The following stories & interviews illustrate the community of people that keep the Camino alive. They represent those who operate albergues, the clergy who work with people of all faiths (and those with none at all), the characters who live in small villages that time hasn’t touched, pilgrims on the way, and the many others who shape the culture of the Camino de Santiago.
Thomas the Shepherd
I had heard stories of Thomas before we actually met. That often happens on the Camino. People gain a reputation as “The German Couple, The Wheelchair Guy, or The Woman With Flowery Pants.” Thomas was sitting with his back to a few pilgrims drinking coffee while his dog Gus was running around the streets greeting strangers and dodging cars. He was beautiful, simply put. A bright red beard with hair to match. Soft eyes and a poetic way of milling about the world. He had a sketch pad lying in front of him with strange images of clowns and other circus-esque characters.
I sat down across from him and soon learned that he was one of only a handful of shepherds who work and live in the Pyrenees mountains. The next time I found him he was sitting in the courtyard of the abby reading Murakami’s Dance, Dance, Dance. He was born in Castres, France and worked in a hospital there, cleaning the chambers and delivering meals. After a while he was looking for a job that provided time for introspection. “Now I am a slow man,” he told me. For five months out of the year he lives in the Pyrenees with 3,000 sheep and 1 dog.
A helicopter drops wood for the cold nights and he makes a bi-monthly trip to the supermarket to stock up on food. He tried to explain to me how surreal the supermarket appears after having no human contact for so long. “It is just me and the sheep and the sky but then I am surrounded by all of this food and strange light and even stranger music.” It makes you think, “This is human? But I am human too.”
We made plans to get dinner at 7pm but he doesn’t have a phone or a watch so he told me he might be a little late (or early). Over dinner he told me he consumes no media. No news, television, or movies. Just books. He doesn’t know about any wars or local crime. He only knows what is happening in front of him.
Often during an interview I will ask someone to tell me a story. Life on the mountain was really just as simple as Thomas described it, nothing particularly outrageous ever happens. Instead of telling me a story, Thomas decided to describe a “philosophy” he had come up with while spending his time alone.
A chimp asks a child: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
The child responds, "A man."
The chimp begins to laugh and so the boy, annoyed, asks him in return, “Why, what do you want to be?”
The chimp also says, "A man."
When I arrived in Rabanal del Camino I decided to check in at Albergue Guacelmo. The dormitory and gardens are part of the monastery where Father Pius resides. An older German man, Pius came here as a “sort of retirement.” I interviewed him about his thoughts on the Camino and what it’s like to give counsel to people for only one night along their journey.
“What we do here is very humble. You plant a seed and you don’t know if it will grow. That’s the thing about relationships and inspiration on the Camino – because people move forward you don’t know your influence. From Easter until All Saints Day hundreds of pilgrims pass through Rabanal del Camino … About 200 pilgrims stay here overnight in a village of roughly 35 elderly inhabitants … The whole world passes through this place in the middle of nowhere. Pilgrims come from all over. You find Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and people who declare themselves atheists. A good amount of people start off unaware of their intention, but in the days of walking many grow something deeper. It grows out of the daily experience and talking with fellow pilgrims. A Buddhist Zen-Master sent off his disciple with the words: “Go on the Camino and see what the Camino does with you.” That’s it.
The pilgrimage is a chance for our “global village” to meet each other from many countries and cultures that were once considered enemies. They learn to appreciate each other. As they frequently meet, friendships grow across boundaries and offer a new experience of a “living church." Thus the Camino becomes a way to make peace among men for the greater glory of God."
"I have often asked myself what finally makes a hike to become a pilgrimage. Externally there is hardly any difference between the sporty bikers that make their way in the Alps or in the Black Forest and the cycling pilgrims who peddle like mad struggling uphill through the Calle Royal in Rabanal towards the Cruz de Ferro … The athletic ambition to manage 1000 or 2000 km on foot can change even a walk on a holy route into a sportive event like climbing the Kilimanjaro … I am sure that such sporty events have their own emotional moments and even religious feelings of gratitude and adoration–these moments can bring hikers very close to pilgrims. What then constitutes a pilgrim?
