Camino Reflections – 6 Revelations I Took From My Pilgrimage
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In May, I walked the Camino Portugués, which is a variant of the Camino de Santiago – a network of pilgrimage trails spanning across Europe. It took me 14 days to cover the 280 kilometres between Porto, in Portugal, to Santiago de Compostela, in Spain. There was pain, there was worry, there was joy, and there is pride.
To manage expectations: I will not provide general info on the Camino de Santiago / Camino Portugués here, as I have already published a podcast episode on the matter. Also, I have documented my very personal pilgrimage for you on Instagram.
In the article you have started reading now (great to have you here!), I want to share my personal aha moments, the learnings I received from this magical experience.
Everyone who walks it receives gifts from the Camino. Some come back completely changed, others simply have their batteries charged, yet others carry home little pieces of wisdom to guide them in their life after Camino.
It is different for everyone and what we take home might not make sense or seem significant for anybody else. I will still offer my thoughts to you – perhaps you can relate?
Here are the top 6 AHA!s from my Camino experience.
#1 - The Reasons We Meet
Life becomes a treasure hunt if you start encountering new people intentionally. What if there was always (at least) ONE THING you had to give them, as well as one thing they had to give you? The guy at the gas station asking you for directions, the lady on the bus telling you the story of her day, what if that did not occur meaninglessly?
Even if your encounter with a stranger is only brief, I like to believe it is an opportunity to exchange gifts. During the Camino, I had A LOT of conversations with people on the way – be it fellow pilgrims or locals chatting me up with curiosity. When, during these conversations, they drop the name of a book, recommend a place to go, or share something that triggers a reaction inside me, I am sure to note it down somewhere. From experience, these tiny bits of information are precious gems.
When, on my end, I get a funny inkling I should say something specific, like share an experience, mention a resource etc., I follow that intuition. Sometimes it does not necessarily make sense at that moment, but a voice inside wants me to speak its message out loud. Maybe it will make a difference in that person‘s future life after we part. Potentially, the seed I offer will grow into something valuable decades after the conversation itself took place. Or maybe it won’t. How can I possibly know?
What I DO KNOW is, this is a very rewarding way of looking at a chance encounter. It keeps you sharp and appreciative of a moment in time that, otherwise, you might dismiss as a mundane coincidence.
After all, if it wasn’t for the thoughts we share – in conversations, in books, in art – we would know nothing about the world. Sharing with the intent to help another person flourish, is one of the most gratifying things you can do. And allowing someone else to expand your mind’s horizon can get you far in life.
One example of a stranger saying a little, yet impactful thing to me is the following story.
#2 - Smile
You don’t know who you are until someone else shows you.
Okay, I get that this statement is debatable. In fact, there are a lot of things that the people around us say we are which might not be true after all. Breaking free from how others judge us and the limitations these judgements imply for us, is a lifelong quest for many. However, it is also true that, sometimes, we cannot see aspects of ourselves unless someone holds a mirror to our faces.
On the Camino, I met this group of Brazilian friends. I ended up bumping into them three times a day during the last stretches. One time, one of them said, “Tina, you are always smiling!”
I took the compliment – and smiled back, obviously. And it got me thinking. Is this true? It’s actually not the first time someone commented on how I always seemed to beam and be in a good mood. Part of my truth is that I can be anxious, worried, sad, and brooding regularly. But apparently, despite this natural variation of inner states, I seem to project friendliness and a good mood for the most part.
In fact, I am not aware that I am smiling so much. But I love that that’s what other people can see when they look at me!
And it reassures me that I am on the right path in life for, obviously, I got a lot to be happy about – even if I am not always acutely aware of it.
#3 - Embrace
Accepting whatever comes my way – not fighting that which simply IS – is a practice I have been exercising a lot throughout the years. But applying this principle will forever take work, it does not become automatic. It becomes more imminent, though, when I am out in the world travelling, outside of the every-day-life environment which I can control better. When I am travelling, the number of unknowns increases. Bookings may be cancelled, luggage may be lost or stolen, directions may be misread. I meet strangers, encounter language barriers, foreign cultural expectations and legal requirements. Things are more fluid and uncertain. In general, travel life does not like following the plan.
