In search of suffering

In search of suffering

The screams were muffled through the thick mist but I could tell they were coming from above. Exhausted from crossing the Pyrenees, I lifted one leg at a time out of the deep snow and headed back up the mountain.

Against every fibre of my being I started climbing up the hill. Through the thick mist I saw something hurtling towards me. It was a child. Screaming with joy. On a sled. The little fucker. My annoyance quickly turning to a desire to have a go myself. The reality being I didn't have the strength to get up to where they were and I'm sure they’d be pissed off when I left their sled at the bottom — there was no way I was going up twice. So, I headed back across the blanket white landscape. Climbing over what I thought was a steep hill I realised I'd managed to climb onto a large patch of thorn bushes. With each step my legs would drop all the way and return with a new set of cuts. As I got to the other side my last step dropped me about 12 foot down through the edge of the bushes. At least it was a soft landing and by pure luck I remained upright.

Exhausted and confused I looked up to see a Korean man, lighting a cigarette. He would become known to me as Korean Jesus. And he would battle for my soul. He'd heard the screaming and was concerned so decided to wait and see what happened. He actually thought it was me screaming — presumably driven mad on the first day of my camino. Little did I know I'd already met someone else who would battle for my soul but playing for the other team.

I’d decided against taking the local advice of sticking to the roads, the pristine white routes heading off into the mountains proving just too much temptation. It gave me some of the best moments of my camino, while I was still young and naive, full of excitement and wonder. The untouched snow — through forests, over mountains and across streams. But it also gave me some of my worst. After hours wading through waist deep snow you start to slow down to a stop, the wind picks up and your body temperature drops. You're hungry and tired. You can see how people die here. I think by the end I’d had so many bad experiences that they simply became my life.

My plan for no good reason was to walk the Camino Frances, from the village of St Jean Pied de Port in the foothills of the French Pyrenees, across the mountains through Pamplona, Burgos, Leon, Santiago de Compostela and finally to the end of the world — the coast at Finisterre. My target was to keep going until I had walked 1,000km. All this in winter. Why? I don’t really know. The solitude appealed and I think at the back of my mind I probably wanted it to be hard. Little did I know just how hard it would be. 

 The air was so thick with fog, pylons loomed over me from nowhere like robotic triffids.

The air was so thick with fog, pylons loomed over me from nowhere like robotic triffids.

My camino dream started when a friend gave me copy of The Pilgrimage by Paulo Cohelo. It's a great book if you've not read it and adds a layer of the supernatural to the journey. I thought it was a symbolic offering but it turns out my friend didn’t even know what the book was about — he just knew I liked books. Regardless, that was my introduction to the camino, at first it sat there in the back of my mind with the other 'things I would like to do one day but can’t imagine when I’d ever actually do them'. As my life and circumstances changed I found the camino coming forward in my mind to the place of 'things you know you should do but never thought you would actually get to do so are you really sure you want to do them as you know it’s going to be hard?' Much like going travelling in the first place, I knew it had to be done now.

St Jean Pied de Port is a beautiful village and the perfect starting point (if a little far from the finish), setting off early whilst it was still dark and wet I was initiated into a camino tradition with a liquid breakfast of the cheapest local wine we could find. I’d met an Irish man the day before, a veteran of the camino. We spent the morning walking together and drinking wine, him sharing his stories and me (being somewhat unprepared) questioning the basics. He would come to be known to me as the Irish Devil, and he too would battle for my soul.

Arriving in Roncesvalles for my first night, I began to realise just how adverse these conditions were. I made my Spanish TV debut when a news crew turned up looking for people stupid enough to be doing the camino in these conditions. When asked why I was walking in the winter I explained it was for the solitude, and looking around us I thought to myself for the magic of the snow as well. Her response was very simple, “People die here”.

