For much of her life, Izabela Jaworska’s most frequent travels have taken her on two, three-minute counterclockwise circles around the hardwood dance floors of ballrooms all over Europe and Asia and throughout the United States. For 40 years, she’s danced to a great variety of beautiful, stirring music, following intricate and elaborate choreography; her most common footwear has been dance shoes; her clothes have often been the elegant, even stunning dresses and gowns she’s worn in dance competitions; and her dance partners have been, mostly, young, tall, and graceful men.
But for six weeks this spring, all of that changed. In May and June, Jaworska walked El Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, crossing 500 miles through southern France and northern Spain, and not an inch of it on a dance floor. Nor was there any familiar music accompanying and guiding her steps. The soundtrack of El Camino is a rich mélange of the ever-changing sounds of nature, the occasional cacophony of city noises, and periods of deep silence. Instead of the wide varieties of complex footwork she’s practiced all her life, she employed the most basic form of human locomotion — walking — one foot in front of the other, over and over, and monotonously over. For the trip, Jaworska temporarily retired her dance shoes and broke in hiking boots. She wore and carried only the most utilitarian clothes and a minimum of essentials on her back. And her partner for the grueling walk was a 74-year-old woman whom she’s known for less than two years.
Jaworska met Sidney Bonvallet, a life coach living in Farmington Hills, in November 2012, on the recommendation of a friend who, knowing that Jaworska was going through some major life changes, thought Bonvallet could help. Bonvallet did help, and Jaworska found that, “We kind of clicked very well. She’s so inspirational.” When Bonvallet mentioned that she was planning to walk El Camino to raise awareness and money for Helping Hands Touching Hearts, her 501c3 charitable foundation that is helping the impoverished Venda tribe in Mutele, South Africa, Jaworska was intrigued. “I had no clue about Santiago; I’d never heard about it. I innocently asked, ‘Can anybody do it?’ and Sidney immediately said very enthusiastically, ‘Of course you can come!’ I was so surprised. I hesitated for half a day, and then I made the decision.”
Inspired by Bonvallet’s efforts on behalf of the Foundation, Jaworska also organized two charity balls at the Dance Pavilion in Ypsilanti, where she teaches ballroom dance full time. And she began training for El Camino. She was already fit from her many years of dance and yoga. But even dancing the strenuous Viennese Waltz, or the Quickstep for two or three minutes at a time, does not prepare you for El Camino. “Walking is different from dancing,” said Jaworska. “There’s the shoes, the backpack, and it’s not one day. One day is easy. But to wake up and do it the next day, and the next, that’s the challenge, and that’s the mental challenge also.”
Since the Middle Ages, devout Christians have made the pilgrimage from St. Jean Pied De Porte to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia primarily for religious reasons, and that still is the case for many. But these days, there are as numerous reasons to walk El Camino as there are pilgrims walking it. Jaworska, who was born in Poland, spoke and wrote about this before her trip:
I was raised in a Catholic country, but my family never had a traditional church regularity, but I am definitely a spiritual person. I like believing that there is something there that protects me, that guides me, that I can talk to. The main reason we’re walking is that we’re trying to raise money for the charity, but behind all of that, I’m sure there are those questions about life that we all have. I’ve read that people often take this trip when they’re in a transition moment, perhaps when something’s just finished, or something is about to start, and they want to clear their minds. They say that when they come back, their brain is so clear and sharp and they have so many inspirational ideas for what they want to do. And, of course, I am so happy I can do this with Sidney. She’s an amazing woman, and to be with her for so many days, I think I can only benefit from it.
As a world-class dancer, Jaworska is no stranger to traveling. With her former competitive partner Robert Kubis, she’s danced in numerous international competitions, receiving many honors, including being chosen as one of the Polish National 10-Dance Championship finalists, representing Poland on the BBC program “Come Dancing”; winning almost every Rising Star title in the United States; and being chosen four-time semi-finalists at the U.S. National Dance Championships. At the age of 30, she moved from her native Poland to England, and then a few years later, immigrated to the United States. She’s lived in Michigan since 1997. But all her previous travels have been by planes, trains, busses, and cars. And while she does remember hiking in the Polish mountains as a teenager, it was under pretty different circumstances than her El Camino pilgrimage. “When I think of the equipment we had then, it was just like a sack of material behind me. Regular shoes, pretty much like sneakers, that’s how we were walking. I remember having blisters of course, but when you’re young, you take those things totally differently.”
An adult in mid-life also has very different concerns than a teenager, and Jaworska reflected on this too before her trip. She wrote in her blog:
I’m afraid of leaving everything behind: my work, students, family, and friends. Of coming home and starting from scratch. Of the bills that I need to pay. Of injuries, blisters, sunburn, and the boredom on the trail. I am afraid of not finishing it and disappointing everyone. But my hopes outweigh my fears. I hope to complete the walk and be proud of it. I hope to face the challenges and find joy in the simplicity of life. I hope to find new friends, broaden my horizons, and be open to a change!
Jaworska and Bonvallet flew to Paris in mid-May and took trains and busses to St. Jean Pied De Porte, the French side of the Pyrenees, where their journey began at the Pilgrim’s Office. There they received their El Camino passports, to be stamped at each alburgue (hostel) on the way, to indicate that they had actually walked there.
