A lesson in slow travel: walking the Camino de Santiago with my brother | Santiago de Compostela Holidays


Jhe Camino de Santiago has been a confluence of cultures since the 8th century, a trail where like-minded souls from all over the world share the sacred act of pilgrimage. Routes from the north, south, east and west of Europe criss-cross Spain but all converge on the Sanctuary of Saint James the Apostle in Galicia’s capital, Santiago de Compostela.

Not that it’s a godly walk. Of the 178,912 people who would have completed it in 2021, a third did so for non-religious reasons. But pilgrims of all faiths share a common goal and “Camino culture” of reaching out to help other walkers and sharing the food you have in your backpack. Everyone is working for the common good and that alone is a reason to go. It is rare to find a grumpy pilgrim.

A few years ago I dreamed that I was walking the Camino with Reuben, my youngest brother. But would he be able to do it in real life? One of the attributes of his Down syndrome is flat feet, and he is not an avid walker. But I shared the idea with Nathan, my other brother, and his response was “Let’s do it!” After several months of planning, we arrived in the city of León, about 200 miles east of Santiago, to begin our Camino.

Manni Coe and his brothers.
Brothers Reuben (left), Nathan (center) and Manni in the Plaza de Obradoiro in Santiago. Photography: Manni Coe

A friend offered us a night at San Marcos Parador, a splendid former Renaissance convent at the start of the route. We spent hours at the breakfast buffet, eating like it was the last time we had seen food in weeks. Back in the room, I noticed that Reuben had a whole pack of markers with him. Every day he likes to draw pictures from his favorite books and movies: lions, nuns, cupboards.

“You don’t need 30 markers, Reubs. Just pick 10,” I said. “We need to lighten our load.”

Packs duly adjusted, we set off in search of the official Camino, a series of metal scallops cemented into the sidewalks and yellow arrows marking our route. We were to join the Camino Frances, which runs from the French Pyrenees through the arid plains of Castilla-León, and climb gently at first, then dramatically as we approach the fertile pastures of Galicia.

Leaving a city on foot is a strange and counter-intuitive feeling. A few minutes later, Reuben sat down on a park bench. “I have a bad back, bro. Too heavy, he announced, pointing over his shoulder. We tightened Reuben’s waist clip so his hips take the weight off his shoulders and his face goes from grimacing to contemptuous. Every step was taken with trepidation and the pace was excruciatingly slow. On the outskirts of town, just before the residential merges with the industrial, Reubs spotted a cafe with pictures of food in the window. He came in and ordered burgers and coke.

Yellow arrows mark the course.
Yellow arrows mark the course. Photograph: My Travel Lessons/Alamy

“I’m done, bro,” he told us. We had only covered three of the scheduled seven miles that day. But there was no way to move it, so we slept in a trucker’s motel in the industrial area. The food was good. The beer was better.

My dog ​​Monty, nicknamed the Perrogrino (pilgrim is a pilgrim, perro is a dog), pulled Reubs up hills, across pastures and along trails through cornfields. Our pace may have been slow, but it was steady, and as our bodies and minds grew stronger, we began to believe that we could actually do it.

The route crosses the countryside around Sarria, east of Santiago.
The route crosses the countryside around Sarria, east of Santiago. Photography: Hemis/Alamy

In the town of Astorga, we marveled at Gaudí’s Episcopal Palace, the furthest of all his commands from his Barcelona base. In the idyllic cobblestone village of Castrillo de los Polvazares, we gorged on traditional dishes cocido maragato, a medieval-style feast, only in reverse: plates of pork, chicken and beef, followed by pico pardal (chickpeas), then soup at the end of the meal.

Nathan and I neglected each other for the sake of Reubs. I’ve since learned that burnout can creep up on you like this very easily.

We had our credenzas, or Pilgrim’s Passports, which entitle walkers to a bed in one of the dozens of shelters dotted along the route for a nominal fee. But for us it was rare to find an available bed, as we were always the last to leave and the last to arrive. Other pilgrims often made sure there was a bed for Reuben, but his brothers had to sleep on the cold floor of the corridors. The walking, the backtracking to see where Reuben was, and the sleepless nights took their toll. Nathan and I were exhausted and had a blast.

“Look – there is a fork in the path after the next village: the official route and another to visit the monastic community of Samos. Why don’t we separate? I suggest. “Maybe it will do us good.”

“Good,” Nathan replied. “I’ll take Monty. You take the Reubs and I’ll see you in two days.

Reubs and I slept at Samos Monastery that night and had one of the deepest nights of sleep of my life. Reuben still talks about Samos.

We met Nathan in the town of Sarria, a popular starting point just 67 miles from Santiago. We apologized to each other and enjoyed a brotherly hug, both realizing that the experience was changing us – mostly because of the little guy sitting cross-legged next to us, grinning from ear to ear. to the other.

“I told you so,” he said.

We had assumed we were taking Reubs on a pilgrimage, but it became clear that he was taking we on a. We were learning what it was like to have Down syndrome, to walk at his pace, and to experience life through his eyes. It was a truly transformative travel experience and the beginning of my understanding of Reuben’s reality.

Drawing by Ruben Coe
Narnia drawing by Reuben Coe. Photography: Manni Coe

Reubs knew Mom and Dad would be waiting for us near the steps of Santiago’s magnificent cathedral, and that thought won out. His confidence was blossoming. Nathan and I watched how he charmed his way into people’s minds and became a beacon of hope, not just for us, but for every pilgrim we met.

Every evening, Reuben drew a cupboard with his markers. One day, he put his drawing on the bunk bed of a young American pilgrim. Reluctantly, the boy came over to show me and said, “Excuse me. Your brother, put that on my bed. I admired the particularly fine drawing of a cabinet in brown and black ink. “Yes. It’s the wardrobe of Narnia. He looked puzzled. I said, ‘CS Lewis’s book? The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It’s a passage to Narnia, an alternate reality, a portal to a different world. The penny dropped. His eyes glistened with tears. We later learned on the very reliable Camino Vine that he planned to quit the next day as he was struggling with the isolation of his solitary pilgrimage Ruben’s drawing led him to continue.

“Reubs. It’s amazing what you’ve done for this guy. I think you probably changed his life.

“I know, bruv. I say.”

We spent our last evening on the Hill of Joy, where pilgrims traditionally celebrated their arrival with dances and bonfires, gazing up at the towers of the mighty cathedral in the valley. Reuben spent the evening drawing. I counted his markers. There were 11.

The next morning, as we entered Santiago’s Praza de Obradoiro – which must be one of the most beautiful squares in Spain – our legs finally gave out. Nathan and I fell to the floor, amazed at what we had accomplished – and relieved that we had.

Reuben lifted us off the cobblestones, grabbed our hands, and led us through the crowd to find mom and dad. Many pilgrims, with tired souls and bruised soles, had their eyes closed, their faces raised to the sky. Some were praying; others simply took the time to bottle the “Camino culture” and take it home. There are two Caminos, an external and an internal. The external reaches its destination; the internal never does.

Memoirs of Manni and Reuben Coe, brother. do. you. to like. meis published by Little Toller (£22). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply


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