I wanted to talk a bit about how my planned two-week Camino turned into a 3 day one.
In some ways, I felt hesitant to title this “Why I Quit My Camino Portuguese?” because I have this self-awareness that language like that can be harmful. Plus, we are living in an age of mental health and self-care; using “quit” is not in vogue now. However, this title honors the shame that I feel and the tinge of disappointed I can’t shake. Some prettier, more accepted and encouraged language would be “reevaluated, shifted, changed my mind, pivoted directions.” Yet, I feel as if I did quit. I set out to do something in a particular way and stopped doing it.
My first Camino (Camino Frances Summer 2021) was challenging, but it felt right. It fit.
After completing my Camino Frances, I thought I had come up with a solution for my mental health issues and depression. I figured whenever I got too low, too down, or when my trauma resurfaced to pull me down under. Then, I have another Camino I could embark on. Walking frequent pilgrimages would be my way up and out the hole.
Shockingly, this Camino Portuguese did not do this for me.
I’ve concluded (after hours and hours of mental processing) the many reasons why this Camino Portuguese compared to my Camino Frances did not have the predicted “effect” this time around.
Firstly, I am different than the girl (a woman!) who set out to walk 800 km across Spain & France in the summer of 2021. I had zero expectations (based on reality/experience) for my pilgrimage. I researched a bit but mostly just followed the spiritual whim calling me to Santiago de Compostela.
Secondly, when comparing these Caminos, they are very different in landscape, distance, scenery, atmosphere, and “vibe”. For example, the Camino Frances led me through some of the most gorgeous places in the Iberian Peninsula – the Pyrenes and the province of Galicia. In comparison, The Camino Portuguese would have me walking on boardwalks along the coast and paved narrow roads through small villages with little shade. In short, not as much nature. Although there is a variant called “The Espiritu” (once crossing the Spanish border) that is known for its natural beauty through lush forest and vineyards (and even a river ride!). But I didn’t make it that far.
I wanted to keep my healing predictable. I guess sometimes it isn’t. Maybe what you do to heal yourself changes and morphs depending on the season. The Camino not having the same effect on me and not being what I wanted to spend my time doing anymore was heartbreaking. My last pilgrimage changed my life; it resurfaced my soul; it was the most empowered I felt in my life. I wanted to relive that. I tried to “top up,” so to speak. That did not happen this time, leaving me in a dark place, feeling aimless.
Imagine when your magic pill stops working.
The plan was to fly into Porto, start the Camino two days after, walk for two weeks, and have all the answers.
As I write this, I am sitting in my hotel room, sad and confused because what happened was the opposite of what I anticipated. When I flew into Porto, I tried to hype myself up because I was riddled with fear the entire plane ride. I figured it would pass because flying in 2022 is always stressful, but when I arrived safely in Porto and tucked myself into bed that first night the stormy clouds still lingered overhead.
I felt this deep sense of dread. I gave myself two days in Porto to recover from jetlag and recalibrate before I started my pilgrimage. But I was stuck. It took me one week to finally start my walk. The courage and drive I found quickly lost steam after just three days on the Camino Portuguese.
It was a tumultuous few days, filled with extreme lows and a few highs. I was underprepared physically and maybe emotionally, too. I cut my losses and surrendered (to something) and, after three days on the Camino, decided to “quit” and took an Uber back to Porto from a small town of Barcelos.
Maybe I was anticipating things not going as planned. I have no idea. I chucked it up to nerves or anxious anticipation for the amazingness I was about to experience.
For some reason, walking those two days did not alleviate my anxiety or depression. I was devastated. Even after I “quit” the Camino, I still woke up with that sinking feeling in my gut. I felt so uncertain about my life and my place in this world. It could have been a depressive episode because I didn’t feel in my body, and the gloom was overwhelming. I didn’t want to leave the bed and explore or take photos.
I was crippled with the anxiety of “what now, what’s next?”
The hole I stumbled into was deep. However, I pushed through because I’m used to doing it. Moving forward. I told myself, just because you aren’t walking on the Camino doesn’t mean you don’t like walking. I had to fight against so much self-doubt regarding what I thought brought me peace.
For weeks after I quit my Camino, I sat with the feeling that “it’s okay for things not to go as planned”.
In one of my psychiatry sessions, my therapist told me, “It’s okay to take time to care of yourself”. I kept telling myself that every morning I woke up to ease the guilt I felt for needing to stay in bed all day. Maybe it’s what my mind and nervous system required. I had to teach myself the concept of ease and surrender. I just wanted to learn new life lessons on the Camino while walking and in nature.
I couldn’t have imagined that ending my Camino prematurely would send me into a tailspin. But all of that led to a newfound path of healing deeper wounds.
In a sense, I was stranded in Porto because there was no way I could return home, feeling so much defeat in my heart. Porto had to work. Something must come from this rich city. What did it have to offer me?
