As the months have passed by since we finished our trek of the Camino de Santiago, I’ve been meaning to write a wrap up about the experience of walking the 500 mile pilgrimage route. I think I wrote plenty during the walk, but much of the experience of the Camino is not just the everyday details of walking the trail, but the impressions and influence that slowly sank in, and are often not realized till after you get back home and try to go back to old routines.
Perhaps one indication of how the Camino “sank in” subconsciously is how much it appeared in Kim’s and my dreams in the weeks after getting back home. I’d dream of places – maybe not specific familiar places, but rather shifting, enticing, unfamiliar places, with a sense of expediency to eat, sleep, and figure your way on to the next. In one dream, I happened upon one of our friends we met on the Camino – someone we had actually only met for a day, and yet in the dream I embraced him and wept on his shoulder.
If dreams were an indication of the Camino somehow playing out in our subconscious, so was waking up. Kim and I both had moments where we’d slowly come to consciousness in the darkness of our own beds and own bedrooms, and feel disorientated and unsure of where we were. Then we’d slowly make out the contours of the walls, the door and the furnishings, and realize we were just home. It took some time for the familiar to feel familiar again.
People of course ask, as they should, “how was it?” but I feel a bit like I did coming back from the Peace Corps. How do you answer that? My typical answer, in its briefest was “It was great, really great” because it was. And I would add, “It was really special to wake up each day and just walk, and let yourself be surprised by what you’ll see, where you’ll eat, and where you’ll stop to sleep.” I loved it, and Kim did too. But many friends already knew to expect that – that it would be a special experience, and so some would ask more directly, “Was it transformative?” “Was it magical?” That has been even harder to answer.
Kim and I talked about it soon after the Camino. While walking it, we were both skeptical of the veteran walkers who said it was “transformative” and that it had changed their life. Our silent response: OK, good for you, but I’m not going to pin that magical expectation on my Camino. We’ll just experience for ourselves. And after we finished the Camino, as positive as it was, we both avoided attaching that kind of lofty language to our experience, especially when talking to people who might consider walking it themselves. We do believe it is transformative, but best to be experienced slowly, and muddled like a dream, or perhaps waking up from one, rather than having it preached upon you. Fortunately, most people we met, and most veterans and hospitaleros (hosts), were not preachy, but meek and quietly aware that to dictate an experience is a sure way to diminish it. And that might have been the most magical of all – that all of us pilgrims crossed each other’s paths – maybe for a moment, for a day, or multiples with heightened awareness, knowing the humble facts: to each their own experience; each person must walk their own path, and the rest of us are background players and scenery. We are fleeting footprints in a thousand other’s stories, but without us as backdrop, there would be no stories. When I think about it, how odd and obvious that I too must make cameos in other people’s dreams. The fleetingness, and yet impactfulness of our interaction was magical.
The intention I wrote out at the start of the Camino: “Savor the Serendipity of Each Day as the Honor of Leaving Sacred Footprints”. This, I am grateful to say, was fulfilled without much effort, or more accurately, the lack of effort and intention opened the door for serendipity. The Camino is a place of structured serendipity. It answers one of the most fundamental questions for you: what path to take, and what direction, so that the rest can be a grand mystery. And this would be my primary recommendation for anyone considering walking the Camino – pack light in what you carry, both in your backpack and in your head. Don’t try to make reservations or plan your days out in advance; make room for mystery. The Camino will take care of you better than all your preparations and schemes.
Within that serendipity, the Camino, rather than taking on a feel of randomness, took on an aura of connectedness. The varying landscapes and the ever revolving carousel of other pilgrims seemed to have its own meaningful flow. Amid the simple task of walking each day, the ups and downs and the changing scenery subtly reflected life’s larger journey, and I found myself quietly learning lessons I didn’t know I was learning. Though I did remind myself of my stated “intention” by repeating it each day, it wasn’t something I concentrated on deliberately like a puzzle or in a prolonged meditative state. I just would speak it briefly, and let is sink in without me paying attention to it. I think sometimes when you take on a challenge like a pilgrimage, it goes so slow that it’s able to sneak up on you. The final destination is ever the focus, but when you finally get there, you somehow realize you already found what you were looking for.
In closing, I’ll share some works I’ve created since being back from the Camino.
Besides the whirlwind highlight video I created at the top of this post, I created a photo album in facebook of my favorite highlight photos: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10153977181752201.1073741855.524417200&type=1&l=0c7fbcbf52
And Lastly, I was selected to give a PechaKucha talk in Asheville. This is public speaking / presentation series similar to TED talks, but it is based around a slide show of 20 frames that are shown for 20 seconds each. My talk is entitled “A Pilgrim’s Progress” and below is the text/notes from my talk:
- Imagine we learned of a trip we had both taken, for example, You also hiked the Inka Trail, or lived in Edinburgh during the Fringe festival, and I said, “Hey, let’s get together and talk about it, and let’s invite others who have done it, and let’s meet every week to talk about it!” You’d think, maybe I’m “into” that trip way too much.
