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Ditching the devices

How many times do we say to ourselves as parents, “I must limit my kid’s screen time. I must get him involved in more outdoor activities. I must spend more time with her in nature. I must teach them more about….”? But as always life gets in the way and before you know it, they’ve grown three shoe sizes, the mobile phone has become a lifeline to their social life and the idea of long-distance trekking and spending time in nature produces a horrified grimace on the faces of even the most adventurous of adolescents.

An intimidating view

Familiarise the unfamiliar

Which is why I got in there early. We were lucky enough to have access to a family house in a small village in Soria, about 235km north of Madrid, where we spent occasional long weekends or summer holidays to escape the heat and noise of the capital. Soria is a province known for its cereal fields, cured meats, timber, resin and wild mushrooms. The province sits inside the autonomous region of Castille and Leon – a visual smorgasbord of castles, spectacular mountains, protected natural sites and the blood-soaked earth of centuries of Celtic-Iberian, Roman, Visigoth, Moorish, Conquistador Christian and civil wars.

The mountain ranges and countless trails in the area provided a perfect opportunity to get accustomed to the hours of walking required for the 800km trek from Roncesvalles to Santiago de Compostela. Fortunately my son has always enjoyed walking and at ten years old, he was ready to embark on the experience of a lifetime.

What is the Camino de Santiago?

The Camino de Santiago is a series of roads and paths that spread from all over Europe and end in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in the north-west of Spain. Also known as St James’ Way, it started as a religious pilgrimage in the 10th century after the apostle St James’ remains were found there. Apparently, he had been taken by boat from Jerusalem to Galicia and buried in Santiago where the beautiful Romanesque cathedral now stands in his name and on his alleged bones.

St James with his walking staff and water gourd.

People still come from all around the world to walk, cycle, horse or donkey ride to the cathedral, staying in albergues – pilgrim hostels, churches, chapels or paradors (5 star hotels, usually a castle, monastery or other historic building ) – and for many reasons ranging from religious and spiritual, touristic, meditative, healthful or as just an excuse to get away from the hustle and bustle of life. The pilgrim is required to carry the Pilgrim’s Passport in which they receive stamps at the places they stay as proof of their pilgrimage and once in Santiago, they can claim the certificate, The Compostela, a medieval-looking document that acknowledges your effort and commitment. It is a glorious sight to behold.

I first completed the walk from Roncesvalles to Santiago in the year 2000, when I was young, fit and foolish enough to carry a large Canon analogue camera all the way. I had a conversation with a fellow pilgrim one day as we leapt and bounded up a rocky mountain about how cool it would be to bring our future kids to do this. We decided 10 years old would be a great age - when they’re old enough to be interesting company but not too old to find the whole experiment beneath them. Fourteen years later I followed through with the idea. I have no idea what happened to the fellow pilgrim.

It's not just about the exercise.

Why? Why put them through weeks of torture; endlessly long dry tracks, steep forest paths and rocky trails, in rain, blistering heat and wind sometimes strong enough to knock you off your feet? In a nutshell - to learn about themselves and the world in which they live. To meet people from all over the world without leaving the country. To learn languages, customs, history, myths and stories, to participate in local festivals, to have conversations with extraordinary people from all walks of life and to learn self-sufficiency and perseverance.

They develop the ability to converse with adults on subjects that don’t involve hobbies or homework, be treated as an equal and not talked down to when discussing said subjects. And whether the walk be in a different country or their own, they are learning history, culture and language from people from other countries, as well as discovering the history and culture of their own country through myths, architecture and local legends. They soon discover the importance of persevering through discomfort, even pain, helping with food preparation and budgeting, washing one’s own clothes and having time to appreciate the natural world and the seasons around them.

Taking a photo of a Romanesque church

Exercise clears the mind of the clutter accumulated through the constant barrage of TV, video games, work, study, social media. Walking long distances allows you to hear your own thoughts and feel connected to your environment and the present moment – it’s meditation in motion. I believe this should be an obligatory part of our children’s growth and education.