Since I am a person who likes to plan and control things, this increased level of uncertainty does not come without challenge for me. I have to actively tell myself to let go of expectations, to go with the flow, and embrace any disruption that comes my way.
But once I surrender, the magic starts to happen.
Deep inside, I believe that all things happen as they are intended. I choose to look for the bright side in every situation. What would I not have learned, what would not have unfolded if it had not been for this exact chain of events, no matter how unwanted it occurred?
With this belief comes an incredible source of trust. If all things happen as they should, there is nothing that I need to fear. The universe would not impose a challenge on me I could not handle and, most importantly, I could not benefit from. I am never in the wrong place, I am never too slow, I am never not on track, I am always as I should be in every moment.
If your impulse is to congratulate me for this blissful wisdom, let me quickly add: This deep knowing, this deep trust, coincides with my habitual worry about all things and nothing. My trust in the mysterious workings of the universe does not ever replace my utterly human woes, but it does give me a tool to cope with them.
At times, luckily, I feel connected enough with the universe (you might call it “god” or by some other name) to tap into this powerful tool and let it guide me.
Tina’s “Compostela” (official certificate of pilgrimage) in front of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.
#4 - Discomfort Is Context-Dependent
As I was climbing up a hill beneath the relentless sun, breathing heavily while carrying eight kilograms on my back, I suddenly found a switch to enter the mind of my every-day-life self. Immediately, I was complaining to myself about the hardship. Had I been on a “normal” vacation and not on the Camino, I would have declared this was too exhausting, that I was not feeling well physically, and therefore wanted to abort the endeavour. Suddenly, going back to some pleasant hotel, relaxing and sipping a cold drink sounded like the more reasonable option.
Since that nice hotel was not part of the package and focussing on the physical discomfort was unpleasant, I switched back to Camino mindset. Relief. The pain in my legs, the exhaustion, the heat… it all became background noise again, not interfering with my joy of walking towards Santiago. It is what your brain does, it suppresses the continuous chatter in order to be receptive to new nervous stimuli again.
Here I was, soldiering on instead of whining, worrying, and withdrawing from discomfort like I have a tendency to do.
What a great lesson! I am capable of doing hard things. I can get used to pain and not let it keep me from doing what I set out to do. I am stronger than I thought. And: While pain and exhaustion are important messages from my body, their meaning is not as unilateral as I had thought. There is more nuance to their message than just a blunt “stop”.
#5 - I Dislike What You Do, Not You as a Person
Camino life, per default, means dorm life. Of course, you can buy serenity by paying for your own room in a hotel but the majority of people are staying in the “albergues”, the hostel-style accommodations with basic dormitories. Interestingly, it does not matter whether you are old or young. I had expected that people with more decades of life experience would not be as willing to surrender back to the travel style of their youth. Regardless, I have seen people in their 60ies or 70ies climb up the ladders to their top bunk beds.
One sweet woman (in her 50ies?) told me, “my resistance melted once a friend suggested I imagine reenacting the sleepover parties of my childhood”.
The quality of sleep in dorms is… well… unpredictable. Unless you have a bomb-proof sleep (in which case don’t tell me because I’d be damn jealous), your rest is at the mercy of the last person making noise on their way to bed, and the first person to start rustling in the morning. In between, you are doomed to hope the usual impromptu orchestra of snoring will not set in.
Sleeping in dorms gives you a lot of opportunities to hate people. Oftentimes have I strangled people over and over again in my mind. Locating the source of the noise in the dark of the room by mental sonar, I would usually not know who or where exactly the perpetrator was. That did not stop me from playing out my imaginary serial killer plot.
The morning after, I would prep myself for the day in the common area, looking around. People would sit in tired silence, putting anti-blister bandaids on their abused feet, drinking a kick-start coffee, or trying to cram their stuff back into their tight backpacks.
I would ask myself: Who of you was it? Who of you rustled with that plastic item in the middle of the night? Who of you had kept their light on, glaring brightly into my face, long after bedtime? Who of you fell asleep first only then to snore so badly that I could not help but wonder WHY ON EARTH YOU FEEL ENTITLED TO SLEEP IN A FREAKING DORM ROOM?
