A 14-year-old and his aunt find there is no fixed path on the Camino, or in life, on a walk from Santiago to Finisterre
14-year-old Kyle O’Neill was expecting to walk the Camino. What he wasn’t expecting was the envelope I handed him.
Inside it was a sheet of paper. On that, were three instructions.
First, Kyle would be responsible for managing his own money during the trip. He had a daily budget of €30 and had to make decisions such as where to stay and where to eat along the route.
Second, he had to talk to people from ten different countries and learn at least two interesting things about these countries.
Third, he had to practice Spanish, which he is learning at school, by talking to local people while ordering food or booking into accommodation along the way.
Kyle was intrigued. Reading every line carefully, he looked up at me, smiled and said: “Wow Bronagh, I was not expecting this but... Bring It On!
Kyle had flown from Dublin to Santiago de Compostela a few days previously. He’d come from his home in Blackrock, Co Louth, to visit his aunt for his summer holidays in Northern Spain.
That aunt, by the way, is me. My background is in nursing, in Dublin and London, but years ago, I fell in love with the Spanish way of life and decided to relocate. I live in Santiago de Compostela now, where I run Magic Hill Holidays, providing people with walking experiences on the Camino. I’m passionate about the pilgrimage route - it helped me reconnect with nature, and connect with people from different cultures.
Next year, Kyle will be taking his Junior Cert, and I thought that swapping the usual summer beach holiday for a Camino would be a perfect complement to his formal school education. Exposing him to real life situations in an unfamiliar environment would provide him with invaluable life skills. Here’s how we got on.
Towards the end of the earth…
On Day 1, Kyle re-packed his rucksack with the most essential items, a couple of t-shirts, shorts, trousers and so on. The remaining clothes were left behind in a locker. We left Santiago with a beautiful sunrise and started walking towards Negreira, a small Galician town that is usually the first stop on the Finisterre Way.
“I thought the Camino should be walked towards Santiago, but we just walked out of it,” he said.
Kyle was right; typically the Camino de Santiago is undertaken as a pilgrimage route towards the city and the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where St James’ remains are buried. But there are other alternative routes to be taken, and the Finisterre Way – stretching 93km towards the coastal town of Finisterre, known as “the end of the earth” in medieval times - is one of those.
Kyle found this fascinating. "So we’re doing the Camino… but not the same Camino that other people do.” I loved listening to his thought process. I’ve always found the Camino to be a good analogy for life itself - just like there’s no fixed path in life; there isn’t one fixed Camino.
Before we left Santiago, Kyle commented that a budget of €30 a day seemed too little to survive and that we may have to skip some meals or sleep outside! But as we walked, he saw that in Northern Spain he could have a three-course meal with a drink for as little as €9, or find beds in public albergues, where you sleep with other pilgrims in large dorms, for as little as €6. That first evening, he looked over the notes where he had been keeping track of his expenses, and was confident he could be on budget at the end of his trip.
The next day, we left Negreira for Santa Mariña, a very small village surrounded by green pastures and cattle. After several hours of walking through rural land, Kyle saw a seven-year-old girl walking ahead of us. “I thought the Camino was only for old people,” he said. After talking to the little girl, he was surprised to learn that she was already on her second Camino with her Dad. For the remaining walk to the village of Olveiroa, Kyle practiced Spanish with the little girl, who he found easier to follow than when talking to adults.
The next day, shortly after leaving Olveiroa, I had to attend to some work emails so I let Kyle walk ahead. At this point he had gained lots of confidence and had become “a pro”, staying on the right path by paying attention to the yellow arrows that mark the way.
Along the forest trail he encountered four, middle-aged Irish women from Dublin who were surprised to see a 14-year-old walking the Camino “on his own”! Kyle laughed and explained that I was trailing a few kilometers behind. He couldn’t believe he had met people from Ireland, in the middle of rural Spain, and they chatted all the way to the next village where they stopped for a drink. This short experience gave him a greater sense of independence.
Time slows down on the trail
On Day 4, we caught our first glimpse of the sea, with the beautiful town of Corcubión lying ahead. We had been talking for hours at this point. Unlike in our day-to-day life, time on the Camino seems to move slowly. We have plenty of time for ourselves and others, as we don’t have the same obligations and deadlines to meet. As a consequence, these conversations are not the usual short and business-like encounters, but deep conversations about life and the future.
It was in the middle of one of these conversations that we met an Italian family. The mum, Francesca, was carrying her two-year-old son Libero, which means ‘freedom’ in Italian, on her back while her husband, Fabian, carried a heavy rucksack with all their clothes. They had walked from Saint Jean Pied de Port in France, crossed over the Pyrenees and were now, after almost two months, close to the end of their Camino.
Kyle couldn’t believe that such a long trip could be done with a baby on your back. Whatever the reason for them doing it, whether a promise to a dead relative or not, the example that anything can be achieved in life, if we persist, was there for him to see. During a conversation with Francesca, he learned about two fascinating cities in Italy, and now wants to visit them one day - Venice and Florence.
Every day brought new stories. Along our walk, Kyle heard tragic tales about the Spanish Civil War, learned how some people from South Africa can see wild animals from their gardens without going to the zoo, heard how a Serbian couple had survived a war when they were his age, and learned how the Dutch reclaimed land from the sea.
Throwing a stone into the sea
On our fifth and final day, Kyle was excited about getting to the coast. He was curious about seeing the place that all of these people were walking towards, and to obtain the ‘compostela’, or certificate of completion, that he could show to his family.
This last day was tough, however. We were tired. Kyle was starting to think he wouldn’t make it. But he held his head high as he walked into Finisterre town, three kilometers before the end of the Camino, which finishes at the lighthouse. We stopped for our usual meal, and he devoured it in no time. While he was finishing his dessert, Kyle received encouraging text messages, first from his Dad, then his Mum, his grandparents and uncles. He stood up.
“This is it, we are walking to the lighthouse now!”
And so we did. At 4:17pm, we arrived at the coast. Kyle sat at the rocks by the lighthouse. He had been carrying a small stone since Day 1, and he threw it into the sea - a pilgrim’s tradition that symbolises ridding yourself of past problems and beginning a new life.
With this simple act, Kyle’s voyage ended. In five days, he had walked 93kms and fulfilled all three of the instructions in that envelope - successfully balancing his books (with a surplus of €2.50!), talking to fellow pilgrims and practicing his Spanish with native speakers.
He took responsibility. He washed his clothes, decided where to stop for food, what we could afford to eat, and where to stay at night. The journey improved his confidence and independence, but above all, it showed him that there is no one fixed path in life – a realization that will, no doubt, help him on his own new Camino after the Leaving Cert.
“I will never forget this," he said. "And how great it felt getting to the end."
NB: Bronagh Carroll’s Magic Hill Holidays (magichillholidays.com) organises self-guided and guided Camino trips in Northern Spain. Her company is currently offering €50 off per person on the self-guided Finisterre Way. Use the discount code TEENAGERSVOYAGE18 on bookings before January 6.
“San Miniato is halfway between Pisa and Florence,” says Anna Dottori, our walking guide. “The emperor built the tower here so the other towns would recognise his power and authority. At night, you can see the lights of Pisa, Lucca and Florence.”