‘I had worked too hard for years. I come from the agricultural sector but rolled into IT. I wasn’t trained for this, but I managed. However, this work made me disconnect from my heart’s desire. It consumed all my energy. Eventually, at age 57, it resulted in burnout. I tried to reintegrate, but ultimately, I was fired.
I then thought: now that I’ve been fired anyway, I’d better start looking at who I am and what I want when looking for another job. Then in 2018, I decided to walk a long distance. I don’t know why, but I immediately had the Camino in mind. I think the year before, I had read something about people’s experiences on the Camino, which were very positive.
I started in the first week of April in Lourdes, a few days after Easter. I walked the first 100km in the Pyrenees by myself, and the weather was beautiful. That was very good for me. I could then ground a bit and think about why I was doing this in the first place. It was also a kind of a warm-up for the rest of the camino. That proved to be a good idea because my backpack with 18 kilos was way too heavy. That turned out to be very symbolic.
I started with a to-do list of things I wanted to achieve on the Camino. First of all, empty my backpack, figuratively speaking. However, after only a few days, I had to do that literally because I had severe foot problems. I also wanted to start living more healthy, taking good care of myself through sport and relaxation. I had not done that for years, and I was too heavy. A third goal was finding myself. That included figuring out what I wanted to do after the Camino. Another goal was to finish the Camino. I had taken 2 months for this to be sure I would make it. Meanwhile, I had become a pilgrim with a to-do list.’
‘Along the Way, I enjoyed talking to others. It ended up being weeks of talking to many people of forty different nationalities. That was a good thing because one of the things on my list was connecting with people. When I was halfway through, however, I realized I was only talking. I was also supposed to be working on other things on my to-do list. Later, however, it turned out that connecting with others was the most important thing. That was important because I had forgotten what that was like, including connecting with my children and my then-wife. I was always working so hard.
A fellow pilgrim played a crucial role in re-learning to truly connect with others. Just after Pamplona, I met an Australian woman of 72, Claude Tranchant. She was a writer of the book ‘Boots to bliss.’ She was there with a film crew filming her on her walk to Santiago. She was very busy with many people around her. But I immediately knew there was something special about her. I only spoke to her for 5 minutes at that time. However, when I wanted to move on after our short conversation, she gave me a hug for no real reason. Not a regular two-second hug, but an intense twenty-second hug. It’s crazy, but I didn’t feel my sore foot for a week. After that hug, a lot of things happened. All kinds of things started moving internally, but I didn’t know how to interpret them.
‘When I arrived in Santiago, I noticed that that city was not for me. Nice to be there, but I wanted to continue walking to Finisterre. I’ve been to the cathedral in Santiago and seen the iconic incense barrel swinging, but it didn’t move me. For me, this was not the end of the line, not the end of my Camino. I then continued walking to Finisterre [Finisterre means “end of the earth.” In Roman times it was believed to be the end of the known world]. As in the beginning, also the final 90km, I mainly walked alone, without many conversations with other pilgrims. Instead, I had an inner dialogue with myself and my deceased father. It moved me, but I didn’t know why.
At the cape in Finisterre, the tears came. It was almost deserted on the rocky endpoint, but suddenly there were two Italian girls. They asked me what was going on. I then tried to explain why those tears were there. Only when I explained it did I realize that I wasn’t walking the Camino only for myself. I also walked for those important to me in the Netherlands, especially my boys. Those Italian ladies just had to be there to ask that question so I could get that insight.
My inability to connect also says something about the world we live in. Because I don’t think I’m the only one who has lost this ability. We often live alongside each other. We are caught in the rat race of career and obligations. Always running, but we don’t know where we are heading. I was caught in that mindset as well. A fellow pilgrim told me: “you are breathing but aren’t living.” That message struck me. I was not focusing on what life is about: connecting with people. That’s something I found out when I was walking.
In Finisterre, I experienced mixed feelings. You’re at the ‘end’ of the world because you can’t continue there, but it was also something else because I had changed. Like all those other pilgrims, I reached the end, and now I could return a changed man. The end suddenly became a new beginning.
‘When I returned to Santiago, I slept in a hostel. Coincident or not, Claude, the Australian woman of the life-changing hug, was in the bunk bed above me. I expected her to be long gone because she and her film crew walked faster than I did. But as it turned out, she had walked an ‘extra lap’ (Santiago-Finisterre and back again). Coincidence does not exist! We agreed to have breakfast together the next day. I then told her what her hug had meant to me. I explained I experienced a deep sense of connection. For many people, that is very normal. But for me, it was very special because I had not experienced that feeling for a long time. I had to tell her that story. I think to process what I had experienced.
I learned that I am quite a nice person when I am not working all the time and that I can connect with others. I had lost that. Before the burnout, I was in my head, and then you can’t make a real connection with others. I learned a simple technique to maintain the ability to connect. I need to apply that technique occasionally because I tend to forget this lesson due to my busy life in the Netherlands. So every now and then, I step out of the daily dynamics. I sit down on the couch or meditate, and then I think, ok, just do nothing for fifteen minutes and let it all be. By switching off for a moment and not being occupied with other things, the feeling of connection returns, and I can see clearly if I still do the things that matter. Thanks to the Camino, I can do that now.’
We are always looking for new camino stories. If you would like to share your story to inspire others or know someone with a great story, please send a DM or send an email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Listen to Gerald’s full story in the podcast CAMINO NL (Dutch)-link
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Ozi (Switserland): ‘I learned to solve problems by distancing myself from them.’
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Carla (36, The Netherlands): Recovering from burnout while walking the camino
Sofia’s (54, Brazil) camino story: ‘At Cruz de Ferro came the sadness’
Nagela Alexa’s Camino Story: ‘The Camino changes your life if you allow it.’
Fabrice (38, France): ‘I realized that walking the camino itself was self-imposed pressure’
Andre’s story (58, Belgium): ‘On the camino, I had to face the hard fact of how horribly I treat myself.’
Emma’s story: ‘I learned to say goodbye on the camino (and in life)’
Maarten’s story: The power of vulnerability
Agne-Henrik’s story: ‘The camino changed my life’