Walk This Way - A Solo Female Traveler Discovers Herself On The Camino De Santiago

Last Updated : Sep 4, 2023

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When it comes to travel, I've always been trapped in two minds.

On the one side, is this idea of myself, the strong independent woman who travels the world solo with no fear or regrets.

On the other side is my true self: young, inexperienced, uncertain, and breaking out in a cold sweat when I think about the gauntlet that international travel has become. Because, trust me, international travel on a Russian passport is a gauntlet.

The best part is, I've never even experienced it. Not on my one, at least. Crazy, huh? All of my fears and anxiety were rooted solely in the travel stories I'd read on Reddit and Facebook. These were filled with horror stories about travelers like me, trying to get their travel documents and falling short because of some technicality. It was almost enough to make me abandon my trip. There’d always be next year, right? Or the year after that…

Fortunately, I didn’t give up on my travel dreams just yet. I was going to travel to Europe to walk the Camino de Santiago. 30 days in Spain, just me and my two feet, the Spanish countryside, and 744 km (462.3 miles) between Pamplona and Fisterra in the Galicia region of Spain.

For those of you who don’t know, the Camino de Santiago is a pilgrim's route in Latin Christianity. Although I’m not religious, not even agnostic, I always wanted to walk the Camino. Or at least ever since my cousin returned from "The Way Of St James" and entertained me with tales of the people she met, the places she saw, and the things she discovered about herself. 9-Year old me looked at her with a sense of awe, and I wanted to do it ever since.

I told myself I’d walk the Camino before I reached 21st years of age - a type of coming-of-age ritual to mark myself a true woman, like my cousin. So, in my twentieth year on earth, I started planning my trip to Spain.

I was trying to figure out what type of visa would be perfect for a short stay of 30 days, the duration a Camino pilgrimage usually takes, in the European Union or one of its member states. After some quick research, I came across something called "The Schengen Area" with a list of all the Schengen Countries... Honestly, if you'd asked me an hour earlier what "schengen" was, I'd answer that it's some type of stuffed meat served in parts of Germany or Poland.

Totally perplexed, and now craving a good bratwurst, I thought it might be valuable to read other travelers’ accounts, (there had to be travelers more clueless than me) and thus my anxiety-inducing doom-scrolling through FB and Reddit began. It was like reading through the sad accounts of would-be visa holders who've been humbled by the process.

I was woefully unprepared. I’ve never completed a tourist visa application by myself, never mind a doozy like a Schengen visa application, which I learned was the type of visa I’d be needing because of my Russian passport’s “spectacular” passport power…

I had traveled before, visiting Schengen states like Lithuania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Croatia, but these were all family holidays, so my parents handled the visas. Now, I was living and working in the US, so that wasn’t an option. Time to grow up I guess…

With this in mind, I decided to put the horror stories from FB and Reddit out of my mind and I started doing research instead. I mainly focused on the Schengen visa application process, the visa requirements, visa fees, and the processing time, all while trying not to get overwhelmed... I was failing miserably.

As I read one after the other page telling me what I’d need for my Schengen Visa I became paralyzed with fear. To say that information was contradicting would be like saying I cope well with uncertainty...

One website said a valid passport needed two blank pages, the other said three. One said I needed medical insurance, the other said it should be travel or health insurance. The one said I had to make a consular appointment, the other said it should be at a VFS office. My heart started racing.

What if I was about to become one of those travelers I read about stuck in Luxembourg or Serbia somewhere? I definitely did not want to go through a repatriation process in the current international climate...

Then while re-reading the travel accounts (this time diligently making notes of each mistake so I wouldn’t repeat it…) I came across something I had missed before. One of the posts mentioned an app called Atlys, that they used to get their travel documents. With my interest piqued, and with no other option than to complete the application manually, I decided to check it out. In all honesty, it was also a bit of escapism...

Best. Decision. Of. My. Entire. Life.

Okay, so maybe not my ENTIRE life, but definitely the last 6 months. I downloaded the app with the intention of testing it out, you know, making sure that it’ll work for me, and live up to all its promises. Before I knew what was going on, my application was complete and I had a visa application appointment scheduled at VFS...

I couldn't believe it. I remember sitting back and laughing so much that my roommate came to check on me. Moments before, I was fretting my life away, getting so nervous when I thought about my visa application that it made me physically sick. I was honestly on the verge of abandoning my plans and trying again when traveling was easier (if that day would ever come). A couple of minutes later, my application was all done! All I had to do was attend the biometrics appointment and then wait for my passport to be returned to me.

Here's how it worked. After downloading and opening Atlys, it asked me where I'm from (Russia) and where I'm going. You can choose basically choose any country in the world, from Sweden to Slovenia, from the Netherlands to Norway. Next, it asked me for my reason for travel - there was no "Self-discovery on the Camino de Santiago" option, so I chose leisure.

Next, it asked me to use my phone to scan my passport and a visa application form was being populated from all the information on my passport. Atlys then saved all of my passport information, and then I scanned my driver's license. From this, the app extracted my address and completed a form. Finally, because I'm not a US citizen, but only a permanent resident of the US, I had to scan my residence permit visa.

At this point, I was impressed with the app, but still only thought it's going to help me with my visa application. When it generated my travel itinerary for me, something I had dreaded doing because it was the main reason behind a load of those horror stories I read, I realized this app was something else entirely. Atlys continued to exceed expectations when they offered me the relevant travel insurance and I was able to upload a bank statement as proof of sufficient funds. The cherry on top was when the app found and booked me an appointment, a notoriously difficult part of the application according to those people on Reddit, in about 10 seconds.

In hindsight, all my fears and anxiety feel so trivial, but that’s exactly what fear and anxiety do to a person - they take the smallest of issues and exaggerate them to such a scale where you have no idea how to overcome them. Now, all of that was over, and all that was left for me was to attend my Schengen Visa Appointment, submit my application, wait to receive my Schengen visa, and then travel to Spain. I was about to walk 744 km on my own through Spain, and yet, somehow, it felt as if the most challenging part was behind me…

Two weeks later, I attended my visa interview at VFS, submitted my application which I had printed out, and my biometric data was collected. A short interview was conducted, in which they asked me basic stuff like if I had family members living in any European Countries (I had an Aunt in Latvia, and two cousins in Finland and Iceland, respectively but this wasn't an issue) and made sure that I planned on returning to the USA. They also questioned me about my application, checking that information like my port of entry, the number of days applied for, and main destination against what I stated in my application. The whole process was tense, but not grueling. I never felt that they were trying to catch me out.

Two weeks later and I was the proud owner of a passport valid visa. A month later I was making my way to the airport for my flight to Barcelona. From Barcelona, I'll travel to Pamplona, where my Camino will start. After reaching the "end of the world" at Fisterra I'd take a train to Madrid and fly back to the US.

It took me 4 days of hiking, or I should say trudging, to admit that I was having a horrible time. I hated every moment of it. The Camino, it turned out, was not for me, and I had failed. Sorry Cuz...

But, instead of feeling like a failure, I felt lighter. I didn't like hiking, and that was okay. To force myself to do something because a younger version of yourself was infatuated with the idea is absurd. After a quick recalibration decided to make my way first to Portugal, then France and Italy, with a quick stopover in Greece (I was beginning to like this Schengen Zone thing) before flying back.

So, instead of walking the other 640 km to find myself, I decided there'd be much more time for that later on in my life. Instead, I hopped on a train and explored Europe the way I wanted to. With lots of bread, lots of wine, and a bare minimum of walking!

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