Leaving Roncesvalles the next day was an experience I'll never forget. I couldn’t take the foot path as the snow was above my head so had to stick to the roads for the morning. The roads, long since abandoned by cars had become majestic white corridors. I’d started early and although the sky was just a blanket of clouds the light had a beauty to it only found at dawn. After a few miles I reached the first of several villages I’d pass through that shut down for the winter. Doors and windows boarded up. Snow piled high against the doors. Initially it was nice to have these villages to myself but it quickly became an issue and one of the greatest banes I would experience as there was simply nowhere to stop. No coffee or hot chocolate. No tostada or tapas. No wine. This would eventually account for some of the worst days on my camino — having to walk 30km before breakfast. I was a little less prepared than most as I’d approached this with the mantra, 'the camino will provide'. I didn’t want to plan where I'd eat and sleep — I wanted to prove to myself that planning was unecessary and imagined myself relying on the kindness of strangers. Well, the problem was there were no strangers to be kind to me. As it turns out I was the one helping people along the way, arriving at the top of a hill just before Zubiri there was a car stuck in the snow, I tried without success to push them out. The next thing I know there's another camera crew from a different station wanting to know why I'm here.

Sitting there at the end of the second day, an old man taking my boots off my feet, I felt pretty pathetic. It was not my finest moment. Leaving Zubiri in the morning I was greeted by the industrialisation of the country, a massive magnesium refinery looming for miles in the darkness. Its lights distorted by the heavy rain. Having not learned my lesson quite yet I was going off road, I hadn’t come all this way to walk along the roads. It turns out this was still a mistake as although there was no snow there was a lot of flooding. Crawling under collapsed trees and bushes unable to take the weight of the recent snowfall, I was turned around by a local who told me the river had overflown and the way was impassable. It’s just as well he had stopped me as chances are I would have tried to cross it anyway, unaware of the danger or perhaps just too tired to care.

 Welcome to the Spanish countryside where sunshine awaits you.

Welcome to the Spanish countryside where sunshine awaits you.

Spain is sunny. Full of orange groves and olive trees. Beach resorts full of drunken English people. Did I mention it’s supposed to be sunny. I mean it was winter but I just assumed it would be relatively warm still, or at least not snowing. And no floods either, definitely no floods.

Having run with the bulls during San Fermin a few years ago I was looking forward to Pamplona — relaxing in a bar with wine and pintxos, perhaps even a nice hotel. This however was not to be. There was serious flooding that would secure my third appearance on Spanish TV. This time I was the helpless victim staring at the closed bridge and trying to work out how the fuck I was going to cross the raging torrent that was about to wash away the only bridge for miles. Unfortunately the answer to this was to walk around — I discovered afterwards that backtracking would have been much quicker but I couldn’t bring myself to go backwards, even forwards in the wrong direction seemed better in my head. Feeling pretty clever I snuck past a police cordon assuming it was just an over zealous precaution. Walking along the overflowing river I was conscious of the rapid rising and in particular the massive logs it was throwing around. My exhilaration came to an abrupt end as I was faced with a sunken town centre, the tops of signposts just above the water. For a brief moment I considered swimming across but common sense won out. My diversion took me for several hours around the outskirts of the city, through industrial estates and residential developments. It was one of the most soulless parts of the camino for me.

Leaving Pamplona fuelled by a box of freshly baked mini chocolate croissants, it felt like things were changing. The sun was out and the sky was clear. The upper class suburbs giving way to fields and a slow icy climb uphill. I remember thinking these were some of the harshest winds I’d ever experienced and turning my face away from the wind when my knee suddenly gave way and I was struggling to walk at all. As I hobbled slowly upwards, a Spanish man appeared as if from nowhere. He was named Fernando and he would become my guardian angel. At the risk of doing him a great disservice — his English was no better than my Spanish though. He could tell I was struggling and didn’t leave my side, walking with me all the way to the albergue at Puenta el Reine. The Irish devil took me from there and made sure I would forget my suffering that night. One of the advantages of drinking until you pass out is that you are ready to go in the morning — no need to waste your time dressing or packing your bag. I was good to go. And feeling remarkably positive for a change. The sun was still shining and I hoped I had experienced the worst of it.

 I don't know why but I was fascinated by the weigh stations and pump houses along the way. I'm probably just a bit weird.

I don't know why but I was fascinated by the weigh stations and pump houses along the way. I'm probably just a bit weird.

After about a week of walking and questioning what I was doing I realised why I was doing it. Or at least one good reason. That was to learn to live in the moment. To forget the past and to forgo the future. Without distraction, just myself and the Spanish countryside. My focus on basic survival as nature intended. 

