(Originally posted on 10 September 2016)
Today I had plans to do about 25 miles and arrive at Mercadoiro. I walked the same mileage as planned but ended up 5 miles behind my original schedule. Because on my way to Triacastela, I spent a good part of this morning getting lost.
I was lost on the Camino once last year, and once before today, but this morning, I was lost three times.
Basically, the signs for Triacastela were misleading, and when I left the hostel before dawn, the darkness made the situation even more confusing. I walked for 30 minutes in the wrong direction before realizing that there were no arrows or shells, and that I should have gone back to the main road. On my way back, I found other arrows, but they all pointed to an albergue. Indeed, some hostels place arrows around them in order to attract pilgrims to come stay or buy something at their place. Usually, when I am in a good mood, I just laugh about it and ask the hostel for a beer. But today, I had already been lost twice before being misled into this hostel. I wanted to confront the owner of the place, but the hostel was closed.
Twenty minutes after, when I finally came back on the road, I found an alternative road that cut across a little forest. I was thrilled to be surrounded by trees, especially after so many days of walking on asphalt pavements covered in industrial dusts. But that path led me to the river, and there were no bridge in sight. I turned back, walked the whole way across the forest again, until I came back on the asphalt road, again. I started walking on the side of the highway and finally, three hours later, arrived to the city.
Amid the many complains, regrets and yelling at the peak of my “angry bird” mood, I reflected on the fact that – if it is still possible to get lost in 2016, what happened to those who completed the Camino in the medieval times?
Pilgrims in the modern days are equipped with various technologies and directions, such as, the GPS, countless hostels along the way, and many travelers on your way going exactly where you’re headed - and I still got lost, three times, today. How could the pilgrims in the medieval times have concluded the entire path to Santiago starting from Italy, France, Germany or Sweden? I mean, they had no Internet, no smartphones, no backpacks, and no arrows. The roads were not paved, the wild animals were aggressive and the paths were often occupied by opportunistic robbers.
So, how did they do it?
As I walked on, I came up with my own answers:
Firstly, the pilgrims in those days had more trust, both in themselves and in the providence. They were more accustomed to walking long distances, and more adept at recognizing footprints, flora, fauna, and indications in the sky, and therefore, they started with a higher level of confidence. A walk to Santiago starting from another European country was considered, if not usual, at least normal. A pilgrimage was considered a core experience in a believer’s life. Guided by such strong faith, it was fine to start the Camino without necessary means and not knowing where the roads led. Because they believed the destiny would have helped them along the way.
Secondly, the concept of hospitality in the medieval times is very different from what the Western modern culture would define. Back in the days, pilgrims were considered by local people as messengers from God. Villagers believed that acting against pilgrims would curses and catastrophes. So they offered pilgrims with meals, places to sleep and water to wash themselves. These days, in the very few somewhat small and insulated Camino villages, you can still feel that atmosphere, the atmosphere of gratefulness and benevolence.
Last but not least, pilgrims of the medieval times were not afraid of dying. When they left for the Camino, they bid farewell to their families like it was the last time. Dying for faith – in their belief - as well as for war was a heroic way to go, and an ultimate spiritual reward for their efforts was considered well worth the risk.
Unfortunately, even till this day, pilgrims continue to die on the Camino (though at a significantly smaller number). It could be due to a heart attack, an infection, a foot in the wrong position in a dangerous downhill or an incoming car on the highway. You see graves on most of the path, and sometimes friends and families leave boots at places where their beloved pilgrims died. The latest one, as far as I know, is from six days ago. An English man, 70 years of age, died of a heat stroke on El Camino de la Plata, the path that goes to Santiago from Andalusia.
Even though the medieval experience sounds so much different from ours, I am still fascinated by the same mixture of strength, faith and recklessness. I don’t think I will do something similar in the future, especially due to job-related issues, but I cannot exclude it entirely. At the end of the day, the Camino rewards you according to your efforts..