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MEMOIRS OF A PILGRIM - Footprints on the Road to Santiago

memoirs of a pilgrim

For every journey, there is a beginning. 

Once in a while, each of us will partake in a defining moment in our lives. Sometimes, the moment roars with a voice of grandeur, other times it is as quiet as a mouse. Whether a struck-by-lightning revelation or a gradual process that slides along like a flowing river, the result will inevitably lead to a changed life. For Brad Kyle, it started as an innocent conversation at a pub in London, and ended in a long walk nearly ten years later.  

Spurred on by the unexpected death of his father (and the rekindled memory of the Thames-side chat), Brad travelled to Spain and walked the Camino trail. Stretching nearly 800 kilometres from Saint Jean Pied de Port in France, to Santiago de Compostela in the west of Spain, the pilgrimage was in every way, his Ďdefining-momentí experience. Though the Camino offered its fair share of physical challenges, the journey was as much internal as it was external. 

With a style of refreshing simplicity and humanness, the author takes us gently by the hand and reveals the unexpected diamonds along the way. Whether falling in love or falling over, each moment is shared with an endearing honesty and humour. This is more than just a memoir; it is an experience.

 

In Store Price: $28.95 
Online Price:   $27.95

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ISBN: 978-1-921731-35-8   
Format: Paperback
Number of pages: 321
Genre: Non Fiction

 
Buy as an Ebook version - PDF, Mobi or Epub formats $AUD9.00
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Author: Brad Kyle
Publisher: Zeus Publications
Date Published: 2010
Language: English

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ďHEARTIEST CONGRATULATIONS from us all here at Zeus go to author, Brad Kyle Ė his travel book, Memoirs of a Pilgrim has been listed as a finalist in the 2012 Independent Publisher Book Awards. Bradís endearing memoir and his own efforts in promoting his book are to be commended. If you ever wanted to travel the famous Spanish walk, the Camino trail, your own voyage can begin with this honest, challenging and human tale.Ē

FINALIST Ė 2012 Independent Publisher Book Awards

Prologue  

ĎSpain? I thought it was in Chile.í I hazily remember a conversation from many moons ago. Itís been nearly a decade since the exchange took place, so it would be fair to say that the words may not be strictly accurate. Perhaps they were never even spoken. To be honest, I canít quite remember. Whether it was a lonely question in my mind waiting to be asked, or a bumbled query with my mouth wishing it hadnít, it was, beyond every shadow of doubt, my initial response when a friend mentioned the city of Santiago.

It was a warm sunny day in London, so with no disrespect to my home of five years, I can only assume that it was the height of summer. As was often the case, I met up with a friend of mine to blow the froth off a couple of Stella Artois beers. This particular day Ė due to the searing heat no doubt Ė we shared a beer-garden bench at a pub in Richmond. As I sat back enjoying the refreshing ale and the view of the mighty Thames, I was introduced to a friendly girl with a book in her hand. For the life of me, I canít recall her name, so she will forever remain a friend of a friend.

Within moments, her vibrant enthusiasm morphed into the story of Santiago, and the pilgrimage she was about to undertake. It was the first time Iíd heard about either. After my initial response querying her destination, she excitedly leafed through her book Ė The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho Ė and opened the pages to a map detailing her exact route. With her finger, she traced over the east-to-west path on the double-page spread, sharing a glowing commentary on the mountainous challenges ahead.

The rest of the afternoon only registers in my memory as a blur of sunshine and beer bubbles. Whilst I was not struck-by-lightning inspired to quit my job and make the journey immediately, I must confess to being both intrigued at the undertaking and impressed with the passion on display. The seed had definitely been planted!

 

Fast forward about eight years and I had returned to my homeland Down Under. The Camino seed had not flowered into the realms of my consciousness since those early days, and for all intents and purposes, had been dead and buried for a number of years. As it turned out, it was only snoozing. Seeds have the uncanny ability to do just that.

My life had recently been turned upside down by the unforeseen death of my father in Melbourne, and I had returned to my home in Sydney feeling lost and without direction. A relatively short time earlier, I had quit my job in the corporate world, hoping to make a living in the field of alternative medicine. The burden of Dadís death along with a barrel load of crippling fears put paid to that idea. Similar to Hugh Grantís character in the film About a Boy, my day-to-day life was simply about getting through units of time. My life had no meaning and this seemed to be the best way to survive.

