12 Lessons I’ve learned on the Camino

It is now about 6 months since my wife and I completed our Camino Frances (time flies!), so it seems about time I took stock of some of the lessons I’ve learned and that I’ve gleaned from talking with other pilgrims. I have found most if not all of these to be things I’ve incorporated into my daily life.

Zero km marker
It’s important to know the ‘why’. This is one of the key lessons. Why do the Camino? I think this is the single most important factor in whether or not people complete their Camino. If you have that sorted, you will have what it takes to carry you through the hard bits – the difficult climb over the Pyrenees, or the long slog up to O Cebreiro, or to keep going when it’s raining and muddy underfoot and you are uncomfortable. It is all part of the journey. We met a few people who wound up not completing their Camino this time as they were not solid in why they were doing it, and so were unable to find the resolve within themselves to continue. It is unfortunate, and at least in one case, we were suffering our own doubts after crossing the Pyrenees and felt unable to provide the necessary encouragement for them to continue. In my case, at least part of the ‘why’ was to give thanks for a good life, and to take time out to consider my new life in retirement from the formal workforce – it is a big life change. Everyone’s reasons are different, but the key thing is the desire to see it through when the going gets tough. Anyone can walk for a day or two, but fatigue is cumulative and a walk that seems straightforward can prove challenging after 40 days. So the lessons around understanding why we want to do something will live with me for a long time to come, and it applies to everything we set our minds to do. This is not an original idea, it comes from a guy called Simon Sinek who summarises his key idea – ‘start with why’ – in this video.

We have too much ’stuff’. It seems pretty common that when people return from the Camino they begin decluttering. Ourselves included. Perhaps it comes from spending 6 weeks with nothing more than 2 changes of clothes, a backpack and a phone. And many people leave the phone behind. But the common thread is that you realise you just don’t need much stuff to get through life. There is a great wisdom about buying things – if you need it, buy the one best item you can afford. It will do the job well, last for years, and you will not be wasting energy and resources.

It’s about the relationships. In our daily lives, we dance around each other and there is a lot of ‘face’ maintaining activity as we get to know people. On the Camino we already have something in common – and we are reduced to our most basic appearance. We are removed from others’ expectations of who we are. In addition, we are removed from our expectations of others’ expectations of who we are. And this allows other aspects of our personality to come out. So it is easy to get real with people quickly. There is no time for long introductions, and our occupation or status is irrelevant – indeed those topics never arose. A casual conversation over coffee in Logroño quickly turned to why we were walking the Camino, where we were from, and who we are as people with questions of the meaning of life, observations of society and so on. The Camino has no time for bullshit. Several people we met briefly on the Camino remain in contact and are now firm friends. Although we each walk our own Camino, we have many fellow-travellers.

Dinner at Zariquiegui

The value of slow travel. We are walking across a country. What a privilege to be able to do that in our fast-paced world! I had read classic novels in which protagonists described a town as ’two days away’. I now know what that looks like. Every town is on a hill, so you start the day by descending, then crossing a valley, perhaps a hill or two, then you climb towards your destination. You look back and see the distant hills and think ‘I was there this morning – that’s what a day’s walk looks like’. And it is a great feeling. With life at walking pace, you see more, you hear more, you smell more and you touch more and above all you perceive more. And in the process you become more mindful of your surroundings. It is travel with all your senses. And you notice things – not just the sunrise over the mountains, but why that village is located there, and that piece of carved lintel that now forms part of a dry-stone wall.

dawn pilgrim

Forgiveness. There are several symbolic places at which there is a tradition of forgiveness – the Alto del Pardon (Mountain of forgiveness); the Cruz de Ferro – where you place a stone brought from home to represent your psychological baggage to be left behind at the cross, and so on. But what does this mean? I think it’s about having an opportunity to step outside our daily lives, and to learn to forgive yourself for all those failings you beat yourself up over. And it’s about tolerance and forgiveness of others. They have their journey to make, and like us they are only human with all the failings that that entails. The Camino is an opportunity to look into ourselves and find forgiveness for our own shortcomings, to take responsibility and to lighten up on ourselves and others.   

