Camino Challenge: Live in Fear or Learn to Trust?

One of *my* personal challenges in walking 500 miles across Spain was to trust….the overall process, the people around me, and myself. I planned my trip in just 4-5 weeks. Compared to many of the people online and on the trail, I was grossly unprepared.

I hadn’t done any physical training.

I hadn’t learned any Spanish.

I hadn’t tested my gear in advance.

I wasn’t confident about the route because I hadn’t researched it very much. I wasn’t confident in my language skills because they were largely non-existent. I was only partially confident about my physical skills. I had hiked, backpacked, and camped for years but I had never walked 800km before – how could I be sure I was capable? Truth told, I wasn’t sure – not by a long shot.

I didn’t know how far I could walk each day, so I also didn’t know where I would sleep each night. I didn’t know whether I’d stay free of injury and illness. And even though thousands of people walk the French Way every year, I felt like I was stepping off into a great void. I didn’t know how far I’d get on the trail so when I started, I hadn’t even booked my return flight home. Quite literally, I didn’t know how long I’d be gone or what would happen in the meantime.

Unless you’re someone who thrives on this kind of uncertainty, all these unknowns can rack up the anxiety levels pretty quickly. There are a lot of “What Ifs”. Nice, neat answers are not always available.

What if there are no beds: where will I sleep?

What if I get injured and I can’t go any further?

What if I get lost? What if I run out of money? What if I don’t make any friends? What if my gear is all wrong?

What if, what if, what if…..

The list is as long as your mind will allow. In the month before I left, my mind buzzed from asking a litany of questions, and I didn’t have the time to research for sensible answers. I can only thank the part of myself that realised that there was only a certain amount I could do to control the journey ahead – and the rest was beyond my control. I made some brief, but big decisions:

  1. I will not worry about the availability of beds.
  2. I will figure it out as I go along.

I decided these things. They were mental choices.

They weren’t just emotional aspirations or wishful intentions; somehow I ring fenced my mind so that I had answers to all of those “What If” questions.

Not having a bed to sleep in at night would have sucked ass. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I think having a secure place to sleep at night is low down on the pyramid, somewhere between physiological needs and safety needs. This means it’s considered quite essential. So, not having that lined up in advance is a bit of a gamble, especially in a foreign country and in walking cross-country for weeks at a time.

Unless I booked private accommodation in advance, there was no way I’d ever be sure of a bed at the end of each day. But I didn’t want to book in advance. I didn’t want the pressure of making it to Guesthouse A on Wednesday, Small Hotel on Thursday, and Private Pension on Friday. What if I got injured in the meantime and couldn’t walk that far? What if I got sick? I didn’t want the stress of making, and keeping plans with anyone. I also didn’t want the stress of reading my guidebook to find accommodation days ahead, and then go through the effort of conversing in Spanish over the phone as I tried to book a room – day after day, for weeks on end.

I just couldn’t commit to that much scheduling.

So I did the only thing I could do:  I threw the challenge up to the heavens and trusted that somehow it would all work out. I wasn’t sure whether that meant trusting a divine source of Trip Advisor or trusting the locals in Spain. Who knows, maybe they’re one and the same thing. But either way, I made a mental decision that *I*was not going to fret about it. Worrying about beds felt like something that was way above my pay grade. I surrendered and left it in the hands of something, or someone else.

That was a big lesson: Trusting that which is outside of myself.

Somehow, even though I couldn’t see every detail of the 500-mile journey ahead of me, I trusted that I would find my way. Quite literally, I trusted that the path would be there, and not washed away by flooding or erosion. Quite literally, I trusted that there would be enough food and shelter for my needs, and that things would be fine.

Just because I couldn’t see the path ahead, it didn’t mean that the path didn’t exist.

I had to walk in my hoped-for direction to find the path I was looking for.

The next one was also big: Trusting that which is inside myself.

