Reasons to Walk the Camino: Tips, Meditations, Lessons & Observations
June 14, 2014
The best experience of my life thus far? Quite possibly. Romantics take whatever schmaltzy way of contextualisation they can. For myself, aggrandised statements seem to work. The camino; just a walk, turned out to be more than just a walk. It was a definitive moment in my swiftly departing twenties. My Christopher McCandless moment. An adventure sacred enough to consider abandonment at any attempt of putting it into words.
Ironic then, that one of the biggest consequences to come out of a near-month of walking, is how much of an absolute necessity it is to share more with others. As the camino teaches; you can do just as much by talking, listening and simply giving your time and attention to others. That’s why I think it’s fundamental for each of us, at some point in our lives, to give something like this a go. To discard our regular labours and habits, albeit temporarily, and to live alongside others. To see just how many different ways a life can be lived.
So, erm, yep, that’s why I’ll try and write.
What follows then is an attempt to try and convey some of the experiences I felt walking The Way over a period of 25 days. Not to totalise, generalise or butcher an experience, but rather to mainly just show two things. The first, what it did for me. The second, what it can perhaps do for you. Thrown in are all sorts of meditations, lessons and observations.
All to be read backed by the soundtrack of Alanis’ Jagged Little Pill…
Background: I completed The Camino Frances (The French Way) starting in St.Jean Pied du Port, France, on May.1, 2014 and finishing in Santiago, Galicia, Spain, on May.25. Walking an average of around 30km for 25 days consecutively, I took a day off after reaching Santiago and then walked an extra three days to the coast at Finisterre (The End of the World) finishing my entire walking adventure on May.29.
1) You Don’t Need Much
Walking the whole way with just a small backpack for company, the camino reminds; you don’t need much in life to muddle through. Just the odd change of clothes, shelter and spot of food was enough to keep me a relatively happy and contented chap. And when I was inevitably disgruntled, upset or moody about things, what became clear was that it wasn’t about what I did or didn’t have, but rather my state of mind. Doing this as minimalistic as I could, was always the plan. In some ways I was thinking of the 80/20 rule (pareto principle) and stripping down my approach to the most essential components. One thing is for sure, travelling as light as you possibly can is the most fundamental rule for doing something like this. The number one strategic approach.
Decent fitting clothes (suitable for wet and dry climates) are basically the only things you really need to pack. Those, and any important documents (passport and pilgrim passport). Everything else (and even clothes themselves) can be acquired on the road. Mental energy is precious. Expending it worrying about things you might need in order to feel safe or secure is, in my opinion, a waste of time. Those with the biggest bags were often the most fearful in this regard. Whether that extends to their lives in the grander scheme of things, I can’t say. Courage and bravery takes many forms. Anyone who merely sets out to walk a part of this has overcome at least some major fear or limiting belief!
2) Company is Everything
Is happiness only real when shared? There are many ways to look at this. Before ruminating on the very subject of ‘happiness’ itself though, I’ll just say one thing. Sharing my experiences with people was by far the best thing about this experience. Without people to talk, laugh, cry, discuss and debate with, I’m certain I wouldn’t have had anywhere near the amazing time I had. The world is full of brilliant, beautiful people. On the camino this fact becomes more apparent than ever.
Community spirit is the one consistent force running through the core of an adventure like this. There’s an unbridled camaraderie. A shared feeling that everyone is in this together, all working toward a common goal. It’s special. And because of that you often skirt around the superficial level of conversation you might be used to in everyday life. Such is the dynamic.
I walked and had some of the deepest, most profound conversations of my life with people. I opened up and revealed more about myself than ever before. People shared in a truthful and honest way. Tragedies, joys, setbacks and challenges. Again and again and again.
Be prepared for conversations to meander everywhere and anywhere.
3) Wisdom Knows No Age
Whether there’s an old head on young shoulders or vice versa, nothing really matters. Everyone has something deeply interesting to say to help you learn more about life and what you want from it. Rubbing shoulders with such a vast melting pot of people explains as much. Whether it’s conversing over dinner and wine, stopping for a cheeky mid-morning coffee, or getting lost on your way to the shower; everything and everyone in life becomes a teacher.
I walked with millionaire property developers, students, retired men of the cloth, widowers and divorcees; not one person failed to profoundly shape my way of thinking in one way or another. Cultivating an open state of mind, being courteous in conversation and last of all, being respectful, are key tonics to an even more enjoyable camino. You’re never old enough to know everything nor young enough to believe you have it all sussed.
