9 Ways to Be a Kinder, Gentler Pilgrim

Puente La Reina

A Few Simple Lessons in Camino Etiquette

*note to visitors: This post is about the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain and assumes a certain amount of knowledge in readers. If you’re curious, this article gives a brief overview: “Walking the Camino de Santiago: A Beginner’s Guide

Whether we start our walks in St. Jean, Sarria, or Strasburg, many Pilgrims aim for some kind of wisdom. Pilgrimage, after all, is supposed to be a Search for Truth, right? (Although, full disclosure, I went simply because I wanted a Nice Long Walk.)

The problem is, “truth” doesn’t come prepackaged in a cinematic sun-shaft of insight. It usually sneaks up on us, disguised as pain or humiliation…whether we’re seeking it or not. Often, there are bodily fluids, mud, or curse words involved.

When we return home, friends ask about the Great Truths and Wisdom we surely picked up along The Way. They are rarely satisfied with our answers. Getting Wisdom, it turns out, does not look pretty or cinematic. It looks agonizing. The best we can hope for is that as we go about acquiring this mud-stained, blood-spattered, curse-laden wisdom, we behave with as much grace as humanly possible and inflict the least amount of damage upon innocent bystanders.

As you’re getting all that pilgrim-y wisdom, it’s easy at times to zoom in on the pain and humiliation you’ve volunteered to endure and to forget that other people also exist. Whether you’re seeking Truth or simply a fun holiday trek, here are a few ways to tread a little lighter and avoid splattering your Great Learning Experience all over the fellow travelers, hospitaleros, and sundry Spaniards you meet on The Way:

(*disclaimer: This is my style of doing things; it may not be yours. Please feel free to add your own tips for being a thoughtful pilgrim at the end of this post.)

1. Don’t compete.

Right after “hello” comes the standard pilgrim question: Where and when did you start walking?  Hidden inside these innocuous little queries, often, is a contest: Who walked furthest, fastest, and mostest, you or me? 

Skip the comparisons. Instead, when you meet someone new, why not go straight to the Big Pilgrim Question: What brought you here?  The answer to that one generally gets the stories going and leads to connection instead of competition.

Or, as Gráinne so wisely suggests on the APOC Facebook page, don’t pry—simply offer a fellow pilgrim a bite of dark chocolate.

Hal in fog2. If you rise early, be stealthy.

Do you like to start walking before sunrise? If so, please don’t be That Guy. You know, the one who crinkles plastic bags in the bunkroom for 30 minutes while everyone else is pretending to sleep.

Instead, have your things mostly together the night before, then tiptoe out and pack everything in the boot room/foyer, where your flashlight beam and crinkling bags won’t annoy anyone.

And please please please DO NOT under any circumstances sit on the lower bunk at 5am pulling on and lacing your boots, violently shaking the upper bunk (with me in it) for half the predawn hours.

3. Install rubber tips on your trekking poles.

Because even though we are all endeavoring to be patient and kind on The Way, it can be rather trying to hear your metal tips going TIC TIC TIC TIC TIC TIC TIC TIC TIC TIC TIC TIC TIC TIC TIC TIC all the way across Northern Spain.

Long walk

4. Don’t be a brat.

At a train station in Budapest years ago, an American tourist leaned into the ticket window and enunciated loudly, “DOOO YOUU SPEEEAK ENNNGGLISSHHHH?”

“Sometimes,” the ticket agent replied. Laughter rippled up the long queue of passengers.

Of course, Americans aren’t the only category of travelers who sometimes act like entitled, clueless jerks. But thanks to the loud few, we’ve got a stereotype to live down.

When you limp into the albergue at the end of a long, hot day, remember this: The person checking you in is most likely a volunteer, there to ease your journey. You are not a customer in the strictest sense; you’re a supplicant asking for a kindness. So no matter how tired or frustrated you may be with the news that there’s no “weefee” or hot water that night, try to be patient and gracious.

Things aren’t going to be like they are at home. You won’t be able to visit the village pharmacy during siesta. You might not be able to order dinner until a very late hour. You will rarely be able to exchange dollars for euros at small-city banks. Relax into it. You’re in Spain. Take a siesta. Dine late. Use the ATM.

Do not behave like an ass.

Do not behave like an ass.

A Santiago5.Try to learn some Spanish.

Even if you can only manage “gracias” and “buenos días,” swallow your bashfulness and use your words. An enthusiastic “Good morning!” is a great way to break the ice with the thousands of people you’ll pass along The Way.

You’ll find that folks (especially in smaller towns) will show interest in you, will want to know where you came from. Being able to answer them will add some lovely, memorable moments to your journey.

Don’t worry if your accent is heinous. Engaging someone in their language instead of your own, especially if you’re bad at it, is exactly the kind of humbling experience you came here for. And I guarantee you: the most amazing things happen when you let yourself be vulnerable.

6. Don’t make unwelcome deposits.

Pretend your back yard abuts the Camino. Imagine thousands of fetid-smelling people walking by every single day. Depositing things onto your lawn and garden. Would you feel friendly toward them?

This is straightforward stuff: Do not go Número Dos in someone’s garden plot. Try to save those precious gifts for a real-live loo. And if you must perform a Número Uno evacuation maneuver (which is unavoidable), even in a big field, remember that the land belongs to somebody. Pack out your paper. (I broke this rule many times but will observe it in the future.)

7. Offer your special thing to fellow pilgrims.

On the Camino, certain skills become superpowers. Our friend Z carried an excellent first-aid kit and dispensed Compeed and high-octane ibuprofen to the less-prepared among us. Another friend, a Spanish chef, foraged for food and cooked fabulous meals at every stop. One guy sang beautiful, echo-y songs in empty churches and highway tunnels.

