El Camino de Santiago: The People

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When I first felt this itch inside to walk El Camino de Santiago, one of the biggest reasons I wanted to embark on the journey was for the people. All the pilgrims I knew who had come before me told me that the friends you make and the deep bonds you create with the walkers around you—from all walks of life—were incredible. Surprise surprise, they were right. I didn’t know what exactly the social landscape would look like, but I knew I was starved to learn from and be influenced by other cultures. What would my fellow pilgrims and I talk about? Would they speak English? What if I say something wildly inappropriate for their culture? Like I learned to do many times over on the Camino, I hung up my fears and left them behind, along with extra clothing items—they were just too heavy to carry.

In today’s post, I outline some of the relationships I made and share what it means to be part of the pilgrim community, the Camino Family. I hope you enjoy it! If you missed the first post in this series, where I explain exactly what El Camino de Santiago is and why I walked it, you can click here.

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Shared Suffering

Before I left for my pilgrimage, people told me that the heart of the Camino is the people. So naturally, the second Sam and I arrived in St. Jean Pied de Port I expected us to have instant friends. I would look around and spot someone with a backpack, whispering to Sam, “Pilgrim! We should talk to her.” After a while, I felt like we still hadn’t gained any social capital, and I began to wonder if Sam and I were at a disadvantage traveling together; most people walked the Camino alone, which lent itself better to walking with strangers. I became nervous—What if we never make any friends? But you should know…it was only Day 2 of the walk. Sam reminded me that we still had 31 days to go. Give it time.

Of course, he was right. We gave it about as much time as it took for the pain and fatigue of the Camino to finally kick in, with the ache of our legs and feet accosting us suddenly around Day 3. It didn’t take us much longer to realize that the true binding factor of the Camino, beyond the common goal of Santiago, was the shared suffering. No matter where you were from, what language you spoke, or why you were walking the Camino, we all hurt. Some of us ached with open wounds from our pasts, those which brought us to Spain to find healing along the Camino in the first place. Others of us agonized more literally over the intense pain that riddled our legs and backs and the blisters that spotted our feet. This shared suffering brought Sam and I closer together, and more importantly, it bonded us tightly with the pilgrims around us, allowing us to communicate even when language failed. I would say that I wish no one had to feel pain on the Camino, but that would be a lie. Even when I was miserable during the first week and started to question why exactly I decided to do this walk (How many more miles of this?!), I constantly reminded myself that I was there to suffer. The Camino was supposed to be a challenge—if I just wanted a stroll in the park, I would have done it back in the States. What I didn’t know was that this suffering was the price I had to pay to unlock the deep human connection I found along the way. I would pay it a thousand times over.

Spanish meseta, wheat fields, hiking, Spanish countryside, Camino Frances
The Meseta

Passing the Time

One of the greatest benefits of walking with people along the Camino was how fast it would make the time pass. This is a picture of the Meseta, what people despairingly referred to as the middle leg of the Camino, where there was no shade, few places for water, and nothing but endless wheat fields to keep us company. There was one day of the journey that all the pilgrims had been talking about beforehand where we had to walk 12 kilometers through the Meseta with no amenities. This was the farthest we’d have to walk on the entire Camino without bathrooms, food, or water—oh, and did I mention there would be no shade? Early into that dreaded walk through the fields, Sam and I ran into two women whom we had occasionally chatted with earlier in our journey. As we passed wheat field after wheat field and endured the hot sun, the four of us discussed everything from learning Spanish, to what shoes we bought, to the Women’s World Cup. Before long, one of us looked up and spotted a café on the horizon. Not only had we survived the barren 12 kilometers, we had done it with ease—all thanks to new friends and vibrant conversation (oh, and that whole suffering thing).

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We often stopped at cafes like this one to take a break and chat with fellow pilgrims.
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This smoothie was made by the funniest Cuban man, who serenaded all of us while we basked in the sun at this cute cafe.

The Interesting Folk

When it comes to people, one of the highlights for me was the “wild people”. You know the type. Even the Camino had them… There were two separate women that fit this category, and Sam and I continued to run into them at various points in the journey. The first woman we met was an American from New York. She was in her 40s, was walking her third Camino, and had a shell tattoo on her ankle to prove it. I won’t go into detail on the blog because I like to keep Graceful Rags rated PG, but I’ll tell you this: This woman decided to go on a hostel Tinder date in Spain…and then tell everyone about it. Can you get crazier more adventurous than that?!

The other woman was a hoot from Romania. She always said exactly what she was thinking and took whatever she wanted, including food off your plate, without asking. She would jokingly tell people about her boyfriend back home and how he was no good for her, and that all the male pilgrims on the Camino wanted to be with her. She once tried to pass as the sister of our best Camino friend (someone we still talk with today) in order to be able to stay in the hostel that night. Needless to say, both of these women made the walk a lot more interesting. I can’t tell you how many conversations started with, “Do you know [insert name here]?!” or “Have you met [so-and-so] yet?!” I loved nothing more than sharing a Spanish tortilla at a little café and hearing other people’s crazy stories about what these women had said or done.

Spanish travels, Spain travel guide, camino frances
We met a French Canadian man who told us to snuggle up and kiss while we were taking this photo. Sam and I quickly told him that we’re siblings… From then on he referred to us as “not lovers”. We wished he would have picked a different word! Ha.
Spain, romanesque church, Camino Frances, Camino de Santiago
Another beautiful church
Camino lifestyle, pilgrimage, hostels, communal dinner
The French woman in the bottom right-hand corner!

