I was out there and nobody knew who I was, nobody had any expectations of me or who I needed to be, which meant that for the first time in a long time, maybe the first time ever, I could choose to be and exist exactly how I wanted to be. I could be carefree, wild, fun. I could focus on myself, talk with whomever, walk wherever. This pilgrimage was my journey. The Camino de Santiago was the path towards meeting myself.
Deciding to walk 800 kilometres during your college summer holiday apparently isn't "the norm". But the purpose of my journey wasn't "the norm" either. It might’ve even been a little bit crazy, but in a good way. I yearned to get to know myself and somehow this hike felt like the only way to do it. While confident in my idea, I didn’t start off as confident in my execution. As I stood there on the cool morning of May 16th, my chunky boots, my brother's backpack, and my 19-year-old self, I seriously considered turning around and going back home. Technically I could hop on the next train and be home by early afternoon - a thought that had crossed my mind already once or twice in the last few hours. But being honest with myself, I knew there was no way back; going home wasn't an option. I had to embark on this journey, I had to see what would be on the other side, and that meant I had to travel the distance.
This journey of discovery was not one in search of a religious awakening. I do believe in a god, but not the one my fellow religious pilgrims believe in. For many travellers, the Camino de Santiago is a religious pilgrimage, one with a vast history. Instead, I was looking for something else... possibly a spiritual awakening, although a "personal awakening" feels more accurate. I was at a moment in my life where I wanted to meet myself and my gut feeling was telling me that a journey like this was just what I needed. I was about to turn 20, I'd soon graduate from university, and I had wonderful friends and a relationship. In a life that was so vividly mine, I felt like a stranger to myself. Who was I outside of university? Who was I when I wasn't with my friends or boyfriend? Who is Leona really? If I was going to experience life’s rollercoaster ride, I wanted to know myself, to be able to rely on myself.
I promised myself not to have any expectations going on this journey. They tend to disappoint and hinder new experiences. But I was aware that travelling alone would bring me something and I was curious to discover what that would be. Yet that first morning, as I started my journey with my chunky boots and heavy pack, the only thing I was trying to discover were directions. Was I really going to get lost within the first five minutes of my walk? Was my sense of direction so awful that I couldn't figure out the first few hundred metres? What would this mean for the rest of my journey...?
After my initial anxiety about getting lost faded, I saw fellow pilgrims up ahead and figured out which way I had to go. At least the brief stress had shown me that the stress I feel when not in control of a situation, was still very much there and making me anxious. Not a new discovery, but a confirmation. Maybe I did know myself a little bit. This wasn’t the only thing I learned about myself on day one. I found that I can very easily connect to like-minded people, regardless of age or background. By the end of the day, after welcoming my first blisters and sore shoulders, I also welcomed the laughter and deep conversation that I shared with my new walking companions. It didn't matter that I was 19 and they were 24, 38, 48 and 52. We clicked as people. We connected as human beings. We clicked so much that we ended up walking the remaining 33 days together.
The next few days I didn't experience much of a "personal awakening", although I did impress myself with my determination and perseverance. I had to wake up, pack up, and get going every morning at 6 AM. After day two my small blisters had become horrible blisters (the kind where basically a layer of skin is completely gone... yuck!), my hips and shoulders ached from my overweight pack, and I'd woken up a little too fuzzy from the bottomless wine-pitchers. Yet each morning, as I crawled out of my sleeping bag, I felt happy. Genuinely happy. To exist, to be alive, to get to strap on my boots and walk another 25+ KMs, to be surrounded by wonderful humans and beautiful nature. Maybe, in its own way, this was part of my personal awakening too… To feel so aware of the things that make you happy as well as the happiness itself. Either way, I held on to the feeling, it brought me a warm, right kind of fuzzy feeling.
Being immersed in the wonderful energy of the journey and the people who surrounded me, I felt myself ease into feeling and learning about myself. As if, suddenly, there was room for me to grow.