One such activity that always chewed through more than a handful of grisly minutes was a trip to the library. In addition to the gloriously time-munching plethora of pages on display, they even had free Internet access. On these surfing-the-web occasions, I could easily whittle away another block or two from the dayís quota. With great clarity, I remember waiting for my reservation time to commence on the computer. Not wanting to pressure the fellow until the clock had ticked over the hour, I stood at a respectful distance. As it happened, the biography section was to my right.

The Camino Ė A Journey of the Spirit, by Shirley MacLaine, instantly caught my attention, resurrecting the riverside memories from all those years earlier. For several minutes, I wrestled with the thoughts that gave the author little credibility beyond a Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis film that I had watched her in more than half my lifetime ago. She was an excellent Bat Lady, I must admit. But superheroine portrayal aside, I finally concluded that the accusing tones were not actually my own, but those I had taken on second hand. There was really only one way to find out for myself. I reached out and claimed the paperback as my own.

How this book ended up in the biography section is still beyond my wildest imaginings. But Iím certainly thankful that it was. As I devoured the pages, my thoughts and emotions crystallised into one beautifully formed purpose. The message was simple and clear. I was to walk the Camino path to Santiago. In true Shirley MacLaine form (or so Iím told), her pilgrimage story became so much more than cathedrals and blisters. Parts of it were beyond fantasy, but I loved it nonetheless. It was her unique story from her unique vantage point. So who was I to argue with that?

Within four short weeks, I was on a plane to the other side of the world.


Chapter 1

 

London Ė Saint Jean Pied de Port 

 

For every journey, there is a beginning. This is mine.

In many ways, I hope itís bigger and better than ever before, as I have travelled much over the years, and had many forgettable beginnings. For most people, the dawn of a new start brings a lovely cocktail of hope and excitement, mixed with the sweet flavours of lofty dreams. For me, this beginning is jam-packed with feelings of fear, nervousness, nausea, and many unanswered questions.

Will I find anyone who speaks English? Why didnít I make an effort to learn more than three words in Spanish? Will I get blisters? Will I be able to walk all the way to Santiago? The list goes on and on. Do I have enough clothes? Are three pairs of underpants enough? What if I lose a pair?

All are reasonable questions, though none worthy of stealing what little peace I have left at this early stage of proceedings. It doesnít finish there, however, as these are just the entrťe to the main course. Will this be a life-changing experience? What of the future after its completion, if I actually finish it? Will I be able to finish it? And the vicious wheel continues to grind. Okay, enough now!

But to be fair and honest, as I sit back in a safe little corner of Stansted Airport in London, waiting to board my flight to France, I do also feel a smidge of excitement, perhaps bordering on the thrill of being a little out of control. And in a personal tradition of understating the obvious, when I say a little out of control, I actually mean totally beyond my command in nearly every way possible. I feel like a skydiver with nothing more than a crocheted grocery bag as a parachute. This is sheer madness!

 

The boarding call eventually comes through, and as I make my way to Gate 49, I notice two stunningly gorgeous blonde women. I pretend to look out the window to ensure a secondary viewing. A simple method, yet delightfully productive.

I recall hearing something spoken about this by a Reverend of the church I used to attend long ago, effectively saying that you canít help the first look, but you can help the second. Well, even the good Reverend would have succumbed two or three times on this occasion. With my willpower bearing a slight resemblance to a bowl of jelly, I avert my guilty eyes with an upward glance to the monitor above them. It indicates a flight to Stockholm. No doubt they are returning to, rather than visiting, Sweden. A quick judgment call I know, but I have been to Stockholm, so I think itís a fair one.

Leaving the thoughts of Scandinavia behind me, I somehow manage to beat the long queue that formed before my arrival and discover that whilst English people certainly do love to queue, they certainly donít love the queue-jumper. Accidental or not. As the masses whisper sweet nothings into my ear as I pass them by, I graciously take their grumblings on the chin and head off to find my non-allocated window seat.

