Reflections on the Camino

I was honored when Laurie, of The Camino Provides, asked me to write about what “the Camino provides” meant to me.

In all honesty, I put this task off for a long time. I didn’t believe that I could actually put pen to paper and articulate how much the Camino provided me. But, when I sat down to think about it, and reflected on my life in the half year since the Camino, I knew that I finally had the answer.

It has been exactly six months since I started my Camino. Notice, I anchor to my start date, because I don’t believe that my Camino has ever really stopped.

I began on June 1st, 2015. My Camino took me from Burgos to Santiago de Compostela in 18 days. In those 18 days, I walked and I talked, I laughed and I sobbed.

I sweated through the Meseta, and shivered in the rain in Galicia. I drank too much red wine, and ate too many Spanish tortillas.

I got lots of blisters, and I made lots of friends. 

I cried too many times to count. I also smiled too many times to count.

I pushed myself to my limits, both mentally and physically, and all along the way, the Camino provided me with all of the tools I needed to keep going.

The Camino provided me with open hearts to connect with every day, and open minds to share stories with.

The Camino provided me with the comfort of community, and a sense of purpose, in knowing that I was never alone along The Way. It gave me peace, in the form of the nature and beautiful landscapes that surrounded me, especially in the mountains of Galicia.

It provided me with shoulders to lean on when I limped, and the hands of complete strangers to bandage my blistered feet.

It provided me friendships with incredible people from all over the world. The Camino gifted me Peter, Nadja, Mundo and Austin, among many others, who all now hold a very special place in my heart.

But, the Camino doesn’t stop providing when a peregrino reaches Santiago. Instead, during the months after your journey, it slowly molds you until you realize that you, at your core, have somehow become a better version of yourself.

Since my Camino, I have become more patient, I love more openly than ever before, and I have developed an incredible amount of faith in myself and my capabilities, as well as in the kindness of others.

Most importantly, the Camino provided me with the conviction that I am the creator of my own path, my own happiness. By pushing me to my physical and mental limits, the Camino taught me that my state of mind is not merely a product of my environment, but rather, can be whatever I choose for it to be. We cannot be defeated, we simply choose to feel defeated. Likewise, we can choose to be happy.

And just like that, these last six months of my life have been the happiest I have ever been. I know the Camino played a part in that.

To everyone who has already completed their Camino, and is now on the Camino of life, I hope my words brought back beautiful memories.

And to those peregrinos, like Laurie, who are looking forward to their journey, my heart warms at the thought of all the things the Camino will provide you.

Buen Camino,

Pauline

Camino

Santiago de Compostela with my Camino family

Camino Afterthoughts

I miss the Camino every day. 

Maybe it’s because I’m reading Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild,” or maybe it’s because I’m in Slovakia staring at the Tatra Mountains while they tease me. 

“Come climb me, come play,” they say.

It’s been over a month since I’ve been on the trail, yet every day I still imagine that I’ll wake up, lace up my boots, swing my backpack on and just go. 

All through my lunch today, I stared longingly at two Slovakian hikers sitting a table over. I watched them drink their ice cold beers, knowing how good they tasted after a long day of walking. I couldn’t help but stare at their backpacks that were fuller than mine on the camino. I wanted to ask them where they were hiking, what gear they had, and silly enough, if I could please come with.

I had to stop looking because one of them started to wink at me, and I’m afraid I gave the wrong impression.

Walking the Camino gave me purpose and clarity. I had a clear mission every single day, met inspiring folks left and right and I got to be outdoors for hours on end. The views of the Galician mountains, reminiscent of scenes from The Hobbit, and the poppy covered fields of the Meseta, which made me curse while I sweated and blistered, are burned into my mind. 

It’s kind of like childbirth, I suppose, which is another topic I know nothing about. It’s painful and uncomfortable at times, but when you look back at it, none of that matters. You remember how beautiful it was and how much joy it gave you.

I suppose that’s a good thing, to miss it. It’s motivating. It helps you create goals, my newest being to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, and one day complete the triple crown of hiking. That is, the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian trail and the Continental Divide Trail. 

I already have the backpack and the boots. And hell, my two missing toenails are probably never going to grow back anyways. 

The Triple Crown. A combined 7,900 glorious miles of smelly sweat and bloody feet, across 22 states. What a dream. 

Yes, I think I’ll do that. 

Come climb me! -Tatra Mountains

Not Ours to Keep

I’ve made a lot of close friends on the Camino, which called for some hard goodbyes. It all seemed rather unfair, to be blessed with wonderful new friends, yet have to part with them after only a few weeks, fulling knowing some of us may never see each other again. But, truth is, that’s life and there is a lesson in that.

People will pass through our lives. Some linger for a moment like a neighbor dropping in for tea, some weave in and out like race cars through traffic, and some are always there quietly in the background like music in a cafe. The form their presence takes does not matter. The important thing is that they are in our lives in the precise moment they are suppose to be.

I’ve spent the last three weeks of the Camino being an adopted daughter to a retired Swiss man, who never had a child of his own, and confiding in a new big sister, an Australian yogi who sold all her things to travel the world. These were just two, among the many incredible people, who touched my life during the Camino, and for whom I will forever be grateful for.

There are certain things that simply aren’t ours to decide. Our mothers and fathers will pass on one day, our brothers and sisters may move away and our friends may become distant, engrossed in the direction of their own lives.

The people we love are here in this moment; they are not ours to keep. With that said, the best we can do is love the shit out of them right now.

Barcelona, Mexico, Australia, Germany, Switzerland and USA!

