Archive for ‘Camino de Santiago’

July 1, 2014

Thoughts on Finishing the Camino

by Tabitha Kidwell

As I walked the Camino, I kept thinking that it would get easier. “Tomorrow will be better than today,” I told myself. “I only have to walk 14 miles,” or “my pack is lighter,” or “there is less climbing.” But it never got easier. Every day I stumbled into the hostel feeling like I could not walk even one more step. Then I got up the next morning and did it all again.

In the same way, I kept thinking that my thoughts about the Camino would coalesce, that I would gain some sort of clarity towards the end of the walk, or shortly after, or after a week at home.

That has not happened, either.

I finished the Camino two weeks ago, but I’m still not sure what it all meant. I still have so many disparate thoughts about the experience that it is hard to link them all together to say anything coherent. But I’ve already delayed, procrastinated, and resisted writing this blog for so long that my thoughts are beginning to melt away as my memories fade. I know I just need to write something. I started to put together a buzzfeed-style “7 things I learned from the Camino de Santiago,” but I grew more and more frustrated as I wrote it. The “lessons” I came up with – don’t carry too much… everyone walks their own path… it’s the journey, not the destination – were trite, obvious, and overdone. Trying to fit what I had learned into sound-bites cheapened the experience, as if by defining it, I was making it smaller than it really was.

What it was, really, was an incredible, unique, inexplicable, life-changing experience. It was more than just a long trip or a physical challenge or a tour of Spain, but I’m not sure why. Maybe it was the beautiful landscape, the kind people, the meditative nature of walking, the energy from the centuries of pilgrims who have passed before. Celtic mythology talks about “thin places,” where the line between this world and the next is blurred. I think the whole Camino is a thin place, a place where you are more vulnerable and open.

Since coming home, I find myself in a “thin moment,” a time of vulnerability when I am re-evaluating how I behave and who I want to be. I can feel a source of strength within me that wasn’t there before the Camino. Other experiences – graduating from college, living in Madagascar, finishing marathons – have probably contributed to this strength, but I never before felt it as such a concrete presence. Something in me is qualitatively different. I feel more compassionate and more open, more present and aware, more conscious of how I treat people. I see how little is needed to make a happy life. I feel more motivated to let go of masks and defenses, to just be myself – and I feel more confident doing so. I see how often I try to hide behind humor. I understand how different people can be, and that they do not always think the way I do, but I realize that they are on their own path. More than anything, I see how important it is to enjoy the present and trust that you will find everything you need at the right moment. I feel cradled by the universe.

I arrived in Santiago on Tuesday, June 17. After a 28 days of following yellow arrows, I arrived to a plaque on the ground and a cathedral under construction. There was no fanfare, no one to greet me or welcome me or high five me. In fact, I saw fewer pilgrims than I had for most of the past month. I was surrounded by tour groups taking photos, listening to their guides, and paying me no attention. Didn’t they know that I had just walked from Pamplona? That they were witnessing a momentous occasion? I had finally reached Santiago… and it was just over. I thought I would feel a rush of joy and enlightenment, but without the yellow arrows to guide me, I just felt lost.

Though there was no one to greet me the moment I arrived, I did run into many of the people I had walked with during the two days I stayed in Santiago. I spent a gloriously sunny afternoon sitting at a café across from the Cathedral, sipping wine and greeting my friends the way I wish someone had greeted me. Even though the official Camino had ended, we continued saying “Buen Camino” when we parted – now for the final time. What else could we say? Good-bye; good luck; safe travels? None of those was quite right. Our journey together had ended, and each of us had to return home to confront the impossible task of integrating the person we had become with the person we had been before. “Buen Camino” wasn’t quite the right word, either, but it managed to convey everything we needed to say.

Now, I don’t have the right words, either. Maybe they will come some day, but until then, I hope I can share what the experience meant by carrying it with me, by feeling that source of strength within me and letting it remind me to live life well, treat people right, and enjoy every moment. Maybe I don’t yet know how to sum up my journey because the journey isn’t over yet.

June 13, 2014

Why are you here?

by Tabitha Kidwell

One of the commonly asked questions as you meet other pilgrims along the Camino is “Why are you here?” I always had trouble answering this question. I could tell why I decided to come – basically, I had the money and the time, and it had always been at the back of my mind as something I might do one day. But I didn’t have a clear idea of my purpose in being there, or what I hoped to gain from it. Traditionally, walking the Camino absolves you of your sins, so many Catholics were doing it as a religious pilgrimage. Other people would say that they enjoyed the physical challenge, or wanted to lose weight. Some wanted the cultural experience of really seeing Spain, or they were going through a transition in life and wanted to do some soul searching. I was doing it for all those reasons, but none really stuck out to me.

