Camino in France from Le Puy

How Walking the Camino de Santiago Changed My Life

I first walked the Camino de Santiago in 2004 on the Camino Frances route.  I found it quite difficult back then to find information before I went, so I had little idea what lay ahead.  In hindsight, that was maybe good for me. If I had seen some of the images of where people sleep at night and the stories about sharing, I would likely have chosen something else that summer.

Some Background

For most of my life, I had worked in jobs that I didn’t like much.  So in 2002, I called a halt and quit my job to go to college or university the year after.  I didn’t know what I was going to study; however, I had a fallback choice of finance, an area where I had mostly worked.  I made that choice on the basis if I was going to continue to work in an area I didn’t like, then I better make sure I was better paid.

Leslie Anna 13km from SantiagoI looked at a few colleges and two universities. Then, I had a great conversation with a woman in NUIM, a student intake counselor for mature students.  One simple question she asked changed my thinking:

If you could study anything you wanted, what would it be?

English Literature – I knew the answer immediately –, but I didn’t think it was a sensible choice.  Sensible would have been something that trained me.

The next day I applied for entrance, and a week later I was accepted.  Then I was really terrified; why was someone who could not spell going to write so much?  Anyway, I ignored the fear and enrolled.

The First Time I Heard of the Camino

I moved from Dublin to Maynooth into a shared apartment with other old students like myself.  It was great, and I loved reading and study.

Maynooth University

Another student, Dara, talked about this long distance walk he had completed.  Now he was mad – he had walked from Holland to Santiago de Compostela.  He went on and on, the people he met, the freedom, the peacefulness, and it was a cheap way to spend the summer.  The cheap part started my interest.  I was poor and had my first student summer ahead.  I didn’t want to work, and this sounded interesting.  However, I wasn’t sure if I would hate it or see it as a challenge and therefore find it bearable.

Dara helped get me kitted out.  I borrowed his rucksack, bought a sleeping bag, and made do with everything else.  I booked a flight to Paris and the overnight train to Bayonne.  I wasn’t committed to walking the whole way.  I wasn’t committed at all – my main thought was, “if I hate it, I’ll go somewhere else in Spain for the rest of the summer.”   I had an arrangement to meet Dara in September on the Camino Aragones at Jaca and walk with him for a week.

Arriving in St Jean Pied de Port

St.-Jean-PP-02-train-station-houseI traveled on the local train from Bayonne to St Jean.  There were a few other pilgrims on the train; well, I thought they were, as they had backpacks and those strange scallop shells hanging from them.

When I had checked in at the airport, my rucksack weight 15kg.  I thought that I would be spending a lot of time on my own – maybe in the wilderness – I laugh at myself now. But, being who I am, I had brought along a few books: War and Peace and a couple of others by Dostoevsky – happy reading?  Tolstoy was left in Pamplona; I am surprised I carried it that far.

Joining Groups

In the Pilgrim’s office in St Jean, I was given a Pilgrims Passport and a list of albergues for the whole route, hostels to you and me.  A group from Italy traveled together who were booking rooms for the first night at Orrison (one of the very few places where you have to book ahead); they asked me if I wanted a bed booked.  I did, and I set out walking with them.

I mixed back and forward between St-Jean and Pamplona with the Italian group and an Irish group who lived in Germany, son, father, and grandfather.  I took a few days to settle; being part of any group has never been my natural inclination.

Commitment Grew the More I Walked

My image of walking in the wilderness was completely wrong.  There were people around most of the time.  I would sometimes walk on my own and sometimes with others.

My desire to finish grew the more I walked.  I walked about 25 to 30km per day carrying my too heavy rucksack.   I learned to leave unneeded items behind in hostels.

My feet became very sore, and I dumped my cheap boots and invested in light walking shoes in Pamplona.  But the damage had been done to my heels – eventually, the hard skin on my heels had to be removed with scissors and taped up every morning. After that, they were only sore for the first five minutes each time I started walking – and this was a summer holiday?

I Caught the Camino Bug

Because I had skipped a couple of sections, I went back again the next year to walk the whole route. So I did – even after being taken to hospital in an ambulance, I got a taxi back to where it had picked me up. Unfortunately, they discovered I had two hernias. The doctor gave me decent painkillers and advised that I take it easy, then see my doctor when I got home. (As a side note, I was in Vienna the next year for Uni there – if you get sick and need a hospital, that is the place to be treated, bloody great.)

I met Anna.