No matter what disastrous scenario or anxiety my mind came up with, being able to respond with the thought: “I’ll figure it out as I go along” was a powerful reassurance to my over-zealous, inner drama queen. I could apply it to any scenario and feel better about my prospects. In the beginning, it was a way of calming my apprehension and it worked a treat.

What if my hiking sandals aren’t suitable for walking long distances?

Then I’ll figure it out and buy a pair of new shoes along the way.

What if I’m not able to walk 500 miles all in one go?

Then I’ll walk as far as I can and I’ll figure out how to come home early.

Even though I didn’t have all the answers in advance, I had at least some capacity to find them along the way. And the great thing is, the more I told myself that I would figure things out, the more I did figure things out….and my capacity grew even more.

It was a self-fulfilling prophesy.

That’s the funny thing: what we tell ourselves has a huge impact on how well our minds perform. If we allow anxiety and scaremongering to roam freely, then all of life becomes a disaster. The world is full of problems and life is full of threat. There is only pain and strife.

I’ve played around with positive affirmations over the years but you know, when I tell myself something like: “I am a glorious creation, full of positivity and light”, the inner cynic in me balks. I’ve no sooner proclaimed my greatness than some other part snidely remarks, “Yeah, right!” My greatness is swiftly ridiculed.

So, telling myself I am infinitely wonderful doesn’t always bring the most wonderful results! 🙂

But, telling myself, “I’ll figure it out as I go along” reassured me on my Camino journey. It meant I didn’t have to have everything planned and researched in advance. It meant I was allowed make mistakes. It also meant I didn’t have to follow anyone else or do what the guidebook said.

It meant I was allowed have my own experience, in my own way.

That’s a massive lesson – not just for camino but for life itself.

***

In my “real life”, lots of things are in flux right now because lots of things have changed in the last six months. I thought I had a good sense of what 2015 would look like but it turns out, I was waaay off the mark. Some of the changes are more welcome than others. Some of them are above my pay grade and the outcome is still unknown. I carry disappointment about the plans that have been thwarted and some anxiety about the ones that have come in their place.

I’ve noticed my mind looping through the litany of “What Ifs”.

It’s disheartening.

It’s all-consuming.

And I know I am missing out on everyday goodness in trying to ward off some doomsday disasters that might not even happen.

I’ve found myself wistfully daydreaming about camino, and sort of pining for the “simple life” I knew then. I’ve found myself romanticising life on the trail, back when “all I had to think about” was where I would sleep at night.

I’ve also found myself marvelling at what it was to ring fence my mind and decide not to worry.

And I’ve thought: If only it were that simple.

But here’s the thing: Maybe it *is* that simple.

If I could ring fence my mind once, I can do it again. If I could decide not to worry then, I can decide now, too. My current concerns may feel more grown up and dramatic than anything I faced in Spain but I know where my bed is every night. That’s a huge bonus.

It was possible to reign in my worry back then. Maybe it’s possible to reign it in now, too.

So, I have two main options: I can choose to trust in that which is outside of myself or that which is inside of myself. I might even choose both, simultaneously. Or maybe I’ll choose both and interchange them, depending on what the issue is.

Either way, I can choose how much mental space I give over to anxiety and fear. As it is, I make the choice every single day – often without realising it – and my over-zealous mind frets too much. This is not how I lived on camino. This is not what I learned on camino. And this is not what I took away from my camino experience.

In Spain, the everyday challenge was real: Would I live in fear or would I learn to trust?

Right now in my everyday life, the challenge still exists.

What will I choose? What about you?

 

Camino Challenge: Great…but tough…

I knew different people over the years who had walked camino – whether for one week or for eight weeks, and they all said the same thing:

It’s great…but tough.”

I could imagine why it was great – all that open space, the joy of walking cross-country every day, the delicious wine and warm sunshine – it sounded idyllic. It sounded like a leisurely walking holiday with lots of new, interesting friends.

