The practice of meeting your Camino teachers

Everything and everyone you meet on the Camino can be your teacher if you allow it.

Some of the most difficult experiences—physical pain, loneliness, doubt, conflicts with other pilgrims—can show you what you most need to understand and heal in yourself. This is because everything you encounter on pilgrimage is a mirror image of your everyday life, just concentrated and intensified.

Looking into that reflection, pondering the similarities and what they can to teach you, can be a transformational practice.

Two stories of loneliness

Walking the Camino backwards, for me, meant walking alone. Even though dozens of people crossed my path each day, the numerous three-minute conversations about why I was going the wrong way led to feeling lonely at times. I felt “othered,” a backward-walking novelty, not part of the group. As a result, I looked forward to stopping at a cozy albergue with a communal dinner so I could feel connected with people and have meaningful conversations. We all need to belong.

Story One: A hard teacher

On this particular afternoon, I was feeling the familiar pain of loneliness. In my everyday life, I distract myself with food, social media, and watching programs online. On the Camino—especially without a phone—those go-to comforts weren’t available. I felt more emotionally exposed not having them, but that was the point. If the Camino were completely 100% comfortable and familiar, it would just be a vacation. I went seeking more.

The albergue that evening was almost empty, promising a quiet night’s sleep. For dinner, I decided to have the menu peregrino at the in-house café. In hindsight, I feel badly for the young Russian woman who was there, alone, to enjoy the wifi.

“Do you mind if I join you for dinner?” I inquired, hopeful. She had a friendly face and seemed like she’d be good company.

“No problem,” she replied and set down her phone.

I asked her all the usual pilgrim questions about where she’d come from that day, how she was feeling, when and where she started walking. If you’ve never done the Camino, this might sound intrusive, but it’s quite common. Pilgrims often swap stories about how their body feels, about pilgrims they know in common, who took the bus due to injury, et cetera.

As we chatted, the phone on the table emitted a jingle, her eyes darted to the device. She tried to ignore it, looking back at me, but not successfully.

“Excuse me a moment,” she said, picking up the pink phone, a smile dawning and tapping rapidly. My dinner came. She put the phone back on the table.

I asked about where she was from and in the middle of telling me, her phone jingled again. This time, she looked less torn. “One moment,” she said, picking it up. More tapping.

Allow me to pause here and say that it wasn’t her responsibility to help me beat my loneliness. She was on her own journey.

On the third jingle, however, she dropped the pretense of talking with this grey-haired, American stranger. “Excuse me,” she said and made a call. Body turned at a right angle to me, she spoke for the time it took to finish my dinner.

As if I didn’t exist.

Now, if I’d been on a vacation, I’d probably now rant about the evils of cell phones and the degradation of courtesy. But this is a pilgrimage. If you’re willing to look into the mirror of circumstances, you will learn a lot about what you need to change about yourself and how you do your life.

After I got over my crocodile tears, paid my bill, and left her talking, I realized something important:

This is how I do my life. The woman sitting across from me was me. Like her, I check out mentally using my devices. I wish humanity would vanish. I get annoyed by people, especially my spouse, when I’m in thrall with something online—to the point of similarly rude, inconsiderate behavior. Furthermore, I regularly prioritize connection with those not present at the expense of the people right in front of me. Ouch.

That is what the young Russian woman taught me. I realized that the connection I seek is right here, in front of me. Not just with others, but with myself and with the Divine.

As easy as it would be to judge her, the lesson was right there for me to accept. The teacher showed up. And the student was ready. I now seek to change my behavior so that I connect with the people around me—seeking them out—and turn off my devices so I can really be present with them.

Story Two: A gentle teacher

On a different blue day, I showed up too early at an albergue that wasn’t yet open. Its name referenced an angel, and my heart felt certain was supposed to be here. So I stood anxiously outside, unsure of what to do.

A short, round woman with curly dark hair slowly approached the albergue. Her face was radiant, and she smiled warmly at me, making eye contact.

“You are staying here tonight?” she asked in Spanish.

“I hope so,” I replied.

“Just one moment, I will unlock it for you.” And I realized she was the hospitalera. She was letting me in, despite arriving so early in the day.

Gracias, señora,” I replied.

“Anna Maria,” she corrected gently.

