Facing El Camino

The force of the El Camino experience is so powerful, it did what no other experience has done…it left me without words.

Sites about hiking warn of post long-hike depression, brought on not only from the lack of endorphins that were previously running through my system as I hiked every day, but because of the frustration arising from trying to recount my experience. People who ask “How was it?” tend to want a one to two sentence answer; I want to paint a Sistine chapel about it.

Jiab has already done a wonderful job describing the sights and sounds of El Camino. I could not add anything more.

I will say that I entered the adventure with one particular goal. Owing to being a continent away from most of my family, friends, and editors (not that they don’t overlap), most of my human interfacing is anything but face to face. It’s all electronic, hearing voices, reading text, sharing emojis and memes. If Ralph Waldo Emerson were alive today, he would not call these things communication, but apologies for communication

I therefore resolved that, as much as possible, every human interaction while on El Camino would be face to face. No checking email, no messaging or memeing on social media. Every interaction would be in real time, in real space, so that I could not help but take in the beauty and subtlety of human communication.

I wanted to make it impossible to deny and feel the common humanity with my partners in communication.

It was breathtaking, like a person who has only eaten processed, tasteless foodstuff getting fresh food, just harvested and full of Earth’s intended flavors.

So, I present to you (with some gentle groupings and explanations for context), just a few of the greatest sites I saw on El Camino: beautiful faces revealing incredible souls, from over 15 countries, each with a story.

I had the honor to meet each person, to listen to their story without any electronic filtering. I cannot express my gratitude to each one for letting me get acquainted with them. Getting to know them face to face, I know that what I came to learn of and from each person will now be a part of my story that I will carry forward. I am better for having the good fortune and coincidence to have our trails cross.

P.S. If I had to add my own Emerson-like summary of human interaction on El Camino, it was, as Jiab quoted my own words back to me, “There are no assholes on El Camino.” Emerson would have probably expressed it better.

1.The inspirers

Ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Everyone is an inspiration on El Camino, and yet even here one meets people whose uphill is a little steeper than others, and yet they push on.

This Korean woman lost both her Camino passport (to be a certified pilgrim) and her REAL Korean passport. Most of us would take this as a sign to give up, but she traveled to Madrid, renewed them both, and then came back to finish.

This Irish man and his wife started well, but his wife sustained a knee injury. Undaunted, he continued to walk each day, and then she’d hire a car to get to wherever he stopped. Here he is waiting for his wife.
He stuttered, he was awkward, he had a strange gait to his walk. Yet this Spaniard found his expression by photographing El Camino, slowly, but he was going to get there.

2. The lovers of life…and laughter

No joke, no meme, no clever wordplay on the internet matches looking into the eyes of another human and sharing a laugh, either at the joy or absurdity of life. 

We met so many people with whom we could barely communicate in words, but we all could join in a smile and appreciation of being right here, right now.

What happens when Argentinian family, an Irish civil servant, an Italian retiree who entertains as a clown in hospitals, and a Thai-American couple meet on a pilgrimage road? We walk together, laugh, and do our own version of a Chaucer tale.
Two Italian gentlemen whom we kept meeting, sometimes by hearing “Hey, Americanos!” from behind. They always smiled, gave Jiab endless kisses on her birthday, and taught me some great Italian hand gestures.
In the very early morning, we met a man who barely spoke English. Yet, in the 15 minutes we talked, we discovered he was Israeli/German, we compared German Jewish families, and exchanged Jewish jokes about our noses!

3. The people who faced the challenge as a group.

There is nothing more inspiring than seeing friends and family supporting and working together for the common good. We live in a material world that is sensed, but seeing familial and friendship bonding at its best shows there are greater forces beyond those detectable by the senses.

A mother daughter pair from Canada. The daughter started back in France. The mom took off from her job at the Canadian post office to join her for the final week of hiking.
Two Italian college students. One was going to be a teacher. The other started as an architect major, but dropped out and, not sure what to do, decided to hike EL Camino to figure it out. His friend would not let him do it alone.
A Singaporean family. They had a son who was mentally and physically challenged, so they took it slow, and always were laughing (and eating!). The Father told me he had the family bags sent ahead each day. When I asked about the one large bag they carried, he said, “It’s for the pictures.”

4. The people whom the challenge made into a group.

We come to the trail as Spanish, Italian, Korean, American, and other names, but here we are all simply peregrinos.  Maybe it’s the common goal to finish, or maybe it’s that out here, we are removed from all the distractions that separate us and make us forget that we really are all just walking the same path, on the Camino or off.

