20 Truths About Walking the Camino de Santiago
1. Sometimes you’ll say “buen camino” when you really mean “go to hell.”
Buen-effing-Camino to the bicyclists who zoom by and nearly clip your elbow, to the tour bus companies, and to all the pilgrims who act like the Camino is a competitive race or turn the dorm room lights on at five in the morning.
2. You’ll hate walking.
Not always, but often by the last five kilometers of a day you’ll curse your shoes, the rocks, the world, and your nonexistent-long-lost wealthy uncle. This outburst of anger magically dissipates once you stop walking and sit with friends around the dinner table. Then, like forgetting the pains of childbirth, you wake up the next day with smiles and do it all over again.
3. Your new favorite meal of the day will be second breakfast.
You’ll eat five meals a day and still wonder why you’re not losing weight.
4. You’ll have a goal to keep all your toenails.
Most pilgrims end up experiencing purple, bruised toenails, but only some of us will have to watch them fall off.
5. Vino tinto and café con leche will fuel you.
I require a pre-walk coffee to hike to my first real coffee so I can get to the next coffee after that. To reward myself I drink up bottles of cheap vino tinto with friends and walk off hangovers the next day in a few hours (provided I have my coffee).
6. You’ll be in denial when you lose control of your bladder.
Most people are familiar with the urgent feeling of having to drop pants on the trail and the frantic lookout for tree cover that ensues when hiking, but usually not every thirty minutes. Having a ‘Camino bladder’ guarantees some accidents—and yes, getting it on your shoe counts as an accident. And let’s just say I have ‘this friend’ who peed her pants in the middle of a bustling street in Burgos without warning.
7. You’ll start stealing toilet paper.
I never thought it would come to this, but nabbing a whole toilet paper roll from an albergue hostel or taking a wad from one of the bars along the way seems necessary to account for said-unpredictable bladder.
8. You’ll be completely obsessed with feet.
Since ‘How are your feet?’ is more precise than ‘How are you doing?’, foot wellbeing has become the indicator of whether or not you—along with your blisters now named things like ‘Thor’ and ‘Spartacus’—are having a pleasant or a horrible day. Foot selfies have also become a thing.
9. You and everyone else will have watched the movie The Way before starting.
Watching The Way is about all the preparation I did before the Camino, along with taking the stairs instead of the elevator for a solid month. Now I can say the film fails to represent the central part of my day—the monotony and physical struggle of walking 500 miles across Spain.
10. You totally won’t get the Parable of the Laborers.
Some pilgrims started walking from France and Portugal or further, but you’re telling me the ones who started a hundred kilometers away in Sarria end up with the same compestel a completion certificate as everyone else?
11. You might die if you have to eat another bocadillo.
I’ve learned bocadillos can either be used as a sword-like weapon or a cheap lunch. Be warned: the rock-hard bread can give you slivers, and cured ham and cheap chorizo doesn’t taste better day after day, even with slabs of delicious cheese.
12. You’ll love collecting stamps in your pilgrim’s credential more than your actual passport.
I’d rather get customized stamps documenting the random albergues and ancient churches on my walking journey than scan through the boring stamps on my real passport buried somewhere in the bottom of my backpack.
13. You’ll draft angry letters in your head to send to John Brierley.
Most of my nasty criticisms of Brierley’s oversentimentality occur on uncharted steep sections of the trail marked as flat in the Brierley guidebook.
14. You’ll get defensive if people call this a vacation.
A vacation means relaxing on a beach with pool boys peeling grapes in Greece, not popping blisters with iodine and sewing kits every night.
15. You’ll feel excited when you see red plastic chairs in the distance.
I know my next break is in sight when I can see the green or red plastic chairs outside a tiny bar on the way.
16. You’ll sing “row-row-row your boat” in rounds featuring several different languages.
I’ve manage to resurrect nursery rhymes and childhood songs I haven’t sung since I was five just to pass the time. Nonsense singing is contagious and (apparently) crosses language barriers.
17. You’ll lose your empathy for people suffering from sleep apnea.
As my dear friend put it when someone asked him if he had to sleep in the same dorm room as a well-known and well-feared pilgrim with untreated sleep apnea known colloquially as ‘Vlad The Inhaler’ the night before: “No, I did not sleep in that same room.”
18. It will be all fun and games until someone closes the window.
Nowhere else on the Camino are cultural differences more apparent than at night when someone has the audacity to close the dorm room window, a gesture which is then followed by a series of openings, closings, bangings, slammings, and shouting matches between the largely Northern and Southern European sides of this age-long debate.
19. You might need therapy after experiencing the Meseta.
Even though the Meseta could be the truest test of the Camino, after walking a week through flat, empty nothingness I start to question everything and lose sanity by the kilometer. Plus I now have abandonment issues, since a good chunk of my friends had the sense to take buses and trains to skip ahead to the other side.
20. You’ll be in total awe of people.
I might be guilty of having more fun than obtaining life-altering spiritual enlightenment, but I learn most from the strangers sitting next to me at the dinner table, the man in a wheelchair rolling his way up a mountain, the intuitive woman who tells me the longer version of a story knowing it will help me forget the rain, the hermit on the side of the road giving free food to pilgrims, and to all the others who may or may not realize that they are Camino angels.