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 with the intention of going 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.  That choice was made 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.  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 just 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 shells hanging from them.

When I had checked in at the airport my rucksack weight 15kg.  I had it in my head that I would be spending a lot of time on my own – maybe in the wilderness – I laugh at myself now.  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.  There was a group from Italy traveling 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.

Between St Jean and Pamplona I mixed back and forward 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 good walking shoes in Pamplona.  But the damage had been done to my heals – eventually, the hard skin on my heels had to be removed with scissors and taped up every morning.  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 with the aim of walking the whole route. I did – even after I had been taken to hospital in an ambulance I got a taxi back to where it had picked me up.  They discovered I had two hernias, the doctor gave me decent painkillers and advised I take it easy and 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 were staying 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.  Twelve years later we are still together.

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 lots of free time.

So, of course, the topic for my great new project was going to be 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 discovered very quickly 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 company in 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 next 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 lesson from the Camino to share?  Did the Camino change your life in anyway?

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  1. Tim on July 14, 2016 at 3:16 am

    Thank you for your story. What was your experience walking the entire distance with hernias? How were you able to continue after having, I assume, enough symptoms to warrant emergency care? Did you have surgery when you returned home? Do you think someone with mild occasional hernia symptoms can walk the Frances route, or would you recommend having surgery first?

    • Leslie on July 14, 2016 at 6:28 pm

      First off, I am not a doc – weird how we have to add these disclaimers all the time as if people have become more dense…

      Anyway, in the hospital they gave me some pain killers and then I used a high strength ibuprofen for the rest of the route. These were enough for me to walk with little pain – but some part of my body was always sore on the Camino…

      I ended up finding out I had two hernias, one on each side. I was operated on. I thought it would be a little op and I would be dancing before the end of the week – not that I normally dance. The op took 5 hrs and I couldn’t walk for a few days. It was painful for months after. That was more than ten years ago and I have never had trouble with them since. I am glad I left the op until after I had walked.

  2. sean o halloran on July 26, 2016 at 6:31 pm

    Love hearing your story. I started my camino in 2013. Finishing in burgos. Went back to burgos in 2014 and went to santiago and on to finisterre. Incredible and life altering experience.

  3. Berni on July 26, 2016 at 6:54 pm

    I did my first camino from leon to Santiago de compestella in May 2016. I had decided that I was done with being a mum to 3 children 27,28,37 and do something for myself for my 60th birthday! A friend asked if she could come with me and I reluctantly said yes because I really wanted to prove to myself that I could do it on my own. Anyway she came,walked the first day and never walked with me again, she got a tummy bug and took taxis from town to town for most of the rest of the trip! However she insisted on that second day to ask a couple ,father and daughter to walk with me much to my horror but that man turned out to be someone I felt a strong connection to. We parted ways in Santiago de compestella but kept in touch. He was from Belgium I’m from Australia. To cut a long story short, he came out to Australia for 3 months and is my partner . We did Le puy en Velay to st Jean pied de port this May only having 2 rest days the entire trip and looking forward to our next camino (del Norte) sometime next year. Not previously being a walker or living rough taught me that all you have to do is believe in yourself, one foot in front of the others nd most important, know that is your journey not anyone else’s ! Buen camino to anyone thinking about doing it! It will change your life!

    • Carol on February 8, 2017 at 1:14 pm

      Hi Berni
      Congrats on both your walk & your partner!
      Great story & thanks for sharing….hope to do the walk before I’m 65!

      • Lindy on August 21, 2018 at 1:36 pm

        Berni, thank you for sharing your story. It really resonated with me. I leave in 10 days to do the Camino Frances…first 2 weeks with my partner, but, my inner voice tells me to do the rest alone.
        All best…Lindy

    • louises7Louise on February 9, 2017 at 11:19 pm

      Hi Berni, thank you for your story and to Leslie and everyone else. Ever since I watched “The Way”, I had a strong urge to do the trail. I had just completed a heavy term of assignments and exams when I decided to watch this movie and it came at a perfect time. I have just completed my first year at University as a mature age student studying Nursing. I am 52 years of age and have always been busy with my family and committed myself to raising them. I have 7 children 34, 33, 29, 27, 19, 18 and 12. Also, 8 grandchildren 12, 8, 7, 6, 5, 3, 3 and 3. All my life I had wanted to be a nurse, but it was hard to do with so many children. Now I have only one child at home, I decided to start. Better late than never I say. My dream is to complete the Camino trail when I finish University and finally graduate. I am from Australia and what excited me was finding out that my first four children’s father being Spanish descent and his mother was born in Leon in Spain. I still have a couple of years to plan this trip and I still don’t know if I will do it on my own, or take my husband. I will play it by ear, because at the end of the day it will always be your own journey and yours alone. 🙂

    • Rick Rowe on September 13, 2017 at 8:45 pm

      I walked the Camino Frances this spring. I didn’t understand the need to race to get to the albergues. After the first day I decided to not go to the traditional stopping places and spent the rest of my hike staying in the little places in between the traditional stopping places. The people I met were totally fascinating and strange as it seems I met a couple from a small town in Texas that went to church with my Aunt and Uncle. I felt closer to God and felt like I could hear him speaking to me. In a couple of weeks I’m going to hike in Austria and hope the same thing happens.

