Why I am walking from Cork to Jerusalem - over 6,000km - on foot

A Cork-based harpist is walking to Jerusalem, more than 6,000 km on foot - her third such pilgrimage, writes COLETTE SHERIDAN
Why I am walking from Cork to Jerusalem - over 6,000km - on foot

Anja Bakker who lives in Clonakilty is walking to Jerusalem on foot.

A CLONAKILTY-based harpist is undertaking an arduous 12-month journey - walking 6,000km to Jerusalem on foot, with twenty kilos on her back.

Anja Bakker, 52, is carrying her musical instrument as well as essentials for her epic walk, taking in the Gaeltacht, travelling by ferry to Liverpool, onto Hull, the Netherlands, Germany, Hungary, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey and Jerusalem.

Anja, born in Canada and brought up in the Netherlands, was once told by a friend that she was going to be a pilgrim, but she would have to find her way onto the road.

Anja has found her way, having previously completed the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain (2,500km) and also walked to Rome (3,500km). She likens herself to medieval pilgrims, playing the harp for her supper.

This will be Anja Bakker's third pilgrimage.
This will be Anja Bakker's third pilgrimage.

“I feel I have been called,” says Anja, who left Cork in April and is making her way through Ireland at present.

She doesn’t mean this in a religious sense. Rather, walking long distances helped her to clear her head and deal with what was bothering her. Anja says when the Murphy Report (on child sexual abuse in the archdiocese of Dublin) came out, she became very angry. Her mother had been abused by a teacher out of school hours. Anja and her mother (who now has dementia and lives in a nursing home) had a poor relationship.

“We never spoke about the abuse. My mother would always brush things away. You can understand why. These things are very painful.”

Anja started her walk to Spain by going to Dublin. She spoke to a lot of people en route about abuse.

“There’s a theory that we imprint trauma onto the DNA of our offspring. If you have trauma in one generation and it isn’t dealt with, it passes onto the next generation. Intuitively, that was what I was experiencing.”

Anja has already done pilgrimages to Rome and Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
Anja has already done pilgrimages to Rome and Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

At 17, Anja worked as a prostitute for a few years.

“I don’t know why I became a prostitute or where that behaviour came from. I’m not like that at all. It’s not something I’m proud of. 

"It all started around the time my mother was first admitted to a psychiatric hospital where she was given electroshock therapy.”

On her journey to Spain, Anja met people who told her stories about abuse, similar to the stories she heard in Ireland.

“I realised this was not just me and my family or Ireland’s history. This stuff is everywhere.

“By the time I got to Santiago de Compostela, I remember lying on the square in front of the cathedral and calling my mother. I told her I had done it, I had walked through the entire thing and I said I wasn’t angry anymore with her and I told her I loved her.”

Anja says that due to her mother’s abuse, “her ability to look after herself was harmed in a very severe way. My mother wasn’t always able to keep us safe.

“She hadn’t been taught how to do this. She made some very odd decisions when we were young.”

From that day in Spain, Anja has “never had a fight with my mother”.

When Anja had her own daughter, Sarah (now aged 25) on her own, she came to Ireland to where her mother had moved.

“My mother always wanted to live in Ireland. When my parents divorced, my mother said to my father that he could have everything, including the kids. She bought herself a little caravan and lived in Seven Heads in Dunworley in West Cork.”

Anja’s mother and a friend ran a restaurant there before retiring in 2008.

“My mother and my daughter have an extraordinary relationship.”

Anja Bakker brings her harp with her and performs along the way.
Anja Bakker brings her harp with her and performs along the way.

Because of her travels over the years, Anja says she has changed.

“I met a man who said if I was to do all three pilgrimages, something would change in me which would be extraordinary.

“Santiago de Compostela is the pilgrimage where you overcome your fear. It’s a pilgrimage of courage, taking on the enemy, slaying the dragon.

“Rome is the pilgrimage for your head, the understanding of who we are. But I found no spirituality there. When I arrived in St Peter’s Square, having walked for five months and a week, it seemed to be just a bank.

“Jerusalem is the pilgrimage of the soul where you implement the knowledge you get from going to Rome and the courage you get from Santiago de Compostela. 

"You are going way out of your comfort zone, travelling through a range of different cultures.”

While Anja says she is not religious, she will “take every blessing I can possibly get on my way to Jerusalem. I’m familiar with the house of Islam. Whether you go to Mecca or Jerusalem, as far as the Muslims are concerned, they are both holy places.

Anja Bakker left Cork in April.
Anja Bakker left Cork in April.

“There are strict rules as to how pilgrims are treated on the road. You have the right to go from mosque to mosque. The Muslims will host you for three days but then you need to leave.”

Anja says she has learned a lot about humility.

“The first two pilgrimages I did, I had hardly any money. But because I have the harp, I have a means of sharing with a lot of other pilgrims. I now practise a lot of gratitude. I’m basically a seanchaí harp-playing troubadour. I get paid either in kind or with money. The Italians said to me that I had to allow them to give me love. Money is part of that. I didn’t want to take money. But I decided that maybe it was time for me to learn that lesson and to accept whatever help people are willing to give.

Anja Bakker during the pilgrimage.
Anja Bakker during the pilgrimage.

“My commitment now on the way to Jerusalem is to develop compassion and patience and to answer questions people ask, tell stories and play music.”

This is Anja’s last pilgrimage with her harp.

“I’m heading for midlife. I don’t know what my bones are going to do.”

For the moment, she is a woman on a mission, unfazed by the task she has set herself.

She is raising money on Gofund.me/From-Here-to-Jerusalem.

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