I had a lot of worries before my first Camino. They mostly centered around the physical nature of the journey: would I be able to walk all the way to Santiago? Would I develop crippling blisters and have to stop walking? Would I fall and hurt myself? Would I lose the way? Would I run out of water, or food?
But there was another layer of worries as well, and these revolved around the social part of the experience. Would I make friends? Would I walk alone? How would I do sleeping in albergues with dozens and dozens of other pilgrims?
Before the Camino I read a lot of books and blogs and articles, and so many mentioned the idea of a ‘Camino family’. Most people, as they walk, pick up a small group of others that they move through the Camino with. The groups can tend to form early and the bonds are strong. These Camino families, it would appear, were one of the highlights of the way for so many people.
I was intrigued by the idea of a Camino family. I was excited about the possibility of it: a group of people you could always be with! No loneliness! No losing your way! Someone to share a bottle of wine with!
But I was also a little terrified of the idea. When would I ever get my alone time?
I was listening to a podcast the other day, the Clearskies Camino podcast, a new venture from David of Clearskies Camino (a blog I’ve been following for years!) He was interviewing Pablo, of Setmeravelles (another blog I’ve been following for years!), and one piece of advice that Pablo shared was this: Don’t be afraid to make connections with other pilgrims, especially if you’re an introvert.
This struck me, because I don’t often hear talk about introversion on the Camino.
I’m an introvert, through and through. I recently did a Myers Briggs test (for probably the 6th time), just to see how I scored, and on the extraverted/introverted scale, I was 93% introverted. I’ve known this about myself for a long time, but I think I can sometimes forget, because I like people. I really like other people (I’m a counselor who talks to teenagers all day!), and I think a common misconception about introverts is that they don’t like to socialize or be around other people. Another misconception is that all introverts are shy, and quiet (I happen to be rather shy and quiet, but it doesn’t mean that all introverts are!)
The real key to understanding an introvert is this: a lot of time around people can really drain them and tire them out. I, for one, have a limit, and once I reach it, all I want in the world is to be in a space by myself. The time to myself is what energizes me, fills me back up. Plus, I’ve always really liked my own company, and often I want to spend time alone, in my own company. It makes me feel centered and solid, grounded.
The Camino is a really great opportunity to be in your own company: if you’re walking the entirety of the Camino Francés, you’ve got 500 miles of walking, day after day after day. There are a lot of other pilgrims around, but there’s a ton of opportunity to be alone and be with your thoughts.
And, also, the Camino is a really great opportunity to be with other people. I remember a pilgrim I’d met towards the end of the Francés telling me about a girl he’d walked with for the first two weeks of his Camino. “We were never apart,” he said. “Every single minute of every day, we were together.” (I shuddered.) And it wasn’t a romantic thing, it was just… a Camino thing. A people thing. It’s fun to be around other people on the Camino, and with all of that walking, having friends at your side can make the time pass quickly. It’s great to share big experiences with other people.
And I might even argue that most pilgrims, on the Camino, like to share their experience with other people. I could be wrong (and please, say hello in the comments and share your experience if you walked!), but so often on the Camino I saw people in pairs or groups. Even if they’d arrived at the Camino alone, they almost always linked up with other people. Formed their Camino families.
I’ve walked a lot of Caminos since that first one, back in 2014, and I’ve never formed or been part of a Camino family, not really. I’ve made deep connections, I’ve made friends, there were people I would always run into or make loose plans with or stay in the same towns with, but never all the way to Santiago, never until the end of my walk. There are lots of reasons for this (and really, that’s a separate post), but I don’t think I ever needed a true ‘Camino family’ to appreciate the social aspects of the Camino. I’ve had such good, deep experiences with other pilgrims, and the opportunities for those connections is something that makes the Camino really special.
Being an introvert isn’t the only reason I don’t form Camino families when I walk. But I do think it can sometimes feel a little difficult to be introverted and be on an incredibly social sort of experience, surrounded by dozens and dozens- even hundreds and hundreds- of other people every day for weeks at a time. You see them on the trail, you see them in the bars, you see them in the places you sleep (often just feet away in the next bunk bed!).
And sometimes, it can feel a little lonely to see other pilgrims in their groups, laughing and sharing a bottle of wine, and to sometimes be the one on the outside. Even if you’re choosing to be the one on the outside. Even if sometimes you need to be the one on the outside.
