How young is too old?

Map of the way of St James In Europe

Image via Wikipedia

In 2011 along the Camino Francés there has been a travelling exhibition of photos and displays with the title Cultural and Language diversity on the route of Santiago de Compostela.  Many major and minor Western European languages are featured such as English, Spanish, German, Galician and Euskara (Basque).  The website:

In July this year the exhibition was in Roncesvalles.  What captivated our interest about the written testimonies by two women was not so much their different cultural and linguistic backgrounds as to their age and their children’s and grandchildren’s reactions.

Toti Martínez de Lezea (Spanish writer and translator) wrote the following:

When I said to my sons I was going to go to Santiago de Compostela, the very first thing they asked me was whether the retired people’s club organise the journey and whether we would travel by plane to get there.  I looked at them amused and I communicated to them my intention was to do it alone, walking from Orreaga/Roncesvalles to Galicia.  I still laugh when remembering their surprised faces, or rather, stunned faces.

The second person’s testimony is Erika, a German national:

My name is Erika, I am from Kiel, in the north of Germany and I am sixty-five years old.  Two years ago I became a widow and I thought the world was finished for me.  After a full life with my husband, I had no choice but to wait my turn.  I have two sons, two daughters-in-law, five grandchildren who come every Sunday to have lunch and they tell me what they do.  I see the children grow up and I hear their parents.  They have many projects and many years ahead of them, they take care of me, but after all I am the grandmother and I have a feeling they think my time is over.  They are so wrong.

I like books and when I was reading a novel whose plot took place along the Way of St James I felt like learning more.  I already knew something about the French Way (el Camino Francés), or, “the Stars’ Way”, but it never interested me.  I surfed on the internet, I read diaries of travellers, I saw images of amazing landscapes, towns, churches, castles; pictures of pilgrims walking under the sun and the rain and many smiling faces.  I learnt that in old times, before Christianity, people set out on this journey towards the end of the world and today, so many centuries later, they keep on doing it.  I also learnt that nobody returns the same as he set out, since the experience is unique and I decided to have a try.  After all, what could I lose trying it?

I consulted tourist guides, I learnt by heart names of towns, I marked the most interesting places on a map, I calculated what would be my needs, what type of clothes I should take with me, how much money; I prepared the backpack dozens of times until leaving just the bare essentials and finally, I bought the train and bus tickets that would take me to Orreaga/Roncesvalles.  I know, I know that all ways of St James are infinite, that each of them begins where the pilgrim starts to walk, but I had to start somehow and I did not feel like having enough strength to walk from Kiel to Santiago.  Once everything was ready, I communicated my decision to my sons and their pleas were useless to make me give up the project, or at least, go accompanied.  I had to make the journey on my own, I did not need company and probably I would not find it, but I was wrong.

From the first moment I started to walk I have had someone alongside me.  Men and women, young and adult people have set foot on the same roads as me; we have stopped in the same fountains to quench our thirst, we have contemplated the dense woods, the golden cornfields, the towns where the storks nest in the bell towers, and we have sat down in eating rooms in the evening, with sore feet, to admire sunsets.  I only spoke German when I left Kiel and now it turns out that I speak all the languages of the world!  Well I might be exaggerating, but it is true when I say I understand people walking next to me, or walking ahead or behind me, since there is always, always a moment when we meet again.

I have reached the conclusion that words are just sounds expressing feelings and a greeting or a farewell, they all sound the same in any of the languages on the Camino.  I also have learnt to thank those who receive me or show me the right path to be followed.  They smile, and I am sure they think I am not in my right mind.  What!  An old woman, alone, carrying a backpack and leaning on a stick to make the walk lighter, she has to be a little bit crazy to do such a journey on foot.  Yes, I might be, in fact, I am.  I am crazy about life.

I still have a good way to walk, many kilometres ahead of me, as I am just in the beginning of my journey.  This afternoon I arrived in Estella-Lizarra and I remained a long time on the bridge that links the banks of the river thinking about the thousands of travellers who crossed over there, throughout history, each of them for a reason, an idea, a language, an origin, but with a common aim: to walk, to arrive to the end of the world on foot.

I have blisters, it seems the backpack has doubled in weight, the sky threatens to rain tomorrow, but I have never felt so alive, so young and I have decided to do the same route on the way back.  I will not take any train or plane as previously planned; I will come back the same way as I arrived on foot!  I will say hello to pilgrims and I will tell them it is worth the effort, that the pleasure overcomes the weariness.  In what language?  Bo, gut, mat, ongi, good, plan, bon, goed, bueno, buono, dobry, bra, bun… who cares?  Everybody will understand it.

Camino Downunder classes and workshops are held twice a year in Sydney (Australia) and in New Zealand and aimed to totally prepare and support the independent pilgrim walker.  What is fascinating with Erika’s testimony is that in the Antipodes (Australia and New Zealand) 65% to 70% of participants attending Camino Downunder classes over the last four years are women who are in their 40s, 50s and 60s.   The majority begin as monolinguals, but during their long committed and passionate preparation period, they take on board multiple languages and cultures.  The very best aspect of globalisation in the 21st century would be walking independently along the Camino de Santiago: moving between cultures; using languages and making linguistic connections.

Successfully moving between cultures on the Camino de Santiago