I live each day grateful for the people in my life – the ones that are in my inner circle, outer circle and even the ones who are only passing by. Among the most dear are our next door neighbors, Esther and Chris.
I don’t believe that age makes much difference, but it does convey the level of experience and (hopefully) wisdom one has gained. Esther and Chris are in their early seventies. Esther was born in Cuba; Chris in England and serendipity brought them together fifty years ago. Esther is a true Latin beauty, whose gregarious nature and passion for life is infectious. She has that rare quality of presence that makes whoever is sitting across from her feel they are the most important ones in her life. The air around her is inspired to dance and continues to do so even after she moves on (which is sure to happen!). Esther doesn’t stay in one place too long. She goes to zumba and yoga and belly dancing and in the evenings, delicious smells float up from her kitchen stove as she busily chops and stirs.
Chris doesn’t sit still either – unless it’s for company. He is outside early, spreading mulch, planting beans, painting, repairing or puttering. If I venture over, he invites me to have a seat, then he lounges rapt with attention. He considers every thought and word, then responds with the wisdom of a sage who isn’t attached to being one.
Esther and Chris are pilgrims of the Camino de Santiago. If you’re not familiar, this is the name of any of the pilgrimage routes to the shrine of the apostle James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. The remains of the saint are said to be buried there and many pilgrims from around the world consider the route to be a spiritual path. Our neighbors have each walked parts of it several times through the years. As most ancient pilgrimage routes, the Camino is said to begin when you step out your front door, wherever that may be. However, the most popular starting point puts the trail at about 500 miles in length. Chris has walked from this point, but has also began at a point in France that stretches for a thousand miles. He did this two years ago at the age of 70. Yes, he walked a thousand miles in one stretch, staying in hostels for pilgrims along the way. Chris is not religious and doesn’t necessarily ascribe to any doctrine. The trail has a deeper meaning for him. It seems to me that Chris feels the Camino de Santiago is just too expansive to be owned by a boxed set of beliefs.
I love hearing tales of the Camino and the ways the experience is unique to each person who walks. There is a common thread or two, of course. The Camino will stretch you in ways you have not been…physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually. It will change you in ways you may dream of or in ways you cannot fathom.
On their most recent trek, Chris began walking and his plans included meeting Esther four days in, so she could join him for the last 60 miles. They walked about ten miles a day. Esther was a sport, but was having some challenges. Chris carried her pack along with his own. They walked through the green hills of Galicia, dotted with small farms and old stone buildings and Xantas or stone fences, pieced together like a puzzle in small and large pieces to create a solid wall.
On the last day, they caught sight of Santiago which elicits a flood of emotion and excitement for pilgrims, suggesting their journey is almost done. The spires of the Cathedral beckon in the distance, but the excitement is soon tempered with the realization that this same cathedral is still three miles away, mostly uphill. With feet aching and blistered and body exhausted, Esther gave up. “I can’t go on. We need to call a taxi.” They indeed could call a taxi and someone would come and pick them up, transporting them in comparative luxury to the much-anticipated town center. However, this leg of the journey is a hundred kilometers (or 60 miles) in all and there is a certificate given only for those who have walked it.
Chris stated the obvious, “You won’t have walked the entire way,” he told her, “so you won’t be deserving of the certificate.” They continued on, arriving at a pilgrim hostel on the edge of Santiago, where they dropped their backpacks and took off their boots, then headed out into the cool of the evening. There was a band playing in the square beside the cathedral so they followed the sounds. The band wore medieval costume and played traditional Spanish songs, the music of Esther’s youth. The square is where pilgrims are greeted and embraced. There is communion with many who have met on different legs of the journey and others who have not met, but who understand where each has been. It is a continual celebration for those who have overcome their own unique obstacles.
Esther, who couldn’t possibly go any further earlier that same day, uncovered her second wind. She ran to join the fun, dancing with strangers; her laughter floating into the atmosphere, further sanctifying this most sacred of places. The Spirit of Santiago and the spirit of those who celebrated spoke to the spirit inside Esther and they recognized each other and knew they were the same. It is a spirit that knows no limitations and it resides in us all.
Chris tells this story in his trademark fashion, with a deeper understanding and gratitude for this amazing journey we are all on, making our own way. Esther and Chris have inspired me, along with some friends, to become pilgrims in the near future. We are planning our own walk, knowing that the power to overcome any obstacle exists within us. I suspect our journey will cover a range of emotions….excitement and despair, humor and exhaustion, love and heartache, but we will walk with reverence for the spirit that is both without and within. The Camino calls and we look forward to the lessons we’ll find along the way.