But I didn’t really understand why it was tough. Sure, walking long distances every day can’t be easy but why was it so back-breaking? I just didn’t get it.

When *I* came home from Spain, everyone asked me:

How was it?

And I found myself replying in exactly the same way:

Great…but tough.

It’s a lame reply. It gives very little detail. But most of the time, when people ask the question they don’t really want a detailed answer. They want the stories about cheap wine and balmy sunshine. They want to be told about how easy it is to make new friends. They want to be told that walking camino is great. So, we never really get to the nub of what makes it tough.

Months later, after lots of reflection and mental sorting, I’m able to articulate my own experience with a bit more detail. Here’s what made it tough for me:

  1. Everything was accumulative.

Walking 20-30km on a given day was surprisingly okay. Walking 20-30km *every* day – over six consecutive weeks – was fricking hard.

Day 1: I’m walking – I’ve started – how awesome!

Day 6: I’m walking – yay (I’m still a bit sore from the Pyrenees)

Day 11: Finding my groove – aw yeah!

Day 18: I’m still walking – strong, even if I feel a bit tired

Day 23: I’m still walking. Wow. I’m a machine…and how much is left?

Day 29: Really? I’m still walking? Feels like I’ve been out here for months.

Day 34: Oh my God I am *so tired* of walking.

Day 40-something: Whatever. I’m ready to be in Santiago already. I’m ready to go home.

For me, the pain in my body was accumulative. That meant pain in my feet, pain in my hips, pain in my shoulders and neck. I didn’t give myself the time to heal properly, get massages, or even rest for a few days at a time. My body put up with the abuse but it wasn’t without complaint. The longer I walked, the more the exhaustion, aches, and inflammation all added up. And still, I had hundreds more miles to walk if I wanted to get to Santiago.

*That* was tough.

  1. Being surrounded by people all the time was over-stimulating.

I say this knowing it won’t apply to everyone because I’m more introverted than extroverted. I was delighted to make new friends so easily but I needed lots of alone time to recharge my batteries. Alone time wasn’t always easy to come by.

The bedrooms in the hostels were noisy. The bathrooms were full. The coffee shops and restaurants had crowds, or queues, or both. Ironically, the churches were quiet but unsurprisingly, they were often closed.

The only way I could get alone time was to spend hours walking by myself every day. I did it gladly. I did it because I needed it. Without it, I easily got over-stimulated, overwhelmed, and over emotional.

But even out on the trail, there were groups of pilgrims in front of me and behind me. Most of the time, I looked up from the gravel and could see at least one person ahead with a backpack and walking sticks. It was a comfort in some ways but it meant I was never really alone, even when I wanted it.

And I found *that* tough going. It was over-stimulating and demanding.

As a consequence, I found the daily race for beds was tough, too. At one point, two pilgrims ran ahead of me on the trail to get to the hostel first and secure whatever beds were left. At the time, I was somewhere between horrified and mildly amused. Now, I just think their actions represented a side of camino that really caught me by surprise.

When the competition for beds is with some nameless, faceless pilgrim who hasn’t arrived yet, that race is kind of abstract and easy to rationalize. There’s a certain “me verses them” mentality and with so many hundreds of people on the move, it’s not personal. In this scenario though, I had met these two pilgrims before. We had shared food and laughter, and we exchanged warm conversation on the trail. When they chose to run ahead, they weren’t just running to beat some nameless, faceless pilgrim – they were running to get ahead of me. 

As an isolated incident it wasn’t that tough. But walking all those miles every day, and trying to arrive somewhere by lunchtime before the beds fill up…only to have people run ahead of me on the trail? Well, as a daily, emotional undercurrent was tough. It wasn’t at all what I expected.

Of course, the flip side is probably also difficult. I imagine that extroverts who walk during a quieter time of the year find it tough to walk camino with so few people around. I’ve read accounts of empty hostels, closed-down coffee shops, and hours of walking without even seeing another human. For an extrovert who wants company and chat, I imagine that’s tough. It’s probably quite lonely and isolating. It’s probably every bit as tough as my experience of being over-stimulated…just for the opposite reasons.

