Day 22: Professional Peregrinos

Day 22 began with the sounds of alarms ringing much too early, rousing me and my companions for our sixth day of walking the Camino de Santiago. This morning, the only thing keeping my aching legs and feet moving was the thought of the much-needed rest day we were to have tomorrow after completing one of our longest hikes yet, from Sarria to Portomarin. We bid farewell to the little city of Sarria that seemed so out of place in the vast Galician countryside and recommenced our journey on the way to Santiago.

Today’s walk was much different from those of previous days. Still in a tranquil and pensive mood from the silent walks of the day before, I was looking forward to more time to enjoy the scenery, smell the flowers, and bask in the gentle sounds of nature along the Camino. I soon realized, however, that this would not be happening. Instead of chirping birds and cowbells, I heard Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Korean words and laughs, as the whole world seemed to be gathering on the roads. Only slightly beyond the 100 km mark from Santiago, dozens of intrepid travelers had joined the Way, planning to cover this minimum distance that must be walked in order for foot pilgrims to receive their compostela, or certificate of completion. Their clean shoes and obvious enthusiasm gave away the newcomers at once, while we, experienced Camino professionals by now, could only focus on how to descend the gradual inclines without aggravating our shin splints and sore knees.

I saw an abundance of energy everywhere on the Camino today; old Russian ladies in bright pink baseball caps danced and sang down the tree-lined road, and cyclists shouted joyous cried of “Buen Camino!” as they whizzed by over the hills. Even the cows being herded across the way to pasture were infected by the spirit of the pilgrims: I was caught in a staring match with a rebellious bovine breaking off from the group, but luckily did not meet the same fate as a German who was charged and had to fight the mooing beast off with his walking stick. This rebel spirit had spread to the DOC group as well, as we figuratively tossed away our itineraries and decided to lunch at a small café rather than our pre-determined rendezvous location!

The lovely weather held long enough for me to reach our destination dry, though I heard a few speedy Huskies had encountered some hail up at the front of the pack. Coming over a hill, the little town of Portomarin rose on the next slope. The name, which had so confused me throughout the day, made perfect sense. Here in the middle of the mountains of Galicia, a huge sparkling reservoir lay at the foot of the town, reflecting the trees and sky as if in a painting.

Later in class, held in our charming wooden bungalow, we discussed Christian pilgrimage in comparison to the Hajj. According to our readings, scholars tend to characterize Christian pilgrimages as highly individualistic, with little to no focus on community, hardship, or ritual, as opposed to the highly structured, risky, and ritualized Hajj of Islam. I compared this to my own experience walking today, and found the energy and culture I have been experiencing did not line up with these descriptions. This made me realize how unique and special the Camino really is as a pilgrimage route, simultaneously similar to and quite different from the Hajj or the other traditional Christian pilgrimages to Rome or Jerusalem. While open to pilgrims and travellers of any nationality or religious affiliation, the Camino still fosters a clear sense of community that is immediately established when displaying the pilgrim’s scallop shell and walking stick. Ritual, while not prescribed by doctrine, plays a major role in the social life and experience of the Camino, with the customary greeting and daily stamps of progress in the Credencial del Peregrino. Additionally, the Camino can be as personal, community-based, religious, or secular as you make it, with motives, methods, and goals that are as varied as the pilgrims themselves. I am walking the Way and imitating the journey that countless pilgrims have walked for centuries upon centuries, but I still have all the means to make this experience uniquely my Camino.

Rose Caplan – Environmental Science