Before my first Camino I spent a lot of time reading blogs and books and articles about my upcoming journey. This is my approach to anything that makes me nervous: I prepare, and then I prepare some more. I liked knowing what was in store for me, I liked having the information. After weeks of training and frustrating hours spent in REI searching for the right pair of shoes, after reserving my first two nights on the trail and debating whether I needed special, quick-drying underwear or not (verdict: not needed, but it’s an awfully nice splurge), I set off for Spain.
In some ways I was really prepared for this trip. All of my diligent training walks meant that I felt mostly strong on the very first days of the Camino, and my meticulous packing meant that I wasn’t carrying more than what I needed.
I had a decent idea of the terrain, I’d made note of a few special albergues along the way.
But then, there were the other things. A whole bunch of things that I hadn’t considered, hadn’t expected, or just completely surprised me. Here are a few of them:
The Camino Shuffle
I’ve heard people refer to the ‘Camino Shuffle’ as the kind of walking you do when you have blisters on your feet but you need to carry on walking, so you just have to go off and hobble down the trail as best as you can.
To me, the Camino Shuffle means something totally different. This is the shuffle I do when I really, really have to go to the bathroom.
It hits you out of nowhere. This is what happens after a week or two of walking the Camino, at least in my experience, and no one warned me about it. I’d be walking along, fine as day, and suddenly I’m hit with an overwhelming need to pee. It’s not some slow thing that comes on gradually, oh no. All of a sudden it’s there, and it’s urgent. And man, it’s annoying. I drink a lot of water on the Camino but I drink a lot of water in my real life, too, and it’s just different on the Camino. There were too many times that I was shuffling along as fast as I could, hoping and praying that a cluster of trees or bushes would appear so that I could duck behind them and relieve myself. Or that a car wouldn’t zip by at an inopportune moment. Sometimes I couldn’t go more than 30 minutes without needing to use the bathroom yet again.
There’s all this talk about ample bars and restaurants along the Camino so when the need arises, you can always duck in and buy a coffee or a bottle of water and use their restroom. But in my experience, if you’re really drinking as much water as you should be (which is a lot), then you’re going to get the call of nature a whole lot more than you ever expected.
Or, you know, maybe this is just me.
(There is nearly always a cluster of trees or a bush you can duck behind. You can always find some tucked away place, if you’re able to keep walking. But I have to tell you, I had a couple pretty close calls…)
Needing to Tell Someone I Want to Walk Alone; Needing to Tell Someone I Want to Walk With Them
Camino talk often includes this notion of how you’re never really alone, but at the same time how you can go off and do your own thing. And this is totally true! I’ve always said that I’m never really alone on my Camino’s (unless I’m on the San Salvador but that’s a different Camino altogether), and I have ample time to be on my own as well.
Usually, this all works out nicely. It’s sort of amazing how friends pop up just when you need them, and how I get a quiet and uninterrupted morning just when I’m feeling like I need to be alone.
But sometimes, you have to ask for what you need, or tell someone what you need. This might not be difficult for others but man, this is one of the biggest lessons that the Camino has taught me.
I love making people happy, and it’s easy for me to be accommodating. But I was on the Camino for me, and (even though I’ve been three times now), it’s this rare opportunity: time and space to do exactly what you want to do. My walks on the Camino have always been about spending time with myself- that deep and introspective and beautiful time that I adore. It’s certainly about my connections with others as well, and I’m excited about some upcoming trips and opportunities to practice walking with others, and not totally alone. But my past Camino’s have been about me, and my freedom.
I kind of learned my lesson the hard way on my first Camino, when a handsome Irish man didn’t want to let me out of his sight. I stood my ground and asked for my own time, but then I relented. It went back and forth like this for awhile and after the Camino ended I wished I had spent my last 10 days in a different way: totally free.
At other times people have wanted to walk with me when I was craving a day alone, and eventually, I learned how to tell them what I needed. Sometimes that was hard. And the opposite of needing to be alone is true, too: sometimes you have to know when you don’t want to be alone, and sometimes you have to practice asking for companionship. And this isn’t always easy, either.
Sometimes You’re Sick and Tired and There’s Absolutely No Camino Magic
I spent 65 days on a Camino route over my first two trips to Spain. Of these 65 days, I can honestly say I only had one day (and not even the entire day) that I felt unhappy and frustrated and wishing that I could just take a break from all of the walking. I had other difficult moments (blisters, walking in rain, negotiating the social stuff), but overall my Camino Frances, Camino Norte (Part One), and Camino Primitivo were full of so much happiness and joy and, well, magic. Those feelings energized me and permeated so much of my experience.
But this past summer was a different story. I was on the Camino de San Salvador and the Norte (Part Two) and I got pretty sick on the last day of the San Salvador. I took a rest day in Oviedo, and then I started walking on the Norte and it just wasn’t pretty. I was in bad shape: coughing and sneezing and so fatigued. I’d lost my appetite and I didn’t want to talk to anyone or even share an albergue with anyone because I was afraid my coughing would keep others up (not to mention that I could pass on whatever bug I’d caught).
