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The Scallop Shell Symbol Was A Sign in More Ways Than One

I first heard about the Camino de Santiago years ago when a friend walked it.  I remember thinking that it would be so cool to do it… and then I looked at the map and realised she was actually walking all the way across Spain and decided she was mad and promptly forgot about it. Driving across Spain in 2013 I kept seeing lots of hikers; my husband told me that they were walking the Camino.  We drove on past Burgos, Leon and on to the coast and as the journey progressed, so did my desire to walk.  We stopped at a little beach on the Atlantic coast near Finisterre and on a perfectly sandy beach my hand rested on a perfect scallop shell (the symbol of St James and the Camino) That was it.  It was a sign!  I was going to walk!  I had recovered from cancer and it felt like a calling; it felt like a declaration that I was alive and healthy and strong.  I started walking on the 12th September 2014.  

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My first walk I started alone but you’re never really alone on the Camino Frances which is the most popular route.  It starts in St Jean Pied de Port, on the French side of the Pyrenees.  Five weeks and 800 kilometres later it ended in Santiago de Compostela.   I made some wonderful friends and I now I know pilgrims across the globe.  They’re very special friendships.  My second long walk was the Via de la Plata which starts in Seville. You walk north to Zamora where I turned west on the Camino Sanabres, finishing in Santiago de Compostela.  This 7-week walk was 1007km… the 7 seems very important! Time is always an issue; work, life and family means that long walks are difficult to arrange.  My shorter walks range from 200-300 kilometers … if I can get 3 weeks then I’ll walk 500km.  I have an idea for 2020 which will take me 10 weeks but that is still in the planning stage! When I walked first, my husband and son met me in Santiago.  I don’t think anyone I knew thought that I could walk 800km!  They met me at the steps of the cathedral and we all hugged and cried.  A day later I said goodbye to the friends that I’d made and cried for most of the drive home.  Somewhere along the drive I knew that I had to walk it again. Since then I have walked parts of the Camino Frances two further times, the Portuguese Camino from Porto, the Rota Vicentina in southern Portugal (not a camino but still wonderful) and half of the Camino Norte.  This June I will walk the Ingles camino (English route) and in September I plan to walk from Madrid, north to Leon and onto the San Salvador camino to Oviedo and from their join the Primitivo (the original Camino) and continue on to Santiago… another 800 km.   I’m also planning my 2020 Camino already; 1600km so it will be my longest walk to date!  

  The journey is full of experiences and there are so many funny stories I could share.  Where do I start?  Often they involve wild animals… I’m terrified of cows and there are always cows in the way somewhere.  Sometimes you ache so much and you’re so tired that the only thing is humour.  We laughed each day about the terrible beds, the cold showers, the rain and the mud, the snorers (and farters) in the Albergues.   We’ve laughed until we cried walking through a village called Entrepenas… laughed until we couldn’t breath watching our short friend trying to clamber up to a particularly high bunkbed… we giggled like children walking in a storm and passing a wet soggy Shetland pony and realising he had the very same expression on his face as my walking buddy.  I laughed out loud when I fell face first into the ground because I didn’t want to cry and my fellow pilgrims laughed at my swollen red face when I ate Squid for the first time and realised I was severely allergic to it!  When I walked the Via de la Plata I asked for sponsors; I was fundraising for two charities.  I offered in return to carry ‘sins’ to St James, like mediaeval pilgrims walking by proxy.  I didn’t like the idea of sins, so I carried hopes and dreams and fears.  I found this whole experience incredibly moving.  Friends and strangers sent me messages to carry to St James.  Some were secrets that friends have carried all their lives, some were from strangers praying for a miracle.  I agreed that I would keep their messages secret, so I couldn’t discuss the content with anyone.   These messages became an important part of my walk.   Sometimes in a quiet place I would them out of my pack and read them;  It was a very powerful experience.  When I arrived in Santiago I crept into the cathedral very early in the morning before anyone arrive.  Oddly a nun came and sat beside me but said nothing.  I sat in silence in front of the Saint and read the messages to myself; tears just rolled down my face as I went through my list.  It was heart breaking because I knew that for some of those who’d hoped for a miracle it was too late; two of my sponsors had died whilst I was walking.  Just talking about it still moves me to tears.  There were also times when things happened that can’t be easily be explained.  Spiritual moments that make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.  You walk with the world on the Camino.  I’ve met so many amazing people.  And people share their stories and some of these stories will make you want to weep with the cruel twist in life.  I’ve walked with people fighting cancer and MS, I walked with a woman who’s husband and child were killed in a car crash, I walked with an army priest who was angry with God for the horrors of war and I even met a group of French walkers who were carrying 4 wheelchair bound pilgrims for the entire 800km!  We walked over mountains so this was just so incredible! Often though, the simple beauty of finding space to breath and think, helps to clarify what’s important in life.  I’ve made several life changing decisions whilst walking. And… the walks are beautiful.  Of course you see it all, towns, industry and life but WOW the mountains and countryside and the history.  It’s just amazing!    

Colleen is a singer with The Candies –  a wedding and event band travelling all over France Images: Colleen Sims