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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.