Over six weeks during the spring of 2017, Roman completed the Camino de Santiago with his thirteen year old daughter Aurora in her wheelchair. They walked an unforgettable 729 kms in total averaging four to five hours per day, with only two days rest over the entire six weeks.
In this interview, Roman shares his reasons for choosing to do the Camino, the amount of preparation required leading up to the trip, raising money for a special wheelchair and stories about the Camino itself.
What inspired you to do the Camino with Aurora?
“I’ve always wanted to do the Camino and have a passion for Spain, especially the north in the Basques and the Celtic parts. Years before kids, a very dear friend of mine from Brazil was living in Sydney when her father died. I asked her how she was coping being so far away from family at such a sad time of her life. She said that she was close to her father and had shared wonderful times and many experiences. Her special memories helped her cope with her loss and strengthened her love and memory of him. Her father wasn’t a rich man and didn’t leave her much in the way of material possessions, but these didn’t matter because the experiences were richer.
I was very impressed and touched by her words and resolved back then that when I had kids, I was going to share experiences with them and create special memories. I would do a one on one trip somewhere with each of my kids.”
How did you plan ahead for this trip and what special arrangements did you have to make?
“Aurora loves getting out and about, watching people, seeing things and doing things, she doesn’t like sitting around watching TV or movies a lot. We go for many walks especially through nature along the Yarra river and through bushland. We love walking together and I knew that in the future I would take her to Spain and walk the Camino, however there was no immediate plan to do so.
At the time, a good mate of mine left Australia to live in Croatia with his wife and two year old daughter. He invited Aurora and me to visit and I decided that if I was going all that way with Aurora, it would be the perfect opportunity to walk the Camino. Her mother had taken her brothers to Greece two years earlier and she’d missed out so it was decided – she was going to Spain and it was her first trip overseas.
A couple of therapists at school gave me ideas about fundraising and planning. I found a website who specialised in Camino accommodation, so I booked it all in advance. I then had to make decisions about the walk itself and how far we would walk every day. Initially I wanted to do the northern route along the coast of the Bay of Biscay but was advised it wasn’t suitable for a wheelchair and that the last 100 kms from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela would be preferable. However I wasn’t interested in a safe comfortable trip, this was about challenging both Aurora and me, so I stuck to my plan and walked from Pamplona to Santiago de Compostela. This was 729 kms in total as it turned out.
I planned on around 20 kms a day with two rest days and two weeks to see other parts of Spain, Madrid, Granada and San Sebastian.
I set up a GofundMe page to cover the airfares, accommodation and travel expenses, which it almost did. Next I needed a suitable wheelchair to handle the long walk and terrain. Our physio Viv found the Hippocampe, which was perfect. It turned out that the guy who was selling the wheelchair had lived in Spain and knew the Camino – he was very supportive and gave us plenty of information. It was expensive as disability equipment normally is.
I approached the NDIS but they declined my request even though the wheelchair would enable Aurora to participate more fully at school on excursions, camps and other outings. I wrote letters to Disability Ministers, State and Federal who were sympathetic, but they did not help. I was on my own and time was short so now I had to fundraise for the trip and the wheelchair.
My partner at the time, Lu, organised a fundraiser, got donations and did some advertising. Everyone at Aurora’s school was so supportive although they thought I was a little crazy! I learnt Spanish, had a podd book made up for Aurora in Spanish and nothing was stopping us – we were going. Every weekend we’d go for walks to train and to adventure stores looking for specials. I approached a few places for sponsorship, but they weren’t interested – not enough advertising in it!
There were also the daily care items I had to think about. I wasn’t sure if I could get Aurora’s nappies in the right size in Spain so I bought two months supply with us and once we arrived in Madrid, I posted them off to the hotels we were staying at along the Camino.
On the finance side, it wasn’t looking good, we’d raised half the money for the wheelchair and I paid the rest. The GoFundMe page did well but was a long way from the target. At the last minute a very generous benefactor topped up the GoFundMe page – thanks to this benefactor and everyone else involved, we were finally on our way!”
What was the most challenging part of the journey?
