“In the Fall of 2019, I left the USA with two bags to start a new life. My father passed away one year prior, and I was in desperate need of a change of scenery. Everything reminded me of my loss, and Thailand gave me hope and the will to live. Then the pandemic happened, and I decided to stay in Thailand instead of heading back to the USA.
After being in Thailand for almost two years, the world opened up for travel. I felt the urge to explore and my commitment to healing led me to want to embark on this 800 km hike across France and Spain. I had much anxiety before leaving Thailand, the place that became my place of refuge when the world turned upside down.
Embarking on the Camino Frances was a journey into the unknown and the biggest physical challenge I had ever taken. But I needed something, and the Camino felt like that. The Camino lured me in for various reasons. I was still dealing with grief from my father’s death, I was confused about my life’s purpose and career, I was bored with my idyllic life on a tiny Thai island, and my body felt restless for movement. This pilgrimage seemed a one size fits all. In addition, I wanted to dive deep into myself. Finally, I wanted solitude in nature.
I wanted an opportunity to undergo a radical transformation. I knew this holy and ancient pilgrimage would give me those things by the end of this journey. I would be better, stronger, and faster in every way possible!
Despite having a deep sense of purpose for this journey, I doubted that I had not made a big mistake as I sat on the plane. Moreover, I questioned whether I would be able to cope both physically and mentally.
At that instant, a book a fellow passenger was reading caught my eye, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. This was the sign for me that I had made the right decision. At every step of the way before I arrived at the ancient French town Saint Jean Pied De Port to start (SJPDP) my Camino, I was paranoid that something would derail my walk. I can be a bit of a pessimist, so I was expecting significant roadblocks: borders closing unexpectedly, a missed train or bus, etc. However, it was the opposite. Everything worked out as I planned, and I got to SJPDP without a hitch. I also received a lot of support from a good friend living in Spain. According to my friend, this journey represented that good things can happen to me and that things will come out the way I want them to.
Everyone said that the Camino is life-changing. I met this woman called Alice. She told me a vital thing: “This walk will change your life if you allow it. You must allow the way to dominate you and its soul to reorganize you internally.” On the Camino, I started to believe that more and more. I think I allowed it to change me.
Someone I met along the way described a pilgrimage as birth, death, and resurrection. I finally understand what that means. It felt like a rebirth that I was getting past my old self. I found out that my body can do much more than I thought. I was getting stronger every day.
After a steep climb, I gained an intense sense of pride on the summit of Alto del Perdón (the mount of forgiveness with an iconic sculpture dedicated to all the pilgrims who walk the Camino). I realized that no one could take this experience from me. Also, the Camino always gave me what I needed. For example, my feet were hurting one day, and I hoped to encounter a cold river. At that instant, I heard the sound of a river in the distance.
I thought about the pillars that made up the essence of walking the Camino to Santiago. There are spiritual, bodily, emotional, and mental components. Then there is this deeply rooted historical aspect, topped off with a sense of community amongst the pilgrims. All these elements made this walk so unique. I had the feeling I was reaping all the benefits. It was an opportunity to learn about myself and build improved self-esteem.
The Camino challenged my physical and mental fitness. It is not supposed to be easy. Yet even when I felt utterly deflated, I told myself to walk. That is one of the most powerful things about the Camino. Despite what you feel during the day, your most important responsibility is to yourself, your journey, and walk to your next destination. If you don’t walk, you don’t eat. If you don’t walk, you don’t sleep. If you don’t walk, you don’t find the comfort you desire.
I had got the idea I was part of something special along the way. The Camino started to feel like home, a feeling I had lost. One day I felt emotional when I thought about the millions who had walked the Camino before me. Now I was one of them. I realized we are all connected, people with hopes, sorrows, and dreams. It was so powerful, and I could be a part of that. I was awed by its splendor and beauty. Also, I realized we are connected to the people who are no longer here. On the way, I encountered a compelling message on a memorial from someone; Every farewell is the birth of a new memory. It reminded me of the untimely death of my grandmother and father and that all the goodbyes led to the new doors opening.
The closer I got to Santiago, the slower I walked, enjoying my nature walks. It felt scary. I didn’t want to get closer. I was sad and nervous, and I doubted my whole journey. Was it a waste of time and my savings? I feared the unknown. I asked myself: ‘what comes after Santiago?’ But once I arrived at the cathedral, I cried from my belly. My heart felt whole. I felt this light blossoming in my soul. I also felt occupied with something new. It felt like finishing reading the last sentence of the best book in my life.
The next day I entered the crypt through the Puerta Santa. I’m not a Catholic, so I didn’t expect entering the tomb to make me emotional. But it did. As soon as I set foot through the doors, I felt a deep sense of humility. I spoke to my dad for helping me along the way, and I also talked to God and my loved ones who have passed away. I saw the crypt of Santiago and felt deep chills over my body. I couldn’t stop the tears. I didn’t know precisely why I was crying, but I felt relief. Something told me I was going to be ok. My pilgrimage was complete.
The Camino taught me the power of who I am outside all the things society has used to classify me, like my race, culture, nationality, class, gender, etc. I reflected on something my boyfriend said, “It is not always comfortable being yourself, but it is you, so accept it and love it.” I agree with that. It is not always comfortable being who I am and dealing with the issues I have from my past. However, it is me, and fundamentally I’d rather be myself than someone else.
It was in walking I felt most free. When I was walking, the only thing that mattered was my breath, steps, and inner strength. Nothing else. It was hard leaving that behind. I had to engage with the same stresses as before; money, career, etc. The power of the Camino of Saint James is not to stay in its orbit. The point of the Camino is to take what you’ve learned with you. My life is a Camino; my life is a true journey. I had the why and the what, my purpose. The how baffled me. How do I go forward from here on? But on the Camino, I learned that if I have the why and the what, the how figures itself out. I had to continue following the signs. I had learned that the arrows in this world come in different forms. Sometimes it is in the form of a clamshell as on the Camino. Still, frequently the signs come to you as a person, a new job, or finding something you were searching for in an unexpected place.”
Visit Nagela’s Website: My journey with grief, healing, and self-discovery
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