If they weren’t locked, I ducked into churches along the way, and yesterday I was in a monastery chapel when I realized why I was there: I was on a religious pilgrimage. Given that this is the precise reason the Camino even exists, that this is why people have been doing it for the last millennia, maybe I should have realized this earlier. Hey, I’ll never claim to be an especially self-aware person.

Part of the reason I wouldn’t admit this even to myself is that it’s always been hard for me to talk about my faith or my religion with others. Because some of the loudest, most visible Christians in our society are those who are judging others, telling them they will burn in hell and need to repent, identifying yourself as a Christian can bring a whole lot of baggage. A lot of people have had negative experiences with Christianity, the Bible, or “The Church,” and it’s hard to know what’s going to come up if you start talking about your belief in God. Ironically, I worry about people judging me as a “judgmental Christian.”

But I am a Christian, and a judgmental God has no place in my beliefs. If I believe in God, I have to believe in a God that is wonderful, loving, and accepting, whose presence in your life serves only to make your life better. If people meet and come to understand that God through the lens of Buddhism, Islam, or even yoga, I believe it all comes back to the same divine source. I think belief in religion or spirituality improves your life, because it has improved mine I’ve always had an interest in religion, a drive to be involved in a faith community, and an interest in learning more about God. Maybe it was my mother’s influence, or the wonderful church I grew up in, or just something in my own personality. I wanted to go to church as a child, I got involved in high school seminars even though I had no friends there and was a socially awkward teenager, and I read the entire bible before I was 20. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about other faiths – especially Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. I think a lot of people in the west find meaning in eastern religion, especially if they have negative experiences with Christianity, but for me, learning about other religions helped me to see that Christianity is the language of my soul. It just makes sense to me. I pray to God, I learn from Jesus, and I feel the presence of the Holy Spirit. I was drawn to the Camino as a religious experience, even if I didn’t consciously realize it myself.

So, I am here on a Christian religious pilgrimage, to grow closer to God and better understand His presence in my life. It’s hard for me to say that, to shout it to the world via the blogosphere, but I think I need to say it, and I need to say it loudly. The more that people like me can drown out those “fire and brimstone” preachers on their pulpits, the more that everyone can search for the belief system that makes sense to them, the more we can all learn from each other, and the more peaceful the world will become. At least that is what I believe.

June 8, 2014

A typical day on the Camino

by Tabitha Kidwell

I’ve been walking the Camino for about three weeks, and blogging is a bigger challenge than I thought it would be. It’s not because I don’t have enough to say – because I have so much to say that I don’t even know where to begin. The experience is so big that it defies explanation. But part of it is very easily explained – like the movie Groundhog Day, I basically re-live the same day, over and over again. So, I can explain one day. Maybe my explanation of one day can come to explain something more.

At about 5 AM, I wake up a little bit, hearing the first pilgrims getting ready to depart. I usually stay in albergues – pilgrims hostels, where you pay 5-12 euros for a spot in a bunk bed in a room of 4-30 (but sometimes as many as 100) other pilgrims. To beat the heat and the crowds, some people get up and depart before sunrise. Some of the later rising pilgrims complain about these early birds waking them up in the morning, but I am always glad when I hear other people up. I don’t want to be the first up, the one to wake everyone else up, but I also prefer to get an early start on the day. After the first round of people get packed up and ready, I get up, get dressed, and try to carry my belongings quietly out to pack in the hallway. This usually involves me dropping something and making a ton of noise. Oops. I stuff everything in my bag, have a yogurt and an instant coffee, try to blister-proof my feet (think lots of vaseline), and head out.

I love walking in the early morning, just as the sun is rising. The world is so calm and peaceful that time of day. Spain isn’t exactly an early-rising culture, but I sometimes see middle aged women in track suits or old men with canes on their morning walks. Mostly, I listen to the birds singing and witness the light changing as the dawn melts away and the day begins. The first few hours of walking are always a breeze, and I often didn’t remember then very well when I finish at the end of the day. What did I see? What did I think about? It takes a little effort to remember.