Conversations with Strangers: Anna from Holland 

About Her: Anna is 60 years old and a total badass. She walked 2,432 kilometers to get to Santiago de Compostela. That’s 1,511.1 miles. She started in Holland and it only took about four months. Oh, and she didn’t get any blisters. 

I asked why she did the Camino, and her answer was refreshingly simple. She said that spent her whole life being a working mother, and for once she wanted to just be Anna. Not a wife. Not a mom. Not anyone else. Just Anna. 

How We Met: Anna was having breakfast in a plaza in Santiago and had two empty seats at her table. I think of empty seats as an invitation, so I sat down and joined her. Also she gave me some pretty sound advice. She said, “When I was 21, I was married. Don’t do it. Then you won’t have to walk for four months when you’re 60.”

Coolest Experience: Anna’s coolest experience during Camino was simple. One of the albergues at which she stayed at was owned by a woman who had a daughter with Down’s Syndrome. Anna was amazed at how patient, loving and kind this woman was, since she was able to run a business and simultaneously give her full attention to her daughter. 

Life Dream: Anna’s big dream is to return to her husband and family, and live life a little differently after finding herself on her long walk. She said it best, “If I like something, I’ll do it.”

She looks great, doesn’t she?

Day 18: The End of the Camino

I walked 250 miles, about 400 kilometers, on the Camino Francés in 17 days. 

The Way of Saint James is something people do for many reasons.

Some people do it to give thanks to God, some people do it for sport. Some people go with broken hearts, grieving the loss of a loved one or healing past wounds. Some go to find themselves, or to figure out what they want to do with their lives. Some walk simply for the glory of having conquered over 700 kilometers by foot.

I went on the Camino because I wanted to become a better version of myself. I wanted to reflect on who I am and who I have become during my time abroad, and to observe, without judgement, what has changed and what has stayed the same. I was curious to discover what parts of my life I grew in, and where there is still room for improvement.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve learned about limits, both physical and emotional. I’ve identified my beliefs, as well as my faults. I’ve opened my heart to complete strangers, and I’ve also learned how to recognize my own ego.

I’m a better listener than ever before, after having listened to people grieve their losses, teach me songs in French, and tell me folktales from their country.

I’ve also learned to admit when I need help, and put my pride aside. It only took me a skinless toe and two infections to figure that one out.

My arrival in Santiago de Compostela, means that my Camino has officially come to an end. That also means it’s time to start reflecting on the experience and asking myself certain questions. But the truth is, I don’t yet know the depth of the impact that the Camino has had on my life. That will take time. 

All I can do for now is keep striving to become a better version of myself. I’m not there yet, but I’m getting there. 

  

Day 16: Freefalling

My days on the Camino are filled with stories. That’s really what I do all day, I walk and I listen. I’ve listened to people grieve for the loved ones they have lost, teach me songs in French, tell me folktales from their home countries. I learn new things every day and, of course, I share a thing or two along the way. But most importantly, I have become a better listener than ever before. 

During an intense discussion on the road today, my dear friend Mundo, from Mexico, compared life to skydiving and it’s a thought I really wanted to share. 

Imagine you’re going skydiving. 

You’re in the airplane high above beautiful fields. The door opens and you feel the power of the wind as you stand at edge, ready to jump. 

You teeter for a moment, swaying in and out, until you finally decide to go for it and jump. 

You’re falling through the air, picking up speed, slightly terrified but absolutely exhilarated. The adrenaline is rushing through your body and you are free. You are happy. 

You’re nearing the ground and it’s time to pull open your parachute. You pull and you pull. 

Your parachute doesn’t open. 

You keep falling, terrified. But then you remember you have an emergency parachute. So you pull on the emergency parachute. 

It doesn’t open either. 

And there you are, falling. You are falling, and nothing will save you. 

You have a choice now. 
Do you spend your last moments kicking and screaming, blaming God and being angry? 

Or do you smile as enjoy the ride?

Either way the choice is yours. 
 

Somewhere in the woods along the Way

 

Day 15: Inhale, Exhale

Today I’m sitting in the mountains, drinking tea with schnapps, watching the rain over the green landscape. I couldn’t have chosen a better place to reflect on the last three days in. 

I think I have learned more about myself recently than I thought possible. 

I found peace on day 13, hiking in the mountains of Galicia through rain, fog and bursts of sunshine. I walked 40 kilometers that days, about 25 miles, because it felt inexplicably right. My body was energized by the luscious green forests and I was finally alone with my thoughts. 

About 30 kilometers in, I came upon a group meditating by a waterfall. I didn’t pass them up. Staying with them felt right, so there I was breathing in and out with a group of strangers. Letting go of the past, and being grateful for the present. 

The two Spaniards leading the meditation approached me further up the road, and told me that they had called me their “tinkerbell.” I was the mysterious blonde force, in a neon yellow jacket, that brought an intense amount of positive energy to their meditation practice. I tried to thank them for letting me share their beautiful moment, but they thanked me instead, because as much as I thought I needed them then, they needed me too. They asked my name, and told me that in Catalan, “pau,” from Pauline, means peace.

I was overwhelmed with emotion when they told me they felt my energy, because it was so beautiful to feel so deeply connected to complete strangers. It was inexplicable and exhilarating all at once.

Days 14 and 15 were flooded with thoughts about who I was and who I wanted to be. I opened my heart to everyone I met on the road, and tried to be present in every single moment. I learned more about God, and what faith meant to me. I inhaled and exhaled deeply throughout the trail, hoping that maybe, just maybe, it was possible to absorb the feeling of being in the mountains, so that it would never leave me. 

I have grown so much, and I’m still growing. And for that, I am grateful to the Camino.

I found peace. It was waiting for me in the mountains of Galicia.