Travel and Tourism

My Camino de Santiago journey (Part 1 of 3)

WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT, ALFIE? - Alfred Vargas - Philstar.com

Read Part 2 of this travel chronicle here.

When I posted my El Camino vlog on YouTube a few weeks back I was overwhelmed by the different reactions of people from all walks of life. Many were plain curious. Others were deeply moved. But most were greatly inspired to give it a try too.

I guess we, as homo sapiens, after all, have always had it in our DNA to seek the unknown, to live the adventure, to challenge ourselves, and to nurse our hearts.

My grade school buddy said, “Bro, I was deeply inspired by your journey. I lost my father to cancer a couple of years back. Mahirap. Until now, I still feel the loss. Now, I’m planning to do the Camino once this pandemic is over.” Another friend said, “It’s the first time I’ve heard of the El Camino and I’ve decided to put it on my bucket list! Thanks, Alfie!” This next one touched me even more, “Alf, your vlog made me cry. Shared your journey to my family group message. We all felt both the external and internal journey you underwent. It’s not just a vlog, it’s a good film which brings us back to humanity. Can we set a Zoom meeting with you soon so you can ‘brief’ us about it? We’re planning to go as a family.” Wow.

Before I shared the vlog, I told myself if I am able to encourage at least just one soul to do the Camino, I would be very happy and content. But with this kind of positive feedback, I was inspired even more.

I did the Camino twice. First in 2014, trekking over 300 kilometers. Then the following year in 2015 for a little less than that. When I finally mustered enough courage to walk that long and arduous trail to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, I discovered in my research that there were very few Filipinos who had done it. I couldn’t find anyone to talk to and get advice from.

It was too late when I learned that Fr. Ben Nebres SJ, the former president of Ateneo de Manila University, was one of those few. I read countless online articles and watched videos instead. But there was really no one fixed formula or way to do it. Everyone had their own experiences to share. I just had to pick which ones I thought would best suit me.

In helping the hundreds who have messaged me and the future ones who will, I will be answering the top questions I’ve received about the El Camino in this three-part series in my column. Hopefully, it won’t remain on your bucket list for long because you’ll get the chance to do it soon.

What is the El Camino?

The El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, also known in English as the Way of St. James, is a pilgrimage leading to the Shrine of Saint James the Apostle in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, northwestern Spain. It is believed that the remains of the saint are buried there.

There are multiple routes to choose from in doing the El Camino. But the most famous route is Camino Frances, starting from St Jean Pied de Port, France, and ends in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. I chose this route for myself. Countless pilgrims have done it as a form of self-rediscovery or retreat for their spiritual growth. It is also popular with hiking groups and adventure-seeking individuals from all walks of life, no matter what religion they carry.

What do you get out of this pilgrimage?
How did you learn about the Camino?
Since you learned about it, how long did it take before you decided to go?

I first encountered the El Camino in Paolo Coelho’s book, "The Pilgrimage." I read it fifteen years ago. Twice. The novel is about the author’s pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, his adventure to self-discovery and simplicity and understanding love in its many forms. It resonated with me in a huge way. I felt this strong urge to do the Camino one day, but I never had the guts. After researching it thoroughly, I knew how challenging it was going to be. Plus, I never really had time for it since my schedule being a full-time actor then was so demanding. I promised myself I’d do it one day. That was year 2005. I was able to do it nine years later.

Why did you decide to go on El Camino?

My mother, Atty. Ching Dumlao Vargas, died in 2014. She battled the big C, cancer of the uterus, for eighteen months then finally found her way to the Lord on the 29th of March that year. I was 34 years old.

A big part of me was suddenly gone. I felt lost. I felt incomplete. I felt broken. I just wanted to go away from everything. To think and not think at the same time. To travel far and wide but to be home too. To heal. I decided to do the El Camino. I needed to. I wanted to find myself again by being lost first. This was, for me, the best way to do it. My grief finally gave me the strength to pursue this unforgettable spiritual journey.

I packed my bag and was ready to go. In June 2014, I embarked on the most important journey of my life.

What do you need to know before walking the Camino?

  1. It is a very, very long walk. But you can do it.
  2. Just walk your own pace. Take it one step at a time. You will get to your destination.
  3. Plan your travel days as well as your rest days.
  4. Pack light. Your whole backpack should only be a maximum of 10% of your body weight.
  5. You can never fully train for the Camino. The Camino will train you along the way.
  6. Listen to your heart. And listen to your feet.
  7. You will meet people from all walks of life. Some may be undergoing the same personal journey as yours. In such a case, the two of you can help each other a lot. Keep an open mind.
  8. Trust the Camino. It will provide. It will show you the way. It will give you answers.
  9. Let everything take its course when you get there.
  10. The moment you start your journey, let God and let go.

What's the average time to walk the Camino de Santiago?

If you take Camino Frances, from Saint Jean Pied de Port in France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the walk should take you about 30 to 35 days, with a total distance of 796 kilometers! I suggest you give allowance of another three to five days if you want to take your time. You’ll need to walk between 20 to 27 kilometers per day to achieve this pace. There were days when I was able to walk 15 kilometers only. There were also days with more challenging hikes. The longest I did was 34 kilometers in one day.

Since my schedule only allowed me a couple of weeks, I only walked from Leon to Santiago which was around one-third of the 796 total kilometers. Then in 2015, I did my second segment starting from St Jean Pied de Port, France, to Burgos, Spain. I’m planning to finish my third and last segment of the Camino next year when the pandemic is over. It’s okay to do it in installments. There is no one way to do the Camino. Just do what is possible with what you can achieve physically, mentally and even financially at the particular time you are there. It won’t go away.

What awaits at the end of the journey?

It was no mean feat to walk the Camino, as I mentioned. But you savor the journey. You don’t rush it. So, doing it in chapters gives you the chance to embrace the whole experience, to go home and reset, then begin another chapter as you go through another phase in your life.

Unlike traveling where you go to places and appreciate their beauty and culture for a moment and leave them behind, the Camino experience lingers with you and allows you to grow meaningfully even after you’ve left the sacred place. That’s why I can’t wait to go back.

Buen Camino!

Next week: For part two of this extraordinary journey, I will be sharing more on how I prepared for it, physically and mentally. In my advocacy to encourage more Filipinos to do the Camino, I am open to help anyone who is interested. You may reach me via email [email protected] for comments, suggestions and questions, or on my Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or YouTube pages.







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