Who you are is a result of a lot of stuff, hey. Your upbringing. Your genes. Your choices. Your access. The Enneagram has been fascinating, delving into how your childhood defense mechanisms can obscure your true self. And why it’s worthwhile to stay on a learning journey, and not just to accept the programs we have laid upon ourselves.
A few years ago, I read The Covenant by James Michener while doing an epic hike to Mount Roraima in Venezuela. An incongruous place to read up about my own country, to be sure, but it was still a seminal experience. On top of that desolate but beautiful mountain, huddled in my tent with the rain beating down outside, I read about the early wars, explorations and discoveries that would shape my country.
Michener has an incredible way to insert fictional characters into history, and to awaken the entirety of a place and its peoples to his reader. Texas and Alaska are two other books of his that were magnificent companions to those very places. His work depicting the many people of South Africa, including my own, the Afrikaner, was riveting. And it once again brought home the fact that the stories I was brought up on were only one perspective, and often not even rooted in complete truth.
When I started my tourism business PG Tops and recruited my first employees, I insisted that they read this voluminous offering. A steep task for anyone, but it ensured that they, like myself, were able to offer a perspective to our clients that went beyond our tourism manuals and our secular upbringing and schooling. And so we could build on one of our core values: “We spread the good news.”
Before I could start hiring them, though, I needed to sort my head out.
In 2011, I walked the Camino de Santiago for the first time. And for me, it was a missing piece as I was healing from relationship-inflicted pain, but also a place where I would muster the courage to go more boldly, while concurrently leaving my phone at home so I could be totally and utterly present.
The Camino, an ancient pilgrimage route across Spain, has offered meaning, space and joy to millions of pilgrims since the Middle Ages. Every major city, town and shrine on the route holds an interesting story and significance for religious pilgrims. But the food, wine, companionship and sheer joy of the walk offers so much more to those that are there for their own reasons, whether spiritual or not.
My Camino remains a high point in my life. On the route, I looked for companion pieces and read a couple of books, including Paulo Coelho’s The Pilgrimage. But I found them all lacking, as none of them completely captures my feelings or experience.
Imagine my excitement, this last year, when, during lockdown, and unable to travel anywhere, much less go for a walk in Spain, I discovered James Michener also wrote a book on Spain. Including the Camino!
Oh, what joy! Here was the master, and he would finally offer me the guidebook to devour as I prepare to once again go walk in my happy place.
I am writing this because I am now so conflicted.
Look, his writing on the Camino is pure Michener mastery. I have already filed away his excellent exposition of the overall historical significance of the remains of St James (the reason for the Camino), and had to rethink my understanding and memory of a few places I visited on the route, including Estella. If I had read this, those many years ago, before embarking on my own journey, it would have added something to my experience and knowledge, for sure.
On the other hand, reading his work, I am left slightly empty. His description of glorious conversations, food and wine with wonderful people reflect my own. His representation of the churches, buildings, roads and other inspiring constructs brings back memories.
I couldn’t work it out.
Then it finally made sense to me, why I struggled to relate. It felt like he was leapfrogging from place to place. He was going at a pace that was inhuman.
He was driving it.
And there’s the thing. I am sure he walked it at some point in his life – but, at the time of his writing it, he was revisiting the route by car with a guide. The better to make notes, spend time and prepare for a novel, I suppose.
But it means the rhythm – the cadence – of the Camino was missing. The companionship sat with the many wonderful people that hosted him in his various locales, not with the collection of pilgrims that walked the route with him. The stories were of the history and the complexity of Spain, religion and the region, not deep conversations with others who are also hurting and healing, or exchanging of myriad cultural songs over a guitar.
You can’t drive it. In my opinion, you shouldn’t even bike it (and I have, in part).
Walking those long dusty roads alone with your thoughts. Having café con leches (cappuccinos) with new friends from Spain, Italy, Norway, Korea or wherever else we all come from. Random bouts of yoga on hostel lawns, communal cookouts and singing and dancing. Nursing blistered feet and tired souls.
The Camino is a special place. No, hold on, it’s not a place. It’s a collection of routes that lead somewhere, sure. But it’s a way. That stays with you long after you have come home to your actual life. And, even though I am writing one on it, you just can’t get what it means through a book, even if written by the master.
I can’t wait to go back.