It has been almost a month since I completed my journey across Northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago, a spiritual and historical Catholic pilgrimage route that dates back over 1000 years. Traditionally beginning on the border of France, “The Way of St James” an alternative name used, brings people together from all over the world, of all religions, backgrounds and origins to encompass 800 km trek to the finishing point of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where it is believed the remains of Jesus’s Apostle St James are held.
For me, it was my first great solo journey and one that I feel now I left completely unprepared for. No amount of reading, movie watching or advice giving truly prepares you for what the Camino is about and how much it truly changes you, nor how difficult that first day really is!
Trying to explain exactly what the Camino is and what it can bring to someone who has never walked it is not an easy task. You wake up, back your bag and walk for hours upon hours, traversing a myriad of landscapes and passing through numerous towns before you stop for the day, wash your clothes, eat and sleep and repeat it all again the next day. Sounds mundane to some, but the Camino offers a place for people to come, reflect and be completely at peace and whatever you set off looking for, it is said that you’ll find it on the Camino. While I wasn’t “searching” for anything in particular, here are just a hand full of things I learnt on the Camino de Santiago.
The Camino Provides…
You may have heard this saying already, especially if you’ve watched “The Way” with Martin Sheen or done some background reading. When I left for the Camino I took this quote with a pinch of salt. What could people mean by “The Camino provides?”. Well let me tell you, there were desperate times when I was sure I was lost or took a wrong turning. I found myself looking up at the sky and praying for a yellow arrow so I didn’t have to retrace my steps. And soon enough a yellow arrow appeared. This happened a lot and each time I was reassured by a yellow arrow within just a few hundred meters.
There was a time when I ran out of water on a 34-degree day. I prayed for water…desperately. Barely making it over a crest a mere 9km after I ran out, I was lucky enough to find a small fountain on the side of the road!
But on a more spiritual note, the Camino provides much needed time for people to search for whatever it is they’re are looking for or need and for the majority, people tend to reach Santiago having found the answers.
“Ask only for what you truly need and it will be given” – Matthew 7.7
Waking Up Early Feels Amazing
Anyone close to me knows I love my sleep. While I love doing things and exploring the great wide world I also love a good lie in and getting out of bed anytime before 8.30 am is normally a struggle. So when I began my Camino in July I was I was in for a big wake-up call (excuse the pun!) because I knew I would have to get up extremely early in order to walk in the morning to beat the heat of the midday sun!
Surprisingly I managed to wake up and begin walking at 6 am almost every day of my Camino (with a few exceptions). On an average day, I’d walk at least 10km before stopping for breakfast and I would normally finish my day by 2 – 3 pm having walked around 25 – 44km, allowing the rest of the day for me to relax, do my washing etc…
Even more surprising (as a non-morning person) was how I fell in love with mornings. Waking up earlier than everyone else allowed me the peace and the open empty road to think and enjoy my walk. I also felt after the first week, waking up early made my mind much more alert than normal, and I felt far less stressed. You could say waking up early and walking was very good for my health!
Therefore the Camino taught me that by getting up earlier you are able to accomplish so many more things and you may even encounter unexpected events or beauty you previously would have slept through.
Always Follow Your Gut Instinct & Choose A Path
I always used to laugh when people told me to follow my gut. It seemed like such a stupid thing to say as if my stomach and intestines would know the correct answer to whatever problem I was facing? But when I was stood in the cold, fog and mist on my second day with no real directions of where I was meant to be walking and faced with a fork in the road I didn’t know what to do.
First I began walking down what was essentially the wrong path. No more than 100 meters down the path I stopped and began to doubt myself. My brain was telling me that logically the arrow I passed was pointing in this direction however my gut was telling me different. So I retraced my steps and stood in front of the arrow and pondered what to do. I pulled out my guidebook to see if it had any information about this fork in the road, but due to the heavy fog, I was unsure of where I was on my map since I was unable to see any of the landmarks around and I couldn’t see or hear anyone coming up behind me. I could have sat there and waited for someone to pass but my body began to shiver and the cold wind pierced through me like a knife. I had to get moving again or I was going to freeze.
