Right now I’m in Vigo, a coastal town south of Santiago. I’m in the train station, drinking my second cafe con leche of the morning. I’d planned to take a 10:33 train back to Santiago but when I arrived at the station, I found out that the train I wanted wasn’t running, so I’m here until noon. And that gives me plenty of time to drink coffee and write.
I miss being a pilgrim. I still get to walk to Finisterre; I leave on August 2nd to walk for 4 days with a friend from home, so I know that I’ll still get to experience more of the pilgrim life. But mostly, my pilgrimage is over, and walking with a friend is going to be a different experience. I think it’s going to be so much fun, but it’s no longer my pilgrimage.
I have such mixed feelings about the ending of this. In many ways I was ready to reach Santiago, because it was always the destination, and I always knew that I would be walking for about a month. As I got closer, I was excited about reaching my goal.
But the end has also been heartbreaking. Saying goodbye to the friends I made along the way, accepting that there were a few people I probably wouldn’t get the chance to say goodbye to, not knowing whether I would ever see some of these people again… there’s an aching, beautiful sadness to it.
I expected to really celebrate the night after I arrived in Santiago. I’d hoped to see so many of the people I’d gotten to know over the last month; I expected to go out and have drinks and eat a good meal and crowd around a table and laugh and sing.
But that first night was different. I kept looking for ‘my people’, but I couldn’t find them. The Koreans all took off for Finisterre. Susie and Helen were already there. Saskia was on her way to the coast, maybe even walking another 70 kilometer day.
Ibai was gone too; I’d hoped that he would be in Santiago when I arrived, and when I heard that he had already left my face fell. I started this walk alone, and the first friend I made was Mirra. But the second friend was Ibai: we walked the last hour of our second day together, we walked into Pamplona together, we cooked a meal in Puenta La Reina together. As Mirra and I walked around Santa Domingo we heard a distant voice calling our names: it was Ibai, at the top of a tower high above us, waving and smiling. I watched as Ibai led others through a yoga practice in the courtyard of an albergue, I watched as he approached someone walking alone and began talking to them in his gentle and friendly manner. When his shoes were stolen I stayed with him for the entire day. Throughout the walk I was often separated from him, but every two or three days we would end up in the same town, and every time we heard each others’ voice we would run over and hug.
We both walked the Dragonte route, and late in the day Ibai told me that he was glad we could spend time walking together, before the Camino ended. I last saw him in O’Cebreiro, as we walked out of town together. We stopped at a small bar and I left him sitting at the counter, drinking coffee. “If we lose track of each other, I’ll see you in Santiago, on the 27th, okay?” He nodded.
My night of celebration on the 27th, in Santiago, didn’t feel right without Ibai. It didn’t feel right without the Korean cousins, Hyoeun and Jiwoo. It didn’t feel right without Susie and Helen, without June and Jonathan (who I hadn’t seen in weeks). It didn’t feel right without Steve and Peg and Blas (who all ended in Leon). And it didn’t feel right without Mirra.
I loved the people I was with: Adam. Joe and Adele and Matteo. I was happy to be in Santiago. But it wasn’t the celebration I’d been hoping for.
And I realized that I had, in part, chosen this. I could have picked up a Camino family along the way to walk with, to stay at the same albergues with, to arrive in Santiago with. I could have collected phone numbers and emails and tried to stay in touch along the way, coordinating get-togethers.
But I chose to do this mostly alone, and to stay independent and separate. I struggled with this choice a lot, but all along it felt right. I wanted to arrive in Santiago by myself. I would have loved to be surrounded by all of my friends, posed in front of the cathedral with our arms in the air, but that image was never the Camino I chose to walk. I made friends along the way- so, so many- and I needed to accept, finally, that it was okay to lose them.
I spent the 28th in Santiago, drinking coffee and eating good food and roaming around the city. I’d been planning to take off for a few days to explore the coast of Galicia, and had been thinking about leaving sometime late in afternoon on the 28th. Something held me back, and I decided to leave Santiago on the 29th instead.
And thank goodness for that decision.
Word was going around that pilgrims were meeting at 7:30pm at the horse statue near the cathedral. I walked over with Adam, curious if I would know anyone, and my heart sank a bit when I saw the group of people gathered. All strangers. I began talking to some of them, and like it usually is, the conversation was so easy. It was fine to meet new people, but now, at the end, I wanted familiar faces.
And just like that, Hyoeun and Jiwoo appeared. Their packs were on their backs, and they explained that they were leaving that night for Madrid. “Ibai and Vicool are here,” Hyoeun told me, “they’re in the cathedral.”
What happened in the next few hours was like magic. I found a bar and sat with Hyoeun and Jiwoo’s backpacks so they could go to mass in the cathedral. “I’m only giving you your bags back if you bring me Ibai,” I told them. As I sat at the outdoor table of the bar with Adam, Rosie and Susan came to sit with us (the Canadian mother and daughter who I’d met walking into Burgos). Then Ante appeared, the Spanish woman I’m met the week before. Joe and Adele came and sat too, and then Hyoeun and Jiwoo were back, with Ibai and Vicool. I almost cried when I hugged Ibai. We sat in the corner: me and Ibai, Hyoeun and Jiwoo. We’d all started together from St Jean on the same day, and I joked that while they had all been together that first day, I was walking alone. Hyoeun looked at me, “But it was our destiny to meet.”
When the Korean cousins left there were strong hugs and a few tears. Jiwoo walked backwards down the street, waving to us until he was out of view.
Our group moved on, stopping by a restaurant to find Rudy, who I’d bonded with in St Nicolas. We walked in and Rudy gave me a gigantic hug. I rounded the corner and there was Sung Eun, the Korean opera singer who I’d met in Santa Domingo, and walked with through Castrojeriz. When she saw me she gasped, stood up, and started crying. To her right was Carlo, the Italian man who speaks little English, but who I’d seen in the same albergues every day for nearly two weeks in the middle of my Camino. I’d lost track of him about a week ago, and his face glowed when he saw me. As we left the restaurant and walked down the street, we saw the tall Korean boy who I ran down a hill with over two weeks ago.
The four of them joined us for dinner, and there we were, 16 gathered around a table in a beautiful outdoor courtyard, drinking wine and eating pulpo and grilled vegetables and croquettes and bread. My Camino family. I wasn’t alone after all, I suppose I never have been.
We’d been urging Sung Eun to sing a song for us, and finally she obliged, standing up shyly and telling us that she would sing two songs. ‘The first is a traditional Korean song,” she explained. “And the second is a farewell song”.
Her voice rang out through the courtyard, and as she sang the other tables grew silent, everyone listening to her clear and strong voice. We applauded and toasted when she finished, but there were tears too. It was beautiful: her voice, the courtyard, the night, the friends, the journey, the Camino.
It was magic.