Sometimes, a fellow pilgrim would interrupt my morning ruminating. We would have a nice interaction. They would make me smile. I would remember the nourishing conversation we had the evening prior.
And then the penny would drop. It was them! Yeeesss… I would observe that person collecting their last belongings from the very bed that had likely been the source of my sleepless night.
It happened over and over again. It would be the same people whom I’d hate at night and love during the day.
That reminded me of the fact that people and behaviour are not the same thing. You are not an idiot, you might just happen to do an idiotic thing but you can choose to make a smart decision right after. You are not a bad person, you might just make a mistake that hurt other people but you can choose to do an act of kindness right after. You might make a lot of noise in a dorm room in the middle of the night, but that does not mean you generally do not give a sh** about other people.
Separating people’s souls from their acts is a powerful tool. It fuels empathy and extinguishes the fire of hate. And it implies that nothing is ever static. We are not doomed to be who we have always been, we can grow and change by making new choices.
#6 - Life Away From Computers
After returning home, I felt the urge to get “my life back in order”. That is, to work through the emails and other administrative tasks I neglected while on my feet in the Iberian Peninsula.
At that point, I had become aware of an inner tension that had been building up as my flight back home approached. Was I afraid of going back to work, to my creative projects, to life in general?
On the first day back home, the tension was very palpable. I told myself not to power up my computer on that day yet. That day was for relaxation and enjoyment of having a home again. (A closet instead of a backpack! Clean clothes! My own bathroom! A comfy bed!) However, it felt really really hard to just enjoy and relax. Had I not been able to do just that while on the Camino? Living in the now, sniffing the vegetation, feeling the freeze, embracing the aches in my body, bumping into people and falling into nourishing conversations? My intention had been to hold onto my Travel-Me just a little longer, to rescue some of my calm and spiritual openness and introduce it to my everyday life following the Camino.
But here I was, day 1 after, and I was already sliding back into anxious, compulsorily productive, living-in-the-future Tina. Wow.
I can proudly say that I held my ground and did not open my laptop until the next day. When I did sit down at my desk, staring at the two screens in front of me, I was surprised by how unfamiliar it felt. The icons and their texts on the desktop seemed smaller than I remembered, and the colours seemed a little off.
And that’s when it dawned on me. A thought that had not occurred to me during my journey took me by surprise now: Never in my adult life – and maybe even before that – have I ever been away from a computer for two and a half weeks!!! Even on vacations, I bring a computer. Not to work for an employer, but to work on my own creative projects. I always WORK, and the way to do it is to use a computer.
I had almost not paid attention to something so unprecedented, and so significant. I have never given my body and my brain the chance to get a break from life as homo computerus. Hence, I did not know what effect it would have to go cold turkey.
The simplicity, the serenity, the nourishment for my soul of doing Camino – a big part of it is looking at nature all day, moving your eyes from left to right while pondering life. Like a never-ending EMDR (“Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing”, a form of psychotherapy) session. No wonder I happened to have almost zero dreams during my time on the Camino, while all my nights before and after were usually burdened with heavy, exhausting dreams.
When the Monday after came and I was back “at work” (sitting at my desk at home) for 8 hours on end, I became aware of the toll this took on me. Stiff neck, restlessness in my body, a slight headache, and a yearning to go out into the sun. I mean, I had been aware of these signs of discomfort after hours on the computer before. But until that day, I did not know how different my body could feel, in a life spent outdoors.
I am grateful for this realization. And I am, to be honest, quite shocked. How can it be that many of us modern people do not know what life without a computer, for more than a few days, is like?
So that’s it.
I went on a give-and-take treasure hunt.
I got introduced to my own smile.
I learned to trust in life unfolding.
I learned to listen to the nuances of pain and discomfort.
I got reminded I should separate people from their actions.
I was introduced to a temporary alternative version of my life – a life without computer screens.
Which of my experiences can you relate to?
Meet you in the comments!
photos: Tina Hewelt