But I do think it’s possible- very, very possible- to walk the Camino as an introvert and have a fabulous time.
If you’re walking the Camino as part of a pair or a group from home, I think it’s important to have a conversation before you start. I’ve done this on the several occasions that I’ve walked with a friend from home, explaining that, sometimes, I’ll want to walk by myself. It can sometimes feel hard to have this conversation, or to set this expectation (especially if the other person prefers to always have someone to walk with!), but having an open conversation upfront can really help.
And if you’re walking the Camino solo, it’s still important to have these conversations with the people you meet, the friends you make. This is something I learned after my first Camino- when I wasn’t clear enough about my needs and didn’t get enough time alone- and it’s something I’m always working on when I walk. How to be friendly and sometimes walk with others, how to form strong, deep connections, but how to give myself enough of what I need, and the time that I need alone. How to truly walk my own walk.
Sometimes this is hard. Sometimes I can spend hours walking with another pilgrim- sometimes all day- and thoroughly enjoy that time. Sometimes I feel lonely and crave company (and this can be the day after I went slightly off-stage from a group of friends so that I could get alone time). Sometimes I need to tell a friend that I want to walk alone, and I can see hurt and disappointment in their eyes. “It’s not you!” I want to say. “It’s just that I’ll feel so depleted, feel like I’m giving away too much of myself, if I don’t get the chance to walk alone.”
But, mostly, it’s not so bad. I’ve learned how to have this conversation gently, easily (most of the time). Most people get it. Sometimes, I’ll meet someone on the path and fall into a conversation and walk with them for an hour. I love how this can happen on the Camino, and I love that pilgrims usually cut out the small talk, and go right to the deeper stuff (which introverts tend to like anyway). But after walking for awhile, if I want to be alone, all it takes is saying, “I’m going to walk by myself for awhile, but I hope I’ll see you in the next town!” Sometimes I say, “I’m going to stop here and take some photographs.” (Often I do want to take photographs, but sometimes I say this if I don’t feel like explaining that I want to be alone.)
And the Camino really can be the perfect place for both introverts and extroverts. For me, if I’m able to walk all day or most of the day alone, I love that I can socialize in the evenings with other pilgrims. I often really want to spend time with other people, because I’ve already had plenty of time to be on my own.
And if you really need a break, there’s almost always an option to stay in a private room in a pension. I never did on my first Camino (I ended up loving the albergue experience), but on my second Camino, the Norte, there was a night I needed to stay in a pension because the albergues were full. And I have to say, it was an illuminating experience. It was such luxury! To have my own little room, a bed that wasn’t a bunk bed, a bathroom all to myself! I went to a corner store and bought basic supplies for dinner and then returned back to my room and spent hours there, all alone, soaking it up. I loved it.
In the last few years, I’ve gravitated towards less-traveled paths. My 5-days on the Camino de San Salvador were almost completely solo: no one in the albergues until the last day, no one on the trail with me until the last day. My walk on the Pennine Way was much the same: after some great and fun interactions over the first three days, I went on to walk a very solo walk, often staying in empty bunkhouses. Walking like this isn’t for everyone, and these were on the more extreme end of ‘socially isolated’ walks. But there are some good in-between trails. For me, the Camino Aragonés is the perfect blend of quiet time and socialization. Not many pilgrims walk, but there are just enough- maybe a dozen or two- walking the same stages. You’ll mostly be alone on the path, but will inevitably run into the same group in the evenings. Perfect for a friendly introvert like me.
One of my favorite things on the Camino is when I unite with other introverts. I had a few days on the Norte when this happened- somehow, a group of about 6 of us came together. We were all on the Camino alone, none of us had formed a ‘Camino family’, most of us seemed to be doing our own thing, I suspect we were all introverts. But we came together for a night in such a beautiful, perfect way, to share a meal and talk and laugh and feel so at ease together. We parted the next day, we didn’t walk or stay together as Camino families tend to do, but that didn’t make the experience any less magical, or any less meaningful.
I’m always curious about others’ experiences: how many readers/pilgrims/walkers are introverts? Do you ever have difficulty with the social experience of the Camino or a long walk? How do you balance the social opportunities with enough time alone?