When we entered, she showed me where to put my sticks and asked, “Would you like some coffee?”

Surprised by the familiarity and warmth, it took a moment for me to answer sí. “Good,” she said. “We will sit and have some coffee.” She hobbled to the kitchen and I heard clinking cups behind the glass door.

Sometimes you meet teachers on the Camino who impart the lesson with such honesty and compassion, it percolates into your soul.

Anna Maria and I sat across the table from each other in the quiet. As we began to talk about the debilitating pain in her knees and about my first life-changing Camino, the connection felt so real. “It’s hard walking alone,” I confessed.

She channeled the answers I needed to hear.

“You may feel alone,” she said. “But you can never be alone.” The Divine is always with you. Love is always with you. The loneliness you feel is something you create. Open up to the abundance that’s already waiting for you.

Tears sprang to my eyes. I needed to hear these words so much. Anna Maria reached out across the table and held my hand. Tears welled up in her eyes too. “You are never alone.”

And, just like the Russian woman, Anna Maria taught me something important about my life. By being willing to listen and accept, I understood how I make my life harder than it needs to be trying to do everything myself. I can connect more deeply with What Endures. It’s there waiting for me.

The practice of meeting your Camino teachers

Any time we have an intense emotional response on the Camino, we are meeting a teacher. The feelings can be everything from frustration and anger to deep love and profound, wordless connection.

Anytime this happens, it’s a moment of truth, an opportunity to reflect on what the feelings mean, and what they can show you about your life. The practice of reflection can guide you through the second Camino—the one that happens after the walking ends—into transforming your life.

Divine nods

I believe in signs.

Since I avoid walking under ladders and throw spilled salt over my left shoulder, I probably should. But deciding to take a seven-week journey halfway around the world makes me look for affirmations—Divine nods—that I’m making the right choices.

Maybe I shouldn’t put this in print, but things are going really well.


I bought my airfare! I have a flight to Dublin and will soon purchase connections to Santiago and Biarritz. Oh, my Lord, was that scary! At my request, Mary held my hand in support as I clicked “purchase,” and now it’s done. I’m going! Good sign? The price jumped up the day after I purchased and hasn’t gone down since. Granted, I know there’s a corporate algorithm that makes this happen, but signs are in the eye of the beholder. (And, in case you’re wondering, the fare was $1077 from PDX to DUB.)


Second, after a few emails and a Skype call to talk about details, Muriel emailed me last week to confirm that she will be arriving in Pamplona for us to cross the Pyrenees together. “Just in time for pintxos,” she wrote. I am beside myself with glee that this sage soul and I will walk together over those mountains while having deep talks and laughs about life.

I feel the need to knock wood right now!

Camino connections!

Third, I’ve met three separate people in two weeks who have Camino dreams. Totally random places. Totally joyful conversations. I encouraged them to trust the call they hear. “Our meeting was not a coincidence,” one said gratefully. Exactly my point.

More Camino connections!

Fourth, a local peregrina friend invited me to attend a huge Camino-themed holiday potluck put on by the Portlandia Chapter of APOC. Our hour-long car ride was fun and meaningful (why have we not done this before?). As an introvert, groups overwhelm me, and I feared sitting alone awkwardly with no one to talk to.  I should not have worried! We pilgrims know how to connect with almost anyone. More than one hundred people were in attendance and at least half had walked the Camino. One peregrina I met had completed her pilgrimage a mere month before. Her sparkling eyes and relaxed jaw reminded me: you too will feel this way soon.


Fifth, two of my favorite Camino bloggers, Nadine and Elissa, both did Caminos this past summer. Both have been in post-pilgrimage processing mode and understandably quiet since they returned. In the last few weeks, they’ve both come out of the woods, reaching out and writing. This delights me as I’ve missed them (while understanding the need to take time to process the journey) and look forward to more reading and connecting with them both.

A draft!

Sixth, I spent time at my favorite mountain retreat center for five days of writing and—lo and behold—I finished a very rough draft of my Camino book. Good omen? You bet!

Happy knees!

Seventh (it just keeps going!!), I saw my awesome doc last week to talk about my knee progress. She didn’t say a word about hobbies or hiking. Instead, she was really encouraging and thrilled to hear that the supplements and exercises are working. I’m thrilled too. I’m not pain-free, but the pain is less and bearable. Now if I could just stop eating holiday goodies (I just learned how to make my own egg nog chai), I might make progress on the weight-loss side of things I’d be even happier. All in all, I’m thrilled my body is healing!

