Writing about what I hate is not an exercise that I do often in my daily life. I try not to spend much time exploring what I dislike. Yet it was easy for my mind to remind me of a book I hated. This past summer I struggled with The Pilgrimage written by Paulo Coehlo as I carried in my backpack while I walked the Way of Saint James, known as The Camino de Santiago. I must confess that up until then I have only heard about Coehlo’s talent but never read any of his previous work, not even his award-winning novel The Alchemist. The good critics made me believe The Pilgrimage would be the perfect companion for this solitary journey.
The Camino de Santiago is a walking pilgrimage that dates pre-Christian times. People from all over the world come to Saint Jean Pied the Port, a small town in the French Pyrenees, that is marked as the starting point. The walk takes you across the northern part of Spain, all the way to the City of Santiago de Compostela – where legend says Saint James is buried. After walking 840 km, the pilgrimage ends in Cape Fisterra, the westernmost point of the Iberian Peninsula which for many centuries this considered “the world’s end.”
Hundreds of thousands of people from around the world enter The Camino every year not only for religious reasons. Many pilgrims open themselves to this experience in search for meaning, health for their loved ones, personal healing and transformation.
The path is very well marked with yellow arrows. The challenges vary for every pilgrim. This journey takes not only physical but psychological preparation. I was advised to carry the lightest backpack – not heavier than 15 pounds – and to only bring with you the most essential – a sleeping bag, a rain jacket, extra pair of shoes to ease the pain of blisters, a first aid kit, toothpaste and toothbrush an extra pair of shorts, socks, shirt and underwear. Everything must be carried and carrying a book is added weight.
Browsing at the bookstore the day before I took the bus to Saint Jean, I found Coelho. I learned that he had walked the Camino in 1986, precisely the year before he published The Alchemist. What a better book to carry on my backpack, I thought. The Pilgrimage was not a novel but Coelho’s account of his journey. If Coehlo had walked the way, I could trust him me and maybe he could help me integrate my experience.
As I got on the bus that would take me to Saint Jean, I read Coehlo’s motivation to start this journey. My intention was to reconnect with my own country, Spain, the land that I had left for America almost two decades ago. As I got closer to the starting point I learned that Coehlo arrived from Brazil to do The Camino in search for a magical sword that would give him special powers. I thought that was odd but kept reading.
For the first chapters Coehlo and I lived in parallel worlds. I was crossing the Pyrenees that he had previously walked. He was traveling with a guide that would show him the way to his magical sword. I didn’t have a guide but my partner was with me. Coehlo and I both crossed the French Basque border through he town of Roncesvalles.
In the first chapters I was pleased to learn about the history of this ancient pilgrimage, the meaning of the pilgrim’s passport. I was getting stamps at every town we walked by. By the time my first blisters appeared, he had taught me that the root of the Latin word “sinner” meant – the one who cannot walk.
A week into the reading we entered the city of Pamplona. By now my blisters had grown in numbers causing pain at every step and forcing me to slow down. Laying that night on my bunk bed at the pilgrims’ dormitory I realized that Coehlo and I were not walking the same road. I realized that he had left me in the journey. Coehlo was not in pain. On the contrary, in the chapters that followed he got more and more into describing the magical exercises that his guide taught him so he could find the precious sword and become a master in the so-called Tradition of RAM.
From that point forward the gap I felt reading The Pilgrimage became wider and wider. He became an intruder on my experience. The hungry dog that followed me for several miles had nothing to do with Coehlo’s dog encounters. His dog had a deeper meaning, supposedly to show him his fears and face his demons.
The reading became even more painful because the more details he gave me about the hotels where he stayed the more I felt cheated as a reader. I slept on bunk beds with no sheets. I began to ask why Coehlo had chosen his fame to exploit an experience that had been sacred, intimate and unique to so many people throughout the centuries.
Two weeks into my forty five-day walk I happened to stopped in Estella. A small town where Coehlo also stopped. Still fighting with my feeling about The Pilgrimage I brought up the title in a conversation with Jesús, a former pilgrim who was now running one of the dorms. He explained to me that he had personally met Coehlo and confessed that Coehlo had never done the walking nor made it to the end.
Everything clicked for me in that moment. My intuition had not failed me. Coehlo was not writing from experience and this explained my disconnection. That night I finished the book and left it behind in the dormitory’s donation box.
Coehlo taught me something about myself thru The Pilgrimage that I don’t want to forget. How important is to be truthful to walk the talk and to trust one’s own experience and story.
– Gemma Cubero