  4. Berni on July 26, 2016 at 6:57 pm

    Sorry first Camino was 2015

  5. Alan Lipka on July 29, 2016 at 1:07 am

    But of course … this is not the whole story and you darn well know it ! I really like your lessons learned though. And I particularly give you a tip of the hat for creating a forum that allows people to share their own Camino experiences. A tip of the hat and a nod … given that you are seemingly oblivious to the fact that you have touched so many thousands of lives for the better. I know you would not acknowledge anything other than that, so there it is. Tip. Nod.

    Thank you. Leslie, for all that you do to build community in a world that longs for it.

    • Leslie on August 23, 2016 at 1:55 pm

      Thanks Alan. The full story is way too long, and dull for others.

      • Terry Wilson on August 30, 2016 at 5:54 pm

        I have to agree with Alan I am 67 from New Zealand this site has been so valuable to me. After watching the film. The way I decided that I want to do the Camino and need to do the Camino. Since the film I have done a lot of research and nothing I have seen has put me off doing it . Thankyou Leslie

  6. Corie Bonner on August 3, 2016 at 10:59 pm

    I enjoyed your story and lessons learned. My lesson learning is in progress, and in advance of the Camino. I go next month but trying to pack light and with less has influenced me to free myself of excess things. I decided to get rid of 366 things this year one for every day. So far I am on target and have not missed any of it!

  7. Nigel on August 10, 2016 at 2:39 pm

    I recently walked from St Jean to Belorado (260km) and i have never felt so happy and peaceful in my life. I’m not religious, I am down to earth and pay my bills responsibly. This just looked like a cheap summer wander.
    Since I got back a few weeks ago i can’t get the Camino out of my head! I’ve worked all over the world from festivals in deserts to crewing tall-ships full-time but i can’t shake the feeling I have to get involved with the Camino somehow. The folk i met and walked with made it feel like the Wizard of Oz : We followed the yellow marked road and all had different reasons for walking. I’m going back asap. I tried to explain the feeling to some friends when I got back home but their response was ‘You just went for a walk, you’ll get over it.’ They are so wrong.

    • Leslie on August 23, 2016 at 1:51 pm

      I have a small group of friend that have walked the Camino. With those people, I can talk and be understood.

    • Brent on July 23, 2017 at 8:13 pm

      4 years later, still not over it. One more go at it next year to get rid of the Camino bug.

  8. Marian Green on September 29, 2016 at 7:22 am

    Thank you for your blog, Leslie. My husband and I are preparing to do our Camino next year and I can’t wait.

  9. Elena on August 10, 2017 at 10:14 pm

    I have done only 2 weeks, just a short distance Camino and can certainly say -i have left my heart there. Not sure what is this feeling but I can’t get over it one month since came back. It’s some sort of ‘unconditional love’ or something… I feel like I fly around, my eyes sparkle with excitement again , my heart is open to anything and anyone, I love my life more then anytime before. And as you said it-it’s just a walk (!?) – but there is something in it, some sort of magic. And I’m yet to come back there to find out :). P.S. Is it only me who happened to see/notice everywhere are signs of Camino after you come back ? Things like random objects that reminds you of it ; or you sadenly meet people who did it,strangers who’s been there, or random Camino-related thing etc…

  10. Gail Ozols on September 13, 2017 at 3:01 pm

    Love your story and the way you wrote it. Congrats on so many levels.

  11. Lew Varney on August 24, 2018 at 3:59 pm

    My Son and I walked the Camino twice. Once in 2015 but we did only 200 miles. Then in 2017 and we walked the entire 500 miles that year and it was an experience of my life. I am 77 years old and at the time I was 76 years old. It was amazing gut i had some tough pain in my right knee that bothered me the whole trip. I already had a left knee replacement. When i returned home I went to the Ortho Doctor and this past April had my right knee replaced. So it was with the grace of God that i made the entire journey. It made me feel like I accomplished something and have said to the rest of my family that if any of the other kids wanted to walk it, I would go again. It is difficult but what a rewarding experience. Everyone should walk it at least once. Now my Son and I are planning another walk. Maybe Harians Wall. We are not sure yet. It could very well be the Camino again sometime. We had a great length of time to Bond as Father and Son as we spent 45 days totally. We were in Paris at the beginning and in Madrid in the end. Great experience. Thank you.
    Lew Varney of Queensbury, New York

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