Welcome to my latest #tbt Blogger style post. This time I’m trying something new by featuring a series of blogs from the past. For the next few Thursdays you can read about my experience walking the last 100km of the Camino de Santiago, a popular experience among those seeking an alternative tourism experience, a chance to reflect and meditate, or the opportunity to get some great exercise and see the beautiful countryside of NW Spain. While I knew I wanted to do the Camino, I never expected the ultimately life changing experience it would turn out to be.
Ever since I learned that my favorite book, ¨The Alchemist,¨ had been inspired by the author´s own journey on the Camino de Santiago (also known as ¨The Road to Santiago¨ or ¨The Way of St. James¨), I knew I had to add this adventure to my list of life experiences. However, in my mind it would be a journey scheduled for some far off, distant point in time when I’d have the time necessary to devote to completing the 700+ km (about 477 miles) trek from the starting point in Saint Jean Pied de Port in France to Santiago de Compostela in Northwestern Spain (Galicia).
However, having lived in Spain for a total of four years by now, I’d had the chance to talk with many people who had done the Camino de Santiago and many of them had not completed the entire six week long journey. As it turns out, you only needed to complete 100km (62 miles) to be able to receive the official certificate in Santiago that acknowledges that you had done the Camino (I was also given the impression that this certificate included some fine print stating in Latin something to the effect of “present this paper at the gates of Heaven to be let in without further questioning”).
As I met more and more people who had embarked on some sort of journey towards Santiago, I also learned that there were many different roads leading to this popular tourist attraction in NW Spain. The most commonly traveled road, described above, being the “Camino Frances” (French Way). However, just as all roads lead to Rome, it was starting to sound like all roads could lead to Santiago and these roads could be traveled in various ways, with by bike or by horse being the two most common alternatives. As my knowledge about the Camino de Santiago grew, so did my level of excitement. I needed to figure out a way to make my goal of reaching the city’s towering cathedral by foot a reality.
However, when I was presented with the possibility of actually putting a plan into action for hiking the last 100km of the French Way, my initial reaction was to search for numerous excuses as to why I couldn’t go. I was busy with my master’s program, it would probably be raining, wouldn’t I rather visit my close friend who was spending a year abroad in Scotland?
Thankfully, my desire to add the Camino to my list of life accomplishments won and before I knew it, on the morning of March 23, 2013, I was heading towards the city of Sarria, where along with two Spanish friends and my boyfriend at the time, I’d be starting my journey towards Santiago de Compostela, 112 km away.
We’d decided to do a version of the Camino which I fondly referred to as the “camino pijo” (the posh road) since we’d be staying at “pensiones” rather than the typical backpacker’s hostels that most pilgrims called home while on their journey. This meant we could wake up at 8am rather than 6am, since we wouldn’t need to rush to get to the next city and claim beds in the first albergue we encountered. Although some may argue that this decision to stay at pensiones made for a less ¨authentic¨ experience on the Camino de Santiago, I would say that my experience was still able to teach me a number of life lessons that I’ve been able to turn to time and time again even after reaching Santiago de Compostela. The difficult moments that awaited us taught us how to keep walking despite the pain, pay attention to the small details and realize that no matter how far away a destination seemed, and no matter how much you doubted it, you would eventually arrive.
On the way up to Sarria, I skimmed through Paulo Coelho’s book “The Pilgrimmage,” which recounts his own experience on the Camino de Santiago and in which he shares the following summary of words of wisdom from the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (words in bold are the ones that particularly resonate with me both on the Camino and in life in general):
- You have already arrived. Feel the pleasure in each step and don’t worry about things that you still have to face. We have nothing before us, just a road to be traveled at each moment with joy. When we practice pilgrim meditation, we are always arriving, our home is the present moment.
- For that reason, always smile when you walk. Even if you have to force it a bit and feel ridiculous. Get used to smiling and you will end up happy. Don’t be afraid of showing your contentment.
- If you think that peace and joy always lie ahead somewhere, you will never manage to achieve them. Try to understand that they are both your traveling companions.
- When you walk, you are massaging and honoring the earth. In the same way, the earth is trying to help you balance your organism and your mind. Understand this relationship and try to respect it—may your steps have the firmness of a lion, the elegance of a tiger, and the dignity of an emperor.
- Pay attention to what is going on around you. And concentrate on your breathing-this will help you to get rid of the problems and worries that try to accompany you on your journey.
- When you walk, it’s not just you that is moving, but all the past and future generations. In the so-called “real” world, time is a measurement, but in the true world nothing exists beyond the present moment. Be fully aware that everything that has happened and everything that will happen is there in each step you take.
- Enjoy yourself. Make pilgrim meditation a constant meeting with yourself, not a penance in search of any reward. May flowers and fruit always grow on the places touched by your feet.
Check back here next Thursday to see how what my first day on the Camino had in store for me. Have you done part or all of El Camino de Santiago? Please share with me your own lessons learned in the comments section below!