Camino de Santiago: Communal Meals

It is no big secret that I am both a fan of food and talking to new people and so it should come as no big surprise that my favorite moments on the Camino came around a dinner table.

Throughout the Camino there are many options for places to stay. Almost every village or town had at least two hostels to choose from. Knowing what I know now, I would tell anyone and everyone who asks for my advice to stay at places that offer a communal meal. Whether you are an introvert or extrovert these communal meals can be very valuable, enjoyable and delicious.

The communal meals were often done at smaller hostels, where we would all gather together to have a meal instead of going to a restaurant by ourselves or with people we have already met. These meals forced you to sit down, take a load off and get to know some of your fellow pilgrims.

So, other than the obvious, why would I enjoy these meals so much? Well, it was a chance to enjoy a home-cooked meal (most of the time), but also a time for us to forget about the struggles of walking, tell stories and laugh together. It never failed that, when I had a communal meal, more laughs and fun happened than just about any other times.

On the Camino, but also life in general, we need fun and laughter. These communal meals not only filled our bellies with some incredible food, but also our hearts with people.

When every day looks practically the same having a meal with laughter and new people can be incredibly beneficial. Laughter has been proven to help with mental health as well as boosting the immune system and releasing endorphines. Each day comes with similar struggles; the blisters, aches, pains and monotony of it all can take their toll on most people. Ending the day with people who understand what you are going through and letting loose a little bit, might just save your Camino, but it definitely will make it more memorable.

Some of my favorite memories of my Camino will be the communal meals at Oasis Trails hostel with one of the best vegetarian dishes I’ve ever had, or the meal at Refugio de Peregrinos Acacio y Orietta where our host cooked a delicious meal with a ridiculous amount of food and the Benedictine Monastary in Sahagun with some pasta cooked by some Italian pilgrims. Oh and who can forget the giant Paella in Hontana at Albergue Juan de Yepes?

We laughed, we shared, we opened up to complete strangers, and we were all better because of it. If you get a chance to do a communal meal on your Camino I recommend you do so, whole-heartedly. In fact, why wait for the Camino? Find some people and invite them to your house for a communal meal of your own.

Camino de Santiago: The way?

Throughout the Camino de Santiago there were guideposts to show you that you were on the right path. Most places used a yellow arrow to show the path, other paces had a sign with a pilgrim and an arrow while other places had little metal discs in the sidewalk. No matter where you were, there was something that would show you you were on the right track.

In some places the path would get a bit crowded, but not necessarily with fellow pilgrims. The Camino would often go through major cities and because of that you would come across people who were not hiking, but were sharing the same path and it got me thinking.

Camino de Santiago, in Spanish, means the Way to Santiago. On my third day of hiking I was leaving Pamplona and I saw a guy walking right along the Camino. He was on “The Way” and yet, he wasn’t.

This guys could have been a pilgrim. He was doing the exact same thing as I was, walking on the path, but at the same time he wasn’t walking with the same goal. Minus the lack of backpack, others seeing him may have wondered if he was a pilgrim.

After seeing this man, it got me thinking (and man, did I ever have a lot of free time to think on the Camino). There are so many “good” people out there that are doing things we, as Christians, are supposed to be doing. They are living a “good” life, being kind to others, helping those in need, donating to charities to help those less fortunate, etc. Some of those peopel would consider themselves Christian, while others may believe in a different religion or even none at all.

So, what sets Christians apart? Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) There is only one path to Heaven and it’s not our deeds. Yes, as James says, we should show our faith by our deeds (James 2:18), but our faith in Christ’s actions is what sets us apart. We are all sinners, yet because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we were made whole. When we are walking “The Way” it is not because we want to be a good person, it is because we know we are not and it is only through Jesus that others can be made clean, like we have been.

Camino de Santiago: A Taxi and a Train

Everyone who starts the Camino has an idea of what they are willing to do and not do in order for them to view the Camino as a success. Some people plan to walk every single step of the Camino with a pack on their back. Some people have a strict deadline, so they plan on 2 days of rest as the guide book suggests. I, too, had my plan. I gave myself 4 days to rest and had no thoughts of doing anything other than carrying my pack every step of the way.

Day one my plan changed and I wasn’t happy about it. First off, let me tell you about day one of the Camino starting in St. Jean Pied de Port. It is an absolutely beautiful hike, but it also is absolutely difficult. The guide books say it is 25ish km (15 miles), but 20 km are straight up a mountain and the other 5 are straight down said mountain. In other words, the day is rough! This is day one too! No one is ready for that day, I don’t care how good of shape they are in, it is a tough day for almost everyone.

