Kindness and Community on the Camino

Kindness and Community on the Camino

They say the Camino brings out the best in people.

I didn’t believe them at first, but it’s true. Becoming a pilgrim means talking to, befriending and helping out others just for the sake of it. Walking the Camino turns individual people from strangers into a community – and a special one, at that.

Where else would you immediately befriend anyone you see wearing a backpack?

Kindness and Community on the Camino

My introduction to the Camino community started with Lydia, a vivacious woman from California. We met at a bus ticket machine within minutes of my arrival at Burgos station, after I’d ridden a coach all the way there from London Victoria (a 27 hour journey, in case you were wondering), and soon enough the two of us were sitting together on the bus to Leon, Lydia explaining everything she’d learnt from walking the Camino for two weeks already.

Thanks to Lydia, I got myself a pilgrim passport at the monastery in Leon, spent the night in my first albergue dorm room, and took my first tentative steps through the city before the sun had risen. And for the next five days she was my guide, cheerfully helping me through all the initial Camino-related hurdles which I didn’t yet understand.

Kindness and Community on the Camino

There were similar acts of immediate inclusiveness within the transient communities of travellers who I encountered throughout my Camino. Sharing tables with strangers at every meal and offering food to whoever was nearby became normal behaviour; noticing when somebody needed a blister plaster and dishing out impromptu backrubs – even massaging people’s aching feet! – was a common occurrence too.

One morning, I walked past a pilgrim using a litter picker to grab old tissues and garbage from the hedgerows. We met a poor stray dog at a rest stop and saw him later that night in Pedrouzo: he’d been adopted by two Spanish girls who planned to take him to a shelter once they reached Santiago.

And thanks to my Spanish crew, I was part of a group who woke each other up in the morning, shared breakfast together, carried communal snacks, paid for rounds of coffees and beers: automatically including every member of the group in every decision.

But now, looking back, I was most overwhelmed by the kindness shown by those pilgrims I never saw.

Kindness and Community on the Camino

The kindness of Camino strangers

You can see the subtle influence of other pilgrims everywhere. Whether it’s in the hastily constructed arrows made from conkers, or the scribbled distances to Santiago on any possible surface, it doesn’t take much walking to realise that the Camino is effectively a communal activity.

Even if you can’t actually see all the participants.

Kindness and Community on the Camino

As pilgrims, we leave messages to each other on a regular basis all along the route. Sometimes they’re written for specific friends we hope to meet again on The Way, or sometimes they’re all-inclusive messages to anyone who wants to read them – but they never fail to make me smile.

No matter how exhausted I get.

Kindness and Community on the Camino

Kindness and Community on the Camino

It’s not just the pilgrims who help each other, of course – far from it. In fact, the kindness of the Spanish locals who encounter you walking and offer their assistance is extraordinary.

Kindness with a Spanish touch

Sometimes it’s the elderly pensioner who immediately grabs your shoulder at a corner crossing and points out the barely visible yellow arrow opposite, enthusiastically saying, “Esa dirección! Así es el Camino!” Or else it’s the yellow arrow painter in Leon, who we bumped into three times while making our way out of the city, and who insisted on discussing our planned route and suggesting good sightseeing spots.

Basically, wearing hiking boots, a backpack and carrying a shell somewhere on your person is basically a passport to good treatment in Spain.

Kindness and Community on the Camino

Throughout my month of walking I was approached by locals on a regular basis, all offering little gestures of solidarity.

Some brandished bunches of grapes from their gardens, others held up a particularly good walking stick or a fresh pancake on a china plate, and one woman insisted on burrowing around in her car to give us fistfuls of figs, just as the first fat drops of an approaching rainstorm began to fall.

Kindness and Community on the Camino

And then there were the ‘donativo’ stands – one of my favourite parts of the entire Camino concept.

These wonderful inventions are dotted along the route and are set up by anyone who feels like providing passing pilgrims with some much needed sustenance.

Kindness and Community on the Camino

The beauty of a donativo is that it could be anything: a box on a stone wall containing oranges and apples; a young man reading under a parasol beside a wooden plank holding lemonade and homemade biscuits; and my personal favourite was a booth in the middle of a dusty field, complete with thermos flasks of hot tea and coffee, a range of nut butters and different breads, and a plate of still warm tortilla.

Kindness and Community on the Camino

Kindness and Community on the Camino

The Spaniard who runs this donativo lives there too, camped out behind a ruined wall and accompanied by two tiny kittens.