A serious one!

Finally, there is one sign I’m still sorting out. Since my post about risks on the Camino, the world’s axis seems to have shifted a few degrees in the wake of inexplicable violence. More than one caring person in my life has questioned whether it’s safe to travel in Europe right now. The US government advises caution. Here’s what I know in my gut: If I change my life or plans one iota because of fear, the evil side wins.

I mention this issue because signs don’t always confirm what we want to hear. Sometimes they challenge us to question how devoted we are to our call. Are you ready, they ask. Are you sure you’re up for the risks? Are you willing to lose others’ respect, your comfort, even your life to follow your heart? 

Yes. I am. Like life, the Camino may not be bed of rose petals, but nothing worth loving ever is. I’m trusting my conviction as a Divine nod—and proceeding with willingness, caution, and joy. May you do the same in order to follow what you love.

Risks and sticks — Safety on the Camino de Santiago

“I’m worried about you going back there,” Steve tells me.

“You are?” This is news to me. “I’ve already been there once, you know.”

“It just doesn’t seem safe for a woman alone,” he explains. Steve is twenty-ish years my senior and former military, so I respect his opinion. His words of concern echo my dad’s worries three years ago, when I was planning my first Camino.

“You know, Steve, I have two walking sticks with pointy tips. I’ve thought of at least eight ways to kill someone with those suckers.”

He cracks a smile, “What if there’s more than eight of them?” I burst out laughing.

Steve’s fears about my solo journey aren’t completely unfounded. Last April, when an American pilgrim Denise Thiem disappeared en route, her frantic family turned to social media to try to locate her. Sadly, this fall we learned she was murdered by a local man–now in jail. However, her disappearance sparked unprecedented sharing online about other accounts of harassment, particularly of penis-exposing and groping by older men.

Then, a few months after Denise disappeared, a local Spanish woman was almost abducted by two men in a car while she was out for a walk outside Astorga. This really spooked me. My response was to spend hours online reading about organized crime, the organ trade, and sex trafficking in Europe. It turns out that eastern Europe is where the really scary stuff happens whereas Spain’s organized crime focuses primarily on trafficking tobacco. In other words, it’s just like everywhere else.

For all the creepy details that have emerged from these events, it’s important to view the information about crimes in perspective: over a hundred thousand pilgrims walk the Camino each year without being killed or accosted. In my opinion, it comes down to odds–and the odds of completing this pilgrimage without incident are very favorable.

That said, travelers would do well to prepare for worst-case scenarios in the unlikely event they do occur. For example if you’re traveling internationally, it’s a good idea to learn how to get in touch with your country’s consulate for aid (not the embassy) and know the region’s emergency response number. For pilgrims, it’s important to take precautions en route; don’t let yourself get too tired, hungry, or distracted, making you less able to respond to danger. I spent time online after the near-abduction report came out learning how to prevent an abduction or escape from one. Necessary? Probably not. Good to know? Definitely.

Not to go all Girl Scout on you, but being prepared is a great way to not get hurt or injured. Be prepared, and you’ll be able to deal with the unexpected.

In terms of odds, the real peril comes from the terrain itself since the chances of falling, injury, or breaking a bone are good. The path is sometimes nothing more than a long, downhill swath of loose cobbles. Be alert. Don’t walk while eating, reading, texting, or anything that takes your eyes off the terrain. Historically, one of the biggest killers of pilgrims is of getting struck by oncoming traffic.

As a naturally high-strung person, I am inclined to hear a comment like Steve’s and join him in the fear. As if I don’t already have my own worries! The truth remains that not going on this journey doesn’t make me safer. I could just as easily be accosted or killed by an intruder in my own home, blinds drawn and doors locked. But what kind of life would that be? I can’t wait in fear of an unlikely worst-case scenario. I want to live, to challenge myself and grow!

So I’ve made peace with this fact: it’s not unsafe to be a solo peregrina, but it’s unsafe to travel unprepared. That’s a big difference. I’ve got a good brain and some pointy hiking sticks–and I know how to use them both.



Want to know why I’m doing the Camino in reverse — and how you can help? Read on!