A pilgrimage on foot

The attraction of walking hundreds of kilometers towards an assured destination grew on me, day by day, from the moment I discovered an ancient pilgrimage path in Spain. My month-long journey on foot across the steep slopes, lush valleys and forests of the Pyrenees, and through countless small towns and villages, was part of a subconscious quest to find depth and meaning in my life.

At the age of 33, I was approaching - prematurely, perhaps - what seemed to be a mid-life crisis.

The increasing demands of my personal, family and work life often left me drained, with an unexplained emptiness. Grinding away on the treadmill, I would often find myself asking: Is this all there is in life? Will this bring me fulfillment? That was when the Camino called to me. I thought it would hold the answers to some of my questions. The Camino became, not only a physical, but also an incredible spiritual adventure. It was one of the best things I did for myself.

Camino de Santiago (translated as ‘The Way of St. James’) is a journey towards Santiago de Compostela in Northern Spain. Legend has it that a pilgrim was guided by following a star to the spot where the relics of apostle St. James were found. Hailed as a holy city from ninth century onwards, Santiago became an important Christian pilgrimage destination and began to draw pilgrims from distant parts of the world. Pilgrims take weeks or months to travel by foot or by bicycle to Santiago. There are many routes, but the most important and popular one is Camino Francés (“The French Way”). Although one can start from anywhere on the path, one of the most popular starting points is St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, the last French town on the French-Spanish border. The route from there includes the most difficult but breathtakingly beautiful climb of 1,300m up the Pyrenees over to Spain. Not willing to shortchange myself on this once-in-a-lifetime challenge, I chose this path, walking a total of 600km – roughly the distance from Singapore to Penang – all the way to Santiago.

But my inner journey had started earlier. Deciding what I needed to carry with me was a big decision. I had a target limit of 8 kg for my luggage, which required me to separate my needs from my wants. It was a lesson in discipline – to eschew attachments and stick to essentials. I carried with me a bottle of water, two walking sticks, a pair of slippers, two sets of clothes, a sleeping bag, light toiletries, a camera, a guidebook and my diary. I began to wonder if my life needed some serious repacking as well. Along the way, I saw fellow pilgrims leaving behind, or ripping off their books as they finished reading to shed weight. I, too, learned to shed my excessive desires on the road. I said constantly to myself, “Keep it simple, sweetheart.”

On my first day of walking, I walked 27km for 12 hours, including the arduous climb of 1.3km up the Pyrenees. I stopped every hour to rest my tired back and blistered feet, and managed to arrive last at the Roncesvalles ‘albergue’ (pilgrim hostel on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees) after the sun had set.

Next to a rustic gothic monastery, the ‘albergue’, which was once a medieval pilgrim hospital, housed 120 bunk beds, packed close together. It cost me 8 euros to spend the night there. After the sympathetic ‘hospitaleros’ (volunteer wardens) of the hostel 

inspected and stamped my ‘credencial del peregrino’ (pilgrim’s passport), I had one hour to have my dinner and my shower – both much needed - before lights were put out at 10pm. As I lay down, I thanked my feet for not failing me, and reflected that I had been lucky. During the peak summer season, some such hostels were full, which forced pilgrims to walk further, sometimes many kilometers, to the next available one. And so, even though I got to sleep next to a scruffy, snoring, coughing fellow pilgrim, I felt blessed to have shelter at all. I was to count many small mercies on the road to Santiago.

When I woke up the next morning, I contemplated resting for a day. My body was hurting and could do with another night’s sleep without further punishment. But to my horror, the wardens wanted everyone out of the hostel by 7.30am, so that they could make space for in-coming pilgrims. So, still half-battered, I limped out into the morning light. I encountered a young New York-lawyer-turned-pilgrim who looked in even worse shape than me. It did not take him long to hop into a cab to the next big town, Pamplona, famous for its bullfights. “I’m doing it MY WAY!” he declared.

It made me think how we all live our lives our own way, and there are many ways to do it. As I embarked my second day on the road, I wondered what my way was. And while I searched my heart for the answer, I searched also for little yellow arrows and scallop signs (a symbol of the Camino) pointing me toward Santiago. I wished the arrows in my life were as obvious. For the next 28 days, I trekked through lonely highways, little beaten paths in forests, mountainous mud tracks, quaint small villages and bigger cities buzzing with life. I soaked myself in nature’s wonders, appreciated the medieval churches, and admired the ‘outdoor-art’ (such as piling stones, handmade crosses, words of encouragement in graffiti, and letters of prayers) left by pilgrims who had walked before me.

One of my frequent dilemmas was whether to stop to smell the roses, or rush to get my next bed. I reflected this was a metaphor for what we often encounter in our lives; to linger on and enjoy the moment, or to go forth and achieve. In a larger sense, our ultimate destination is obvious: we are all going to die one day. Our lives are about how we get there; it is about our journey. Sometimes, our overambitious attempts to achieve force us to slow down. On the Camino, I learned this from a Swedish-yoga-teacher-turned-pilgrim. She had rested in bed for more than three days because her knee exploded from walking too much, too fast. She explained to me, “I did not listen to my body, nor did I stop to look around me. All I wanted to do was to get there. Now my body has stopped me, and I have all these wonderful people taking care of me. The Camino is teaching me the lessons I need to learn.”

And then, one beautiful day, when I was, again, plagued with worry about my next bed, a French-travel-guide-writer who had walked all the way from Rome for about 120 days said to me, “What is there to worry?! The sun is shining and the sky is blue! Have faith. Everything will take care of itself.”

True enough, I always had a bed to sleep every night. I started to trust and have faith. And somehow things fell into place. As someone else told me, “On the Camino, you may not get what you WANT, but you will always have what you NEED. As I learned, day by day, I grew stronger – both in my muscles and in my heart. The feeling of arriving in Santiago thirty days later was exhilarating. I was filled with indescribable emotion. Even though I had arrived, I wanted to continue walking. It was then that I realized in life, I wanted to be more the person I had discovered when I had been on the road to Santiago. I had felt like a child, humbled by the natural beauty around me, filled with love, blessed with daily graces, and sure in the faith that there will always be someone ahead of me, someone behind me, signs to guide me when I am lost, and angels to care for me when I need help. Camino de Santiago taught me the road to my heart. And that all my answers can be found within.

About the writer: Denise Chng Lisan used to work as a full-time consultant. After completing her pilgrimage, she decided to continue traveling and to embark on freelance work and travel writing. Her journey is detailed here: www.denise-camino.blogspot.com. She is now living and traveling in the Quebec province of Canada. Her email is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Videos of her travel experience on the Camino are broadcast on YouTube (user: lisan09).

Five Do’s

1. Do try and start from St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, if possible, even though it is the toughest part of the entire journey. The scenic path at the top of the Pyrenees is well worth the effort.

2. Do bring along two walking sticks. They help to spread the weight and balance on tricky terrains.

3. Do wear a comfortable, well-worn-in pair of waterproof boots.

4. Do make sure your backpack allows you to shift the weight to your hips. This helps to take the pressure off your shoulders and your back.

5. Do go with an open mind and an open heart. Attitude is the most important equipment we carry.

Two Don’ts

1. Don’t follow the rhythm of others, but your own.

2. Don’t decide to give up at the end of the day. One often feels better and finds that it is possible to continue the next morning.

By Denise Chng Lisan 1 August, 2008

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