Like many experiences of this nature, it’s hard to put into words the values of completing the Camino de Santiago. I have articulated myself as best I can, with the intention of not creating a false expectation to the reader of what they should expect from their own experience should they give it a go themselves.
I had originally planned to start on the 2nd of September 2019 however, due to airline strikes, I had to push it back a day. Not only that, but I had to change my destination due to flight availability. I flew San Sebastian a day later, then traveled by train and bus to St Jean-pied-de-Port. From there I would walk the 780km to Santiago. The Camino has a habit of teaching you lessons in ways you cannot even begin to expect. It seems to be a microcosm of life, it teaches you a great deal about yourself and the world around you as you tread The Way.
Straight off the bat, the initial and reoccurring lesson was, be nimble. The Camino had begun to test me before I even set foot on her. Fortunately for me, I had only booked one night’s accommodation so little adjustments to my trip, such as flying in a day late didn’t affect me too much, aside from a bit of a loss of sleep as I worked out the logistics of getting to St Jean from a completely different direction. This reaffirmed what I was already conscious of, which is to not hold too tightly to outcomes, It turned out that had I been a day early I would have got caught in a mass entrance of Pilgrims that Sunday which meant that 100s of people had to be put on buses and taken to neighbouring towns as there wasn’t enough accommodation to support everyone. Not to mention that I would never have met the amazing people I did along the way as I wouldn’t have been traveling at the same time as them. These sorts of events happened frequently and seemed to be the Camino’s way of letting you know who was in control.
“Leave room. Sometimes the universe has a much bigger plan for you. You are loved, and everything is possible”. – Kris Carr
On that note, I also recommend you leave early. The Camino is growing in popularity and pilgrim numbers are skyrocketing, which is great, but it also means accommodation is limited. Try your best to arrive at your destination each day before 3 pm, this will help guarantee you a place to sleep.
Just say something, anything. Most pilgrims are traveling alone (I recommend this too), and unlike the London Underground, it’s perfectly acceptable to start a conversation with the person next to you. A few weeks in I was sitting on a stone wall under the grapevines watching the sunrise eating my breakfast as pilgrims passed in dribs and drabs. I had one particular face a number of times throughout the previous days and decided to say “hi”, as he walked passed I greeted him and commented on the beauty of the day. He replied and exclaimed that he wished he’d taken the time like I had to enjoy these moments. He carried on, but later in the day I saw him again at a cafe and sat down for a chat. Like many people I met along the way, we confided in each other and supported each other and he became a close friend. He even helped translate for me during my time in hospital. This brings me to my next lesson.
Be open. From my personal experience, It was incredibly common to meet someone who, like myself, had quit their job and begun the pilgrimage in order to deepen their understanding of themselves or to create space. For this reason, people tend to be incredibly open about what’s going on in their lives, should you be willing to do the same. It’s a beautiful experience and if nothing else it showed me that my life’s challenges were often similar to others and it was greatly beneficial to talk these things through with a fresh perspective. These conversations also helped foster strong relationships quickly. I’m sure I’ve had deeper conversations with those I met on the Camino than many old friends from back home.
If you can’t imagine yourself speaking to strangers, start with baby steps like waving or saying “hi” as you pass-by someone. I also recommend that you don’t wear earphones too often. Earphones make you appear closed off, and you never know who may pass you by not wanting to disturb you. They also detach you a little from being present and allow the mind to actively avoid working through whatever may be on your mind. This is great sometimes, but it’s a rare thing to have this much free time.
Create space. I’m not sure about you, but it’s not very often in our lives that we are gifted with the opportunity to spend a month without the concerns of the outside world, like work, whatever may be going on, so try to make the most of it. Personally, I tried to avoid using my phone too often, especially when it came to social media. People won’t forget you should you wait till you finish the Camino to post photos, and you won’t die should you not get validation from your friends or followers for 30 or so days.
I went with the intention of not listening to podcasts or music either, but every now and then it’s nice to treat yourself. While I’m on the subject of creating space, I also highly recommend you stop and smell the roses. I have no idea why, but the roses along the way are beautifully fragrant, and when you get a good one it will make your heart sing with the gratitude of being alive.
Much like the Camino, life is finite, so make the most of the experience. There will undoubtedly be days of walking where you are really over it, and it’s extremely boring, or your feet will ache, etc. Personally (and it took me a while to get to this point) it really helped me to sit with these days, as these are the days where your mind goes crazy and all you can do it try your best to catch your ridiculous thoughts, and laugh at them, or choose another thought. You have so much time so you may as well use it to your advantage. Find a way to make the most of those monotonous days treading highway or burnt orange soil, they will help you appreciate the beautiful days even more.
