There are all kinds of reasons people decide to undertake the 800 kilometre pilgrimage that is the Camino de Santiago. Some people walk, or cycle, their way across Spain to grieve the loss of a loved one. Friends and family take the journey together to strengthen the bonds of their relationships. Others do it purely for the physical challenge. For me, the Camino del Norte was supposed to heal a broken heart. Unfortunately for my heart, the object of my unrequited affection decided to join me on this epic trek.
It should be noted that I had yet to declare my feelings to this girl (we’ll call her Lisa). I wasn’t even certain of her orientation. However, I am not especially skilled in concealing my feelings and I am sure she must have been at least a little bit suspicious.
When you start to fall for someone, your brain explodes with crazy ideas about how to manifest the fantasy into reality. The first brainchild born of my misconstrued lust was to invite Lisa along with me on the Camino. KLM was having a great flight sale to Barcelona and I had just watched The Way (don’t judge me), so I was feeling optimistic about the power the Camino had to bring people together. Much to the relief of my rational brain, Lisa was not enthusiastic about this trip and declined my invitation.
But a few weeks later, as I was getting psyched for my first solo adventure and ridding my heart of its suffering, Lisa called to tell me she had changed her mind and had booked a flight to Spain.
Perhaps this was Fate bringing us together in a confusing and dramatic fashion. I imagined the romantic comedy that would be based on our love story – Natalie Portman would play me and her blockbuster performance would earn her an Oscar. Spending every moment of every day for a month with someone I hardly knew and harboured secret feelings for was such a stupid idea that it could only turn out well in the end.
It didn’t, obviously.
The journey itself was at least superficially amicable. We both had a lifetime of practice in hiding our true feelings from others. So, except for the time I touched upon a nerve when I casually called her a coffee addict (she was) and she proceeded to argue with me for at least an hour about why she wasn’t, there weren’t any serious blowouts.
We passed the days quietly as we rode our bikes through the deserted countryside of Northern Spain. Passing fields full of goats wearing cow bells and watching the sun set over an isolated coastline were tranquil experiences that softened the deafening roar of my inner turmoil. Thankfully, the route along the Camino del Norte had a lot of hills. The physical effort of climbing up and down mountains for six hours a day did wonders for clearing my head.
Whatever emotional difficulties I endured during the day, it was nothing compared to the pure romantic torture that awaited me each evening. Every conversation we had was laden with desire and secrecy. The evening cuddles we shared did nothing to help matters. I knew I was going to tell Lisa how I felt, but for practical reasons – like having to spend a month awkwardly travelling with someone who didn’t reciprocate those feelings – it seemed best to postpone such a disclosure until the end of the trip.
After 17 days of cycling the Camino and a week relaxing in Portugal, we returned to Spain. The previous three weeks had been filled with confusing moments that my brain obsessively tried to categorise as ‘She Loves Me’ and ‘She Loves Me Not.’ Did sharing a bed when there were three in the room indicate romantic feelings or was it just to feel less lonely? Was her reluctance to put sunscreen on my back because she didn’t want to encourage my feelings or because she didn’t want to lose control of hers?
Only two days before I would tell her everything, things took a turn for the worse. Lisa told me she ‘loved me like a sister.’ I interpreted this as a pre-emptive rejection on her part and responded, not by telling her how I felt, but by trying to get drunk in a tourist flamenco bar that charged €7 for a gin and tonic. Since I could only afford one drink at that price, I resorted to plan B – ignore her as much as possible and bottle up my feelings until we got home.
It was a lot to bottle up and, as well-detailed throughout this story, I was not exactly exhibiting much in the way of emotional maturity. So, it wasn’t a surprise when everything erupted uncontrollably as soon as we returned. The damage that ensued was irreparable and I did not find the strength to remain friends with someone I was in love with.
Many people experience personal breakthroughs on the Camino de Santiago. Indeed, that’s exactly what many of the people who undertake this pilgrimage are looking for. Completing such an undertaking, one expects closure on their issues upon receiving their Compostela – the certificate granted to qualifying pilgrims. However, my spiritual pilgrimage did not end in Santiago de Compostela, as I am sure it doesn’t for a lot of people. Instead, I experienced an emotional breaking that took two years to fully process.
Maybe it wasn’t the happy ending I thought I wanted, but I did learn many lessons on that journey. Even though life may not always provide us with Hollywood worthy endings, it does provide us with continuous opportunities to learn from our experiences and develop into wiser, stronger, and better human beings. I myself learned a lot about platonic intimacy and what it really means to love another person. Without these lessons, I don’t think I would be in the happy and healthy marriage I am blessed with now.
The Camino de Santiago broke my heart, and I couldn’t be happier (Natalie Portman will have to forgo that Oscar for a while yet).
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