Old people? Just as twisted, dark humoured and eccentric as younger people. Perhaps even more so.
4) Structure is Helpful
For someone like myself, who has lived life pretty chaotically over the past couple of years, the rigid structure and order to something like this can be greatly beneficial if you allow it to be. Santiago is Santiago, no matter which way you look at it. Geographically speaking, there is no way you can move the goalposts or take a shortcut on a mission like this. You walk from point A to point B. One foot in front of the other. Pure simplicity. No hacks or anything else will get you there faster. Just determination to walk.
Knowing there’s only one path (on the French way at least; there are a few other camino routes) to the end is a strengthening notion. In following it, and denying yourself of everything else, the outcome can only go one way. Taking this analogy and shifted it toward life more, you’re able to willingly accept that you can only overcome that which is in front of you. One obstacle at a time.
Structure can help root and humble you. Give you a platform on which to build. Give some semblance of meaning and order to an otherwise chaotic life. Taking some time out to do this, especially if you’re stumped for goals in life, is highly recommended.
5) Memento Mori
In the last 18 months I found myself brooding a lot about the notion of death. Whether this was a spill over effect of losing two grandparents a couple of years ago, I’m not sure. All I know is that for the first time in my life I’m suddenly a lot more aware of my own mortality. But this is a good thing.
Whereas before this was a point of anxiety, the camino helped laid a lot of feelings to rest. Walking with many people twice (or some even three times) my age, I was able to see just how little we have to fear about getting older. Some of those I walked with were shining testaments to the types of grace and wisdom that come to us with advancing years. Some even went as far as to tell me that; “life truly improves with age”. What’s more is; I believe it.
Finding yourself in the vast landscapes of nature helps too. Scale the first days journey over the French Pyrenees or the mountains passing into Galicia and you’ll see just how insignificant your existence truly is. You’ll come to see how things have stood for thousands of years before you, and how things will continue to stand thousands of years after. Never before does life, and the simplicity of just being alive, seem such an incredible gift. All that bullshit you’re striving for right now? Meaningless tomorrow.
6) Dissolution of the Ego
So many times on the camino you’re prompted to forget yourself and leave your all-important ego at home. Living in close confines, night after night, in special hostels with other pilgrims, is a humbling experience. Not once did I witness any other person get angry, frustrated or upset with the situation or the conditions. And some of the donativos (the donation-based hostels) can get very primitive indeed.
A day spent walking (6-8 hours in my case) makes the most rudimentary meal look a King’s banquet. The most decrepit bed a four-poster palace. A simple cold water shower a gift from above.
The extravagant desires that often plague your thoughts; the material wants, the experiential clamouring; all fade into the background. Nature takes precedence over everything else. You realise how much of what you strive for and want out of life is inherently meaningless. You realise just how little control you really have and that the best thing you can aim for in life is just to give yourself to nature and whatever fate befalls you.
7) Sensory Respect
I get that most people wanting to walk the camino will probably find it difficult to find a month free in their life to do it. Some people have commitments and deeper responsibilities than I did before setting out, I understand that. But is your excuse really that valid? Look deeper at what you’re actually working for and being taken away from.
I say this from my own experience. For the longest time I convinced myself that taking thirty days out from my schedule was nothing more than a pipe dream. That not being able to check email, answer to this opportunity or that, be in contact with so-and-so; all would have grave consequences. In fact, it was only having committed, two weeks before, to do this, and then setting out to do it, that I began to realise just how flawed this line of thinking really is.
Being offline and out of contact, I was given the precious time I needed to really think about my life. I thought about exactly what shape I really want my future to take. I thought about the things I value and just how much of the anxieties and stresses that haunt me are simply faulty perceptions and the result of unclear thinking.
Doing the camino teaches you to let go and have more respect for your senses. It also reminds you just how important it is to have large unbroken chunks of time to think. Without any of the usual sensory bombardment we get through our phones, our social networks and the lives we live through screens, there’s much more space to truly get to know yourself and others.
Walking 20-something miles each day, every day, gets easier with time. At the start though, as well as periodic moments throughout the month, you’ll have to mentally prepare yourself for pain. You can read all the tips about preventing blisters you like (coat feet in vaseline and wear sock-liners beneath hiking socks worked for me) but the best tip I could suggest is really just to put yourself in the mindset that you will get some ailment or another (blisters or otherwise) at some point along the way.
