Walking El Camino de Santiago

Winter 2017, Living Well Magazine

by Madeleine Selian

Readers may remember long-time member of the Gawler community, Madeleine Selian, from her inspiring feature story ‘The Gift of Life’ in our Winter 2014 edition of Living Well magazine. Madeleine attended her first cancer program in early 2003, and has continued to attend retreat programs at our centre every year since. During her first retreat, Madeleine had a profound awakening to pursue the things she wanted to do in her life – to live life to the fullest, even with cancer – and as you are about to read she has truly honoured that calling. 

El Camino de Santiago (EN: The Way of St James) is one of the oldest Christian Pilgrimage itineraries on Earth. The most valued leg of the route winds its way in northern Spain, from East to West, crossing beautiful sceneries, old villages (some of them deserted) with amazingly well preserved medieval churches. Pilgrims have been walking The Way of St James from early 9th Century, to arrive at the Cathedral in Compostela and pay homage to Saint James.

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was EL CAMINO.

I read these words in an illustrated magazine and at that stage it only conjured an image of a beautiful part of the world.  Then I attended a concert where I had expected to hear a recital of the soprano, Merlyn Quaife. However, it turned out to be an emotional lecture of her experience of walking El Camino. The next exposure was the American film The Way, and by the time I was to receive a gift of the guide book, somehow I knew that one day I would walk El Camino. Then I patiently waited for the suitable time to come. And that time started for us on 5th of May 2016.

We were in St Jean Pied de Port, on the south-western corner of France, when we took the first step of our challenging journey. I was physically totally unprepared for this walk. To my friends who suggested that I prepare myself by walking long hours daily, my answer was: “My first day on the Camino will be my first training day”. How naive and arrogant I was!

The only preparation I was concerned with before leaving was to find the right home for my best friend, our chocolate Labrador, Chuky. I had never left him behind for such a long time and I was prepared to cancel the trip if I had not have found the best human match for him. I involved a bunch of good friends (Paul and Maia Bedson included) to finalise that difficult job. What we found was much more than we expected – he both received and gave love to the family he stayed with, performing there the same therapeutic task he has been doing for me for the last ten years.

So, on 5th of May, my husband Serge and I took the first step. Within an hour I realized what a big challenge crossing the Pyrenees was going to be for me. I started worrying.  But, deep in my heart, I knew I would see it to the end, and I kept walking and walking and walking… and slowly, each and every step no matter how painful it was, filled my heart with light and joy. I was so happy. 

Before starting I knew Serge was going to walk the Camino just to support and help me. The first two days were extremely difficult for him also. He was carrying two backpacks (I am not allowed to lift any weights) and it was very tiring for him to walk at my slow pace. At the end of the second day (we were already in Spain and had found a company to carry our big backpack), I suggested we separate and each walk at our own pace. That was a fantastic decision for both of us. I walked by myself and so did Serge. For him walking on his own was so beneficial. I am sure he had time to reflect on the difficult times of his life, and to find the power to accept them and make peace with everything.

Every morning we set out from a village together, and pretty soon we were kissing each other goodbye and off he’d go… I knew he would wait for me in the next village, at the coffee shop, or every now and then under a tree – to make sure everything was alright.

Generally, the pilgrims were leaving the villages pretty much at the same time of the day. So, on a daily basis, during the first half of an hour of my walk they kept passing me, until I was left to my own devices. That was the moment when I entered that special headspace that I continued to walk most of my pilgrimage in. I was walking my loneliness, surrounded by togetherness. I am saying this because different people have different reasons to walk the Camino. Regardless, we all have been pilgrims together and this is something I only felt on the Camino.

As I said, I was a slow walker. I mean a very slow walker. All the other pilgrims were easily passing me. I never passed a single person, except for on the one occasion. One morning, I was by myself when a young Spanish girl, who was running late, reached me and we had a small talk, then she said good bye and went on at her own pace. An hour or so later, another girl said hello and passed me. We were on a winding part of a senda (gravelled path), just before lunchtime. I heard a peal of laughter somewhere in front of me. Finally, I saw them around the corner: the last two girls were now walking together, talking and laughing. Because they had frequent stops, just to have a good laugh, I finally managed to stroll past some pilgrims. Pure spirit of Camino!

For me the most important thing about this pilgrimage was the walk itself. I walked together with my shadow and talked to it. I walked together with my ancestors, some of whom I never met. I walked together with the spirit of the early pilgrims. And walking so slowly made me feel embraced by nature. Crossing forests and clearings, I came close to the most amazing gardens Mother Nature was showing off to me. Walking the meseta (high plains) and seeing the senda unwinding in front of me, going nowhere for hours was such an uplifting experience. I stopped every now and then to enjoy myself (I never loved myself as much as I did on the Camino), to talk to me, to take care of ‘little’ me. 

I remember once sitting under a tree just to watch the stalks of wheat swaying in the wind. It reminded me of the way the fox explained to the Little Prince what love means, in my favourite book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. As I was sitting in that nothingness, a pilgrim reached me and watched me, and said: “What happiness you’ve got on your face! Give me some!” I assured him that my happiness was coming from inside me and would not be of any help to him, so he had to seek his own inner happiness. He said “Thank you” and left…

Another time, as I was coming down from the meseta and looking into the distance at a church in the village, where we were going to stop for the day, a girl passed me and commented: “What a beautiful day for a walk!” I answered her exactly what I was thinking at that particular moment: “I wish this walk never ends”.

But this wish did not come true, and after 40 days and 800 kilometres we arrived at our destination, Santiago de Compostela. I was so sad that when we stopped in Praza do Obradoiro, in front of the Cathedral, I nearly refused to go inside for the pilgrims’ mass.

The Camino had come to its end and the walk was over, so we ended the walk inside the Cathedral; being rewarded with the most emotional church service which welcomed hundreds of pilgrims who had arrived in Santiago on 13th of June.

That day I said to Serge: “Thank you for all you have done for me. God did help me from up there and you did it from down here.” He answered: “The most important motivation was your will to do this pilgrimage and to be fair, you have impressed me. I did not believe you would finish the walk completely.”

We left behind our walking boots as they had done their job: they had carried us on the Inca trail to Machu Picchu and now on to Camino. And in between those times, Serge had them when he climbed Mount Ararat.

We had two more days to spend in Santiago. So, for the next two days I woke up early in the morning and walked to the Cathedral. In the dim light of the dawn, in front of the St James statue, I was contemplating what had happened to me in the last forty days. It was then that I had a clear message: The Camino did not end, for you the Camino just started. And this has been exactly right: I am still walking the Camino.

I cannot resist finishing with a poem that I have known for a while, but now it has a very special meaning for me.

There is No Road 
by Antonio Machado

Traveler, your footprints
are the only road, nothing else.
Traveler, there is no road;
you make your own path
as you walk.
As you walk, you make your
own road,
and when you look back
you see the path
you will never travel again.
Traveler, there is no road;
only a ship’s wake on the sea.