The Camino is what it is, what it always has been.
The Camino is unchanging – only pilgrims change.
The Camino doesn’t belong to you.
Not everyone will have the same experience on the Camino.
Don’t try to walk someone else’s Camino.
Walk your own Camino.
“If you want to make it to Santiago, the first heavy thing you must leave behind is your expectations."
Some people walk or cycle a Camino purely for the challenge of doing so. They are rarely disappointed and get exactly what they wanted out of the experience – a great hike across scenic landscapes with reasonable accommodations and friendly fellow hikers - no more and no less. When they return home they cross it off their bucket list and start planning their next adventure. “I don’t know what all the hype is about,” said a returning pilgrim. “I’ve had better holidays in Tuscany.”
Some people do a Camino because it is the fashionable thing to do – all their friends have done it or are planning to do it and they don’t want to feel left out. They buy all the right gear and do a bit of research and then set off for France, Spain or Portugal to start the Camino. The first few days are a shock. This is no gentle meander from one charming village to the next. The paths are muddy or rocky; villages are decrepit, monuments in ruin. The locals are un-sophisticated and, they don’t speak English! After a week or two they decide that this is not for them and they return home. One such ‘pilgrim’ wrote, “I had a stiff G&T and decided that if I ever got the urge to try it again I would lie down on my bed until the feeling passed!”
Some people plan a Camino with a spouse or with a friend or two, or even a group. They get on well together and are excited at the prospect of sharing this journey. Hiking together for weeks can bring out tensions and different expectations in the group. “I am a fast walker and the others couldn’t keep up.” “I expected to keep walking but he couldn’t go any further so I ended up twiddling my thumbs every afternoon.” “I wanted to sleep in the albergues but she wanted to sleep in hotels. She also wanted to eat in restaurants and I couldn’t afford to do that every night.” These different expectations are the things that can lead to a breakdown in friendships and relationships on the Camino.
Some people, who have hiked other long-distance hiking trails around the world, might be disappointed to find that the Camino isn’t a wilderness trail (like the Appalachian Trail in the US). They bemoan the fact that there are always signs of civilisation, trains, electricity pylons, highways in the distance, lots of villages and towns, and far more people on the trails than they expected. Some of the Camino routes have lots of road walking and this too is a shock to the person who thought he would be hiking mostly on cross-country trails.
Some people, many at cross-roads in their lives, do a Camino hoping to ‘find myself’. They hope that by walking or cycling the Camino they will find answers to the many uncertainties in their life; perhaps the loss of a job, the break-down of a relationship, or a mid-life crisis. Some will have an epiphany on the road and return home full of new found vigour and ideas, but others go home more confused than ever. The Camino failed to provide the answers and solutions they were looking for.
Some people walk for religious reasons. Many, hoping to emulate the pilgrims of old and walk in faith and piety in order to earn a reward at the end of the journey (usually forgiveness of sins), are disappointed and disillusioned by the commercial aspects of the Camino. They find closed churches, queues of tourists outside cathedrals (which charge them to enter) and an array of cheap Camino souvenirs in every village. They feel let down because the Camino doesn’t meet their expectations. “Very little is real, authentic or genuine” said a pilgrim.
Some people might start off doing a Camino as a nice long distance walk, with no expectations of having a spiritual or meaningful experience. When they reach Santiago they say, “That was a great walk, but I don’t think I’ll want to do it again. There are lots of other places I want to visit.” A few weeks, months or even a year later, they are dreaming about the Camino and feel a ‘call’ to go back. They join their local confraternity and start to plan their next Camino.
Some people, although eager to experience what others describe as an intensely spirituality and life-changing experience, just don’t feel it. “I wanted to feel the magic and euphoria that so many pilgrims have described,” commented a pilgrim at a workshop, “but it just didn’t happen for me. It was a wonderful walk and I loved being with the other pilgrims, but I really didn’t find it life-changing at all.”
Some people have high expectations and everything about the Camino is a disappointment. One blogger was explicit in his condemnation. "Roncesvalles - had a typically bad Spanish lunch; Burgos cathedral - I’ve seen hundreds of cathedrals in my life, but this one in particular disgusted me; it was a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. We started the day in Peregrino Purgatory; there are many structural and systemic reasons that Spain is one worst countries in the Financial Crisis, including economic, legal, and behavioural; watched as a busload of Japanese tourists (who were dropped off to hike the last kilometre up to the Iron Cross) crowd out the true pilgrims. Unfortunately El Camino de Santiago is a pre-packaged tour masquerading as something else. "
Some people have pre-conceived ideas about doing the Camino in an ‘authentic’ way [which presumably means in the way of the medieval, mendicant, penitential pilgrim. They develop strong opinions about all the other pilgrims they meet on the road. To be ‘authentic’ they should walk alone, walk very long distances, carry a heavy pack, only sleep in pilgrim shelters, not eat in restaurants, not do ‘touristy’ things, attend mass as often as possible and never take transport. They are disappointed that there aren’t more like them on the Camino and post disapproving comments on blogs and forums. Pilgrims are ‘cheats’ they say, undeserving of any rewards including the Compostela certificate when they reach Santiago. This view of authenticity only applies to pilgrims walking to Santiago (not the millions of pilgrims to Fatima, Lourdes, Rome or the Holy Land). These ‘authentic’ pilgrims can have Gortex shoes, wicking hiking gear, carry a credit card, cell phone, send emails home and post on their blogs – and the criteria of authenticity only applies to walking one way (they don’t have to walk back home like the medieval pilgrims did.)
Some people have an unexpected, life-changing experience on the Camino, so much so that they say that it was their destiny to do the pilgrimage. Many return home, sell up everything and move to Spain or France, setting up a pilgrim shelter on one of the routes. One pilgrim left her husband and returned to Spain, married a local and now runs a tour business taking groups of pilgrims on the Camino. Another walked the Camino when she was retrenched from a lucrative job. She returned to her home country, wrote a book and incorporated the Camino into her life by setting up a Camino website to promote it, made a film about the Camino and gives motivational talks.
Some people love doing the Camino so much that they return time and time again, either doing the same route or trying different routes. Each time they say, "Ok. I've done it again, now I must try something different." But, the call of the Camino is too strong, and within a year or two they are back on the Camino trails, and mostly they can’t tell you why!
'The journey is never over. Only travellers come to an end. The end of one journey is simply the start of another. You have to see what you missed the first time, see again what you already saw, see in springtime what you saw in summer, in daylight what you saw at night, see the sun shining where you saw the rain falling, see the crops growing, the fruit ripen, the stone which has moved, the shadow that was not there before. You have to go back to the footsteps already taken, to go over them again or add fresh ones alongside them. You have to start the journey anew. Always. The traveller sets out once more." Jose Saramago