This protest was a stand against the oppressive Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez, a name I recognized but knew little about. Like all the other tourists around me, I took a video and moved on. It wasn’t until I began the Camino that those words and cries for help would ring so loudly.
About five minutes after leaving Leon on my first day of pilgrimage, I can across a
message spray-painted on the wall of an abandoned house: “El Camino real es
internal [The real Camino is internal].”
Seeing this prompted me to be on the lookout for other graffiti messages during the rest
of my Camino. Scrawled on road signs, painted on rocks and road markers, spray-painted
onto walls—they were everywhere.
Most of these were short, encouraging, and vaguely spiritual; intended to bolster
morale or give advice. (For example, “Let the wisdom of uncertainty guide you;” “Your
blisters will heal, but the friends you make will last a lifetime;” or simply “keep going!”
There were a few explicitly religious messages, which increased in frequently as I
approached Santiago. These included specific Bible verses, prayers to St. James, and
advice to “Pray and Chill.” Then there were the more humorous pieces: for example,
“Don’t write on the road signs!” written on a road sign. Finally, there was artwork: the
rarest category, which ranged from a smiley-face spray-painted onto a stop sign to
elaborate murals along the walls. In Sarria, there was a lengthy painting of shells,
silhouetted pilgrims, scenery from the route, and faces of historically-significant
individuals from Camino history. As Sarria is one of the most common starting points for
pilgrims, this piece served to welcome them, impart the history of the Camino, and give
them a sneak preview of the road that awaits them.
Another mural (spotted in a small town near Ambasmestas) consisted of several
stylized figures in a row, painted to look as if they were walking the Camino with us. The
group was led by a traditionally-dressed pilgrim, followed by major gods and goddesses
from other religions. This seemed to be a commentary on how the Camino attracts
pilgrims from all faiths and creeds, and has perhaps transcended its religious roots to
become something more.
The Camino is famous for its “community”—much has been said about the
friendliness and camaraderie that develops between pilgrims as they walk. But graffiti
goes beyond that, and forms a bond between people who have never met and probably
never will. Those who leave these messages behind leave more than words—they leave
advice, spirituality, and, most importantly, a community, that unites pilgrims not just with
the artist/authors, but with each other. The Camino graffiti doesn’t just offer encouragement and insight, but lets us walk up to another pilgrim and start a conversation just by asking
“Did you see that funny graffiti back there”?
Donativos come in all shapes and sizes and can offer anything from food and drink to a place to sleep for the night. On the way from Rabanal to Molinaseca, we passed a donativo that was simply a very small trolley on the side of the dirt path containing juice boxes and muesli bars. There was no one actively tending to the donativo, only signs with directions and inspirational quotes. On the other hand, some very active owners make their donativos their livelihoods. On the road from Hospital de Orbigo to Astorga, we came across a donativo deep in the hills owned by a man named David.
He had lived there for 8 years tending to the donativo attached to his house. It was overflowing with fresh fruits, cakes, cookies, drinks, and peanut butter, which he was very proud to tell all of the Americans.
One of the most elaborate donativos I have seen along the Camino, however, was an entire Albergue funded by the generosity of pilgrims. The Albergue Guacelmo in Rabanal asked for a donation of whatever you could or wanted to give in exchange for clean beds, warm water, and tea and cookies in the evening.
Along the Camino, we’ve been collecting stamps in our pilgrim credential. You can get them at your albergue, at certain cafés, donativos, churches, and other stops along the way. The true purpose of the stamps is to document where you’ve travelled, a form of proof that you walked the distance you’ve claimed to. However, businesses like café bars also offer stamps to pilgrims, likely with the thought in mind that more pilgrims will stop to spend money if a stamp is available. Some people want to get a stamp at every place they pass, while others only want one from places where they’ve truly spent time. The stamps from each stop are unique, and while collectively, they tell a lot about where you’ve been, individually they say a lot about who you met there.
On our third day, I got a red heart stamp with the words “Casa de los Dioses” from a donativo offering plates of fresh cut fruit, bread, and drinks. It was run by a man named Davíd who greeted everyone with a huge smile and insisted people take as much as they want without donating. His skin was the kind of reddish tan people have from day after day in the sun. This served to show how long he’s dedicated himself to the Camino and those who walk it.
His welcoming personality made it easy for pilgrims stopped there to feel a part of this community that he’s created. His stamp is an instant reminder to me of him and his love for the Camino and the people on it.
