By Kate Bartlett
Sign along the path of the Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain (Pinterest)
I was absolutely ecstatic when I found out I had been accepted to UPEI’s May-mester to Spain. I couldn’t wait to go and experience a different culture and learn all about the history of the Camino de Santiago. We spent several hours in classrooms learning about the historic, cultural, and economic impacts the Camino had on Spain, and then we were lucky enough to walk the trail for three days. I loved those three days because I met so many new, friendly people from all over the world and was able to hear some of their stories. In class, we learned that statistically, a greater number of people (48%) walk the Camino for religious reasons than those who walk it for religious and cultural (44%) or solely cultural (8%). Within those categories, however, there are hundreds of different reasons why Camino walkers make the trek.
I met one man from Australia who was eighteen years old and travelling alone. I asked what made him want to walk the Camino and he shrugged his shoulders and said, “I just really like going for walks.” He spoke enthusiastically about the camaraderie of the pilgrims, how he would meet some people and walk with them for a few hours, or he’d spend a number of days walking with others. He really enjoyed getting to know different people along the way and how open people were to each other, whether it was sharing stories from their lives or sharing their now-precious band-aids made especially for blisters.
I met another middle-aged man from British Columbia who was walking with a woman from Egypt. They had become friends the week before and had kept pace with each other since then. After speaking for a little while, he handed me a double-sided piece of paper on which he had written a reflection titled, “How to Get to Heaven from El Camino de Santiago.” He had written that people must accept God into their hearts and acknowledge that they are incapable of leading a perfect Christian life, but only by his grace may we ascend to heaven. He ended with the bible verse, Psalms 84:5: “Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.” He had clearly chosen to make the pilgrimage out of religious reasons; he wanted to become closer to God so that he may go to heaven. I never saw him again, but I like to think that after weeks of walking, reflecting, and praying, he accomplished his goal of being more open to God.
My grandparents walked 230 kilometres of the Camino de Santiago about seven years ago and I asked them why they chose to do it. My grandmother said they had been to Spain before and had loved the people and culture. They had also read James A. Michener’s Iberia: Spanish Travels and Reflections, so they had a sense of the historical significance of the trail. My grandparents are religious people, both working and volunteering at the basilica in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and they wanted to take a break from their hectic lives. My grandmother explained that they wanted to walk the Camino mostly out of cultural reasons, but in the end, they both found the experience to be spiritual and cultural. While on the trail, she loved the solo reflection as they often walked alone, and she was able to “step off the treadmill of work and worry.”
My grandparents like to say they met their own Saint James along the Camino. My grandmother says she met hers when a Chinese woman she had just met gave her a warm sweater after being soaked through from rain and sleet on the climb at O Cebreiro. My grandfather says he met Saint James when he left his camera at a village, and when he returned, the shopkeeper ran out and handed it to him. They remember attending mass at the Cathedral of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela and praying to Saint James, feeling like they belonged. Along with their credencias, my grandparents brought home with them feelings of accomplishment, satisfaction, and peace.
I also really enjoyed walking the Camino and taking a break from my own busy life. While going to school, playing sports, working, and seeing friends, I don’t make an effort to find time for myself. Walking alone allowed me to breathe the fresh air and be with my thoughts; it was a really nice meditative experience. It was refreshing to not always feel like I had to be distracted by my phone or a book or an activity. On the other side, meeting new people was really nice, whether it was just sharing the expression, “Buen Camino!” or walking with them for a while. I felt a strong sense of community along the trail, making me feel like I was welcome.
On top of that, the landscape was gorgeous too; we walked through forests, fields, and villages and were able to properly take it all in instead of whizzing by in a car. After each day I felt a sense of accomplishment from both the exercise and being lucky enough to see the beautiful environment.
Walking into Obradoiro square and seeing the cathedral and all the pilgrims at the end of their 800 kilometre journey was such a rewarding way to finish our three-day hike. Seeing their smiles and fist pumps walking into the square was so uplifting; their joy was contagious. People were taking pictures with their walking sticks raised and arms around each with an air of triumph while the feeling of pride and accomplishment filled the square. The Camino brings people together of all different ages, races, countries, and cultures for a physically and mentally challenging experience. Some find the spiritual meaning they had set out for, while others take in Spain’s colourful culture and environment. Their journey along the Camino de Santiago stemmed from different reasons, but they all have one thing in common: they won’t be needing their photos to remind them of those moments.