As the graffiti on the underpass leading into Logroño reads; “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”, let that be your motto. Accept that some days you will be blighted by aches, pains, stresses, strains, blisters and whatever else. But everything will pass. Your body will repair itself. You will get stronger.
Pain becomes almost enjoyable. Each time you feel it you sense yourself growing more resilient. You know that you’ve gone through the worst and things will reach an improved state. That there will be respite.
Humans have this unwavering capacity to endure and pull through, even when we least expect ourselves too. I saw that over and over again on the camino. Even with people whose feet resembled bloody stumps.
Due to the sheer internationality of it, the camino is a great place to sharpen up and learn new languages. Being a Spanish speaker myself, the whole experience was doubly significant. Sitting in little village bars as the sun went down, I was able to chat cheerfully with the locals (most of whom had never left their villages) and get a fascinating glimpse into lives a lot different than my own.
Then there were my two Austrian friends who didn’t speak a lick of English, whose company I enjoyed merely through clinking beer glasses, nods and sign language. They stand as testament to the reverse side of the argument. The one that questions this whole necessity of needing a ‘common language’ in order to enjoy ourselves in the first place.
10) Mobility & Health
The past six years of my life have seen me sitting behind a laptop writing and working for the most part. Walking across an entire country in less than a month means you’ll be standing on your feet for the majority of the day. That couldn’t be a starker contrast in lifestyle for web workers.
Being able to walk is something we all take for granted. The joy of scrambling up a little hilltop, of ambling across a running river, or of keeping your head low and ploughing on through the old Roman roads of the meseta, cannot be forgotten. After finishing, I feel myself remarkably changed. Of wanting to get outside and explore as much as possible. Knowing that the worst that could happen is having to camp out beneath the stars.
Mobility and health are everything. The misery of not having them is far worse than financial poverty. Far worse than not owning a house, or having a well paying job, the newest smartphone, or whatever else you think it is that you need right now.
11) Self Sufficiency
I used to be wary of not travelling without doing any research. Of not having a guidebook close at hand or access to WikiTravel. Doing the camino, without any such aids, shows you that you can just be in the moment and have faith in your senses to get you where you need to go.
Sure the whole route is well signposted anyway, but not having a book worked out really well for me. Knowing where the next towns were or how many kilometres I had until I reached them became good reasons to strike up conversations with fellow pilgrims. Someone will always have the answers you need, as long as you’re willing to ask the questions.
Be willing to jump into things without thinking too much. Usually in life we analyse everything to the extreme, often talking ourselves out of doing things in the first place. What I got from doing the camino was the feeling of having faith and trust in my instinctual actions, and the certainty that something will always work out in the end.
So as everyone around you worries about beds and whether there will be enough space, keep your cool. Something always worked out for people. Whether they were put up in locals’ houses or simply had to walk a few extra kilometres to the next town; nobody succumbed to death in the moonlight.
12) Virtue & Friendship
In normal everyday life you can often feel quite disconnected from everyone else while they are seemingly going about doing their own thing. It’s only when situations throw you together and make you team up in the face of adversity, that you realise how rewarding it is working and helping others. It might be a bit of a tragedy that it took an adventure like this to make me realise that, but now I know this to be true. The fact is; I really do enjoy helping people in whatever way I can.
Whether I was playing translator, or merely soothing other people’s fears of not finding a place to stay or somewhere to eat, I felt like I had a purpose and moral obligation to help others. It also showed me how little everyday actions, including a lot we don’t often even realise, are greatly beneficial to others. Because of the camino I now find myself wanting to give back a lot more than I did before. And I’m much more aware of this in the process.
Doing this has also given me several friends for life. Friends that don’t hang in the balance for mutual gain but because of a shared kindred spirit.
Everything we do in life involves a certain element of risk. The first day I spent walking up the mountains in the Pyrenees, rain and sweat drenching my clothes, running out of water and on the brink of near collapse, I thought to myself; “I don’t know if I can do this.” This was a thought that reverberated a few more times before the journey came to an end.
The pools inside of ourselves that we can draw strength and confidence from are deeper than we think. Every time I hit a wall I found the persistence to keep moving come from somewhere. Sometimes even drawing strength from those around me too.
