Actually walking 500 miles to Santiago de Compostela proved “a demented delusion.” But “the Camino” also serves those who sit and those who wait — upon others.
From the first time I heard about it, I had a burning desire to go on the Camino de Santiago. I wanted to be a pilgrim, stripped down to whatever I could carry on my back, trekking 500 miles from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in southern France to the final destination of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, which purportedly contains the tomb of Saint James. I pictured myself turning inward, timing my footsteps to my breath, meditating — unplugged from news, my computer, my phone, my fax and, most of all, social chitchat.
I wanted the simplicity of the medieval pilgrims who walked the Camino de Santiago (the “Way of Saint James,” in Spanish); I yearned for a month-long spiritual undertaking, over hill and dale, pasture and plain, carrying the iconic scallop shell, which signifies to others that you are, quite literally, walking the walk.
Twenty-five years ago, a few thousand devoted pilgrims followed the Way of Saint James every year; today, estimates are in the 100,000 to 200,000 range. They come on foot, bike, and horseback. A few even bring donkeys. Some do the whole walk, and others complete a section, hopping on a train or bus for part of the pilgrimage. They are young and old, fit and unfit, short, tall, fat, thin, bearded, shaven. They are easy to spot; they carry a walking stick and a huge backpack. A few months ago, I set my feet on the Camino for the first time.
At a public hostel for pilgrims, I met a buoyant young man from London who was standing patiently in line, waiting to get his pilgrim’s credential booklet stamped. When he got to Santiago, the stamps would serve as proof that he had walked the Camino — or at least the last 62 miles of it — and this would qualify him for a pilgrim’s certificate.
“How far did you walk today?” I asked.
“About 25 miles,” he replied.
“May I lift your backpack to see how heavy it is?”
“Sure,” he answered, with the good humor that was characteristic of most pilgrims I met.
I bent over and raised it up; more accurately, I tried. It weighed more than 50 pounds. The young man was grinning, and I was mortified. My back ached before I had taken one step on the Camino. What was I thinking? I hate carrying anything. Some days, my handbag is too much for me. I love being unencumbered, physically free.
I peered inside the hostel; beds were lined up in a gymnasium-sized room. Each had a blanket but no sheets. There was zero privacy. A gaggle of walkers waited to take cold showers because there was no hot water. In a small courtyard next to the hostel, people were soaking their blisters and icing their tendonitis-inflamed legs. One pallid woman said she was so exhausted that she didn’t know if she could go on the next day. It was then that I knew that I would never be a pilgrim. It was fine for others. But for me, it was a fantasy. A dream. A demented delusion.
WHY THEY WALK
Why, I wondered, did anyone walk the Camino? I began to ask the pilgrims I met. In a municipal pilgrims’ albergue, or hostel, three young men were cooking eggs for dinner in the small kitchen area. They devoured them with mounds of tortellini and cheese sauce. One of them said he was taking the walk before he started engineering school. A second had been laid off and decided to make a pilgrimage before going back to work. “I’m not sure why I’m doing it,” said the third, “but I can tell you that the socializing at night is the best part. You drink beer or wine, and you meet people. The three of us didn’t know each other before.”
I stopped at a private albergue, which offered separate rooms with baths for pilgrims who wanted more comfort. “I just went through a divorce,” a middle-aged woman, who sat in a lounge chair nursing a beer, told me. “It’s very meaningful for me to be here, with no contact from my ex, away from my familiar surroundings, thinking about who I am besides a wife.”
“Ah,” I said to myself. “Maybe if I stayed at a place like this, I could bear the walk.” Who was I kidding? I learned that last year there had been a plague of bedbugs in both the municipal and private hostels. And some of the private albergues were as basic as the public ones.
In Rabanal, I met Abraham and Francisco from the Canary Islands and Jose Luís from Salamanca. The three new friends sat under a tree, nursing their tired feet. For them, the Camino was an inexpensive vacation; they could explore a region of Spain they didn’t know, and it would give them a sense of accomplishment to finish it.
