For years I’ve dreamed about walking the 500-mile trail in the north of Spain called the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. Walking this path was the first thing I promised myself when I decided to take a year-long sabbatical from work in 2018.
Walking the Camino has been “a thing” for thousands of years. The original purpose was to reach Santiago, where it’s said the body of St. James (the Patron Saint of Spain) is buried. James was beheaded in 44 AD and became one of the first Christian Martyrs. So, walking the Camino de Santiago was for religious reasons.
The First Fake Pilgrims
Back in the 1100’s when the first guide for the Camino de Santiago was written, many locals saw this as a great business opportunity. They walked the Camino to promote their goods and services. Of course there were other fake pilgrims – thieves who were there to “fish in troubled waters” as the Spanish saying goes.
Real pilgrims began to develop a sort of characteristic uniform to identify themselves. This included a wide leather hat, a short leather cape, a large wooden walking stick with a leather bag, a scallop shell, and a hollow pumpkin (to carry water or wine). I’m not sure what the leather bag carried, but I’m sure it wasn’t deodorant and permethrin.
Fast Forward to 1994
When she turned 60 years old, actress Shirley Maclean walked the 500-mile path and wrote a book about it called The Camino: A Journey of the Spirit.
According to Shirley, a true pilgrim must not make any friends or carry any money on the Camino de Santiago. One must beg for food and shelter along the way. Really Shirley? with all the money you have? I’ll bet you got a lot of side-glances for that one.
It Isn’t A Post About the Camino de Santiago Without Mentioning Martin Sheen
In 2010, Martin Sheen and his son Emilio Estevez decided to make a movie about The Way. According to Martin, a true pilgrim must walk alone and build his community along the way. So, I suppose couples, friends and family members can’t walk the Camino together?
Interesting to note, since Shirley and Martin walked the Camino, the number of pilgrims receiving their Compostela (certificate given by the Church to acknowledge your journey), has risen from 15,863 pilgrims in 1994 to 277,915 pilgrims in 2016. That’s a 1,752% increase!
And just FYI, the Catholic Church offers one of two compostelas. If you walked for religious reasons, you earn a Latin compostela with your name written in Latin. If you walked for cultural or historical reasons, your compostela will be in Spanish. So I wonder who has the authority to deem a pilgrim fake? hmmm perhaps the Church?
Why Has the Camino de Santiago Become so Popular?
Besides Shirley’s book, and Martin’s movie, people have come to realize that this journey is a very inexpensive way to spend a holiday if you’re into long distance walking and meeting new people. On the Camino, pilgrims carry everything they need in their backpacks and traditionally sleep in albergues, which are simple, very inexpensive hostels run privately, by the municipality or church. Albergues also provide “pilgrim meals” for a very reasonable cost. Albergues typically consist of rooms with rows of bunkbeds. Men, women and children all sleep in the same dorm and share bathrooms and (where they have them), kitchen facilities. If you factor in the food and lodging, it would be super easy to spend less than $50 per day while walking the Camino. This type of communal living builds comradery and the suffering helps the pilgrim to appreciate his blessings in life.
Personally, my reason for walking the Camino de Santiago has nothing to do with the cost. It’s the only 500 mile walk that I know of, that has such amazing infrastructure for walkers, and it’s an Unesco World Heritage Site steeped in history and tradition.
Wait, What Happened to the Leather Bag and Hollowed Out Pumpkin?
At some point, I’m not sure when, replacing the pilgrim’s leather bag with an Osprey Kestrel 48 became acceptable. The hollowed out pumpkin has now developed into a Klean Kanteen.
63% of pilgrims walk the Frances, and many begin in St Jean Pied de Port in France. But traditionally, a pilgrim began his journey from his front door. So when did the rules change? Are all North Americans fake pilgrims?
The majority of today’s pilgrims range in age 30 – 60. I have to assume most of these folks work for a living, and can’t get 35 days off to walk The Way. That’s ok though, the Catholic Church has deemed those who walk a minimum of 100 kms may earn their compostela. It doesn’t matter where you started or on which path you walked, as long as you end your minimum 100 kms in Santiago de Compestela.
