Kamala Retreat House | Becoming a pilgrim
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Becoming a pilgrim

Becoming a pilgrim

We are all pilgrims, in a sense; of this journey we call life. But not all of us have the privilege to embody the reality of the word.

Pilgrim. Peregrine. From a far away place. Wanderer. Traveler. Nomad. Walking along a particular route to a specific place. A holy or sacred place.

I have walked the Camino de Santiago de Compostella twice already. The first time along the popular route in Northern Spain when I turned 40 and the second time – ten years later – from Porto in Portugal.

On my first pilgrimage (800 km) I had too much baggage. Literally (what did I think?) and emotionally (my father was dying).

An excerpt out of a story I wrote afterwards about this:

I dream of my father’s house. Roses, thick blooming orange roses, grow lusciously out of the front door, the chimney and the roof.

Something urged me to look back that morning and a heavenly sunrise greeted me. I hummed a long Sanskrit healing mantra the whole day for my dad. We (my friend René joined me in Pamplona) walked through oak mountain forests and decided at five o’clock in the afternoon to keep on walking. Two old oak trees stood all alone at a distance from the path. We need to walk between those two trees, I said, because Celtic legend says it is an opening to another dimension.

The oak trees gave a present to my dad; it was full of colourful Buddhist prayer flags. And I knew we had to keep on walking, because that evening we slept across a church with a beautiful rose garden in full bloom and the next morning the whole world was covered in a thick fog.

I carried a stone for my father, one for my son and one for myself all the way from a waterfall close to my hometown in South Africa. Just before Cruz de Ferro, where pilgrims traditionally leave stones, I picked up another six stones for friends of mine (this eventually had had me in tears because my backpack was too heavy and my feet were swollen and all three refugio’s in Rabanal del Camino were full. In the end I did get a mattress and a cold shower.)

On top of the stone heap at Cruz de Ferro, where heaven meets earth, I stood alone with my father’s stone. I had placed all my stones randomly on a huge flat rock underneath the long wooden pole on which the iron cross is mounted. There was no more space left for my dad’s stone. And I realized with a shock I will never see him again.

That afternoon we lost our way to Molinaseca. My mother texted me that an ambulance took my father to ICU at the hospital. I cried myself awake that night.

The next day to Villafranca del Bierzo I saw for the first time three ambulances with screaming sirens, three police cars (in dreams police symbolize angels) and when I asked how long the candle will burn which I had lit for my dad in the Church of Forgiveness, the answer was three days.

Today. Thursday. Friday.

Thursday was a murderous climb to O’Cebreiro, high up in the mountains in the province of Galicia. I struggled with my emotions.

Friday morning 8 o’clock I phoned him. He couldn’t talk anymore. I told him I am in heaven, looking down at the clouds below and I only had 150 kilometres left to go. I told him I love him. And I thanked him that he introduced a love for hiking to me and my sisters. And that now I was walking for him. And that death was just a door. We both cried.

Promptly at noon my mom sent me a sms to let me know he passed away. That afternoon it rained heavily. And I got my first blister.

The next morning just past San Xill I packed a shale stone cross for my dad underneath a huge old oak tree on top of a mountain overlooking green pastures with cows and sheep. I sadly said goodbye.

Sunday morning in the thick fog I clearly heard my dad calling me. And I jumped with joy; my dad had come to walk with me.

Ten years later

Once again I found myself traveling with a backpack; this time walking the Camino with two friends and starting from Porto in Portugal. Right from the start it was clear I was walking to a different tune.

Our baggage didn’t arrive at the airport! A great lesson in non-attachment. Not at all fussed, we explored the town of Porto, a welcome extra to our trip. In fact, traveling without baggage is a wonderful experience – you feel so FREE! In the end our bags did arrive at half past one in the early morning hours before we officially started our Camino and I realized although I took great care I STILL packed too much!

We decided we were going to do this pilgrimage the easy way – having our baggage carted from one place to the next, only carrying our daypacks. So, it didn’t really matter that I packed too much, but it did brought home a thought: I want to travel light!

I made a classical mistake on the first day. We were walking along the beach and I decided to walk in my sandals rather than my hiking shoes. The result? A HUGE blister underneath my left foot.

On the second day a dog bit me. I kid you not. A small canine came running towards me on a deserted farm road and without any warning bit my left ankle. I was too surprised to scream even.

The third day I got news that the husband of a labyrinth friend of mine had died suddenly. My best friend Cindy’s mom died as I was flying from South Africa six days earlier and another friend’s mom was in hospital for five months already after a bad car accident. So day number three I walked for the dead and the dying.

The fourth day I woke up with such vertigo dizziness I couldn’t walk at all. What IS happening, I asked myself. The weather was miserable. Cold, wet and alone I waited in the next town at the local bar till the B&B room was ready.

