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Twelve types of Camino pilgrims: from warm-and-fuzzies to zoomers

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A woman rests on a sculpture in San Marcos Square in Leon that depicts a medieval pilgrim.

When Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his late-14th-century Canterbury Tales, he shared the stories of 24 pilgrims, from The Knight and The Wife of Bath to The Friar and The Merchant.


This crew of characters was travelling only about 100 kilometres, from Southwark, then a town south of London, Eng., to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral, southeast of London.


Therefore, you might expect that someone like me, while walking the much-longer Camino Frances route, would likely encounter dozens more types of pilgrims, much different than those described in Chaucer’s book. Yes and no. In general, all of the hundreds of pilgrims I encountered over a month fell into one or several of these 12 categories:


  • Camino “virgins”: Like me, they were walking The Way for the first time. While en route, some researched thoroughly, frequently consulted their map, and booked their accommodations ahead each day. Others just maintained a mental note of their desired destination and its distance and trusted that the waymarkers and yellow arrows would guide them there;
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Three Camino “virgins” await a bus along The Way.


  • Christians out loud: These people, often ministers, sometimes prayed out loud in their hostel room, shared Biblical stories and references, and sought out fellow Christians for group prayer and informal worship;


  • eager love-seekers: Although women fell under this label, I encountered the male version more so. Some subtle, others not so much, they voiced their desire to find a wife or expressed unhappiness with their existing mate. Some were happily getting laid along The Way;
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This man, who walked the Camino with a donkey, is said to more or less live on the route.
He was one of the love-seekers I encountered.


  • hearty partiers: These pilgrims liked to over-imbibe on local beer or wine, sometimes on a daily basis. Some tried to sneak out past curfew at a hostel or arrive drunk in the wee hours and try to get back in;


  • mellow old hands: Those who had walked the Camino numerous times gladly embraced a slower pace and laissez-faire approach to the walk. Many retired Europeans chose to walk only a two-week portion, with no return ticket, knowing that they would come back another year to continue the route. I loved spending meals and days with these people, who knew the wisdom of taking time to enjoy one’s surroundings, relax, and let go of plans. They were masters of serendipity;
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My friend Dieter was one of the mellow old hands who made my trip so enjoyable.

  •  memorial marchers: To those who were walking the Camino in memory of a loved one, the route took on more poignancy. They could be honouring a recently deceased parent, spouse or relative or a child who died in infancy. The memorials along the way, to commemorate those who had died en route, added symbolic significance to the theme of these journeys;


  • nitpicking nudniks: Despite considerable choice in food and accommodations, there was never a shortage of those who found the Spanish bread too stale, the coffee weak, food poor, prices high, etc etc. Thankfully, these were the minority. (I love the word “nudnik,” which I learned in Asia while briefly travelling with some Israelis. From Yiddish, it can mean “a pestering, nagging, or irritating person; a bore”);


  • questioning Catholics: I met lapsed Catholics who hadn’t been to Mass in decades and others, including a priest, who held devout faith yet, because of hypocrisy and alienation of the church’s authorities from its worshippers, were wondering whether to remain with the church;


  • social media maniacs: At any café or restaurant stop, these were the first to whip out their cell phone and scurry to find a Wifi signal, seek out the next day’s weather and facts about upcoming destinations, text, browse through Facebook, and basically stay as electronically plugged in as they possibly could while in a daily pursuit ideally designed for a deeper form of plugging in. This behavior was hard to watch, yet admittedly, I was a less-frequent, more half-hearted part of their ranks;
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Here I am in front of the cathedral in Santiago.
I considered myself one of the soulful soloists.

  • soulful soloers: Many people, spurred by their own sense of spiritual connectedness, walked alone contentedly, seeking to connect with their own heart and nature’s rhythms, glorying in the unfolding beauty and culture around them. The Camino is an ideal place for such self-exploration;


  • warm-and-fuzzies: This term applied to almost every hospitalero I met; all experienced Camino walkers, and many retirees, they knew the hardships and high points of such a venture and greeted weary pilgrims with kindness, caring, openness, active listening, a sense of kinship, and sharing of insights;
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A cyclist rests outside a Camino hostel in Burgos.


