My first vacation alone took place a year before, though I had not planned it. I had gone to Greece with some friends; however, it turned out that our plans would soon diverge. I had first considered going back home, but I changed my mind at the last minute and decided to continue the journey by myself. The rather positive experience that followed from that initiative gave me some courage, but not nearly enough to begin exploring the world on my own. After all, in Greece, I only ended up alone as a result of unforeseen circumstances; to dare to do the same on a regular basis seemed to me like an act of outstanding audacity, though somehow I sensed that it would not be bad for me to try to at least to get used to the idea. I had just learned how not to feel sorry for myself when I had no company, but I wasn’t actually drawn to the prospect of traveling alone.
I was afraid that I might be exposed to significant discomfort because of my solitude, including unavoidable prejudice or male harassment. I had often been under the impression that, in the collective mentality, loneliness was a sign of abnormality, of helplessness, or even worse, of arrogance. In my experience, such misconceptions either tended to materialize in proposals for “consolation,” usually from the most unsuitable individuals, or in manifestations of pity combined with disapproval, from the devotees of the family institution. Certainly, I would have been far from ungrateful if I had met another solitary explorer on my travels with whom to spend my time; however, this seemed entirely a matter of chance and, to be honest, I didn’t want to rely too much on such a scenario.
When I shared my concerns to one of my friends, he came up with an unexpected suggestion: a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. On the face of it, to me, his advice sounded like “Get thee to a nunnery, Ophelia!”. I didn’t fully understand what he meant. Perhaps a pilgrimage was indeed a safe travel option for a single woman… but where was the fun in that? In addition, the distance to be covered on foot was pretty intimidating – the total length of the route, which starts in France and stretches to the Atlantic coast of Spain, is about five hundred miles. True, every pilgrim goes as far as they can; but anyway, what would be the point in doing nothing but walk for so many days in a row?
However, under the influence of the precedent created in Greece, and in the absence of a convincing alternative for the coming summer, I started to seriously consider the possibility of walking the famous Camino de Santiago. I was actually curious to find out more about the phenomenon of the pilgrimage to Compostela. Fortunately, the internet was full of information in this regard, and there were plenty of detailed descriptions for each part of the route, together with a host of explanatory photos and videos, as well as accommodation suggestions based on various comments and ratings by the travelers. Many people were describing life-changing experiences. Many were going alone. So, courage, Ophelia. Maybe this nunnery is not such a bad idea! I said to myself. As I learned more about the trip, the picture I had about the Camino became clearer, and increasingly appealing.
I was looking at one of the top three pilgrimage routes of medieval Christianity, after Rome and Jerusalem by order of importance, and dedicated to the Apostle James (Santiago by his Spanish name), whose tomb was the final destination. In the 20th century, after a dramatic decrease in the number of pilgrims because of the two World Wars, the road to Santiago de Compostela – known as El Camino – was declared both a Cultural Route of the Council of Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After that, the Camino de Santiago became increasingly popular, with people of all ages, with or without religious motives, venturing on the Camino in the footsteps of the ancient pilgrims. As a reward for their efforts, those who covered at least the last 100 kilometers on foot or on horseback, or the last 200 kilometers by bicycle, were granted the “Compostela”- a written acknowledgment of the success of their endeavor.
It was said that the Camino began in front of each pilgrim’s house; therefore, the path to Santiago de Compostela could basically start anywhere. However, there were several well-grounded itineraries, signposted and endowed with accommodation facilities for pilgrims. Camino Frances, the one that I had chosen, was given its name owing to the route’s origin in France, and was the best known and most frequented. In addition to the Camino Frances, other routes include the Camino del Norte, the Camino Primitivo further north, and the Camino Portugues, which comes from the south. The symbol of the journey to Santiago was a shell: a metaphor of the setting sun, of the roads that converge to a single point, but also an object of practical value for the pilgrims, used as a tool to eat or to drink water on the road, or as a proof to show that they reached the end of the known world.
The more I read about the Camino, the more I wanted to go, but I felt I wasn’t quite ready. I was afraid that the physical effort would be too much for me, that the conditions were too rough, and many other things. It’s no wonder I had my doubts; I wasn’t sporty in nature, and I had never had a strong body. To walk more than ten miles a day for a week or so, carrying my backpack all the time, sleeping in shared dormitories… such a Spartan approach didn’t seem like anything that I had previously tried. The mountain treks I was familiar with from my university years were not comparable in terms of effort. And there was also another reason.
In a not-too-distant past, I got infected with Lyme disease following a tick bite. I struggled with the symptoms for a long time – first, with episodes of fever, and then with lower back pain – while trying different combinations of antibiotics, albeit to no avail. As my condition gradually worsened, I contemplated the possibility that the treatment would eventually fail. Had the trend continued, the prospects were daunting. An acquaintance of mine had been infected with the same parasite and was no longer able to walk.
I reached the point where I was thinking that perhaps I was also going to become incapacitated. The pain was almost permanent, and I could barely stand on my feet. The side effects of the drugs became unbearable, so I was compelled to pause the treatment, and there were no other remedies in sight. After months of suffering without signs of improvement, I was on the verge of despair.
I was terrified by the thought of spending the rest of my life in that awful state, getting worse by the day; however, perhaps that was precisely the reason why, unexpectedly and mysteriously, something awoke in me. With the last remains of its strength, my body somehow defeated the infection. I have no idea how it did it.
Recovery had been slow. Since the pain had gone, I considered myself healed, but I was still not aware of all the consequences of the disease. I made no connection to the state of anxiety that was insidiously settling in. Little did I know what to expect if I tried to regain a more active lifestyle.
Nevertheless, I felt an irresistible urge to take the challenge. I had come out of my convalescence with a promise to myself that I would make full use of my mobility should I be lucky enough not to lose it. The Camino not only seemed the perfect opportunity to test my new boundaries but also to work my way back to normality. To accomplish this, I had to overcome a plethora of doubts and hesitations. I was convinced that, should I not manage to get rid of them, they would cage me forever. And I couldn’t stand the thought of giving up even before I tried.
So, without thinking too much about the possible inconveniences, I gathered up the nerve to book my plane tickets to Madrid, and started packing for the Camino.