This week’s post is written by Kaitlin Fisher, former Global Weeks Program Associate, about her experience leading a group of high school students on backpacking program along the Camino de Santiago this summer.
The Camino de Santiago is an ancient pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, a city in northwestern Spain where the remains of the apostle Saint James are believed to be buried. Dating back to the 9th century, millions of pilgrims have walked hundreds of miles to arrive at the cathedral in Santiago. While the pilgrimage is historically a catholic tradition to honor Saint James, many pilgrims now trek to Santiago for a variety h of spiritual, cultural, or historical reasons. The Way of Saint James, as it is also referred to, has gained popularity in more recent years as a result of books such as Paulo Coelho’s The Pilgrimage and Shirley Maclaine’s The Camino: A Journey of the Spirit. and movies like Martin Sheen’s The Way.
There are dozens of established paths to Santiago de Compostela. The most heavily traveled route is the Camino Frances, beginning in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France. The 2013 data from the Pilgrim’s Office reported that of the nearly 216,000 pilgrims who arrived in Santiago that year, seventy percent of them walked the Camino Frances. When I was asked to lead a three-week backpacking trip for high school students on the Camino this summer for Hante Adventures, I was excited that they had chosen to take students on a far less traveled route: the Camino Portuguese de la Costa (the Portuguese Coastal Route).
Our group of ten (seven students and three instructors) arrived in Lisbon and spent the first two days getting accustomed to life in Portugal with the help of our friend Margarida, a Chemistry professor at the University of Lisbon who the Hante Program Coordinator met while on birthright in Israel earlier in the year. Out of the sheer goodness in her heart and the pride she has for her country, she volunteered to take three days off from work to tour us around the city and the surrounding area to tell us about the history and culture of Portugal in preparation for our impending journey to Santiago — all without having ever met us. These random connections and acts of kindness are one of my favorite aspects of global education.
We made our way through Fatima and on to Esposende where we began our 150 mile walk to Santiago. The night before we started our pilgrimage, we held a ceremony to set our personal and group intentions for the walk. We arrived at the Cathedral in Esposende early the next morning on the day of our departure to pick up our “credentials,” or pilgrim’s passports that we were to fill with stamps along the way in order to authenticate our journey upon arrival in Santiago. As we left the church, people lined the streets to wish us a “Bon Caminho!”
Each day we walked anywhere from 16-21 miles. The path, marked by the iconic scallop shell and yellow arrows, led us through villages, into forests, and on old Roman cobblestone roads. We spent a total of nine days walking, and the first seven of them followed the Portuguese Way along the coast of Portugal and then into Spain before the trail merged with the Camino Frances. We knew the coastal route would be far less crowded, but we were surprised that until we joined the “main path” we only saw four other peregriños: a woman from the basque region of Spain, a woman from Lithuania, and a father and son from the United Kingdom. They became “our people,” as our students called them, and we saw each them on different parts of the trail every day.
Two days before we arrived in Santiago, when we joined the masses, our experience changed drastically. We had spent a week navigating our way through the peaceful countryside and suddenly we were surrounded by hundreds of pilgrims en route to Santiago. There was a sense of hurriedness all around us that we hadn’t experienced up to that point as people rushed to arrive at the next albergue as fast as possible in order to secure themselves a bed for the night. Our students, who had grown accustomed to practicing their Portuguese with locals in small villages and taking hour-long siestas after lunch, were understandably overwhelmed.
When we stopped for lunch that afternoon, our student leader of the day led an unprompted guided mediation to reflect on the intentions we had set for ourselves at the beginning of our journey. He spoke about compassion and non-judgement and reminded the group that each person we encountered on the path was on their own journey. As an educator, it was one of those moments that made my heart sing. We set out for the final leg of our journey refreshed and excited.
When we arrived in Santiago and stood in front of the cathedral where so many had stood before us, we let out a collective sigh of accomplishment. The energy around us was indescribable, and the city was buzzing with pilgrims who had walked all across Europe. It was the Fourth of July, and while our friends and family were back home BBQing and watching fireworks, we were eating traditional Tarta de Santiago and reflecting on funny moments from the trail.
We went on to Finisterre, once believed to be the end of the world, and finally to Madrid before making our way home to the States. As I look back on the trip and think about my students, I am reminded why I do the work I do. Spending three weeks in a different culture with curious teenagers who are untethered from their technological devices gives me hope that the next generation has the power to change the world for the better.