Sanjiva Wijesinha -writer and physician

Short stories, Travel and Health Information

Strangers on the Camino – A Review

I am sharing this lovely review of my book Strangers on the Camino written by Canadian author Sunil Tantirige. It was published recently on his Facebook page .

I have just finished reading Dr. Sanjiva Wijesinha’s remarkable book Strangers on Camino

It is the story of him and his son Shivantha’s 800 km hike on the Camino De Santiago pilgrim route in Spain. 

“What is The Camino?” one might ask. In fact, I did not know until I came across this book.  As I learned, while reading the book and researching the subject online, it is the thousands of years-old hiking route that starts in South-eastern France, crosses into Spain across the Pyrenees mountains that separates France from Spain and then, continues westward 800 kms to almost on the North-west edge of Spain at the city of Santiago de Compostela. 

For over thousands of years, pilgrims have travelled on this route and many other feeder routes on a pilgrimage, staying at various pilgrims’ rests that support them.  It is mainly a Catholic pilgrimage, with many important Catholic monasteries, abbeys, and churches along the way. However, from what I gathered, every year people from all over the world that belong to many faiths do this, some as an act of faith, or as way to remember a departed loved one, or before embarking on a life journey such as starting a career, and some simply as a physical endurance event.

What is remarkable is that Dr. Wijesinha and Shivantha who are Sri Lankan-Buddhists, did this.  We Sri Lankans usually do not go on such pilgrimages that involve 800 km hikes over many weeks. Pilgrimages to us, is travelling with friends and relatives to a Buddhist holy city like Anuradhapura or if you are Christian, to a place like Madu Church in Manner, or to Rome or to Lourdes if you can afford that.  All done in relative comfort, travelling in cars, buses, or trains, and staying in comfortable hotels or pilgrim rests.  All of us have done many trips like that, they were part of our growing up in Sri Lanka.  The most arduous thing that we do is to climb Sri Pada mountain, to the holy site on top of the 7300+ feet mountain, something that we do in one night.  Going on a hike for weeks, walk nearly 800 kms up and down steep mountains, sometimes in freezing weather or in blazingly hot days? Are you nuts? – will be the question that anyone will ask.

The other remarkable thing is that Dr. Sanjiva and his son, who are not Catholics, undertook this journey that is usually done by Catholics. That tells me something about these two. One can say for sure that they have very strong faith in what they believe.  In a time that the world is more and more separating to various religious corners, they undertook a journey that one could say was cross-religious.  I can also say that he is one of the most fortunate men in the world.  His son accompanied him on this journey.  How many of us will have that absolute privilege in our life times?  His adult son sets aside his career, his work, more importantly his girlfriend, for six weeks to walk with his dad!  How cool is that?

They went on this journey in April-June of 2011, which is also interesting to me because I was in Spain with my wife & son in August of that year.  The closest we came to Camino de Santiago was in Salamanca, just south of the route.  In that beautiful medieval Spanish city, we came across many references to pilgrims but little did I know why they were that important. Now I know.

Doctor’s accounts start with the preparation that he did before embarking on the hike, walking and strengthening the body.  He was over sixty at that time.  Then he talks about the gear that they carried. If you are walking for 800 kilometers you better think very hard about what is essential and what is not.  Then, from the starting point in Southern France he tells us the route they took, towns and villages that they visited, food they ate, and most importantly, the wine they drank!  Boy they did drink a lot of wine! Although our visit to that area was nearly 10 years ago, his descriptions brought back many memories of places that we had seen there. I found it very easy to imagine what he is talking about.  When he describes sitting in a beautiful Spanish piazza after a hard day’s hike, drinking wine with other pilgrims listening to music played on a guitar by a fellow traveler, I can picture that exactly.

One of the interesting side-stories in this book are the people. He talks about the people that he and his son met, young, old, men, women, strong and not so strong. They were from all corners in the world. In fact, one of the people that they met on the trail died while on the hike.  He writes with a sheer joy about the people they met, total strangers who became good friends.  Again, I understand this totally. When we travel, that is one of the most important aspects of the travel to us.

It goes without saying, the most important story in this book is the interaction between the father and son.  As I read the story, I would compare the two of them with me and my son.  When his son does something for the father, I instinctively think, will Sanjay, our son, do that for me?  I was a bit disappointed here because he does not describe much what the two were talking about for 800 kilometers.  He writes a bit, not much.  I am sure they talked a lot about many things along the way.  I suppose somethings need to remain between father and the son. The outside world need not know everything that they talked about.  It was emotional to read what the son did to his dad as they came to the end of the journey and when they stepped on to the piazza where the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela is.  The two of them had completed something remarkable.

Strangers on Camino is one of the most unusual books that I have ever read.  It is not a straight travel book, although one could use it as such. It is also not a straight story of bonding of a father and a son, although that is definitely there.  It is also not just a story of how to do a 800 km hike in six weeks, how to train and keep yourself in shape, especially if you are a sixty year old man.  It is all of that. 

Now, only if we could hear the son’s side of this story!

I recommend this book very highly.  I learnt so much from it.

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This entry was posted on March 7, 2021 by in book review, camino de santiago, Pilgrimage, spirituality, Travel Topics.
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