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.
For most of my life, I had worked in jobs I didn’t like much. So in 2002, I called a halt and quit my job to attend either college or university the following year. 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 because if I was going to continue to work in an area I didn’t like, then I better make sure I was better paid.
I 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. A straightforward 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 admission and was accepted a week later. Then I was 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 studying.
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 about 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
I 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 checked in at the airport, my rucksack weight 15kg. I thought 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.
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 and booked 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 utterly 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 daily 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 few sections, I went back the following 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 following year for Uni there – if you get sick and need a hospital, that is the place to be treated, bloody fantastic.)
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 asked people around the table what they did and 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 that I was likely the grumpiest Pilgrim she met – touché. Many years later, we are still together (and have a beautiful son).
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 following day 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 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.
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 my attitude
- People care – I saw a massive 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?
I love hiking, backpacking, and camping. From the Camino de Santiago to the West Highland Way in Scotland or simply a great day hike on the weekend. Hiking refreshes me, my mind, and keeps my body reasonably fit. So far I have walked three Camino routes and many other long distance hikes in the UK, Canada, and around the rest of Europe. One of the best was my hike up Ben Nevis.