“The most challenging part of this journey was the organising and fundraising. I’m not great at asking for help and was humbled by so many people who wanted to help. They helped because they love Aurora, she has a special charm about her that captures people, this happened in Spain on the walk as well. The flights to Spain were the worst part, sixteen hours from Melbourne to Abu Dhabi and eight hours to Madrid. They were challenging because of the length of time we were confined and there is only so much sleeping one can do. The staff at Etihad Airways and the airports were helpful so even though the trip was long and arduous, it was the best it could be.”
What happened along “the way”?
“I’d pre-booked all the accommodation through an Irish tour company that specialises in the Camino. The Camino is a big deal in Europe and there are many Irish who do it. I’d informed them that Aurora was in a wheelchair and very dependent on me for everything so they accommodated me as best as they could. Most of the time our accommodation had an ensuite shower and shower-chair for Aurora, every place we stayed at was so helpful. The oldest hotel we stayed in was built in the 11th century.
Every day on the Camino you walked, by yourself or with others as you wished. Everyone is respectful and friendly, there were no d&%#heads. It became a walking meditation especially on the Meseta High Plateau between Burgos and Leon. Many people think this stretch is boring and opt out but for us it was relaxing.
The stories that follow will give you an idea of the people who do the Camino.
On the day heading into Burgos, we walked a stretch of Roman road which was horrid. It was very bumpy, rocky and slow going. Four young Germans walked past us and one who had a beautiful wooden walking staff, asked if I wanted to swap for a while but I declined. On they went but a little while later they came running back. The path ahead had rubble and boulders and they knew I would need a hand so together we lifted Aurora and her wheelchair and carried her uphill for about 300 metres. She loved it and was laughing. We all walked together a while before they took off again. If it wasn’t for them I may have been stuck on the path for a while.
I also befriended Ivana and her partner Alessandro from Italy, and Ivana became my “Camino-sister”, who nicknamed Aurora “principessa” and was pretty much Aurora’s Auntie on the trip. Alessandro was having leg problems so he finished up in Burgos and returned home to Italy. Ivana and I walked together most days. We didn’t necessarily make plans to walk together but it just happened this way. Ivana and Aurora hit it off, Ivana had worked in disability care and she knew how to engage with Aurora. Aurora loved her and I valued her friendship. This is what happens on the Camino, we called each other brother and sister. We are still in touch today and we refer to her as Auntie Ivana.
Bruno was an Italian we met through Ivana. He had walked the Camino the previous year and knew the route. There were days when the path was steep and slippery, undulating up and down, and Bruno would appear out of nowhere and help me push the wheelchair together or take turns. There was one particular day where we pushed the wheelchair uphill for five kms and finally made it to the top of the hill to a café. The word must have got around because on our arrival we got a standing ovation and were shouted food and drinks.
I met Paul, a young Irishman and we chatted for a while then off he went. I caught up with him as he was finishing his lunch and we were about to start ours. When we started walking again, we saw him stopped a few kilometres down the road and I thought he might be having problems with his feet. But he was waiting to tell us that the path ahead was very narrow, steep and twisty and he wanted to help us. I lifted Aurora out of the chair and carried her down the path while Paul brought the empty chair.
The people we met over the six weeks were amazing. There was generosity, kindness and care in abundance.
Everywhere we went people would call out Hola Aurora, toot their horns, give us the thumbs up. There were so many amazing friends that we made on this journey.
There is a common purpose on the Camino – everyone is on a pilgrimage whatever this means to them. Everybody is walking, life slows right down, life becomes as fast or as slow as you walk it on the Camino. That was so invigorating and refreshing – and it was beautiful.”
Did you ever feel you bit off too much and want to pull out of the journey?
“There were two moments when I thought I’d bitten off more than I could chew.
Day 1 – Pamplona to Puente la Reina
We left Pamplona after three days there and two weeks in Spain. Everything was great, we were excited to start and had a big day of 28 kms walking to Puente la Reina. We had to climb the Alto de Perdon (Hill of Forgiveness) and then descend. The climb was steep-ish, zigzagging up the hill, never ending as it seemed, but we made it. All the other pilgrims thought I was both crazy and amazing at the same time. But as far as I was concerned, I was just on a big adventure with Aurora, walking as we liked to do. At the top were some metal sculptures of Don Quixote looking back over Pamplona. It was stunning.
