A month from today will mark a year since I woke up at 6am and a half hour later took a step outside my albergue in St. Jean to start my first Camino. I had no idea what I’d be in for over the next five weeks. I figured I’d meet nice people. Probably meet some people I didn’t like too. I assumed I may not sleep well among all the snoring pilgrims. I counted on enduring pain. I figured there might be points I’d be so frustrated, tired and beaten both mentally and physically that I’d wish I could just go home. But I also knew how determined I was and nothing was going to stop me from reaching Santiago.
Nearly a year later, I know that the Camino was the best experience of my life. Walking up and down countless hills and mountains across the Spanish countryside, meeting some of the nicest, kindest people I’d ever meet in my life will stick with me forever. It forever changed me – in good ways. I’m more willing to speak up for myself – more willing to smile at strangers and even say hello on occasion (because I learned it’s always a good idea to say “hola” to other pilgrims on the Way). On the Camino I got to be the person I always wanted to be – which was me, but just a little more confident and outgoing. I feel like that has carried over to my everyday life.
I also walk. I’ve always walked a lot. But since returning I walk more than ever. This morning I’ll take a nearly five mile route to work even though work is only 1.5 miles away. That’s not something I would have done before the Camino. But there is so much peace in walking. There’s so much to see, even in your own neighborhood, that you would never pay attention to if you didn’t come across it on foot. I often take longer walks on the weekends too – calling them my “Camino walks.” Any given weekend day I’ll step outside my house and walk 10-14 miles. It always takes me back to happy thoughts of the Camino.
In 2003 I wanted to get a tattoo to signify my time living in New Zealand. It wasn’t until walking on the Camino that I saw the perfect design to commemorate my walk in tattoo form that I decided I would wait no longer. So as a birthday present to myself after returning, I got both tattoos. I always figured I’d get a tattoo in a place I could hide easily because I didn’t want people to judge me for having tattoos. But after the Camino I knew that I didn’t want the tattoos hidden. I wanted a daily reminder of two major experiences that forever changed my life. These tattoos are part of me. I’ve not once looked at my wrists and said “what have I done?!”
The thing I treasure the most about the Camino is the people it brought into my life and the friendships that were formed. Every day I’d meet new people. Some I’d only see that one time and have a brief conversation with, others I’d see regularly and develop a friendship with. My Camino was broken up into three sections due to rest days. Each new section, Eva and I met all new people and made new friends. On the third section we met what would be our Camino family. Then in Santiago, a majority of the people we met on all three sections were there and the reunions with them were amazing. Seeing the smiling faces of people you spent days getting to know and then not seeing for a few weeks made the celebration in Santiago that much more special.
One of my favorite moments on the Camino was the last night in Santiago before I headed home, sitting outside with my family and friends from the walk, drinking wine, laughing, singing and just enjoying that special moment. I knew in that moment that it was one of the best nights of my life.
My Camino family still keeps a chat group to this day. We share photos and stories of our lives. We share funny memories of our time on the walk. We hope for when we can see each other again. I’ve been lucky enough to have mini reunions with most members of the family and look forward to the day I can reunite with the others. We’ve always been able to pick up right where we left off, laughing and telling stories, listening to each other and caring for each other as family. Getting together with them is something that fills my heart the way it was filled on the walk.
My Camino family and other Camino friends are people I have a special bond with. These are irreplaceable bonds. They understand exactly what I went through and what the Camino truly means to me. Sure, other people are interested to hear about my walk – but they never fully understand the importance of the bonds built.
I’ve been joining my local Camino group for their walks more regularly and have found that even just meeting someone who walked as well, you instantly have a bond with. You can both recall those awful stairs up to Portomarin. You both have stories about people snoring and growing ever so tired of bocadillos.
I will walk the Camino again someday. I don’t know when, but it will happen. I was talking with a couple of my Camino family members this past weekend and part of me fears that walking again will never be as good as my walk last year. It could rain constantly, I may not gain a family and I may not develop lasting friendships. How do you replicate perfection? You can’t. You just have to know that though the experience may be different, it doesn’t mean you won’t get the same value out of it.
I’ll be forever grateful for my experience walking and the people it brought into my life. I’ll always tell anyone who asks me that they should go walk their own Camino. I would love for everyone to get to experience what I experienced. To take the challenge head-on and end with their heart being filled with so much love and kindness. Everyone says “The Camino provides.” It really does.