Kindness on the Camino: My three lessons from the world's greatest walk
There are three dimensions to the Camino, says Bronagh Carroll, and a little magic in each...
How can walking up to 30km a day on a muddy trail with a heavy rucksack on your back be magic?
Let me tell you.
You've probably heard about Spain's Camino de Santiago de Compostela from friends and strangers alike. You may even have been tempted to try it once or twice, but pushed the notion to the back of your mind, thinking: 'The Camino is not for me' or, 'I'm not that kind of person'.
Well, the Camino is for you. The Camino is for everyone.
That's the beauty of this walk. I know it can be scary to go out of your comfort zone. But you are never one simple number on the Camino - except for at the tourist office, of course. You form part of other people’s Caminos as much as they form part of yours.
There are three dimensions to this journey.
1. The physical journey
The first Camino is the physical journey, a walk measured by the kilometers on your legs, the impact on your body and the landscapes and places you pass.
These range from tree-covered paths to farmlands with crops, beaches with people, towns with churches and villages with cattle, all of which you leave behind every day.
I live in Asturias now, where I run Magic Hill Holidays, providing Irish people with walking experiences on the Camino. But my background is in nursing, in Dublin and London. I remember the first time I did this walk, in 2014. And I remember the pain.
I remember lying on my bed after walking 32km in one day and thinking, how will I be able to do another 25-30km tomorrow?
I was tired and my feet hurt. My mind was doubting my ability to do it again. But somehow, the next day I was once again up early, ready to walk.
As I walked kilometer after kilometer, the doubts disappeared. I regained confidence with every village I left behind, and was amazed by how resilient the body is and how weak our mind can be at times... how it can prevent us from doing so much.
By 3pm, I had completed another long journey and It dawned on me: Why do we put these doubts in our heads?
Since then, I have walked Caminos in Galicia, Cantabria, the Basque Country and part of the Portuguese Way. This summer, I'll be walking the 'English Way' with my 14-year-old nephew.
On the Camino you somehow find the energy every day and do it.
2. The cultural journey
On the Camino, you'll meet other pilgrims from far away places.
Each of them are so different when it comes to culture, language and day-to-day life back home, but so similar when it comes to needs and wants in life.
This second dimension is measured by the people we meet, the stories we learn from them and the laughs we share. People who don’t know each other and who don’t share the same culture are ready to help each other on the Camino.
Their only bond is the journey itself.
As a consequence, kindness is more present on the Camino than in our daily city lives, making us question how we all live outside of this journey.
At the start of my last Camino, I remember meeting a Spanish man called Ángel. He was very social - always bringing people together in the evenings for dinner, drinks and interesting conversations.
Ángel made me feel part of something bigger than myself - in contrast to the life I had previously lived in Dublin and London.
Also, being able to speak Spanish allowed me to learn more things from the locals. On my first four days I walked with Clara, a German girl. I sometimes translated for her things that the locals were telling me, or things that I heard in cafes.
Clara thanked me for translating and made a comment that helped me appreciate languages even more.
“When you speak one more language, your world is just a little bit bigger”.
I realised then that my Camino would be filled with many more stories than it would be if I only spoke English.
3. The inner journey
With countless hours on the Camino, there will be many opportunities for you to walk alone for stretches. This is a fascinating prospect.
In our 'real lives', we are constantly connected to others. On the Camino, if the pilgrim wishes, they can completely plug out and disconnect.
You may not see a single person for a few hours on the trail and you will start connecting with yourself at a deeper level. Unintentionally, your mind takes back you to your childhood years, thinking of old friendships, school lessons and former teachers that shaped you in one way or another on those early stages.
You may recount your life story to yourself. As you walk deep into a pine forest, you may see an analogy between the Camino and life.
Life is a journey too, after all.
This third dimension can’t be measured, but I think it is defined by a sense of inner peace and self-understanding. It takes a few days to get to this place.
At the beginning, your mind is still filled with day-to-day worries. As you rack up the days and kilometers, however, the spiritual journey really begins.
Close to Santiago, I met a man from Boston (David, above) who was walking with his daughter, Lizzie. Three years previously, she had a bone marrow transplant.
David was not the fittest or the best prepared. But he reinforced in me the feeling that it is OK to be different, not to carry cutting-edge gear. What is truly important is to follow your path in the direction you feel is right.
It's like that in life. It's OK not to have the best car, or the big house. What is is truly important is that you live on your own terms, that you follow your own Camino.
So yes, the Camino really can be magic.
If you finally decide to set off, remember the repeated words of more experienced pilgrims: “It’s your Camino”.
You decide when you start your day, how long you walk, how fast or how far you go each day and when to stop.
It’s your Camino. It’s your Life.
Bronagh Carroll is Director of Magic Hill Holidays an Irish company that organises Camino walking holidays in Northern Spain and can help organise your trip.
For more information visit magichillholidays.com.
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