My brain is so full and sore. Yes it’s sore, believe it. Before you get in your feelings to tell me that the brain itself can’t feel pain, I’m aware, but allow me some licence here.
Now only is my brain sore but so is my body, my immune system that has just been holding on to get me to where I am right now (Changi Singapore Airport, Terminal 1, Gate C 25), is not holding on any longer, or not as hard.
I am developing a fever and my lymph nodes are swollen and very sore. My joints ache with the combined weight and pressure of kilometres of walking, mild sunburn, epic blisters, cold, searing wind, too many early mornings followed by too many late nights, and lots, and lots of walking.
The end. The start.
This is my last post from the Camino de Santiago but it probably won’t be my last post about the Camino. No doubt I will be processing its lessons (in spite of myself) for years, or forever. We will see. I already know I will do it again, except I don’t know when.
Despite of how far I was from Santiago at any given point, despite the elevation I had to climb or how far I had to descend that day. Despite any of the variables on my journey there was only one constant during my whole trip, in fact there was really only one constant for everyone, the sun.
What have I learnt?
I’m going to distill what I have learnt so far using the sun as a rubric. Here goes.
1- It is coldest and darkest before the sun rises. It’s also a very good time to start moving as long as you’re willing to trust blindly.
The moment before the sun rises is a good time to start walking to the next stop along the journey, whether it’s 30kms away or 17kms away.
The day hasn’t started yet, not as far as sunlight is concerned and the world is quiet, dark, but full of promise because the day hasn’t started. What happens between sunrise and sunset is up to you, completely and entirely.
It is cold though, and dark and sometimes you have to put in plenty of effort in the dark, whether the darkness is actual or metaphorical it doesn’t matter. Sometimes you just have to work incredibly hard in the dark without being able to see where you are going or what you are working towards. You just know you have to and you have to keep on going.
You’ll only be able to see as far as your nose for a while, a long while sometimes, so you have to trust your instincts more than you ever thought you needed to.
If everything fails, you will meet a kind stranger at the summit of a mountain who will help you despite your protests that you don’t need help and will guide you down to safety and prevent you from wandering into a Spanish military base by accident.
Thank you Nancy from Washington. She also taught me that my roots don’t need to be tied to a geographical area because I can establish my roots firmly in my own values and therefore I will be at home anywhere I am provided I stay true to what I believe in. It sounds trite, or even self evident but no one had ever guided me through that lesson. Self evident or otherwise.
2- The sun rises in the east, without any exception.
This one is self evident. The sun will rise in the east, always.
I may think that whatever problems may occupy my mind that day are so important not just to me but to existence itself to the point that the universe will have to halt its natural processes for me, just for me, because my problems are so important.
Watching the sun rise is to be witness to the rotation of the earth and a reminder that the earth will continue spinning and it will not stop for my dramas or worries - specially for my dramas or worries.
Which brings me to my next point...
3- The sun rises daily, that’s the point. It will do this with or without my consent, permission, knowledge, input or even presence.
It’s the most banal, quotidian thing (quotidian, ha!) - the sun rising. It happens daily, that’s the point.
It happens whether we like it or not, like it has happened for million of years before and will continue rising for millions of years after I am dead.
I am humbled by the presence of this star that is close enough to allow us to thrive on this planet but far enough that means earth isn’t just a wasteland.
I am humbled by its might and it’s presence, I am humbled by the fact that it takes sunlight eight minutes to reach my retina from the moment it was fused out of the sun’s core.
When we see daylight we are seeing 8 minutes in the past, when we look at other stars in our own galaxy we are looking at thousands of years into the past. We may even be looking at a star that no longer exists but is so far away that it’s light is still making its way to our eyes despite its death thousands of years ago.
Watching the sunrise, I am humbled by the fact that I get to see another sunrise, and one day despite me thinking I am the most important being in creation I too will not see another.
I think of my cousin Salvador, who didn’t get to see any more sunrises because his life was cut tragically short by HIV. He did not have access to crucial antiretrovirals in the same way we do today, in fact, the antiretrovirals that I take daily to prevent me from becoming HIV+ would have saved him. The chemicals in my blood that I obtain for a pittance would have saved his life.
It has been said that you are your ancestor’s wildest dream. I believe this to be more than true, even if it’s only in relation to my cousin.
Here I am travelling across continents just to walk across a country, at my leisure with cheap antiretroviral chemicals running through my veins that 20 years after his death are keeping me virus free but for him, they could have saved his life.
