Our final day of walking the Camino had arrived and we faced the inevitability of it with a subdued excited unease. Kim and I had an extra injury-day to play with. Though we had struggled, we had made it to this point without needing that extra day kept in reserve. I was keen to get to Santiago without delay. Meanwhile, Kim was checking the guide book in case we needed to break up the last few miles.
People started rustling in their alcoves and sleeping bags and began unzipping and crinkling packets. Bit by bit we all began to drift into the kitchen where Miro and Magdalena were preparing breakfast and coffee for us. They offered us toast with an assortment of spreads as well as fruit and little cakes. We chatted in subdued voices, waiting for the caffeine to kick in, before gathering our few pilgrim possessions and leaving.
People left in dribs and drabs and Kim and I were the last to leave. We hugged Miro and Magdalena and thanked them for their generous hospitality. I was fairly bouncing with excitement to finally reach Santiago. Kim was a bit more circumspect. We agreed to play the day by ear and would only book a room for the night when we were more certain of where we would end up.
We walked in the rain to Padron and found a cathedral to take shelter in. Padron is said to be the landing place of the boat containing St James’s remains. It is also the place that he first arrived when he went to Spain and spread the gospel when he was alive.
The church door was open and we ducked in and stood dripping at the entrance. There was a huge tour group just finishing up. They were visiting many of the churches and cathedrals in Spain and were very interested in our pilgrimage. They wished us a bon camino and left to climb back onto their bus and make their way to the next church.
With no one else standing at the counter, I thought that I would take the opportunity to ask the woman behind the desk to stamp my credential. Then I left my pack by a pew and wondered around, looking at the statues and paintings. Behind the alter and in a little alcove was a Roman stone that people could throw coins at and say a prayer. I left Kim praying at the alter and went to join a couple that we had met in Herbon.
When we left the church, we walked from one mile marker to the next and happily posed, pointing at the decreasing kilometres marked on each stone. We walked through another forest and through villages while it rained on and off all day. We couldn’t find a desirably charming place for lunch, but we became so hungry, we couldn’t wait any longer and we entered a dire little bar where we had one of the worst pilgrim meals of our trip. A little elderly French woman joined us. She was really struggling. Her pack was very heavy and it bulged massively on the chair next to her. She had been caught in Porto waiting for the rain to stop and had kept herself occupied by shopping for her children and grandchildren. But this had resulted in a bag that weighed her down. She looked on the verge of collapse, but she still managed to get to the cathedral. We later spotted her in the Santiago crowds: this little woman who needed to take little steps and regular stops and was so determined to go all the way with all the little accumulated keepsakes for her family.
At another table sat-stood a jittery American with a close shaved head and an exhaustingly restless stilted way of speaking. He had overtaken us awhile back and I had admired his super light and compact pack. But here he was agitation worrying over the fact that he needed two stamps a day to get his compostella.
‘No one told me! Why is this not made explicitly clear?’
I commented that I didn’t think that he had to worry too much about the particulars. But he was like a dog worrying at a bone. He started to get other people agitated and concerned about their pilgrim certificates and they sat across from us railing and worried. Eventually they all left and peace was restored. Their anxiety unsettled me and I wanted to leave the horrible impersonal bar.
O Milladoiro is Santiago’s largest suburb and offers the first view of the cathedral. Suddenly, we saw it. There it was: we stopped and I felt a rush of feeling and a whoosh of butterflies flood my belly. After all those days of walking, our destination was now in sight. It’s a profound moment difficult to summarise without reducing it to contriteness. Our pace quickened but we were hampered by our tired and sore feet. We just kept putting one aching foot in front of the other until we had caught up with Sebastian and Marie. We all stopped in a tiny makeshift cafe at the back of someones house in a residential street and had beers.
The final mile-marker told us we had only 2km left. Hobbling along, it felt a lot further than only 2km. But regardless of our hobble, we practically ran through the busy city and followed the stream of pilgrims to the cathedral. There was a slower apposing stream of pilgrims making their way back from the cathedral. Amongst these returning pilgrims were the Italian couple. The wife had fallen outside the cathedral and her head was bleeding, But she laughed while a huge egg grew on her forehead.
Finally, we entered the courtyard and stood looking at the Cathedral. The scaffolding had no effect on the impact it made on us. I unclipped my bag and slung it onto the ground. Kim did likewise and we hugged in the shadow of our aspirations and sense of achievement. I then sat on the ground, the tears flowing and phoned my family in Cape Town, telling them that I had made it and I was safe and all was well. Their voices rang with joy for me and I wept, cheeks wet and overwhelmed. This was the culmination of years of planning and dreaming and there I was, sitting in that shadow.