Speaking to him and his partner was an eye opening look into the other side of the Camino: the people who are living their lives amongst thousands of foreigners tramping past each year, looking for water and food and a place to sit while they remove their sweaty boots.

Becoming part of the Camino community myself

It took me a while to realise that observing all these good turns from complete strangers should be prompting me to actively give something to others in return: a situation which I hadn’t exactly prepared for.

I noticed that some pilgrims were carrying extra bracelets and talismans, gifting them to those they felt a special connection with. When we passed a busking guitarist and stopped to listen, he finished his song with a flourish and asked us for a little souvenir as payment. I felt so ashamed. Why hadn’t I brought anything to share with people?

So I decided that in lieu of physical gifts, the gesture of sharing conversations, language skills, and kindness would have to do – for this time on the Camino, at least.

Kindness and Community on the Camino

I made a concerted effort to help other pilgrims with their Spanish: talking to bus drivers, booking beds in albergues in person and on the phone, and acting as a mediator between people who wanted to talk to each other but had a language barrier stopping them.

It made me immediately happier to know I was providing something positive which others could use to help them – and when I thought that these gestures have been happening for centuries, it was all the more incredible.

The long term effects of the Camino community

One grey and drizzly afternoon, the route took me alongside a crude wire fence. Tucked into the wires were crosses: some were made quickly with twigs from the path and bound together with string, but others had clearly taken more time to create. I imagined pilgrims actively pausing their walking rhythm, standing still to work on their cross before choosing the perfect spot to display it and continuing on their way.

There were hundreds of these crosses, and each one felt like an individual message of support and solidarity from hundreds of past pilgrims:

“Yep, this is hard going – but you’ve got this. We believe in you.”

Kindness and Community on the Camino

In one way, being on the Camino is like being part of a secret club – you can spot other members a mile off, and there’s always a slight grin of recognition – but on the other hand, the Camino absolutely drove home to me the importance of understanding we’re all in this together. Not just while walking, but in normal life.

I found myself seriously examining how I define community: the act of being compassionate to those around you, wilfully inviting others into your space, making spontaneous decisions that make someone’s life easier.

Kindness and Community on the Camino

And why shouldn’t we be welcoming, inclusive, and kind on a regular basis? Shouldn’t we be making others feel like they’re part of our own communities, even if it’s only for a moment?

On the rocks of Finisterre at the Camino’s end, I looked around at the individual pilgrims sitting around me. Most of them were separate and I didn’t know their stories, but I didn’t need to. We’d all made the same journey to reach that spot, and we were all one community regardless.

And looking at what’s going on in the world right now, I think it’s more important than ever to remember that.

Kindness and Community on the Camino

Kindness and Community on the Camino

Have you ever felt this sense of community on your travels? Is it the same on other famous hiking routes? 

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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20 Responses to Kindness and Community on the Camino

  1. Sharon January 7, 2016 at 9:46 am #

    This is the best post I’ve ever seen about the Camino. Many capture the logistics, but few convey the spirit. My daughter and my dearest friend have both done it and I hope to someday as well. Nicely done, Flora!

    • Flora January 11, 2016 at 11:25 am #

      Thank you so much Sharon! I’m so glad you enjoyed the article – hopefully your experience will be just as wonderful when you eventually set out :)

  2. Punita Malhotra January 7, 2016 at 12:53 pm #

    Interesting point about the community feeling…I guess its all about having a common goal and purpose…the Fellowship of the Camino!

    • Flora January 11, 2016 at 11:47 am #

      There’s something magically simple about sharing that one common goal throughout the walk, Punita!

  3. Laura January 7, 2016 at 1:46 pm #

    Thank you Flora, this post just made my day! It’s so lovely to see all of the comraderie amongst strangers x

    • Flora January 11, 2016 at 12:25 pm #

      Aww so glad you enjoyed it Laura!

  4. Maura January 7, 2016 at 4:06 pm #

    I love your post, I agree with Sharon that you captured the spirit of the trail with your writing and photos. I would love to walk that famous path if I knew more Spanish.

    I have encountered the kindness of people so often on my travels: the clerk in the petrol station who brought me a cup of coffee while I was waiting for a tow truck — the tow truck driver, who followed me twenty miles to my bed and breakfast (40 miles out of his way) to make sure I got there safely, and the bed and breakfast owner who offered to drive me to historic sites because my car continued to have mechanical problems. I am always surprised at how thoughtful strangers can be.