Alto del Perdon

Finding yourself. Some people talk about ‘finding’ themselves on the Camino. I wonder if it is more about ‘becoming’ yourself. I am yet to be convinced that there is somehow a core person wrapped up in onion layers waiting to be unwrapped and discovered, because that would imply that we are unchanging and unable to grow – a noun, rather than a verb. For me, identity is not an extractive industry buried under piles of tailings. Rather I see identity as a process of becoming. It is an additive process, built on the foundation of all the choices we have made through life to the present. Just as each step on the Camino takes us further along the path, or perhaps diverts us for a time, we are always actively engaged in becoming who we are. By virtue of engaging in such a journey, you are extending yourself, putting yourself out there – and in the process discovering more of the reserves you have within. In that sense, the Camino is truly a metaphor for life.

Cardeñuela

Real pilgrims don’t… judge other pilgrims. I heard several people say things like you’re not a ‘real’ pilgrim if you don’t carry your pack, or you take a bus across the Meseta, or talk or sing or whatever. I even saw a sign that said ‘pilgrims walk in silence’. I thought about adding a line to say ‘pilgrims don’t deface walls with judgemental sayings…’  Honestly, everyone walks their own Camino in their own way, and it is not up to others to judge. The author of the C11th Codex Calixtinus even talks about crossing the Meseta ‘of course by horse’. So I don’t think even they would have judged anyone for taking alternative transport at times. The only official requirement is to walk the last 100kms or bike the last 200kms. With or without a pack, it doesn’t matter.   

We are part of a long history. To undertake the Camino we are following in the footsteps of a thousand years of pilgrims to Santiago. But we are also walking in Napoleon’s footsteps as he crossed the Pyrenees. And we are following Charlemagne’s footsteps as he sought to drive out the Moors. Here we walk through legends of El Cid and of Roland. But then you look down and realise you are walking on a Roman road – built 2000 years ago. we cross Roman and medieval bridges. But that is a drop in the ocean of time as we walk the flint hills used by neolithic farmers and paleolithic hunters and neanderthals and before them Homo Antecessor before even modern humans walked this land. It is land continuously occupied by hominids ancient and modern for 1.2 million years, even before Homo Sapiens existed. All these have walked beneath the river of stars. By walking the Camino we are writing ourselves into that history, taking our place in the story of Europe, and continuing the grand tradition. It is a personal story that we, in turn, will tell our children, our families and our friends. We too are pilgrims, and we walk our story.

Stone tools

People look out for each other. The Camino seems to attract a generally more altruistic kind of person, and we saw this demonstrated time and again. People would provide emotional support or would help out in practical ways – sharing food, or stomach settlers or advice on blister care, or where to find the best tortilla in Spain (thanks, Kristine). Several times we were brought to tears by the kindness of strangers – a blessing from a nun or seeing someone stay with an exhausted pilgrim left behind by their travelling companions. We saw countless small acts of kindness and compassion. After a lengthy career dealing with the very worst of human nature, the Camino restored my faith in humanity.

Learn to let go – sometimes things don’t go to plan, but there is usually a way to sort things out. There is a saying that ‘the Camino provides’. And that is true as long as you are open to what it provides. So one of the things we learned was to accept what happens and either put up with it or take action to resolve the situation.

Care of the self. Body lessons are vital. It is important to learn to listen to your own body and take note of potential problems. If you have a hot spot on your foot, treat it immediately – before it becomes a blister. If you are feeling exhausted or emotionally drained, give yourself a rest day. If necessary, take a bus or a cab to the next town, or have your pack carried forward by one of the backpack courier services, such as Xacotrans. People are generous on the Camino and always willing to help others in need. But to be able to help others, you also need to look after yourself. It is like the safety briefing on the plane – in the event of loss of oxygen, fit your mask to yourself before helping others – otherwise, you risk neither coming through. And the Camino repays this care with interest! We both lost weight – around 5kg each. But the big changes were internal. My cholesterol numbers were a bit high before I started the walk – the bad cholesterol was high and the good cholesterol was low. There are limited menu choices on the Camino so I ate the steak and chips and ice cream and drank the wine and had the cakes along the way. On my return, the numbers had completely reversed – so much so that my cholesterol was back well into the normal range. Walking is a very natural thing to do, but it was only when walking in a sustained way – more than an hour a day, did it become truly enjoyable, as though this is what the body is designed to do. By the end of the walk, we decided that we finally knew how to do the Camino, if only we could start over with the level of fitness and endurance we had at the end! And yes, on our return to Australia, my wife and I have both maintained a walking habit – which will prepare us well for our next Camino, and for our future travels.

tree tunnel

Learn to ask for help. This is something I’m not good at. We each walk our own Camino, but sometimes our own resources are not enough, and while I give help readily, I still find it difficult to ask for help – something I’m still working on.