The next few days were a struggle as my knee would just give up half way through the day. Each time my guardian angel would arrive and slowly but surely walk with me. Our communication attempts often failing but I could at least say “Es mal” and point at my knee. Sometimes even “Es muy mal”. I came to realise that every day the camino breaks you but proves that you can go on. Each day I was churned up and spat out but the next morning I'd put my boots on and walk regardless. I guess that’s like life.

Everyone walks the camino for different reasons but no one walks in winter for fun. I met a Canadian man who had just lost his wife, he was walking for her and to come to terms with his loss.

Entering Rioja I was taken by the dramatic change in the colour of the earth, chalk white had given way to brick red and seemingly here it was hunting season. I was a little paranoid about being mistaken for a grouse.

I stayed in albergues, churches, truck stops and even a luxury hotel or two along the way. Having been advised the truck stop was the only place we could stay in Villafranca Montes de Oca unless we wanted to walk through the night I didn’t know what to expect. What I received was warm hospitality, a really nice private room and very good Riojan cuisine. You never knew what awaited you each night, I found it exciting as I had come to terms with the fact that sometimes I would be sleeping on a dirty floor, lucky if there was a hole for a toilet — anything better was a bonus. I expected the food to be bad as well, but in general it was excellent — the Spanish care about food and wine.

Albergues varied from private converted garages full of bunkbeds to sleeping on the floor in the cloisters of a medieval church. The church at Granon was one such place, everyone sleeps on the floor, a communal meal prepared by the hospitalero. Apparently they cook for 100 people at dinner in the summer, it was hard to imagine given the compact kitchen and the five of us sat there. The price? Whatever you want to pay, true to the origins of the camino supporting real pilgrims there were a handful of albergues that simply asked for a donation. 

 It was sunny as well. I think I'll go this way.

It was sunny as well. I think I'll go this way.

One of the most challenging days for me was the walk to Burgos, it would be a long day but I planned on having plenty of breaks to see me through. I passed through half a dozen villages that day all of which were shut. Completely. Some bars kindly had a note on the door saying they were closed until March. As tempting as it was, two months was a little long to wait for them to open. It was 30km before I found anywhere open and by that time I was simply broken. There’s an unusual rocky hill on the way and by the time I’d reached the top I had slowed down to a crawl. But, there was Burgos — seemingly not too far in the distance — it was within sight. I think this must have been around 2pm. Maybe another hour or two and I’d be there. I was going to find a nice hotel for a change and spoil myself. Maybe even have a bath. After an hour or two I didn’t seem to be much closer really, it was still there in the distance. The sun was glaring straight into my face, burning my skin and lips. If it wasn’t the wind, or cold then it was the sun. When I finally arrived in Burgos it was gone 8pm. The last 600m taking me nearly an hour. I couldn’t believe how hard the day had been, I’d walked 42km but it felt like a lot more. I did however have my first stay in a hotel and it was everything I’d hoped it would be. The location helped, in an old square facing Burgos Cathedral. Hotel Mesón del Cid was a beautiful place with an even more beautiful location. The highlight for me without a doubt was breakfast, sat in the restaurant watching the sun hit the cathedral whilst enjoying more scrambled eggs, jamon, cheese and in particular warm chocolate croissants than I would have previously thought it possible to consume. The hotel may not have been cheap but I did get my money’s worth at breakfast.

The next day I discovered the joy of a late start and a short day. A mere 20km but I needed to recover and couldn’t bring myself to have an actual rest day. This was as close as I was willing to get to a day off. I was lucky enough to have the albergue to myself in Rabe de las Calzadas and experienced such kindness from the hospitalera. Feeling refreshed once more I headed off early to ensure I caught the sunrise. My reward were some of the most beautiful colours I've seen in the sky and the most unusual light cast on the ground. It reminded me of my old French photography teacher who said “If I were to masturbate over this table it is weird, no? But if I masturbate over a sunset it is okay.” His edifying words finished with a shrug. I mean I’m not sure either of these is normal but I took his point. As I walked that morning, I felt rather pleased with myself for my linguistic skills, having told the hospitalera that she was very kind. Lodging my new Spanish word for kind in my head… it dawned on me that “tipo” sounds a lot like typical. It now made sense why she was somewhat confused with me telling her that she was “very typical”. Oops.

