No one just randomly finds themselves on the Camino de Santiago. People don’t just show up by bus en route to somewhere else. No one finds a cheap flight to St. Jean Pied de Port and decides to take a walk for a month.
If you wanted a vacation, you’d head to Barcelona or Valencia. If you wanted to experience true Spanish culture you’d probably choose to stay a while in Madrid or Seville.
With the Camino de Santiago, there is usually something greater at play. Something internal that pulls you towards the dusty, rocky trail. Something that makes any sane person want to sleep next to 10+ snoring strangers each night, wake up every morning at 6am and walk for 6-7 hours each day.
There is something that makes every aspect of that end up feeling like the best thing in the world.
Some people choose to walk the entire 800km route at once, while other people split the journey into different trips. My Camino only lasted for 9 days of walking, covering the last 200 km/124 miles of the Camino Frances. I then took a few more days for exploring and heading to the coast. Although it was short, it was long enough for me to get a true sense of what the Camino de Santiago means. Many of the pilgrims I met on the trail started walking all the way in France. I heard about all the good days, all the bad days and all the blisters. Still, they wanted to keep walking.
“I don’t know what I’ll do when it’s all over and I don’t have to walk anymore. I don’t want to stop walking.”
This was a common feeling for many pilgrims, especially the ones who had already been going for so long.
There are a few things that are important to understand when it comes to me and this concept of “active/outdoorsy traveling”. First off, I’m not that outdoorsy…or active. I don’t particularly like hiking, I hate when my hair is really messy in public and I hate waking up early. Also, even though I had just gone through a rough few months, I still didn’t feel like there were any life realizations I needed to make. I had already made them.
Still, there was another force at work urging me to do it. There were still things for me to learn, some things I may still be processing and discovering.
Feeling completely at ease
Although people say a simple life is a happy life, it’s hard to understand while surrounded by work, projects and plans. For me, it’s extremely hard to force myself to disconnect. Every time I actually do though, and I’m free of all obligations, I finally feel completely present and content.
It’s like taking a deep breath that lasts all day.
On the Camino, there is nothing to worry about except putting one foot in front of the other. Each morning, I woke up without an alarm clock and just by the noise of the fellow pilgrims around me. I usually sat up, counted the number of bodies still in bed and either got myself up or laid back down for another 15 minutes. I then put on one of the few outfits I had, usually just whatever was clean, and stuffed the rest in my bag. After a quick coffee with my Camino friends, we would start walking. While on the trail the only huge decision to make was if I was going to eat lunch before arriving at the final village for the day or after. Sometimes that decision weighed heavy.
If I felt like listening to music, I did. If I felt like talking to someone, I did. If I felt like going slow, I did. If I felt like going fast, well, I tried.
At the arrival of each village, there was always food to be eaten, wine to be drank and people to talk with. The scheduling of the World Cup also added a bit more excitement into the mix.
Every day was simple and perfect.
The people I met
When I arrived from my train from Madrid, I showed up to the “alburgue” (pilgrim lodging) to check in. I stood behind a group of Americans in their early 20s, all with tanned skin and dusty, calloused feet. They looked hot and tired, and while waiting exchanged each others’ passports and picked fun at the photos.
Little did I know I’d end up spending my entire trip with these 5 college boys from Tennessee. I’m so glad I did.
Along with them came a slew of other characters too. There was the retired British firefighter father-figure, the Australian chef on her second Camino, the mutual San Diego State alum from Germany, the crazy Korean who made me cry from laughter and the adventurous Kansas City-girl-turned-New Yorker.
Each of these faces made a lasting impression on me and shaped my Camino.
When all there is to do but walk and talk, you get to know people fast. So many hours were spent hearing peoples’ stories, analyzing them out loud, and them doing the same in return.
Therapy through talking
Every day I made sure to take some time with my own thoughts. I put in some music a walked on my own, either a few steps behind someone or without anyone in sight.
In those times, I hoped to think about something meaningful or make some realizations, but nothing ever really happened.
It was actually when I was walking with others and expelling my thoughts out loud that I learned the most about myself. I never realized how important vocalizing my feelings is to my own personal growth until the Camino.
It all makes sense now. From writing about my life, to calling up a friend and just hashing things out on the regular, I am not one who can internalize my feelings and come to conclusions. I need to get them out.
Realizing limits are just barriers to potential
Early on in my trip I felt overwhelmingly inspired. After just one day of walking, I was so excited and felt like I could walk for weeks. I realized that although walking all day was hard, it was only the perspective on it which made it possible or not.
I originally didn’t decide to do the entire Camino de Santiago because I didn’t think I could. In fact, I didn’t ever even allow myself to imagine I could.
Thank god I didn’t allow myself to think 10 days wasn’t possible either. In the end, I actually arrived ahead of schedule, a full day earlier than I had originally planned for myself.
The only limits in life are the ones you place on yourself. From careers to traveling, so many times we don’t do things just simply because we don’t allow ourselves to or because we don’t think we can.
Owning my own happiness
When people asked about my life and why I was walking the Camino, I couldn’t really give them a straight and specific answer. (I didn’t exactly have one, remember?)
Instead, I would explain the point I was at in my life and how I was basically in the process of re-working everything. After hearing about sorting out a messy relationship and deciding to quit teaching and take a chance on working from my computer, a few people responded in the same way. They asked how I got through it all with such happiness and optimism while being so far from home.
It surprised me. Interestingly enough, I’ve never thought of myself as a very optimistic person. Regardless, somehow in the last few months I came to the conclusion that I am truly the only person responsible for how I feel. For instance, someone can tell you the most hurtful things in the world, but it’s only your fault if you allow yourself take it personally.
I carried that mentality with me from my last couple of months in Madrid to the Camino, embracing the ability to be the sole person responsible for my own mental well-being and success.
Seeing the world without judgement
One of the most beautiful things about the Camino is the sense of acceptance and love on the trail. So many people come from so many walks of life and everyone embraces and appreciates it. Every conversation was a chance to learn something new about someone or grasp a different way of seeing things.
Everyone on the Camino had one thing in common already, walking towards Santiago. All the judgement we hold onto subconsciously in our daily lives and all the differences between us just didn’t really matter.
Although it’s a spiritual journey for most, it is also a very social one. A social one which takes place in Spain, the land of cheap, flowing wine.
I don’t think I’ve drank so much wine in a one week time span than on the Camino.
There were also a couple of days when the trail felt more like a pub crawl with multiple alcohol induced rest stops. This is when I cheated on my wine habit, each with a “clara”- beer and lemon soda. My fellow buzzed pilgrims and I giggled, made jokes and lackadaisically made our way from village to village, stopping for photos and pauses in the sun along the way.
Take-aways for life post-Camino
From the above,there isn’t one specific life changing moment or realization that shaped my Camino, and there didn’t have to be. Sometimes, just experiencing pure unadulterated happiness was enough. If I can go forward from this experience being the person I felt like on the trail and looking at life in the way I did, I know that at the end of each day at least I’ll be happy with myself and my choices.
So, have I been able to do that so far? Not always. So easily and quickly have the insecurities, doubts and feelings of a cluttered mind crept back in. It’s not easy to hold onto that utopia which I experienced in Northern Spain in the real world, but at least for now reminiscing, editing photos and getting it all out on (virtual) paper helps.
Posts to come: My Favorite Photos from My Trip, My Favorite Camino Memories and Moments and Tips for How You Can Do a 10-day Camino de Santiago, too.