  • the zoomers: Whether macho cyclists racing past walkers with little warning or athletes striving to walk at least 40 kilometres a day, these speedsters were determined to get to Santiago as soon as possible. Why the hurry?
March 27, 2014 at 1:32 pm Comments (3)

Revisionist history on the Camino: whitewashed versions prevail

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A simple stone church along the Camino route in Spain

Since I grew up in a family full of secrets, I’ve always remained sensitive to what stories are hidden and not told. When it comes to official histories of families, societies, nations, and religions, collective denial seems to overcome any need to say what really happened. Why are we so afraid of the truth?

The reality of revisionist history was evident to me while walking the Camino in France and Spain. On the entire 800-kilometre route, not once did I come across any mention of the Spanish Inquisition on signs, in churches, museums, etc.

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The official seal of the Spanish Inquisition’s Tribunal of the Holy Office

Perhaps, with my meagre Spanish, I missed something in translation. Yet, although I was not on The Way as a historian or researcher, it still seemed to me that the Camino emphasized the Christian cross of its roots far more than the sword. (Both symbols appeared side by side on the official seal of the Inquisition’s Tribunal of the Holy Office, although the cross, in the centre, predominated.)

 As a quick historical recap, Spain’s monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella established the Inquisition in 1478 to maintain Catholic control and supremacy in their kingdoms. They passed decrees ordering Jews and Muslims to convert to Catholicism or leave; however, any who chose to convert and stayed were still considered suspect.


Under the Inquisition’s forceful power, people were burned at the stake for any number of “sins”: being a Protestant, a “blasphemer,” for mocking church images, eating meat on forbidden days, or reading a banned book. Neighbours spied on neighbours. The Inquisition, which was not abolished until 1834, led to widespread pogroms, imprisonments, torture to extract false confessions, trials, executions, and burning at the stake of so-called heretics.

 It is estimated that just between 1480 and 1530, about 2,000 people were executed in Spain, mostly those of Jewish origin who had converted to Catholicism. Not surprisingly, while walking the Camino, I met few pilgrims of Jewish descent.

I’ve already mentioned in this blog the lack of information along the Camino about the burning of witches. (See “Witches on The Way: Remember the Camino’s tarnished halo.”)

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Hmmm . . . to be a pilgrim or a knight?

Similarly, along the The Way, even the Crusades (cruzada) seemed to get a glossy, whitewashed treatment. I saw paintings, memorials, and glorified depictions of knights, portrayed as gallant heroes doing the Church’s sanctified work. (The Crusades were military campaigns in Europe during the Middle Ages launched to ensure the domination of Christianity. “Knights of Christ” (milites Christi) led expeditions, fought battles, and saw themselves as leading an armed pilgrimage to Jerusalem.)

Armed pilgrimage—not like today’s tens of thousands of peaceful El Camino pilgrims. Kill, maim, and destroy in the name of Christ anyone who does not match a narrow description of a good Christian. Yet this aspect of the knights’ activities seemed missing in the Camino content that I saw. Just as those in today’s war zones use the term “collateral damage” for civilian deaths, the knights’ actions seemed antiseptically removed from their slaughter of others. I saw no estimates of related fatalities.

In reference to more recent times, I was both shocked and strangely glad to see a one-line mention of historical truth while staying at the beautiful five-star Parador San Marcos Hotel in Léon. At the museum attached to the hotel, I viewed the sarcophagi of religious and unknown people dating back to about 1300 AD. The museum church had the usual gold décor and gilt sculpture of Christ, rooms dedicated to Mary and the baby Jesus, prayer areas and so on.

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The five-star Parador in San Marcos Square in Leon

However, one sign, in English, provided a single sentence that alluded to Spain’s regressive past: Francisco Franco had used the Parador, a former twelfth-century monastery, as a concentration camp (the Catholic church had supported his fascist dictatorship, by the way).

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A Parador interior

I knew that the Parador was originally founded to provide lodging for pilgrims, like me, travelling to Santiago; even now, this magnificent stone hotel offers much-reduced rates to Camino pilgrims. But I was stunned that this castle-like Renaissance building, whose lush comfort, stately air, and numerous artifacts had given me so much welcome and comfort, was associated with such grisly history. What tortures and other atrocities had occurred within its walls, where I had blissfully soaked my blisters in bubble bath?

 It wasn’t clear whether Franco had used the Parador for prisoners during his entire reign from 1939 to 1975. Nonetheless, I was grateful that someone, most likely against the wishes of many others, had had the courage to include this unseemly truth amidst the otherwise pious language of Spanish history.