Having reached Fromista I was at the half way point. I’d never wanted to give anything up so much before except perhaps violin lessons at school. To make matters worse on the way I managed to get lost and head up a hill, at the top I could just see a path in the distance that I should clearly be on. Shit. I couldn’t bring myself to retrace my route and go back the sensible way so I climbed down a steep side making my own path. I was fairly sure I was going to fall and injure myself here, perhaps my bloated corpse eaten by the deer I startled on the way. But I didn't fall and arrived at the beautiful village of Castrojeriz, meeting a group of Spanish teenagers walking the camino with their dog. I'd seen them taking shelter in an underpass a few days earlier and had assumed they were homeless, sleeping on cardboard and eating from tins. It turns out they were just on a budget. A €5 bed that seemed like a bargain to me was beyond their means. I really admired what they were doing.

 Beauty in concrete.

Beauty in concrete.

I took my first shortcut on the way to Carrion de Los Condes, taking the road rather than the river, not sure why as it was only a small saving but I think it was pure desperation. Arriving at a convent for the night I was reunited with most of my fellow travellers. I’d even seen the Spanish teenagers on my way and helped them gather cardboard boxes for their bed. It seemed to work this way, you’d not see anyone for days and then all of a sudden everyone is there. After dinner and a few drinks the Spanish teenagers arrived with their dog. They were ushered in the back door by one of the group having been told the dog could not stay with them. The next thing I know we’re all outside having an argument with a group of nuns. Not speaking Spanish I couldn’t really follow what was going on but I was fairly sure I was about to get kicked out. It turns out they were just pissed at not being told what was going on, the owner of the dog refused to be separated from him so they were consigned to the outside toilet for the night whilst the rest of us had the luxury of the creaky but clean beds. The cardboard did come in handy in the end.

The next day I walked all day with Korean Jesus, the first day I’d had company for any real duration. I thought we had very open discussions on our world views, our reasons for being here and perhaps most importantly, our own frailties. I’d later come to realise I think he was trying to soften me up for a conversion. My reward for a long day was a jacuzzi and three servings of one of the best chocolate mousses I’ve ever tasted. 

I’d started to get into the habit of buying food when I could rather than rely on finding somewhere open when I was hungry. Sometimes, unable to find any good quality jamon, I was forced to wander the wilderness with nothing but smoked salmon, chocolate and miniature bottles of wine to keep me going. Such are the hardships of a modern pilgrim. 

If you like having vegetable oil gently rubbed into you by a prostitute then you'll like the massages in Leon. Korean Jesus had been extolling the virtues of his pilgrim's massage in Burgos and arranged for me to go with him in Leon. I jumped at the chance as I love a good massage and my legs were in desperate need. When we arrived at the massage parlour it was in someone’s flat and had a strange feel to it. My masseuse was brought to me and I was asked if she was okay, she was fine — although perhaps a little overly made up for a pilgrim's massage. It then clicked that this was a brothel… Well, I figured they must still know how to massage and it had been made clear what services we required. Unfortunately it was worse than I could ever have imagined, she just limply applied copious amounts of vegetable oil to my body. I say vegetable oil as towelling it off afterwards just didn’t work. Obviously being very British I just laid there and said nothing.

I’d been advised to stay at the Parador in Leon and was very glad I listened. If you’re not familiar these are government run luxury hotels in old buildings, this particular one, the Hostal de San Marcos dating back to the sixteenth century. That evening I bumped into a married couple I'd not seen for a few days and they were shocked at my appearance, saying I looked gaunt and asking if I was unwell. Back in my hotel room I hardly recognised the face looking back at me in the mirror. Dark circles and sallow cheeks. I would however do something about this in the morning as the breakfast at the Parador was spectacular. Their signature eggs benedict was a thing of beauty (although technically an eggs florentine if you're a pedant) and I feasted like a king. As much as some days I learnt that plain rice is more than enough to sustain you for breakfast — I also learnt that gluttony exists for a reason too.