A pilgrim has a deeper motive that sets him/her on the road. Frequently not aware of what it is that makes them walk, this reason often surfaces in Rabanal when the pilgrims come and ask us to bless their stones they intend to drop at the foot of the Cruz de Ferro. Last year one particular encounter with a pilgrim touched me deeply. A man in his fifties asked me to bless a crystal stone which contained the ashes of his wife. She had wanted to walk the Camino together with him, but she could not do it as an aggressive cancer prevented her; within a few months she died. The grieving husband had carried her ashes all the way from home and wanted to bury her at this prominent spot. The dropping of a stone, the building of a stone pyramid, or even the singing of a particular song can have the same meaning of letting something go, dropping a heavy burden and leaving it to God … The husband collected a heap of stones and built a stony pyramid over her photo at the Cruz de Ferro, his son carried the mother’s guitar to the cliffs of Finisterre and sang a song for her over the Atlantic …"
"Often it is the steady moving, foot-by-foot, that stamps up hidden wounds left behind by heavy blows in the past–bringing them into clear awareness, and the pilgrim understands that he/she has to let go. There is the revealing phrase in English that we can ‘nurse a grudge’ like a baby. We don’t want to let the grudge go, and this is why nobody can console or help us.
Many are on the way because deep down they feel they are not happy with their life and seek a new orientation. They often experience the healing power of a long walk. Step by step, over hundreds of miles, out of the depth grows the awareness of what it is that makes them unhappy and why they have been looking for a new beginning. This search has brought them on the pilgrimage. When they have understood and are willing to bring their life in order, they too have reached their goal and gained a new freedom.
Others have already had such an experience and set out on the pilgrimage in order to thank God for this grace. There was a middle-aged man last year. He told us that he had found God after many years spent in a non-religious life. From that day on, he did every year at least part of the Camino thanking God for the new purpose in life he had discovered. I think there are many who are walking because they have to say a big ‘Thank you’ to God…
Finally, the vast majority of the pilgrims are on their way carrying some special intention, wish, or petition in their heart. Many carry a little stone for each intention in their backpack – right from their home. These petitions are as diverse as the persons are … Whether they have walked a short or a long distance, they did it to underline and express their dedication.”
Jeanine lives just a few steps from the cathedral in Saugues, France. The outside of her home, brilliantly decorated with tchotchkes to spare, is a delightful contrast to the shades of grey that make up most of the town’s façade. When the cathedral is closed, Jeanine is in charge of stamping the passports of pilgrims.
I stopped in front of her lovely door to take a photograph when she walked outside and invited me in. Her living room is dedicated to the Camino. To the right there is a wall full of photographs of her with pilgrims from all over the world. She pulled out a little baton and began pointing to each one “Russia, Germany, Brazil, Japan…”
To the left there is a shelf full of photography books and other publications documenting the history and geography of the many Camino routes. As I looked around Jeanine grabbed my hand and brought me over to her globe. She handed me a sharpie and asked that I place a dot on the city where I am from. My dot is now the only one representing Florida and the southern United States.
When Jeanine put a stamp in my passport she took the utmost care, even pressing a piece of parchment on the fresh ink to make sure that the excess did not stain the other side.
Before I left she pulled out a book to show me an aerial view of Saugues, which revealed that the city is actually a spiral. Her home, which sits beneath the clock tower, is right in the center.
David & La Casa de los Dioses
The stretch of land on the way to Astorga is particularly unforgiving. There is no food or water throughout the flat desert landscape. Pilgrims almost reach their breaking point when they are covered in sunburns, bed bug bites, and drop their backpacks in the rare spots of shade. In this seemingly endless desert, just before all hope is lost, David saw an opportunity. A few years ago he set out on pilgrimage for nearly 6 months with not a penny to his name. He relied on the generosity of strangers and somehow managed to find food and housing each night as he traveled from Santiago all the way down to Barcelona. After returning home he decided to give back.
He remembered this torturous stretch and purchased an old factory building, converting it into La Casa de los Dioses. Since then he lives there year-round providing pilgrims with free food and shelter. He cooks the food himself and also accepts donations from area supermarkets, townspeople, and fellow pilgrims. As word spread of his generosity businesses began to regularly donate. If a batch of bananas was about to go bad, the supermarket would send someone off to drop them at David’s place.
Pilgrims who walk by are often confused. It takes them a minute to shake off their speculation and exhaustion. David greets everyone with a few lines, “Welcome to Paradise! This is your house.” As pilgrims eye the beautiful array of food stuffs their immediate reaction is: “How much?” His immediate response: “In paradise no price!”
