Covid de Santiago: What do the Camino and Covid have in common?
Updated: Jul 20
This time last year I walked the Camino de Santiago. Last week we were told that Melbourne would be placed under isolation for 6 weeks due to further Covid-19 outbreaks. Pondering this, I couldn’t help but think that in some ways this second isolation period could be like a second Camino. In both scenarios I was faced with experiences of roughly the same length (I walked the Camino for 35 days). In both scenarios, I didn’t know much of what would happen. I assumed there would be some tough times but also I assumed that there would be some great moments of community.
Personally I have found this second isolation period exhausting. I think in our first iso (apparently only Australians refer to isolation as iso), it felt like a real barn raising (as my brother likes to say referring to this video). We were all in it together. We would squash this virus by following physical distancing and hand hygiene and at the end we would get our reward of an Australia free of 'rona. But unfortunately that didn’t happen. And I wonder if we are grieving that perceived notion in this second wave?
So what can we do? I was chatting with a good friend of mine about her experience of anxiety. She mentioned that sometimes when it all becomes a lot she will shift her thinking. Rather than thinking, “What will I do?” She thinks, “What do I need?” Sometimes we need to take a step back and recognise that at this moment what I need is to sleep, or to have a warm bath, or to watch an episode of Brooklyn 99. Sometimes these moments of self-care become a circuit breaker that can help shift our mindset and let us then be in a better headspace to think about what we will do. This has been helpful for me. There are lots of things to do when starting a business. Lots of unknowns. So there is forever something to be done. But also without giving time for the things I need, nothing I do would be good. It’s a fine balance which I think I will forever be tuning (I feel a lot of respect for parents and caregivers as I only have to take care of myself.)
I’m writing this blog post to help myself, through reflecting on my experience of the Camino it may help me gather some strategies that will help me enter this new stage of strange life. I sense that the next few months will hold a lot of unknowns so perhaps I can see it like the Camino venturing across an unknown land, with an unknown destination. Together we can explore ways to make meaning of these Covid times.
I had originally embarked on the Camino thinking it would be a moment of deep introspection. I would meet some people but I’d try to remain solo so I could meditate on my life and purpose. This lasted about 24 hours, I quickly made lots of friends on the “Way” and from the town of Grañòn I walked with the same 7 people until Santiago (the end). I cherish that experience and the many conversations I had along the way. I did have some time to reflect - at times you can be walking for hours by yourself, walking past fields and fields of sunflowers or through tiny Spanish towns with a couple of cafes and a single albergue (similar to hostels but only pilgrims can sleep in them). There is a deep solidarity within yourself and also with everyone you meet. We might be strangers on the Camino but we are all sharing the common experience. If you saw a fellow pilgrim on the side of the road with a nasty blister you would stop and give them some bandages or antiseptic. If you had some extra food you would share it with one of the other pilgrims in your albergue.
I think this is what I can draw from that experience. We as a globe are experiencing this common experience of the pandemic. It is very tangible that we all affect one another (when I put on a mask I acknowledge that I affect you and you affect me). So with this thought I will try to pick myself out of my occasional slumps and reach out to my friends and see how they are coping. Or think about individuals who have it far worse than me (thanks to my situation living in Australia and the health system and social security available to me) and see if I can help in some way.
Life on the Camino is simple. Everyday is relatively the same. You literally wake up, walk for 6 hours (eat breakfast and lunch), arrive at the albergue, rest your feet and legs, tend to your feet, wash your clothes, reflect/pray, cook your food, eat, talk, drink and play music with others and then sleep. This routine and simplicity allows the mind to be free to reflect on the deeper aspects of life. Our days are typically filled with so many screens and endless social media and noise. Having the space to live slowly was such a gift. On the Camino there is no fear of missing out (FOMO). You know what to expect, so your mind and heart is more open to meeting people and sharing and seeing beautiful things like birds and little snails and appreciating the wind. This freedom enabled me to feel much more present in the moment. We used to joke. We’d say to each other, “Hey Kevin, what are you up to tomorrow?” or “Lucia, what did you do last week?” and we’d always respond, “just going/went for a walk.”
I guess life is the same for us now. We are living a bit of a groundhog day existence. It is different to the Camino as while the structure of the day was similar the location and people were constantly changing. However, the principle of a routine is something I think I will adopt. By waking up at the same time, and having a plan for my week, I will have things to look forward to or anchor myself. My housemate asked if we could play a board game on Saturday night, so we all played Dixit. She wanted something to look forward to and celebrate. In this period of simplicity (that is surrounded by chaos) the importance of diet, exercise and sleep has become so clear to me . These three things affect everything and I will work harder to ensure they are maintained.
The Camino is largely a wandering community. There is a culture of giving and sharing of ourselves and our belongings. The most beautiful experience I had on the Camino was at a little town called Grañòn. I had actually heard about this town from an Irish friend named Phil who I met at the beginning of the walk in St Jean Pied de Port. In our albergue, he said to me, “There’s this amazing albergue in a 400 year old church where everyone shares a beautiful community meal and after dinner they lead a sharing in the crypt.” I was rapt! This sort of experience is my absolute jam. When I asked him where it was, he couldn’t, for the life of him, remember. After a day I lost track of him (he was a very fast walker). Anyway, 6 days later we bumped into each other in Logroño and lucky for me, while we were chatting, he finally remembered the place! Grañòn was definitely my favourite experience on the Camino. I solidified so many friends that night as we sang Italian, Spanish and English songs just before dinner and shared a meal paid for us by the pilgrims who were there the night before. Alone, this Covid experience will be difficult for me, so I will make an effort to check in with my family, and my housemates, and my workmates and my neighbours to see how they are coping and if there is anything I can share.
I was lucky recently to have an inquisitive friend ask me lots of questions about the Camino. Often when returning from travel, I don’t want to bore my friends so I will share snippets of my experience. She asked me, “Bet you couldn’t wait to get to Santiago.” And this is a common statement. When I was walking I came to really love the rhythm of the day and the time spent focused on the present moment, that in some respects, I didn’t want to end. The fact that Santiago is so far away and that you can’t see it beyond the horizon, means you focus on the now. This iso period I want to take in the present moment; spend more time cooking and being present with friends; perhaps tentatively approach our mostly vacant vege garden and plant some silverbeet (is it even in season?) This experience is good practice for life. While usually, we feel as though we have more control (i.e. working 9-5, going out and our day-to-day lives) sometimes this is actually controlling us. I remember the stress of my mid 20s doing so many things so I wouldn’t have time to stop and think about who/how I am. This time of pausing and reflection can be a space to understand ourselves and each other more deeply. After the pandemic and when we are no longer constrained by isolation, I hope I can think back to this time (and the time I had last year) and remember the presence and peace I felt in living simply.