The camino reminds you; thousands of people before you have done what you’re trying to achieve. There is no impossible. Nothing that can’t be done. Look within and you’ll find the persistence to carry on.
Confidence is everything. Getting a little bit further to the goal each day is what the camino is about. All it asks is that you love the process.
After talking about structure, I’d also like to note how the camino has helped shift my attitude toward goals. Having written a little before about how I feel goals can be detrimental to life, my line of thinking has changed somewhat. Rather than abandon goals altogether, I think it’s important to have rigid ones but not to get too wrapped up in whether you achieve them or not (exercising stoic indifference if possible).
Gearing up for the camino, I told myself I wanted to get it done in X number of days. Having this target in my mind, some would argue, was possibly unhealthy and detrimental to the experience. I found myself actually feeling the opposite. That setting a target number of days and then managing to arrive within that was pretty exhilarating.
Competing with myself has always been a struggle. But it’s also something I wouldn’t wish away for the world. When I have adventures like this, I’ve found that having a fairly disciplinarian attitude can actually work in your favour. At no point did I feel I wasn’t doing the camino “my way.” It just so happens that my way is one that usually asks me to push my limits and see what I’m capable of.
Accepting that has provided a fair bit of relief. It’s also enabled me to sketch out some pretty solid plans for the future.
Traditionally the camino is religious in nature, completed by Catholic pilgrims for thousands of years as a way of ‘getting closer to God’. That said, I met very few people walking for religious reasons.
Although I wouldn’t consider myself “religious” (in an organised religious sense), walking the way certainly made me more respectful of religion and some of its better principles. Passing through ancient monasteries, seeing first hand the lives of monks and nuns, I definitely gained a sense of curiosity for lives devoted in the service of God. The hospitality of such people was tremendous.
Of course there are plenty of other good people in the world secular or atheistic in nature, and I’d probably say I’m in that camp. Ragging on people because of their beliefs is dumb. Atheists are just as guilty of that as are religious fundamentalists.
But, as for whether I found God? Hmm, I guess I would have to say ‘not really’.
I did, on the other hand, have several deeply spiritual moments. On one or two occasions I was moved to tears. Feeling an indescribable fullness and joy in my heart, I can’t really say why or where that came from.
Writing about the camino is hardly easy. It’s also hard to convey so many positive emotions into one article or encapsulate an experience in some-thousand words. That said, I’d like to refer people to a whole bunch of articles and sites I found useful in my rather rash preparation for the trip. These guys do a much better job than I do in helping to inform people about what to expect and how best to plan. Where I’ve spared you the details, these guys fill in the gaps…
Camino Adventures – Great site that provides plenty of excellent information about practical issues and the types of things you can expect walking. Also has a pretty decent itinerary with kilometre breakdown that is a good alternative to the pricey yet hugely popular Brierley guidebooks.
How to Do the Camino – Spain correspondent Annie Bennett’s guide to the walk published in The Telegraph. Annie is a familiar name from my time spent adventuring around Spain and has a wealth of knowledge about the country, its people and its many adventurous opportunities.
Camino – What to Pack – BrickThomas’ blog post, in my opinion, offers the best camino packing advice and served as the inspiration to get me to go lighter than conventional wisdom would argue. Best decision I ever made.
The Confraternity of St. James – The organisation behind most of the albergues, the maintenance of the route and the infrastructure that surrounds this great walk. Home to the best and most comprehensive FAQ on everything you need to know about undertaking a journey like this.
Walking the Camino de Santiago Photos – Old blogger friend Cole gave me some of the best preparation advice ever for the walk; telling me to walk with all the gear for 15 miles a day for two weeks leading up to the trip. Some great photos from his own experiences doing it.
Camino de Santiago Travel Tips – Roam Far & Wide put together some pretty instrumental tips that help to give you a good heads up on what to expect.
Camino Planning Resources – Old Vietnam acquaintance Sherry Ott gives some great planning tips in the wake of her experience walking Pamplona to Santiago. Complete with specific tips for web workers or bloggers like Sherry too.
One last thing. I’ve also started putting together my own FAQ from questions I’m receiving from friends, family and whoever else regarding the camino. Refer to it if you want something a little more concrete and practical to go on. And also; let me know via email or the comments if there’s anything else you’d like me to expand on or talk about.