1. Thinking I could be prepared.
I used to think that I could prepare for a trip by listening to different scenarios from people who had been there before. Before the Camino, I read blog posts, watched documentaries, saw films, spoke to people who had done it. I took all their words in consideration — even those who questioned my sanity for wanting to do 800 kilometers of new steps (and just imagine if they had know I was taking two broomsticks with me to use as walking sticks).
But after the camino I realized that was a waste of time.
Only my future self could have told me what it would feel like to be ME on this adventure. But I only got to meet that person 33 days later.
2. Fearing death.
On the first day of the camino, a short, thin, young Korean woman with piercing dark eyes came over and asked, “Do you want go over the mountain? They say it’s dangerous, but it’s also the most beautiful path.” I accepted the challenge. If the path got too hard I would return. The persistent Korean nurse invited other two Koreans chatting outside the albergue to join us on the trip. None of us returned, but none of us made it to Roncesvalles either.
We slept as well as we could in an empty rescue cabin on top of the Pyrynees surrounded by snow, burning pages of books to keep us warm, eating dry noodles and wearing every single layer we had available. In the morning, heading down a frozen mountain, I slipped and began to fall.
There were two trees, one to the left and another to the right. After these, the descent was much steeper for hundreds of meters, with nothing to grab on to until I could reach the valley at the bottom. “No!” I shouted repeatedly. Two leaning branches crossed my path. After a failed first attempt, I grabbed the second as if my life depended on it. I used it to pull my body to safety and then let tears come out freely.
I do not know what could have happened if that branch did not sustain my weight. Maybe I would have died in that fall, or maybe just broke a few ribs. But in between the snot running down my face from crying so hard, the shock, and the silent screams, something changed.
Fearing death was pathetic, as it is the only thing I am certain that will happen at some point in the future. It doesn’t matter when I die. What matters is that I put my best efforts into living every day I have.
3. Physical pain.
I had not been a very healthy child. My foot tendons had not developed properly. I suffered from excruciating pain and begged for a surgeon to take the pain away. The doctors said, “You are still growing, you have to wait.”
So to try to avoid blisters on the trail, which would only exaggerate an already bad foot situation, I took rest stops every five kilometers, changing my socks and spreading vaseline all over my feet. It worked during the first week. On the second week the first blisters showed up. What the pharmacist recommend made it worse. Then, more appeared.
I met a group of seven extremely fit fireman who were boasting about walking 40k per day. I mentioned that two other pilgrims and I had planned on walking 30km the following day. They laughed, “With your foot like that, you will not even walk 20km!”
At breakfast, I put on my walking shoes, thanked the German volunteer for threading all of my blisters, and walked as hard as I could. Before midday I had walked 20km, took a break, and dragged my left leg for the following 10km. I actually started to appreciate pain.
I was in pain because I was healthy. Because I was able to walk. Every step, feeling the pain stretching from my foot to my inner thigh reminded me my feet were still there, taking me exactly where I wanted to go.
4. Thinking I could run from what I was meant to learn.
After a few days of meeting new people and hanging out with them, I decided it was time for some alone time. It was March and there were not many pilgrims on the road. In theory, it would be easy. I left the albergue alone, but regardless of walking faster or slower, I kept bumping into one of the pilgrims I had met and kept meeting new pilgrims who had met the same pilgrims as I had on the road.
At the end of the camino I met an bubbly Australian girl who was walking a couple of days behind me. It was strange to find out she felt the opposite need. She wanted to meet people but kept bumping into the same nerdy guy, day after day, albergue after albergue. There was never anyone else for her to talk to. When she finally arrived to Santiago de Compostela, she waited to be able to see him. They met, she cried.
I returned to the albergue, genuinely eager to see the group of solo travelers who had become my camino family one last time, then certain that I can’t control who comes in and out of my life. And I was never meant to. Life will present me with the lessons that I need to learn.
5. Having days off.
The only time in my life I did not have days off was when I was working on a cruise ship sailing across the Caribbean. I found out first hand that working every day without a day off for months is far less charming than I could have imagined, especially when it meant listening to North Americans demand refunds because it was raining. I decided never to spend too much time doing anything without a day off.
I was expecting to have one day off per week on the camino, but on the camino I never knew what was going to happen. Somedays the ground was incredibly muddy, other days it was rainy and my bag felt much too heavy, or there was snow. Waking up everyday knowing that regardless of conditions, regardless of my own mood, all I had to do was walk, was so much fun. Why would I want to have a day off? Why would I ever want days off from the things that make life simple and fun?
6. Clean socks.
My mother taught me to always wear clean socks and to change them daily. My personal deviation from that righteous path has nothing to do with her.
When I started the camino, I religiously washed the socks I wore every single day, but three weeks in, I gave up. I started hanging my sweat-drenched socks on my backpack, letting them dry with the sun and put them on again when the ones I was wearing became just as drenched.