Blog Post 5:
The Camino de Santiago
Camino de Santiago:
A pilgrimage route that’s over 1000 years old and ends in the city Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
pilgrim. Those who walk the Camino are called peregrinos.
pilgrim hostels on the Camino
“My first day on the Camino de Santiago I was just like you. I wanted to quit. It was nothing like what I expected. You have to get rid of ALL your expectations. The Camino decides what your experience will be: who will cross your path, how much time you’ll spend walking with others, and how much time you’ll spend alone. It decides what will happen to you. So be open to what it gives you, and it will give you much.”
The previous words were imparted to me in a bathroom in an albergue in a small town in Spain along the Camino de Santiago. I remember neither the name of the albergue nor the town, nor can I recall the name of the woman who spoke those words to me. Like all tales of real life mystical conversations and experiences, part of it is covered in haze. The essential strips itself to its bare bones and raw, beating heart.
That conversation came after walking over 30km: day one on the Camino. Friends had asked me to take a few pictures along the way. Despite my self-imposed “no cell phone” rule I did, and every single photo begged the caption: “I am so much more than this. To truly appreciate me, come here yourself.” Greetings of “buen camino”, “have a good journey”, were exchanged between pilgrims as unconsciously as breath. It was common knowledge that everyone was to be wished well.
Yet as much as the nature brought a perpetual stream of “thank you’s” to my lips, and the myriad of “buen caminos” left me wondering how different life would be if every conversation began and ended with kindness, other aspects of the Camino were so antithetical to what I’d heard about the spirituality along this path that I questioned if I’d taken a wrong turn. Souvenir shops. Highways. Large groups of people snapping selfies. Cigarettes. Cursing. Two people holding a clipboard, pretending to be deaf, and asking for money. Every single one of these was as much a part of my first day on the Camino as the trees, earth, and sky.
In the evening, I reached my albergue to find a fellow pilgrim concerned about a lost dog that had followed her for the past five hours, an albergue owner furious at her request to contact the police in an effort to locate the dog’s owner, and another pilgrim at the bar who thought the best way to get the placid dog off the premises was by kicking him in the face.
Not exactly what came to mind when I decided to go on this journey.
A gut feeling had sent me to the Camino. It came at the beginning of January 2019 as I boarded a plane in Ireland to head back to the U.S. after the second leg of a round-the-world backpacking trip.
“You’ll return to Europe before the end of 2019 to walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain,” that gut feeling told me.
“No, I won’t,” I responded.
“Yes, you will,” it insisted.
“No, I won’t,” I repeated. And as far as I was concerned, the discussion was over.
But when the gut speaks, it is never meant to be a discussion, just instructions to be followed, a truth to be accepted. Goddess, God, the Great Mystery, the Dead: the holy beings we raise our eyes heavenwards to find dwell much closer. They offer us answers before we even ask the questions.
With no plans to walk the Camino, I went to Spain in June. Twice I encountered people who spoke to me about that pilgrimage route though I had never even broached the subject. Their words were similar and their enthusiasm equal. “It was one of the BEST experiences I’ve ever had!” “You HAVE TO do it!” “I learned so much!” “It is LIFE-CHANGING!”
“Pack light,” one advised. “You only need a change of clothes, a toothbrush and toothpaste. Leave the heavy baggage at home.”
“You don’t need to plan anything,” the second informed me. “You could start tomorrow if you wanted.”
I took both these conversations as a sign, as well as the unnecessary external validation for internal wisdom. Three weeks after that second conversation, I set off for the Camino with no plans beyond transportation there and back. My backpack contained a bit more than spare clothes and dental products, though it was still light and small enough to elicit gapes and commentary: “THAT’S your bag?? Where’s the rest of your stuff?”
Valuing my gut’s voice caused me to listen harder. Soon came the feelings that not only would the Camino provide clarity as to the next steps I should take in my life, but it would also offer help with my writing. That help, I decided, entailed a magnificent and magical crossing-of-paths with a marketing genius who would do for my recently-published books what I had not yet done, namely, market them.
Unfulfilled was the only way to describe the expectations that these feelings had become. By the end of day one, the hazy path before me seemed no clearer and the connection I had told myself was coming had neither arrived nor felt like it was on its way.
Disappointment and impatience could not sway my gut, which still insisted I keep walking. And so I did, but the second morning I set out with no expectations. All the “What do I do’s?” and “Where and who’s the person who’ll help me?” and “When will our paths cross?” were quieted, and in that quiet, a space for the answer could be heard. By the end of that second day, the next step in my life and writing was clear. It had nothing to do with meeting anyone outside along the Camino, but with extricating fears from within; fears that keep many on the spectrum of silence: anywhere from an all-encompassing speechlessness, to requests for permission to share sentiments and songs, interests and ideas, to a wait for validation; a wait that can pile seconds into minutes into lives and inflict the destruction that is the inevitable consequence of living a voiceless life.
Bathrooms are, apparently, places for waste to leave the spirit as much as the body. In yet another bathroom on night two, as I thought about writing I was afraid to share, truths I was scared to tell, old wounds that hadn’t healed as fully as I thought they had, and the vulnerability of stepping from the shadows into the sun, I spoke aloud, “I can’t do it alone.” A voice spoke back, “You won’t do it alone. You are not alone. You are loved.” A voice that I never would have heard if I had listened only with my ears and only for what I expected to hear.
It wasn’t until the Camino’s end, looking back, that I realized though I had begun the journey on my own, ended on my own, and walked large stretches without exchanging any words other than "buen camino" with anyone, I never felt alone. A woman on the Camino told me that while walking, she almost forgot she had children. I never reached the point where my loved ones nearly entered oblivion, but for the first time on any of my solo trips, I didn’t miss them. Nor did the moments in which I walked or ate alone leave me pining for companionship.
My life on the Camino was filled with something loving and being loved gives us: purpose. I thought it was the Camino that gave me that purpose. But the land does not ask to be walked, although it gives us a place to do so. Purpose is a choice.
What the Camino gave me, and what it gives to everyone who walks it, is a vast open space. It is an unspoken, collective agreement and choice to fill that space with the same purpose of walking, of continuing to journey on. That, in and of itself, can be a tremendous unifying force. It can help us find something deeper than what divides us. It can remind us that the cruelty that scares us into silence is itself born of fear. It can help us break our silence, and in so doing, someone else finds the courage to break theirs.
“You are not alone,” my heart’s ear heard, and in the next instant, the faces of the people I love appeared before my mind’s eye. Two months after the Camino, I can see that strangers are meant to share that space as well.
The woman I met that first night in the bathroom was correct: we do not choose who crosses our path. But we choose how to treat them and what we see in them. We do not always choose the experiences that the Camino gives us. But we choose what we will do with them. And in that vast open space that asks of us only respect for the land and each other, we can choose to offer even more. We can offer purpose, and that purpose can be to love.
El camino es hacia dentro.
The journey is within.
September 30, 2019