The Pursuit of Personal Change on Spain’s Camino de Santiago

The pale sphere of the sun had sunk behind a ragged veil of clouds, its spectrum of colour drowning somewhere between the sea and the sky. Slowly, the landscape was getting saturated in a dark hue of blue, as if some haphazard painter adding layers of colour on top of each other to slowly cover up the whole picture. It wasn’t the best sunset I had ever seen, but it was the only one I had ever witnessed at the end of the world.

Finisterre – or Fisterre, as the local Galicians call it – is the westernmost point of mainland Europe and before the discovery of Americas, long believed to be the edge of the world. It is there that the last waypost of Camino de Santiago stands. A sign embedded in the stone pole reads: Km 0,000.

I had walked for 41 days and over 900 kilometres through four Spanish provinces. I had met and un-met countless people that I would never meet nor care about again; and as alone I walked the whole way, I thought I would reach the end by myself as well – and I would have, had it not been for Grant, a Florida man and a devout Christian who I’d first met on my third day of walking and now miraculously found again on my last day. I was sitting on a rock, looking out to the sea, as he dissected his straw hat to get rid of non-biodegradable parts, and I asked him:

‘Do you think the camino changed you in some way?’

He didn’t say yes or no. Instead, he replied: ‘I don’t think anyone can go all this way and not change a little bit.’

Evasive, as if to say: I expected more.

The end of the world

The life-altering power of Camino de Santiago (?)

When I went to pick up my credential – the pilgrim passport where you collect stamps every day of the journey – at the San Sebastian cathedral, the small, dark-skinned nun that gave it to me told me about a couple that had met on the camino and got married in that very church.

‘It was a beuatiful wedding’, she said, and then asked me: ‘Are you Catholic?’

‘No, no’, I laughed a little uncomfortably, wondering if it was rude to say I was not religious at all. ‘At least not yet! Anything can happen on the camino, right?’

I had heard so many stories. How it had helped people walk through their trauma. How it had led to profound introspection and near enlightenment. How people had returned home after the experience with their very souls in turmoil and their whole life turned around.

Well, maybe that is a little extreme. But the way people talk about the camino really makes you think it is the most important thing you could do in your lifetime.

But what if you embark on this journey just to find out your experience is wildly different from the expected?

On day 29, I wrote in my journal: ‘—[T]he camino hasn’t been such a life-altering experience to me that people always paint it to be. — It’s only about 10 days until Santiago and I’m worried that I’m not going to be any better or worse than when I started – and this 800 kilometres has been for nothing.’

My other notes were more carefully worded, as if I couldn’t even admit to myself fully what I was feeling: disillusioned. Because thinking those things meant I wasn’t as good as the other pilgrims; that I didn’t belong; that I was somehow walking wrong.

And the worst part was that instead of feeling the intoxicating sense of empowerment and strength that I had felt on Via Dinarica, I mostly just felt tired and humbled.

The people you meet

I guess a part of my disenchantment was due to other hikers. (Note how I am not using the word ‘disappointment – it’s not a word I could truthfully use.) I started walking the Northern route in San Sebastian, a lively coastal city known for its good surf and delicious food. With my brand-new walking pole clanging against the pavement, I made my way to the seaside promenade, and as I saw the first metal seashell on the ground – the symbol of the Camino – I smiled.

Then I noticed something else: another girl walking in front of me. Then two guys who passed me as I shortened my stride to take distance. I stopped by in a beach side restaurant to use the bathroom but also to give these three some headway; but no sooner had I got out of the city and stood on the edge of the forest taking a photo of the beach view that three more people passed me, and I couldn’t help but respond to their friendly greetings with equal attention. All the time hoping they wouldn’t actually stop to chat.

Following the line to Santiago…

Over the first few days, I came to accept other hikers on the trail. It was clear this wasn’t going to be anything like Via Dinarica that I’d hiked the previous summer; where I had encountered less people in three weeks that I did on the Camino in three hours. And it was only April, supposedly a low season for walkers, and on the Northern route, which famously attracted less walkers than the traditional Frances.

Well, at least that part was true. Every day as I opened Facebook, I saw photos of pilgrims lined up in front of albergues, waiting to check in for three hours, and warnings of whole towns filling up by noon and encouraging others to continue walking. Every year, all the caminos draw in more and more travellers, and this year saw a record amount of them.

The situation on the Norte wasn’t that dire. I soon found that I could position myself between groups and keeping my own pace, pretty comfortably walk by myself all day. What I wasn’t expecting were the unforeseen consequences that my craving for aloneness would cause.

