When it comes down to it, the Camino is about people. People walk to and from, up and down, but most importantly, in and out of our lives. The Korean man who walks by and gives you a thumbs up, the Briton who says “Buen Camino” through labored breath, the Spaniard who yodels as he bikes past — these are the true notes of flavor to the Camino. What forms the backbone is walking, the dominant mindless trudging through idyllic and stinking dairy country which every pilgrim must endure. However, the high and mid notes of this aromatic cocktail are the moment-to-moment, person-to-person encounters. In León, as we performed our evening crawl through downtown eating numerous and delicious tapas, I bumped into a man from Japan names Daiki. I lived in Japan for several years, so it took less time than a jackrabbit takes to leap off a hot griddle for us to become fast friends. Daiki was beginning the Camino the next morning at six o'clock. We laughed and joked, but we also discussed more serious matters like the state of his beloved home country and how he planned to go back home to his girlfriend and his family. If not for those human elements, like sharing a beer with Daiki over tapas and discussing his hopes and fears, we would simply be plodding along as sheep over hills and streams to a giant stone box. Instead, we build these ephemeral relationships that transcend the boundaries of normal friendship. We are bonded by our journey and our struggle, by our sore feet and our tired eyes. They say in the study abroad safety meetings, “be wary of "instant friends," but there should be an asterisk saying: *except on the Camino.
For me the best parts of the Camino are the quiet moments of reflection that I find as we walk. I breathe in the fresh air in the eucalyptus forests and am alone with my thoughts even as we file past groups on the trail. However, we have also met many other pilgrims on the road and that has provided its own kind of reflection.
One of the most memorable to me was a couple from San Francisco we met at the beginning of the Camino. They were an older couple and they had some interesting views on the experience. They were doing the Camino for religious reasons and they were extremely interested in the history behind it. Talking with them made me realize just how much I cared about this thing that we are doing and how glad I am that I have been able to experience such a historically significant place.
Of course then afterward, the husband told us that he didn't major in history because he wanted to "major in something practical," so that changed the way that I looked at them a little. However, they were the catalyst for a revelation that I am in an amazing place and seeing something truly important.
We had passed her on the way to Palas do Rei on the day before, but that conversation had been limited to the typical inquiries about national origins (she was from Denmark) and the now wearisome wishing of “Buen Camino” before we overtook her. But we saw her pale complexion and strawberry blond hair on the Camino the very next day on the road to Melide, so I decided to greet her once again. The conversation started off slowly, but I eventually learned that Katja Nielsson is a former Danish Army infantrywoman who served a combat tour of duty in Afghanistan and had started the Camino in St. Jean Pied de Port after seeing a TV special during Christmas time about the Camino. I asked her if she had gotten what she had expected from the Camino. She said yes, she knew that it would be just be a whole lot of walking, much like she had done in the military. What she did not expect, though, is how beautiful Spain could be, and also how quickly one could grow numb to beauty if you were always surrounded by it. This gave me pause and made me think of how we look at the world around us. Spain to me was still gorgeous, but that may have been the blisters on my feet telling me that. How long would it take me to grow numb to the Camino around me? Although I did not find the answer, I knew that as I laid my eyes upon the Catedral de Santiago, that the Camino still filled me with joy.
I had this romantic expectation of the Camino being all about me. I was being selfish and only thinking of trying to find myself along the Camino, and have been ignoring the other side of the Camino, meeting people. There are times to be silent and reflect, but it is also important to balance that with time to be social and not remain in solitude the entire way. Some people come into our lives and may quickly go, but they all awaken a new understanding or perspective during the time they share with us.
I met this lovely lady named Cheryl, who came to the Camino with her daughter's youth group. She hoped to spend time with her daughter and take it slow. Her daughter though, believed the Camino was a race. As a result, Cheryl spent much of her time chasing after her daughter and worried that she was wasting her own pilgrimage. She was also disappointed that some French pilgrims accused her group of not being real pilgrims since they were only walking a small portion of the Camino and not staying in albergues. She found this criticism particularly upsetting because she was already pushing her limits. In her frustration she asked me what a real pilgrim is — a question I couldn't fully answer. Everyone has their own opinion on what a real pilgrim is.