If pilgrims are confused and keep their head down, walking past without saying a word, David will yell from his hammock “Buen Camino! Keep smiling.” As the sun stretches around the old building David slowly moves the large cart full of little food treasures to keep it in the shade. When I told him I was American he immediately pointed out the peanut butter. I sat there for half a day and watched hundreds of pilgrims’ moods turn completely around. At one point an old man from a local village dropped off a freshly made Spanish tortilla. His wife makes something for David’s stand almost every day. David spends his time chatting with pilgrims, reading a magazine, and entertaining people with his positivity. By the end of the day I saw him as everybody’s unexpected life coach. He told me he has always enjoyed service and a simple life. He has no electricity but he lives both in nature and with people. “I don’t want to live far off in the mountains, so here I have everything. Solitude and not.”
Lars & Tine
Last year while walking outside of León I saw a family of four sitting on a single bench huddled in the shade. They looked miserable. I wanted to take their photo but I almost felt it would be insulting so I went on. Later we ended up at the same albergue and quickly became friends. After a long dinner in Santiago and a too quick goodbye we hoped that sometime in the future we would meet again. I traveled to Denmark in 2013 to visit Lars, Tine, and their family.
Lars grew up in a house just outside of Sønderborg, Denmark. Tine grew up across the river in Flensburg, Germany. The two of them met many years ago while at a scouting camp for boys and girls. When I arrived they had just dropped off their youngest son, Maks, at boarding school in northern Denmark. 4 kids and 25 years later this was the first night they would have a home without one of their children. And there I was. They live behind an elementary school so during the day you can hear children screaming and playing ball in the schoolyard. In Denmark children have breaks for 10 minutes every hour to make sure they expend their energy and stay focused in the classroom. To me it felt like they were at recess all day. The weather here is strange. Sunny and still one minute, windy, rainy, and cloudy the next. When I woke up Lars had already taken Tine to work, biked to the baker, and had a fresh loaf with many spreads laid out in welcome to my still-exhausted eyes. We ate breakfast – it is a funny relationship a 24 year old staying with two parents. They have an inherent need to take care. The entire time I was visiting I felt like I was staying with extended family.
After breakfast Lars took me on the same walk he takes with Tine every Friday. Down the road, through the forest, into the harbor, by the beach, around the castle, into the city, past the elementary school, and back home again. European cities feel so much more compact. They make sense. You can cycle anywhere. They feel small. Cozy. Not claustrophobic.
During my stay I interviewed them about their experience on the Camino and how they think it effects those who walk it.
L: You know we had an awful start. The first evening we arrived my daughter had to go to the hospital. She had appendicitis and was operated on the next evening. I couldn’t imagine giving up before we started so I called one of my friends and I asked her to draw a tarot card to decide what the hell we were going to do. She drew a really powerful card that told us to go on walking. I also called the Danish insurance company and luckily it was a Spanish doctor living in Denmark. He understood the importance of walking the Camino perfectly and told us to wait four days. If she has pain, get her to the hospital. If it’s okay, keep on walking. Once again coincidence told us to continue. This was a spiritual journey for me so I was happy to see these encouragements. I think that the Camino has some special power, it’s not a coincidence that it’s right under the milky way. It does something to people when they are walking there.
T: I think it is interesting that the people there, from all over the world, have different reasons for walking but they are all walking one way. The same way. That’s a special thing. I started talking one day with two girls from Germany. They were both very different. One was sporty and the other not-so-sporty. The first was walking and had one hell of a time but for the other it was very hard. We discussed if one should go faster or the other go slower. They realized how important it is to walk at your own pace. Walking together would just make the other person unhappy. A lot of people who come to the Camino, especially those in relationships, learn that this is the only way to make it.
