Ever since I first read The Alchemist, some 23 years ago, I became obsessed with the idea of life-changing travel.
Although an intellectual friend of my parents quickly assured 9 year old me that the book and its ideas were pabulum – a view I fashionably espoused for a while later – it is probably the book that, to this day, shaped me the most, especially by making me an escapist.
This, of course, is contrary to its intended message, but I guess a literary connoisseur would not expect more from an eager Coelho reader, and I am very impressionable in general if things sound and look pretty enough: my instinct after watching La Grande Bellezza was to emulate the highly aestheticised yet vapid life of Signor Gambardella, rather than launch into a deep assessment of mortality and value of fancy social life.
For a long time, travel was a way for me to feel like I learned a lot about myself and the world. How much of that growing and learning actually happened is up for debate – but I guess it was enough to realise that what matters (to me, now) is to have a home life I want to go back to. At one point, just before the pandemic, I decided that I need to spend more of my energy in building a home in Belgrade and felt that organising a holiday get together with friends here was worth more than backpacking.
However, for all the travelling I did (I have been to about 50 countries; as a certain type of a Millennial quantifying and being competitive about leisure activities always matters), there was one trip that I felt that I definitely needed to do (to be actually happy? to actually find wisdom and meaning? to know I have done it.) and that was the pilgrimage between Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and Santiago de Compostela, and I felt that it was important to do it before my 33rd birthday.
This fixation with this idea started pretty much as I finished The Alchemist and found out that Coelho did the pilgrimage himself and that it changed his life.
This romantic dream brewed during my teens and twenties, only to reappear again in 2016, a year I made quite a few changes to my life.
As I was deciding on them I read (and watched) Wild which affirmed my (then-)beliefs about the life changing potential of backpacking, and helped me make sense of a lot of my life then. Having decided that my PCT will eventually be the French Way to Santiago de Compostela, I then dived into one of my favourite books, Off the Road by Jack Hitt, which de-romanticised both travel in general and this particular pilgrimage, but made it all the more alluring for me with descriptions of Romanesque churches on the way and the subtle descriptions of people Hitt met on the road. However, back then, I was not a physical shape to spend a month trekking around the Pyrenees and Northern Spain and I decided to put the plan on hold until I got fitter.
After getting into hiking in Serbia and actually managing to lose a bit of weight I finally felt ready-ish in 2019. That year I spent quite a large chunk of time on the road, albeit sadly not on the Compostela trail.
A lot of things I saw and I lot of people I met seemed to nudge me into believing that it is time to fulfil my plan: I saw the little Scallop shells, symbols of the pilgrimage, everywhere around Europe and every other person I met had either completed a pilgrimage (Compostela or otherwise), planned to do it or was from the area.
By then, I even had a few pilgrim trips under my belt (to Hilandar and Kosovo and Metohija monasteries), and at one point was even close to actually booking a flight and a train to get me started on the pilgrimage for April 2020 (doing the Compostela was exempt from my decision to end my travelling days).
Then, of course, the pandemic hit, and the plan was indefinitely postponed. I even forgot about doing the Compostela as all travel now seems like a very distant memory and also as some more pressing personal matters, which would anyway prevent me from going away for a month long trips, arose in the past few months.
Still, today I remembered my (forgotten) major life goal as I thought about the start of the Orthodox Lent on 15 March and realised that I will be turning 33 in less than three months. Thus, as I did a mini pilgrimage on a bike between churches in New Belgrade, I decided to actually do a poor man’s version of the Compostela (aka Homepostela™ ) over the 46 days of the Orthodox Lent to fulfil my dream, at least to an extent.
From 15 March, I will try to follow, on foot or by running, Wikipedia-suggested divisions of 770kms of the French Way, and give myself about ten days more days more in case I get ill or things get a bit too strenuous. I will only include purposeful hikes and runs, not my going about my daily business and will post it to my Instagram – hopefully with some nice Belgrade sights I will get to see. I might also try to read Coelho’s The Pilgrimage, one of the few of his early books that I missed reading as a teen.
Given that it is highly unlikely that I will get to Spain in the near future, I guess it is better to try and do something that is close to what you planned if it isn’t the real thing itself. Even though I will miss out on all the lovely churches, pilgrim hostels and of course, the Compostela, I hope St James will appreciate it as I will try to sneak in some devotional practices – I even got a little Compostela pendant in Buenos Aires in 2017 when I still thought that inter-European travel and being able to fulfil life-changing plans is something you can take for granted. Anyhow, if the past year taught me anything it is that greatest pains and joys lie at home and only get worse when one tries to run away from them, almost as a certain book I read 23 years ago tried to tell me.