Editors' Choice

Camino Encounters

by Sophia Tellen

Everyone has their reasons for joining the pilgrimage.

At the end of August a few years ago I set out on the Way of St. James from St. Jean-de-Pied-de-Port to cross the Pyrenees. I carried six people’s intentions, including my own: six rolled-up scraps of paper in my money-belt. Come what may, I was going to deposit these in the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. And what may did come!

Across northern Spain I found that the walking life is simple, basic. It is surprising how little one needs. Everything nonessential has to go.

Put one foot in front of the other; find the arrow; drink a lot, eat a little; reach a Refugio; get a bed; shower, wash clothes; eat; plug ears, sleep. Rummage-and-pack; begin again.

There was much for me to learn: how to eat; how to cope with queues; how to deal with wild dogs; how to have a daughter; how to expect the unexpected; how to find answers. And I had to learn fast.

As time went on, the range of my education increased. At one pilgrims’ hostel I met a slender blond German girl.

“Yours is the most beautiful name I have ever heard,” she said to me. “I will give it to my daughter.”

“Oh, I did not realize you are pregnant.”

“I am not.”

“Well, how do you know you will have a daughter?”

“I just know,” she said. “I have the father for her already.”

“I did not realize you are married!”

“I am not,” she said, “but my boyfriend does not want children.”

“He does not?”

“No,” she said. “But now I have met a man who does.”

“You want to marry him?”

“No,” she said. “He has a girlfriend already. But she does not want any children.”
“And how are you going to do that while walking all day?”

She looked at me with a little crooked smile: “They say one finds everything one needs on the Camino.”

Put one foot in front of the other; find the arrow; drink a lot, eat a little; reach a Refugio; get a bed; shower, wash clothes; eat; plug ears, sleep. Rummage-and-pack; begin again.

Many pilgrims find what they are looking for. Then they return to give something back. One American found the love of his life, and now has a Spanish wife. The couple return each year to serve as Hospitaleros on the Way. They welcomed me with great friendliness.

Another such person was Carla, a radiant young woman. I met her after walking the first 100 kilometers, when I was dead beat. She took one look at me and said, “I will cook for you tonight,” and this felt like Heaven. “I used to go into Churches looking for Jesus,” she told me. “‘Where are You?’ I would ask. I have come from Brazil three times to walk the Camino. But this time I found Him. ‘It is You!’ I said when I saw Him. And He changed my life.”

Most magical of all were the unexpected helpers who seemed to pop up out of nowhere. These love the Camino, and are determined to show it. Suddenly, after a hard long climb, one finds a little old lady sitting in front of a ramshackle hut in the street, with a basket of fresh figs—one for each passing pilgrim—or a man at the end of a long field, giving away biscuits and good cheer.

What touched me most, however, was gradually becoming aware of the chain of prayer that sweeps across the Camino path. One can walk for long stretches through farmland, woods and vineyards, without meeting anyone. Then suddenly one will see from the distance, often on top of a hill, a chapel or church spire, such as at Villamayor of Monjardin, and one heads for that. In such places the energy of the Camino is particularly vibrant. There will be a fountain nearby with a bench, and if the chapel is open, it is sure to be cooler inside. Whatever the state of the village, the chapel will be beautifully kept. And in it one will find three or four older women, and perhaps a man or two, praying half aloud, or whispering to their tender-faced Lady and touching Her feet. From hamlet to village, from town to town, I found bouquets of lilies at the Madonna’s feet, and always the older women, holding the tradition.

Before this pilgrimage I thought there was not much hope for the world. But by the end, I knew: as long as there is this chain of prayer across the land, there is hope—much hope

When at last I got to the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, I finally discovered where to put my intentions. In a side chapel in which stood a statue of Our Lady at one end, is a kneeling, life-sized figure of Jesus, his arms outstretched, his eyes raised towards an angel holding a chalice. An oval basket lies at His knees. I extracted the six tatty bits of paper I had guarded so long, and lit some candles. But the basket did not entice me. I wanted to place them closer, somehow. Looking up, I saw that others had had the same idea. Little folded scraps of human entreaty lay on His shoulders and along His arms. But mine I placed in the very palm of His Hands. With great relief, I sat down. It was done.

* * *

People have asked me why I undertook this pilgrimage. It is virtually impossible to know. The call came, and I went. A Benedictine nun in charge of the Refugio in Leon was interviewed for television. “People go on the Camino for four reasons,” she said: “religious, spiritual, cultural, or mere adventure. We never worry about their reasons. What is absolutely certain, however, is that the pilgrimage changes them.”

On the Way I also met a young Spaniard who addressed me in English. “Yesterday I had a ticket to the Greek islands,” he said. “Today I go on the Camino. I have some problems with my girlfriend. I will walk for ten days. It will clear my head. Buen Camino!”

The Camino has its own way of reaching out, and provides its own signals, though one may not always notice them in advance. A few days ago I was stopped by an elderly pilgrim, not far from my home in Geneva, in the city center. He asked me to show him the Way. I have lived in this area for ten years, but was not able to do so. Two days later I noticed it for the first time: the blue and yellow scallop shell, emblem of St. James, placed high up on a building in a street that crosses mine!


Sophia Tellen is a freelance writer and student of life. She lives in Geneva, Switzerland.


About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.




Read more from Editors' Choice, Sophia Tellen

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