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Camino de Santiago: Finding Myself After Love And Loss

Pavlina Cerna April 3, 2019

6 a.m. in the morning, I was standing at the entrance of Prague airport with a huge and heavy backpack sitting on my hips, hiking boots I got on sale only a few days prior and a sweat-free outfit that still had the pungent smell of just bought clothes. A cold wind gently blew from the open fields surrounding the airport, but the forecast and the waking sun promised a hot day in the Czech Republic.

I didn’t have to worry about the weather in my home country for the next 28 days, though. I swiftly changed the main screen of my phone’s weather forecast app from Prague to Santiago de Compostela, Spain – my ultimate destination.

With very little success, I tried to fight off the anxiety bubbling inside of me. I am famous for making impulsive decisions, but what I was about to do seemed even beyond my wide impulsiveness zone.

Deep breath in. Deep breath out.

It all started a few weeks ago, when my back-then-still husband had told me he wanted to get a divorce. Our relationship was in no way all rainbows and butterflies, yet I could not understand why the very person I turned my life upside down for gave up and decided to walk away.

What I did know right away was that I needed to get out of the place that reminded me of our short-lived forever together. Wanting to be with the people I love the most, I started visiting my family back home in the Czech Republic. But now I was ready to be on the go again.

I heard that Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile-long pilgrimage from the French border to Santiago de Compostela across Spain, supposedly changes people’s lives. I heard that some even divided their lives into periods: before and after the Camino. I heard that miracles happened on this pilgrimage. I heard that people found God on this thousand-year-old Catholic Way.

It gives everyone what they need — not necessarily what they want, but what they need.

A pure pessimist, I did not give in to such a life-changing promise. I also did not give it a second thought though and right away bought a plane ticket.

Now, standing at the airport, it all appeared to be a crazy idea. I am not religious. I am in no way athletically inclined and I did not train for this. Nights in hostels and a lack of hygiene freaked me out. On top of that, I had never been to Spain, nor did I speak Spanish.

But I had no better plan (more like no plan), so here I was, more or less ready to walk and drink my way through small Spanish towns for the next 28 days, alone.

Eighteen hours after boarding my first of many flights, I found myself in Saint Jean Pied de Port, a small little French town at the foot of the Pyrenees.

My biggest and most irrational fear from the beginning was not finding people to walk with, and actually being alone.

As if my fear was visible to the naked eye, the hospitalero (receptionist) in my albergue (hostel) started to comfort me during my first night on the Camino and told me to stop worrying. He said the Camino is not a race (as if he knew me) and that I should not worry about a thing because the Camino provides. It gives everyone what they need – not necessarily what they want, but what they need. He also said it is not a coincidence that I found myself in the beginning of the Way right then because the Camino calls us when our time comes. I mean, my shoes were discounted when I went to buy them. If that’s not a sign, tell me what is.

Feeling like a lazy version of Forrest Gump, I began to walk.

The Camino started off beautifully with gorgeous scenery, green mountains, blue sky and unforgettable views. I somehow surrounded myself with seven strangers during my first two days and turned them into friends right away, creating my little international Camino family. We had so much fun together that I nearly forgot how sweaty, smelly and aching the pilgrimage is. So much fun!

We made fun of our countries just to argue about whose is the best right after that.

We talked about politics before sunrise and danced barefoot in front of a bakery after our morning coffee.

We talked about the reasons that brought us to this adventure and became each others’ biggest confidantes.

But nothing lasts forever and about two weeks in, the Camino became flat with nothing to look at, only a straight road ahead. It was exhausting and seemed never-ending. We all withdrew inside of ourselves, each walking separately, dealing with our thoughts and the empty surroundings the best we could.

As I tried to quickly pass that flatness, I got my first two blisters — one on each heel (the Camino is not a race, huh). It was on the third day of the flat nothing that I was about to cry from pain. My feet hurt, my shoulders were tired from carrying my backpack that suddenly felt too heavy. I was tip-toeing more than really walking. It was raining and although it was the middle of summer, I was cold, surrounded by nothing but a fog.

I was cursing the day.

I was cursing the Camino and I was cursing my husband.

Why did I do this to myself? If it weren’t for the divorce, I would be happily sitting at home, reading a book instead of limping through this wilderness.

And somewhere in the middle of this self-pity, simple questions came to my mind: Why couldn’t I let go of this marriage? Why did I want to stay? What was I holding onto?

And right there, it struck me. I could not come up with a single good reason beside my fear of loneliness. That was it. I simply didn’t want to be alone. It was ridiculous – in this middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing but fields, occasional trees and fog, I was worried about being alone, when I was already alone!

It happened just like that. Forgetting about the pain I felt just a few seconds earlier, I started to smile. I realized I would be okay.

I bought bandages in the next store along the way and got through the day. And then through the next 10 days. With the help of the friends I met along the way, who each fought their own demons, we made it through.

The rain stopped, the sun came out and I felt good.

As suddenly as it appeared, the flat part of the Camino ended, putting in my way mountains, beautiful views and breathtaking skylines again.

I finished the 500 miles with many more blisters and countless bug bites, but also with a big smile and a lighter heart.

The Camino was not a life-long dream of mine, yet somehow when my life started to fall apart, the Camino saved me and became the marker on the married-divorced border.

I returned to the U.S. poor, yet so rich! This experience financially ruined me, but in return it gave me more than just new friends all around the world. It gave me the peace of mind that I will be okay.

Even the pessimist in me has to admit – the Pavlina who left for the Camino is not the same one when she returned. I found appreciation and joy in simple things – a sunrise, a morning coffee, a good laugh during a painful moment, a minute of relief when able to put down a backpack, a shower after a long day of sweating and new friends to share it all with. Over time, not only I found myself not troubled by anything, but I was just happy, for no other reason than because I was. The best feeling in the world is when you are tired, sweaty, hurting, with feet covered in blisters and out of breath, and you suddenly forget about all of that because the scenery around you is just so breathtaking and life is so good.

The Camino in no way met my expectations, but exceeded them in all ways possible. It did not only change me, but it changed the way I think. I did not get answers to all the questions I was avoiding to face for the last couple of months, but I found myself at peace with it. Everything will come together eventually and all I need is to take it one day at the time.

And if I ever feel like I am losing the ground underneath my feet again, I have those very durable hiking shoes waiting to be used again.