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Seasickness, blisters, and a boat load of adventure...

This month, myself and 35 other intrepid pilgrims travelled to Fowey to begin our 8-day sailing adventure to A Coruna before then walking over 4 long days to Santiago. This our story.

What a year it had been. In this post-COVID world, the aftermath of turmoil seems to be being felt more and more as we plunge deeper into economic strife and uncertainty. Two redundancies through companies collapsing and lengths of unemployment had left a financial burden which lingered like a dark cloud. Ushered into the mix of things was the crisis that I would be turning 25 this year, a third of the way through this finite existence in the infinite expanse - so much to do, so many people in my life to love, yet time was now, more than ever, passing like a flash. Perhaps, therefore, it was serendipitous that out of the blue, one of the greatest opportunities would come my way. 

It didn't quite occur to me until meeting everyone at Fowey that these would be the people I would be sharing an intimate space with. I was the youngest by some margin (the average age being around 65 with the oldest member being an octogenarian) and whilst I have been fortunate to have travelled a great deal so far, it was never in this capacity. What if we didn't get on? What if the age difference was a barrier? I had never travelled for so long alone and so it was a big jump to suddenly spend the next 8 days trapped in a ship, sharing a room with 14 others and a wider living space with 35. Yet, when arriving at Tregaminion Church, everyone appeared to know who I was from the articles and social media I had done prior to the trip. This welcome eased my fears and allowed me to relax a little before embarking.

As the first light of dawn broke over the horizon on the 9th of June, our sails caught the gentle breath of the wind, and we embarked on our pilgrimage from Fowey to Santiago de Compostela. 

Our days at sea were a blend of sunlit sails and wind-whipped waves. As part of the crew we had to help maintain the ship. Climbing the rigging to unfold the mast was one such task. Walking the tightrope, with the abyss yawning below, made my legs tremble. Yet, in that moment of vulnerability, I gained confidence from the encouraging words of Michael and found inner strength to ascend, each step a testament to defying fear and converting it into positive energy. It gave me a sense of power over the circumstances. This small victory became a significant milestone, an emblem of personal growth amid the vast ocean.

Every pilgrim carried a story etched with depth and emotion. Ken and Ruth were walking back up the Camino Frances to volunteer at an albergue, giving back to the path that had given them so much. David, who had previously walked the Camino alone, now shared the journey with his wife, a testament to love and companionship. John Henry, mourning his wife, carried her memory in the form of a diamond enshrined on a scallop shell, each step a tribute to their shared life.

The sea offered a relentless cycle of seasickness, cold, tears, and restless sleep, punctuated by moments of serene beauty during the evenings. It was here that my hallucinations came to test my mettle. For three days I was incredibly nauseous, swinging back and forth as the sea ebbed and flowed around us. I conjured up thoughts of being in the comforts of my own home, watching TV with my girlfriend, and eating the food we loved to cook. But, when these illusions faded and I was left with sickness and nothing more than a few crackers to snack on, my mind became a television which subjected me to a mix of cravings and distress. Quickly I lost the power I had obtained and instead fell victim to my fears. Each day I hit my lowest at around three in the afternoon where my homesickness was often surpassed by my frustrations for feeling such a way - I wanted to be here, make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Some days I would win those battles, often helped by the sighting of the odd whale spurt or dolphin which would dance in the wake of the ship. Yet when people would nap in the afternoon sun, and the ship went quiet, those fears would creep back in. I kept reminding myself, 'this is all part of the journey' but like a general, I was only as good as my last battle. 

One day, I awoke to a calm sea and a sense of peace: no more sea sickness. Finally I was able to integrate more fully with the group, share my story and find solace in their empathy and conversation. We arrived in A Coruña with a bottle of smuggled whisky, a relaxed evening with music and delicious food, and a hope that the worst had passed. Those former fears began to rescind, being replaced by what is now vibrant memories. It is amazing the wonders a beer amongst friends can have.

Leaving A Coruña with the UK Ambassador to Spain, his wife, Stephen Shields, and Johnnie Walker, we trekked through the Galician landscape, where the beautiful brush strokes of nature were juxtaposed with the scars of post-war housing. Along the way, a woman, her speech rapid and passionate, gifted us 20 euros to pay for our coffee — a random act of kindness that reminded us of the human spirit’s generosity. Later, whilst looking at an old church, two plates of BBQ food were given to us by a gathering of people next door. It was a level of generosity I had never experienced, and showed how important the Camino was to those who lived along the route. Our arrival in Sergude, after a gruelling 25km walk, was marked by the divine relief of a hot shower - the first I had had in a week. Despite such a short time away from these comforts, it is amazing the euphoria of a shower after being without one. With a fresh face and new clothes, a home-cooked dinner in the albergue brought us together, and over the meal, we delved into raw, emotional conversations about love, marriage, and loss. John, moved to tears, spoke of his daughters and their marriages, a poignant reminder of the enduring bonds of family.

The next day’s climb to Bruma, though shorter, was physically taxing. On our wet, humid ascent, we passed another pilgrim, sweating profusely with what appeared to be a 70L backpack on his back, followed by another 40L backpack attached to his front. The apparent pack mule forged a new axiom within our group —"The baggage of the soul is often reflected by the physical baggage of the Pilgrim"— which resonated deeply with me. 

Our group’s recognition at a café, thanks to a Spanish TV appearance, brought unexpected hospitality and copious amounts of free food. Each encounter along the way, from a Taiwanese pilgrim’s critique of Spanish vs Asian rice to a contemplative mass at the Capilla of San Lorenzo, added depth to our journey. The contrasting messages from the faith leaders, one English, one Spanish, yet conducting mass simultaneously was an insight into faith like no other. Despite both reading from the same scripture, one urged inner reflection, the other promoting outreach. It showed the diversity of faith and stirred introspection about the essence of our spiritual quest.

As we approached Santiago, the journey's emotional weight intensified, especially on Father’s Day. Some celebrated with their families, while others mourned their absence, the Camino becoming a conduit for processing grief and shedding pain with each step. The bonds we had formed grew stronger, pushing us forward together towards Sigüeiro.

Our arrival at Santiago was overwhelming. I did not expect to be emotional, yet being able to walk into the square outside of the cathedral with this newly formed family was incredibly powerful. We couldn't stop hugging each other. Yet, perhaps more powerful was being able to welcome the others from our group who arrived throughout the day. It is for this reason that Santiago is like no other place on earth, filled with the happiest atmosphere as the streets run with reunions as people embrace and have a beer to celebrate.

The famed mass at the Cathedral, however, was bittersweet. Only those of Catholic faith could receive communion, a poignant reminder of religious boundaries even in shared sacred spaces. Yet, as I knelt in the cathedral, the collective experience lightened my spirit. The physical burden of my backpack was lifted, mirrored by a lightness of soul, a shedding of emotional weight that had accumulated over the miles.

Reflecting on this pilgrimage, I wouldn't have wanted to change a thing. The sea's vastness, the hills' majesty, and the stories of those I walked with have etched themselves into my heart. Each step, each conversation, and each shared moment has left an indelible mark, lightening the burdens of both body and soul. The journey from Fowey to Santiago was not just a physical trek, but a spiritual voyage, one that has forever changed the contours of my inner landscape. I feel renewed and refreshed, as though I can draw a line under the past and embrace the coming future. I know I can push through fear and hardships - and when doing so, great things will come. Perhaps most important of all, experiencing the journey with pilgrims far older than myself has given me ease in the fact that time is not slipping from beneath me and that adventure can, and will, continue well into my later days. 

And of those strangers, they are now friends with whom I will forever share a love for. 

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