Lessons from the Camino (part 2): Creating your own “way.”

The Camino de Santiago continues..

In Part 1, we discussed trusting in arrows, climbing up mountains, asking for help, self-care/awareness of needs, and the importance of finishing what you start.  In this section, I will discuss how external environments and the people around you affect your decision-making, the importance of slowing down,  how you can start fine-tuning your thoughts and actions to be more clear and in alignment with your desires, and why it’s okay to go around in circles.

You’re probably thinking, what does this all have to do with hiking on a trail in Spain?  It has everything to do with it.  The Camino is synonymous  to life.  You have a start point on the trail (aka we are born/the sun rises/we start a new day) and an end point (aka we die/the sun sets/we go to sleep at night).  Everything that happens in between is what we are here for.

San Vincente, Cantabria

The Rat Race
There are many routes to Santiago.  We did the Camino Norte (northern route) for 3/4 of our trip and towards the end, we cut over to the Camino Primitivo (primitive route). The route that most people do is the Camino Frances, which is located in inland Spain, and is more popular and widely-known.  The reason we chose the northern route was because we wanted to be near the coast, and we didn’t want to be on an over-populated trail during a peak summer travel season.  However, on our walk, we still encountered people on a daily basis.  Many people would walk past us and say hello or “Buen Camino.”  Some people rode their bikes.  Locals would even be out for a daily jog.  It was great to meet so many people from various parts of the world, with different backgrounds, all doing the Camino for their own personal reasons.  The camaraderie you develop with other walkers is unlike anything at home.

We started in San Sebastian, where we received a guidebook and a brochure that listed out places to stay which were known as pilgrim hostels, or albergues.  Our brochure only had a list of albergues for the first province (we had to cross over a total of four provinces, and needed to pick up other brochures and resource literature along the way).  You also learn about things from word of mouth.  The albergues were really cheap, anywhere from 5 to 15 euros, and some places were donation only.  However, we were soon in for a surprise as we realized that not only were some of these albergues not so nice, but that sometimes if you get there too late, there is not a bed for you, so you have to sleep on the floor.  Many pilgrims would wake up at 5:00am, and bolt straight out the door to begin their day, so they could rush to the next town to ensure they would get a bed.  Talk about a rat race!

Panic and anxiety started to set in as we tried to plan our day, making sure we would get up early enough to start our walk in order to get to a certain town in time to get a bed.  Some days we woke up late (this is a vacation, after all!), and we had to re-arrange our entire plans.  Then what started to happen was the fellowship and camaraderie we originally developed with other people on the trail, soon turned to competitiveness.  Our walking comrades now became our adversaries!   We started to feel we had to “get ahead” of others, and especially if we saw a large group, instead of feeling happy to see them, we were terrified that they would “steal” our beds.  What the heck was going on?  This was crazy.  All of a sudden we were like sheep in a herd, following the mind-set of other people and these self-imposed rules that we had created upon ourselves.  We didn’t have to “race” to the next albergue, we just saw that’s what everyone else was doing, so we jumped on the bandwagon.  We soon realized that we were locking ourselves into a straight line approach.  Something needed to change.  We needed to slow down and try something new..

Donkeys in the countryside of Asturias

The final straw happened when we reached the town of Polanco in the province of Cantabria.  At this point, we had been traveling with three other German girls that we had made friends with.  We originally planned to walk to the next town, because we heard there was an albergue there with 60 beds, but one of our friends had destroyed her feet and couldn’t continue on, so we stopped.  The albergue in Polanco only had 6 beds, which was enough for us 5 girls, and a reservation had been made ahead for the 6th bed by a guy named Simon.  We all paid our 5 euros, and the local lady took us to the hostel.  It was located literally on the side of a main highway across the street from the only bar in town.  The inside of the hostel was pretty gross.  There was dust and cobwebs everywhere, and a feeling of emptiness permeated the air.  Nevertheless, we were all tired and hungry from walking all day, so we set down our bags, and went across the highway to have lunch at the only bar.  We quickly saw that everyone in the bar were locals and they were all men, and they did not look thrilled to have a group of women, nonetheless foreigners, walk in to their “territory.”  The waitress was the only girl there, and she unfortunately had no teeth and weighed about 75 pounds.  I figured this was a test of compassion and non-judgement.  I kept telling myself to be thankful that we had a bed and food to eat (the food was not good), and to not be judgmental towards others, however, I couldn’t shake off the bad vibes.