Once settled in my prime location, I try to get my mind off the fact that these are the hardest airline seats that Iíve ever had the, letís say privilege, of being seated upon. I peer through the window and see three men loading the luggage. I must admit Iím mightily impressed with their efforts to go above and beyond. For the conveyor belt is literally right in front of their noses, and it must be a juicy temptation to simply place the suitcases upon the rollers. But no, each diligent employee is throwing every last piece of baggage well into the air and along the belt.

With a smile on my face and a memory in my mind, I look out again in time to see my own trusty seventeen-year-old bag flying through the air in a concerted bid for both an airport, and quite possibly an Olympic, record. As itís only a lowly backpack, perhaps they felt obliged to go the extra mile. Either way, their commitment is beyond question.

My memory kicks into overdrive and reminds me of a day when I was looking out a similar window (just before a flight to Albania some years ago), and seeing with great displeasure, the same backpack and my guitar falling from the luggage truck. The driver was practising his figure-eight routine as I recall. I also remember the unloving treatment my belongings received on being returned to the truck, and that my guitar never made it to the shores of Albania, and in fact was sadly never sighted again.

To be honest, Iím not so used to low-cost airlines, and this flight is certainly no exception. Being Australian, nearly any country one flies to takes a large portion of time, so rock-hard seats with a reclining factor of approximately one inch are just not an option for the passenger and airline alike. I notice that the emergency exits are conveniently pictured on the back of every seat. This doesnít fill me with the greatest sense of confidence. Concerned, I read on, or at least attempt to piece together the cryptic puzzle as to what is given the big red cross in the event of an emergency landing. Granted, I didnít study graphic design at university, but at a push, I can deduce from the printed icons that spectacles are a no-no, as are earrings, necklaces, high-heeled shoes (thank goodness Iím wearing my hiking boots) and what appear to be false teeth. I honestly wonder if one would have the time or the inclination to discard these items in such an event.

 

The flight to Biarritz in France thankfully produces no denture-discarding moments, but this is only part one of the journey today. Part two is an airport bus to the town of Bayonne, then finally a train ride to my starting point, Saint Jean Pied de Port.

Waiting for the bus, I canít help but notice, and be more than a little envious of, three menís outfits including walking boots, walking trousers (that can be magically transformed into shorts with one quick unzip) and walking sticks. Hmmm, do I really need walking sticks? I am without trousers of the walking variety, and the only walking sticks I have seen in my life have generally been at the end of an elderly hand. Yes, itís shorts for walking, and trousers for looking half-respectable at night in the local restaurant or eating house. Iím again feeling nauseous about the whole undertaking.

Whilst on the bus, we pass a Ronald McDonald gym club. Itís the first Iíve seen in my world travels, and the thought of big Ronald doing some bench presses tickles my fancy. Maybe I could just stay there for a month or so and undertake a strict regime of McWeights and McSitups. Surely nobody back in Australia would even realise. But no, I must press on. Iíd like to take at least one step upon the Camino trail before giving up.

My enthusiasm and renewed commitment lasts for approximately five seconds, as one of the three men, a German fellow by the name of Wolfgang, tells me that he walked the Camino in eighteen days last year. I plan to take at least a month. Granted, he started three days down the track from our starting position in St Jean Pied de Port, but even so, the news is quite intimidating.

He tells the two Norwegian men, Kjettle and Helga, along with yours truly, of the blisters and the blood, and of course the four toenails that sacrificed themselves along the way. Ouch! I quite like the Scandinavian lads, as they seem as overwhelmed and ill-prepared as I, and this brings me some much-needed comfort. One of the two has only bought his boots a couple of days ago, and is breaking them in over a cup of coffee in Bayonne as we wait for the train. To be fair, my equally pristine footwear is hardly of the veteran status, having pounded the pavement for a mere week and a half.

Sadly, within a handful a Nordic-whispered minutes, my new-boot buddy is to be no more. With great disappointment, I hear the Norwegians (perhaps taking into account the stories from Wolfgang) have decided to skip the Pyrenees altogether. They will take a train to Pamplona, some three daysí walk ahead. Itís a little strange to think that, despite being within such close proximity over the next month or so, itís highly unlikely that I will see them again.

As I wait with Wolfgang for the train, I take part in a three-way, three-language conversation. Itís a strange experience indeed. A Frenchman sitting at a neighbouring table has overheard that my first name is Brad.

ĎArrrhhh, Brad Pitt,í he says with a portion of glee.