Talitha If you look to the right in this photo you will see Talitha from Germany in that crazy awesome poncho. She is 66, mostly blind, and this is her fifth camino. She has had macular degeneration for 32 years and at this point all she can see are subtle shapes. Yesterday I almost sprained my ankle - actually falling down twice - on the steep mountains and piles of rocks. After a few hours I came upon Talitha miles ahead of me, going slowly, using her walking stick to gain her balance with each step. Not 20 minutes after I arrived in the albergue through mud and small rivers and other potential disasters, Talitha came strolling in like it was nothing. Often when she leaves the albergue with her stick guiding her way people have to do a double take. Maybe she will ask for the directions to town or maybe she will intuitively know the way. One thing I noticed, like in this photo, she is almost always smiling. Yesterday I heard someone ask her why. "Well, people used to think I was being rude because I wouldn't look at them or react when they were speaking to me. So now I smile whenever I hear voices and hope that it's someone I know." While I was eating lunch and writing postcards yesterday Talitha was eating alone and smiling all the while. Today was incredibly tough, 32 kilometers through the rain and mountains but every time I felt like taking a break I just reminded myself that Talitha was somewhere smiling and walking just fine. I met up with her just before entering Villafranca this afternoon - we had never officially met but I already knew so much about her. I pretended I knew nothing and listened to her story first hand. I have been taking portraits of pilgrims every day but I couldn't bring myself to take a formal portrait of her. Photography can show many things but I know her strength is something I could never capture, so this little iPhone snapshot will have to do.
Angel Martinez & El Museo Antolín
While on the Camino I always wonder what it must be like to have hundreds of people walking by your front door every day. For those that live along the route it has to be a strange phenomenon. Some residents take advantage of it and open up small shops with fruit and bread. Others seem to completely ignore it. This man is Angel Martinez. Every day he stands in his doorway in the small town of Villar de Mazarife and waits for pilgrims. When Angel was 65 he retired and renovated his childhood home, converting it into a museum dedicated to his entire life’s work: first as a field hand on his family’s farm and then as a telephone worker, installing and repairing lines. Over the past ten years he has spent all of his savings to find hundreds of old phones and telephone switchboards that are arranged in an intricate fashion throughout the house. There are print advertisements from the 70’s, phone booths, and even a wine cellar beneath the interior courtyard that he dug out himself as a child.
Our tour with Angel lasted almost an hour. We began in the courtyard where there were horseshoes and engine parts nailed to the wall. The barn had been transformed with telephone polls and other telecommunications equipment from floor to ceiling–including a mannequin in a blue jumpsuit repelling down the wall. In one of the bedrooms he stored hundreds of books and Camino memorabilia. When I asked to take his portrait he was giddy with excitement–you could tell that few people take the time to stop into Angel’s memoir museum. Before we left he asked that we sign a giant guestbook and also, if we had the means, to drop a donation into a classic old telephone. My Euros made a satisfying “Ding!” when they fell in.
Jean-Marc & Marie
It was the end of April in 1998. Jean-Marc was living in the south of France and wanted a break from his job at the National Agency for Social Security. He decided to walk from Le Puy to Saint-Jean and onto Santiago, 1,500 kilometers in total. Marie had been working in Paris as an officer in the French Air Force for four years and was tired of the cement and the noise and wanted fresh air. Her mother had decided to walk the Camino Frances and didn’t want to walk alone. Marie joined her in Roncesvalles.
Three days later and Marie “how do you say… I was dead. My body was in pain from my head to my feet. I just wanted to go home because this was not my way, it was my mother’s.” Her mother refused to go on alone so she shouted in the albergue to see if anyone knew where the pharmacy was. Jean-Marc raised his hand and gave them directions. He also suggested the medicine Marie needed to make her feet feel better.
After that day their paths crossed on and off along the Camino. It wasn’t until Santiago that they decided to stay together. Marie wasn’t sure if Jean-Marc was serious until, 15 days later, he arrived in Paris with two luggage bags. In the following year they decided that the Camino changed the way they see life and people, it brought them back to their faith, and they decided they needed to give something back. They wanted to help others find what they had.
After saving enough money to purchase a house they opened their gite, Chemin du bonheur, in 2006. It took them longer than expected to save because they were committed to making it donation-based.
I arrived at their gite after my first day on the Le Puy route. I accidentally stumbled into the kitchen where the two of them were patiently awaiting my arrival. Since I was a young American traveling alone I often felt like I had a few guardian angels along the route. The two of them immediately made me feel at home and in the morning we sat down for coffee as they told me what has to be one of the better love stories I have ever had the pleasure of hearing.