At about 9 AM, I stop for a coffee and second breakfast, if I’m hungry or just feeling like a hobbit. I’ve been eating a LOT of Spanish tortilla, but it’s not getting old at all. I don’t linger too long, because I want to get back on the road and keep moving. Sometimes I walk with other people, and they are always very interesting. Most people are from western Europe, but there are also lots of Americans, Australians, Canadians, and a smattering of Koreans and Japanese. Between French, Spanish, and English, I can talk to almost everyone. But sometimes I walk alone, too, just me and my thoughts. I have lots to think about. I think about my family and friends and wonder what they are doing. I think about moving to DC and what my life will look like next year. I think about all of the incredible experiences I have had and how they have made me who I am. I think about things I haven’t thought about in years, like the imaginary house my childhood best friend and I had in her backyard, who I went to each of my high school dances with and how they asked me, and my class schedule junior year of college. I wonder about stupid things like why British people tell their weight in “stone” (why isn’t it plural?) and what, exactly, was the plot of Super Mario Brothers (they were plumbers?). The thinking feels therapeutic, like I am spring cleaning my memory.

I walk through every imaginable landscape – mountains, farms, forests, and urban sprawl. I walk along rivers and along highways. I pass through towns or villages every few miles, and often stop to say a prayer in the village church or to take a picture of the town hall. If I am low on water, I look for the village pump. I pick wildflowers and put them in my hair. I take pictures that would be amazing on instagram, but I forget to post them.

At around noon, I stop for lunch. Often I see people I know, and sit with them. If I can, I get an “ensalada mixta,” because I am not very hungry while walking, but sometimes I get a sandwich. I take my boots off, stretch my feet, and give them a little massage. When I am done eating, I don’t feel like getting up and moving anymore. I wish I could just stay in this town because I’m tired and hot. But I look at the guide on my phone and see that stopping now will mean I have to walk way too far the next day, and I need to do 3-8 more miles before stopping. So I squeeze my feet back in my boots, strap on my backpack, and head out.

And I walk more. I get back into the rhythm after a bit, but I mostly just wish I were finished. I try to find someone to walk and chat with because I am so tired of walking and thinking. If I am alone, I put in my headphones and listen to podcasts and audiobooks. No matter how far I have gone, 12 miles or 20 miles, the last couple hours are hard. The town where I am stopping looks so far in the distance, and once I reach it, the albergue seems to be on the opposite side of town.

But I finally reach the albergue, right when I think I can’t possibly walk another step. I feel terrible. I check in, take off my boots, and lay on my bed with my legs up the wall. I eat chocolate, drink water, and look at my guide to recap all the places I’ve been and to check out all the places I’ll go tomorrow. If there is wi-fi or cell service, I scroll through my facebook feed. After a little rest (and a little sugar), I feel strong enough to take a shower and do laundry. Everyday, I wash the shirt, socks, and underwear I was wearing, and put on the ones I had washed the day before. If I feel energetic or if it was muddy that day, I wash my pants, too. While my laundry is soaking, I stretch. If there is a nice lawn or patio, I might do a little yoga. Then, I write in my journal about all the places I walked, the people I met, and the things I saw. I calculate how long I walked and think to myself that I must have actually walked longer than that.

But by this point, I no longer feel terrible. I feel good enough to go walk around town and see where I am staying. Sometimes it is a tiny town that would be dead if pilgrims were not passing through. Sometimes it is a small city with lots of things to go visit. Sometimes it is a charming picturesque village crawling with tourists. I often run into people I have met along the way. It’s as if you have gone on vacation and learn that everyone you know has also decided to go to the same place. Sometimes with friends, and sometimes alone, I find a restaurant and have the “menu del peregrino” (plgrim’s menu), which consists of a starter (I usually get salad), main course (usually some kind of grilled meat and French fries), desert, and unlimited wine and bread. I drink more wine than I should because, well, unlimited wine. I head back to the albergue, which locks at 10 PM. I lay everything out for the next morning, get ready for bed, and crawl into my sleeping bag. I read a little with my headlamp, then try to sleep. Usually I am exhausted and sleep like a baby, but sometimes people snore and keep me awake. Either way, I get up the next morning and do it all over again.

Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, I’m not totally sure why I’m doing all this, over and over, day after day. I don’t yet know what it means, so it’s hard to explain it. I think something will come of it, there is something to learn, even if it is just to appreciate each day as it comes.