- I’m a RPCV and the local chapter has monthly meet up, and that makes sense to have an intentional meet up for such an impactful experience. But there is another Meet Up group in Asheville, based around a travel journey they mutually share. They meet weekly, every Tuesday morning.
- The “trip”, the experience they share is walking the historic pilgrimage route “Camino de Santiago” in Spain. Many of you have probably already heard about it as it has taken on bucket-list fame of late, popularized in books and movies, and friends have done it or want to do it. My goal here is not to focus on the facts of the Camino, nor summarize my own walk.
- That info is easy to find. An online search will instantly produce hundreds of videos of people’s journeys, and blogs, including my own travel blog here “Itchy Foot Prints”. But I want to explore this question: “What is it about walking the Camino, that people are zealous to reconnect with after the journey is over?”
- First some Fast Facts: What is the Camino de Santiago? It is a network of historic pilgrimage routes from the middle ages that lead to Santiago where you find enshrined the supposed bones of St. James, patron saint of Spain. Thousands of people walk it each year. They are referred to as “peregrinos” or pilgrims.
- Fast Facts – My Personal Experience: I walked the Camino with my girl-friend, now fiancée, Kim. We did the Camino Frances across northern Spain. It is the most popular of all the routes. It is 500 miles and we completed it in 26 days, averaging 18.5 miles a day. We did it Sept-Oct. 2016.
- A major aspect that makes the Camino different from a sight-seeing vacation, is that pilgrims typical declare an “intention” for their journey. Most pilgrims today aren’t religious, but this expression of aspiration for what one wants to gain from the journey does give it a spiritual quality. Mine: “Savor the Serendipity of each day, as the honor of leaving sacred footprints.”
- “Serendipity”. In my job as a group travel planner, reservations, appointments and efficiency are the norm. Serendipity is not an option. You can’t just head down the road and see what the sun shines on.
- The Camino allows for a “Structured Serendipity”. Because there is a well marked trail to follow, A vast network of restaurants, bars, and lodging have evolved to meet the needs of hundreds of pilgrims who pass by every day. So you can just take each day as it comes. We didn’t make reservations, nor study online reviews to strategize our trip.
- This was so liberating to start and end each day with a faith in serendipity. The places we slept were especially unique, and the people we dined with, and slept around were a global grab bag. This was a welcome alternative to US chain hotels with cookie cutter cubicles of individual isolation.
- Be an Ambassador. Knowing this would be a highly interactive journey, I did something rather bold. I sewed a US flag on my pack. I did this in defiance to the suggestion some have made that if you fake being Canadian you’ll be treated better. I mean not only is it promoting a lie, but you’re missing the opportunity to be an Ambassador for better impressions of your country.
- But this was also right before the election. So we braced ourselves to deflect questions asking us to give account of the political circus. But to our extreme relief, we were rarely asked about our politics. More people asked us about the Appalachian Trail. So this acceptance of us as “us” felt like an extension of grace rather than grievances.
- And “grace” really is the primary theme I want to highlight. Receiving it, and extending it to others. I’m sure we all have our mantras and creeds we repeat to motivate ourselves toward human good will, but these ideals often run as thin as a “Coexist“ bumper sticker in a traffic jam.
- I once read this phrase “the more I love humanity, the less I like people,” it struck me as sadly true. It’s rooted in a sense that I’ve arrived to some progressive state and “those” people down there need to catch up. How do we reconcile this paradox of idealism and reality?
- The Camino slows and simplifies things, and its daily highs and lows become a metaphor for life’s journey. I may walk faster, and carry less of a burden, but We are ALL pilgrims on that journey. In truth, none of us have “arrived” to our full potential. I found myself liking people better, and liking myself better.
- Cruz de Ferro is where pilgrims place a stone they’ve carried representing their intentions. After placing my own stone, and standing on this mound, I was struck by the universal stories beneath my feet. Aspiration to be loved, to belong, to have purpose. And Desperation when we fall short. These ups and downs are “the way” not a detour from it.
- Example: On the first day, as a conversation starter, Kim and I asked each other “Who (what person from your life) would you walk with today?” Initially we answered the obvious close friends or family, or in practical terms – who could cover the days distance, or spoke Spanish and who would enjoy the cities or the countryside more.
- But on some of our longer and harder days, our thoughts transitioned toward people from our past whom we’ve lost touch with due to a falling out, or a failed relationship. We said we’d walk with them too. The desire was not to rekindle, but more to say “Our paths crossed for a season, and whatever happened between us, that led me to where I am now, and I wish you well.” That was a magical transformation without even trying to be.
- “Magical” was a word we got tired of, being thrown around with “transformative” and “life-changing”. We didn’t want to be “told” what to feel. The end itself in Santiago was rather anti-climactic, and I don’t believe the bones of St. James held some redemptive power. But by then we had already knew the journey is the reward, not the end destination.
- And so, I don’t want to be one of those who hypes the Camino, saying “it’s magical” and go do it. But I do want to say there’s power in purposeful pilgrimage. In slowing down, making space for serendipity, and sharing the road. Those who do it, don’t want it to end. And by the way, it’s magical, go do it.