As I’ve had more and more opportunities to travel, I have become increasingly aware of the stereotypes and connotations that accompany my American heritage. When considering recent political events, it is unsurprising that many members of the global population think the United States is intrinsically linked with our newly elected president: Donald Trump. Indeed, he seems an impossible man to outrun, for even on the Camino his reputation follows us American citizens as relentlessly as our shadow.Of course, the cursory introductions that are almost obligatory on the Camino include the inevitable “So, where are you from?” On many occasions, in response to my cheerful “the United States,” the first words that crossed my interviewer’s lips were “ah, Trump,” frequently accompanied by an understanding little smile. Truly, the subject is almost entirely unavoidable. Even those of us who do not wish to discuss politics with strangers have suffered through at least a few uncomfortable conversations of this nature.While I don’t pretend that the relatively diverse population present on the Camino represents a statistically random sample, I believe that my recent conversations regarding President Trump demonstrate the mistrust and uncertainty felt by many of our global allies. Indeed, not a single person I spoke to expressed any kind of support for Trump or his policies; their sentiments ranged anywhere from general indifference to vehement loathing.I think a conversation I had with an older French woman to be particularly pertinent to this discussion. What was memorable about this interview was not what was said, but what was meant. This woman spoke perhaps ten words of English, and I speak even less French. For this reason, our conversation predominately consisted of smiles and wild hand gestures. Of course, at some point within the duration of the interaction she said the magic word––Trump––accompanied by fervent head shaking and mock gagging noises. Even without words, I was at no loss to how she felt about the new American president.Some Camino-goers expressed their feelings more concisely. A particularly colorful Irish couple spoke of their avid dislike of Trump for over an hour, at one point calling him “a bit cracked.” Indeed, the husband went on to describe a study done by some psychologist who apparently claims that Trump exhibits behavior characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease. While I personally suspect that insatiable narcissism is a more likely cause of the President’s erratic decisions than a degenerative cognitive condition, such a comment goes to show the extent to which many of our international fellows resent Trump. This fact aside, I feel––and I’m sure my classmates would agree––that despite the less than favorable political conditions of the US, we have been treated with friendly respect by practically everyone on the Camino. For me, such a discovery only accentuates the fact that Donald Trump fails to understand a fundamental lesson that is continually reenforced by communal places like the Camino: American citizenship does not guarantee superiority. Individual worth is not dependent upon nationality, race, gender, or religion. As human beings who each possess unique hopes, memories, and beliefs, we must treat each other with the according love and respect. We owe the world that much.
Whether it is a intriguing Knights Templar sword blessing or a Spanish Catholic prayer, we have experienced many rituals throughout our journey as pilgrims. Although the ones I will describe are pertaining to our path from León to Santiago, many of these rituals become more and more common along any path you take.
For example, in Hospital de Orbigo at the parochial pilgrim hostel, the blessing bestowed upon the pilgrims was a combination of a story and a life lesson from a Catholic priest. As we sat in his study, the priest stated that God already knew the reason for everyone’s pilgrimage even if the person herself didn’t know. This is a common Catholic theme, “God always knows what you need.” The tale of a male pilgrim who died recently was key to this story. He was a young walker who started the Camino to strengthen his body, a very sporty motive, and eventually discovered that his reason for walking was to serve the underserved communities. When finished, he became a follower and helper of Mother Teresa. He was the “golden boy” and the picture of a perfect pilgrim from the eyes of the church. Metaphorically, he was “bit by the dog” of faith along the Camino. He died suddenly on a return trip from Calcutta when he participated in the Camino but was hit by a train en route. He became a symbol to this priest of the power of God and the Camino.
Some donativos (shops run on donation) also offered us spiritual pilgrim rituals for protection. Tomás for instance, offers pilgrims a type of performance involving the use of energies, believing some places along the French route rise and intermix with the energy of the earth. He prays to St. Michael, the Archangel, and tells those who are curious enough to enter his decorated little cottage, the tales of miraculous events that happened to people all over the world when they were protected by this saint. They involve car crashes with no injuries, and cures without treatment. His ritual specifically involved circling around us with a sword (symbol of the Knights’ Templar) while chanting in Spanish. Certainly, a different experience than the devotional pilgrim Catholic blessing.
Nonetheless, one of the most historically significant rituals is the Catholic pilgrim blessing after a mass. Interestingly, the perspective of the Catholic Church towards pilgrims went from judgement and penance, in times when walking was seen as punishment for transgressions, to a commercialized venture. Nowadays, mass blessings are open and involve praying the Our Father and a Benediction over those who have the necessary perseverance to walk.
Each blessing is rich in tradition and culture and each serves as part of a placebo effect that, if you let it, will accompany you throughout your journey. Whatever it is that protects us, we, as pilgrims, will gladly accept what we can get.
Five months ago, if you told me I would be backpacking across northern Spain, I wouldn’t have believed you. However, I came across multiple flyers highlighting the Anthropology 301 class and I was immediately intrigued. I came to learn that the Camino is an historically religious walk for Roman Catholic pilgrims who go to push the limits of their mental and physical abilities. The dish of choice on the Camino was anything with pork – and if it wasn’t pork some other type of meat or fish would be involved. How was a vegetarian, Hindu to find her place on the Camino?
