In 2021, I had an adventure of a lifetime. I walked a combination of the epic Camino de Santiago del Norte and the Camino Primitivo, extending the walk to Muxia and Finisterre.
My Camino ended up being an incredible, over 1000-kilometer trek across Northern Spain. The trail begins at Irun and crosses the mighty mountains of Spain and the beaches by the Atlantic. For almost 40 days, I trekked across Northern Spain through mountain ranges, forests, farm fields and vineyards, and beautiful sandy beaches until I reached the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, the final resting place of Saint James.
Many pilgrims walk for religious or spiritual reasons; others are just looking for an unforgettable experience and a nice long walk. I am kind of a combination of all. Though I wouldn’t call myself religious, I have my own beliefs and I was looking to find something beyond this world. In the end, there must be a reason if you feel so called to do something, right? But also I just wanted to do something different, a kind of vacation but still active and just be away from my usual environment and all the people.
The life of a pilgrim is challenging and is full of lessons, for me it really is a metaphor for life. I knew this as this year I gave in to the call of a second Camino along the Camino Portuguese starting from Lisbon, all the way through Portugal to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela again. I was playing with the idea of this Camino for over a year and I thought I knew what is going to wait for me on the dusty roads but girl, was I wrong. This Camino couldn’t be compared to the previous one and left me with life-altering lessons about my life, myself and my body and somehow I feel like these lessons are yet another layer added on top of the ones I learned on my first homage to the bones of St. James.
Before I embarked on this journey, I was really excited and curious. This time, how will the Camino change me?
Carl Jung stated that we have “two halves of life”:
“The first half of life is spent building our sense of identity, importance, and security—what I would call the false self and Freud might call the ego self. But inevitably you discover, often through failure or a significant loss, that your conscious self is not all of you, but only the acceptable you. You will find your real purpose and identity at a much deeper level than the positive image you present to the world.”
He goes on and says that “your ego is the container that holds you all together, so as you move onto the second half of your life, its strength is an advantage to you.” This made a lot of sense to me… He continues:
“If the first half of life is building the ego or the container, the second half of life is finding the contents that the container was meant to hold. What is my education for? What is my self-image, my money, my reputation for? What was I born to do?”
This is a question I struggle with since I turned 30, I’d say thought I can’t really pin point when exactly did it strike me first. The past 3 years was all about exploring, discovering, and learning about what the second half of life is meant to be for me. And I still don’t know the answer but I know that walking this second pilgrimage was part of figuring out the answer. As I walked along the Camino, I had a lot of time to think and reflect on my Self, life and unexpectedly about my relationship with my body and my self-image.
The first lesson hit me right as I placed my foot on the road for the first time. Lisbon and its area is super dry and hot in August, and was packed. I would have known about this if I ever follow the news… since the pope was visiting Lisbon thousands of people were there to see him, booking all the accommodations. I was okay with this because I prepared to sleep outside, rough as many times as I could—but I wasn’t prepared that due to the pope visiting I wouldn’t have the chance. There was a youth festival going on in every village, town and city I passed and it was just impossible to sleep outside, on the road even worse. I didn’t find any safe place as the Camino goes along huge roads across industrial areas, with trucks driving 24/7… The other hardship was that everything was closed. I usually started my walks early in the morning to avoid walking in the worst heat (even so at 10 am it was already 36+ °C), so no cafes were open yet, by the time I got to somewhere I could eat, the restaurant was closed due to siesta. There were no grocery shops nearby and the roads I walked were either highways with fence on either side (couldn’t even stop to pee) or abandoned dirt roads leading through dry lands where even the water source was dried out. So my first 3 days were spent feeling like my brain is about to boil, dehydrated, in pain from terrible blisters, hungry and regretting starting from Lisbon (originally I wanted to start in Porto but I had more days off, so I thought why not extend the walk with some 200+ kms…)
So the first lesson came: By the time I arrived in Azambuja, I was questioning if I was doing the right thing. But the Camino always provides you with what you need… And when the girl who volunteered at the albergue (pilgrim accommodation) told me that the next section will be even worse, and the next day will include an 18 km long stretch with nothing, not even a water source on the way and is supposed to be one of the hottest days of this summer, I knew I didn’t want to be here. This was not my Camino, I was not supposed to be here and if I forced this I was going to be the next dead pilgrim on the Camino. So I took the train to Porto and started again.
Some would say I gave up, but I don’t feel like this was giving up. I chose myself and what felt right instead of forcing myself to do something dangerous, for what? My ego feeling better because I pushed though something I actually hated, hurt myself while doing it just so I can see a bigger number in my Compostela? Thanks, no. I had to make a decision based on self-love and self-respect and choose myself and what feels best for me. As for me, I adjusted and returned to my original plan.
