One of the first things that I realised while walking during the past week was that I’m not alone. It was one of the fears I had, that this whole month, I would be essentially alone and far from face-to-face interactions with anyone. It’s been the complete opposite of that. Physically, I’ve definitely been surrounded – I spent my first night in a pilgrim albergue (a very cheap hostel for pilgrims) on a bunk bed which was pushed against one occupied by an Italian man. As a woman travelling alone, I was more than slightly apprehensive engaging with a middle-aged man who was literally sleeping next to me, but I realised, later on, that a lot of the fear I had was unfounded. I eventually bumped into the man further along the trail, at a pit stop, and spent the next few days chatting with him when we’d stop in the same hostel or meet each other walking along the way. I’d see the same group of people every morning at breakfast, at rest stops, in the afternoons cooking together or washing laundry as we walked the same distances every day. It was reassuring to be around them, whether on the Camino or in the hostels, knowing that others were with me on this journey.
It wasn’t just physical space that was filled with people; everyone has been extremely friendly on this trip. Countless people that I wouldn’t otherwise talk to would stop to take a break with me, and then in the evening I would talk to them them at mass, or the next day, share a room with them in a hostel, hug each other in the grocery store. A single “Buen Camino!” (standard pilgrim greeting) could extend into hours of conversation as we walked. People I’d talked to for less than ten minutes would invite me to eat their home-cooked food, others opened up about deeply personal events they’d come on the Camino to leave behind. It was a strange bond that I’d never experienced: shared in pain and long distances, and very often, much closer and more genuine than I could have ever imagined.
These friendships transcended lanaguage as well – I met an Italian dad (he was sleeping above me in one of the hostels) and we spent an hour talking over Google Translate, learning about each other, talking about why we came on the Camino, laughing and joking together. I can’t describe in one blogpost the number of amazing, perhaps even God-sent, encounters that I had and continue to have while I walk. It dawned on me, eventually, that walking the Camino is like joining this gigantic, kind, generous and joyful community that travels toward the same goal, over 800km.
It made me wonder why these first-time encounters were so poignant when I’d already been meeting new people all the time, back at home. I realised that, while a part of it was how open I was to these conversations and letting myself be known to others, it was a strange effect of this walk. Perhaps it was the reassurance that I would never meet them again. Perhaps it was the communal experience of walking that brought us together, or the mutually recognised willingness to be open to receiving and giving. Perhaps it was the fact that we had more time to engage and less baggage preventing us from being open and meeting new people, and investing in these new relationships. With all of us far from the comforts and securities of home life, it seemed easier to trust and find commonalities with each other.
While I might not be best friends or get along naturally with all of these pilgrims, I realised quickly that the degree of natural compatibility did not restrict the goodness that could be shown to each other, or the friendships made despite these differences. I think it’s helped me to let go of some of my jadedness and recognise again the precious uniqueness that’s easy to miss if I don’t take the time to know someone new. This week has reminded me to look forward to these new encounters and to seek new relationships with the people around me that come into my life unexpectedly. It doesn’t sound like a huge epiphany to me, but I think it’s something I needed a reminder of. So much goodness and great adventures can be found in the people around me, and being on the Camino with a simpler lifestyle eased the obstacles that would usually hinder these genuine interactions: perceived barriers imposed by age, occupation, language, beliefs, physical distance, and material goods and their tendency to distract me. While many of us are alone, we still walk together, I’ve realised the value in approaching others in simplicity and as my genuine self, even if it becomes more difficult upon returning to a “normal” world, without the simplicity of the Camino.
The fear of being alone at the beginning of my journey was great, and one of the things I asked in my prayers was to not be alone. Personally, I think that they were answered, and so far I have been reassured of company and support whether or not I can see people walking ahead of me. I’m truly grateful for all the friends I’ve made and all the kindness I have been blessed to receive, and can only think that I have been accompanied by my God through the wonderful people that I have met. It’s been an incredibly peaceful first week, and I look forward to the next few legs of my journey and the people I’m going to meet.