Travel Lit Tuesday: “I’m Off, Then” by Hape Kerkeling

Across the northern part of Spain runs a trail that has been walked by many for over a thousand years. Known as the Camino Francés, this trail begins in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the Pyrenees of France and ends in Santiago de Compostela on the northwestern coast of Galicia — the final resting spot of St. James the Apostle.

I stumbled across this pilgrimage route shortly after my grandmother had passed away in 2007. I was going through a rough time and searching for some faith — looking for ways I could honour my Gran who had instilled in me a modest Catholic upbringing.

Late one night I read about the story of St. James — how we was “the fisher of men”, his martyrdom and the eventual discovery of his tomb in Galicia. Upon this spot a church was raised, and then a cathedral, and eventually a town that turned into a city dedicated to him. This cathedral became the end destination for thousands of pilgrims who walked hundreds of kilometers across Europe to pay penance at the tomb of Santiago.

That night I vowed to walk the Camino in honour of my grandmother. It’s been five years since I found out about it, but my desire to complete the pilgrimage has never wavered. Since then I’ve amassed a collection of books dedicated to the Camino — enough to fill and entire section of my bookshelf.

One of those books, I’m Off, Then: Losing and Finding Myself on the Camino de Santiago by Hape Kerkeling, has become my favourite — so much so that I’ve read it about four times now.

Kerkeling, a famous German comedian, did the Camino over a period of six weeks in 2001. I’m Off, Then, published in 2009, was written from the journal he kept along the way.

Full of insight, humour and charm, I’m Off, Then acts as a true-to-life account of what hiking the Camino is really like. Throughout the book you’re introduced to the friends he meets along the way, for although he began the pilgrimage alone, he’s not solo by the end of it.

A few of those new friends of his stand out more than the others — for me it was Anne from England and Sheelagh from New Zealand. This might seem like an obvious choice as these are the two woman who accompany him throughout the final stage of the trek, but it’s in those final days of his journey that I feel he connected most with himself and his personal reasons for completing his pilgrimage.

I’d like to share a few extractions from the book to give you an idea of how enjoyable it is to read. Here are some of the parts that have stuck with me since I first read I’m Off, Then three years ago — parts which renew my appreciation for Kerkeling’s stories every time I choose to reread his book:

“In the end, nearly all pilgrims who are in it for the long haul walk alone. I virtually never see groups. Rhythm and pace are what separate most people on the trail. It is hard to find someone who dances to a similar beat. If you hike in a slow waltz, the way I do, you can’t join up with a speedy flamenco pilgrim. Once you’re quite sure of your own pace, you might be able to link up with someone. The pilgrims’ walking styles reflect their feelings and thoughts and their very essence.”

“It’s funny, at home you look different on the outside with each new day, yet on the inside you stay virtually the same. Here you’re always the same on the outside, but on the inside you change by the hour.”

 “She [Anne from England] spent eight months teaching English to monks in Dharamsala in northern India, where the Dalai Lama was living in exile, and in return a Rinpoche instructed her in Buddhist teachings…Her most significant lesson from the eight months is one simple sentence from the Dalai Lama: “Drop the thought!” When something upsets you on the job or anywhere else, just drop the thought. Don’t chew away at it, because dropping it is the only way of releasing it!”

“Nearly every life can ultimately be reduced to a dozen key hurdles; otherwise, obituaries would run to millions of pages. Few things in life are truly significant, and if you take a good hard look at yourself, you realize that the number of strong desires in your life is really quite small.”

This last one is a retelling of a day’s hike that occurred within the last week of his pilgrimage from Villafranca del Bierzo to Vega de Valcarce, via Trabadelo. Although his experience was quite perilous because during this part of the Camino there’s no pilgrim’s path (pilgrims are expected to walk on the shoulder of a busy highway), I can’t help but laugh out loud every time I reread this chapter, simply because I’m a very visual thinker:

“To my right is the lane of traffic – so close you can almost touch the cars – and to my left, just under the dented guard rail, is a deep gorge with a powerful rushing river at its base, fifty feet below…At times the space between me and the many big trucks amounts to a scant eight inches, and I squeeze my thighs against the waist-high metal guard rail and stare petrified into the roaring water…The street has a fresh surprise in store for us. It gets even narrower and the trucks are speeding…As though on a hysterical suicide mission, I run ahead, shouting and waving my long hiking stick back and forth, to keep the stampede of trucks at bay, while Anne, behind me, starts to go ballistic. She’s in a state of desperation, cursing and bursting into tears…At my command (now!), we start sprinting like mad every quarter of a mile when we reach the hairpin turns in the road, and, in place of a horn, scream our guts out to alert the cars to our presence.”

This is the best I could condense his telling of the story as this harrowing section of the Camino fills a whole chapter. What kills me every time is picturing the two of them wildly waving their walking sticks while screaming and sprinting through the turns of the highway.

I’m Off, Then is honest with no shiny facade of what one may experience on the Camino — Hape Kerkeling didn’t start his pilgrimage with the intention of writing a best seller, he was simply keeping a journal about his experiences on the road. There’s no pretense here, it’s not a guidebook nor a history lesson; just a great account of a man’s journey along the Camino Francés and the things he learned and experienced along the way.

If you are interested in the Camino de Santiago, then this is definitely a book you should read.

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