Pilgrimage: The Road to Rome
I wanted to truly learn about why people go on pilgrimages and learn more about the Catholic faith whilst also promoting the message of unity and peace.Mehreen Baig
Why did you decide to join the pilgrimage?
I was always brought up to respect other faiths and one thing I passionately believe is that to increase tolerance in the world, we must increase our own awareness and empathy. Judgements usually come from a place of ignorance and this is visible in the world now more than ever. I wanted to truly learn about why people go on pilgrimages and learn more about the Catholic faith whilst also promoting the message of unity and peace. So, it was a once in a lifetime experience for me. It was also an adventure I would have never dreamt of experiencing even a year ago - a chance to see places I had never seen before.
Have you ever taken part in anything like this before?
Coincidentally, my previous series Walks Of Life introduced me to the spiritual side of walking and one of the walks was following an ancient pilgrim trail - but there was nowhere near the same distances, I was still in the UK and I wasn't travelling with a group of strangers and sleeping in the rough with them! All of those were new challenges.
Did you have to prepare in advance for the pilgrimage?
I was completely clueless when it came to specialised walking kit - I visited lots of different stores to buy my clothing, to get my backpack fitted etc... I then purchased precautionary medication for three weeks, just in case I got the flu or anything else went wrong. I bought extra fleeces just in case I got cold on the mountains. But within the first few days, I realised all of that wasn't necessary and it was difficult to carry it all on my back, and I had to tragically dispose of most of my belongings.
Have you ever walked this far before?
No. I was never a walker - being born and brought up in London, you don't ever really need to walk for 22km a day. You just catch the tube. However, I know it sounds cliched, but after this pilgrimage I've come back with a passion for walking. I cannot stress enough the benefits I felt both mentally and physically during those three weeks - walking all day, every day in the fresh air was the best thing I ever did.
Did you find it hard? A challenge? Fun?
It was all three: it was physically a challenge, the long walks, very hot weather, heavy backpack, changing my diet, climbing hills... but I had some of the best conversations and met some of the best people. Hanging out with my fellow pilgrims for three weeks was like an ongoing sleepover - I imagine that's what a gap year would feel like! Pushing and challenging ourselves every day was strenuous at first but became fun and rewarding as time went on - it got easier as my body grew comfortable with the routine. Sometimes I would feel exhausted, my legs would be burning, I would be sweating - and then I'd see Lesley or Les walking effortlessly and it would motivate me to carry on.
Tell me about your experience on the series?
It was a full and genuine pilgrim experience. We stayed in different hostels, often all sharing rooms. We climbed through waterfalls and forests, walked for miles and miles, sharing experiences and bonding the whole way. We were dirty and sweaty - nowhere to shower properly or wash our clothes - but even when it was difficult, the group supported each other. We woke up very early so we would miss the heat of the midday sun and walked for hours and hours. I felt like I was free of all responsibility - you didn't have to worry about what you were going to wear or where you were going... you just followed signs. It really was back to basics. All you had to worry about was what time you were going to wake up.
What was your highlight?
Climbing the mountain on day one is something I will never forget - I didn't know I was capable of doing something like that, and it was so much easier than I expected it to be. I won't ever forget that feeling of relief - just knowing that there was no need for me to be so worried and that I could do anything I put my mind to. That's a lesson I'll remember for the rest of my life. Besides that, there was the night when we were up in a hostel playing Monopoly - I feel like we often miss the joys of those simple things in real life, especially with the rise of technology and with busy work life etc. On the last day, Brendon bought us all presents - the girls were all gifted new, clean clothes - and we all dressed up and went for a lovely halal dinner that the group had researched for me. That was really special - to know that they made that effort for me. Then of course, there was meeting the Pope. The highlight of the whole trip was doing all of it with this group - a group of driven, interesting, amazing people who taught me so much about life and about making the most of it.
What was the hardest part?
Food! There was no halal food and hardly any fish options... I struggled with salads - though I do feel it was good for me.
Also, there was one particular day when the walk was very long, we hadn't found a place to stop and have lunch, it was really hot... I remember struggling. I begged Lesley to just stop and rest for a minute - but she wouldn't let me. She said: "Come on Mehreen. Just a little bit more!" and practically dragged me to the lunch spot. She really inspired me on this journey.
Are you affiliated to any religion? Do you practice?
Yes, Muslim, practicing. The girls at night would give me a scarf and space to pray.
Has the experience changed or increased your faith?
I feel it has made me feel more secure in my faith. Sometimes, you feel you know your faith really well but when people ask you to evaluate it, it makes you realise how limited your knowledge actually was. Talking to my fellow pilgrims had a positive effect on me because it made me more eager to find out those answers. Religion isn't black and white - it is personal and open to individual interpretation - and sometimes, especially on social media, I have been criticised for not being a 'proper Muslim' because I have my nails done, so, speaking, discussing and debating with the group and knowing I had the respect and support of the people around me - and being able to have adult, profound conversations with people who understood the notion of personal faith was crucial for my self-growth.
Has the experience changed you in any way?
By the end of the pilgrimage, I genuinely felt like I could do anything. The whole journey was symbolic of life - you don't know if it's a hill or obstacle around the corner, but you just know you have no choice but to get past it, and you learn to conquer is with confidence. And the hurdles make you appreciate the nice flat, easy parts more. I try and implement parts of the experience into my daily life now - exercise, being outdoors, fresh air, healthy eating, enjoying silence.
How did you get on with the other pilgrims? Was it a bonding experience for you all?
I was so worried about spending three weeks with 'celebrities'. I expected it to be a nightmare - but I genuinely feel as though I have found friends for life. There were no moments of conflict. The love, support and respect they showed restored my faith in humanity.
Have you stayed in touch with the other pilgrims?
Yes. We have a WhatsApp group, we go to support each other’s shows, we attend events together. Lesley and I still have to attend the ballet; Greg helps me to make healthy smoothies. We haven't been walking together yet, though.
Describe your experience meeting the Pope. What was that like?
Surreal. One minute we were climbing through waterfalls and sleeping in hostels, the next, we were in our dirty clothes sitting in the Vatican with the Pope. I was struck by his honesty and his liberalism. He was so humble and respectful - I'm praying you get to see what we saw. He was refreshingly honest about challenging topics and spoke to us for much longer than he was supposed to.
Would you do it again?
I was so nervous - completely terrified of so many things - but it was the best experience of my life. I would do it again in a heartbeat.
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