  1. It’s not really a holiday.

Walking for a week at a time and staying in pre-booked private accommodation is probably quite leisurely. Your body has opportunity to get proper sleep and the occasional hot bath. And before you know it, you’re back home in your own bed and booked in for a massage to pacify the gentle ache. Going for a week at a time is a walking holiday, I think.

Walking 500 miles of camino all in one go was not a holiday. It was a break from normal life and a gift of time, certainly….but not a holiday. At least, not in the traditional sense.

The hostels allow pilgrims to stay only one night. Plus, they kick you out between 6-8am. That means no leisurely lie-ins. It means getting up in the dark and leaving without breakfast. It becomes a norm and it becomes surprisingly routine but there isn’t much pampering.

Sharing a bathroom with 20 strangers is intimate and noisy. Shower curtains may not fit properly. The floor is covered in water from the previous 18 people who showered before you. There are no fluffy towels.

When people talk about strapping on a backpack every morning, they don’t really mean that they’re out for a gentle ramble for 2-3 hours. They mean that they’re walking anywhere between 3-10 hours, even if they have infected blisters, sprained ligaments, and sore shoulders. They walk in the scorching sun. They walk in relentless rain. It’s not always leisurely: sometimes it’s plain grueling.

When people talk about drinking €1 glasses of red wine and eating tapas, they’re not necessarily talking about appetizing, savory delights. Sometimes, the “tapas” were just slabs of Spanish omelette and greasy bowls of olives. Nothing wrong with that, but too many slices of omelette have swarms of flies buzzing around them while they sit on a counter, going stale in the midday sun.

Eewww!

Walking camino was great but it wasn’t a leisurely stroll. Some days, it didn’t match up to the accounts I’d heard, or read on someone else’s blog. The marketing and the reality didn’t always align.

I found *that* tough, too.

 

There’s a lot of swooning about camino and in all the hype, it’s easy to think that it’s great fun and profoundly rewarding. I’ve noticed it’s easy to talk about all the great things but it’s not so easy to talk about the tough parts. To do so, means admitting we were lonely or short-tempered or afraid. To do so is perceived as negative and pessimistic, and who wants to be accused of that?

It’s easier to tell everyone about the cheap wine and the great people, and give a glossed-over account. It’s much easier to proclaim our physical greatness and say it was “challenging”, just like people talk about triathlons and marathons.

The reality, whether we ever articulate it, is more complex.

But there was greatness too.

Oddly, the things that I found tough about my camino were also closely tied to the things that were great about camino. The aches and exhaustion were accumulative, but so was the sense of achievement with passing through every small town and village. The longer I walked, the closer I got to Santiago. That achievement made the aches and pains (somewhat…ha ha!) more bearable.

And even though I found the crowds intolerable at times, to have walked it all alone would have been lonely. I made great connections along the way, shared picnics and laughter with people from all over the world, and have had the joy of meeting up with some of those friends since then. We have a shared experience and shared memories of the road. And I have to say, when I finally arrived in Santiago, being able to share the occasion with close friends was one of the sweetest moments of my journey. I may be a happy introvert but even I understand that having good people in life makes it all sweeter.

Camino *is* great…but tough…but great…and tough…

Camino Challenge: Comparing Myself to Others

I’m back!

After a long hiatus, I’m back at a keyboard again and hopefully ready to write a bit more about my camino adventure. It’s been a long gap, I know.

Thanks for sticking around.

There are different reasons for my long silence but one of them, in particular, really caught me by surprise.

Short version: I subscribe to various camino blogs. Some of them are written by people who planned their walk for Spring/Summer this year. In some cases, it was their first camino. In others, it was their second or third. Either way, I signed up for these blogs ages ago and enjoyed reading about, and commenting on, their preparations and plans.  I still love reading about camino so the blogs are a great way for me to keep in touch with the good memories and anticipate my next walkabout.