I am my ancestor’s wildest dreams, and one day I will not see the sun rise, but the sun will rise because the sun does not rise for me, it rises because that’s what it does.
Take some time to watch the sun rise as often as you can. It happens daily of course to the point of it being almost boring but remember, you are being witness to the rotation of the earth.
4- No one can outrun the sun.
I often found myself walking during sunrise, then during the morning, then noon, then afternoon and so on. I watched my shadows get longer, then shorter, then longer again.
I thought about how I really wanted to be in x village in however many hours, and how I had to make it there despite there being no penalties for failing to do so. I just wanted to win, but to win nothing in particular.
I wanted to be the first, best, fastest, strongest, smartest, fittest pilgrim. Except, i seldom was, if at all, and in the end what i was trying to do was foolish because there were no prizes for setting yourself impossible goals - more the opposite.
In truth, Santiago de Compostela has been there for centuries, it will be there for centuries after me. I was effectively punishing myself for nothing, not even personal glory because there is no glory in injuries and blisters on top of blisters just to be the first at something that doesn’t matter.
I felt that I was trying to outrun the sun and the shadows It would make me cast as I walked. I wanted to be faster than the sun which is impossible because no one can be. Trying to achieve the impossible because you think you’re invincible is foolish. You only end up being humiliated at worst or humbled at best.
The sun cannot be outrun, it will rise again as it has done and will do for millennia. Why was I imposing artificial and impossible goals for myself?
Instead I could have focused on doing what I could do and doing that well, but no. I wanted to do the impossible excellently and then I would hate myself for not rising to standards that were impossible to meet.
The sun can’t be outrun, sometimes you just have to know that it’s ok to take your time, in fact, there’s strength in knowing your limitations.
5- The sun shines for all of us.
And out here we are all the same. No one does the Camino de Santiago by accident. We all have a story and sometimes all you need is to ask the right question, or even just be willing to lend an ear and you’ll find that the things people will share out there on the open road is fascinating.
Whether it was the extremely attractive Frenchman that I walked a couple of stages with who was collecting pilgrim’s stories for a book, or the crazy fun (and incredibly tall) American that I shared too much cider with. Or Nancy who saved me from being shot by the Spanish military or the wonderful lady on the train who spoke with me for five hours about leftist politics and the upcoming feminist take over of the world. Or the babeing American-Nigerian chap who encouraged me to just trust myself.
To all of you, whether you shared a kind word, or just smiled in my direction. Whether you taught me a lesson or just showed me the way, I thank you.
I can’t explain why people share their heartfelt feelings on the way of Saint James at the drop of a hat, but they do, we do - I did.
The CamIno involves a lot of suffering be it spiritual or physical and you form a bond with people who are going through the same thing a lot easier and with no pretences.
The sun shines for all of us out there and I wish everyone I walked or interacted with a good camino, wherever it takes you.
6- There are only 24 hours in a day without exception.
What you do with the day is up to you.
You may want to do nothing, just throw yourself in bed because there is nothing else to do. You might want to go visit all of the churches available to you within a 10km radius. You might want to sit and think, write, eat, drink, plan the next day, have a rest, go out.
It doesn’t matter what you do, but we only get 24 hours in a day. Make the most of it, maybe even despite the agony in your bones.
You never know when the last 24 hours might begin.
7- The sun will set in the West, without exception.
You often see the sun setting while doing the Camino because you are in fact, walking west (generally speaking). All of the arrows lead you west to Santiago.
At the end of the day, despite everything, the sun will set in the west whether we like it or not. Whether we stop to watch it set, or it happens without us noticing, it will go down in the west.
And that’s ok.
The sun will set because that’s what it does. I may want more time, more hours to go further, faster, stronger, but that’s not possible. The sun will set on another day and it will come up the day after.
One day, I will have no more sunsets left to see.
Despite what I have, despite what I own. Despite who I am or what I have known, I am nothing in the face of the setting sun.
I can’t dare think that I am better, stronger, faster, fitter, brighter because in the face of the setting sun I am nothing, and that’s a powerful position to be in.
Being humbled by another human being is humiliating, but being humbled by the power of nature is liberating. Because at the end of the day, all of your demons, all of your problems and all of your mistakes, your shame, your sadness and your grief pales in comparison to the might of the sun setting in the west.
David Mejia-Canales, October 2017.