I was pretty miserable. Being sick is never fun, but being sick while traveling? While you’re in a country where you don’t speak the language and you’re all alone and you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere? I was on a Camino, doing something I absolutely love and it was the last thing I wanted to be doing. And that made me feel even worse, because my precious and beautiful days were becoming a blur of orange juice and tissue packs and being alone in hotel rooms.
Where was the Camino magic in that? How was the “Camino providing”? Was this the Camino I was “supposed to” have?
Believe me, I think the Camino is a powerful experience and I’ve had moments that were so incredible that I truly think there must have been something greater at hand, something pretty special going on. I’ve learned so many lessons, and I’ve learned lessons in the hard parts too… but being that sick? That was just bad luck. Sometimes you get sick. Sometimes you’re miserable, even on a trip of a lifetime. Sometimes you just have to power through to get to the day when you begin to feel better, because that’s how the magic comes back in.
They Really Do Give You An Entire Bottle of Wine
It’s true what you’ve heard: the wine in Spain is good. Really good. And it’s cheap- really cheap. And you get a lot. I’d heard all of this before leaving for the Camino but to be honest, I thought it was a bit of a myth. Wine cheaper than water? How is that possible?
But it is.
Usually if you’ve sat down to dinner with a friend and both of you order a pilgrim’s menu, you’ll be given one bottle of wine to share. This is pretty amazing: pilgrim’s menus are usually between 8-12 euros and include two courses, plus dessert, plus bread, and your choice of a bottle of wine or a bottle of water.
On the Frances I was always eating dinner with other people, but on the Norte, there were several times- lunch and dinner- when I was all alone. And when I ordered the pilgrim’s menu, or a menu del dia, an entire bottle of wine was delivered to my table. Sometimes it was an excellent Rioja (a Tempranillo-based red wine from one of the best wine regions in Spain) and these were the times when I wanted to drink the entire bottle (I never could, which is probably not a bad thing).
Be careful, though, if you sit down to a leisurely lunch in some sun-soaked seaside town, drink a good portion of that bottle of wine, and then decide to keep on walking. It could make for quite a different sort of adventure than the kind you’d been used to.
I Got to Santiago and Felt Underwhelmed
The morning I walked into Santiago I was excited and full of this amazing, jittery energy. I was so distracted as I was walking through the city towards the cathedral, I even stopped paying attention to the arrows and had to slow down and get my bearings, take a deep breath. There was so much anticipation because I was moments away from arriving to the place that I had walked over 500 miles to get to.
And then I walked into the square in front of the cathedral and it’s not like I was let down or underwhelmed, exactly… but nothing really happened. I walked right to the center of the square and then I stopped walking and I looked up and I wasn’t sure what to do because that was where the walking ends. It was really early in the morning and hardly anyone was around- I liked the peace and quiet but I also just wasn’t sure what was supposed to happen, what I was supposed to do.
Later (and in subsequent years), I’ve seen pilgrims burst into tears. I’ve seen pilgrims lay out flat on the ground with their eyes closed, I’ve seen them in groups- jumping in the air and screaming in happiness and laughing and singing and cheering and hugging and crying.
This was not my experience at all. This is also not the experience for many pilgrims. Sometimes, it’s disconcerting to arrive at the end of something really big, because we haven’t really considered what is supposed to happen next. Or maybe we were expecting something big to happen even if we didn’t know what it would be, and we were disappointed to not feel it or experience it. And in my case, I felt deep in my heart that I wasn’t done walking. Santiago was my destination, but it wasn’t my final destination (which I didn’t realize until I arrived in Santiago). I’m still not sure what my final destination is, or if I even have one.
I love the city of Santiago, I love it more each time that I’m there. And each time, there is something so special about arriving in front of the cathedral… but for me, it’s not a momentous and joyous occasion. It’s something more quiet, something softer, something deeper, sometimes it’s something almost a little bittersweet and sad. And that’s okay.
I Thought the Route Was Beautiful
Before I walked the Camino Frances, I stumbled across an article listing 10 reasons why the author believes the Camino de Santiago ‘sucks’. It was jarring. He talked about how often you need to walk on paved road, that you can hear traffic 95% of the time, that the scenery is monotonous (and several other negative points).
After reading this article, I worried that I wouldn’t find the Camino to be beautiful. That I was going to wish I were on a more isolated, rugged path through some wild areas. I knew that the first day through the Pyrenees would be stunning, but would I wish that I could continue walking through the mountains? Would my feet hurt from all of the pavement walking, would I find the parts of Spain that I walked through to be boring and uninspiring?
Turns out, I needn’t have worried. I was in awe for so much of my walk through Spain, and I found the route to be absolutely beautiful. Part of what I loved was how varied the scenery was: mountains and hills and countryside and all of that flat Meseta. I wandered through fields of sunflowers and rows of grapevines. I saw stone ruins and lines of cows and bright wildflowers and bustling city streets and sleepy village squares. I also saw cars and traffic and industrial areas and trash and graffiti and growling dogs on chains. But all of that stuff? It wasn’t what stayed with me, and it didn’t detract from the overall beauty of the impressions of my Camino.
I’m sure those of you who have walked the Camino had some surprises too. Please share, I’d love to hear them!