There is no doubt that there are many other lessons to be found here, and as I reflect I will include them in future posts. And finally, a big thank you and hugs to all my Camino companions and friends – you have taught me so much and given so generously of your friendship. Buen Camino!
****************************

If you’d like to read more about our Camino Frances in 2016, visit the index page here for all my Camino posts
or click on the link above 🙂

****************************
________________________________________
Why not have these posts delivered to your in-box? Just enter your email address and click the ‘subscribe’ button in the left margin, and don’t forget to respond to the confirmation email in your in-box 🙂




Camino de Santiago (French route) – The complete index

Camino de Santiago
Our journey from St Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela
20 Sept – 1 Nov 2016

The Complete Index

There is something undeniably special about walking the Camino de Santiago. As one of the great medieval pilgrimage routes it draws people from all over the world – irrespective of religious belief or lack thereof – to do something extraordinary. To walk in the footsteps of a thousand years of pilgrims is a way to touch a deep cultural history – something we rarely get to do in a busy life. Scroll down to find links to all the posts about our 2016 Camino.

 

Camino - Don't stop walking

The Camino, like most travel, is at least three journeys in one. It is a physical journey, in which you discover what distance can be covered in a day’s walk, and the strange feeling of walking across an entire country. It is also an inner journey of the mind, as your perspective changes, your assumptions are challenged, and you have an opportunity to spend time out from a busy schedule to gain a new perspective on life. Thirdly, it is a cultural journey spanning a thousand years of history. As UNESCO has stated: “Europe was built on the pilgrim road to Santiago.” Buen Camino!

Compostelas with shells

_______________________________________________________

INDEX to the Camino posts

I have collected here links to the story of our journey to Santiago de Compostela in 2016 – feel free to dive in at any point, or to follow the story sequentially.

Camino training

Trekking pole tripod – camera mount

Camino training – a lighthearted look

Packing for the Camino de Santiago

Camino Credential from Notre Dame Paris

Paris – the final pack for the Camino

Paris to St Jean Pied de Port

Camino Frances: St Jean-Orisson

Roncesvalles and the Witches Wood

Espinal to Zubiri: A sketch and a close call

Abbey of Eskirotz and Ilarratz – a hidden gem

A Bell before Pamplona

Pamplona rest day and a moment with Heidegger

Zariquiegui and on to the Mount of Forgiveness

On to Puenta la Reina

Magic House at Villatuerte

The Wine Fountain then on to Villamayor de Montjardin

Villamayor de Jardin to Los Arcos – and a special sunrise

Viana and a micro-fiesta

Logroño – city of farewells

Logroño to Ventosa

Ventosa to Azofra via Nàjera

Azofra to Santo de Domingo de la Calzada

On to Villamayor del Rio – and some thoughts on the Camino

On to Villafranca Montes de Oca

Camino Frances: Haven’t seen you in Agés…

Atapuerca and on to Burgos

Burgos – And a Museum of Human Evolution

Burgos – A Cathedral, a Prince and a Toy Train

Leon – Stained glass to rival Chartres

Leon – Hogworts, a museum, and the weight of history

Hobbit houses, then on to Villar de Mazariffe

A long bridge and a fiesta – Puente de Orbigo

Passing Astorga

Tex Mex on the Camino

Cruz de Ferro – a poignant moment

The descent, then on to Ponferrada

Villafranca del Bierzo – and a Camino angel

To O Cebreiro – Gateway to Galicia!

O Cebreiro to Fonfria

Sarria – Beginning of the final leg

Sarria to Morgade

Portomarin – and a moving church

Off to Hospital – and an encounter with Spanish plumbing

Palas de Rei

Camino – Casanova scammers and on to Melide

Melide to Arzua and an encounter with raspberries

Arzua to Pedrouza

Pedrouzo to Santiago – Arrival at last!

