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Buen Camino

Jiab Wasserman  |  April 30, 2019

ON APRIL 3, my husband Jim and I were among 262 pilgrims who made our way into Santiago de Compostela to receive an official pilgrim’s certificate for completing the required distance along one of the famous El Camino’s several routes—the most popular of which is some 500 miles. We were now certified peregrinos, or pilgrims.

Because it was early in the season, ours was one of the slow days for Camino completion. Last August, 2,000 certificates per day were issued. Walking El Camino is gaining in popularity not just with Spaniards, but also with folks from around the world. In 2018, there were 327,328 certificates issued, compared to just 2,491 in 1986.

This begs the question: Why do people commit themselves to such an arduous walk, which can take weeks to complete? In an age that provides convenience, comfort, speed and efficiency, thousands from around the globe walk hundreds of miles, enduring considerable physical demands, long periods of solitude, and deprivation from most modern comforts and conveniences.

I can’t answer that question for all pilgrims. But I can honestly say that it was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. The certificate at the end was, of course, nice to receive, but that was the least of it. In The Pilgrimage, Paulo Coelho wrote, “It is the road that teaches us the best way to get there, and the road enriches us as we walk its length.” El Camino enriched me in three ways:

  • I had the feeling of being fully present. I recently retired after working more than 25 years in the business world, where I had to be simultaneously mindful of the past, the current situation and the future. The simple act of walking, putting one foot in front of the other for mile after mile, hour after hour, brought me a new sense of time. On El Camino, I was forced to live in the present. I gave no thought to what happened yesterday nor what might happen tomorrow. All that mattered was the present, and that heightened my senses and made me feel more alive.
  • I gained a sense of gratitude. As the famous (or infamous?) Jonathan Clements said, “When you discover you have more money than time, you should stop pursuing money and focus on getting the most out of your time.” Walking El Camino was one of my life’s great uses of time. As I walked, I reflected on how fortunate I am to be healthy in body and mind. I followed Jonathan’s advice and dropped out of the rat race. Now, I have the rare freedom to choose how I spend my time.
  • I felt a sense of community and connection. “Buen Camino” was the most common phrase we heard from fellow pilgrims and locals. In this instance, it meant “have a good path”—wishing one well on the long journey ahead. This gave us a feeling of constant connection with others.

“You will never walk alone” was one of the many bits of graffiti I read along the way. It provided me with much needed reassurance. Coming from the business world, especially the competitive and fast-paced environment of finance, it was striking that no one gained here at the expense of someone else’s loss. In business, achieving success at all costs can bring out the worst in people. Getting ahead often means crushing others. But you won’t find that on El Camino. Everyone is walking at their own pace for their own personal reasons, while supporting each other on their journey.

Jiab Wasserman recently left her job as a financial analyst at a large bank at age 53. She’s now semi-retired. Her previous articles include Takes SkillLiving Small and This Old House. Jiab and her husband, who also writes for HumbleDollar, currently live in Granada, Spain. They blog about downshifting, personal finance and other aspects of retirement—as well as about their experience relocating to another country—at YourThirdLife.com.

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