My first vacation alone had happened a year before, but not because I had planned for it. I had gone to Greece with some friends, but it turned out that our plans were diverging. I considered going back home, but I changed my mind 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 so that I would start exploring the world on my own. After all, in Greece I had ended up alone only 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 was sensing that it would not be bad for me to try at least to get used to the idea. I had just learned 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 potentially all sorts of wicked prejudice or male harassment. I had often been under the impression that, in the collective mentality, loneliness was a sign of abnormality, or of helplessness, or even worse, of arrogance. In my experience, such misconceptions tended to materialize either 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 in my travels I would have met another solitary explorer with whom to spend my time, but this seemed to me entirely a matter of chance and, to be honest, I would have not liked 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, his advice sounded to me like a sort of «Get thee to a nunnery, Ophelia! ». I don’t think I understood very well what he meant. Maybe a pilgrimage was indeed a safe travel option for a single woman… but what was the fun? On top of that, 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. It’s true, every pilgrim goes as far as they can, but even so … to do nothing but to walk, for so many days in a row, what would be the point?
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 consider more seriously the possibility of walking the famous Camino de Santiago. I was actually curious to find out more about the phenomenon of 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 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 was learning more about the trip, the picture I had about the Camino was becoming clearer. And more appealing.
I was looking at one of the top three pilgrimage routes of medieval Christianity, after Rome and Jerusalem by order of importance, 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 – in short, El Camino – was declared a European Cultural Route and a World Heritage Site. After that, it became increasingly popular. More and more people of all ages, with or without religious motives, have ventured 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, named so because it originated in France, was the best known and most frequented. There were also Camino del Norte and Camino Primitivo, further north, and Camino Portugues, coming 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 went as far as the end of the known world.
Milestone on the Camino, with the shell sign on it
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 was too much for me, that the conditions were too rough, and many other things. No wonder. I wasn’t sporty in nature, 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 another reason.
In a not-too-distant past, a tick bite had infected me with Lyme disease. I struggled with the symptoms for a long time – first, with episodes of fever and then with lower back pain – while trying in vain different combinations of antibiotics. As my condition was gradually worsening, I was contemplating 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 going to become incapacitated, too. 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.
The thought that I could spend the rest of my life in that awful state, eventually getting worse, was killing me already. But, maybe that was precisely the reason why, unexpectedly and mysteriously, something woke up in me. With the last remains of its strength, my body somehow defeated the infection. I have no idea how it did it.
Recovery was slow. I considered myself healed because the pain was gone, but I was still not aware of all the consequences of the disease. I made no connection with the state of anxiety that was insidiously settling in. Little did I know what to expect if I tried to return to 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 seemed the perfect opportunity not only 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 I gathered up the nerve, trying not to think too much about the possible inconveniences, I booked my plane tickets to Madrid and I started packing for the Camino.