Packing light for a month on the Camino de Santiago taught me that life can be simple; that we don’t need that many things to be happy. I have always got a kick out of packing light. I never check in a bag when I’m going on holiday and I get a buzz if I wear everything I bring away with me. For me, it translates as a little self-pat on the back saying “well done you, you brought exactly what you need. Nothing more, nothing less”.
Packing for the Camino was a welcomed challenge. I had to fill a backpack with everything I needed for 34 days walking over 800 kilometres across Spain from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela. Carrying my backpack every step of the way. I researched in detail what I needed to bring, how much each thing weighed and the important determination of whether the cloth was of quick-dry material or not. A lot of my packing thesis was focused on underwear. And the conclusion, two pairs of knickers is enough to carry. Each night I would wash one pair and hang that pair from my backpack by day to dry in the sun as I walked across Spain. My other packed items were: hiking trousers, shorts, t-shirts, sports bra, waterproof jacket, light fleece, trekking runners and wool socks. A pair of leggings, shirt, multi-purpose sarong and flip-flops for the evenings. Two micro-fibre towels and very basic toiletries. My journal, kindle, iPhone and water bottle. I discarded other items and clothing from the pack putting it down as superfluous; makeup rejected to shun vanity and any unnecessary weight; perfume and deodorant ditched on the basis that we survived decades ago without the stuff.
Bringing nothing but essential items meant the backpack that I carried every day for over one month did not cripple my knees and strain my back. I had nothing extra or unnecessary with me. It showed me that we don’t need that much stuff to survive. We need certain things to get by, and then everything else is just surplus. Like a third pair of knickers would have been.
Life is simple on the Camino. Waking up every morning before sunrise and putting on one of my two hiking outfits. Arriving into the ‘Municipal albergues’ (Government run lodgings) each afternoon after walking for 6 or 7 hours. Feeling exhausted. Having a hot shower and then hand washing my clothes and hanging them out to dry in the sun. Putting on my one evening outfit and going out to meet other pilgrims in a restaurant, cooking a group meal in the Municipal or dining alone reflecting on the day. It’s all very straightforward, the same thing every day and there is no hassle involved. Except the walking. And sleeping in a bunk bed every night surrounded by maybe 60 people. Sharing bathrooms and showers. And of course, the symphony orchestra of snoring and other noises that begin every night when lights go out at 10 pm. The harmony of a deep soprano snore, the percussion of a bunk bed ladder, a cough and the flip-flop, flip-flop beat of someone walking to the bathroom. Earplugs are your friend and sanity preserver.
Not all pilgrims choose to stay in dorms. You can, of course, arrange to stay in private rooms in more comfortable surroundings. I did not want to do this, however. I wanted to strip all luxury away. I wanted to take the chance for a month to live a simple life with absolutely no frills. The Camino offered me this alternative way of life. To wear one of two things each day, and the same outfit every evening. To spend a month doing the same thing every day; following the arrows pointing me to Santiago. It took all decision-making and stress away.
As I walked along the Camino my mind became quiet and calm; it relished the solitude, the routine and simplicity of life on the trail and meeting and talking to new people. My soul felt lifted by the friends I made and by spending all day outside in nature; watching the sun rise and set every day. My mind and soul were nourished by experiencing life ‘just as it is’, without distractions. My body, and most notably my feet, perhaps did not delight as much in the euphoric and captivating experience. It was a physical challenge, but I grew stronger each day and marched on. The Camino taught me that our happiness is not a result of the things we have on us or around us. It forced me to focus on the important things in life; to get the bare necessities (and underwear) right and not to worry so much about all the extra baggage.
I walked the Camino Frances during September/October. There are several routes to choose from however the Camino Frances is the route most pilgrims (walkers) choose. It is possible to begin and end the Camino at any stage of the trail depending on the time available to you. Pilgrims typically allocate 35-40 days to walk the full Camino Frances. You can fly to Biarritz and get a bus to Bayonne and train to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. There is a direct flight from Santiago de Compostela to Dublin. I did not use any tour company as I found it very easy to plan and book the trip myself. John Brierley’s guidebook ‘Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago’ is excellent. Municipal beds are available on a first-come-first-served basis. Private ‘albergues’ can be booked days in advance. For those perhaps interested, my two pairs of knickers were ‘Under Armour Women’s UA Pure Stretch Hipster’ from Great Outdoors.
By Sarah Shannon