After about 8 hours of hiking up and down a mountain I sat down because I was feeling a bit odd. Almost as soon as I sat down I realized I had not managed my food and water intake very well and was about to pass out. I was walking with a British guy named James that day and he sat with me as I attempted to get back to normal. After the break and then another hour of walking we arrived at our destination…or so I thought. Sadly, once we got to Roncesvalles, we were told that there were no more beds there or in any town for another 12 km. Needless to say, we were frustrated. At that point we had two options: Walk 12 more km (3+ hours) or take a taxi. I did not have another 12 km in me, so a group of 6 of us got in a taxi and were driven to a place to stay.

One the way to our new destination we all talked about what the next day might look like. Would we take a taxi back to Roncesvalles so we could walk every step of the Camino, or would we just start our day from where the taxi dropped us off. It was a tougher decision than it sounds. The Camino is 786 km long. You plan for 786 km and not 774 km. The certificate you get at the end says 786 km, not 774 km. Taking a taxi is cheating. If you don’t walk it, you didn’t do it. That is what was running through my head, but in the end I decided to take the taxi and recognize that 12 km was 1.5% of the whole hike and missing out on that little wasn’t a big deal.

Fast forward about 3 weeks and I was having a major issue with my Achilles. Every step caused me pain. It wasn’t unexpected seeing as I had walked over 450 km (279 mi), but the pain was getting to be too much. There was no way that I would have been able to continue on for another 2 weeks at the pace I needed to have in order to catch my flight. I had to keep moving, but I also had to stop. Again, I was faced with the decision to continue walking and potentially end my journey in a hospital, or to take a train for 37 km to León where I had a hotel reservation and could properly rest for two days. I chose the latter and because of that rest I was able to continue on.

Towards the end of the Camino my friends and I all had a common saying. Whenever we discussed doing something that others might judge as not being Camino-like we would say, “This is our Camino.” Essentially it meant that we all needed to do things that allowed us to continue on. We could have made the decision to stop, but if we wanted to continue we needed to do certain things like sending our pack ahead to the next town when we were about to climb a mountain, or take a taxi because we physically couldn’t do more, or stay in a hotel because we wanted a good night’s sleep.

My Camino involved all of the above and yet I will always say that I completed the Camino, all 786 km. I just needed a little help at times (isn’t that always the truth) to finish strong. And what happened when I got to Santiago? I felt so good, I literally danced, but that story is for another day.

Camino de Santiago: Why?

I’ve Got All The Reasons

One of the first and most common questions you are asked on the Camino is: “Why are you doing the Camino?” It’s a valid question, and important question, a good conversation starter and also super personal, and yet before I even knew the name of the questioner, I was often asked this question.

I was also asked this question by people back in the US before I went on this trip. Like I said, it’s valid and important, but it’s also a tough question to answer. Typically I told people I had three reasons to hike the Camino and then I would proceed to tell people what drove this completely out of shape man to hike almost 490 miles. I don’t hide things from people, so I was completely honest with them and said:

  1. Jump-start to losing weight – I’ve always struggled with weight. I’ve been larger than average most of my life and the one time I wasn’t I was struggling with my weight in the opposite way. My thought was that 5 weeks of hiking would help me establish a healthier lifestyle and force me to eat better and move more. If 5 weeks of hiking couldn’t do it, what could?
  2. Research for my job – As part of my job I lead short-term mission’s trips to places across Europe and a missionary friend of mine and I want to do one on the Camino where we would hike for a week and then serve for another. Throughout my time on the Camino I was learning about hostels, villages, and the needs of pilgrims. We want to bless those who are making the pilgrimage and seeing their needs first hand was vital for any potential future trip.
  3. Going deeper with God – I spent a lot of time with people, but when you are hiking for at least 6 hours everyday you also have a lot of time alone. I wanted to use that time to surrender to God and His plan. Each day would be a time for me to dive deeper into prayer.

Those were my reasons, but the reasons for each and every person were their own. I met so many people on the Camino who were seeking. Whether they were seeking answers, a connection, a place to grieve, or as one person said “inner peace,” almost everyone on that trail was seeking. We all wanted something by the end of our time.

Camino de Santiago: An Introduction

Many of you know that from May 1st through June 5th, I hiked the Camino de Santiago. The Camino, as it is generally known, is a pilgrimage to Santiago where the bones of St. James are held. Santiago, in fact, means St. James. (San Tiago) and it consistently ranks in the top 3 most frequented pilgrimages next to Vatican City and Jerusalem.

There are a bunch of different routes to Santiago that are all Caminos (which means “The Way”) including the Portuguese, English, North and the more frequently traversed Frances. I chose the Frances as the route that would lead me to Santiago. Most pilgrims who hike the Camino Frances hike from St. Jean Pied de Port in France and continue 786 km (488 miles) to Santiago.

Over the next who knows how many blog posts I am going to be discussing a bunch of different aspects of the Camino. Part of this is to help me process the whole experience, but another part is to invite you all deeper into the who, what, why, and how of that trip. I invite you to join me as I journey back to Spain.

Buen Camino!