On the final day of the Auckland Writer’s Festival Meg came with me to two talks. The first was Jean Christophe Rufin (above), doctor and co-founder of Medicins Sans Frontiers who spoke about his experiences on El Camino de Santiago. Hundreds of thousands of people walk old pilgrimage trails from a range of starting points that all end at the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela. For many it is still a pilgrimage, an opportunity to honour a loved one who has died, celebrate overcoming a life-threatening disease, or simply to allow an opportunity to reflect on life.
Dr. Rufin used it as a transition from his appointment as French Ambassador to Senegal to resettling into normal life. He was a charming speaker; self-effacing and thoughtful with a touch of humour when sharing his experiences. Life as an ambassador had been busy with many social events and he was used to being looked after by staff who catered to his every need. Once home he had to organise his own entertainment as well as meals, clothing and even driving his own car. The austerity and physical challenges of El Camino appealed as a way of facilitating a return to life away from the embassy.
He didn’t consider himself a pilgrim when he started. Very quickly he realised that life on the walk revolved around two points: your feet and la mochila (your backpack). Blisters, callouses, aches and pains determined how far you could walk on any given day. He couldn’t stress enough how all consuming the care of your feet absorbs you at the beginning of the walk.
La mochila for him became symbolic of the weight of his fears. As the journey progressed decisions were made on a regular basis about what was most important to still carry. For some, having plenty of wet weather gear reflected their fear of being wet. For others, water (thirst), books (boredom), journals (remembering) and other items reflected their priorities and these changed as time passed. It became a way of quickly getting to know others on the track by what they carried and how large or small their bag was.
What resonated with Meg and me was the time the walk allowed you to learn about yourself. Our lives are so busy that we seldom have the luxury of quiet time to reflect on where we are and how we feel about our lives. The art of mindfulness is popular at the moment. Concentrating on what we are doing without distraction is important but for many today those moments can only be measured in minutes, perhaps an hour if you’re lucky. El Camino allows a different opportunity of mindfulness by stepping away from all that is familiar in our lives; routines, people, places and things. But the time frame for this is in days, weeks and months, not minutes.
It is a journey that is intensely personal and Dr. Rufin explained that he felt in the end that he had become a pilgrim, it was impossible not to. There are connections with others along the way but in the end it is about you. He shared a sweet story about seeing the end of the trail in the distance. There was a big Spaniard almost 100 metres ahead of him, and while they were aware of each other throughout the day, they walked a matching pace so their distance apart remained constant. The Spaniard stopped just before the line marking the end of the walk, waited for him, and together they held hands and jumped across together. It was an intimate moment of shared joy, an acknowledgement of an experience that was similar but unique to each.
Not many people can afford the time and expense of walking for two months. But we can try to push opportunities for mindfulness into hours and days rather than minutes. I wish Dr. Rufin had had more time to talk about his transition into ‘normal’ life. Often the greatest challenge is moving forward with insights we gain from reflective time.
It may be cliche but his story was apt: it’s about the journey, not the destination.