I have to tell a story and hope she doesn’t mind.  We sat opposite each other one evening at dinner.  We stayed the night in Hospital de San Nicolas, an Italian run hostel just before Itero del Castillo, where they have a communal evening meal.   I was asking people around the table what they did and what they wanted to do.  I kept her to last; I didn’t want to seem too eager to get to know her…  Anyway, when she answered the question, I said: “so what is wrong with you then?”   That could be one of the worst chat-up lines in history.   She also told me later I was likely the grumpiest Pilgrim that she met – touché.  Sixteen years later, we are still together (and have a beautiful son).

Hospital de San Nicolas
Hospital de San Nicolas

The Changes I Attribute to the Camino

I was always a scribbler.  Half-written books.  Unfinished great novels.  The last half-finished book went into the bin in Jan 2006.  The next morning I woke and decided I should know how to build a website.  Being a student gives one a lot of free time.

So, of course, the topic for my great new project was the Camino de Santiago.  The first iteration was horrible; my graphics skills are non-existent.  This is the website that I built – a few iterations later.  I also run a Camino forum and feel like I have daily interactions with the Camino.

I quickly discovered that having a website doesn’t mean someone will visit it, maybe your parents or granny.  My competitive edge came out a little, and I learned web marketing – my new career, and I now run a small SEO agency in Dublin in this area.  Just as well, I don’t really have the gene for being a teacher, and what else would I do after university?

I sit here in Prague, where I now live, writing this – down to meeting Anna on the Camino.

Lessons Learned on the Camino

This could be a good post for another week; anyway, these are just some thoughts:

  • Pain reminds me I am alive
  • I can do more than I believe
  • I like people – surprise
  • I like being part of some groups
  • Types of people annoy me – no matter what language they speak
  • I can learn those types and change myself
  • People care – I saw a huge amount of this
  • Crying is okay
  • Sharing is good
  • I need less than I think

What about you?  Do you have any lessons from the Camino or from similar hikes like Camino to share?  Did the Camino change your life in any way?

9 thoughts on “How Walking the Camino de Santiago Changed My Life”

  1. My Husband & I have walked various Camino Routes in stages every year since 2014 : Camino Frances, Camino Portuguese, Camino Inglese, and now Camino Frances for the second time. Of course we have missed out during 2020 & 2021.
    Our favourite saying that we saw written on the Way was: –
    “I dreamt that Life was Joy.
    I woke up and realised that Life was Service.
    I did Service and I found that Life was Joy. ”
    Buene Camino.
    Kitty from UK.

  2. Many thanks for your wonderfully inspiring story, Leslie, that resonates so much with myself who at 54 set off on the Via de la Plata in 2010 and since then have caught the Camino bug, heading back several times, as well as sharing your experience of doing several Scottish walks and climbing Ben Nevis. The latter experiences all because of asking other pilgrims in 2013 “is this your first Camino?” and 2 separate pilgrims weeks apart replying “my first Camino but I’ve walked the West Highland Way” – that led me to thinking “what is that” and googling this and eventually doing it other Scottish walks. I regularly red and greatly appreciate your website and its various fine articles, thank you. John from Australia

    1. Anna and I walked up Ben Nevis the year after we met on the Camino, I should really write about it sometime. Thank you for your kind words.

  3. Living more in the moment, a skill that I have to re-affirm every once in awhile, like now. I can get by quite comfortably on less than I thought I needed. I do not really like to be around people, but enjoyed meeting people at the end of the day, I like to be alone when I walk.

  4. I Made the Camino Frances in 2018 by quadpole – a three-wheeled bike to lay on. What I heave learned from this: take your time! There is absolutely no use in speeding the Camino, because your loosing the way and the reason for it. I arrived in a great time – but didn’t know why.
    I’ll hopefully do the ingles next year, and _some_ other Caminos in the future, because THIS I have learned, too: the Camino calls for you!

  5. My daughter and I walked 300 miles of the Camino. I was turning 65 and she 40. My daughter is a wonderful person (guess I knew this) and a great traveling partner. I learned I can do more than I thought. Walking relationships can be ever so memorable and sometimes lasting some 8 years later. My husband supports my personal growth so he is a keeper. Hard work yields great joy.

  6. I’m not sure that walking the Camino changed me but it did make me aware of traits that I had. Living the day was one. During the last part of the walk more than one person suggested that I must be happy that I was nearing Santiago and I had to admit that I hadnt given it any thought. It was get up today and walk, and not daydream about tomorrow. I realized that that is how I live my life, maybe to a fault. I also realized that I could not conceptualize distance, only time. Being told that I was to walk twenty two kilometres meant nothing to me whereas being told that I was to walk five hours did. I was seventy years old when I walked the Camino. I am seventy three now and would like to walk it again.

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