The Modern Day Bed Race
Now, alongside true religious pilgrims, the Camino population has exploded with baby-boomers searching for meaning in their lives, and millennials looking to hang out with people from around the world. And a new challenge has developed: The Bed Race.
With limited albergues available, most pilgrims have learned how to win the bed race by heading out super early. Headlamps on, off they go at 6:00 am, and lined up for a bed before 1:00 pm. However, with many albergues that are privately owned, and you can actually reserve a room on booking.com. From what I’ve read in forums and facebook, this seems to be “acceptable” and doesn’t make you fake.
oooohhhh, this one is so tabu! The whole “purpose” of the Camino walk is to learn to let go of things you don’t really need in life. Carrying a suggested 10% of your bodyweight on your back will teach you this lesson. By having your bags transported ahead of you is a super-cheat and you are doing yourself a huge disservice in life. You must suffer in order to experience the true pilgrimage.
Back to forums and facebook, many experienced and legit pilgrims have altruistically forgiven those who are elderly or injured. Those poor souls may have their bags transferred ahead.
The Shame of the Modern Pilgrim: My Personal Confessions
Going back several years ago, when I first decided that one day I would walk the Camino, I had no idea about the rules of being a true pilgrim. It has only been in the past couple of months, after I booked my Camino, that I began to read the forums and facebook posts. I was shocked by the comments regarding “fake pilgrims”. C’mon guys, it isn’t very Christian of you to call someone a dickhead because he started his walk in Burgos. Those who are not walking the true pilgrimage (according to true pilgrims), are nicknamed Tourgrinos and are shunned. Remember, the Catholic Church does not shun anyone who uses booking.com on the Camino de Santiago, but what do they know.
I am not Catholic
Nor am I formally religious. I am however spiritual and emotional and when I sit in the Cathedral and witness the swinging of the botafumeiro (if I’m lucky), my heart will burst and I will probably cry.
All my Accommodations are Pre-booked.
I am an extremely light sleeper. I will fall apart if I have to spend night after night listening to snoring, babies crying, and nocturnal farting. Most people bring ear plugs, but this isn’t enough for me.
In addition, bedbugs are rampant on the Camino de Santiago. Staying in a hotel by no means guarantees I won’t see a bedbug, but the chances are definitely slimmer. I am very sensitive to insect bites. The idea of being bitten by bedbugs literally makes my skin crawl.
Finally, I want to enjoy the walk. I don’t want to leave at the crack of dawn each day, and get nervous every time I sit for a break and watch groups of people get ahead of me and perhaps taking the last beds. I want to take lots of breaks, photograph, diarize, smell the flowers. All while my reservation awaits.
Many real pilgrims will tell me that by staying in hotels, I’ll miss out on the Camino de Santiago comradery in the albergues. That is absolutely true, however I will gain the comradery of other fake pilgrims, and I hear they’re an great bunch of people.
I am not Elderly or Injured, Yet I’m Having My Main Luggage Transported.
I will carry a backpack with rain gear, first aid kit, water, a snack, maybe a sweater, my phone and my camera. The rest of it (sleeping sheet, extra clothes and shoes, mini foam roller, toiletries, washing bag, supplements etc) will be in my main bag awaiting my arrival at the end of each day.
This journey for me is about the physical challenge, the peace of mind, meeting new people from all over the world. I need some quiet time to reflect and project. It will be a spiritual journey, and I respect and admire those who are there for religious reasons. I will pray, and I will talk with God. But in my own way. Does God want me to suffer? I’m betting no.
So to all the real pilgrims who are reading this post, please don’t hate me. I completely respect your journey. I’m not taking a bed from you, and my suffering shall be my own and not for you to judge. The Church will see me as a pilgrim for cultural reasons and will offer me my compostela, which I will frame with pride.