The autumn of 2005 I did something that changed my life – I walked the Camino de Santiago. For 37 days I traversed over 800km from Roncesvalles, in the Pyrenees, to Finisterre, at the Atlantic coast of northwestern Spain.
The experience stripped away facades and barriers I grew up building and conditioned to. It set me free, both mentally and spiritually. It helped me to minimalize my life, and helped me to see that I don’t need many things to be contented in life. In a way, it also set me on the path of a wandering nomad. For which I am truly grateful.
And I had been wanting to return to it ever since. But the moment was never right, until this summer. The Camino has become very popular in the last decade and I had heard stories of pilgrims racing for beds in the next stop. Therefore as I was going to do it in summer, I decided to walk the less famous Northern route over the uber-popular French route.
A little background
The Camino de Santiago, or The Way of St. James, is a pilgrimage route across north of Spain to Santiago de Compostela. For centuries, devout Christians have been walking to Santiago in search of blessings, pardons, or just as thanksgivings.
In recent decades, the Camino has gotten very popular thanks to Paulo Coelho’s book – The Pilgrimage, and more recent the critically acclaimed movie – The Way – starring Martin Sheen.
Every year hundreds of thousands of pilgrims walk the Camino, in search of answers, spiritual breakthrough, inspiration, or just to disconnect.
I started my walk from Bilbao. For a month I walked along the northern coast and mountainous region of Spain. The path led me through stunning cliffs that plunged into the ocean, majestic mountains cover in morning mists, enchanted forests full of birdsong, small towns with friendly locals, and big cities throbbed with fiestas.
I walked past many beautiful beaches, some of them were packed with holiday-makers in their bikinis and speedos. They watched us, in our backpacks and walking stick, with curious eyes as if staring at a different lifeforms.
And that’s what the Camino is. It disconnects you from the world we inhabited and immerses you in a parallel reality. A reality where life is simpler and living becomes organic, rather than planned.
The life of a pilgrim on the Camino is attractively simplistic – you get up with the sun, eat a simple breakfast, and walk through the morning (and some afternoons); you rest when you are tired, and eat when you are hungry. When you reach your destination for the day, you claim your bed in the hostel, take a shower, wash your clothes by hand, and maybe have a siesta. You chat with the other pilgrims and share an evening meal together, then you go to bed early; when most Spaniards are having their dinner.
In the beginning the early nights take a bit of getting used to and the early morning feels like a torture. But once you get used to it, it feels right and healthy.
I had my phone switched off during the entire walk and carried no watch. Every morning I woke up when everyone woke up, usually before dawn. I would have a simple breakfast before I started walking, then I would have a second breakfast stopping in a village or town after walking for 5km-10km.
Along the way I would stop and linger longer if I saw a beautiful scenery, but sometimes just to stop, close my eyes, and breathe in and out. This helped me to take a break from thinking too much, and be more present.
Once I was sitting on a cliff looking at the ocean. The breeze was chilly and the sun was playing hide-and-seek behind the clouds. I felt so peaceful at this moment, everything felt so real, so right. And just when I thought this moment couldn’t get better, I saw a dolphin surfaced. I couldn’t believe my eyes and stared intently hoping it would surface a second time, just to make sure I wasn’t seeing thing, and it did. At that moment, my whole being was filled with bliss. What a perfect moment!
On the Camino, you could spend the whole day walking alone or in company or both. You meet people then drop them as pace and breaks dictate. It feels comfortable, no one is obliged to be another. And if you lose someone, you are sure to see him or her again a few days along the Camino. Such is its magic.
The connection pilgrims have is something we don’t get in the society. Even though these connections can be ephemeral they are not superficial. It is a fellowship.
Fellowship has lost its meaning in our daily life, because society has no need for it. The movie The Lord of the Ring: The Fellowship of the Ring best describe the significant of the bond and connection that fellowship entails.
Everyone on the Camino has the same goal, we were all trying to reach Santiago. But more personally, we were all searching for something along the way.
I would meet other pilgrims and we would chat, usually about quite personal stuffs and we would then part way not knowing each other’s name. I met Reuben, a 47 year-old retiree from Barcelona who has a very easy-go-lucky aura and who truly lives a life without worry or plan; Tom a Vietnam war veteran from the U.S.A. who walked wearing a kilt and was on the Camino to undo the damage the war had done to him; and Anne, an 80 year-old grandmother from Denmark who walked more steadily than I, even after two hip surgeries.
But most of all I would meet people with whom I connect with instantly and deeply, and forged the kind of friendship is not possible outside the realm of the Camino.
There were a French couple, Emilie and Guillaume, with whom I had instant connection with when we met the first time. We walked many kilometres together and shared countless meals and beautiful moments with each other. When we ended up in different places for the day, I would feel as if something was missing. But I had faith that I would see them again; and that I did usually 2-3 days later.
And when I reached Santiago, alone, the sense of accomplishment was stained by a touch of loneliness. And when I saw Emilie and Guillaume, by chance at the Cathedral, we embraced each other as if we were long-lost friends. In fact, we had only lost each other for two days. But such is the strong tie we forge with friends we make on the Camino.
I think that most people who do the Camino discard their mask at home and have no problem showing their vulnerability, we know that no one would judge us; because we are all equal here, we are all here searching for something. The lack of mask and our willingness to show vulnerability makes the connection so much stronger.
The first few days of my Camino and the day I entered Galicia I was drenched. In the beginning, I was annoyed and upset, because I couldn’t enjoy the walk and the scenery. Then I realized that I couldn’t change the weather and I couldn’t do anything about it. I let go of expectation and changed my perspective of rain. After that I was able to maintain my inner peace, and enjoyed the wet walking days.
The Camino wanted to make sure that I have truly learned the lesson so it gave me another test. When I got on the French route, three days before Santiago, there were so many people that I couldn’t find any moment of quietness and peace. At first I was flustered by the amount of people and the noise. I judged them for their different way of walking the Camino. But this only upset me and served no purpose. So I changed how I see things; everyone has his/her own way of walking the Camino. Mine is neither better nor worse, just different.
With that, I was able to keep my inner peace all the way to Santiago.
The Camino continues
The Camino is just like life – a journey in which everyone is walking in the same direction. Along the way you meet people, some for a short time, some last longer, while others stay for the whole journey.
Santiago de Compostela is the destination, but the real Camino is what happens during your walk. It is not the destination that defines the journey to Santiago but the quality of each single step along the way.
*some names have been altered for their privacy.