The Man on The Way

I did not exactly receive overwhelming response to my last letter, at which point Su suggested that I should upload a few images which might attract more attention. So in between siestas, some pictures appeared on Facebook yesterday, which did attract comments. Alas, maybe I should retire my letters column.

But I am a die hard, and besides there are things that pictures cannot fully convey, which is why I am still writing.

I would pick up where I left off, or around there, with further background on how the 3-week trip came about. Following my previous practice, I might change the names of some of my friends to preserve privacy. On this privacy thing, I have been having second thoughts on changing names, for I could not recall certain characters I mentioned in previous letters when I re-visited them.

Back in October 2011, we had a re-union of the classes of the late Sixties and early Seventies, meaning that participants would generally be over sixty. These are people who were keen and practicing Catholics during their undergrad days and are now spread all over the world, mainly in Sydney, Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton, New York, and Hong Kong, of course. The last reunion took place in Hong Kong and included a cruise to the Three Gorges. During the trip and even before that, Gus told us that he was planning to go on the Camino de Santiago and was drumming up support from the group and their friends. Now, Gus was my Best Man when Rosita and I were married; and our friendship went back a while; so I said yes right away. When I consulted Su later, she said she would join me too so that we could go on some side trips, such as visiting Guggenheim and the other museums in Bilbao, St Ignatius’ Conversion Room in Pamplona, and other major attractions in Spain such as Madrid and Barcelona. I threw in Seville and La Mancha for good measures.

Gus was methodical and thorough in organizing the tour. He sent around emails and information packages to everyone and asked for expression of interest, with emphases that this was not in the reunion series, so that people could bring other friends and relatives. Now, the Camino de Santiago, or The Way of St James in English, is easily Europe’s ultimate pilgrimage route. The object of the pilgrims has not changed over the years, which is to walk on foot the hundreds of miles from east to west across the north of Spain to visit the tomb of St James at the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela and to perform certain other rituals when they arrive there. This is what is called the French Way, because it starts from the foot of the Pyrenees, specifically from the city of St Jean-Pied-de-Port, which is just five miles from the Spanish border, through Pamplona, Burgos, Leon, O Cebreiro and Lugo, before finally reaching Santiago. There is another route called the Portugal Way, which runs from south of Portugal up until one reaches Santiago.

The French Way is about 900 km, and many pilgrims do walk all the way, but such walking is not for everybody. Gus therefore decided to break it up in two parts so that the first part would be a six-day coach tour covering key sites with cultural, historical or scenic interest, while the second would be a 111 km walk from Sarria to Santiago in nine days. I signed up for both from the start because I gave my word to Gus.

The Cultural Tour began on 26 May from St Jean-Pied-de-Port. The group would then go to Logrono, Burgos, Leon, Ponferrada and Sarria, spending one night in each city. Because of the manner the air tickets were written, Su decided that we would join them in Logrono, which explains why I was then ahead of others and by myself. Besides Gus and myself, we had on the tour three couples – one from Boston, one from Vancouver and one from Hong Kong – one lady from Vancouver and one other lady from Ireland, making a total of ten, not counting Iago, the tour guide. Apart from the lady from Ireland who joined the tour organizer direct in Ireland, everyone is supposed to know everyone; and I may come back to this later, maybe. We went from churches to cathedrals, from tourist centres to museums, from cafeterias to restaurants, from villages to towns, from towns to cities, and from hotel to hotel, hopping on and off the coach. On the last day in Sarria, the Boston couple and the lady from Ireland left, as we were joined by seven other members who were mainly based in Hong Kong, but who had travelled to Sarria from various places. This group of seven comprises a Jesuit Priest, a retired town planning director and five ladies including one from Toronto, who is a ski instructor and lay magistrate. Three of the ladies whom I beleive were classmates at HKU of similar vintage and who are all drama and performance arts enthusiasts normally walked together while the fourth lady who came with the Jesuit Priest and town planner appeared to prefer to walking by herself until she met other walkers when she would assume our group”s ambassador. It means that we had in all a total of 14 walkers, led by a guide named Pierre; and the real pilgrimage began.

Reverend Father Robert Ng was the Jesuit Priest who joined us in Sarria. This was the fourth time I went on pilgrimages with him. In August 2006, we went from Pamplona to Paris, following the footsteps of St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus. In June 2007, I followed him to Seoul to visit various landmarks and sites bearing witnesses to the persecution of early Christians in Korea. We also visited the site of the future Basilica. And in 2009, we went to Greece to trace the tracks of St Paul, to mark the conclusion of the Year of St Paul.

I always believe that having a priest on a pilgrimage would add tremendous values to the group in general and to individuals in particular. Robert, as he was affectionately addressed by fellow walkers, turned out to be a very, if not the most, popular walking companion on the Camino. He had endless biblical stories to tell, all rather interesting and captivating; and he had answers to all questions posed him. In short, he was the Man on The Way.

On that note, I would stop and I hope to talk to you later.

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