Leaving the sanctity of my room at the Parrador, walking through the old stone corridors, taking in the beauty for one last time I felt strong, today was going to be a good day. By the time I had reached reception I was in pain. Still, there was only 30km today… well, I ended up doing a little less as I couldn’t carry on. I found a quiet place at Villar de Mazarife and had the entire 95 person albergue to myself. Total so far, 593.2km — just a little further…

 You soon get used to spotting the arrows. And following them.

You soon get used to spotting the arrows. And following them.

I met Korean Jesus and the Irish Devil in a wine bar in Astorga. After sampling a variety of local wines I agreed to cook dinner for everyone (in particular to thank the Koreans for cooking for me in Leon). As we shopped for ingredients I noticed there was some conflict between them and realised they were both trying to advise me, but it was more like a battle. For my soul. I think the devil won that particular one. I was starting to get a little short tempered and in need of my own space. I was advised later that apparently people fight here due to bad energy from the mountain we were about to cross.

I felt awful in the morning, as though I had a hangover which considering the quantity of wine I consumed would be logical but this was the camino — I’d been fuelled by wine for the last 22 days and my tolerance was high. Over lunch I heard stories of a crazy man holed up on top of the mountain at Manjarin and was advised not to stay there. They said he was crazy, that he was the last Knights Templar, the place had no electricity or running water and to stay away. It sounded great to me so I thought I’d head there. I was still feeling rather fragile from the night before but I think the cure was an uphill climb in the sleet and snow. It was surprisingly refreshing, cleansing almost. My reward at the top was the Cruz de Ferro or Iron Cross. It’s a symbol of the camino and pilled high with stones people have brought from home to signify their troubles and leaving them here. I only found out about the cross earlier in the day so my stone hadn’t travelled as far but I hope it did the same job.

Reaching my destination, I wasn’t sure what to expect but it wasn’t this. I can only say it looked like the shack of a serial killer. The light was just starting to fade and the seemingly makeshift shack was shaking in the wind, the closer I got the worse the wind became threatening to tear panels off of the structure. Before the main building was a maze of corridors and doorways, some covered and some exposed. But each had a dog tied to a stick. It felt like some sick game played in a horror film but it was very clear that some of the dogs were friendly and some of the dogs would tear me apart. Or at least this is what I assumed as I slowly approached the first dog who just stared at me — others were barking and desperately trying to get to me. Passing the first dog I entered a covered area, shelter from the wind and rain at least but confronted with a chainsaw and a poster of human anatomy I wasn’t feeling very secure. By a process of elimination I chose the only doorway not guarded by a dog and knocked. Nothing. I knocked louder and waited. Nothing. I headed back out to the road and looked around. I thought about going on further but it was going to take a few hours to get down the mountain, it was getting dark and a storm was setting in. I went back to the door and opened it, I could hear voices inside so I called out. Nothing. I crept further in past a thick blood red velvet curtain and found another door. I knocked. Nothing. So, I opened the door. Inside it was dark but warm with candle light. Immediately I was greeted by two of the kindest men — volunteers as sadly the owner was unable to stay at altitude due to a heart condition. After being advised that the toilet is “anywhere you like” and that my bed was where they had been sat but reassuringly informed “it’s very good, I normally sleep there with the dog”, we had dinner. Sat around the fire were a handful of Koreans and in pride of place atop his throne was Korean Jesus. This was a very spiritual place and the subject of religion came up, I'd been quite engaged as I enjoy learning on any subject — even the supernatural. But it quickly turned into an attempted conversion, he could see I was seeking something and to him the obvious answer was God. And now, he would finally strike. He presented me with what he claimed was unquestionable logic. I questioned it. A lot. His frustration was growing as to how I could not agree to this simple evidence. This undeniable process of logic. As painful as it was for me it did help me realise that life comes down to the conclusions we make. We all get to see the same fundamental information. What’s different is how we interpret it.

I left very early the next morning to ensure I was on my own. A warm sending off from my hosts and an apology from Korean Jesus. This meant leaving in a snow storm but I enjoyed it. Korean Jesus caught up with me at lunch and rather than suffer the same experience as the day before I thought I’d go on the offensive — I was also curious as to what his beliefs actually were. It got to the point where I wanted to ask if he was a creationist but I didn’t want to ask directly as I’m sure if he said yes I would have laughed at him. I did however ask if he believed in dinosaurs to which he said he was both sure they existed as there is evidence but also sure they didn’t exist as the bible didn’t mention them — a fairly big omission really. It was left with me agreeing to read the bible if he read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.