ĎWell, no,í I respond, Ďnot really.í

But the multi-language conversation begins, and with many gestures and much hand waving, itís the perfect beginning to the pilgrimage, and will no doubt become a part of daily life in the weeks ahead.

As the conversation dies a natural death, my mind wanders in a bid to pass the time. Itís with fondness that I look at my train ticket. Call me strange (and Iíve been called much worse), thereís just something about the travel ticket that appeals to me, and this is the size of an airline boarding pass, making it even more impressive. It always brings me warm feelings of hope, and heightened anticipation for the adventure ahead.

The train journey of eighty minutes or so is delightful, and Iím impressed with the beautiful greenery along the way, and the vast amounts of flowing water. My mind automatically compares the scenery with drought-stricken Australia.

I arrive in the gorgeous French town of St Jean Pied de Port at 7.35pm and am pleasantly surprised to see that itís still light. Even so, I feel quite stressed at the thought of having to locate the Accueil Saint Jacques in Rue de la Citadelle. It dawns on me that Iím planning to walk across a whole country without a map, and Iím now very anxious at the mere thought of walking across a small town. I wish I could smile at the thought, but I canít.

The Accueil Saint Jacques is the welcoming place for pilgrims starting their journey in St Jean Pied de Port, and after a few nervous moments, I find sanctuary within its safe walls. As the other pilgrims wander in from the same one-carriage train ride from Bayonne, a kind lady gives advice on the following dayís trek through the Pyrenees.

There are basically two routes for the first day; however, due to the amount of snow and the obvious danger posed, the higher of the two, the Route Napolťon, is strongly advised against. To me, it seems more like a commandment of biblical proportions rather than friendly advice. But just quietly, Iíve been looking for an excuse to take the low road, so this works out perfectly without the loss of any pride on my part.

At this point I receive my Credencial del Peregrino, which is basically a pilgrim passport allowing access to the albergues (hostels set up solely for pilgrims), along the way. At each albergue, I will need to produce this credencial, which then gets stamped as proof of my pilgrimage. If all goes to plan and I reach Santiago, the stamped passport will literally become my ticket to the treasured Compostela Ė the traditional certificate of pilgrimage.

The end of the first day is nearly upon me. The beginning of my journey is over, though a new one starts tomorrow. It is sure to be more testing. I have a million doubts regarding my fitness levels, and the sheer magnitude of what is now literally before me weighs heavily upon my mind. I ponder my week of training and that Iíve only carried my backpack on, letís be generous, two occasions during that week. One of those times was from the car to the check-in counter at the airport. What seemed like a fun idea is quickly turning into a crazy one, and I feel woefully under-prepared in every way imaginable.

My first proper meal for the trip is shared with two Germans (one being Wolfgang), and an Austrian girl who lives in Germany. We eat beef stew and pasta, and drink lots of red wine. Itís hardly a meal of French-culinary perfection, but it certainly hits the bullís-eye for our simple requirements. I struggle throughout the meal as the bulk of the conversation is in German, and my three months of learning Deutsche in high school is just not kicking in as the teacher had promised. It brings back memories of being in Costa Rica one New Yearís Eve, and feeling so alone and separate due to the language barrier. As I did then, so I do now. I shrink away inside my head.

Itís not really a fun place to be, especially on such occasions. Fortunately, however, the Austrian girl Andrea has a great kindness in her eyes, and that kindness along with her efforts to steer the conversation into English allows me to appreciate the evening. She reminds me of someone, perhaps a friend from the past.

I settle into bed, and within moments the snoring begins. A rusty chainsaw would be proud of this noise! So this is what itís going to be like. I comfort myself with the knowledge that most towns and certainly the cities will have hotel accommodation or similar, and I fall asleep contemplating the pleasant non-snoring tranquillity of such places.

Within mere minutes of such calming thoughts, or so it seems, the first alarm sounds. Itís half past six, and whilst there is some enthusiasm on my part for the day ahead, the warm feelings barely take the edge off my anger (dare I say hatred, for thatís what it feels like) towards the people who show total disregard to those around them. Itís not so much the earliness of the hour that bothers me, for people are free to walk early in the morning if they so choose; itís the noise being made. No doubt, I will have many similar challenges ahead.

My pilgrimage has very much begun!

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