Lessons Along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela

The text of my article that appeared in Tacoma’s News Tribune on Oct. 19, 2015:

We often speak of life being a journey, even a pilgrimage.  This summer my friend Deborah Bellinghausen became an actual pilgrim, not just a metaphorical one.  She walked five hundred miles across northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, a religious pilgrimage route since the Middle Ages.  The heart lessons of this journey linger with her.

Deborah at the Atlantic, the journey's end point. The shell motif is used on markers along the Camino.

Deborah at the Atlantic, the journey’s end point. The shell motif is used on markers along the Camino.

Deborah learned the importance of inner strength in the hardest possible way in 2008, when her daughter Whitney was killed in a car accident.  Later Deborah took up extensive walking, for both the exercise and the quiet time to pray and think.  When she found out about the Camino, her heart leaped:  here was an epic physical and spiritual challenge that would honor the memory of Whitney, who had always embraced life’s opportunities.

So this past June Deborah set out from St. Jean Pied de Port in southern France, bringing a thirty-pound pack, a guidebook and a journal.  On the first day, the hardest of the route, she climbed a grueling ridge in the Pyrenees and then made a knee-jarring descent into Spain.  Quickly realizing how heavy thirty pounds were, she began leaving behind everything she could do without: dump towel, dry off with washcloth.

shaded walk on caminoCamino lesson #1: Lighten the load, and get along with less.

It took Deborah thirty days to walk the Camino Francés, the branch route between the French/Spanish Pyrenees border and the city of Santiago de Compostela.  In her daily routine, she would begin walking as the sun rose behind her.  Breakfast was coffee and a croissant at a café.  She carried her lunch, often a Spanish combo of sardines and tomatoes.  Because of the heat, she would stop in the early afternoon and find an albergue (somewhat like a youth hostel).  There she washed out her clothes, took a nap, wrote in her journal, and often helped cook a communal dinner. dinner, camino

She would usually walk 17-19 miles a day.  On a few days, Deborah walked longer and farther, but she paid for it with blisters and exhaustion the next day.  Some days the route was flatter, some days steeper, but overall the walking became easier because Deborah was growing stronger.

“At first I would feel overwhelmed, seeing a mountain,” she says, “but I learned to focus on one step at a time.”

road, caminoLesson #2: Pace yourself, and you’ll get there.

On the Camino, Deborah was sometimes alone, and the solitude gave her time for prayer and meditation.  Unexpected gifts came her way: a beautiful flock of birds, the sound of a bagpiper.  Often others were with her—from Italy, the U.S., Brazil, Spain, Ireland—and this too was a gift.  Deborah treasured hearing the stories of her companions, often through someone serving as interpreter.  Some moments were plain fun, like the night a companion played guitar and others beat rhythm with walking sticks, spoons and flip-flops.  Other moments were silently poignant, such as reaching the Cruz de Ferro (Cross of Iron), where pilgrims lay down rocks representing their burdens.  Deborah laid down a stone for an American friend—and that same friend had once climbed Mt. Whitney in honor of Deborah’s daughter. cruz de ferro

Lesson #3: Be grateful for each day’s gifts.

Along the way, Deborah made daily decisions about detours to explore, where to stay, when to rest, whom to walk with, when to say no to others and seek solitude.  Others understood.  “This is your camino,” the travelers frequently told each other with respectful reverence, knowing that each person had to listen for his or her own calling.

In their own time and their own way, Deborah and the others reached their destination, the cathedral in Santiago.  They received the completion certificate. cathedral, camino

But it wasn’t really the end.  The pilgrimage called life goes on.  Deborah is home now, walking Tacoma sidewalks instead of Spanish paths, still on her Camino.

Lesson #4:  This is your camino.  Where does it lead next?



Andean Life Outside Machu Picchu: My Growing Affection for Abancay, Peru

My husband and I recently spent about a week-and-a-half in in Abancay, Peru, visiting our son Brendan, daughter-in-law Erin and new grandson Oliver.  We travel to Peru about Peru July 2011 228once a year these days because Brendan and Erin live there as missionaries, high in the Andean town of Abancay.  (No, we have not seen Machu Picchu yet. That always seems to be the question we get asked when we come home from these trips.) Abancay is in a poor region populated by the indigenous Quechua people, and certainly when we travel to Abancay we are aware of being outside the “turistico” places with gringo amenities.   But we have grown fond of Abancay, in the way that you develop affection for places you associate with people you love–even if those places are a little dusty or hardscrabble.   Here’s what’s in Abancay:

Brendan, Erin and Oliver

Brendan, Erin and Oliver

  • A delightful new life, Oliver Miguel Connally.  His parents, Brendan and Erin, are already setting him an example of love, faith and joy in three languages, speaking to him in English, Spanish and Quechua.CIMG6870
  • The dry, rugged beauty of the Andes, where people live in very close connection to the earth: building their homes from its clay, planting crops wherever they can, letting their chickens and animals scratch and nibble among the scant grass and weeds.  In Abancay you see some donkeys and horses carrying loads and cows being led along next to the cars and trucks.  In front of their houses people might grow flowers, but they’re just as likely to grow long grass to feed their guinea pigs.  Which are raised for meat.


  • Bougainvillea, hibiscus and other flowering bushes and trees, right there among the clotheslines and the buildings with re-bar sticking out the top.  (Regarding the re-bar, see the top picture. We’ve heard that people there like to leave their buildings looking unfinished, because once you finish your building you pay taxes on it.)
  • The market, where local ladies will sell you fresh guinea pigPeru July 2011 243, called cuy in Peru, or vegetables they’ve grown, or anything else that their equatorial mountain climate can produce.  I’ve shopped at the Abancay market, making my requests in Spanish.  My son talks with the people in Quechua, and he has attained somewhat of an heroic stature for being a gringo who uses their language. The people are more accustomed to their language being looked down upon.  CIMG6904
  • Stray dogs running around or laying around in packs together, making themselves at home in the neighborhoods even though they don’t belong to anyone.  Often mangy and carrying fleas, they eat what they can find.March 2012 Peru Trip 176
  • Most of all, the Quechua people.  Brendan and Erin have many friends here in the Andes.  The people have been most welcoming toward Rory and me because they love Erin and Brendan–and now they love Oliver, too.  We were with Brendan and Erin on the first Sunday they took Oliver to their Quechua-speaking church.  Everyone was so happy about the arrival of this baby.  And so curious about him: the birth of a gringo baby among them was a big event!  The children gathered around, eager to see Oliver’s blue eyes.  He has been born into a loving circle of friends.  These people are his Peruvian family, and as his grandmother who can only be with him a few days of each year, I am very grateful for the love they’ve extended.
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