(Originally posted on 4 September 2016)
Last night, I spoke on the phone with my girlfriend who’s on the other side of the Atlantic. I was distressed. I had done 25 miles for the day, and waited in line for 20 minutes to take a shower at the hostel. The wifi-connection was really bad and I had to wait another hour at a restaurant before having any food. More than this, a big group of Spanish guys were having a bachelor’s party and getting drunk right next to me, I still had to write my daily blog entry, prepare my backpack and sleep a little bit before the 4:30am alarm.
Coming back to the conversation, I told her - in my moment of outburst - that I wanted everyone to know that the popular idea of the Camino can be misleading.
People will see the photos you upload on Facebook or Instagram, and think about the wonderful landscapes, beautiful dawns and a global sense of peace. That’s fine. But it is far from the whole picture. The Camino is suffering. The Camino is blood spitting. The Camino is experiencing some of the worst possible experience of your entire life (and some of the best ones, but that is another story).
Unsurprisingly, considering everything I had told her last night, today I had the worst day of my path so far. The road was flat and not excessively hard, but for the 3 hours and a half between 10 and 13:30, I was completely alone under a killer sun. No houses. No people. No bikers. No pilgrims. No water. No shadows. No signs of life except the sound of my steps and my stick. All of this surrounded by the same kind of landscape and the same kind of soil for the entire period.
In order not to go crazy or collapse, I started crossing the road zig-zag, listened to some music, reflected on the last days and imagined the tortilla I would have in the next town.
Afterwards, I thought that maybe it is necessary to write down these down moments in the most unfiltered way so whoever is reading this can have a real sense of what one might expect from the Camino. So as soon as I reached the hostel and took a shower, I started typing furiously, in a stream of consciousness, about the concept of suffering in the path.
I drew up a quick list to organize my throughts that follows the 5 basic Ws of good writing. Therefore, you will see the who, the why, the where, the when and the what of suffering in the Camino (yes, I know there should be also how, but it doesn’t start with w, so I did not put it into the list).
Before we delve into the list - Yes, you can do the Camino the de-luxe style: go to high-end hostels, send your backpack to the next stop, eat in the best restaurants and take a cab to skip the hardest parts. But it ain’t the same. And more than everything, no one wants to eat ludicrously when your fellow pilgrims in the room are starving..
So, let’s start..
Well, the reasons and the motivations are as diverse as the pilgrims along the path. For Christians, it can be relating to the suffering of Christ or expressing an act of faith. For non Christians, it could be because of a dream, the willingness to strengthen yourself, the necessity of a physical experience after an office life. I have seen people starting the Camino because they resigned from their job, because they needed determination to forgive an abusive father, because they needed put to the test a relationship, because they wanted to express gratitude for a child or just to show everyone around them that they were able to do something good in their life. Whatever the reason, you can bet that no one starts a path like this without a trigger point.
Who will suffer?
Everyone, including yourself. While the ways of suffering may be various, as well as the degrees, I have not met a single pilgrim, both on this Camino or the previous one, who did not experience – even for a moment - pain, moments of discouragementß, fears and bad reactions to the personal travail that comes with the package. That said, it is also true that the pilgrims react in very different ways to the pain imposed by the Camino.
When and where will you suffer?
Every moment and everywhere. During the first days of the French Way, you will encounter the difficulty of climbing mountains and endure the weight of your backpack. During the second part, your body will be affected by its decreasing stamina, the lack of sleep and the down after the initial excitiment.
I would say also that the period before and after the Camino will be influenced by specific forms of suffering. Before starting you will be afraid of any possible bad episode, and maybe of screwing up your reputation with families, friends and colleagues; after the end you will miss the routine, the landscapes, the dawns, and you will want to start again because you will remember it better than it really was.
What kind of sufferings?
Oh, I could write a book only about this, but I will try to be as concise as possible.
Firstly, it is pure physical pain. Blisters. Dehydration. Tendinitis, muscular and bone problems, headaches, sunburns, eating allergies, bad reaction to animals’ bites, pressure lowering, mosquitos and flies that particularly like your sunscreen and don’t leave you alone. I could go on for pages.
Secondly, there is the daily disturbance of sleep patterns. For me this means waking up at 6 am or earlier every single day with no rest. Sleeping in hostel rooms which hosts on average 10 to 20 people per room. Most of your roomates will be snoring and waking up at different hours. And if you think that going in a single room is better, try reflecting on the fact that the Camino rewards you according to how much you put on the table.
Then there is the obvious, increasing discomfort of living for several weeks only with the essential stuff. Most of the stuff you consider necessary in your ordinary life - conditioner, haidryer, brush, razor – are redundant in order to save weight. You end up washing and change the same 3 shirts, the same 3 pairs of trousers and same 3 pairs of underwear (well, 5 in my case) for all the path. Sometimes you will have to deal with the cold because even sweathers were too heavy for your backpack. And you will start hating those damn towels in syntetic fiber..
Thirdly, you will experience mental disorientation – and sometimes for the better - that come from long hours of endless walking. This could manifests in a numer of ways, such as, seeing things you don’t want to see, coming face to face with karma, misericordia and everything in between, developing conscience of the consequences caused by your actions, facing every kind of fear and becoming more empathetic with the feelings of the other people, therefore more sensitive to what happens in the world outside the Camino.
Last but not least, the Camino mocks you. More than you can imagine.
When I came out of the hostel at 5 am this morning to start walking, I came across the same Spanish guys who had been seated next to me having fun last night. They were even more drunk. And I was even more distressed. I saluted them. They saluted me and wished me Buen Camino. They went to bed, and I went on walking for a dark road..