Abu Dhabi-based Eloy Maza embarks on cycling pilgrimage across Spain

A 32-year-old Spanish fitness trainer from Abu Dhabi will spend his summer biking the El Camino de Santiago through northern Spain to raise money for cancer charities.

Abu Dhabi-based fitness instructor Eloy Maza, left, with his mechanic. Courtesy Eloy Maza
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Cycling 2,000 kilometres across Spain is no mean feat, but it is a journey immensely more challenging when travelling without a wallet or any money – not even a credit card for emergencies.

At least Eloy Maza plans to have a lot of fun.

The 32-year-old Spaniard, who works as a fitness trainer in Abu Dhabi, is spending his summer traversing the El Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route through northern Spain to raise money for cancer charities. He will stop en route to teach classes in his own style of yoga and laughter therapy, which he calls “joy-ga”.

“I’m not bringing money with me, to experience the feeling of hardship, to make it a real pilgrimage, a journey of effort and sacrifice,” he says.

“If I had money I wouldn’t need to meet anyone, I could just pay for a room and food. But this way I am forced to interact with people – to go to a restaurant, explain my project and ask them if I can wash their floor in exchange for a hot meal.”

Maza’s endearing faith in human nature was reaffirmed by the kindness of one man – Barry Vitel – who is the reason why he decided to embark on his monumental journey.

Shortly after Maza arrived in Abu Dhabi three years ago, he was introduced to the Scottish ­Vitel and his Australian wife, Fiona, through a mutual friend.

“Barry and Fiona always looked after me in the truest way, offering me the warmth of their house, food, conversation and company. Barry was a man who lived to help others. In his professional life, as director of human resources in the hospitality industry, he brought many improvements into the lives of people working in the UAE.”

Maza often stayed over at Barry and Fiona’s home, and whenever he did, he noticed a guidebook on El Camino de Santiago on their coffee table.

"Barry was really inspired by a movie called The Way, about a father [played by Martin Sheen] who walks El Camino de Santiago in memory of his son. He always intended to do the journey, and I promised him we would do it together. I used to say: 'Now I'm too busy, but in the summer we'll do it.' At the time, the future was a far horizon where there was no sense of urgency."

When Vitel began feeling pain in his back, the doctors in Abu Dhabi told him it was probably just gas. While on holiday in Australia he learnt he had pancreatic cancer and he was given less than a year to live.

“I saw him crying and scared, but I never saw him getting angry with the doctors here. I used to tell him: ‘Don’t worry, Barry, you’re going to get well and we’re going to do this trip’, and he always agreed.”

Vitel died in October 2013, before getting the chance to do the pilgrimage. In his final days, he realised he would not have the time or strength.

Maza says: “But he still kept saying we would do it, which is why I believe he’ll be with me during this journey. Barry is my motivation. To meet Barry and his wife was a gift. They opened their doors and invited me to eat and sleep in their home without any expectation. I would like to experience again that priceless human interaction, which is beyond words.”

Maza will walk the final leg of the journey accompanied by Fiona. Together they will scatter Barry’s ashes over the cliffs of Finisterre in Galicia, a place known in Roman times as “the end of the Earth”.

But Maza also hopes his 80-day trip will be fun.

Every Sunday morning, in 11 of the towns he passes through, he will teach his interactive joy-ga sessions in yoga studios and open spaces, to raise money for a Spanish children’s cancer foundation.

“I have some experience in the theatre so I want to teach a mix of yoga with drama,” he says. “People will make connections with strangers and practise laughter, breathing and yoga techniques to relieve stress.”

The classes mean that for at least one morning a week, Maza will be guaranteed a place where people will be waiting for him, and that breakfast will be served in return.

Today, tens of thousands of people walk the pilgrimage route each year, but most do it for the exercise and the scenery. Maza’s decision to forge ahead without any money reflects the spirit in which pilgrims would have made the journey to the town of Santiago de Compostela back in medieval times.

“This is about appreciating a simple life and being grateful for what we have. I don’t want to be rich and own a Mercedes. I once had only had €20 to my name, and spent the summer selling fruit on the beach. I met some lovely people and was happy.”

Maza started out from his aunt’s home in Madrid at the weekend, holding his first joy-ga class in the Spanish capital on Sunday, June 14. He expects to return to the UAE in September after 80 days in the saddle, and wants to hold more joy-ga sessions in Abu Dhabi upon his return.

• Maza’s journey is being ­sponsored by local companies Both (Back of the House) and Bikers Cafe. Donations will be ­distributed to World Child Cancer and Cancer Research UK. Visit www.thewaywithbarry.com

artslife@thenational.ae