The Camino has called me for the past seventeen years, and I am finally saying yes to the quest. I was 25 years old when I first heard of the Camino de Santiago. I was on my first solo backpack trip across Europe, and had just left San Fermin in Pamplona. This event is also otherwise known as the Running of the Bulls (this will be saved for another post). Exhausted and excited, I was headed to Barcelona via train and found myself talking with fellow travellers. They were an American mother and 20something son, who shared their recent summer holiday walking the Camino Frances route of the Camino de Santiago. They wanted to spend time bonding together after the son had graduated from college. It intrigued me. Why would anyone walk 500 miles? My family never went on hikes. I never had the urge to do a marathon or anything to overly physically exert my body. I was already having a difficult time navigating Europe with a backpack and large luggage, while using public transportation. But walk? I understood this was a pilgrimage, but had never had met anyone in person that accomplished such a feat. I also was the first of my family and friends to backpack Europe, and I realized jet setting in this capacity exposed me to a world of people I was unfamiliar with. These people were true wanderlusters who embarked on journeys for the sake and story of adventure. They were not the bourgeouise, who only stayed in five starred hotels and popped from city to city on a one week vacation. They were not tourists but travellers.
Over the years, the Camino seemed to pop back into my life. One modality was the film The Way starring Martin Sheen, which was a beautiful story that shared several characters journeys of why they took this endeavor. The characters were all of different ages and life experiences, but walked with intention. Camino de Santiago has theoretically been a pilgrimage on and off for over 2,000 years. Traditionally it was taken by Catholics, to walk towards the location where the apostle St. James’ remains were buried. In addition, reportedly, it was a way to spend less time in purgatory. But more recently people not only choose to do this for religious reasons, but to mark transitional moments in their life, to prove one’s physical and emotional strength, for health reasons, for the adventure, and even to walk towards an answer. The path takes on average four to six week to complete, and there are multiple starting points depending on the path (Frances, Portuguese, del Norte, Primitivo, Ingles). To receive a certificate of completion, one must complete at least 100 kilometers walking or 200 kilometers bicycling.
On another trip, I was in Malaga Spain, alone for Christmas. I chose to stay in a hostel and met loads of fellow travellers. One individual was a female social worker from a Nordic country. She shared her stories of walking the Camino de Santiago. She used to work in an adolescent correctional facility. One amazing thing the country offered to these individuals was the potential opportunity to transform via this pilgrimage. One dozen adolescents were hand selected each year, after having written an essay as to why this journey would be beneficial for them. One staff member would accompany this individual on this walk. They would walk together for the six weeks. This seemed surreal to me. The national government offering a pilgrimage opportunity in lieu of time served? The program had gone on for decades with numerous stories of success and emotional development. She also shared that she was assisting in gathering data for an upcoming book about this practice. For this she interviewed one of the first participants who took the journey 30-40 years prior. After she spoke with him on the phone, he automatically left to do the journey once again. He was reminded of what a monumental life changing moment this was and vowed to repeat it.
I was hungry for this transformation, but thought a journey like this was totally out of the question for me. As an American, I received only three weeks off per year, which is inclusive of sick days. When would I have this amount of time available just to walk? Then I met a previous American Camino voyager in the Shakespeare Bookstore in Paris who felt the same way. She nudged me I can still do this and offered what she had done. Each year, she took a different part of the journey, and collectively made one long Camino. She reminded me I don’t have to do the journey one particular way, there are multiple paths to get there. Some take longer than others. This still counts.
Interest in the Camino is growing in 2019, over 350,000 pilgrims received a certificate of completion. In 1985, there were only 1200 people who completed this. Even in 2020 with the pandemic, over 53,000 people completed it. Once many of us here of this journey repeatedly, it’s as if the Camino is calling us.
I thought of this for years, and finally during the pandemic I decided to take her advice. I began to search for organized walking tours that I could sign up for. I paid a deposit with one organization, who postponed their remaining trips for the year. Disappointment loomed, maybe now was not the time. But I was able to locate another tour group who were doing one last tour in the month of October. I signed up, and now am ready to begin.
Why am I doing this journey now? I’m in a transitional period in my life. I am leaving my full time job as a clinical psychologist in the UK and jumping into the world of being a creativity coach and author. The past six weeks have already been busy with travel, both in the United States and the United Kingdom. I have not had much time to process this pilgrimage which has been brewing in me for years. And therefore for the past twenty four hours I have been trying to absorb as much as I can about this path, which includes listening to podcast episodes of fellow travellers sharing their tales. One individual shared that the Camino does not give you what you want, it gives you what you need.
I am dipping my foot into the Camino world with walking 100 kilometers in a span of 7 days with an organied group. The Type A in me is already comparing myself to others who have been able to do the whole thing. Yet, I remind myself that this is a possibility for the future. What I am offering to myself is a gift of the Camino Taster. The best part is I still am eligible for the Pilgrimage passport and certificate. As they say on the path, Buen Camino.