The descent was narrower and steeper than the climb and it was covered in large round river rocks. It was slippery and Aurora was getting bounced and thrown around in the chair. At first it was funny but then it got scary and she started crying, despite my best intentions to make it as comfortable as I could for her. About 2 kms of the decent was like this. It eventually tapered off and the rocks disappeared so we stopped under an olive tree with a seat where an Aussie pilgrim named Lorna was resting. I took Aurora out of her chair, sat down, cuddled and consoled her and thought I’d made a serious error of judgement – we had six more weeks of this. It was all booked and paid for and … and… and…. . We then walked the last ten kms to Puente la Reina with no fuss, supporting each other, a healing balm to each other. Aurora was all smiles shortly afterward and I felt hopeful and relieved. Aurora never cried again, it was always giggles, shrieks and squeals of joy after that.
Day 29 – Ponferrada to Villafranca del Bierzo 26.5 km
There was nothing particularly difficult about this day, it was hot, long, hilly in parts and no different to any other day really. I was starting to feel very tired just after lunch and we still had about ten kms to go. I gradually became more and more exhausted and I don’t know how I made it in the end, everything almost came to a halt. Oddly enough the next day was one of the most enjoyable and easiest days, so something shifted in me. It was like the final hump before it became easier.
When we got to the end – to Santiago de Compostela – strangely there was no elation that we had accomplished something or succeeded but a hollow sadness that we wouldn’t be walking again. It was over and I didn’t want it to be. We celebrated with friends and looked forward to pilgrim mass and seeing the Botafumiero swing in the cathedral.
What were the most memorable moments of the journey?
Firstly the Camino itself, it is so much more than a walk or a hike through a beautiful part of the world. Spain has captured my heart – the people, the culture, the churches, the way they embrace their love of food, their attitude towards life. They have a healthy respect for people with a disability, they are so much more advanced than Australia in this.
I loved sharing the adventure with Aurora. I loved the people I met, the connections I made.
The little old woman who looked like Betty – and then disappeared
My mother Betty loved walking and walked her two dogs everywhere. When my brother and I would visit her in Adelaide, she would always want to go for walks. When it was windy she would always say “go like a fox” – crouch low and walk like a fox into the wind to make it easier.
On the third day of the Camino, we stayed at a flour mill overnight. We left on a windy track with corn fields on each side. Coming toward us was a little old woman with two little dogs, she looked like my mother and was about the same height. She smiled at me and said “Muy bien” – which means “very good” in Spanish. Normally dogs would often bark at Auroras wheelchair, but her two dogs fussed over Aurora just like my mother’s dogs used to – they were affectionate, open hearted and beautiful. The little old lady who reminded me of my mother Betty said “Adios, Buen Camino” and kept walking down the road. I decided to get a photo, but when I turned around, she had disappeared, vanished, on a long straight road with nothing around us. Mum had only died six months earlier and I cried – it was almost like this woman came to tell me that my mother was happy for me and Aurora doing this trip together.”
How would you sum it up now that you have had time to reflect?
“it was the most beautiful experience, Aurora and I bonded so tightly. I would recommend Spain and the Camino to everyone and I would do it again in a heartbeat. Aurora is a born traveller, she took it all in her stride and she was stretched as much as a “principessa” can be. We are planning to go to Italy next to walk the Via Francigena and friends have signed up to join us. Then we are off to Norway to see the Aurora Borealis.
There was such an energetic connection everywhere like you were being healed and lifted, that you are part of something that is growing the next stage of human development. Everybody was a part of it, the pilgrims, the Spanish people. I have since met people who have done the Camino and it is a common shared experience when we speak even though we didn’t actually walk it together, a deeper sense of knowing and understanding.”
“The experience reminded me that having a disabled daughter is the greatest blessing I have received in my life. It has taught me compassion, gratitude, grace and humility. Aurora reminds me of all of those things on a daily basis.”
The meaning of Buen Camino
Buen Camino means “good path” in Spanish. It’s the greeting that people on the Camino use as a way of blessing each other along the pilgrimage they are sharing.
Article reproduced and edited by BlueMorph Media https://bluemorphmedia.com.au/ with permission from Roman Urbanksi.