Pamplona – 23 September 2015

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So – here I am at the Abbey outside Pamplona…

Wait, what? How did that happen?

Almost 4 months ago to the day I set off on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage walk across the north of Spain. Little could have prepared me for the life-changing journey those six weeks would be. I quit my job back in April 2015, leaving the harsh, yet comfortable world of finance in search of something more meaningful…for me. I say “for me”, because I am by no means judgemental of the industry as a whole, and it is a necessary trade, but for me personally it was no longer a soul fulfilling destiny. My plan all along, and perhaps naively, was to figure out my next move while on the Camino. Fast forward to about a million blisters and countless other physical challenges en route, and it is safe to say that the only next move I planned was each next step.

It did however become clear to me towards the end of my journey that things are going to change, in a much bigger way than I originally anticipated. The short version of the story is: when I got back to London, my Mom gave me one look and said “You are not back yet, are you?” I simply had to agree. Without knowing what to do next, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that it did not involve getting back into the London rat race in a hurry. Being in the extremely lucky position to have my sister and brother-in-law who so very generously offered that I use them as a base nearby, I could give notice on my rent, and so started the declutter/clear-out/packing up/reducing of earthly belongings exercise that would take up the next six weeks of my life. The only plan I had was to set off on a year or so of further soul-searching, volunteering, giving back, and experiencing a different kind of life for a while.

I met Neill on the third day of my Camino. Him and his partner Cath bought The Abbey of Eskirotz and Ilarratz, which is known as the Church of St Lucy, in November 2014. The church has been left to ruin for the past 10 or so years, and they are busy restoring it to its original state. On the day I walked past the Abbey, I was feeling incredibly low due to the physical difficulties I was facing, and Neill (who is also from South Africa) was just really lovely and gave me an emotional lift by just being there and offering some words of encouragement. I knew that they rely on volunteers for funds and also for help, so once I was back in London I got in touch with them to offer my help at the Abbey. And that is how I am sitting here today, in an apartment in Pamplona, back on the Camino if you like. I arrived last night after a successful, yet long day of travelling, and we drove out to the Abbey early this morning.

It was a rainy and cold day today, quite different to the morning I went past back in May. It was nice to be back at the scene I remember so well. It was significant to me that it was a place where I previously felt so low and worried, whereas I am now in such a good space as a direct result from that journey.

The abbey dates back to the 12th century and has been left to ruin for the past 10-15 years. After having walked the Camino himself in 2010, Neill and Cath saw it and after a very long process of back and forth, they finally bought it from the Archbishop in November last year. The Abbey has some of the original elements dating back to the 12th century, but in addition it also has a cracked roof due to a shift in the foundations. The sheer volume of the project they have undertaken is hard to fathom. They have already spent months clearing out the massive garden, planting fruit trees, getting the lawn in order, clearing out the inside of the Abbey, putting up a fence etc.

The ultimate plan is to restore the Abbey back to its original state, and to keep it as a sacred space for pilgrims on the Camino to enjoy. They are also looking to include a little museum of artefacts that they have found since restorations began. These include for example a piece of human skull, grapeshot bullets and so forth. The original altar include quite a few symbols that can be interpreted as pagan, such as the sun symbols, the scallop shell that is unique to the Camino, and also the controversial putting of the cross in a triangle, which is cause of much debate amongst art historians.

Today was mainly spent chatting to Pilgrims and me hearing all about the history of the Abbey and the project. We then stopped by an Albergue not far along where a South African girl called Hanneke is volunteering as a hospitalera. She actually brought me a hand written card and some biltong from my Camino friend Xan who also lives in Cape Town.

It was a long day, and I will have to yet again get used to the early rising and the late to bed. But I am excited to get stuck in and do something productive with my time. I am hoping that the time spent here will be good for me in the sense that it will provide me with quite a bit of time to reflect, some fresh air, meeting awesome people as I go, and get to know Neill and Cath better.

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