Most pilgrims would say that their favourite part of the trail were the people they met and the stories that they heard. But by the end of the first week it was clear I wasn’t making friends with anybody.

All in a sudden, old thoughts and insecurities that had been dormant for months had resurfaced. Aloneness of the trail during the day followed me into albergues and turned into loneliness at nights as I was trying to find my place among groups and couples that had started the journey together.

There was a group of younger pilgrims that had all arrived on the trail alone and quickly found each other on the very first days of the trail, and by the time I came across their path, they had been moulded into such a tight group that outside intrusion seemed impossible.

I spent a few nights with them. They had their own Whatsapp group, and when they took group pictures at dinners, they only showed the end results to each other. I stopped trying to interact with them; I preferred to feel lonely in my own company than feel lonely surrounded by people.

It is true that some fascinating characters walk the camino. Everyone has their own story and their own reasons for walking. But as the pilgrimage becomes more popular, more people with no agenda other than to experience it – walk it for tourist purposes, if you will – join the long line of pilgrims. I am not criticising them since my own interest in walking was rooted mostly in cultural curiosity; but I do think that as the reasons to walk the camino have become more and more secular and the original root of spirituality of the experience fades, people might be less open to each other. Especially if there is no deeper tragedy to tie them together.

Some of the camino veterans that I talked to admitted that they enjoyed the experience but that they didn’t feel like they had found a real ‘camino family’ on the Northern or the Primitive route as they had on their previous caminos.

Maybe I should have changed my habits and let someone step in stride with me on some days; nevertheless, as the popular trail saying goes, ‘everyone walks their own camino’. I felt like I still got the most out of my experience by allowing all that time for self-reflection.

The elusive pursuit of life-altering experiences

The thing is, hyping ourselves up to certain expectations is a sure-fire way to set ourselves up for disappointment, too.

I started walking the camino with an open mind, ready for anything. Or so I thought: in reality, all the stories almost definitely affected me. This is partly the reason I like diving into adventures headfirst without much prior research: I want to arrive as unaffected by other people’s opinions as I can. On the camino, I might have failed to keep the upcoming a secret.

And by romanticising things that could be, that have not yet even happened, we only ensure that the reality will never live up to our dreams.

A view that doesn’t need romanticising

I’m sitting in the tiny kitchen, quietly listening as the man from Barcelona tries to pry into every detail of the life of the old Portuguese man sitting next to him. He has lived an incredible life. The man from Barcelona is interrogating him as if understanding the other man’s whole story could reveal some great secret to him, and as he sits back and looks at him, I can see admiration and defeat mixed in his expression. He has worked in the same office his whole life, he says. A whole, normal, boring life, almost as if he hadn’t lived at all.

The camino has a deep impact on a lot of its pilgrims. I believe he’ll be one of them but what is he carrying home with him – a newly-found wonder for the beauty of the world, or a bitterness for a wilder life he already considers lost?

For people like the man from Barcelona, the camino represents something unknown. It has the power to change them profoundly because it is so out of the ordinary for them. And realising this, in that little kitchen with the slanted roof and a dirty table, I am finally understanding why I have been so underwhelmed by the experience.

I live an extraordinary life. I don’t say that to brag – it is simply true. My routine is rooted in constant change and that is why every new experience, while exciting, already connects to my previous adventures. While I have never walked fir six weeks across Spain before, I have done many other incredible things. It would be unfair to expect that I would be as thoroughly impressed by the experience as someone who has never before even shared a dorm room with strangers.

As soon as I realised this, I was able to stop wondering if there was something wrong with me and enjoy the pilgrimage. I wouldn’t have to feel bad about it not changing my life. I could just let the path give me whatever it was going to, no matter how much or little.

Last words on change…

It can be dangerous to view change as a flood wave; as something large and all-encompassing and so overwhelming that it knocks you down and leaves you gasping for air. Sure, some changes in our lives are like that. But most are droplets of water, or little rivulets, flowing inevitably with the geography of your life’s landscape to form an ocean of experience in the end of their journey.

Change is subtle, and unpalpable, and discreet. It may be a seed that you think dead until one full moon it blooms. Change is subconscious and slow, and we can expect absolutely nothing from our flawed brains, least to interpret and utilise something as complex and elusive as these ideas.

I am not returning from my pilgrimage a changed person. I did not find God nor my true love nor even a peace of mind. But I am returning as someone with a handful of young seeds, and while I do not yet know what to do with them, I will keep planting them until one of them takes root.

Have you walked Camino de Santiago? Did it change your life?

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