Back in 2016, I had just left my job of 10 years and had been craving an unplanned, spontaneous and basic experience. I decided to walk the Camino Frances. The 30-day walking pilgrimage from France to the shrine of St James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, had left me in a near-idyllic state of mind.
Three years later, in 2019, that sense of being grounded that I had discovered during the Camino now eluded me. I spent much time trying to capture that feeling of being at peace that I had found while doing something as basic as walking, but somehow, I struggled. It soon became clear to me: I had to go back and walk the Camino again.
This time I wanted to walk a route that was more solitary and physically more challenging than the one I had previously experienced. The Camino Norte, which runs along the northern coast of Spain, is less frequented than the other pilgrimage routes. The mountains, the ocean and 700 km of walking were on offer. I felt ready.
In the middle of July 2019, I flew into Bilbao. I had only a vague sense of the route, a few apps on my phone to keep me on track, and nine kg of clothing and essentials in a backpack. I had planned to spend every night in hostels or donativos, which are municipal-run hostels that work on a donation basis.
Anxious to get my first day of walking started, I set off from the hostel at 6.30am. The industrial part of Bilbao was not exactly the Cantabrian mountainside I expected to be scaling, but baby steps, I thought to myself. As a kid in Mumbai, my sense of adventure came from exploring the city’s gullies, construction sites, back roads, and creeks in a way that left me feeling like Indiana Jones. Footing through the outskirts of Bilbao felt equally enterprising. I was yet to meet my first fellow-walker.
A large part of the Camino experience is about connecting with complete strangers in a way that makes you chaddi buddies in a matter of hours. However, as my first day drew to an end 25km later in the small beach town of Pobena, I arrived there thirsty, exhausted and with zero chaddi buddies by my side. As I approached my hostel for the night, I saw some 30 other walkers waiting to secure a bed. Though I didn’t know anyone there by face or name or even a common language, I immediately felt a strange sense of relief to have found them, as though I was at a reunion.
The day began with a short climb up a hill with the vast ocean, a cool breeze and the sunrise ahead of me, and two Czech brothers, three goats and a donkey behind me. I walked briskly through the day and completed 25km before noon. At the hostel in the sea port of Castro Urdiales, I was reunited with the two Czechs and we listened to a spirited German girl, who was walking the Camino with her dog, recount how she hitch-hiked from France to Spain to commence her journey. Before I knew it, I was swimming with my new friends in the bay.
Almost a week into the Camino, I spent the evening in the bustling town of Santander. The isolation I had so craved at the start of the walk didn’t seem as exciting anymore. I could feel loneliness creep in, and I was anxious about the 600km that lay ahead, lost between the contradictory urges to either simply surrender to the journey, or to put on roller skates and race to the end.
The clothes I had washed the previous night hadn’t dried, and my hostel owner wanted me to be out by 9am. So I laid out my wet belongings to dry on a bench right in the middle of town, just as the locals walked to work. A few stares and a dog sniff later, I decided to embrace my situation, basking in the sun and greeting people as they went by. Two hours later, at noon, I departed from Santander. I only walked a measly 13km to a town called Boo de Pielagos. There I was joined by two girls from Utah and an Italian opera singer. We had dinner under the stars, and the Italian tenor regaled us with an unsolicited, but very welcome performance.
My legs were slowly getting used to the rocky, sandy, concrete, muddy, and undulating landscape. With a cautious confidence, I decided to follow an alternative coastal route from Cuerres. After two km of narrow, winding, densely vegetated paths, I came to a vast open stretch of land. I was at the edge of a rocky cliff that shot up directly from the ocean. I started to follow a path that ran along the cliff edge. The waves crashed violently into the rocks 100 meters below. I felt as if I was at the edge of the world. Lost in my bliss, not realising that I hadn’t seen a single person for nearly two hours, it suddenly occurred to me that I was lost. The sun had begun its descent and the path now started disappearing into wild bushes. I picked up my pace and walked frantically through the thick foliage, keeping the ocean on my right as my only point of reference. An hour later, I finally passed some locals coming from the opposite direction. I casually smiled at them. If only they knew how elated I felt to see them.
I walked with a Canadian father-son duo I had had dinner with the night before, an Italian girl ranting random Italian phrases at us because she was irritated with having to speak in English all the time, and a Czech girl, who had been sleeping outside every night in a hammock! At Gijon, everyone headed off in different directions. I dropped my backpack at my hostel, and dashed off for a refreshing swim after a hot day.
Maybe my own company was overrated, but weirdly fruitful at the same time, I thought to myself. I walked with a kind Canadian teacher, who had recently separated from the group she had been with, and we were both happy with the fresh company.
By this point, I was actually going with the flow. My Canadian teacher-friend told me she was trying to get outside her comfort zone, to which I enthusiastically suggested she try sleeping in the forest in the company of our Czech nomad friend. As I said this, I realised there was no reason why I shouldn’t be doing the same myself!
As a group, we decided to buy 10-euro hammocks and join our fearless Czech leader in the woods for the night. The day was spent swimming at two different beaches, interspersed with an afternoon beer, a picnic lunch, a nap, and a shower in the open. Our pace was relaxed since our destination for the night could be anywhere. We witnessed the sunset from a hilltop, then scouted for spots to set up our hanging beds, ideally a place that would offer us the best view of the sunrise. As I lay under the night sky, looking up at more stars than I had ever seen before, surrounded by 50 foot tall trees swaying in the breeze, and only some 600 sounds coming from this new world, I was in utter and complete wonder of my environment. I felt like a very insignificant part of this gargantuan universe above and around me.
Over the next few days, I saw many new faces as all the different routes to Santiago – Camino Frances, Camino Norte, and Camino Primitivo – began to merge. I had spent days walking with just my thoughts, but equally I had found my equilibrium in connecting with the humanity of my fellow travellers. My purpose lay in being part of this community.
It was the last day of the Camino and I walked a solid 39km by myself. I was overwhelmed with the feeling that every unplanned moment and spontaneous experience on this journey seemed to fit perfectly into place. I lay half-awake almost all night (it was cold), but happy to be perched in my hammock, atop a hill overlooking Santiago.
The next morning, we walked towards the chapel in the centre of the city through cobbled lanes, as bagpipes played in the distance. The town was busy and we suddenly seemed to merge with the tourists and the locals as though we were being reacquainted with the world. There was a buzz in the air as new pilgrims kept arriving into Santiago, awestruck by the cathedral. As for me, I felt relaxed; unknowingly, I had already found my place somewhere along the road.
Author bio: Gaurav Gupta is an artist, who after a decade-long stint as a finance professional, decided to change course, which led him to the Camino. He is currently pursuing a Fine Arts degree at the City & Guilds of London Art School.
From HT Brunch, October 20, 2019
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