Two weeks ago I impulsively posted a list that a few fellow pilgrims and I wrote one afternoon on the Camino. It was about “that” pilgrim — you know, the one who crinkles plastic bags and bangs into people with their pack and doesn’t clean up after themselves in the albergue kitchen.
I posted the link on the American Pilgrims of the Camino Facebook page and asked for suggestions for what to add to the list, and I got ALL KINDS of responses. (Note: if you’re not part of the APOC Facebook group and you have any questions about a Camino trip, stop reading right now and go join. Then come back.)
The post touched some kind of nerve, because overnight it became the most-popular post I’ve ever had on this blog, and it launched dozens of discussions on Facebook.
One comment over there really got my attention. Mike suggested that if I was going to make a list of how NOT to be that pilgrim, we needed a parallel, positive approach. What are the ways to be THAT pilgrim — which I read as the one who not only thrives personally, but makes the experiences of everyone around them better?
What a great idea! Anyone who’s walked the Camino has discovered that the people around you affect your experience as much as anything else, including the weather. But when you’re in the middle of it, and surrounded by beautiful scenery and blistered feet and threatening weather and the steady pressure of moving forward, it’s easy to get tunnel vision and forget that we influence those around us as much as they’re influencing us.
It’s taken a while to write this post mostly because it made me acknowledge something that I need to confess before we go any further:
Most of the time, I was not the pilgrim I’m about to describe
Just because I blog my stories and observations now, from the comfort of home, doesn’t mean that I had some kind of unusually clear perspective when I was in the middle of it. To be honest, a lot of days I wasn’t very good at this. I was caught up in my journey, my aches and pains, my desires and fears, and my own pet peeves.
But there were plenty of people around me who cared for me when I was on the edge, and who were THAT pilgrim for me. I’m lucky enough to be married to one of them. From the day we landed in France to the last night in Finisterre, I often coasted in the jetstream of Eric’s generosity, his joy, and his natural instincts for doing this well.
So here are the things I saw, especially in him.
6 Ways to be THAT Pilgrim
1. Practice acceptance.
This was Eric’s daily mantra, which I’ve written about elsewhere. Instead of complaining to others about the people/showers/menus/schedules that are not ideal, work with what you find and make the best of it. Focus on the things that are good. A positive attitude will spread to the people around you.
“Sometimes I just have to accept what is rather than what should be, and adjust myself, rather than the immovable situation in front of me.”
2. Try to speak to people, especially local residents, in their own languages.
Yes, it’s possible to get by on the Camino with English and some awkward sign language, but the experience is richer if you can reach past the isolation of being an observer.
We were about two weeks into the Le Puy Camino, which I had (ill-advisedly) started without knowing ANY French beyond “The apple is red” (Thanks, Duolingo). I picked up basic Camino words quickly enough, but was terrified to say anything out loud. Ever. My accent was atrocious (okay, still is). Surely people would judge me. (Or more likely, when they didn’t understand me I would judge myself.)
Then one night we met a Canadian named Jack, whose French accent was as bad as mine. But he wielded it fearlessly as he chatted with the bartender, our host, and especially our fellow pilgrims — faces I’d seen every day for weeks, but was too timid to try a conversation. And they responded to his efforts. No one laughed at him. Instead, they told him stories.
If nothing else, learn to say thank you as often as possible, and in as many languages as you can. Gracias. Merci.
3. Share stories with those outside your comfort zone.
I think it would have been easy, as a married couple traveling together, for us to have become isolated, depending on and talking only to one another. But how boring would that have been? We already know one another’s stories. And Eric has never met a person who stayed a stranger for long.
The Camino is not just about the stunning scenery or the thousand years of history. It’s also about the people who come from all over the world to experience it together. I can’t think of a similar opportunity for a shared experience that crosses so many cultures, and provides so much opportunity for conversation.
The people who stand out the most in my Camino memories are the ones who not only shared a meal, but shared their stories. So invite the Danish office worker or the Korean college exchange student to join you for dinner one night, or walk for a while one afternoon with the French retirees. Ask them about their homes, and see where the conversations go. (Remember #1.)
4. Offer to help.
I often tease Eric about being pathologically helpful, but really, it’s a powerful gift to bring to the Camino.
When I think about our first week in France, I always come back to the people who helped us limp along. They would translate for us and make phone calls for us in the remote areas where reservations were important. One guy went two kilometers out of his way to help us find the fromagerie. An entire walking club basically adopted us for a week, tracking us down most evenings to make sure we were cared for. I called them all our Camino angels.
Two months later, we were in a place to return the favors. There was the time in La Faba, sometime after eleven at night, when I felt a movement near my albergue bed. The hospitalera was waking Eric, on the bunk above me. A fellow guest who spoke only French was very sick, she said, and she couldn’t understand him to know what was wrong. She’d heard Eric speaking in French earlier, and asked if he could translate. (He did, of course. It turned out the sick pilgrim was just drunk.)
Be aware of your surroundings. If you see another pilgrim struggling to communicate and you have a smidgen more language skill than they do, try to help them breach the barrier. If you see someone struggling to carry their bag (umm, that was mostly me), offer to share the load. Volunteer to do the dishes after a communal dinner. Share your tube of Voltaren (best European export since the croissant).
5. Make something special for everyone one night.
After a long, rainy, hard climb from Astorga to Rabanal, Eric and our friend Emily stumbled across a couple of oranges in the tiny town market, and an idea was born. An hour later, the smell of hot mulled wine drifted through the donativo albergue, and our fellow travelers drifted toward the kitchen like those cartoon characters who float behind their noses. Weeks later, random people still talked about that night.
On a warm summer night in Ribadiso, a couple of young pilgrims pulled out guitars (how did they carry those?) and sang on the lawn as the sun set. Again, the community of scattered pilgrims drifted toward one another.
They don’t happen every day, but look for opportunities to make those moments.
6. Walk your own pace (and let others do the same).
There were days when we would walk too far (for me), and I would be a hot mess by the time we got to the gite or albergue. Barely waiting until we were checked in, I would stumble off to my bed and curl into a ball of tired, sore, grumpy misery. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I didn’t want to think about anyone else. Needless to say, I was not THAT pilgrim on those days.
As our Camino continued, we learned to slow down and take more breaks, and my body got stronger and better at walking. Things started to be more fun. When we limited our daily distances (for me, that meant keeping it under 30km, but everyone’s pace is different), I had the energy to explore, and to interact with my fellow pilgrims. I had the courage to try the languages, and initiate the conversations, and even do something for someone else every now and then.
Being THAT pilgrim for the people around me, in other words, started by understanding how to care for myself. If I used all of my energy in a race to the future, I had nothing left for the people in the present.
Which brings me back, again, to #1.
But like I said, I’m no expert in this. Camino alumni, what would you add to this list? What were the things that made other pilgrims THAT person for you?