My decision to walk the Camino de Santiago (The Way of Santiago) was made a year before the start of my journey, while hanging out in a hostel lounge in Porto, Portugal. The place I was staying offered an amazing 3-course dinner for 10 Euros, which included table wine. A few of us ventured over to the lounge area to relax before heading out for the evening. I had just spent the day walking around Vila Novo de Gaia (The New World) and visited wineries along the Douro river with Jonathan, a friendly traveller from the UK. Jonathan introduced me to a pair of travellers from South Korea that just finished the Camino de Santiago.
We had a group of travellers that sat around and listened to the various adventures they encountered on the Camino. They were very fatigue and really wanted to rest. A comfy bed was a luxury that they didn’t have on their pilgrimage. Both the individuals worked full time in South Korea and were on temporary leave from work to attend college in Europe. They devised a plan to take extra courses before summer so they could take a month off without their employer knowing. Once they returned home from school, they said that their life is their work; therefore, they needed to do this journey before it was too late.
We offered them beer and wine if they stayed an extra 10 minutes to share more stories, but they refused. As they were getting ready to head to bed I asked one question – what advice would you give someone who is considering walking the Camino de Santiago. He stood up and smiled, he said the following is the only two things he would tell someone:
- He wished the journey never ended
- He also wished he didn’t pack as many socks
As they departed from the lounge there was silence, as everyone looked at each other as though they discovered the meaning of life. It was then that I decided that I wanted to walk the long road to Santiago. For those who aren’t familiar with the Camino, check out The Way with Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez:
Truth is before I departed for Europe, my life was upside down. Leading up to this life-changing journey, I requested to step down from my position as CFO for a digital media firm. I had no idea where my life was heading afterwards. I was anxious and I didn’t know why. I gave my best to a company and I felt it was never good enough. After a decade of accounting I couldn’t continue, as I was watching myself turn into someone I hated.
Getting to St. Jean Pied du Port was a journey in itself. I departed from Paris and took a train South to Bayonne (my train cart was filled with luggage so I had to ride the rails between carts). I met a pair of travellers that were very kind; however, we split ways from the registration office. With each action I did, I found karma hitting me back 5 fold. Still frustrated with worries back at home, I ended up booking a hotel room, which wasn’t necessary. I left St. Jean Pied du Port to stay in a small village 4 km away from the official starting point.
I got up at dawn, on a hot summer’s morning, to depart for Roncesvalles, Spain, I had a 28 km hike scheduled for Day One, which involved leaving France by crossing the Pyrenees Mountains. One thing I noticed immediately was the lack of people on the path. I later discovered from locals that I ended up on the winter path and not the summer. The summer path consisted of walking over the mountain immediately, whereas the winter path consisted of descending gradually into the valley for the first 20 km and then climbing the mountain for the last 8 km.
Before making the discovery that I would be alone this day, I had plenty of time to collect my thoughts and reflect on the life I have lived. I am a textbook example of an extrovert, as I rarely spend anytime alone. Thus, when I was approaching St Jean Pied du Port, one of my worries and greatest source of anxiety was the idea of being alone for so long. My anxiety of loneliness later morphed into fear of getting lost on the winter path.
My day started great, with the sun shining, I was finally able to reconnect with nature. I crossed many villages and I witnessed the locals starting their day in Southern France. My thoughts were with my family and friends, and I was thinking how I could change things for the better when I returned. As the day continued, I passed the last village in France and I began my journey through the Pyrenees. The sunlight was no longer on my backside as I entered the woods. My happy thoughts slowly turned into a cloud of anxiety and fear. I was alone in the woods, and I would continue to venture for hours before I saw another human being. The smell of fresh bread from the local bakeries was now a faded memory, so was the sound of children singing and playing on the streets. I was very alone. Worst of all, the guide was tailored for the summer path, where I later learned sources for clean water ran out 16 km into my hike.
Now being alone in the woods I made a decision to take small breaks whenever I saw a marker and most importantly I decided never to sit-down. Around 23km in, I realized that if I sat down there would be a good chance I wouldn’t get back up. I had nothing left in my tank; my frustration and anger boosted my energy to keep one foot in front of the other. All of a sudden, the happy thoughts of home disappeared and new thoughts emerged. I started to ponder why certain people were jerks all the time, and why do most people blindly live a life where they clearly weren’t happy. I started thinking about individuals I knew who were purposely denying themselves a fulfilling life and it acted as rocket fuel to get me up the mountain. My smile faded into a grimace, and I was contemplating why I even bothered to go on this journey. Thoughts left my mind, as I began shouting in a valley where no one could hear me.
Each time I reached a peak, I thought civilization would start forming around the corner. My feet were drenched from a failed attempt to extract fresh water from an active creek. Near the end of the journey for day one, I could see a campsite in the distance. I was relieved, I was no longer concerned about being lost, and I ran up the hill to the campsite. It was empty, aside from one lot, which hosted a family packing up their vehicle. I asked them if there was a nearby store, as the signs on site where saying the water was not drinkable. I was agitated and eager to reach Roncesvalles. They told me that the village I was looking for was 2 km away and that weren’t any stores around, aside from Roncesvalles.
My anger dissipated when they offered water and food. If I weren’t dehydrated down to the bone, I would’ve cried. I excused myself as I began chugging the water and devoured the apple & fresh biscuits. They could see I was exhausted and they were patient with me. Oddly, I found myself asking the Saraiva family why they were so kind to a complete stranger, Rosa (the mother) told me that they wanted to greet pilgrims as they reached the final leg of the walk. I informed them that there were no pilgrims on my path and that the summer path is somewhere else.
Rosa and her husband Nelson wanted to teach a wonderful lesson to their children on the importance of helping your neighbour. She mentions that it is often overlooked when we are stuck in our routines back at home. Her children would be starting their Camino further West in Sarria, which is 100 km away from Santiago. I parted ways from the Saraiva family and I was given extra water and food to finish my walk. Leah, Rosa and Nelson’s daughter, tied a ribbon to my bag with a message of peace and love. They wished me a safe journey. We exchanged emails and I continued onto Roncesvalles.
If I didn’t book the hotel outside of St. Jean Pied du Port I probably wouldn’t have ran into the Saraiva family and I might not have encountered such adversity that left a lasting impression. Although it was only day one of my journey, the greatest lesson I learned was still in front of me.