The 900km to Understanding More

38 days and 900 kilometres by foot, that is what it took me a few years ago when I embarked on the journey of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage (aka the Way, or simply the Camino). The Camino is a well-known path and approximately 350.000 people walked the pilgrimage in 2019. The trip being so popular has previously discouraged me from sharing my experience. What groundbreaking revelations can I possibly add to the mountain of stories already available? However, every year, I open my Camino diary to revisit my learnings and find new ways to implement them into my day-to-day life. This year, I choose to share my discoveries with you. 

1. You don’t need a goal to start

I had just graduated from a prestigious university, had a great job, amazing friends and a loving family. So why didn’t it feel like I was in the right place? People usually take on this journey to overcome loss, test themselves or discover their spirituality. However, I didn’t experience any of that. 

Therefore, I didn’t know how the Camino could help me change, until I got inspired by the symbol of the Way itself: a scallop shell. The shell has many lines, but they all join at the top. This counts for the Camino as there are literally many ways that lead to Santiago (through Germany, Portugal, etc.). Doesn’t the same apply for life? There are thousands of ways to reach happiness, professional success or find love. Shouldn’t we just keep on moving from where we are even without seeing the light at the end of the tunnel? 

We’ve been told that the way to success is to have a clear goal. But AirBnB’s founders never dreamt of owning a multi-million business, they were broke and loved socializing, therefore rented out their room. Vera Wang was a hardcore figure skater, but failed to make it to the US Olympic team before she started her editor’s career at Vogue. And these are just a few examples. We often praise persistence and long-term dreams, but it’s okay to choose and change which path to go once we are already on the way. The most important is to keep moving, and the goal will become clear at some point.

2. Stop comparing 

Throughout the pilgrimage, I’ve encountered a number of much more physically and mentally prepared people to conquer the Way than I was. They were stronger, double as fast, and didn’t look strained after a full day of walking. The most frustrating ones; the 70+ year olds outrunning me through the Pyrenees, while asking “if I needed any help”. I mean, come on, I was 22! 

But at the end of the day, we would all arrive at the same town, sleep in the same rooms, and eat dinner together. Most importantly, we all reached our goal – Santiago de Compostela – at some point. So why comparing? We don’t know the prehistory, the goals and stories of people we meet on the way, and we shouldn’t compare ourselves to them. We all have a different pace of conquering our Everests.

3. Different people show different views

Throughout my journey I’ve met thousands of people: chefs from Italy looking for fun, an architect from Brazil overcoming a breakup, a South African producer searching for inspiration, and the list goes on. People from different cultures, career paths, skin colors. People outside of my social bubble. I just ended university, with goals and dreams co-painted by my environment; great job, nice apartment, exciting hobbies. There was only one right way to live. But then, the Camino showed me that a pizza chef from Italy knows how to enjoy life a lot more than I do, even though he doesn’t match my previous definition of “success” or “happiness”. 

I started my journey with the idea of doing it solo. I was expecting to learn mostly from observing myself and reflecting. However, to my surprise, I’ve collected the most valuable lessons from others. Hearing their perspectives, stories and understandings of happiness, joy and success helped me redefine mine. Bill Nye said that “everyone you will meet knows something you don’t”, so go ask them and learn!  

4. The beauty of the unknown

Arriving at St. Jean-Pierre de Port, a little village in France where one of the Caminos starts, I witnessed hundreds of people walking around with sticks, maps and books. Wait… WHAT?! I freaked out. I was extremely unprepared. I didn’t read much before embarking my journey, I didn’t think about walking sticks, maps and definitely didn’t know that using vaseline is a great anti-blister preventative. 

Luckily, this all turned out great. Instead of looking at Google Maps I enjoyed nature and allowed myself to wander off the track and meet the locals. Not having it all mapped out gave me space for spontaneity and new opportunities to learn, because if you spend too much time planning, you might not have enough left to start. 

5. The destination is just a new beginning

I had this expectation that walking the Camino would transform me. And so it did! It really boosted my confidence. But shortly after I went back to the same routine, job and environment. I was really upset. Why was this “high” so temporary? Well, ex-Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson put it into a new perspective: “You’re only a success for the moment that you complete a successful act.”. I’m still extremely proud of my physical and mental strength and my learnings along the way. However, one achievement didn’t make me feel successful for long. It’s a never-ending process. Therefore, I try to create and walk my little caminos every day now to bring the sense of challenge, achievement and joy.  

The Camino was a great representation of a life’s journey, with lots of joy, adventure, pain, new people, new routes and sometimes losing the sense of direction. Those 900 kilometres made me understand simple, but extremely valuable life lessons. However, going the long way isn’t the only way, it was just MY WAY. I hope that my learnings will inspire you to create your own caminos every day, and find opportunities to grow from simple situations.

Sarah Ebling

          Sarah Ebling holds a professorship in Accessibility Studies at Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) and is a senior researcher at the University of Zurich. Her research focuses on natural language processing in the context of disabilities and special needs, specifically, sign language technology and automatic text simplification. Her groups’ contributions involve artificial intelligence techniques with a strong emphasis on user involvement. She is involved in various international and national projects and leads a large-scale Swiss innovation initiative entitled „Inclusive Information and Communication Technologies“ (2022-2026;