Douw arrived first. “I am FREE!” he shouted happily, drenched to the bone as he opened the door to our room. Susan, who walked much slower, had awe and wonder written all over her face when she eventually arrived. “I could feel the other pilgrim’s spirit animals as they walked past me!” Excitedly she told us about her experiences in the forest – a wolf, a jaguar and a bear walked past her.

On my first Camino I entered each and every church to get a stamp and light a candle for my dad. On my second Camino I remember entering a church only once – and only because it was in the shape of a scallop shell. I didn’t care about the stamps and nature had become my church.

On the first day of my first Camino I pushed myself so hard that I walked over the Pyrenees in 6 hours instead of the normal 8. With no food or snacks! I had arrived in St. Jean Pied de Port at 11 pm the previous night, just in time to get a Pilgrim’s passport before the shop closed for the night and left the next morning at 6 am before any shops were open. On the first day of my second Camino we took the bus to the promenade, walked a bit and then had a leisurely lunch with wine before we walked on.

On my first Camino I was fascinated by mythical stories of the Knight’s Templars, the crusades and the octagonal churches. On the second I listened to real life stories of fellow pilgrims.

How much I had changed in a decade!

Two years ago

Four years after my second Camino, I embarked on another pilgrimage: the Via Francigena to Rome. A whole 2000 kilometres! My friend Regine and I changed the original route and started walking from Frankfurt in Germany instead of from Canterbury in England. (That didn’t change the total kilometres.)

We walked through the Black Forest past Freiburg to Switzerland and joined the original route at Lausanne. We hiked over the Great St. Bernard’s Pass, through Ivrea, Pavia, Fidenza, Lucca, San Gimignano, Sienna, Bolsena and Viterbo all the way to the Vatican City.

One of the most important lessens we learnt on this beautiful way to Rome was to fully embrace the unknown. We always walked into towns not knowing where we would sleep for the night. Intuition led us every day to the perfect place. Sometimes straight to an albergo, sometimes a chance meeting with a local who directed us.

( The Via Francigena is not like the Camino in Spain where the refugios are aplenty on the road and it is first come first serve. Nope, here you have to phone the pellegrino accommodation ahead of time and book your bed. Coming from South Africa our cellphones were on roaming and we could not phone, only connect with the internet via WiFi.)

So we had to trust. Once, after a particularly long day, we sneaked into a refugio and claimed two beds by quickly going to sleep! (We did have a shower first.) And we kept on believing. We found help in the most unlikely places.

Antonio, who had lived in Harare for ten years and had been to Cape Town, gave us his apartment in Capranica because his hotel was full. Juliana, who overheard our plight in the local café/bar in Sutri – it was the August banking holiday long weekend – invited us to stay in her next-door apartment.

We walked tall. Our huge wings were spread wide open. Two angels, unruffled by the human traffic whizzing past. Two angels on a mission. Blessing everything and everyone. Two angels. Spreading infinite timeless joy.

On our second last day we took a wrong turn. But, very early on in our journey we had decided unanimously that we would NEVER walk back. No. Only forward.

And, as always on this pilgrimage, the gods were on our side. At a small garage along the Via Formellese I asked a young man, who was busy refueling his car, where exactly we were. Turned out VERY far from where we were supposed to be. Fabiano, who got married on a beach in South Africa (how was that for serendipity!) gave us a lift and a flood of information.

To keep us living-in-the-moment though, we were attacked by a swarm of sting-flies (when we took a shortcut…). And I learnt another valuable lesson. We tried running away, but they kept coming. We used an insect-repellant stick, but still they stung us. We – on advice from a passing cyclist – plucked some leafy twigs and used it like proper sangomas (medicine women) swishing the leaves to the left and the right sides of our heads. Still, they kept coming. Stinging left, right and center. Like fighter pilots. I swore. I shouted. I cried.

Until I clicked. Everything is God. I stopped in my tracks. Filled my heart with love and gratitude. And blessed the sting-flies. Wham! In the blink of an eye they were all gone. Like one we started to sing our “marching onwards” song: Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. On days when it got difficult this uplifting tune kept us going. Keeping the rhythm with our walking sticks.

Walking into Rome was one of the most difficult days of our pilgrimage. The roads were very busy and we didn’t know if we were on the right track as, for the first time, the familiar red and white Via Francigena stickers were few and far between. We nearly got lost in the Parco di Monte Mario were it not for two unlikely pilgrims (they didn’t carry any backpacks and looked like they were just on a stroll, not even sweating!) who came to our rescue with a GPS. Together we walked down the hill and the long straight Via Ottaviano through the Porta Angelica to the Vatican City. As so many days before (it had become our secret ritual) we were welcomed by the church bells striking 12 noon.

We walked with joy in our hearts into the huge Basilica and, together with an aged Cardinal totally immersed in his contemplative prayers, attended our last Mass.

(“It’s very easy to be an angel when you have nobody ruffling your feathers. You’ve got to get into the marketplace and BE there.” – Yusuf/Cat Stevens.)