For five weeks, my son was responsible for carrying his own backpack with his clothes, toiletries, towel, book and notepad, though I carried our sleeping bags. He suffered heat rashes on his legs and a pulled calf muscle but it never occurred to him to stop and go home. He understood that even when things got rough, when the heat made it difficult to keep moving and the rain difficult to see, it was necessary to soldier on. I believe this is a valuable life lesson.

Where are all the kids?

Are there many kids walking the Camino? Nope. Maybe more now, but in 2014 we met two stoic young boys from Italy walking with their father, a 6-year-old American who could jump into her pushchair whenever she tired and a small group of Spanish teenagers who were doing a part of the Camino. So I think it’s fair to say it’s not a common sight. In fact, the most surprising thing about walking with a kid is how surprising everyone else found it.

From day one, my son became the focus of incredulity and/or admiration and the most common word spoken to him was “valiente”. Valiente roughly translates as brave but implies more a strength and stamina than a fearlessness, and though it was overused, it did sum him up rather well. All the attention suited his personality, and he soon became famous among the ranks of pilgrims as an enthusiastic, communicative, tireless and super social young chap eager to share stories and practice new languages.

He made friends with everyone he met and wanted to learn where they came from and what they did. He taught foreigners Spanish phrases, Germans and Australians how to hand whistle, convinced a woman from Seattle to buy a Tesla after discussing the pros and cons of electric cars and explained to a couple of American women the difference between “venomous” and “poisonous”. In return he learned a lot, including the political turmoil that has afflicted Irish history and how to say “shit” in German.

Getting an Irish history lesson from a man from Ireland.

Keep the adventure interesting.

Long-distance walking can be monotonous for kids and after the initial excitement of where they’re going to be sleeping tonight and what they might see along the way, the boredom sets in and they’re mentally (if not verbally) chanting “are we there yet, are we there yet??” There are many things you can do to spice up the hours; it’s a perfect time to do all that conversing you had dreamed of when their noses were glued onto their tablets and gamer controls. Ask them questions, make it a multiple choice or ‘which one is the wrong answer?’ Discuss what they’ve learned on the road so far or get them to quiz fellow travellers to see what they’ve learned. Create stories and invent silly songs. Give them something to look out for or if they have a camera, make it a competition to see who can take photos of all the things on their list first.

Nothing makes a kid feel more grown-up and mature than giving them their independence and some responsibility. Allow them to spend time with their new friends (old and young) where you’re not a constant shadow. Depending on the age or how well you know and/or trust the person, let your child walk on ahead with them or lag behind. Give your child the job of budgeting for the day – what can they buy after the main expenses such as accommodation and lunch have been deducted? Let them help in the cooking or food preparation. Give them down time and days off when possible. Most important of all, trust them and listen to their complaints. If they can acknowledge their feelings openly without fear of ridicule or retribution, they can be discussed, used as an opportunity to tackle any problems head on and then filed away as a learning experience.

Write it down!

To make the experience even more long-lasting and memorable, my son kept a diary to help him keep tabs on the places we went and the things we did and saw and the people he talked to. When we returned home he elaborated on the notes, adding anything else he remembered, and we turned it into a short book. This book, for anyone interested in reading it, is called “Valiente. A 10-Year-Old’s Adventure on the Camino de Santiago.” By Adrian Cercadillo Silverthorne. It’s available in English and in Spanish. It makes fun reading of the Camino seen from the perspective of a child.

Now he’s about to embark on a new adventure – that of university. And I know the experiences he acquired on the Camino will continue to guide him and inspire his decisions and relationships throughout the next exciting journey. For anyone considering taking their kids on a trek, whether it’s a month, a week or even a day or two, take the plunge. They are more capable and resilient than we often give them credit for, and the feeling of accomplishment stays with them for a long time. And if it means getting out of school or doing homework, you might find they even enjoy the idea!

To see more photos of the journey go to: VALIENTE or check out the Photo Album on this website.

The book is available on Amazon, Good Reads...

For more information about the Camino, you can visit sites such as:

Adri writing in his diary at the end of a day´s walk.

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