My Backwards Walk

The last time I sat down to write a post I was finishing my second Camino, and I write this now having just embarked on my sixth. Something about this walk still draws me in and keeps me strolling along in the bubble of kindness, friendship, spirituality and exhaustion induced hysteria that all pilgrims come to know and love.

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But now I find that bubble changing and growing. Since my first stroll I’ve considered the reverse walk. I’ve stared, smiled and greeted these mysterious walkers as they pass. I’ve pondered whether that look in their eye is some kind of deep self contemplation, mild lunacy or whether they are simply squinting into the sun behind my back. This time around, sitting in Santiago and watching my latest camino family return to the outside world, I decided it was time. I walked the last of my new friends out of town along the Frances, hugged them goodbye at the bus station and just kept on walking. And then backtracked a little having realised I’d already gone the wrong way.

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One of the things that’s been mentioned a lot in the discussions prior to this has been how potentially lonely the walk could be. The fondest memories for a lot of pilgrims are of their ‘camino family’, a strange hodgepodge of people pulled together along the way that come to love each other with an unusual intensity despite the short time they’ve known each other. Although it’s still too early to draw real conclusions, being now on my second day, I can safely say these have already been some of my most social journeys. I’ve walked against the tide of pilgrims on their final approach to Santiago, some with grim determination on their faces and a strong steady march, others wrapped up in final discussions with their new best friends, or the lone strollers taking in the last sunrise of their pilgrimage, but almost all of them make a point of smiling and wishing me a ‘buen camino’.

So far only three have joked that I’m going the wrong way. A further four have been genuinely concerned that I’m walking the wrong way by mistake.

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The afternoons are also a strange mirror of the camino world I’ve known before. The odd person is still willing to start up a conversation at this late point of their journey, and in hearing my story have drawn me into a tiny temporary friendship. A man warms to me and explains that this is his 22nd camino. Despite neither of us speaking the others language, he shares some tips about unusual homemade devices to aid on the journey, my favourite being the sock attached to his belt that holds his small water bottle. We part ways after helping ourselves to a rather large percentage of the free apples in the kitchen.

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The rest of my day is filled wandering around. I find myself taking the time to pick up litter as I stroll around the neighbourhood in the evening. I finally get around to replying to friends from previous caminos. I have time to think.

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I couldn’t remember the last time someone asked my why I was walking the Camino, and then twice today I was asked this precise question. I vaguely remember embarking on my first walk with something I had to work out in myself, and then I was distracted by all the good times and it was forgotten. Today, after advising a woman on the distance to a coffee shop as we crossed paths, she took the time to chat with me and ask me that fearful question. Responding that I have no idea, she said “find it and then either take it out, wash it and put it back, or bury it. Tell it to **** off”. Blunt, but truthful none the less. I kept on walking as the sun rose, and I began squinting into the sun just like the reverse pilgrims I’d seen before.

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