Communal Dinners

Another highlight of the Camino was communal dinners. Some hostels offered a seven o’clock meal with your stay, where you would sit with your fellow pilgrims and share dinner together. Not only were these fresh, homecooked meals the best I had eaten on the Camino, but the company was even better. In the picture above, Sam and I sat at the end of the table with other Americans. We were chit-chatting away, but it became clear that the woman on the very end with the dark hair wasn’t participating at all in the conversation. Sam, with his heart of gold, mustered up his best Spanish to try and include her in the conversation. Surprising to all of us, she quickly returned Sam’s comment with something in French and then let out an adorable chuckle. Sam had done his best, but none of us knew a lick of French.

The next day, Sam and I had another communal dinner at a hostel with many of the same people, including the French woman. We were sharing stores from the day’s journey (and stories about the two wild women) with our American friends, and the French woman sat opposite of me at the table. As Sam chatted with the others, I longingly looked at the bowl of bread, which only had one piece left at this point. Of course I didn’t want to be that person who takes the last piece. I waited for my moment to strike, and while Sam was distracting the others, I quickly reached for the bread. Victorious, I started to subtly eat the slice… And as I bit into it, I just happened to look in the direction of the French woman, only to notice the whites of her eyes staring back at me—she had seen me! She had seen the whole thing! We briefly looked at each other wide-eyed, not knowing what the other would do next. Then, the French woman let out a silent, uncontrollable giggle. And we laughed together. I never spoke a single word to her on the entire walk, but I knew to the core that the French woman and I had a special bond. That’s the magic of the Camino.

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How ADORABLE are these donkeys??
Spanish hospitality, Camino Frances
“The key to the essence [of life] is presence.” There were lots of stops like this one along the Camino, where Spanish citizens would offer food and water by donation. This is just one example showing how kind the Spanish people were and how supportive they were of pilgrims.
pilgrimage, Spanish travels, friends, Astorga
This is my friend Victor, whom I actually met during my freshman year of college through our intramural soccer team. He plays a very special part in my Camino story, which I will be talking more about in the next post of this series!

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Sam

I can’t talk about people on the Camino and not mention my older brother Sam. Whenever fellow pilgrims found out we were siblings, the most common response was, “I could never do this with my brother/sister!” Usually people also added something funny along the lines of, “One of us wouldn’t survive the journey,” or “I’d have to kill her before reaching Santiago.” I would be lying if I said I didn’t also have these feelings about Sam during the Camino. Most notable was the second night, when we went to take our showers after a long day, only to realize that Sam had left our shampoo and soap at the previous night’s hostel. I was livid—he hadn’t even lasted ONE night before forgetting something! You bet that I haven’t lived it down since—and nor has my family. Even my grandpa makes jokes about the infamous shampoo.

Despite having moments when we wanted to rip each other’s heads off (thank goodness for showers and siestas—our only alone time), there’s nobody I would have rather walked the Camino with than Sam. He guided me through the toughest days and constantly inspired me with his selflessness. He often made jokes saying loudly and aggressively, “I carry this team!” but it’s absolutely true. Sam carried our team, and I never would have been able to finish, or even start, the Camino without him.

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Sarria

Sarria is the town where most pilgrims stay six days out from Santiago. It also happens to be the last place you can start walking the Camino in order to receive a Compostela (you must walk 100 kilometers). As we got closer and closer to Sarria, people warned us of the influx of new pilgrims that would be crowding the pathway. Many of these pilgrims came on tour buses without backpacks, and the buses would bring them lunches and snacks throughout the day. It was hard to reserve judgment on these pilgrims who were only just starting and, upsettingly, were not very considerate on the trails (pushing us aside, not saying Buen Camino, singing loudly and obnoxiously). Sam and I were pretty frustrated the night we arrived in Sarria. However, late into the evening as we were eating dinner with our Italian friends, an Irish woman entered the hostel for the night. We invited her to our table and fed her, finding out that she had just started her Camino that day. I spent the night chatting with her and enjoying her fabulous Irish accent. She wasn’t able to take off a whole month to walk the Camino, so she just had one week to walk to Santiago from Sarria. She was one of the sweetest women, and through meeting and spending time with her, Sam and I learned to appreciate that each person walks his/her own Camino his/her own way, and as annoying as the majority of Sarrians could be, we were not in a place to judge. We thank our Irish friend for reminding us of that.

Galicia, Spain, O'Cebreiro, Camino de Santiago
This was the day we entered Galicia, the final region of the Camino!
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Here are all of the pilgrims waiting in line a the Pilgrim’s Office to finally receive our Compostelas.

The Family Reunion

To finish off today’s post, since I’m already way over word count, I wanted to touch one last time on what it’s like to have a Camino family. Sam and I would always joke that each night on the Camino was like a family reunion—everyone would gather in these tiny towns, many of which still exist only because of pilgrim traffic, and share meals or recount stories from the day. There were some people that Sam and I met very early in our walk, who we never thought we would see again. But somehow, the Camino had a way of always bringing us back together—we had reunited with almost every person we started with by the time we ended our journey. The last few pictures of today’s post are from the plaza outside the Cathedral of Santiago and the Pilgrim’s Office, where we received our Compostelas. Words can’t describe the energy and excitement of pilgrims that was reverberating off the ancient walls in this square. Nothing put a bigger, uncontrollable smile on my face than finishing our 33 day journey with all the friends we had made along the way.

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Sam and I anxiously waiting to receive our certificates! (Featuring Sam’s funny, uneven facial hair)
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Our Camino Family

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I hope you enjoyed today’s post! There’s so much more I didn’t get to tell you, but like I said, this post is already very long. Have a great weekend and remember to stay tuned for my last two Camino posts:

El Camino de Santiago: The Untold Stories

El Camino de Santiago: The Lessons Learned

 

Miles of smiles,

Grace

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