After we were done eating, we went back to the hostel, took a nap, hand washed our clothes, and sat outside.  We sat outside as bugs and geckos surrounded us (I swear a snake was going to pop out at anytime too).  It was a scary scene.  Five girls literally sitting outside on the side of a highway in the middle of nowhere.  If we wanted dinner later, we would have to go back to the bar (none of us wanted to go back).  We all went into survival mode, sharing our crackers and fruit with each other, making sure we would have some left in the morning.  I realized that there was no way I was going to get any sleep.  I was terrified of the local men, the critters and creatures, the fact that we were on the side of a main highway, and who was this Simon guy that supposedly reserved a bed?  Was he just going to show up randomly in the middle of the night?  The later it got, the more I started to panic.  Feelings of darkness and despair overtook me, and I felt like a 5 year old afraid of  monsters and boogeymen that were going to appear in the dark.  We needed to get out as soon as possible, before the sun went down.  I was not ready to experience Polanco at night.

Luckily, I had a card with a phone number that a local lady gave to us a few days before.  She told us to stay at her friend’s guest house (pension) in the town of Santillana del Mar (the next big town over).  I found the card, and luckily my friend’s phone was working (she didn’t always have service).  We called the pension, and asked if there was room for 5.  There was!  We asked if a taxi could pick us up.  When they found out we were in Polanco, they said they would rush over right away.  Little did we know that Polanco had a bad reputation in Spain.  No one willingly chooses to live there unless they are involved with drugs or prostitution.  A lady picked us up, and took us to a nice, clean place called Hospedaje Jesus.  Angels literally came and saved us from the darkness..

santillana del mar
Hospedaje Ma Jesus in Santillana del Mar, Cantabria

Going Around in Circles
After experiencing the “rat race” and being saved from Polanco, I had a wake up call:

  • you don’t have to follow what everyone else is doing
  • you always have a choice
  • there is a way to be more clear in asking for what you want

Just because we were pilgrims walking the trail, did not mean we had to follow what other pilgrims were doing, walk a straight line starting at 5:00am and stay at every albergue.   The cheapest route is not always the best route, especially in places that are unsafe and dirty.  Pensions cost anywhere from 15-30 euros (which is still affordable and worth the extra money).  Some pilgrims were so judgmental at those who took a bus, taxi or train during parts of the trail, saying that it was “cheating.”  I disagreed with this outlook, and am so grateful that we had an opportunity to experience various travel methods when those times arose and we needed it.  We would have potentially been stuck in various seedy circumstances, if we had not exercised our right to choose a travel method that involved wheels.  I also realized that unlike the people in Polanco who were trapped in a life of darkness and perhaps don’t have the luxuries of certain freedoms, we did have a choice.  We have a choice everyday to wake up, be thankful for what’s been given to you, and decide whether to walk into a black hole or into a life of vitality, purpose and meaning.

Everyday on my walk, I was hoping and praying for mine and my friends’ health, a bed to sleep in and for food (amongst other things).  These things were provided, however, I learned that I needed to be more specific in what I wanted.  I didn’t want just any bed, I wanted a clean bed.  I didn’t want just any crappy food, I wanted food that would nourish and sustain me.  I realized that it was okay to ask for more than just bare survival essentials, and that I shouldn’t feel guilty for asking for more.  Fine-tuning your thoughts, prayers and actions can lead you on a clearer path which places you in alignment with your dreams and desires.

The day after we were rescued, we were newly inspired and ready to get back on the trail and take on a new day.  Ironically, we ended up lost again, and walked around in circles for 4 hours!   While my friends were frustrated because they felt like we weren’t “getting anywhere,” I was so happy and thrilled.  I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to be walking around in circles.  The reason was because sometimes it takes a circle approach to get to where you need to go (versus a straight line), sometimes you have to repeat yourself, and sometimes you need to come back to where you started.. and start again.

Park on top of Bilbao.

To continue on the journey, here’s Part 3:
Lessons from the Camino (part 3): What happens at the end of the road.

Here’s Part 1, in case you missed it:
Lessons from the Camino (part I): Why you have to get up and “walk” everyday.

By Kristin Bach
Copyright 2013


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