Nothing must be postponed. Take time by the forelock. Now or never! You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment – Henry David Thoreau
On that note, slow down, there is no prize for finishing the fastest. Not only that, but there will be no one to celebrate with as you won’t ever get the chance to meet anyone as you charge passed them. This may be the only chance you get to experience such a journey, slow down and enjoy it. When I first started the Camino I met a guy on my first day who was a well-versed adventurer, for the first three days I kept up with him, and it was great fun, but it was just the two of us. Eventually, I pumped the brakes and left him to it. I have no idea what happened to him after but I can only assume he had a vastly different experience to myself having not had the time to stop to smell the roses (metaphorically and literally speaking).
With all these new people you’ll meet there is no better way to bond than over food. This topped with the undeniable fact that eventually, you will get sick of eating bread and Spanish omelet day in day out. What better way to kill two birds with one stone and cook together. Many of the Albergues (the Camino hostels) have fully equipped kitchens, and no matter how talented you are in the kitchen, there’s nothing more enjoyable after a long day of walking than sharing a meal. These are some of my fondest memories. Cooking is also a great way to get some extra veggies into your diet which are lacking in man of the pilgrim’s meals. While you’re at it, top it off with a few glasses of very good, cheap, Spanish wine. Just because it’s a religious pilgrimage doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy yourself. Loosen up.
Sometimes you’ll begin to feel a little off, or there will be a nagging voice in your head. For me, this happened a few times. On one occasion I had been having this reoccurring urge to go for a run but I’d disregarded it as I don’t run often, I had to carry my 7kg bag, and I didn’t want to hurt myself or pull something. With about one week to go, I decided it was time for a rest day and had been encouraged by some Camino friends I’d been walking with to take a day off with them. I spent the next morning relaxing and eating good food, but I had this nagging feeling that I had to go.
Long story short, in the final minutes before I checked in for a second night, I left. I strapped my bag tightly and proceeded to run like the wind, and it felt amazing! I guess after weeks of walking my body was desperate to be pushed a little harder. Not only did it clear my mind, but it was energizing, it felt so good to get a sweat on. Pilgrims were cheering me as I flew past them, laughing at the craziness of my actions, but most importantly I was grinning ear to ear, earphones in, singing at the top of my lungs until I could barely breathe. I ran about 20km that day and walked the last 5km as the path steepened into the mountains. My friends ended up catching up with me a few days later. Had I ignored that nagging voice I never would have realised how capable I am, or created space from the chatter in my head. The more we ignore this voice, the more likely it is to fade. Listen to your inner voice, this is your Camino, you may only get one, so put yourself first.
With all these days of moving, you’d expect you’ll need a lot of sleep. To which the Camino says, “good fucking luck”. Unless you are staying in private accommodation each night (in which case, are you even a pilgrim?!) then you will most likely be sleeping in bunk beds with between 50 and 200+ of your closest friends. Each with their own bedtime, wake time and snoring tune. If you’re a light sleeper like me you’re in dire straights. Bring earplugs and an eye mask. The symphony of snorers, teamed with the Spanish love of a fiesta will really challenge your need for a solid 8 hours. Aside from the earplugs and eye mask, I suggest afternoon naps. Do your best, but you’ll quickly learn how little sleep you need to get through each day. Worry about that another time.
Finishing the Camino for me was where I got what I see as my most valuable lesson. If you read any other blogs or watched any videos on the Camino at all, I’m sure you will have seen how profoundly most people are affected upon its completion. The energy of the space, combined with the sense of achievement, and being surrounded by people you shared such an experience with leaves most people in hysterics.
For me that never came, there was nothing, no real joy or sense of pride in what I had achieved, there were no tears, just a lingering feeling of “okay whats next”. It took me a while but eventually, I came to understand that throughout my life I never really take time to appreciate where I am or how far I have come. I’m so determined to make something of myself that I never really take time to appreciate the steps along the way. I think that was an inspiration for writing this post, to actually reflect on what a valuable journey this was.
I personally didn’t plan much at all. I left not knowing where I would be staying on the first night, and in my opinion, everything worked out just as it should have. If you’re really worried you can find my packing list here, but I won’t tell you what towns I stopped in because this is your Camino, you don’t need to relive mine. Go without expectation, let the journey unfold in front of you. You may hate it, or it may be the single best experience of your life, but unless you do it, you’ll always be left wondering. For me, the Camino can be summed up in one simple phrase “It is what it is”. Don’t make excuses, just go for it.
“There is only one way to learn. It’s through action. Everything you need to know you have learned through your journey”. – Paulo Coelho