They say the Camino provides and I needed a story.
My head was flooded with mixed feelings of fear and excitement as I walked up to my first checkpoint, a stone pillar with the iconic blue and yellow clamshell that dotted the many kilometres of the Camino de Santiago; a series of pilgrimage routes in Northwest Spain. The pillar read “KM 58, 545,” as I realized the gravity of my decision. “Did I really need to hike this thing to get a good story?” I thought to myself. I adjusted the straps of my overloaded bag, my shoulders already starting to sink from the weight. I was seriously regretting bringing along my laptop.
Thinking back now to the amazing people I met whose kindness and generosity had helped me while I was aching from blisters and whose knowledge and experience will now grace the words of this story, I wouldn’t change a thing about my journey. For three short days, and 60 long kilometres, I hiked the Camino Frances, the most popular of the pilgrimage routes and got to experience first-hand the unique, open-minded community that stretches the many lengths of the Camino de Santiago.
My own hike began five kilometres outside the small town of Melide. The path was exactly as I anticipated, gravel covered terrain, lined with tall trees that provided cooling shade. Every five kilometres or so, the terrain changed and as you got closer to the small towns, you could see where the gravel stopped and the cobblestone started. Freshly laid manure, in anticipation for the rainfall, provided an experience for all of your senses. The forested areas lush with Eucalyptus trees, the trail taking you right over the mountains, with varying degrees of hills to climb and descend.
Is it Safe?
At 20 years old, I was embarking on my first ever hike, let alone by myself. The warnings from my parents and friends rolled through my head, “be careful,” “keep another pilgrim in sight as you walk,” and my favourite, “are you sure?”
The modern pilgrimage to Santiago looks very different from its medieval counterpart, which began nearly 1000 years ago. People come from all over the world to hike the many routes of the Camino, some for religion, some for answers, some for sport and some for leisure. Whatever the reason may be, the Camino de Santiago has become a popular tourist destination. In 2016, approximately 250,000 people received a compostela (certificate) for completing at least 100 kilometres of the pilgrimage. This year, the Pilgrim’s Office predicts that number will grow to at least 300,000 compostela’s.
It is within this last 100 kilometres that the Camino becomes very popular. Here, pilgrims collide with students hiking in groups, tourists, and the dreaded young journalist hoping for a story.
But before I had even considered hiking, I did my research to make sure a novice hiker with running shoes could handle this. I joined Facebook groups to see what other people had experienced on the Camino, what footwear they recommended and if a rain cover was worth it. As it turns out Northwest Spain doesn’t have the same reputation as its Southern counterpart. It can be very cold and as I learned on my second day of hiking, very wet. At times, especially when walking through kilometres and kilometres of forest, you start to feel like you’re in the rainforest, tiny dew drops speckled on leaves and huge puddles lining the trail. I can still hear the squeaking and sloshing sound of my shoes after encountering a deep puddle blocking the path.
My research eventually led me to CAMIGAS, a group that formed after the disappearance of Denise Thiem. In 2015, Thiem, 40 was an American pilgrim who had recently left her job in Arizona to hike the Camino Frances. After being lured off the trail by fake signs she was murdered by local farmer, Miguel Angel Munoz, 41.
In April 2017, Munoz was convicted of homicide and theft with violence.
According to the CAMIGAS webpage, “The intention was to create a buddy system for women traveling alone on the Camino but we have since evolved to be much more of an inclusive sisterhood that offers a lot more than a buddy system, such as every day virtual support for all who join and participate.”
While scrolling through Facebook, I saw several posts on the CAMIGAS page about bad encounters on the Camino like robbery or assault and a reminder to those walking alone to be alert and to walk with other pilgrims.
At the same time, however, I had seen many more Facebook
posts praising the community on the Camino. Praising people for lending a hand, sharing funny happenings while walking and overall exclaiming how safe it felt to walk on the Camino.
I had to find out for myself.
To my surprise, many of the people I spoke to hadn’t heard about the recent conviction, let alone the murder of Thiem. Diana Pavlackova, 22 a theatre student from Slovakia taking a year off before her masters was shocked when I told her, commenting on the fact she hadn’t felt scared for the last 800 kilometres. When I asked if knowing that information would have changed her plans, she said, “no.” I spoke to numerous women hiking alone and they all agreed with Diana’s sentiment, they wouldn’t have changed a thing about their plans.
For myself, I came across my first set of pilgrims within the first hour of my hike. I could hear them behind me by the sounds of their walking sticks hitting the cobblestone of the path. Walking at a hastened pace, pleasant, “Buen Caminos” were exchanged and they continued on past me. That was the moment I discovered I was a slow-walker.
After about two hours of walking, I came across my first dark path, with no pilgrims in sight. Before this moment, I had been walking in open fields beside the N-547 highway. The next bit of this hike would lead me into wooded forests and I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen another pilgrim. My concern was amplified the second I heard a car behind me. Within second, my heart rate started to increase, and I could hear the thumping in my ears. I kept on, occasionally turning my head slightly to make sure the car hadn’t followed me. It stopped a few metres back, and the weight on my chest was lifted.
Had knowledge of Thiem’s encounter made me more scared in this moment?
This was the first and only time I felt afraid while walking and for the small demographic of people I met, tragedies like Thiem’s has clearly not spoiled the atmosphere of the Camino. Pilgrims are always around, offering support every step of the way.
The Camino Community
After my encounter with the car, my time hiking the Camino alone was over. The Camino was so busy with pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela that it was impossible to find yourself alone. Chuck Britt, 35 was the first pilgrim I got to know along the way. Britt, a pipe welder from Syracuse had been hiking the Camino Primitivo, also called “the original way” for the last 30 days. We stopped for lunch in Ribadiso, Arzua and he explained how social interactions work on the Camino, “You can meet someone at 12, have dinner with them later and then know their whole life story.”