The trip nearly ended on their first day. El Camino begins with a long, arduous 15.6-mile climb up and over the Pyrenees, and by late afternoon, the two women had walked 12.5 miles, reaching the highest point on the trail, and Bonvallet was exhausted. The most difficult part of the day, the descent, was still ahead. Jaworska wrote later:
Sidney was already trembling. Her walk was getting slower and slower. We had to take lots of stops to rest. We were in the middle of the forest. It was getting dark and cold. I was worried. I knew that with the speed we moved we had very little chance to get out of the woods before darkness. I am afraid of darkness, and we were the only pilgrims left in the forest. Sidney’s legs gave up, and she fell to the ground. I could not lift her up. She had no strength to stand up so she slid down to the nearest tree where she could rest. She said, with her very calm voice, ‘Honey, you have to get us out of here. I have water, a headlamp, and my sleeping bag. I will be okay, and I will wait here for you.’ So I took off and ran as fast as I could, with my full backpack on my shoulders. As I was running, I called the rescue team and within seconds I was connected to them. The rescue team arrived within 30 minutes of my call and . . . the rest of the story is a happy story
Turns out they were only one kilometer, barely more than a half mile, from the alburgue, and three men in a Land Rover drove them there.
After that, they gradually settled into a routine. “Like a new ballroom couple that needs some time to coordinate their moves,” wrote Jaworska, “we needed to do the same.” She continued:
I could not imagine leaving her behind me, saying we’ll each go at our own pace and let’s meet at the end of the day at such and such a place, [although] I know that Sidney’s a very independent woman, and that she’s done a lot of things in her life, strenuous things, and I knew she’d find her way…. So I said to her: ‘We started this together, and we will finish it together.’ I’m naturally an athlete. I had to slow down. And for her, she never mentioned it, but I know she had to also adjust. If she’d been walking by herself, she would probably do 10 miles a day, no more; she probably would take a big break every seven days; she might have kept her air ticket open for the flight home, in case she needed to extend the trip. But we had to make it to a certain point every day in order to finish and make our return flight on time. Everybody says that the Camino brings you something that you need to learn in life. And as a dance teacher, I know that one of the most beautiful qualities is to be patient. Because everything takes time for the students to develop, and sometimes we rush things; we push them a little too fast, and they need the time. So this quality of slowing down, being patient, is what I’m bringing back from the trip.
The days became variations on a single pattern. Get up at 6 a.m., eat the typical pilgrim breakfast of bread or baguette, butter and jam or peach marmalade, washed down with coffee and/or orange juice. “Evveeerrryyyy day!!!” Jaworska wrote. Then they’d walk 10 to 15 miles, about 8 to 12 hours every day, stopping for lunch and rest periods until they arrived at the next alburgue where they’d spend the night. “You make no reservations. You just arrive and stay in alburgues that have room. We were always the last pilgrims arriving to town, and sometimes there were only upper bunks available, and Sidney could not do that, or there was no room at all. It was little bit scary.” A few days into the trip, they began learning about other options. Turns out there are alburgues where you can make reservations. “My job every evening,” said Jaworska, “was to find these places and make reservations. After that I was more relaxed walking because I knew that we had a place at the end of the day.”
Of course, “the Blister Sisters,” as they started referring to themselves, bonded as they never had before. Jaworska wrote, “Sidney and I walk side by side, talking about life, family, friends, religions, our own beliefs and life experiences. Often we are accompanied by other pilgrims that linger with us, enjoying Sidney’s wisdom and sense of humor.” Meeting other pilgrims is a significant aspect of El Camino. “You start with people and you keep meeting them along the way. You see them one day, and then you don’t see them for several days and then you see them again.” Jaworska and Bonvallet each wore a card on their backpacks with the message, “500 miles, 2 women, 1 cause” along with a picture of the Venda children in South Africa. Often that was a conversation starter. That is how they met Dane Johansson, a young, but already renowned cellist, who teaches at the Juilliard School of Music. Johansson was hiking the Camino, carrying his cello on his back, and performing Bach’s Six Suites for Solo Cello at a number of cathedrals and religious sites along the way. A film crew accompanied him, and his trip will be made into a documentary. He and the two women talked about his goal and the purpose of their trip. They eventually heard two of his concerts.
They met many others, among them a French man, a former competitor in the Paralympics, who was making the trip in a wheelchair; and a Japanese couple, she 79 and he 85. They also met a group of college students from Texas who, along with two of their professors, were walking El Camino as part of a study abroad course.
Since starting to dance at the age of seven, Jaworska had never gone this long without dancing. (Though one night she did teach the Rumba to a group of pilgrims in an alburgue.) “I noticed as I walked so many hours, I was walking and not thinking about anything, which was beautiful, because normally my mind is racing all the time. That was new for me,” she said in a conversation back in Ann Arbor a week after the trip. “I was just walking and listening to the birds and the wind and the frogs croaking.… I especially realized that I was not thinking about dance — about my work — which normally my mind is constantly analyzing. That was different and good. Not cluttered, not cluttered with ideas, that’s how I feel right now.”
On the last day of their trip, when they arrived at the square of the famous cathedral, Bonvallet asked Jaworska how she felt. “I feel peaceful,” Jaworska replied. “I feel at home.” Back home in Ann Arbor a week later, Jaworska recalled, “Most of the last day, the walk is up and down hills in the woods, so you don’t see much in front of you, and then there is this one moment when the woods start opening and you start seeing Santiago. That was the moment we started crying. That was the most emotional moment for Sidney and me. We didn’t talk. When we finally reached the cathedral square I felt, this is where I am, this is where I belong. With all of the things we had to overcome, all along the way, we always saw in our minds, we saw ourselves in Santiago.”