A Korean woman said she had learned about the Camino on television, and then she read an inspiring book by a Korean writer about the pilgrimage walk. It sealed the deal.
Alexander from Vienna quit his job as a banker because it didn’t suit him. He was walking to ponder what he would do next. “I’m not talking to other pilgrims about it,” he said. “It’s more about me and my own thoughts. I’m an athlete, and I don’t find the walk hard or tiring.”
Two young Spanish girls said, “We walk by day, and we ice at night. Our objective is to get to Santiago. We don’t know why we are doing it, but we’re really happy.”
Judy Magee from Toronto was nervous about hauling her backpack. Her daughter Kaitlin had counseled her, “Mom, don’t worry about the weight of your backpack. It weighs less than the to-do list you make every day.” Magee said, “That thought is with me every day. I’m learning to let go and not to plan for every contingency.”
Kellie from Wales said, with a laugh, that quite a few happily married couples met while walking the Camino. She wasn’t exactly looking, but she wasn’t ruling it out, either.
The more pilgrims I spoke to, the more diverse reasons I heard for doing the walk. Some wanted fresh air and an active, outdoorsy experience. Others were intrigued by the churches and art and great Spanish food along the way. The varied landscape drew some, and the challenge called to others. There were devout Catholics, atheists, and Buddhists. For some, it was a spiritual quest, a long prayer of gratitude, a meaningful way to mark a life transition. And more than a few were repeat pilgrims; they had done the Camino once or several times before.
I began to feel the discomfort of the outsider. They all were walking, and I was watching. They were making sacrifices, and I was sleeping in hotels, driving in a car, and dining on regional foods that burst on my joyous palate.
THE NON-WALKERS TRADITION
“Maybe I’m helping the pilgrims by writing about them,” I joked to one woman, and she nodded and said, quite seriously, that there is a whole tradition of people serving the Camino. So off I went, to find out about non-walking pilgrims who are somehow engaged in service to people, a path, or something else I didn’t understand.
On the outskirts of Sahagún, I met loquacious, vivacious, 82-year-old Paca Luna Tovar at the Virgen del Puente hermitage. Every day, Paca walks over a mile from town to the hermitage and adorns the altar with flowers and candles that are dedicated to the Virgin. She carries with her galletas de hierro (literally, “iron cookies,” a regional dish) and aguardiente (home-brewed alcohol) for the pilgrims who come inside. While I was there, she spontaneously broke into song; the lyrics were about the patron saint of the town, the Camino, the hermitage, and two local churches.
“My ancestors welcomed the pilgrims here,” she said proudly. “When my aunts were alive, they brought me here to greet the pilgrims, and when they died, I took over. I am the fourth generation. I come to be with the pilgrims. No matter what language they speak, I understand them all, although I am not sure how this happens. The government is planning to do restoration at the hermitage, but even during the work, I will walk here every day to meet the pilgrims. If I stop the walk, it will be the end of me.”
Little do the pilgrims suspect that when they drop by the hermitage and munch on cookies, they are helping to keep an octogenarian dynamo alive.
RETURNING TO SERVE
At a hostel in Rabanal del Camino, which is run by the Confraternity of Saint James in Britain, I met Martin Singleton, who had come from London to volunteer as a hospitalero for two and a half weeks. He was probably in his late 60s to mid-70s, and his jobs included making breakfast and keeping the rooms clean.
Singleton’s relationship with the Camino began after his wife completed a pilgrimage. “I had never walked farther than my house to the car,” he said, “but I put my boots on, got an old rucksack, and went with my wife the next year and walked 120 miles. I had no physical problems walking. It affected me spiritually. It changed me. I made a promise to come back and complete the entire Camino. I did it last year.”
He confided that the second walk was less moving than the first — an experience, he says, many returning pilgrims share. “It only happens once in your life,” he said in a low voice. “After that, my wife and I wanted to give something back to the pilgrims. We joined the Confraternity of Saint James in England and went to meetings. We decided to become hospitaleros, and here we are.”
