I didn’t plan to write about the Camino – I hoped for it to be an opportunity to just spend time with myself, taking in all that I could from the experience. I didn’t take notes and I didn’t bring my fancy camera. I just brought an open mind and an eagerness to challenge myself in ways I’d never been challenged before.
But then I had the most amazing and magical experience of my life.
Never have I gone through something so trying both physically and mentally. If I learned one thing, though, it was that anything is possible. And because of this, I feel compelled to share the experience with all of you.
About the Camino
The Camino de Santiago consists of a web of trails across Spain and beyond, all leading to one very special city in Galicia: Santiago de Compostela. Legend has it that the remains of Saint James rest there, thus the motivation behind the pilgrimage’s creation. The most popular trail in existence is the Camino Francés, which stretches 800 kilometers from the border of France to Santiago in Spain. Some do the trip for religious reasons, but most probably embark on the journey for a variety of other purposes – from soul-searching reflection, to tackling the physical challenge.
While many travel the entire 800km from France (taking about a month to do so), to officially “complete” the Camino (i.e. get the fancy certificate) you must only walk at least 100km (or more if you go by bike or horse). As such, many people – especially Spaniards – begin their journey in Sarria, which is a three-to-four-day’s walk away from Santiago. I decided to begin my trek in Ponferrada – eight days, countless yellow arrows, and 200km away from my destination.
Perhaps the most peculiar part of the Camino, for me anyway, was that it felt like a parallel universe – one in which time stopped and everyday life slipped away and didn’t seem to exist. Taking in the world around me one step at a time allowed me to experience my surroundings on a much richer level. A day felt like an eternity of memories filled with sounds, sights and thoughts. There was something refreshing about not obsessing so intensely on the long-term goal, but rather focusing on each step as it came. I suppose that was my first takeaway from the experience.
The walk itself isn’t necessarily the most difficult of treks. It’s not easy, that’s for sure, but in terms of hikes, it’s not exceptionally hard either (I’m not a major hiker, or even a hiker at all for that matter, but scaling the trail to Upper Yosemite Falls was definitely strenuous on a massively different level). In my opinion, what makes the pilgrimage physically difficult is the quantity of walking. Trekking 25km a day (and up to 35!), one day after the next, while carrying all of my goods on my back, took a major toll on my body. This meant that basic walking often became very tiring and even painful. By the end of the trip, I had (and still basically have) seven blisters, swollen ankles and a messed up a knee.
Despite the discomfort, though, every morning, I’d rise from my albergue (hostel) bunk bed, limp around and eventually hit the trail. The first half hour was often slow and even hurt a bit, but soon the pain would disappear. How? Well, that brings me to my next realizations and the deeper meaning that I discovered behind my Camino.
I realized quickly that the Camino was largely possible due to the people I was with and the strength that they gave me. I’d never met any of them before, as our meeting was just a matter of our coinciding journeys (and I do mean that in the physical sense, I think…). But they became like family, and knowing that we were all going through the same pains, joys and triumphs subconsciously reinforced that my goal was attainable. Suddenly, because everyone thought it to be possible, it just seemed possible – whether it felt like it or not. It just never occurred to me that I would stop. Why would I? We were all it in it together, and if they could continue, then surely so could I.
In the last years, I’ve learned that my attitude changes EVERYTHING. I don’t want to get all preachy about remaining positive, but it just seems true that if you believe you can, then you will….and conversely, if you don’t, then – surprise – you just won’t. On the Camino, this was reinforced at the ultimate level. Because WE ALL believed we could, we did. And every day, as pain and blisters tempted to distract me, I just believed and told myself that I could and I would.
Sure enough, I did. Then, like clockwork, when I arrived in Santiago, my mind gave in and the pain started to reveal itself. A day later and I was nearly immobile, certain that I could never have gone a kilometer farther. But you know what, if there were another day, I bet I would have been able to…because the mind is funny that way.
I am SO grateful for the experience and for the family I gained along the Way. Just the thought of each of their faces greeting me at an unexpected café along the Camino, or at an albergue at the end of a long day, or in Santiago’s main plaza after 200km walked, gave me so much comfort. I’m especially grateful to my friend Candace, who sparked the idea of going on the journey. She initiated me into the world of backpacking, albergues and creative dining (it seems anything is possible with a baguette, some chorizo and a Swiss Army knife…and maybe some wine).
I encourage anyone with the ability to get to Spain, to take this journey for a few days, weeks or even a month. I can say that, without a doubt, it was the single most moving experience of my life, and nothing short of magical. And if I can do it – if my new 65-year-old spunky Australian friend John can do it – then you can too (Dad 😉 ).
*Stayed tuned for a future post about what I suggest you bring and not bring on your journey.