From Trailwalker to Peregrino

It is now almost three weeks since I came back from the Camino. I had kept enough notes on my fellow walkers and the three other friends who left us in Sarria that could fill up two letters of average length, but I decided not to put them in print because I don’t feel I am sufficiently acquainted with most of them such that it won’t do these friends justice to write about them out of context even if I wrote about them by other names. Meanwhile, other events have come in and since I am not planning to write a book, I would leave those thoughts in my memory, until such times when our paths cross again, either individually or collectively.

That leaves my own personal account of the pilgrimage which I have yet to share with too many friends. I would preface by saying that it is never easy to describe personal experiences to others particularly when the others had not been through similar experiences. I have been asked before more than a few times, for example, what I had gained or learnt, spiritually or otherwise, through the two-year Masters programme in Buddhist Studies. Indeed, I was invited one year to write a few lines as endorsement for the programme, which went into the application pamphlet. They went on print alright, even though I am still a firm believer that no words can ever fully or adequately describe or replace any experience.

Let me digress a bit and talk about another walk: the by now world famous Trailwalk Hong Kong which runs across the mountains from Sai Kung in the east to Tuen Mun in the west of the New Territories. The Brigade of Gurkhas in Hong Kong began to use the trail for training in the early Eighties. It was a hard, long, difficult and gruelling walk, even by the Gurkhas’ standard. There are however many scenic sights and exotic plants along the trail; and the silhouettes of hikers bearing backpacks tracking purposefully along the ridges against the setting sun would sink in the mind of anyone who has seen it in person. Oxfam Hong Kong later developed the trail into a 100km annual charity walk which has since attracted serious hikers from all over the world and has raised serious money for charities. Hikers need to form a team of four and must complete as a team within 48 hours in order to qualify for a highly prized certificate. I first became a trailwalker in 1992. It was not easy at all. I took a month leave from work for training, bought a host of equipment, joined a fitness club, and most important of all, I quitted cigarette smoking. Even before the walk began, I promised myself never to go on the trail again. But I went back on my word: I was back the following year and a few years afterwards with my fellow walkers; and being a veteran did not make it easier or less difficult, but we went on it anyway, despite the blisters, sore feet and muscle pains.

Trailwalk Hong Kong has become a feature of the place and hikers feel good about having completed the trail year after years. The Standard Marathon is another event which has assumed similar if not greater popularity and world fame; and there are others in that genre. Somewhere along the road, during training, walking, competing and even while resting and panting for breath, trailwalkers generally claimed that they experienced sparks and sparkles which helped them overcome the physical pains and sufferings and urged them to go on. The question is why they want to go on. Another question is what motivated them to start in the first place. Well, these are questions only the individual can answer, and dare I say, not everyone may have or is aware of the answers.

It is quite clear that everyone has a reason to go on the Camino. I went because I wanted to go on a pilgrimage with Su; I had the time; I had not been there before; and I wanted to keep Gus company. In the end, Su could not go, and I am conscious that that must have made some difference.

The pilgrimage proper actually did not begin until we were joined by the main group when we began walking. Walking can be meditative. The Buddhists have a tradition of Walking Meditation and my years of hiking, whether by myself or with my hiking partner, or in a group, has prepared me well for such walks. Each day of walking presented new challenges, not only in the form of physical exertions, but more important, the challenges on the mind. Every day brought new vistas and new challenges. I had chosen to walk alone for a stretch each day to reflect on various matters; and I did not need to decide in advance what to reflect on, and quite deliberately so. I would allow thoughts drift on to the mind; I would then allow the mind to look at the subject and try to detach myself from the subject as far as possible. Inevitably, mental formations took the better of me and presented themselves in different ways. Sometimes, I would savour some past scenes, but had to remind myself not to dwell on them. I had wondered what it would be like if Su were walking with me.

I sometimes had to remind myself that it was not just any other walk, such as the one Su and I often took to the Peak or any section of the MacLehose Trail, but rather a walk to Santiago de Compostela. In short, it was a pilgrimage. Physical exertions are hence not the object, spirituality would be. We met pilgrims all the way, from South Korea, from Canada and even America, Australia, and from many European countries. We all exchanged pleasantries and said Buen Camino. Many pilgrims were on their fourth week or over by the time we met them, they having started walking from St Jean-Pied-de-Port in France with a backpack.

During the walk, Gus had asked whether we would do it again, and most people did not give a flat No reply. I was glad that I went on it, but I had expected more walking and physical exertions. I like the daily Mass and I like the pace we had taken. I have taken many pictures. As a start, I tried to take a picture of each milestone we came across. It began from Sarria when we were 111km away from the finish, which officially would be the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. Normally, there would be one for every half a kilometer, sometimes more, but sometimes fewer. The milestones continued into the city but were unmarked when we were about 20km to finish. There are many other aspects of the 3-week tour I enjoy talking about, but the memories of which are beginning to fade. Suffice it to say that I have grown from a trailwalker to a peregrino. Such is life – one ought to remember only the nicer things in life, and one should learn to live on, with as little attachment as possible.

I hope to talk to you soon.

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