March 13, 2014 at 8:32 am Comments (3)

A thousand different pots of water: we all reflect the same sun

“[W]e are always charged with the vibrancy of a larger presence . . . the complexity of our humanity mirrors this larger presence. . . .  [W]e mirror everything living as we climb and stumble our way up the mountain to the cliff of yes. I recognize each person I come across because I am each on any given day. What matters is whether I shun those who bear my flaws or help them up; whether I turn away when this larger presence seems too strong or keep my birth-eyes open; whether I find a way to meet what is incomprehensible and somehow draw strength from it.”

 —    Mark Nepo, Seven Thousand Ways to Listen

Walking the Camino de Santiago functions like a giant mirror of our soul and personality: it reflects our light and shadow places more rigorously than regular daily life. The physical challenges of the route, combined with the array of people encountered, offer numerous chances to shun or embrace others.

I recognize how readily I judged or rejected those who irritated me along the way. My almost-instant ability to label, dismiss or criticize others—to focus on their shortcomings— reflects how I relate to myself inwardly; my insecurities and self-hatred separate me from that larger presence within myself and others.

I reacted most strongly to two women, each travelling solo, whom I met repeatedly throughout the pilgrimage. One woman, a middle-aged banker from Brazil, never carried her pack; every day, she paid to have it forwarded to her next destination. She always phoned ahead to reserve a room. She stayed in near-empty hotels rather than in hostels.

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My German friend Dieter (left) and others at this table
made my Camino pilgrimage particularly memorable.

At one point, this woman told me that I should be wearing the straps on my backpack closer to my body. When I told her that I had adjusted the straps and it was better, she surveyed them and said “un poco (a bit).”

I felt judged. Who the hell was she to tell me how to wear my pack? I thought. She’s not even wearing one! It was difficult for me to see that she was trying to ease the burden of my journey.

One hot day, she approached me on the path after walking behind me and my German friend Dieter.

“Your pack’s leaning to the left,” she said. “You might want to readjust it.”

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These are two of the many warm and welcoming hospitaleros, or hostel volunteers,
encountered along The Camino.

By then, I had walked for several weeks without discomfort from my pack. Doesn’t she have anything better to do? With some resentment, I stopped, readjusted my pack, and put it back on. After a little while, the Brazilian woman approached me again.

“Your pack is still leaning to the left. And it looks like your [pilgrim] passport is about to fall out. You don’t want to lose it.”

I took off my pack and angrily threw it to the ground. My passport wasn’t visible anywhere; she had mistaken a square, laminated image of a scallop shell, which I had added to the outside of my pack, for my passport.

She kept on walking. Dieter made some joke about how rigid bankers were. I was surprised at the intense level of my anger. Why couldn’t I see that she was trying to help? Instead, I felt unjustly criticized.

At the time, I recognized some envy on my part; I was slogging through the heat with a 20-pound pack while she was blithely strolling past with a tiny, near-empty day pack. In retrospect, it is easy to see that she reflected the perfectionist part of me that’s quick to point out the flaws in myself and others. She also symbolized my genuine desire to help others, a part of myself that I often find hard to see.

I tried to avoid another solo traveller, a brash middle-aged woman from Colorado. Whenever she arrived at a restaurant or hostel, she would loudly complain or demand immediate service and maintain a running monologue about herself and her needs. She seemed to treat any male pilgrim who accompanied her as if he was her princess’s footman, there to fulfill her wishes in any moment. Sometimes, while listening to her, I thought: I don’t care about the minutiae of your life. Get over yourself.

Why did she grate on me so much? She mirrored some of my own self-absorbed behaviour, the part of me that seeks attention and expects instant service from others.

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Pam (left) and Elke, new friends from Langley, B.C.,
made wonderful pilgrim companions during my final days on The Camino.

While on The Way, I realized that each person who made a deep connection with me, from my gentle, caring friend Dieter to my loving, generous fellow pilgrims Pam and Elke, mirrored these aspects in me.

I like what Indian spiritual leader Mata Amritanandamayi, known as “Mother,” says: “The sun shines down, and its image reflects in a thousand different pots filled with water. The reflections are many, but they are each reflecting the same sun. Similarly, when we come to know who we truly are, we will see ourselves in all people.”

March 3, 2014 at 10:10 am Comments (3)