After a pause, he added, “I never did service before in my life. It’s wonderful. It’s a bit like the first experience I had.”
In rural Moratinos, population 18, a former American journalist named Rebekah Scott lives with her English husband, Paddy, in an old, painstakingly restored and repaired farmhouse they call the Peaceable Kingdom (moratinoslife.blogspot.com). The Camino goes through the village and passes by their house, and Rebekah spoke with knowledge and enthusiasm about the famous road.
“Do you know that the churches and monumental buildings along the way are meant to be seen on horseback? The best vantage point is from four feet off the ground, where the rich could see them,” she said.
Tomas, the Croatian handyman who was helping the couple, is also attached to the Camino and to a dog named Mimi that he found while walking. He tried to take her with him, carried her for about 20 miles, and then was forced to leave the dog behind. After he reached Santiago, he went back to visit Mimi, earned a little money doing handiwork, and walked the Camino again. And again. And again.
“There is counseling for people who keep doing the walk. What will they do after they stop walking? There’s a kind of post-Camino stress syndrome,” Rebekah explained. “Maybe they have no work and no purpose. They can stay cheaply while they walk and depend on the generosity of strangers. They are drifters on the Camino. And then there’s the whole subject of who is a pilgrim? If you stay at paradores (expensive hotels), are you a pilgrim? Are you one if you bike or ride a horse? In the past, people were sentenced to walk the Camino, to get them out of town. There’s a whole history of people telling war stories about their walks.”
Rebekah paused to serve me some delicious Thai curry and then resumed.
“When you walk, you become aware of everything; you hear the stream, the birds — your senses become acute. You lose weight, get fit. I’m a hospitalera now. I volunteer at hostels, listening to the pilgrims, cleaning up, cooking, applying first aid. It’s a nice break from the ordinary. And you get to know another town.”
The casual way in which Rebekah spoke belies her deep dedication and service to the Way of Saint James. She and Paddy built a labyrinth for the pilgrims and leave small gifts there. In their barn, they have made space for the pilgrims’ donkeys or horses. And in their house, they have three bedrooms for pilgrims and a bathroom where walkers can luxuriate in a tub. Rebekah also cooks for them. In her spare time, she trains hospitaleros.
Elyn Aviva recently relocated from the United States to Sahagún, to be on the Camino. She has published fiction and non-fiction books about the holy trek; the latter deal with her walk of gratitude after cancer surgery and her first walk, in 1982, before the Camino became so popular (pilgrimsprocess.com). She tried to explain to me her fascination, which she said borders on obsession.
“At various times I’ve thought I was ‘done’ with the Camino, but I keep going back to explore it from yet another angle, to write yet another book. I’m currently working on synthesizing a number of Spanish books on the esoteric, hidden symbolism of the Camino so that this information will be available in English,” she said.
LIFE ON THE ROAD
When I asked why she wanted to live on the road, she answered without hesitation, “It’s good to be ‘on the Camino’ but not walking it — seeing and hearing the daily flow of pilgrims passing through, offering assistance to those in need (looking for a guidebook, needing to go to the doctor, needing someone to translate at the pharmacy or in a restaurant) — being part of the Camino while staying at home. For now.”
She talked about people who served the Camino and helped her on her first walk. “They opened up a deserted schoolroom for us, or gave us food when we had none and there were no grocery stores available. I remember people running after us to point out the correct path or calling out that we had taken the wrong route. I remember others offering to buy us drinks or giving us something to eat. And I remember being asked to light a candle on their behalf in Santiago. Decent people, faith-filled people, ordinary people — not paid to be of service, not hired to do a job, but acting from their souls’ desire, from their deep, abiding faith.”
Judith Fein is an author, speaker, and filmmaker, as well as travel editor for Spirituality & Health. Her website is globaladventure.us.
If you want to be a hospitalero after you walk, ride, or bike the Camino, go to americanpilgrims.com/camino/hospitaleros.html.