Sometimes, your special thing isn’t technical or artistic prowess; it’s who you are. The wry humor of our friend S kept us laughing, even when we wanted to cry. B, a French surgeon in his 70s, met every day with the wonder of a small boy, and his delight was infectious.

You can do the same. And if you’re not sure what your special something is, you’ll find out soon enough. Because at some point along The Way, it’ll be needed.

Start singing now

8. Don’t hold on too tightly—to things or  people.

It’s painful to lose things. Finding that somebody’s nicked your expensive camera or that you’ve left your rain jacket somewhere does not make for an excellent Camino day. Or worse—realizing your treasured pilgrim’s passport is missing, along with an irreplaceable four weeks of stamps.

Burgos streetA couple of years ago, my wedding ring slid off while I was working in someone’s garden. I was distraught—we’d bought them both at a tiny Belizean silversmith’s shop for $15, and I loved mine. I thought my husband Hal would be mad. Instead, he said, “You still have me.” There was weeping.

If you lose a needed item, even one you can’t afford to replace, there’s a strong chance a similar needed item will find its way to you. Your fellow pilgrims will probably hook you up with something to keep the rain off you. As for the camera/passport—yeah. That bites. But the purpose of both is to capture your experience and hold it for you, in the form of an object or an image. The bottom line is: You still have the experience. It’s in you. It cannot be lost.

The same goes for people: Sometimes, you meet a fellow pilgrim who you’re sure will become an important character in your Camino story…and then, he disappears. And you’re bereft. Or as in my case, you fall ill or injured, and your new companions press on without you as you recuperate. I can tell you this: when the bunkroom empties and you’re left behind, limping and miserable, it is a very lonely feeling. But soon enough, you’re back in the River of Pilgrims, and all is well.

As a Buddhist monk friend of mine said to me once, “We are sticks floating in river. Sometimes float together, sometimes apart.” I’m still not sure what that means, but I do know this: You might just see your Special Pilgrim again in Santiago. All roads lead there.

Camino clouds

9. Step outside yourself.

You might be walking for exercise, adventure, or solitary quietude. Maybe you’re grieving a death, or the end of a great love. Usually, people join The Way for themselves, to have an unforgettable experience or learn Great Truths.

Cruz de FerroAnd often, those Great Truths are maddeningly elusive, so long as we’re focused on ourselves.

Our friend J walked from Paris and back, seeking solitude and answers. On the Meseta, he fell in with a group of young students and ended up becoming a mentor to them, treating their injuries, and even shouldering their packs. He realized that what made him happiest wasn’t being alone, but walking with people who needed him. That discovery changed his life.

Of course, it’s OK to take a long walk across Spain for you and you alone. But what you’ll find is that the moments of sheerest joy happen when you’re not thinking about yourself. Buy dinner for the penniless German kid who walks in tattered sandals. Invite a solo pilgrim to your tableful of rowdy tapas companions. Give something important away. Ask questions and listen to the answers. Do somebody’s laundry.

Those are the transcendent moments, the times when you’re the best version of yourself. And that’s the version of yourself that you came all this way to find.

Add your own tips: What crazy things have you seen pilgrims do? What mistakes did you make (and learn from)?

Vista hermosa

You may also enjoy:

You Might Be a Pilgrim If — 56 Ways to Identify an American Post-Camino Peregrino in Withdrawal

A Pilgrim’s Progress — On The Way, a 5’3″ woman’s gotta learn to be big sometimes, especially when her Big Strong Man feels small.

Camino by the Numbers — The stats: miles walked, toenails sacrificed, tears shed.

El Camino de Santiago: The Things We Carried: Pack list with photos

12 thoughts on “9 Ways to Be a Kinder, Gentler Pilgrim

  1. #5 Try to learn some Spanish.
    I just got back from my camino. One of my favorite days and villages was Grañón. I made a memory that will last a lifetime when a medium sized dog came running around a corner and put her paws on my knees. Then put her mouth around my hand very softly. Her owner came running saying no no to her dog. I said it’s OK in English. Having dogs in common, the woman speaking no English, and me knowing about 11 words in Spanish – luckily two of them being “buena perro” we talked for at least 30 minutes that afternoon and a few more minutes in the morning. We both came away with giant smiles and hugs. I wish I would have asked for her address or email. Though in a town that tiny I could probably send a letter care of the oficina de correos de Grañón with a picture of the woman and her dog as part of the mailing address and it would get to her. 🙂

  2. I don’t think I was alone as a first time pilgrim last year in feeling a bit smug about walking the camino the “right” way – carrying my pack, using only albergues, etc. Of course I soon came to realise there is no universal right way – just a personal one. The camino has taught me to be much less judgemental and more open minded. You will find physical and mental strengths you didn’t know you possessed, and be amazed at your body every day as you push it so hard. And don’t believe your camino will be finished in Santiago or Finisterre – it will continue to live on in your mind every day and you will soon be planning your next one. Buen camino!

  3. I would love to walk at least a part of this some day. But your advice is pertinent to life in general. Thanks for sharing it.

  4. Don’t be impatient – with yourself or others. Trying to stick to that rigid schedule you drew up when at home can often lead to missed opportunities. My most memorable moments were stumbling into villages I’d through would just suffice for a lunch stop, only to find some wonder that required me to stay a few days. As a result, there were sections that I had to give up on and take a bus a while up the trail to catch up, but I wouldn;t have missed those stops for the world.

  5. Guilty of #1, but it was more to try to work out what experiences of the journey we had shared up to this point The people I met along the route where inspiring, fascinating and engaging. You don’t find that too often… Thanks for your excellent post, Mel.

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