Santiago moments, and an encounter with the Botafumeiro

Camino Kilometre Zero at Finisterre and on to Muxia

Encounter with the Secret Pilgrim

Lessons learned on the Camino

Santiago cathedral

bronze Camino shell

Instruments from the Portico of Glory

Here is a Camino moment – one of those special encounters I had on the Camino. When I reached Santiago, I toured the Cathedral and was amazed by the carvings on the Portico of Glory – carved by Medieval French sculptor Master Matteo in the 11th century.

Pórtico de la Gloria

Portico of Glory. Photo credit: By José Antonio Gil Martínez from Vigo, Spain – Pórtico de la Gloria Uploaded by tm, CC BY 2.0, wikimedia – 26175646

The Portico of Glory depicts, among other things, a large group of musicians, caught as though in the act of tuning up before performing. Some are in conversation with the person next to them, some are tuning-up, and as a result, it is a surprisingly relaxed and naturalistic carving. I could easily imagine a group of musicians chatting before the start of a gig.

The portico also depicts the instruments in some detail – the instruments are well observed and there’s enough information to enable reproductions of each of the instruments. When I visited the museum, I found some of the instruments on display, and was able to photograph them.

The instruments bring to life medieval Galician-Celtic music, as well as music from the Codex Calixtinus. And there is a group performing regularly with these reproduction instruments.

One of the most interesting is the Organistrum – a kind of medieval hurdy-gurdy. This is a keyed, 3-stringed instrument which is ‘bowed’ by turning a rosined wheel that bears against the strings. The instrument is constructed with a figure eight soundbox, and is played by two people, one to turn the handle for bowing; the other to operate the keys.

Organistrum

The sound-box is elaborately carved with stylised fleur de lys and dot motifs.

Organistrum

And the key box is designed so that as each key is lifted, it forms a chord across the three strings.

Organistrum

A rhythm can be established by alternately speeding and slowing the turn of the handle which turns the bow wheel. The instrument provides a steady chordal drone to fill out the music – just like a hurdy-gurdy.

The next instrument was a fidula obal – an oval-shaped fiddle – in many ways this instrument is the distant forebear of my pochette, or travel fiddle.

Fidula obal

In this case, it has three strings secured by three tuning pins at the top of the neck and at the ornately carved tailpiece at the base. The strings run over a slightly curved bridge, enabling the bow to sound one, two or even all three strings.

Fidula obal

My pochette fiddle, modelled on one I saw some years ago in London’s Victoria and Albert  Museum, would not have seemed too out of place among the medieval instruments. Here is my instrument being played along with a couple of other instruments at a folk festival.

Which reminds me that I really must learn some Galician Celtic tunes 🙂

A further instrument is the Fidula Ocho – or figure eight fiddle. This one has a larger soundboard area, and a waist, not unlike a modern violin. So, this instrument could be viewed as one of the violin’s ancient ancestors. This fidula would probably have been louder than the Obal and was possibly a lead instrument carrying the melody.

Fidula Ocho

All these instruments were accurately recreated from the 11th-century stonework of Master Matteo. The Foundation of Pedro Barrié de la Maza commissioned expert luthiers, art historians and musicologists to form a multidisciplinary team to produce the most faithful re-creations possible. There is a video in Spanish describing the process of bringing these instruments back to life.

As you can see from the video there were more instruments than I was able to photograph, such as the harp and bowed psaltery and a frame drum – still played in Galicia today, an instrument strongly resembling the Irish Bodhran.

The Organistrum was for me the most fascinating instrument, due to its mechanical complexity. It appeared to be a cross between a hurdy-gurdy and a Swedish Nyckelharpa. I must admit it is tempting to see if I could build at least one of the Fidula instruments!

Here is the Organistrum being played.

I could easily see how an ensemble of these instruments, along with voices would give a full and lively sound – especially with the acoustics of the Cathedral to add a little echo and ring to the music 🙂

****************************

If you’d like to read more about our Camino in 2016, here is the index page for all my Camino posts

Camino de Santiago 2016


or click on the link above 🙂

    

________________________________________
Why not have these posts delivered to your in-box? Just enter your email address and click the ‘subscribe’ button in the left margin, and don’t forget to respond to the confirmation email in your in-box 🙂