 The rain giving way to the sun somewhere in Spain.

The rain giving way to the sun somewhere in Spain.

Ponferrada was beautiful, the castle there is like something out of a Disney film. I’ve been to Spain a few times previously and always thought it was a poor cousin to Italy in terms of beauty and character but here in the North this was not the case. It was just as beautiful as anything Italy had to offer. 

On my way to O Cebreiro I was stopped by the Irish devil. He wined and dined me with strawberries and Cava on a bench and then suggested a glass of wine with some local goats cheese. All was going well so far and we agreed to meet for lunch in a village ahead as the owner knew him. Lunch was good, the wine was good and they kept bringing food along with the wine. My memory gets a bit hazy at this point but I do recall being shocked at the time and being told we'd been at the bar for 7 hours. Now the Spanish do like a long lunch but that it taking the piss. This was a mistake. Of epic proportions. I only have a few memories of the rest of the day. Climbing the mountain in the pitch black with freezing cold rain. I don’t know what time we arrived at O Cebreiro but the restaurant was closed and I was very very hungry. It’s a remote village on top of a mountain, there would be no food for me tonight. It was beautiful though, or at least I think it was and seemed to wear the ice and fog with familiarity.

The last few days I’d intentionally slowed my pace down as I was meeting a friend in Sarria in two days who was going to walk to Santiago with me. I was looking forward to sharing the experience and the suffering with him. I awoke the next morning to a message saying he was on the train, in Spain. I replied asking what he was doing as we weren’t meeting until the next day… It turns out we had mixed up the day and I was supposed to be meeting him that night. In 11 hours to be precise. I had been looking forward to two casual 25km days, now I had over 50km to do but first I had to sober up and get down this icy mountain. The camino gives you a sense of purpose, a simple destination each night — however to put this arduous journey into perspective. I could have taken a bus and been there in 59 minutes. The suggestion was made to me but I wasn’t really tempted, I knew I had to do this on my own. So, I put one foot in front of the other for the next 11 hours.

The next four days were fun, sharing the highs and lows with my amigo. One of my favourite moments was meeting Korean Jesus and my Guardian Angel in a pulpo tent in Portomarin. Wine, bread and pulpo — it was a good lunch. We found an albergue together that night but there was nowhere open for food at all. We ended up visiting the home of the owner of the village bar who kindly took us there and let us purchase his stale buns, chocolate and macaroni — it was not a good dinner.

Arriving in Santiago was a very mixed experience for me. For most it’s the end of their pilgrimage. For me it was significant but I still had at least three days ahead of me. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, on the outskirts there’s an albergue, Monte do Gozo, looking more like a military base it can house over 1,000 pilgrims. It was closed at this time of year but did make me realise how different the experience would be in the summer. At the cathedral I had my second mass of the pilgrimage (and my life) but felt like an irritable child who just wanted to leave. I try to be open minded about religion but nothing I saw there felt positive, more like a show of power and opulence. Although not my finish I felt done in Santiago. I was simply finished. Mainly after the night out, it was emotional and filled with far too many cervezas. I just wanted to go home. Saying goodbye to my friend was hard and I was due to meet my fellow pilgrims for lunch but I just wanted to continue — I wanted this to end, desperately. So I kept on walking.

 Even when desolate and grey, the scenery was beautiful.

Even when desolate and grey, the scenery was beautiful.

Surprisingly the closest I came to giving up on the camino was during those last three days to Finisterre. There was a constant doubt in my mind since leaving Santiago. It didn’t help that I was too stubborn to pay the extra £2.99 to buy the guide to Finisterre so relied purely on the markers and my instincts. Both failing me spectacularly. I managed to walk exactly 8km in the wrong direction, there was a look of shock in the bar I entered — why was there a pilgrim here? It was sat in this bar on day 32 that I finally thought to myself… just stop. I finally had to backtrack, there was no getting around it this time, it seemed better to give up than to go back. I’m not sure what changed my mind, perhaps simply the fear of failure presenting itself clearly for the first time. The extra 16km didn’t do anything to help my mood — or my feet.