Meeting Britt was the start of a different Camino for me. It was here I learned of the incredible generosity and open-mindedness people walking the Camino could offer. Britt was incredibly correct about introductions on the Camino. Being submersed in this type of environment where you often pass the time by talking to others, it’s very easy to open up. I couldn’t believe the things I was telling this man I had met only a few hours ago. I also can’t even count the number of times Britt offered to hold my backpack, vehemently denying him as I continued to ignore the throbbing pain coming from my feet. Running shoes had been a bad choice. It was here I also became versed in the secret tricks to the Camino community. I heard the names and stories of people I had not met, the trick to picking a good albergue (hostel), foot pain should not go ignored and what a “touregrino” was.
A “touregrino” comes from a combination of the words peregrino (pilgrim) and tourist. As opposed to a “genuine pilgrim”, who can be identified by wet socks hanging from the backs of their pack, a touregrino is a pilgrim that may hike in a tour group, wear a clamshell on their backpack bought from a souvenir shop, possibly send their packs ahead, and use walking sticks made from tree branches. There is some contention on the Camino about “touregrinos” vs. pilgrims, with a few albergues even posting signs that say, “A tourist demands and a pilgrim asks.”
Adriaan Paap, known on the Camino as “The Flying Dutchman”, for the incredible number of kilometres he can walk in a day, puts the debate to rest. Paap has returned to the Camino for a fourth time and hopes to walk from his home in the Netherlands next time he returns. “There is no us vs. them,” he said. “Be glad someone can make the Camino. For me, everyone is a pilgrim. It has nothing to do with how many days, or how many kilometers you walk. It’s the same compostela, the same feeling.”
Britt and I eventually caught up with Sheridan Lister, 52, Paul Maine, 61 and Lucas Acevedo, 32. They would soon become my little Camino family after Britt parted ways to continue on to Santiago de Compostela.
Lister and Maine, a married couple from Australia were hiking the Camino for sport, leisure and for a little clarity. Lister explained there was going to be a change in family dynamics that she was using her Camino to adjust to. Maine on the other hand was the “happy retiree” according to Lister, as she rolled her eyes and smiled.
Acevedo had met the couple many days earlier while hiking and had run into them many times since. Before heading to Spain, Acevedo, an unemployed cook had sold and/or donated nearly everything he owned back home. The only things he had to his name were the items in his 50L backpack. After he finished the Camino, Acevedo was planning on travelling to Barcelona to see if he could find a job and home and settle there. About a week before finishing his hike, Acevedo received a call from a friend who had just moved to Barcelona and found an apartment for two; he asked Acevedo if he would like to live with him.
And they say the Camino provides.
I could see our next destination, Arzua in the horizons. Arzua, being one of the bigger towns along the Camino is immediately discernible by its difference in appearance. The smaller towns are fitted with quaint cobblestone and tiny houses that line the streets with red, shingled roofs. Arzua looked like your average city with storefront shops and concrete sidewalk lining the streets. We all agreed to continue past Arzua to an albergue in Salceda.
That night, and as I soon learned occurred almost every night featured cerveza’s being poured and vino being sipped around a large table in an albergue or at a nearby café. Groups of pilgrims sit around, laugh and enjoy each other’s company. Prior to my first evening, I was told a big topic of conversation was toes. I can now confirm this to be true, mid-meal, anyone of us can prop our feet on the table and take a look at today’s fresh blisters. Somewhere, someone is offering up his or her Compeed (a thick bandage for blisters).
It was at these dinners, laughing at the shenanigans of the bar owner or discussing the plans for the following day, that I truly felt a part of the Camino community. Very quickly, I was wrapped up in the stories of the people I met, and the kindness and generosity they offered in simple things like offering up their Voltaren for my aching knees and buying my morning café con leche (coffee).
On the second day after a much shorter day of hiking, we arrived at an albergue at around 1:00 p.m. The night before, we got a room with four bunk beds, your typical hostel environment. That night however, we stayed in a more interesting environment and definitely one I had never experienced before. I was ushered down the hallway before I could ask what my room number was; maybe it was “first come first serve,” I thought to myself. As I walked through the door, I was greeted with about 20 bunk beds scattered around a very large room. I asked someone already settled on their bed, the best choice in a room like this, “stay away from the doors and bathrooms,” they said. In a room of 40 people, privacy was non-existent; neither was escaping the sounds of whoever was snoring in the night.
Community plays an important role in the Camino. Online or in-person, news is always travelling. You get to know a person even before you meet them through word of mouth. On the Camino, a person brings with them their story of maybe what brought them to the Camino but as they go, they collect the stories of the people they meet and then those stories join the countless others that have told along on the Camino.
On our third day, the combined excitement and dread of arriving in Santiago de Compostela was palpable. After two days of consistent rainfall, the sky had opened up and bright daylight welcomed us into the city, as we walked the last 10 kilometres. Lister made an incredible sentiment as we walked to the main square, “It would be nice if life were as simple as it is on the Camino.”
It was true, within the three short days of being on the Camino, I had found a routine I quite enjoyed and felt a purpose I didn’t know before.
That night, a group was gathered around numerous bottles of wine and plates upon plates of traditional Galician food. Everyone I had met along the Camino sat around, ate, laughed and rejoiced in receiving their compostela’s. The Camino had provided me with the opportunity to meet these amazing people.
The last 100k of the Camino Frances are busy and thriving. After having met the people, and hiked the kilometres, I have fallen in love with a community that stretches far beyond the Camino, people that can be found on all corners of the planet. Someone perhaps wearing a small token from his or her journey like a small bracelet with a blue and yellow clamshell.