Madelyn Given's friend Peter, a comrade on her el Camino pilgrimage.

Life on the el Camino

At the albergues, which are places to stay along the el Camino trail in Spain, there is a lot of activity as the pilgrim walkers arrive at the end of a hiking day. It becomes a regular daily routine to shower, then hand wash the dirty trail clothes and hang them outside, almost anywhere, to dry in the hot afternoon sun. Then some people hurry to a small market for food, while others hang out at an outside café to sit and relax.

Along the el Camino, many of the markets and stores close from 2 – 4 pm each day and then reopen for a couple of hours in the afternoon and evening; this sometimes becomes a challenge for the hikers coming off the trail late in the day. The daily Mass is at 7 pm followed by a pilgrim dinner at 7:30.

This evening in early September 2014, dinner is in a restaurant under the albergue. A Dutch couple and a Swedish couple are walking about the same distance as me each day; I usually don’t see them on the trail, but we cheer each other onward at dinner each evening. Pilgrims, filled with the el Camino spirit, are supportive, helpful, and friendly.

There is a merry group of eight Italians, loud and boisterous. Each day I get to know them. They passed me several times today and here they are again tonight. One of these Italians walked with me for a while one day and mentioned that they were from different regions of Italy; I was so surprised that they did not know each other prior to the first day they met in St Jean-Pied-de Port, France. It was quite a mixed group—young students and older folks, men and women, some married and others single—but they had bonded well and were having a great hiking experience together.

The Italians entertain us until exactly 10:00, when the lights go out and it becomes stone quiet. Soon the snoring of several pilgrims takes over the silence, but I am so tired that I soon fall back to sleep and feel quite rested by morning.

Some albergues have a sparsely supplied kitchen. The other day Peter, a tall, blond young man from Belgium, asked if I would share a meal with him in the kitchen, as he had just been to the market. I agreed and we went to the kitchen. I willingly agreed to help but he said, “No, it’s o.k., just sit for a few minutes.” I watched him prepare an amazing dinner from scratch with practically nothing to work with for utensils.

This became the beginning of a friendship that continued for many days all along the trail. As you can see in my photo at the top of this blog post, Peter is a long-legged young man who walks at a good clip. Every morning he would catch up with me on the trail, and after a nice chat he would say good bye; I never would expect to see him again, as he would plan to walk on a few more kilometers than me each day. But after a day or two, lo and behold I would hear Peter’s voice in the albergue and we would see each other again, going out for dinner or sharing a meal. Peter is a doctoral student from Belgium but I always called him my chef after that special meal the first day I met him.

Peter knew I kept a daily journal, and one day on the trail he was sitting outside an albergue writing in his journal and he passed it to me. He had sketched the most amazing scenes along the trail, one for each day. I met Marilyn, a beautiful young woman from Croatia, who also shared her journal with me another time when we were in an albergue. She pointed to a sketch of a person walking across a long Roman arched bridge all alone and said, “That is you, Madelyn.” I was in her el Camino trail journal!

Life on the el Camino happens as I walk though small villages and country towns. It is fun to get caught up in the fiestas that happen in many towns: there are processions down the main streets, with the citizens in native costumes and playing music, and in the town center tents are set up with crafts to buy and food for sale.

Then there are the dogs. As I enter every village I prepare for the guard dogs, chained or fenced, that begin barking long before I see them; I am glad to be past them. There are also the dogs and cats that are pets. The sheep dogs and the farm dogs stand apart: it is worth the time to watch these remarkable dogs, so serious and so smart, doing their tasks.

Each day—and all parts of a day—are amazing and stimulating. So much happens in a day and it is all new and exciting. I learn so much as it is a different language, a different culture, and a different hiking experience.

(posted December 23, 2014)