After attending a variety of masses, vespers and other religious events I was struck by the similarities between Catholicism and Hinduism. From the ornate figures placed in the front of the Chapel to the same prayers preached every night at mass – a direct similarity to aartis done in temples every night – I came to realize the importance of understanding another religion in order to better understand my own. Throughout my journey on the Camino, I began to be more receptive to the underlying similarities that exist between all human beings. The conversations I was so fortunate to have opened my eyes to the power of devotion and the beauty of faith. The complementary facets of Catholicism and Hinduism that became clear to me as I observed others on the Camino gave me a deeper understanding of what it means to be religious. As I became more comfortable being a Hindu on the Camino, I was still struggling to be a vegetarian – a characteristic preached by Hinduism. Just when I thought I had one too many tortilla Españolas,
I came across a map highlighting all the albergues and restaurants that specialize in vegetarian cuisine – a surprisingly extensive list where I know my only options wouldn’t be a +“bocadillo con queso” or an “ensalada mixta sin atun.”
I came to learn that the Camino has a place for everyone. It cares not about your race, ethnicity, religion, gender or dietary restrictions. The Camino becomes a place, in which even a vegetarian, Hindu, can work her way into Santiago.
“On the Camino, we have a bed to sleep in, food to eat, water to drink, and a path to walk. Everything else is excess.”
(Quotes in this article were collected by the whole Problems without Passports group, Anthropology 301: The Global Performance of Healing. This was medical anthropology class that walked 200 miles across northern Spain to collect healing stories, see previous blogs below).
“It’s the magic of the Camino,” two pilgrims told me, “When you are on the Camino, you leave behind your daily worries. You don’t know what time it is, what date it is. You aren’t planning every minute, every hour of your life. You slow down and you are a new person. You are different. You are better. That’s the magic of the Camino.”
“There are magic people and magic places everywhere, but on the Camino, people have time to be free and share their magic.”
“Miracles happen every day on the Camino,” she declared firmly. “Something comes whenever you need it, whether safety pins or someone whose shoulder you can cry on.” From this truth, she had realized, “whatever happens will happen. I do not have to worry so much about the past or the future.”
“I want to reflect on things in my past in order to move on to the next stage of my life. I want to keep walking the Camino, because I can.”
“There is no prize in Santiago for anyone. What you get at the end of the Camino is your own growth and experience.”
“Some people walk to get away from something. Some people walk to get something. We walk just to walk.”
“There is no prize for first nor last and no clock on the Camino.”
“On the Camino, you have nowhere to hide from yourself.”
“If I can do this, then I can do anything.”
“I like to be unconventional,” he asserted, “I call myself a globetrotter. But I am not a tourist. Tourists go places to see the sights. I go to see more of myself.”
(With PWP we did a bit of reflection, research and seeing the sights.)
“On the Camino, people are so kind, because they are given a chance to be. In daily life, everyone gets tunnel vision and is so stuck in their own routine.”
“Tourists complain; pilgrims say how can I help you.”
“I came to understand and embrace the beauty of life’s unpredictability.”
“In spirituality, you get your energy from what’s around you… the trees, the sun, the people. In religion, you get your energy from God.”
“… a pilgrimage is a physical journey that represents a non-physical goal.” (Following the Yellow Arrow)
“It was my way to reconquer my body.”
“I could not grieve all day, I guess. I was surrounded by Spain, the flowers, the forests, the mountains. Maybe God wanted me to see more.”
“I was feeling that I had been called to do it [walk the Camino], that I needed to do it.” Along the way from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, she had felt stunned by the power of the Camino. “I was completely exposed,” she revealed. “The Camino brings out all of your unresolved conflicts.”
“Things catch up to you on the Camino.”
“I grew stronger, more reflective, more humble, more self-aware, more appreciative than when I began as an adventure-seeking college student.” (Following the Yellow Arrow)
“They can only be that happy because they’ve been through the worst. You meet a lot of people like him here [on the Camino].”
Quips: “Keep going, keep it simple,” “No Spain without Pain.”
“No vino, no Camino.”
“Spirit is kinky.”
“Every Camino is different.”
“The Camino is sacred, because of all the pilgrims who have walked on it before us.”
Along the route there are donation-based stands (donativos) for water, fruit and sometimes trinkets. David calls his stand gratuito (free, no need to donate). David is dedicating his life to serving pilgrims, “con simplicidad y del corazón” (with simplicity and from the heart).
“The Camino gives you what you need, not what you want.”
“The real Camino starts after you leave Santiago.” Buen Camino