Camino de Santiago: Pushing Through the Pain

Pain is normal. Pain is expected. Pain is ever present. Pain is the Camino.

That may seem a bit dramatic to say, but let’s be honest, could you really imagine not having any pain after hiking 25 km (15 mi) every day for 32 days? I mean, really? No matter how much you prepare you can never really prepare for the Camino and even if you did, you will still experience pain. Whether the pain comes in the form of blisters, muscle soreness, bruised toes, knee issues or any other of a wide variety of possibilities, the pain is there.

For me, the pain was a bit different. I didn’t always share all of the details of my pain, because even what I did share caused some people to worry about me. I was fine, or mostly fine…whatever.

The three days prior to my start I was laid up in bed pretty sick. In fact, I considered not going at all, or at least taking an extra day in St. Jean before beginning, and yet, I did neither of those and started May 1st with a cold and cough. I felt decent, but it was obvious the cold wasn’t truly gone because on day 4 I went to an Urgent Care and had a doctor check it out. Turns out, he didn’t speak English nor I Spanish, so the prescription wasn’t for what I needed, but my sister came to the rescue and told me to get an inhaler and cough syrup for what was, most likely, bronchitis. The bronchitis could have ended my Camino, but I pushed on.

Soon after came a pain, that was excruciating towards the end of every day’s hike and when I would lay down. A simple device, that once again came on the suggestion of my sister, helped alleviate the vast majority of the pain. That pain may have ended my Camino, but I pushed on.

Then came the Achilles pain which caused every step to hurt. A train ride and two nights in a hotel helped make it a manageable pain. My Achilles should have ended my Camino, but I pushed on.

At this point you may be thinking, “What an idiot!” and you might be right, but I pushed through that pain and the last two weeks were nearly pain free. But why did I push through the pain? Well, simply put I wasn’t done yet. I wasn’t done connecting with God and other people. I wasn’t done researching for my work and quite frankly I wasn’t done growing.

Pain helps growth and if I would have given up on day 4, I wouldn’t have grown nearly as much as I did. Pain is a way in which we can be forced to grow or change. When we injure ourselves it may be forcing us to slow down and see more of what is happening which we may have ignored before. The pain after lifting weights is literally making us stronger. The pain of a break-up can help us see what we want/need in a relationship. The pain of this trip helped me rely on other people and pray to God for His will more than I may have done otherwise.

My Camino was painful; physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally. I pushed through the pain so that I could grow. What pain are you experiencing right now that you might need to push through (with the help of God and others of course!)?

Camino de Santiago: Devotionals

In preparation for the Camino I reached out to a bunch of my close friends and asked them to give me a favorite passage of their from the Bible. For each day of the Camino I wrote out the passage they gave me and included their name. Each day I would start out (if I remembered and wasn’t getting ready in a pitch black room) by reading the verse and the name of the person who gave it to me.

Throughout the day I would try to think about the verse, but even more so I would keep the person in mind and pray for them throughout the day. Since my Camino was a spiritual experience I needed prompts for prayer and for thought provoking topics. When you have 6+ hours of hiking, some days you run out of things to think about and these verses helped greatly!

This was my way of connecting with God and with my friends. It also helped keep me focused, or as my friend says, “Keep the main thing, the main thing.”

I’d be curious to know, what would you do to help keep yo spiritually focused on a long hike/trip like the Camino?

Camino de Santiago: An extrovert’s dream?

49,000+ pilgrims arrived in Santiago in June of 2019. I was one of those and most of the people I walked with would have been in those numbers as well. 49,000 people is a ridiculous number. That essentially means you are never alone. Maybe you will walk alone for part of each day, but you will never really be alone. An extrovert’s dream, right?

I’m an extrovert, of that there is no doubt. So, hiking the Camino should have been just what I wanted, tons of people at all times. To some extent, it is exactly what I wanted. I wanted to be with people every day and the days I struggled the most were also the days I walked and ate by myself. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted some alone time, but the best days were days where there was a combination of people and alone time. With 49,000 people (an average of 1,633 people finishing per day) it was rare to get those days. That didn’t make it bad, it just made it more difficult to contemplate all of life’s deeper questions like, “What crops are they growing in this field,” or “What was the name of the person I walked with yesterday?” You know…the deep stuff.

But like I said, I’m an extrovert, so shouldn’t the ridiculous number of people been exactly what I wanted? Well, yes, kind of. I met so many amazing people over the course of the 5 weeks and I was genuinely glad to see them when I did. In fact, my best memories were directly tied to the people I met and I will never forget them. It was a bit of an extrovert’s dream, but there were two problems with the number of people. The first problem was there were always people. If you were doing the Camino for a pilgrimage you had to deal with the fact that your silence would probably get interrupted by someone and way sooner than you’d probably prefer. Dealing with that was pretty easy though as most people understood when you would say you wanted time and silence to think. They were, after all, probably wanting silence sometimes as well.

The second issue was a bit different, and maybe it was uniquely my issue, but probably not. When you didn’t have a connection with any one of the hundreds of pilgrim’s staying in the same town as you, it could prove to be very lonely. Walking out of a hostel and seeing so many people laughing, relaxing, eating and otherwise enjoying each other’s company was tough on the days when all you felt like doing was joining in, but not feeling like you could. Those were the lonely days.

Those lonely days are where I learned a lot about myself. Even though I am an extrovert, I struggle introducing myself to people who look like they don’t need another member of their group. I learned that I do this, because I am not confident in myself. At my worst times I don’t think I will add value to their group or that they won’t like me. What’s amusing is, that time and again, when I met people and joined in on their conversations, we had a good time, so clearly this was a me thing. It a ridiculous me thing too and I am fully aware.

The thing is, I know this now. I know this stems from a long list of issues I have about myself and this was one of the many things of value that the Camino gave to me. When I had some time to myself, to think and pray about why I was on the Camino, God revealed more about my character and showed me His love through all of those thousands of others. This extrovert was blessed by the welcomeness of others, but also the awareness that we all needed some alone time.

Camino de Santiago: Serving

In my previous post about why I walked the Camino de Santiago I mentioned doing research on potential short-term mission trips. As I walked, I was observing what needs there were for both the pilgrims and the locals. Obviously I didn’t have to observe some of the needs as I felt them firsthand.

The following ideas are simply that; ideas. That is all they can be at this point. The way we work, in GEM Teams, is we work with European partners who would benefit by having a short-term team come and serve alongside them. Without that, there will not be a short-term team. That being said, here are some potential ideas I thought about while on my way:

  • Hike for a week and then serve somewhere for a week. Potentially finishing the whole Camino over 5 years.
  • While hiking set up nightly discussions on topics such as hope, forgiveness, love, etc.
  • Volunteer at Pilgrims’ Oasis in Viana, Spain
  • Set up aid stations in particularly tough areas providing water, fruit, ice cream, etc.
  • Take photos of people on the Camino with their phone or with a nice camera and email later
  • Have massage therapists, physical therapists, doctors, and/or nurses help with injuries.
  • Find a place to prepare communal meals for small or large groups and invite people to come and enjoy.

There are more ideas of places to stay and work, but these ideas are the ones I think are the most likely to work. Depending on the group we could potentially get to come, any, all or none of these ideas might work. I made some contacts along the way and I’m excited for the potential of how we can serve those on the Way.

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.