Olveiroa was one of the most picturesque villages on the camino, it felt classy, even the communal albergue was stunning, its features lit up at night. Setting off in the morning it was a strange feeling knowing this was my last day walking. I had come to rely on it, it was my life, my sense of purpose. And soon it would be gone. I had a dream like experience on the way, it had been raining all day and as I walked down the road with the rain all around, I saw a wall of water heading towards me,  careering down the road like a juggernaut. It was heavier, denser rain — I’d never seen anything like this before it was surreal and I thought I was dreaming. Stopping in my tracks I waited for it to hit me, anticipating the impact of this powerful force. The moment of truth causing nothing more than more noise on my waterproofs and a smile.

I was aware I would be hitting my 1,000km target today so kept checking my phone, I felt good when I finally saw the number. I took a moment to stop and look around, to remember where I was when I hit that magical but arbitrary number. Safe in the knowledge I could stop at any point now having achieved my goal. The sun had just come out, I hadn’t seen it for days, only the rain. The final leg into Finisterre is deceptive, you walk along the seafront with the village in sight for miles. Eventually the beach gave way to the village and I knew I only had a few kilometres left albeit a final blast uphill to the lighthouse and the end of the world. The sun was beginning to set and I could feel a sense of finality about this day. As I walked the final stretch I felt annoyed at the other people here, that they hadn’t earned the right to be here. Were they even aware of my suffering? I climbed down the cliff as far as I could go, I’d been thinking about the people that walk the camino and hurl themselves into the sea at the end and I truly understood why. My eyes were watering and as I got to the very edge I wept. I had carried a shell, the symbol of the camino, for the last 1,012km and was finally able to release this burden. I hurled it into the sea, the wind taking it and… it landed on the rocks. The sun was setting on the day but also my camino experience. 

 The end of the world. At least this is as far as I was willing to go.

The end of the world. At least this is as far as I was willing to go.

Korean Jesus had one last attempt at saving my soul. I was invited to his house for dinner, a traditional Korean meal cooked by his wife. I was somewhat surprised that his house was rather opulent, double doors, marble columns and sunken floors led me to feel like I was meeting with a crime lord. Perhaps I had Jesus and the Devil the wrong way round…

The camino is best summed up as an odd experience for me. I’m not sure what I expected from it, I like to think I expected nothing but that’s probably not quite true. I hoped it would present me with something, improve my life in some way, provide an answer I was looking for. But it didn’t, or at least I haven’t found whatever it gave me yet. I will however keep looking. Writing this was hard. It felt like I was talking about some great tragedy that only those there could possibly understand. Much like a prisoner of war I have had camaraderie, routine, suffering and small moments of joy from the previously mundane. I learnt to appreciate the joy of food as fuel for your body, without the trappings of taste getting in the way. It was like going to war without any of the danger involved, you form bonds with people quickly, sharing things you perhaps wouldn’t tell even your closest friend, sharing the highs and the lows. The result is a sense of camaraderie that I have not previously experienced. It was hard, much harder than I ever thought it would be. When I started I imagined that I'd just keep walking forever but now I don’t want to take another step. I took a taxi back down the hill at Finisterre to draw a clear line. Would I do anything differently next time? Probably not… Interestingly I seem to only remember the good moments. I’ve been thinking about doing another camino recently but had this niggling feeling there was a reason not to. Writing this I've read my notes from the trip and they are just full of pain and suffering. Each day would be something like “Today was really hard. I wanted to give up. Had lunch and a bottle of wine. Met a nice cat.” There was very little good written down (although a surprising amount of detail on encounters with cats, I’m thinking perhaps I should write a book — Cats of the Camino). Yet that’s what I remember. Don’t get me wrong, I can recall the suffering if I try but it’s not my lasting memory of the experience. That is the camaraderie. And the cats...

 

In an effort to pack as light as possible I left my camera at home so all photos were taken with my iPhone 6. I was surprised just how good the camera is and was reminded that it’s a lot more about being composition and light than having the best equipment.