There were many Irish, and whenever they met there was the required 20-minute comparisons of their hometowns (whichever side of the Irish border)
We watched this Korean young man (who walked to figure out what he wanted to do post finance degree) and Taiwanese woman (who was getting away from an overly dominant family) accidentally meet at this cafe. Last we saw, they were walking off together, laughing and with her every so often bumping into him.

5. The lone seekers

While many traveled in groups, others came on their own. Whatever their background or obligations back home, they were sure to make time to set themselves apart, if only for a little bit, from whatever worn paths they walked in their everyday lives. They showed how, even while moving, one can get one’s “you are here” bearings about life.

She is an Irish civil servant (HR) who was walking El Camino a second time alone. I don’t know if it was related to her keen interest in empowering women at work, but she was a model of fortitude as we walked together for a day.
A Danish tri-athlete. Super fit, super fast, yet he always took time to slow up and talk with people he inevitably passed, because there should always be time for people.

6. The keepers of the Camino.

The saying is that El Camino takes care of its pilgrims, but it is really all the people who live and work along it that make it not just a trail, but an organic lifeline that thrives as people travel along it.  No matter if we were the first of the day or the last, the natives of El Camino were ready with a smile, encouragement, and when needed a glass of wine, a spare bed, and plenty of band aids.

This gentleman works at his day job, then comes in and keeps up an albergue in a 13th century monastery at night.
This woman, in a tiny village, was dedicated to her shop and her dog. She also was so insistent on telling us what was up the road ahead, she pantomimed and we had to play “bad Spanish charades” until she let us go.
This was our favorite innkeeper. When we came in, tired, he was so accommodating, he showed us a menu for the only restaurant in town, then called it in and had it delivered for us. Jiab discovered that she forgot her iPad at his inn and he drove 30 km to bring it to us the next day!
Our Lady of the Bandaids!
He made a great hamburger, and insisted he pose (same pose) in front of a picture of him walking El Camino years before.

7. Those that came before.

Walking El Camino is life-affirming, and yet one is always reminded of the toll that an undertaking can be, even fatal. People die on El Camino each year, and one passes markers and memorials that are both recent and old. One feels the spirits of fallen comrades passing these markers, with sadness for the demise of someone you never knew, but also strangely reassured by the reminder that the venture is bigger that any one person, moment, or time. One is joining a fellowship that will last beyond one’s life.f

8. Detlef

And then there is always one. Detlef was the first person we met on our pilgrimage, when the three of us were the only occupants of a 50-bed room in a 13th century monastery. He is our age, from Germany, and was also on his first Camino. We co-lamented about the coldness of the enormous room, and Jiab and I lamented that the only other person in this cavernous room snored loudly all through the night. We wished each other well the next morning as he set off earlier than we did.

In another town, Jiab and I arrived at 3:00 and, tired and sore, walked up and down the main street looking for a place to stay, at least until we heard “Why are you still walking about?” It was Detlef, who had arrived earlier and was now having a beer at a street-side café (his tight hiking shoes now replaced by forgiving flip-flops. We ended up staying, again, at the same inn, breakfasting together before we set out separately.

We made our way to Santiago, despite rain on the last two days. Walking from the Cathedral to our residence, we were tired, elated, wet, buoyant; there was really no more room for any emotions…until we passed Detlef in the street. He had arrived well ahead, and was now checking out the city. Germans are not known for demonstrative affection, but the yell, more like a roar, that he emitted as he bear-hugged me, then Jiab, then both of us, put all stereotypes to the lie.

I am from the States; Detlef is from Hamburg. I went through years of schooling, changed professions, wives, and even countries. Detlef started working at 17, has worked for one factory his entire life (and is now a manager), has a marriage decades-long and was making one of his few ventures out of Germany. 

In some ways our lives were not meant to overlap, and yet I feel as if I have a shared soul, a brother of the Camino, in Hamburg. Detlef said he most valued loyalty, in both work and private life. From three face to face encounters over six days, Detlef (and El Camino) has cemented ours, and I hope to meet and walk the same trail with him again.

That’s something humans can do for you that no electronics ever can.

2 thoughts on “Facing El Camino”

    • Thanks. Jiab and I always try to gain positive insight from our experiences. El Camino hands it to you on a silver platter!


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