Arriving in Porto I felt an immediate shift: I was where I was meant to be.
I knew from here everything will feel different. I spent a little time exploring the city before I started to walk, then set my foot on the way again, excited to find the opportunities to sleep outside and just be on my own, seeing how I can thrive this way. I really wanted to do the Camino in a raw way since I met a French guy on my first Camino who slept outside, rough every night, only carrying the bare minimum with himself. I also planned to spend as much time alone as possible, avoiding most of the pilgrims and the shallow chit-chats about the weather and where we are from.
The second lesson hit me here: I have way too much expectations, and plans on how I want things to turn out. I was way too controlling with my experience. They say pain is inevitable but suffering is a choice. I had to realize if I want to enjoy my Camino I have to let go of the controlling and the expectations, I was just upsetting myself by sticking to my ideas. I had to let them go and embrace the fact that this Camino might be nothing like the one I imagined. So yes, I slept inside and I ended up sleeping in private albergues and even a hotel once. I let go of the idea that I want to be as alone as possible, and just accept whoever comes and goes. Interestingly, when I wanted to be alone so much, I kept meeting people who wanted to talk to me, but from the moment I decided that okay, I will make friends with pilgrims, I didn’t meet anyone who’d talk—only people who wouldn’t even say hi or look up from their phones. Of course, this upset me so I had to solve this annoying thing too. After some thinking I came to accept whatever comes. I might be alone from now but I might be with these annoying pilgrims who are glued to their smart phones. Both were okay. And just then I started to meet with real interesting people who became my Camino friends.
As I said above, the Camino is a metaphor for life. People come into our lives, sometimes for a brief moment sometimes longer, and for reasons we don’t know, and maybe won’t know, unless we open up to them and be vulnerable with them. We have plans but we have to learn not to be too attached to them and be open for changes of plan. We have to be open to whatever comes, and we might end up with even better things that we could imagine for ourselves. The Camino always provides and so does life itself – we always get what we need, and most of the times we have no actual idea of what we really need.
I knew from experience, if I spend time in nature, especially walking for extended time, things come up. By this I mean things I suppressed for long, like childhood trauma, or recent issues with people, or just answers to problems I couldn’t solve for a while. I was kind of ready for anything to show up on my walk—from old painful memories, relationship problems, doubting my job, anything really… but I didn’t think of the very one thing that came up and presented itself every single day: My body.
On my first Camino I came across the same lesson, but that was regarding of what my body can do. I learned to be patient with myself when I get tired, to give myself the proper rest, etc. This time it was different. I kept comparing myself to others, how I look, how my belly isn’t flat anymore, I don’t have a thigh gap like the other girls, I don’t look good in biker shorts and tank top, my skin isn’t flawless… whatever you can imagine came up, and I was surprised by this because I thought I was okay with myself. I thought I accepted myself and the way I look, my imperfections and all, I didn’t have such harsh thoughts about the way I look in ages. Suddenly my body hair started to bother me, I felt fat and ugly. At the same time I started to wonder, if any of my friends would say such things about themselves in front of me, I wouldn’t let them. I knew exactly what I’d say and how I’d support them and show my love and acceptance for them. Then why not do this for myself?
So my take away was this: I might not be as a good friend to myself as I thought. True self-love and self-acceptance might not look the way I thought it does. I spent most of my time thinking about this. If I really loved myself, as I love my friends and family no matter what, how would that look like? How would I treat myself, how would I talk to myself? How would I look at me in the mirror? Why can I love the people I love without caring about their looks, but I can’t do it when it comes to me?
First of all, it is impossible for me to see myself the way others do. Photos and my reflection in the mirror don’t show exactly what others see when they look at me, so there’s even a chance that I look nothing like how I see myself. Real love isn’t based on looks. My body does so much for me, just look at how far I already walked on this Camino, I have no right to hate on her just because of some extra weight I actually picked up because I did not feed her properly, or because of some pimples or unwanted hairs. The hardest lesson of all was to befriend myself again and for real, having deep conversations with myself about what I want and take a close look at how I treated myself up until now. Change of perspective is really needed here.
This is something I still think and work on… And it’s really hard to change the old wired thinking patterns, the lens I look at myself through, and to rewire my behavior but definitely the most important take away of my Camino.
So this is how a second Camino can change your life, and add layers to the lessons you thought you already learned. Because it’s never ending, there’s always more to learn and grow from. You don’t need to go on a pilgrimage for weeks to learn important life lessons, but removing yourself from your usual life and stripping yourself off of everything you do not need or you use to distract yourself with definitely helps to see things that you are meant to see.
Photo: Jon Tyson via Unsplash