Being immersed in the wonderful energy of the journey and the people who surrounded me, I felt myself ease into feeling and learning about myself. As if, suddenly, there was room for me to grow. Especially a growth away from character traits I thought defined and shaped who I was, like my anxiety when things don’t go as planned. Here I was, flowing through every day, never knowing what the day would bring, what town I would sleep in, whether it would rain or not, and I didn’t feel stressed. There was no point to stress about any of it because most of it was out of my control. But I was surprised at the ease with which I let go of “anxious Leona” and dived into the Camino flow.
Once fully submerged in this flow, it was as if my inner self finally floated to the top. Suddenly I was eager for conversations with strangers; to listen to their stories and to openly share mine. I was no longer afraid of strangers or worried about how I came across. Suddenly it was as if there was room for the confident, thoughtful, joyous soul to shine through. I was becoming the person who I always thought was somewhere deep inside of me: a human being who loved learning about and engaging with the world. It felt as if walking the Camino revealed the version of myself who could embark on a challenge and freely experience what it would bring me.
As I embraced these pieces of myself that became more visible, more present, I got to know many different sides of myself. Sometimes I saw my grumpy side, the one that judged others on their actions and words. Moments like these made me feel tense within myself: these were not the characteristics I wanted to carry with me on this journey or in my future. Most days I saw an adventurous side of myself. Possibly the most surprising piece part that I hadn't known of before. I’ve always enjoyed exploring new places and travelling, but nothing as intense as this. Waking up and walking circa 25 kilometres every day opened doors for me that I didn't even know were there. And once they were open, once I had seen what adventures they held, there was no way to close them. The information, the excitement, the opportunities had seeped into my mind. I couldn't ignore the inner desire for more.
The days where I connected with this adventurous part of myself were the days when I did most of my journaling, a tool that really helped me place everything along the way, as well as put it into perspective afterwards. Being on this journey where suddenly any- and everything seemed possible, I often felt confronted with the endless opportunities of my life. With new realisations of who I was as a unique individual, I started to think more critically about my relationships back home. How were each of the players in my life shaping me? Did I feel comfortable sharing this different side of myself with them? But most of all, I felt confronted in my relationship with myself. This walk had triggered a lot of emotions. When I thought of myself, I now felt pride, love, warmth and as if I had finally given myself space to exist. On the Camino I wasn't worried about what drinking a beer or eating paella would do to my body. I wasn't worried about walking with greasy hair or sweaty clothes (inevitable underneath the Spanish sun). I was solely focused on exploring the thoughts in my mind, enjoying the path I was on, and getting to know the people around me. The less I worried about superficial and non-important things, the more I noticed that these pure souls around me didn't care about whether my outfit was cute or if I was sweaty. They cared about my soul and who I was. They cared about my story, my adventures, my well-being.
Walking the Camino de Santiago gave me the space to get to know my real self. The vast distance, the endless days of hanging out in my own head gave me the opportunity to meet myself and discover much of what there is to love about myself - something that I had struggled to find while growing from a teenager into a young woman on life's turbulent path. Your mind feels like a racetrack, one where you're in first place, yet in order to win, you must cross the distance. Walking the physical distance, across Northern Spain, allowed my mind and soul to follow suit and walk the mental and spiritual distance on the road to myself.
Being real is the most wonderful discovery, or rather creation, we can undergo as human beings. When you meet yourself, it's like a universe collides inside of you, leaving beautiful colours to paint your existence. Yet we must continuously remind ourselves that this is who we are, and choose to be that person every day. It takes a lifetime to continue manifesting ourselves and our most "me” version of ourselves, but each journey and adventure we embark on helps it take shape.
This journey of discovery, of getting to know your real self, for some may mean taking a break from your day-to-day, whereas for others it can require a change in your environment. In the end, how we do it, how we give ourselves this space, doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that we do it. Life is a much more enjoyable adventure when we know ourselves, when we have room to grow, to laugh, to cry, to exist.
Walking the Camino de Santiago was what flipped the switch for me. While it hasn’t always been an easy path forward, I know that I have the most real and connected version of myself with me on this journey. With that knowledge, life suddenly seems like a much more exciting adventure. I can’t wait to see what’s next.
About the Creator
2x published author. World-traveller. 25-year-old, living in Amsterdam. I love to write about the things that really matter, but I also, occasionally, enjoy challenging myself with something that is more out of my comfort zone.