Camino de Santiago is a journey different from any other. Many people rightly treat it as a life-changing experience or an opportunity to make a fresh start in life. I can testify to that – the Camino does change human lives. It is a commonly held belief that it shepherds you through three stages – physical, mental and spiritual. Although this is the usual experience, it should not be treated as the rule. There are no rules because we are one of a kind and the Camino like custom-made clothes will fit only us.
There are certain things that can be done to distance us from problems and duties. Personally, I found it very helpful to switch off my phone and not check e-mails for the entire journey – I only switch my mobile on when back in London. Doing this helps me to get out of the context of everyday life. Time is another important factor. A walker has an advantage over a cyclist because he needs four and a half weeks to complete his Camino while a cyclist takes only two. Time can be partially substituted by space. There are fantastic, long stages of the Camino in Navarra and La Rioja where you will cycle on completely deserted former national roads. Use these hours of loneliness wisely.
Tradition says that the Camino should begin on one’s doorstep. Centuries have passed and there are still those nuts I adore who set off on their journey from their hometowns – I met some of them on the Way and I still smile when I think about them. Most of us won’t be able to do so but we can treat all the time-consuming preparations as the beginning of the journey, already slowly disconnecting ourselves from the problems of our everyday lives.
Tradition also says that you should set off on the journey by yourself and there is great wisdom in that. To make changes happen you need to spend some time on your own. I would say that roughly 50% of the pilgrims go to Santiago by themselves. If you decide to cycle with somebody else – a friend or a partner – don’t be surprised if at one point your ways naturally part for a few hours or days (due to illness, a different pace etc.). It will happen because both of you need to spend some time alone.
Asked about the Camino every former pilgrim will tell you he met great people along the way. The Camino opens us up to others. Nobody on the Way is interested in your job, social or financial status. I spent weeks walking and chatting with others without knowing their profession. People tend to be interested in what is most important – somebody else’s character, personality and life. I am of the opinion that people we meet on the Way are exactly the same as those we meet in our everyday life just our attitude towards them is different. We are less judgmental, more open, understanding and tolerant. And in the end, although we started the Camino by ourselves we finish it off by walking/cycling with others.
As I mentioned at the beginning of the chapter everybody experiences the Camino in their own unique way. It is important to be open to changes and listen to yourself. Things that you find the most important might be the last ones to happen so have trust and hope. I will quote an example – when I did the Camino for the first time, I left my job (like many others I met on the way), so the most important question was, what next? Pretty soon I realised that I wouldn’t have a moment of revelation, so I left my question unanswered, thinking that the answer would come eventually and instead of worrying I looked after the things that needed to be done on a daily basis. I was absolutely right – the answer came three kilometres before Santiago after four and a half weeks of walking as I was standing on Monte del Gozo.
Once a pilgrim said to me that if we were looking for a life-changing experience we shouldn’t put all our hopes into the Camino. I didn’t say anything, but I thought why we shouldn’t? Changes we wish for might happen on the Camino although it is more likely they start there and continue when we get back home. If life is really harsh for you it might take more than one journey to find the answers and a cure. I reached Santiago de Compostela for the first time in October 2006. I would never have guessed that it would take me another seven years to finally put my feet on the stones of the windy cape of Finisterre (Finisterre, around 130 km from Santiago was considered the end of the world by medieval pilgrims) in October 2014. When I got my certificate from the journey from the end of the world another pilgrim said to me ‘mission completed’. I thought, indeed it was.