So far, so good.

But 2-3 months ago, all at once, these people were ready to step away from the keyboards and go walk. Their bags were packed, their flights awaited, it was time to leave. All at once, my inbox was full of their updates. They wrote from France and Spain, from hostels along the way. They wrote about the friends they made, the blisters they drained, and the plates of pasta they gorged on. I empathized with their frustrations and disappointments. I smiled at their frank reports from smelly dorm rooms. I relished their photos from parts of the trail I surely passed, but didn’t remember. And then I felt bad for forgetting so much of the trail, especially when I thought I had remembered so much.

I don’t know any of these people personally but their journeys felt personal to me. I cheered them on from afar.

But surprisingly, with all the talk about *their* camino journeys, I felt less and less able to talk about mine. They blogged live from the trail and somehow, that seemed more interesting and more valuable than anything I had to say. After all, it’s nearly 2 years since I walked camino. I’ve had time to reflect but they had an immediacy that was attention-grabbing. I felt there wasn’t enough room in the blogosphere for both our voices.

So I went quiet for a while.

Oddly, I also went quiet because I knew that some of these people subscribe to this blog, and I didn’t want them receiving my updates while they walked their own journey.

Why?

Well, I subscribed to only one camino blog before, and during my camino. I enjoyed Jen’s style of writing. I enjoyed her honest accounts and vivid descriptions from the trail. It all seemed so easy. It all seemed like a lot of fun.

While I walked across Spain, my smart phone buzzed with email updates every time I found wi-fi. Some of the updates were from her blog and I couldn’t help but read them. She had finished walking by then but wrote about finding people to walk with every day. She wrote about laughter and chatter with the locals. She wrote about going at her own pace and taking early stops in charming, scenic villages.

It all seemed so easy. It all seemed like a lot of fun. But I couldn’t relate to it. Most days, I chose to walk alone. I didn’t have enough Spanish to have much chatter with the locals. I didn’t stop often enough and as time wore on, the small villages charmed me less and less.

Compared to Jen, I felt like Oscar the Grouch!

Her blog was full of insight and reflection, and she seemed to have it all figured out. Meanwhile, I felt I was dragging my sorry-ass corpse across Spain and was making everyone miserable – myself included.

Receiving Jen’s updates while I still walked my own path was a strange sort of torture. I read about all the things that went well, all the things she did right, all the things she was grateful for. I compared my experience to her experience, and felt I was failing. I felt I was “doing it” all wrong. I felt tired, over-stimulated, and very, very sore. I didn’t feel I was having any great epiphanies or profound experiences. I felt I was failing at the very act of walking a pilgrimage route, and I wasn’t having a lot of fun. As the days turned into weeks, this self-defeating criticism mounted. It brought me to a point of utter despair and I thought I couldn’t go on. I thought my entire camino journey was doomed. I thought I couldn’t walk all the way to Santiago.

I still remember the rawness of those particular days. I remember how the heaviness of my heart made my whole body feel like lead. Of course, I wasn’t just comparing myself to this one person. I compared myself to the hundreds of strangers around me, and I saw only their successes and my own failures.

It was my own, very personal form of hell.

You’ll be glad to know I found a way through it – otherwise, I couldn’t blog about camino with any kind of joy or fondness!

But still, I remember the ache as I compared myself to others and particularly, to this person at the far side of the world, on the other end of a blog post.

Somehow, these past few months, I couldn’t write about my camino while I knew there were people who might read it while they walked their own journey.

Most of them have finished walking by now and have made their way home, to reflect and recover.

And now that there’s a quietness to my inbox again, I feel it’s a bit kinder to talk about my camino. No comparisons, no judgements, but hopefully, a shared experience that is positive and good.

So on we go – and hope for the best!

I hope you’ll continue to join me! 🙂