    I will be hiking portions of the South West Coastal Path in Cornwall this spring. I have heard there is a often camaraderie on these British trails, and I will be looking for signs of community along the way.

    Thanks, Flora!

    • Flora January 11, 2016 at 12:31 pm #

      That path in Cornwall sounds like a fantastic place to walk, Maura – I’m keeping an eye out for different trails I’d like to attempt too so I’ll put it on my list as well :) And please don’t think you can only walk the Camino if you have Spanish speaking skills! It’s completely doable without – I just found myself having a different experience to other walkers by dint of my language abilities :p

  5. Andrea Anastasiou January 7, 2016 at 4:42 pm #

    Flora, I just wanted to say this is beautiful. Certain things that I went through last year really tested my faith in people; I found myself questioning whether there’s more ‘bad’ than ‘ good’ in the world, which I guess is natural when your faith is being pushed to its limits. Reading stories like these reminds me that there’s good everywhere, and we don’t really have to look that hard to find it. Thank you for sharing.

    • Flora January 11, 2016 at 12:38 pm #

      Thank you so much Andrea :) I totally know the feeling: I’ve faced up to a lot of bad situations recently, all of which have chipped away at my confidence in people and the world in general. The Camino was a breath of happily different air!

  6. Kara Freedman January 7, 2016 at 5:46 pm #

    I’ve hiked (very) short ports of the Appalachian Trail on the east coast of the US, and there seems to be a very similar feel there with “AT angels” and most people picking up trail names on the way. It seems like a great community as well. I’ve also experienced something like that on the W in Torres del Paine – just a 5 day hike, but you get to know the other hikers on the way and there’s definitely a sense of community there. In fact the community is so much of why I think many hikers do these long trails! Great post.

    • Flora January 11, 2016 at 12:51 pm #

      I’ve had increasing desires to hike parts of the Appalachian & the PCT after doing the Camino, Kara – so glad the vibe is similar there :)

  7. Joy The Explorer January 11, 2016 at 2:58 am #

    This is such a lovely post, Flora. Your Camino posts are so inspiring, it makes me think I should do it! But Spain is so far from the Philippines and I probably have to save some more.

    Although I have no plans of doing the Camino in the near future, I totally see how this can be a life-changing experience. The travel community is composed of open-minded, fun-loving, kind people and I’m pretty sure that pilgrims take those qualities to a different level. I’ve climbed a mountain once and it was difficult but fun. And in my previous travels, I learned that the people you’re with and the people you meet along the way largely influences how your trip unfolds.

    • Flora January 11, 2016 at 1:06 pm #

      I completely agree that the people you travel with are a huge part of creating your experiences, Joy – glad you feel the same way :) I hope you manage to walk the Camino at some point as I think you’d really love it!

  8. Amanda | Chasing My Sunshine January 11, 2016 at 8:37 pm #

    I travel for what I thought was community. Or at least social interactions with people and learning their ways of life. But reading this post just feels magical. I’ve been considering the Camino, but this is such a beautiful experience. The way you tell the story of these people inspires me so, so much. And why the heck don’t we treat each other this way in everyday life? I’ll make it a point to try harder to do so. Thank you. :)

    • Flora January 28, 2016 at 5:50 pm #

      I really wish more people did behave like this in regular life, Amanda – but the beautiful thing is that once you’ve experienced something like the Camino, you start to notice all the tiny kindnesses that happen around you :) Or I do, anyway!

  9. Paulo January 13, 2016 at 1:17 am #

    I was reading the other comments on Gigi’s travel blog about her Colombiam post and saw yours with a note at the bottom leading to this post. I’ve done the entire Camino Frances between May and June 2015. Even though I cycled, I also felt the same sense of community and made friends who I’ve have never seen again, but am still in touch today. In fact I liked it so much that, if I am able to get the time off this year, I am planning to cycle all the way to Rome (Via Francigena).
    I wrote (and still am writing) about my experiences on the Camino in my own blog:
    http://eyecycled.com/blog/en_GB/index-pages/camino-de-santiago/

    • Flora January 28, 2016 at 5:52 pm #

      Wonderful stuff, Paulo! I’ll definitely give your site a read – I ended up growing really fascinated with how the experiences of the Camino cyclists differed to that of us walkers :)

  10. quintonwall (@quintonwall) May 15, 2016 at 9:15 am #

    Great post. Thanks for sharing.

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