Before coming to India, I was traveling for a month in Spain, walking the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage to the cathedral of Santiago, where the apostle Saint James is said to be buried. Nowadays, people walk the Camino for a range of reasons including the traditional Catholic. Everyone I met was walking for a different, personal reason, but many fell into similar and overlapping categories of health, spirituality, personal journey, and cultural experience.
Many of us on the Camino were far from home, but the shared intention of being there was this thread that bound us all together, beyond language barriers and cultural differences. The Camino has its own culture and so we shared that. There were lots of people who were alone, but we were together.
The most popular part of the pilgrimage to walk is the Camino Frances, from St. Jean Pied de Port, France to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Traditionally, people walked from their house. Although that is less common now, people do still start from their own doorway. There are many places people start the Camino besides St. Jean Pied de Port (as well as many places to end it- there is a walk to Finisterre, the coast of Spain and through Portugual, the Camino Portugués as well). I have been told there are fewer way markers- which are yellow arrows and scallop shells- before the Camino Frances.
Part of the fun of the Camino is hearing about the different ways people have done their journey. I heard of a woman walking alone, starting in Switzerland, with only a compass to guide her (there are fewer albergues too when you start from that far). I met several people who walked 1000 kilometers by the time they reached St. Jean Pied de Port, where I was starting.
At the first albergue I stayed in, which are essentially hostels for pilgrims, our French hospitalera described it something like this: The Camino is not about walking. Walking helps you do the camino, but the camino is an inner camino, when you walk inside yourself.
That idea worked for me. That idea kind of became my compass. Walk inside myself. It guided me to have my own camino, which was entirely different than the one I had planned, which you can hear more about in future posts.
A lot of the time, I think tourists witness a watered down version of the culture. What I like about the Camino, is that we were engaging with and perpetuating this function of their culture. There were cities formed along the Camino specifically because the pilgrims walk through it, so the sidewalks as old as the city itself, would have the scallop shell built into the infrastructure. We did not get strange looks, though we often deserved them and laughed at ourselves for the ways we would situate ourselves in public places, because pilgrims are normal parts of the sidewalk ballet in these cities. People tend to acknowledge the journey pilgrims are on and celebrate them in moving forward.
Some towns were barely towns and were just there for the Camino and did not really have a culture of their own. My friend and I decided that in Spain, in order to be dubbed a town, all you need is a bar, a church, and a house. There’s the town. Along the more barren parts of the walk, there were quite a few like that with albergues for pilgrims to stay in. Those were kind of sad to walk through.
Pace plays a huge role in the Camino experience. In the morning, my friend and I would always laugh because people within one minute of waking up at 5 am would have their bags packed and be out the door by 5:01, while she and I would be rubbing our eyes awake and talking about the dreams we were having. A lot of times people rush in the morning to make sure they have a bed to sleep on at night, and that’s why people will walk fast to try and get to a town before 2 PM at least.
My walking partner and I got into a good routine of calling ahead and reserving space and then meandering our way to the albergue, picking cherries and other edible plants along the side of the road for hours, and then getting to what would be a full albergue.
The thing about pace though, is that there are walking rhythms that keep you with certain friends you’ve made that maybe walk faster or slower. When I took two days rest, I did not see the friends I had made while walking in any of the towns I stopped in. When you meet someone you like on the Camino, you kind of come into the friendship with this understanding that you will have to let them go. You know that day when you walk they may end up in a different town, and therefore a different walking rhythm that sets you apart for the rest of your Camino. Sometimes you see them again, sometimes you don’t, and so you just come into the friendship understanding that. The great thing about meeting someone in the beginning and then running into them again in the middle and end is that when you first met, you both were different people, and when you meet again, you can get to know them in a different way. It is really beautiful the way people get to know each other on the Camino. The people you are with do not necessarily hold you to be a certain way or take it personally if you act differently than that, and you won’t see them at home again later. It is kind of hard to describe, but you just act exactly as you are all the time, because there is no reason to not be.
There is more to be said later about the Camino, so look for future posts.