Built This Way
For those who don’t know, the Camino de Santiago or “The Way”, has been a journey experienced by travelers for centuries. It has served as religious penance, criminal punishment and, pilgrimage for people from all walks of life, religious or non-religious perspectives and people who just wanted a good workout.
There are many routes one can choose. The most popular and famous, the “traditional” route is referred to as the Camino de Frances. This particular path beings in southern France in a little town called St. Jean Pied de Port. It is at the base of the Pyrenees mountains and serves as the official starting point of this route. However, the real “traditional” route was to sojourn to Santiago from your hometown. Yea, people have walked from Rome, Paris, and other European locales. In fact, a bunk mate of mine on my very first night in St. Jean had completed 4 Camino’s, the first being a “real Camino” from his hometown in Belgium. The idea was that you’d make pilgrimage from wherever you live to Santiago. So, he took 3 months off and walked, just a few years ago, to Santiago from somewhere in Belgium. If you’re keeping score, that’s some 1731 kilometers walked vs. my little 790 stroll just completed.
Suffice it to say that people have done the Camino for many years, for many reasons and in many ways. My reasons are a bit complicated. Some of it has to do with a spirit of adventure, a wanderlust that has fueled my travel ambitions for many years. Some of it was reflection and introspection. Some of it was the sheer cultural shock to my system of doing something so radically different to my “normal.” Some of my reasons are deeper, darker and more personal. We’ll keep them private for now.
Everyone comes for their reasons. But there seems to be some common characteristics of those who choose to spend their walking for a month or more. They yearn for, WE yearn for deeper connection with self, our own soul, and deeper connection with others with whom we share this planet. Those drawn to the Camino value connection. Of course, this is a general statement, but I found it to be almost 100% true of those I met in my 35 days walking through Spain.
When you take something that has really strong spiritual undercurrents (notice I did NOT use the word religious), and you populate it with people given to self-reflection and connection, you end up with a potpourri of languages, cultures and experiences connecting on a very basic, human level. You end up with something hard to describe, something that must be experienced. You end up with something so beautifully human.
My relatively new friend and fellow Camino alumni (he’s done several), Santiago, enjoyed some tea the other day. Santy spoke beautifully about the Camino and why it affects people the way it does. He said “everything is simplified on the Camino. As a result, your mind and heart process less. You feel more. You are more aware. You are more connected because you are less distracted with the complexity and confusion of normal life.” He makes a beautiful point.
Here at home, we choose between 500 plus TV channels (and still complain there is nothing good on TV), a dozen brands or types of Catsup, every imaginable version of sugary coffee drink possible and dozens of dining options every 10 blocks. We wade through hot house produced fruit and vegetables, available off-season because we demand apples when we want apples, not just when they are ripe, ready and in season. We want it all and we kind of want it now.
The Camino is antithetical to that way of thinking. The choices, the options are far fewer. It’s carne (meat, usually pork or beef) or seafood. It’s bocadillo or tortilla. It’s café americano or café con leche. It’s whatever produce is in season. It’s, what can you carry on your back and how far can your feet take you each day? It’s 3 socks, 3 pair of underwear and three shirts. It’s wash one, wear one, dry one. It’s, which albergue or hostel has bed space? It’s, do I stop now for water and a break or do I move on another 6 km to the next viable stopping point?
It is life simplified. As a result, your heart and mind begin, after a few days, to acclimate to this simplification. You become more malleable, more open. You meet people who are experiencing similar feelings. Walls start to come down. Masks get removed and left behind. Pretense fades and ego finds itself in the back seat behind humility, humanity and commonality and a relentless desire to connect.
You are with people who speak your language, or not. Regardless, you find ways to communicate, to have understanding. You press through the language barrier, realizing it is really not a barrier if you want to know that human on the other side of the German or Spanish or whatever language skills you wished you had honed back in high school.
You find a way because that person is here to connect and so are you. So, you connect. You hear stories. You share stories. You go deeper than you might be comfortable with at home, even with a close friend. You do so because it feels safe and you do so because it feels good. In the process, you realize there is still another person with whom you need and want deeper connection… yourself. That openness you’ve been experiencing, if you are willing, leads right back to yourself.
Each day I was presented with beautiful opportunities to connect with other people. But the Way is funny. You walk and talk for a few hours and time flies and you went deep and shared yourself and listened to another. Then suddenly, you realize they lagged behind for a break or you did and now you’ve been walking alone for an hour. So, you keep walking and you spend time with yourself in an deliberate way that rarely happens in the land of 500 TV channels and rush hour traffic. You start to go deep with the person that often is most ignored… you.
As that process unfolds, the layers of your own onion peel back and your humanity is right out there in front leading the way. No more, or at least far less reliance on the mask or the image or the ego. You battle blisters, diarrhea, bad knees, bad backs and bad breath and body odor. You are faced with the unfamiliar and you begin to build relationships to solve problems or meet needs of where to sleep and how far to go. You find someone who really does know how to “needle a blister” and you let them have at your foot.
Maybe this is the magic of the Camino. Maybe it’s just the magic of my Camino. I can’t say it’s true for all but I can say I experienced connection with Kirk in a way I have not experienced for years. I had time, extended time to think, to walk, to be. It put me in a mindset to connect. I met others who were also in that mindset. As a result of this Camino, as I mentioned previously, I have friends, dear friends with whom I intend to stay connected. From Mexico, Brazil, Sweden, Canada, Great Britain and Germany, to name a few, I now have friends all over the world. Real friends. People with whom I shared meals and stories and even tears.
This is the magic of the Camino to me; the journey inward and the journey of connection outward. I am convinced we humans are built for connection. We are wired for it. We need it and, whether we recognize it or not, we want it. The absence of it causes all sorts of mental and emotional anguish for many. Genuine, meaningful connection builds bridges, resolves conflict, heals hurt, promotes peace and gives fuel to the healthy human heart to go out and do good stuff, stuff that matters, meaningful work done with an open heart and empathy.
This is the magic of the Camino to me.
There are some worthy stories to share and I’ll dice into those in my next installment.