Walking the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St James) had been on my mind for a while and it was in January 2018 when I finally committed to it by putting it on my list of “must dos this year” and announcing it on Facebook.
If there is anything you’re procrastinating over, a trick I use to incentivise myself a little more is to announce it to the world. Talking about it makes it real and creates accountability.
Here’s a flavour of my transformational Camino de Santiago.
AN INDIVIDUAL JOURNEY BUT NOT ALONE
In reply to my Facebook post, a comment popped up from my very dear friend George, saying he’d love to do it too. Our friendship spans over 18 years and we’d lost touch for the last few, so the Camino was a wonderful opportunity to reconnect.
We flew to Biarritz and started our epic walk from Saint Jean Pied de Port a couple of days later. We were both very excited about it all and agreed that we’d allow the Camino to take us where it needed to, even if that meant not always walking alongside. It was important to follow our hearts and experience our individual journeys.
We did cover large part of the route together, chatting, laughing, supporting each other, dancing, or simply reflecting over our thoughts in complete silence. Other times we took alternative routes and separated naturally for a few days at a time.
You can walk the Camino with family and friends, and meet lots of people along the way if you want to, but I found that inevitably it becomes about your personal experience.
When I left 9-5, I first went travelling in Asia for 4 months: Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand. While still out there, I knew that afterwards I wanted to continue exploring my freedom and doing more of those life-enhancing things one normally struggles to make time for when working fulltime. In reality, there are always ways of creating time for what really matters to us.
I didn’t do much groundwork for the Camino. I’m that lucky person who gets away with lastminute preparation or just turning up to challenges like 10k runs or night marathon walks with little or no training. My optimism has worked well most times but admittedly it almost killed me once.
I figured I would train for the Camino along the Camino… step by step.
However in terms of gear, it was vital not to leave it to the last day and get it right. George was a fantastic help in making sure I packed properly, taking the strictly necessary. Nevertheless, and despite investing in the lightest backpack, I still couldn’t manage to take less than 9kgs.
Every night I stayed in a new location, mostly in Albergues sharing rooms and facilities with fellow pilgrims from all over the World. In some places we also shared emotional moments of prayers.
I never booked my accommodation in advance, to keep it spontaneous. Plus I didn’t know how far I felt like walking each day. I always found a bed, but on a few occasions it was either the last one available or I had to walk on to the next town. This is the Camino!
The Route Frances is gorgeous. It leads you though so many lovely different villages/cities, striking landscapes (both flat and mountainous) and beautiful churches too.
Many times I found myself walking alone. Just me, a long gravelled path ahead, cutting through green fields, and mother nature. Or there were just a few other people scattered along the way. Possibly because I preferred walking till late afternoons, while most pilgrims set off at early dawn to finish just after lunchtime.
It’s fair to say there are also parts of the Route that weren’t so enjoyable. Mostly alongside big roads or through city outskirts. But overall, I treasure every single step taken. I was in it for the challenges as much as for the breath-taking sceneries.
As the days went by, I often met some of the same people and created lovely new connections. I also recognised a few snoring-champions that kept me awake many nights. Ah the joy, when you arrive shattered at your next accommodation, and spot the loudest sleeper on the bunk bed right next to yours!
The best encounters weren’t just people but I met many adorable local animals too: cows, dogs, sheep, goats, donkeys, caterpillars and butterflies, horses and birds and the rest.. And yes I did talk to practically all of them.
Initially, I was a little sceptical about the hyped magic of the Camino that everyone talks about. But I love hiking and I love nature, hence some kind of magic was guaranteed to happen.
As it turned out, the Camino was so much more than following a trail marked by yellow scallop shells and arrows.
It is a long physical and mental voyage.
It’s connection with your Self, the people you meet, nature all around and basically everything.
It is camaraderie, kindness and compassion. Pilgrims cheering each other on, wishing everyone “Buen Camino!” and appreciating the supportive locals.
It’s endurance, pain and facing your pet-hates. Crazy blisters, loud snoring and early wake-up calls.
It is about changing perception and seeing more positives.
It’s shedding your old skin and overcoming old limiting beliefs. A time for reflection and for renewing anything that doesn’t feel right anymore.
It is sharing and listening to beautiful stories from all walks of life.
It’s simplicity. Gratitude for the smallest of daily gifts and respect for your unique strengths and weaknesses.
And so much more…
SOME OF THE INSIGHTS
It’s known that walking lights up the brain and has a positive effect on thinking. This fact alone is probably a key reason why pilgrims find clarity and answers on the walk to Santiago de Campostella and beyond…
I sure did process a lot of mind material during my 35 days, walking an average of 28km per day.
Walking also stimulates creativity, and my written and voice-recorded notes on the Camino do capture some interesting ideas and crazy insights. I even came up with a couple of short children stories, and George and I believe the Camino is enchanted!
The Camino also offers so many anecdotes, if you’re willing to see them and listen. From the top of the mountain on day one, we noticed how foggy it was behind us and ahead of us. Then George said something beautiful: “We can’t see the past and we can’t see the future. We are forced to stay mindful in the clear present!”
The journey highlighted some of my limiting beliefs, which I decided to take the time to work on right there and then. I managed to let go of a few things, including my need for constant reassurance. I also learnt that I have a good memory after all, and that I can be a good morning person, contrary to how I always labelled myself. I remembered the names of everyone I met, I memorised long numbers and codes too and I was up and chirpy at silly hours every morning!
That said, my walking sticks were often the last remaining in the holders by the Albergue entrances in the morning. But why do people set off at 6am when 7.30 is totally fine? 😊
I walked the final 10k to Santiago in total gratitude, feeling so tingly. Once in town, I couldn’t find the Cathedral and looking for it was as exciting as it is for a child to hunt for Easter eggs.
Santiago concluded the main Camino but it wasn’t the end. George and I slept at a huge monastery that night of our arrival and the next day we continue on to Finsterre. Wow, I am so glad we did. The sceneries were very different and stunning too.
On route to the “end of the word”, we met and teamed-up with a lovely British girl from South Africa, Claire. We formed a fun and special Trio . George and Claire convinced me that the Trio had to stick together for another 28km to Muxia, where my finish line awaited.
I celebrated my immense gratitude for the Camino with a prayer at the evening mass before a final ritual: I threw a couple of heart-shaped stones I collected along the way into the beautiful, choppy ocean and watched the sun go down from the rocky shore. I let go of what no longer served me and welcomed new beginnings.
What happened after such an enriching 5 weeks on the Camino de Santiago?
At the start, I set an intention to find clarity and understand what exactly I was doing with my life. I knew a year of vanlife awaited me at the end of the summer and as exciting as that sounded, I was also a little freaked out.
The whole journey was transformational and by the end of it, I gave myself permission to continue dreaming big and following my adventurous flow. I returned to London ready to step up my contribution to the world, and use my qualification as a life coach to help others through their rediscovery of freedom.
Being free to me means living in alignment with who you are at the core, with love, appreciation and excitement.
Solo-touring Europe in a campervan wasn’t going to put my life on hold. It was going to catapult it, if anything. I could offer Freedom Coaching while on the road, as a digital nomad!
Thank you Camino for validating my “foolish” approach to life. A yellow scallop shell is forever engraved in my heart!