I had the pleasure of walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain on three separate occasions. I’ve walked a variety of roads at various times, ranging from a distance of 210 km to 545 km. The Camino de Santiago is a series of walkable paths that all culminate in arriving in the city of Santiago de Compostela, where it is believed the remains of the apostle James are resting. Hundreds of thousands of people undertake the Camino each year coming from just about every country in the world.
You can imagine that walking many weeks, day in and day out, provides for many adventures, introspections, mulling over the past, thinking about the future, making friends from all over the world and for some, serious re-evaluation of their lives. Many lessons are had on this spiritual pilgrimage, and I would like to share my top 7 lessons with you.
1 – Everyone has a story. On the Camino, one encounters so many people and depending on how open you are to talk to them, you discover that everyone has a story. Everyone has had challenges in their life, everyone has had heartaches, everyone has dreams, aspirations, and regrets. As well, everyone has a personal reason for doing the Camino. It’s not as if one wakes up one morning and thinks “I am going to walk across Spain”. Often people state that they were “called” to walk the Camino. Part of what I so enjoyed was sharing stories and ideas with other pilgrims. Bottom line, if we took the time to listen to those we may not quite understand or agree with, we would realize that we all have a story.
2 – Planning is good, but flexibility is necessary. One never can really plan for the Camino. One can train, one can read everything available, one can map things out but the reality is that unpredictable things WILL happen. Perhaps the albergues (where pilgrims sleep at night) are full, and one needs to walk further or get a hotel room. One might plan to walk a certain distance, but rain and heavy mud might cut that distance in half. Flexibility on the Camino, and in life, is the key to managing unexpected things. The more flexible one can be, the easier the unexpected will be managed.
3 – Less is more. When one is walking with a backpack, less is always more. More ability to walk with less weight, more ease of finding what is needed in said backpack. I did overpack for my first Camino. In fact, I found myself getting off the bus in Madrid and wondering how my backpack became so heavy! Even though I had trained at home with my backpack full, somehow, standing on the corner in downtown Madrid, it felt a lot heavier. I did end up leaving behind a pair of jeans (that I wore on the plane), one sweater, and one t-shirt unintentionally left overnight in an albergue. The fear of not being prepared for colder nights had me worrying too much.
4 – Communication is multi-faceted. With so many pilgrims coming from so many different locations, often I found myself having dinner with pilgrims who spoke very different languages than those I speak. I quickly found that a napkin and a pen went a long way to communicate. One particular evening, I and 5 other pilgrims drew lots of funny pictures depicting our day. One drew a toe with a band-aid, another drew a few dogs, I drew 4 cups of coffee, and someone else drew a church pew with about 12 squeezed in pilgrims. Even if the spoken word is not helping, there are always other ways to communicate. Note to self – I need to play charades more often.
5 – You alone control how you feel about things. Early on in the first Camino, I realized that things didn’t always go as planned. I mentioned flexibility was necessary, but being the type “A” personality, I wanted things to go as I expected. At all times, when things didn’t go as planned, I quickly recognize that I always had a choice in my reaction. The more I took notice of my impatience, or my frustration at a situation, the more I realized I could change how I felt about things. One of my best example of this is when I got locked in a small chapel. The custodian of the key told us he always locked the chapel after the pilgrims left, and somehow I had moved away from the group in a small corner to take a photograph, and he didn’t notice I was still inside. When I tried to leave, I realized the door was locked and called out to no avail. I wasn’t worried since I knew more pilgrims would be coming by. Five minutes turned into 15 minutes, turned into 30 minutes, and somehow I figured I could be waiting quite a long time. My type “A” reaction would have been to be upset but trying to take things as they came, I decided to lay down and take a short nap. The nap did me well, and pilgrims did come by an hour later! On my third Camino, I set out to walk in honour of my sister who had recently passed away. However, less than 200 km into my journey, I was faced with a medical issue and had to cut short my Camino. I was devastated but soon realized that the Camino would always be there and that I would return to finish that special Camino. I could have stayed upset and sad, but there wasn’t any good in that!
6 – The simplest gesture can mean so much. The Camino community is a unique community. We are all on the path doing the same thing – walking to Santiago (or closer to Santiago for those who walk their Camino in stages). One of the unique aspects is the openness to support each other in any way possible. If a pilgrim is hungry, there are always others to share their food. If a pilgrim needs encouragement, there are pilgrims to listen and advise. One day, I realized after walking for 4 weeks that my pants wouldn’t stay up anymore (a benefit of walking). I was in a location where the stores were closed, and when I mentioned my challenge during breakfast, a pilgrim reached into his backpack and pulled out a few safety pins. That little gesture saved my day! I often looked for opportunities to share with others, especially when buying food. There were so many times when I only needed part of a purchase and sought to share it with others.
7 – Listen to your body. I realized early on in my first journey that I had developed over the years the ability to totally ignore my body. Working at a fast pace high-stress corporate job required more than often to push through fatigue and to ignore signs that my body was given out. Since I had set expectations in terms of distance covered each day of my first Camino, I was set to ignore any tiredness and fatigue and stick to my goals. I quickly found out that this was a recipe for trouble. I recognize that once I listened, truly listened to my body and rested when needed, and ate when hungry, and continued on when I felt strong, my days were much more pleasant. It meant taking rest days when none were planned. It meant getting strapping for my knee when I had long descents. It meant letting interesting pilgrims walk ahead because keeping up with their walking pace would have taxed my body (even though I really wanted to continue to chat with them).
My Camino journeys were life-changing experiences. I now volunteer to help out pilgrims on their journeys. I plan on going back as often as my body and my mind will allow. After all, there is no doubt in my mind that there are many more lessons I must learn!