So I stood up and picked a path. This time I picked the right path and I walked along it for ten minutes, confident but still a little doubtful if I had chosen correctly. But soon after, a man in a Land Rover drove passed and smiled and said to me “Keep going, you’re nearly at the top!”. (Remember I said the Camino provides? 🙂 ).
So if I learnt anything from this experience it was this. Throughout life, you’re always going to be faced with forks in the road. The best thing to do is to start walking down one path, try it, and if it’s not the right path for you, then turn around and walk back and join the right path.
“True morality consists not in following the beaten track, but in finding the true path for ourselves, and fearlessly following it.”
― Mahatma Gandhi
Treat Others The Way You Wish To Be Treated
This is a lesson most of us are taught from a very young age. But from the moment you start the Camino you enter a world where kindness to strangers and helpfulness to each other is paramount. Whether it’s sharing food, lending your walking stick, bandaging each other’s feet or simply lending an ear or a shoulder to cry on. I have never experienced such a huge amount of kindness and compassion from strangers in my life. They wanted nothing in return, only to help and assist in making each other’s Camino an enjoyable experience.
It was here that the golden rule that I had learnt so many years ago was truly reinforced. If you treat others the way you wish to be treated you can expect the same kindness in return. People from hundreds of different backgrounds, countries and religion are all walking the Camino. It is a matter of humanity to be kind and help those who are in need, and I can truly say I was incredibly humbled to see so much compassion and love from so many people from all over the world that had come together to accomplish the same goal.
Less Is Best
If you read my post “What To Pack For The Camino De Santiago” you’ll know how much I struggled to pack for this trip. As someone who normally takes their entire wardrobe, the Camino taught me how less is best. I limited my backpack to 8 kg, 3 kg over the recommended 10% of your body weight. I managed to survive with only the bare minimum, making me realise that on future trips there is no need to pack so many things.
It also taught me that you don’t need so many materialistic things to be happy. I managed five weeks with just my backpack, and everything I could have wanted was in it. When I returned home I found myself walking around my house looking at all the things I don’t need, things that I don’t use and have never used. I’m pretty good when it comes to cleaning out my wardrobe and donating to charity what I don’t need, but needless to say, I will be doing more of it in the coming future because I realised just how little I need to be happy, free and content in life. In reality, everything I truly need to be happy I can probably fit in one box. The rest is just excess weight on my life.
“The more material we lose, the less we have. The less we have, the more we win.”
― Anthony Liccione
Suffering Is A Natural Part Of Life
It’s true, suffering is a natural part of life. Everyone will suffer from something at some point in their lives, whether its stress, grief, pain etc…and the same is true on the Camino de Santiago. Everyone suffers in different ways and on the Camino you learn that there is nothing you can do about it but wait it out and push on through it. I like many other pilgrims suffered enormously with blisters and foot pain.
The pain can be excruciating and you want nothing more than a nice hot foot bath and rest. Unfortunately, it is part of the experience of walking such a long distance and there isn’t much you can do for them other than bandage them up, treat them when you stop for the day and carry on. And it’s the carrying on part that is the hardest. There were times I wanted to stop and kick my boots off and give up. In fact I lie. There were a lot of times I felt this way. I would put my boots on in the morning and the pain was unbearable. The first few kilometres in the morning were torture. But I learnt that after a while the pain would disappear as your feet adapted to their new environment and settled in for the day. Sure there was still a little bit of pain there but nothing major and nothing I couldn’t cope with.
So like life, suffering is inevitable buts its how we choose to cope with it that matters. You can stop in your tracks and give up or continue through the pain and the grief and be better for it after. Like blisters, the pain soon subsides and the wounds heal. Just keep going.
To Enjoy The Journey
Whilst walking on the Camino you can find yourself falling into the habit of counting down the kilometres to your next stop. Your feet may be hurting, your body maybe tired or you simply had had enough for the day and want to rest. You become so focused on how many kilometres you have left until your next stop that you forget to enjoy the experience and take in the beautiful landscapes you are passing through and the people you meet. For many people, the Camino is a once in a lifetime journey, therefore it is vital that you consume every moment and every experience.
So the lesson I took away from this was to enjoy every moment of my life. You only get one life so utilise it well and fill it with incredible experiences and amazing people. Don’t concern yourself with how far you have left to walk (or to reach a goal), just enjoy the experience and the company that joins you on your journey. Always remember…