In 1997 Philippe began walking from Le Puy to Saint-Jean to stay fit and for fun. Since then he has made the trek every year and made it all the way to Santiago 6 times. That is a total of over 14,000 kilometers. One year during his walk he was talking to a blind person and realized that there are many who wish to walk the Camino but are unable. In 2009 he founded an organization that helps people with autism, blindness, and other handicaps walk portions on The Way. Participants are paired with volunteers who wear bright green jackets and guide them along each day.
There are some tell tale signs of someone who has been walking for a long time. Red nose, chapped lips. Philippe sat next to me at dinner while I was taking a day off in Aumont-Aubrac. After we struggled to communicate a French girl who was living in London decided to help us translate. Philippe began calling her “Madame Google.” He explained to me that the world of disability is often forsaken. The volunteers have a nice human exchange and love those they walk with each day. Each year he attempts to expand the program and in 2014 they will be walking with people who were diagnosed with trisomy. The organization runs from April to October every year and I actually caught him on the last day of the 2013 season. Although our conversation was quick I continued to hear about Philippe for the rest of my time on the Camino. Pilgrims all along the route were touched by the groups they had seen being guided no matter the weather or terrain.
During my first walk on the Camino I spent 30 days with Babsi. At the time she was taking a break from her job as a teacher in Germany and traveling for a year. She had the largest and heaviest backpack of anyone I met. When we walked together her shadow was obscured and we nicknamed it “The Blob.” Prior to my second Camino I visited her in Hamburg to discuss her experience.
“I decided to travel because I was unsatisfied with my whole life. I didn’t know who I was or who I wanted to be. I had always been stuck to people around me–boyfriends and close friends. I never lived alone because I didn’t think I could. It was important for me to go off on my own.
The Camino was the heart of my journey. My bigger sister walked it some years ago and she always told me it was something she would never forget. When I first started traveling I wanted to make my own route without any strict ways so I walked and traveled in France for 2.5 months before I arrived on the Camino.
When I was walking I finally understood what my sister meant when she described “the energy.” Before I arrived I thought “What? Energy? She must be a bit crazy…” I also worried I would just repeat her story but when I arrived I realized what she was talking about and felt like I had my own experience. The energy comes from the people who walk it. Everybody does it for their own reason but they all have the same goal. It’s just so special you can’t understand it if you haven’t been there. It’s nothing you can tell, it’s not rational, it’s something you need to feel."
There was a time in my childhood when my parents argued a lot. At one point on the Camino I had the same dream every night. While walking I wondered why I was having it and why I should be thinking about it here. Just by changing my pace I felt like I was walking it out. Everything that happened and everything I suffered came out just by walking and thinking through it. I could forgive my parents for what went wrong and that was something of a real wonder or miracle. I never thought I could help myself on my own. The Camino showed me that I have the power to give health to myself and to reframe these things to heal my heart. It showed me how powerful I am and how everything lies in my hands, not in the hands of somebody else. I always thought I couldn’t live alone but now I can be happy with myself. Sometimes on the Camino you are just so alone and it feels like you have to walk for hours until you see anything but nature.
I always feel drawn back. I don’t think I am religious, at least not traditionally, but I believe in a spirit or soul of the world that keeps everything together. When a lot of people with the same feelings or intention walk one way you can feel the spirit by walking with them. I don’t think you can be non-spiritual if you walk the Camino because you just feel it.
Before I walked my life was full of stress. Even if there was nothing to do I just forced myself to do work. On the Camino I was free of all these thoughts: that I always have to do something otherwise I won’t be worth the life I’m living. Afterward I fell back into some of those habits. I know some people just travel or take a vacation but the Camino is different, it shows you that life is not work. Life is what you want from it."
I was brushing my teeth when Horst walked into the bathroom and said hello. His was voice was magic. Raspy. Weighted. I had noticed him earlier, imagining what it would be like to have him narrate a documentary. After that morning we spent the entire day walking together. He spoke about his past and asked about my future. Horst is 55, from Germany. He spent his life working in a factory in a small town. Last year he got cancer that kept him from working. The government forced him into retirement and he now receives small monthly payments for disability.
After a year of not working and living with his brother he decided to walk the Camino. He wanted to see the world and show others that he wasn’t useless. I had to say goodbye to him that afternoon because he could only walk 10 kilometers at a time. As we went up hills I found he brought me down to a much slower pace, which helped me realize how much I had been rushing. That day he actually ended up walking 15 kilometers, the furthest he had ever gone, just to keep talking with me.