Daily Archives: 7 August 2007

In Praise of Slowness



I have reminisced about my own personal Camino de Santiago already quite a bit (see my blog entries of 9th May, 9th June, 30th June, 16th July). But I think that I might have omitted to tell you about my most important experience of all: the discovery of slowness.

There is no question as to most of us living a life of great haste and urgency. This very blog and its transmitter, the Web, are proof to the speed of things in our day and age. Everyone wants to get there in an instant, wherever there may be. There seems to be no time to do things; there seems to be not enough time. Everything is fast, from Fast Food to fast fame, from fast relationships to fast wars. There is a rat race going on. Instant gratification is what everybody wants.

Walking the Camino de Santiago for any great length of time will put things into perspective. With two exceptions – the bicycle and the horse (or mule) – you are only allowed to walk the Camino. No bus, no taxi, no car, no motorbike. Just you in your boots, and per pedes; that’s the way of the pilgrims.

You don’t notice for a while, perhaps a week or two, what you have let yourself in for.

Everything has slowed down. Your ability to cover a distance between A and B reduces itself to a very slow speed. Perhaps you manage to walk for 18 kms or 20 kms every day, occasionally a bit more, say 23 kms or 27 kms. You might possibly manage more, but somehow you are restricted in your daily task by the hostels available on the way. On the Camino del Norte that I took, plenty of albergues are available, but they seem to be at intervals of between 15 kms and 25 kms on average, so there seems no point in going further than where the shelter for the night is placed.

And your body functions acquire a slower motion. You might normally walk steadily, at home, at a healthy speed of 5 kms per hour, or even 6 kms, but now, on the Camino, you are walking in hiking boots, heavily burdened by your backpack and severely slowed down by the terrain. For some reason you seem to endlessly walk upwards, and at snail’s pace at that, and very rarely downwards. But even then, downwards, you have to adjust your pace to a slower stride, given the circumstances of the path or the terrain. You might be lucky to manage 3 kms per hour, and sometimes even less.

In general you start to realize early on that the final destination, Santiago de Compostela, is very far away. In my case, it was 670 kms away, not counting the deviations when I got lost. And one does get lost, I promise. You start to accept that perhaps you won’t make it there in one piece unless you take it easy. Verrrrrry easy. You accept that you have to apply good husbandry to your resources, i. e. your physical condition, your strength, your health, your mental fitness and your level of energy. You recognize that the only way to achieve your goal is through slowness.

And you eat less. A full stomach cannot possibly endure the task of walking the strenuous St. James’s Way. You sleep more. You want to be up early. In fact you have to leave your hostel early because those are the house rules. And you are exhausted at the end of your day, which by and large is sometime in the afternoon. You want to get to the next hostel in time to make sure there is a bed for you. So you pace yourself to get there by mid afternoon. Once there, you find your bunk, refresh, get out of those boots, and get out to find some provisions. After all, you have to eat something, some time.

And then you retire early. Most hostels have a lights-out at 22h00 policy, but you are more than ready for that.

During the daytime you develop a severe dislike for motorised traffic. Not all of the Walk is on foot paths. More often than not you walk along the main road, perhaps a secondary one, from village to village. You are beginning to hate those juggernauts that speed towards you without care or concern.

You might begin to wonder what all this motorisation has done to our lives.

The sheer movement of getting from here to there, and fast, seems to be the message. Never mind as to why and whither. Nor the hither. Nor the thither. Sad, really, you concur.

You begin to appreciate your task. Your slowness makes sense. Your Camino becomes purpose. Your steadfastness turns your Walk into resolve. You are motivated more than ever. You are committed. You are determined.

You are resolved because you feel that you are not on the way to Santiago de Compostela. You are, instead, on your way home. You are on the way to your own self. You are about to encounter the person that you really are. And speed would hinder that encounter, whereas slowness brings it about.

I must say that I enjoyed my Camino de Santiago tremendously, and mainly, because I had a chance to spend so much time with myself and with my own thoughts and deliberations. And I am convinced that the slow pace helped it more than anything. We can only get to know ourselves, or each one another, if that is the case, the slow way.

I would recommend a general slowing down of activities. Why not take some time out?

Change your gear to a slower one, and you might get there faster.

As to the Camino de Santiago: I reckon you could really go anywhere. It does not have to be Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia, in the north of Spain. You could walk from Los Angeles to San Francisco, and have the same result. Or from Melbourne to Sydney. Or from Paris to Vienna. The walking over some length of time, like four or five weeks, that is the issue. The pilgrims of the old days reckoned on a 40 days pilgrimage. That might have been for religious reasons. I suppose that 20 days or even less would not do the trick. Honestly.

But the Camino de Santiago makes it easier on us because of two things. One is the infrastructure. There are pedestrian friendly hostels and bars and monasteries along the way, which you might not find in California, nor in Australia. And there is the cultural heritage. It does make a difference to know that you are walking and enduring where maybe hundreds of thousands of walkers have walked and endured over the last 1,000 years or so.

And last but not least: you will find plenty of fellow walkers, or pilgrims, that you can share with. Not to be underestimated when you have your first blisters, and someone sympathetic lends you a helping hand. And also, you simply may enjoy sharing your experience, even when there are no blisters or other mishaps.

I walked for a total of five weeks, having practiced at home for six weeks already, as a build-up.

And I want to do it again.

Next time, perhaps in a few years time, I am planning on a different route, and a longer one.  Next time, I will be off for 12 weeks.

And slowly.