June 3, 2014

Fear of Emptiness

by Tabitha Kidwell

You know that experiment with the jar and the rocks? Like, a guy puts a bunch of big rocks in a jar, and he can’t fit another rock in, so you say the jar is full. Except, then he adds gravel, and it fills in around the big rocks, and when it reaches the top, you say the jar is full again. But then he does the same with sand, and then with water, and then, finally, the jar is truly full This is supposed to point out that you can fit many things into your life, but only if you get the big rocks in first. So, if you fill your life with watery things like facebook or television, you won’t have time for the big rock-type things like friends, family, or faith.

Well, the Camino is like the opposite of that experiment – it’s just a giant, empty jar, with nothing to put in it. You don’t have to go to work, meet up with friends, clean the house, make dinner. You can’t check facebook or watch tv or waste time. You just walk – you and your vast, echoing soul.

I toured the stunning cathedral in Burgos yesterday. In one intricately detailed Rococo chapel, the audioguide pointed out that there was no place left undecorated. It said this was because of horror vacui – the fear of emptiness.

I’m not especially afraid of emptiness – I’m no stranger to either solitude or silence. I lived in a village in Madagascar alone; I spent a week in silence in Taizé; I’ve traveled all over the world on my own. But still, it is scary when the building blocks of your life are removed. I experienced this (and blogged about it) last fall, when, for the first time in my life, I didn’t go back to school. I was confronted with the reality of spending a year without a job, and I didn’t know what to make of it. Now, I’ve also had all the other other elements of my life removed – no friends to meet up with, no volunteering, no Nana Bets to take care of. It’s just me, walking, everyday.

And it’s not clear to me yet what will come of this experience. One of the most frequently asked questions on the Camino is “Why are you here?”, and I don’t know yet how to answer. As I approach the halfway point, my thoughts are all mixed up. I feel disconnected from reality. The truth is, I am disconnected from reality – I’m thousands of miles away from everyone and everything I know, doing something I’ve never done before and will never do again. And I also feel disconnected from time. I am walking in the footsteps of a millennia of Pilgrims, and, blogging and iPhones aside, there is an aspect of this expereince that is timeless, that transcends reality. Throughout history, even while feeling the need to fill the emptiness in our lives, people have felt called to do this Camino. I think the reason why comes back to that jar: to fill it well, to have a life that is not only full, but fulfilling, you have to start with an empty jar.

May 28, 2014

The First Third

by Tabitha Kidwell

As you walk the Camino, you pass pilgrim graffiti – thoughts, advice, and quotes scrawled on walls, bridges, and signs by those who have passed before you. Like this:


I saw one the other day that said “Camino de Santiago: The first third heals your body, the second third heals your heart, the last third heals your soul.”

I don’t know yet about my heart and soul, but I really hope it’s right about the body. The first week was basically non-stop physical suffering, which is not what I had expected at all! I thought I was a pretty fit, healthy person, who could coast through 15-20 miles a day thanks to generally being in shape. And I thought I had read enough blogs and planned carefully for blisters, sunburn, rain, cold, or whatever else might come my way. Probably all of that has helped – who knows how much harder this would be if I didn’t have the gear I do, or if I hadn’t been running marathons and doing triathlons the past few years. But there is really nothing that can prepare you for walking the Camino de Santiago other than… walking the Camino de Santiago.

So… I am in pain. I thought I had experienced every body pain possible from running, but my muscles are sore in a totally different way, and I have chafing in places I didn’t know existed.

What is causing me the most suffering, though, is one deep blister on the back on my left heel. I kept popping it, and it kept returning. My planning and preparation wasn’t as complete as I had thought. Every pilgrim along the route gave me their opinion, and I tried many of them, but nothing seemed to work. I had to hobble along using a stick as a support, and felt like a huge failure. Finally, in a fit of rage, I took a knife to it. A bunch of blister gunk rushed out, the pressure was released, and it started to heal.

The same day, an emotional blister seemed to pop, as well. I found myself inexplicably crying all day long. I had had to rely on others for help, which is really hard for me, so that had me feeling vulnerable. I was simultaneously struggling with loneliness and with the stress of being around so many other people. I was dealing with feelings of failure and inadequacy. There was a lot going on, and I don’t totally understand it all. Maybe this marks the beginning of the second third, and the healing of my heart? For the sake of my chafed, blistered, and sore body, I sure hope so.