After days of lamenting in bed, I found purpose again by creating tiny goalposts for myself. I started small routines to get back into my body and release the failure I felt.
I would get up, take my probiotics, open the blind slightly just for a bit of sunshine, brush my teeth, do an audio journal, read from my kindle, and play instrumental music. All of that created the tiniest release of pressure in my head and heart, enough to find the will to leave the hotel for an errand or task.
On the first day of my Camino Portuguese, I got to Villa do Conde by the grace of all the gods (all of them). The whole walk was miserable. It felt not aligned. I was in physical discomfort from the heat and walking on only asphalt. The open boardwalks were drying me from the inside out with no relief from the sun. I should have just stopped there and turned around back to Porto.
By the time I got halfway to Villa do Conde, I was telling myself, “this isn’t what I want to do. It’s not bringing me the thing it normally brings me, like what it brought me on the Francis. I feel so much resistance.” But I decided to keep walking, give it a few more days, and give it more time. Maybe I needed more time to get my head in the game, to get my body in the game.
But it wasn’t clicking. I felt like I was in the wrong place.
I got to Villa Conde, and in a moment of pause after showering and eating fresh fish at a restaurant right off the boardwalk, I found myself smiling and resting in the beautifully furnished common area. At that moment, I felt all the best things about the Camino.
The peaceful solitude, the soreness from walking, and the stretch of achy limbs had me on a high. The excitement of newness that comes with checking in to a new Albergue and seeing if the space is what you thought was a missed feeling.
In the months following my completion of the Camino Frances, I yearned for the joy and sense of fulfillment that arose from resting after a strenuous day of walking many many kilometers. And I finally felt it!!
Another exciting moment on the Camino is the adventure of going to a small new town and exploring it with sore feet and legs.
However, the best part of my Camino days is finding the sunset! Isn’t it profound that we can see the sunset as humans no matter where we are on earth. It’s a beautiful promise.
But outside of those moments, I was miserable about everything else. Share spaces, packing and unpacking my hiking bag, dealing with unhygienic conditions, and planning my route/meals put a frown on my face. I simply didn’t want to do it. A foreign feeling on my last Camino.
My night in Villa Conde was okay. The sleeping accommodations were one of the best bunk spaces I have encountered. I slept in a 6 bunk room, only filled to half capacity. The bed was comfortable, clean, newly renovated, and modern. There was even central air (we could control). The dorm was loud with other pilgrims walking up and down the halls, and the walls were thin between rooms. My bunkmate and I were both in bed by 9PM, ready to sleep. I put in my earplugs and fell into a deep sleep. I was even dreaming!
Then, I was awoken by loud rustling and vibrations near my bed. I turn and see a bright headlight on the head of a person unpacking her bags. Annoyingly, our third roommate arrived at 10PM! She did not turn on the lights, but I was up! I’m a sensitive/finicky sleeper, and it took me two hours to settle down again. But I was grateful for the soft plush sheets and cool air coming through the vents.
Despite little sleep, my body was rested, and I woke to warm sunrays on my face. I calmly got up, packed my bag, and headed to breakfast. On this day, the plan was to walk to Sao Paulo Rates. Leaving the Albergue, my attitude was much improved from yesterday. When I felt the early morning sun hot on my neck, I felt discouraged but quickly shifted my mindset to be happy and motivated. It lasted for thirty minutes.
The walk to Rates from Villa Conde was challenging. The route connects the Coastal to the Central path. None of the walk was in nature and was all pavement walking. The path was not inspiring, and I could not find beauty anywhere. I constanly kept comparing it to my second day on the Camino walking from Orisson to Roncesvalles.
I walked along busy highways and narrow roads with no shade. It also felt a bit dangerous because there were few sidewalks, and I had a few close encounters with Portuguese drivers speeding through the narrow winding roads I had no choice but to walk on. I was on edge the whole time and really hot!
I wanted to quit. I tried to quit this day, but I could not even do that! I attempted calling Uber multiple times to take me back to Porto but couldn’t get one.
And I told myself, “okay, you must walk; you don’t have a choice”. So I put one foot in front of the other and eventually got to Rates.
Then, guess what? The feeling of accomplishment rose. I felt glorious. So I pushed all notions of quitting to the side (again) and optimistically told myself it would get better.
“You just need to adjust.”
“You are just tired – walking is not easy!”
“You want mroe nature – maybe it will come in the next stage?”
“Things can change – they will change for the better.”
“Whatever you’re feeling, just give it another day, rest for a day, stay in this small town, and see how you feel.”
So, I did a “rest” day. And that rest day was great and fulfilling. I walked around the town, took pictures in the church, prayed, and had dinner at a welcoming restaurant for pilgrims. Then, I took more photos of the village’s historic buildings and rested more while watching the sunset from a terrace.
Then it was dark, and the town stilled as I lay in my room that evening and felt dread. The thought of getting up to walk again gave me a sinking feeling. I was ashamed and guilty that I could not get it together. But more than anything, I was confused by all this resistance.
