On 20 February 2016 I walked the Rainbow Cape Camino, a shorter version of the Cape Camino that covers the entire peninsula. For the past two years I have wanted to do a camino, but the lack of funds and time kept something like the Camino de Santiago out of reach – until I started to look locally. For Capetonians who cannot get to the Camino, Gabrielle Mary Andrew and Peggy Coetzee-Andrew have brought a camino to Cape Town, thus making personal pilgrimages available to locals.
For centuries, whenever people experienced trauma or tragedy (divorce, burnout, illness, loss), they would take to the road to become re-acquainted with their own inner landscapes. “Camino” is a Spanish word for pilgrimage or spiritual journey during which you allow your surroundings, the outer world, to guide and inform your inner world.
My camino commemorated 20 February 2014, the day on which I gave myself exactly a week either to quit my job or suck it up and keep at it. I quit my job. Since then I have had many adventures and a few trips that have helped me recover from burnout. But have I really learnt how to do things differently?
After my 10-day vacation in Bali last year, I find myself pining for that simple carefree state – free of responsibilities, the clock or any sense of urgency. How I would love to continue wandering and being exposed to the rich experiences a holiday offers or to extend my nature weekends of hiking over cliffs and diving into cool rock pools! Surely, this is life! Couldn’t it be like this forever? But always there is the city with its work and financial responsibilities that calls me back . . .
How can I strike a healthy balance between living and working? Maybe a camino can shed some light on this dilemma.
Here is a peek into the mind of a pilgrim every step of the way en route to finding the self.
I’m not going to lie. I am extremely tired. It has been a rough week of fast deadlines and battling a stomach bug. Do I really want to do this walk? Shouldn’t I rather concentrate on getting some proper rest? I think about the initial reason for wanting to walk the Camino (read it here): to explore and recover my own Afrikaans roots. Suddenly this feels quite insignificant compared with the warmth and softness of my bed. Maybe I need a better reason? I think about 20 February 2014. How ironic – I am tired and again pushing myself to get something done. My brain is beginning to freak out: should I go or should I not?
I know I should focus on something more positive. I think of similar early mornings when I got up to do a mountain bike race. I remember the fresh crispness of the morning air; the excitement. I remember the euphoria of riding through forests filled with the smell of pines and the wind whizzing past my ears. I recall relishing the strength and health of my own body, the ability to climb, race and sweat. This helps. It helps a lot. This is not work. This is reconnecting with nature.
What a beautiful day! This is going to be amazing!
I am walking along the mountain trail between Signal Hill and Sea Point. On the one side there is fynbos and a huge mountain, on the other, houses, tall office buildings and cranes. I am acutely aware that I am always hovering on the brink of civilisation on this walk. The trail is a constant crisscross of nature, city, nature, city. It bothers me.
While the longer version of this camino includes more of the forests around Tokai and Constantia, this particular leg only goes around Signal Hill, through a greenbelt, then down into Camp’s Bay, and on to Clifton, Bantry Bay, Sea Point and Green Point. Day 2 entails walking through the city the whole day. Although I knew this, I still have to re-evaluate my expectations somewhat.
So this isn’t exactly Cheryl Strayed’s way of going “wild”. We are not in the middle of the wilderness cut off from civilisation with no cellphone reception. Nevertheless, there is still something alluring about the trail; it seems to ahve something to teach me, honking cars and all.
I walk past mansions with high walls. All have paths from their backyards to the mountain trail I am walking along. At first I think: “This is cool! They all have escape routes into nature.” Somehow though this doesn’t sit well with me. I wonder how many times these people make use of these convenient back-door routes? And should they be an escape from real life? Shouldn’t these routes rather be a means of experiencing life more fully?
We are sitting with Paul Searle, our guide, in a clearing between tall trees. Paul is a descendant of a royal Khoisan community. Through his vast knowledge of botany and tour guiding, Paul makes his living “off the mountain.” He knows all the indigenous plants of the Cape and uses them to produce his own range of natural remedies. Paul is also a gifted storyteller so that his tours become a lively account of the rich heritage of the Khoi tribes who once lived around the Cape.
He teaches us about “hotnot kooigoed” and buchu, and how the Khoisan meditated. For them life in its entirety was a meditation, meaning, I think, that life included a drawing inwards and reflecting in stillness. In one of Saartjie Baartman’s diaries she wrote of her longing to go home because “the French do not allow us to do as we do. Back home we could sit for days, smoke, and not say a word.” Some people might call this praying.
From Paul’s teachings, it is clear that the Khoi people, wanderers by nature, were deeply connected to the Earth, the plants, the mountain. This resonates with me: this longing to return to nature and a simpler form of life. But always there is work pulling me back.
How do you make your entire life a meditation when there is work to be done and bills to be paid?
I am making a new friend. Nancy is a journalist and broadcaster at SAfm. We share work connections and with great passion I tell her what I do. This reminds me of the sense of purpose my work offers me and how I have got to know myself better because of it.
She asks me to repeat my name and questions where it comes from. She asks: “Is it like ‘vilene’, the adhesive bonding and strengthening fabric?” I get goosebumps. Even my name says I am a connector that binds things in order to make them stronger! This is my purpose.
Nancy and I bump into Paul Searle, Edwill Meyer and Fuad Peters en route to a quick coffee break at the Bootlegger and then to lunch at the Craft Burger. A beautiful conversation about family roots and history unfolds right there in the middle of the street. We share openly, listen intently and get excited about our families having crossed the paths of others. I am reminded that this is an aspect of travelling that I love most: meeting and experiencing new people from different cultures and walks of life – and I am in the middle of the city, enjoying this type of experience!
We have been invited to spend the evening with the Israel Temple, a synagogue for Progressive Jews, to experience Shabbat, their day of rest. Rabbi Malcolm explains that in biblical times, before Moses freed the Israelites, they were slaves and did not have any days off. It would seem that today many of us have become slaves to our jobs. Every day is spent working.
But tonight special care is taken to make this time different from all others. Cellphones are switched off and we focus on spending quality time with friends and family, while nourishing our bodies by sharing in a delicious home-cooked vegetarian meal. We have good, nutritious food accompanied by wonderful conversation right in the middle of the city!
I experience my first Havdallah ceremony. “Havdallah” means separation, but I prefer Rabbi Malcolm’s translation: distinction. Havdallah is about distinguishing between light and dark; the Shabbat and the six days of creation; Israel and the other nations; the holy and the profane. According to Rabbi Malcolm, Jews are renewed, they gain a new soul during Shabbat.
Gabrielle puts things into a different perspective. She talks about breaking down barriers and finding commonalities. She explains that on our journey of enlightenment or growth, there is a natural cycle of moving towards the light and then to the shadow.
There are seasons of great insight and wisdom, and seasons of narrow-mindedness and stagnation. But always we move towards the light.
I like this idea. There will be times of balance and out-of-balance in my life, but I will always be striving towards a more meaningful life. There will be high tides and low tides, times of great excitement and those of routine. There are also seasons for play and travel, and for work and responsibilities. The seasons, however, overlap; they are distinct but not separate. This is the natural cycle of life. I look forward to further insights tomorrow!
Day 1 comes to a great end. I return home to rest in my own bed.
Catch Part 2 next week! Anyone can do a camino at any time in their life. Go to the Cape Camino’s website and try a camino for yourself when you sign up as Cape Camino citizen here. If you do not want to bother with all the logistics, buy a package our get the organisers to design a pilgrimage tailor-made for you. Also be sure to catch them Twitter (@capecamino).
[Main image taken by Nancy Richards, journalist and fellow pilgrim on the Rainbow Cape Camino]