Can you tell us why you set out on this trek 2 months ago?
I was so inspired after watching the documentary ‘Give Up Tomorrow’, which tells the story of massive injustice against an innocent man of 19 years of age, Paco Larranñaga, and the series of events that lead to his incarceration for the past 15 years. It made me think about what I had achieved in my life in 15 years and what Paco had missed out on that we all take for granted; like grabbing a coffee in town, meeting up with friends and family, walking through the park, taking a holiday, looking at funny stuff on the internet; just think of all the things you’ve done in the past 15 years! I felt I could do something to help and instead of sitting around and wishing for things to change, I decided to set off walking the distance he was from the scene of the crime back in 1997 to raise awareness and funds.
What were some reactions as you shared your story with others along the way?
People were mainly surprised that such a massive injustice had taken place and that it was still ongoing, despite 15 years having passed. When we passed through villages and towns along the way, people were interested in what we were doing and helped us out, be it with food or places to stay, even free veterinary work for Finbarr when hed needed some check ups. If we had problems staying in hostels because of Finbarr, we were able to spend some nights on people’s couches, in convents, or in youth centres; the generosity of the people we met was truly heart-warming. As Paco is half Spanish we were so happy to have been able to reach out to the locals about his case and most of the people had heard about him already or remembered him from media in Spain a few years back. Fellow pilgrims supported us by sharing the word about our campaign to their friends or through their online blogs.
Before we set off I had massive support from friends and the local community of my hometown, Mullingar, in Ireland, and for that I’m truly thankful. it proved to me that if you really want to make a difference and set about doing something, people will support you however they can. Fitt-Zone Ireland had helped me reach my goal of being fit enough to do the Camino through bootcamp classes and a training plan. They then helped me organise a 4km Fun Run and over 80 people turned up from my hometown to show their support which was amazing. Three friends from Mullingar joined me for a 100km stretch on the camino and gave me the boost I needed as I was nearing the end. All in all, I think it was so amazing that people were willing to help out with this campaign..
How exactly did you reach out to people about Camino for Paco?
In every way I could think of to be honest! We had little cards and information postcards made up so I was able to distribute them in hostels, bars, cafés along the way, along with leaving them on the kilometre markers as we got closer to Santiago. People traditionally leave a stone on top of these markers, so now there’s cards people can collect along the way too. When I was in Santiago, other pilgrims I met had said that they had seen the cards everywhere! Now that we are in Santiago we are going around every day distributing more of these information postcards. This week I’ll be spending time speaking to pilgrims about what we did as they approach Santiago along the camino. Before I left Ireland, I was able to reach out to schools with a trip to St.Colman’s National School in my hometown before we left. The young students were all delighted to hear about our adventure. Finbarr stole the show and impressed them all with his tricks. A good friend from Mullingar organised for the documentary about Paco to be shown in St.Aidan’s Community School in Dublin who then held a ‘non-uniform day’ to raise funds for us. As we were also trying to raise funds while walking, I set up a Facebook and Twitter page where people can follow our adventure (www.facebook.com/caminoforpaco) and I was lucky to have friends from Mullingar, London and Santander help me keep everyone updated. Speaking with them by phone while walking through forests and mountains meant the people following our campaign got instant updates, which were also translated into Spanish for our Spanish followers. On that page you can see all the photos from our trek and more information about it, even if you are not on Facebook.
What were some of the highlights? And the most difficult times?
Walking this distance could prove to be difficult for anyone but with my dog Finbarr accompanying me it was a very different experience. Not only are you thinking of how you are going to manage the distance, you also think at every moment about how your canine companion is doing. What was originally meant to be a 30 day trek turned into about two months as we took things at a slower pace on account of Finbarr’s short legs, but true to form he loved every minute of it! We crossed all types of terrain in all types of weather. I’m not the fittest person so ascending mountains through wind and rain on a daily basis was a challenge but at the same time, very do-able. Finbarr’s endless energy spurred me on! I’m happy to report that fortune was smiling on me as I suffered not one blister for the whole camino but on the contrary suffered many sleepless nights in hostels on account of some impressive snoring; anyone who has walked the camino can tell you that blisters and snoring are a great topic of conversation along the camino! Along the way we met lots of great people, each with their own reason for walking the camino. Meeting all these great people was a continuous highlight for me. Everyone was interested in what we were doing and Finbarr was loving all the attention and treats he got. The only difficult times I had were when we weren’t able to find a place to stay with Finbarr, so I just put the tiny tent I had bought to good use. Or when I had to carry a 12kg Finbarr through a village along with a 16kg backpack to avoid some not-so-friendly local dogs! Any difficulty was easily sorted to be honest. The whole experiece was a lot smoother than I had anticipated. The camino definitely puts you back to basics and I’d recommend it to anyone. You’re no longer thinking about what to wear out to the bar or what time your tv programme is on at and will you be finished work in time for the match; instead your thoughts are things like, have I enough food and water, where is the next tree for some shade, will I get to the next town before the sun sets, why did I pack too many things in my backpack etc. Everything you are thinking about is really only for that moment and it’s such a great way to be. Saying goodbye to your ‘old life’ and taking nothing more than a backpack and setting off into the unknown is an experience I’m glad to have had.
How did it feel to finish and reach Santiago de Compostela?
Amazing! And weird to be at the end also. When I reached Santiago for the final time I was accompanied by three other pilgrims who were interested in what I was doing and how it was to was walk with a dog, so they joined me for the last 3 days of Camino for Paco. It was great having other people to share the joy of reaching that goal. When I reached Santiago I knew I still had more to do, so in a way, for me, Camino for Paco will finish when Paco is declared innocent. I still feel very strongly about helping out however I can, and I’m so happy that because of the steps I took (literally) a lot more people know about his situation, and who knows what they will be inspired to do!
What do you hope will happen now?
Once people start paying more attention to his case worldwide I hope that steps will be taken for his whole trial to be reviewed by the Philippines as it is there that the most positive change can happen. I hope that once the people in the Philippines hear about what really happened to Paco, they will get behind the campaign for his release. Paco’s case is just one of many cases of injustices around the world, but no less deserving of attention and that is what I had hoped to achieve with the Camino for Paco. On top of supporting the Free Paco Now campaign, 25% of the funds we raise go towards a Philippine Innocence project which will help other victims of injustice there. You can contribute to our campaign online at www,indiegogo.com/paco. The deadline is Sunday 22nd July and we have a long way to go but every dollar will help. When you donate you also get a personal reward of your choice so you too can be a part of Camino for Paco.