This pilgrimage should evoke feelings of freedom (like before). I am about chasing freedom, feeling light, and connecting to my surroundings, earth, God, and nature. But I wasn’t getting that this time around. So I had to be honest with myself, and I was terrified about that.
Here I was in my small Albergue room, with my Luci night light, eyes closed, and I knew I couldn’t straddle both worlds anymore. And then, at that moment, I let go. I decided I was going to end my pilgrimage. In just two days of walking, I decided the timing was wrong for me and myabe even the route. It did not serve me to endure the torture of going back and forth.
I soothingly told myself, “You can always return and finish one day”. That helped a bit, but it was so hard. Although I knew it was the correct decision, I felt like I was a failure. Like I let myself down. That I let other people down. That I wasn’t gritty. I was lazy. I was weak. I had fear, and instead of fighting back, I tapped out.
Despite all those voices, the loudest and most true voice was that “this Camino did not feel right,” and I released myself from the expectation to keep going.
The following day, I packed my hiking bag for one last time and decided that I was going to walk to Barcelinos, which was the next big town. Maybe it would be easier and more scenic. It would be good to see if the central route had more nature. Also, it would be nice to get one final stamp at the next big city – a milestone. A graceful bow for this short journey.
The plan was to leave at dawn to avoid the blistering heat and no shade, but I ended up going much later. I usually have such a zest for leaving early, right when the sun rises, but it’s been nonexistent. Zero motivation to get up. I started my walk around 11 AM, with the sun hot on my tail.
Overall, the walk was better. There was a bit more nature in the form of small batches of trees and acres of farmland. There was a tiny stretch of a dirt path, which I happily stomped down!
There were more pilgrims, which helped me keep walking because it was hot again, and there was zero cover. The communal, friendly Camino spirit and energy were generally lacking on the Portuguese (compared to the Frances), and I did not hear any “Buen Caminos”. However, I really enjoyed the brief moments in nature and the variety of wildflowers. I even created a small bouquet for myself that gradually turned into an overgrown bush of flowers and leaves. I even listened to music and stopped to take pictures.
When I arrived in a small town a few hours outside of Barcelos, I was weak and fatigued. Frowning and exhausted, I declared out loud, “I don’t want to walk anymore. I’m not enjoying it. I must stop!!”
Despite all these little high moments, I sensed I was in the wrong place. So I went to a local diner filled with pilgrims to eat, rest, and call my Uber back to Porto. I had a little soup and something cool to drink while I waited for my cab to arrive. I got my final stamp from this restaurant, took a picture with the owner (he asked twice), and left the Camino behind.
When I closed my Uber door on my way back to Porto, I smiled so hard and exhaled deeply. The air-conditioned car was a life raft; relief washed over my entire being.
And that’s my Camino Portuguese story. As I write this, I am in Porto, somewhat disappointed in myself and recovering from what feels like a failure. However, I have been luxuriating in comfort and feel at ease. However, because my mind doesn’t stop, slowly questions of “why am I here”, “what is my life’s purpose?” and “what next?” comes up.
This Camino, despite only a few days in length, has initiated a new journey into understanding my depression. Lots of journaling about the “thing” that gets me down. Sometimes I can’t pinpoint where the darkness comes from. Perhaps it’s a multitude of traumas and anxieties built up over the years of life.
But I think the one thing I’ve honed in on that’s been highlighted to me is the concept of “home” and safety. So much of my sadness comes from a deep sense of displacement after my dad’s death and my mom selling our family’s brownstone that was in the family for generations. Divorce, death, and loss create deep severances that are hard to repair.
In the last 8 years, even in my pursuit of healing and freedom, I adopted the philosophy of letting go of material possessions. Sadly at times, that meant letting go of keepsakes and mementos that brought more pain than joy. I have had to release and let go of so much, and I feel the effects of that now. And it’s hard.
Often as I travel, I very much feel like an orphan. I constantly ask the questions, “Can this be my home? Can I have a family here?” Many times, the answer is no. For years I had this saying with my boyfriend that my home was within myself.
Creating that inner sense of safety was enough for a long time. But now, I feel as if I want a physical location to match. A physical home has been shattered for me, and I think I carry that feeling of orphanhood, sadness, and loss. So that’s something that I’ve come to terms with while being in Portugal.
Can you imagine just a few days on the Camino can be just as transformational for me as spending one month?
Right now, I’m still in a place of discovering, but I’m open to all ways of healing. Even if healing means failing at a goal I set.
It’s a never-ending journey, eh?
There are select things in life that make me feel alive. And walking truly is one of them. When I walk, I feel free. When I roam, I feel light. The Camino taught me that. So I walk “the way” even if it’s not on the Camino Portugues or Frances. This existence very much feels like an uphill battle at times, but I won’t stop this pilgrimage of life. The beauty is in the journey and all I see, feel, and experience along the way.