Someone had gone off and returned with beers for everyone. The tears had passed and now we stood laughing, drinking and cheering each other. A large group of teens suddenly appeared out of nowhere and began a flossing flashmob. It was funny and bizarre watching all of these young people jiggling and coordinating their arms movements in this latest of dance moves right in the middle of all that emotional upheaval and exhausted sprawls.
Finally, the exhausted smelly party broke up and Kim and I found our way to a hotel. We showered, changed and went out for paella. We took some Santiago cake back to our hotel room and soon crashed into our beds.
Feeling refreshed and clean, we made our way out of the hotel and found a cafe to have breakfast. We nabbed a table in the busy bustle and I asked for a plain croissant. This they finally brought to me after we watched the waiter dash off down the street and return with a tray of fresh pastries.
It had been my intention to find fresh clothes when arriving in Santiago and I was now able to step into Zara and shop for a new non-pilgrim outfit while Kim returned to the room to have some time to herself. I found a pair of skinny jeans that looked amazing on my now slimmer legs and a gold-thread gypsy top. I returned to our room, changed into the clean and non-fragrant clothes and threw my zip-off shorts into the bin. We then checked out, left our bags in a storeroom near the reception and made our way back to the cathedral. We first sat in one pew before Kim spotted another empty one closer to the centre and with a better view. We quickly scooted over and discovered that the Italian couple were sitting next to us. The woman’s bruised forehead was a livid purple. Soon, the German couple, Marco and Sina, joined us and we squeezed into the pews, laughing and joyful in our happy reunion.
The inside of the cathedral is incredible. The organ pipes lie horizontal, facing each other with cherubs frolicking around them and all the surfaces shine with polished wood, gold and brass. Part of the cathedral was closed for refurbishments, but that was not too much of a hardship as the service deeply moved us. A nun sang the cantor in a silver soprano tone which soared through the crowds and swelled and tipped with reverence that moved the masses crammed into every pew. And then they took down the ropes of the botafumeiro. Sena gabbed my hand and I grabbed Kim’s. Tears lay on our cheeks as we stood and watched it spring and gain momentum. It swung high and our hearts burst with the rapture of having made it all the way to see this. It is very difficult to explain or describe our feelings. I could wax on about the poly-abstracted emotions swirling in me, but the means of explaining them feel like a detraction from the core reality of that moment. The events of that day pales in the writing and becomes water-coloured. True understanding comes in the real-time experience of seeing it with those people at that time in that place. My feelings remain ambiguously indescribable even to me and I think that I am happy to not try capture them. It was lived and not captured and therefore stands out with more experienced substance.
After the service, we walked to a nearby cafe and were having coffee when Kim suddenly cried out, ‘Isn’t that Harriet?!’ It was! She had just arrived and walked right passed us. Kim and I quickly ran after her, calling for her to stop. We all returned with her to the cathedral where we hugged the statue of St James and went to view his tomb. Finally, we left and went to collect our compostellas from the office and stood in a very smelly pilgrim line. I hadn’t noticed the pilgrim smell until I stood clean and in fresh clothes. When my certificate was given to me, I saw that my name was written as Ionna which is Latin form of my name, Janine. Afterwards, Kim and I walked to another cafe and decided to sit outside free of the pilgrim aroma that pervaded the warmer interior and waited for Harriet to join. Here, we chatted with a Californian called Dave who had just walked 500 miles and was about to begin a hike through the Israeli desert.
Kim, Harriet and I returned to our hotel to collect our bags and made our way to San Martin Hospitalitaria where we each took up a pilgrim room with a single bed, a table, a sink and shower. They were situated right at the top of the building which afforded us an amazing panoramic aural landscape of the surrounding city bells. Every hour was serenaded by those multitude of bells.
Marie and Sebastian joined us in the courtyard and, together, we went to the bar and shared a bottle of wine that Marie had bought from a private seller and had been saving for miles. By the end of the bottle, Kim and I were running late to join Sina and Marco at a restaurant. While waiting for Ed and Dorota to join us, Sina, Marco, Harriet, Kim and I ordered wine and some tapas. I had asked the Californian if he wanted to join, but he texted to say that he was unfortunately unable to as he could not find his trousers. I didn’t want to ask too many questions but I did pass on his heart-felt apology to the table and we toasted to him in absentia. Sebastian and Marie joined us as did Ed and Dorota, who arrived to a huge round of applause. They had just arrived in Santiago.
The wine flowed, the food was replenished and we were a table of very happy pilgrims. Many of us were musicians and we soon began singing rounds and harmonies until the waiter asked us to please be quiet. Chastened, we agreed and paid our bill while the other tables smiled and applauded our impromptu music making.
