 'Bloody hell' or some sort of northern equivalent.

So, bloody hell from me and Reena too.

Looking forward to all 17k photos!

S

Take care and enjoy the break from walking

Kevin said...

Congratulations! An amazing achievement. It'll be good to have you home but we'll miss the blog and the photos. Perhaps continue when you are back in London?

PS What are your plans re the missing Streatham to Purley leg?

Rachel Escott and David Steel said...

Thanks for both comments. I wish I'd had 'bloody hell' as a handy phrase in front of the cathedral (well, probably inappropriate, but it's kind of how I felt!)

And as for Streatham to Purley, how about walking it with us? We still owe Charlie that walk...

Back in the UK on the 23rd by the way - more or less permanently. So looking forward to mega catch ups with everyone. Not sure the world will be that interest in blogs of our daily routine in London,though!

Love Rae & David

Anonymous said...

Congrats

Enjoy the moment

Michael