We left the restaurant and merrily began looking for somewhere else to take or party. Dave had now found his trousers and was eating pizza, but was still unable to join us. He did very kindly supply his hotel room number. I was having far to much fun on the town to accept this generous gesture because we now had run into a group of troubadours. They’re called Tuna and wander around Europe performing and walking, relying on the generosity of people to feed and house them. Sina cried out in joy when she saw them and ran into their arms. They knew each other from the spiritual variant that they had all been on. The musicians unslung their instruments and immediately began to play and sing in the lamp-lit streets of Santiago while we formed a circle and danced. They paused after one of the songs and Kim began to sing a vocal riff which they quickly picked up and began playing. I then joined in with a higher belting line and sang with abandon while everyone laughed, clapped and danced around until we grew tired and concluded in unison. It was time to find a bar. Here we had a few more drinks and made sure that the troubadours were well rewarded. Finally, at 3am, Kim and I decided to leave. One of the troubadours fell onto his knees at Kim’s feet and tried to serenade her, but only managed to squawk and croak a few lines before stopping, shocked and bleary-eyed.
‘Oh no!’ Sina cried, ‘We broke the troubadours!’
I assumed Kim was still asleep as I couldn’t hear her through the wall. I gingerly had a shower, dressed and made my way down to the breakfast room. Here I came across Harriet sitting with some Germans. They called me to sit with them and we helped ourselves to the amazing and comprehensive breakfast spread laid out. Pouring yet another glass of fruit juice and a coffee chaser, Harriet and I told the Germans of our troubadour adventures.
‘Was that you?!’ They cried, laughing. ‘We couldn’t see you, but we could hear you all singing.’
Embarrassed, I replied, ‘Oh dear. I hope we sounded good.’ They just smiled and laughed again. ‘Well, here’s hoping that there was no footage put up on line cause we gathered quite a crowd.’ Later, I scoured the internet, insuring that nothing incriminating could be found of the night.
After breakfast, I went upstairs and found Kim dressed. I greeted her and returned to my room to read and write. But I couldn’t stay long because I could hear a busker somewhere nearby playing the Galician bagpipes. His music rose and entered my window, tantalising me with its Celtic exoticism.
We spent our final day wondering the streets of old Santiago, visiting the shops and restaurants. One such place was a tucked-away seafood-specialist with home-made wine. The menu did not really appeal and the deciding factor to leave was when the owner spilt my red wine all over me. He apologised and rushed off before returning with wads of tissue paper to try mop up the table and floor. At this point we decided that we were not in the mood for seafood tapas and had already enjoyed the bread and cheese starter. We were also very tired. The owner refused to take payment for the starter and we left to find another place.
Kim, Harriet and I returned quite early to the San Martin, asked for some hot water at the bar and sat in the common area at the top of the building near our rooms drinking tea. That was the best part of our last night in Santiago. We were full and tired after feeling that we had sucked the marrow of our pilgrimage.
Finally, we had to say goodnight and we went into our little rooms were the radiators allowed me to dry the wine drenched clothes that I had rinsed out.
My first Camino taught me a lot about myself and I think a lot of people will say the same of their Caminos. I had certain reasons for going and other certain unresolved reasons that only raised themselves to the surface while I walked. I gradually became aware that those issues actually existed and were unresolved due to my ignorance of them.
What I knew before setting forth on my pilgrimage to Santiago was the fact that I was not happy about something. I had choices to make and was unsure of how to make them. My conclusion on returning to England and work was that I needed more balance in my life. I was not happy with the amount of teaching I was doing. One of my job was weighing on me. As a part-time singing teacher, I taught in numerous schools and had my own private teaching studio. I loved most of the work I did, but all I did was work. I needed a balance and to have space and time to decide on what I was going to do with the next chapter of my life because I was feeling restless. So, I resigned from my one job and gave myself the hours to work and explore other things such as writing. I decided against applying for a PhD and gave myself the time to decide if it was something I was willing to commit five-years of time, stress and money to.
A bit more than a year after my first Camino, I feel that I have had that breathing space in which to make certain life choices. I am now beginning my second Camino along the French Way and have enjoyed working on my personal writing. I may even apply for a PhD – watch this space. Nothing is definite until it is done. I want to apply, I may be accept. But none of this has yet occurred and will only be a definite resolution on my part when all the pieces fall into place.
Meanwhile – I plan to walk a further 500 miles along the French Way and explore and grow myself a bit more while the pieces are allowed to develop and fall into their places in my life.