Hiking through Spain fuels friendships, allows introspection
A hardy group of Erskine College students made new friends, developed new strengths, and gained new insights during a Winter Term travel course in Spain in January.
Led by Assistant Professor of Spanish Dr. Michael Burriss, the seven students—Cali Colbert, Sarah DeVos, Jordan Joseph, Kate Keukelaar, Meg Randall, Pete Savarese, and Kathleen Watkins— took a five-week, 800-kilometer walk along El Camino Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage route beginning at the base of the Pyrenees and ending at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, a World Heritage site. Four of the students talked about their experience.
Deciding to go
Senior Sarah DeVos of Spartanburg said she was unable to schedule a semester of foreign study and still meet the requirements for her special education major. But Erskine’s 4-4 calendar, with the month of January set aside for Winter Term, offered another way.
“I promised myself that if there was a trip to a Spanish-speaking country during J-Term, I would go, because I am in love with the language,” she said.
Sophomore Meg Randall of Greenwood, who is double majoring in Spanish and political science, said she has always enjoyed traveling and saw the Camino course as “a unique opportunity to get to know Spain in a different way than by touring it or even spending a semester studying there.”
Pete Savarese, a sophomore from Hilton Head Island who is majoring in social studies education, said it was the “historical significance” of the centuries-old pilgrimage route that kindled his interest.
Junior Kathleen Watkins of Greenwood, a psychology major with a business minor, was interested in the prospect of travel and seeing another country. “Also, the activity of backpacking across a country seemed very exciting and it was definitely something I had never done before!”
The students prepared for the rigors of the walk in different ways.
Savarese is a Fleet soccer player, and “that was a good base for training,” he said.
Randall built up her endurance by “swing dancing once or twice a week,” but admitted, “I definitely wish I had focused more on practicing with the heavy pack.”
Watkins said she went on some hikes with class members and friends, but didn’t have time for additional preparation. “Then, when I got to the Camino, I realized that it is probably near impossible to actually train for something like this—it’s a totally different experience.”
DeVos did no training at all.
You can’t plan for everything
Burriss first walked the Camino in 2003 when he was a freshman at Erskine College, but this was the first time he had led a student group. “I have walked some part of the Camino at least four times,” he said.
In 2005, he completed training as a hospitalero, one who serves as a host in the albergues, the hostels that dot the pilgrimage route.
Although the Camino boasts many albergues—generally there is one about every 10-20 kilometers—the Erskine group discovered that finding lodging along the way could be a challenge.
“We went during Christmas season so a lot of stuff was closed,” Burriss explained. “We had to improvise a lot to ‘survive.’ I enjoyed this but some students took a little time to warm up to the idea.”
Savarese embraced the inconvenience as part of the Camino experience.
“Sometimes you would walk 30 kilometers and find out nothing was open and you had to walk seven more. That breaks you, but it leads to the best stories!”
Watkins would have preferred to be sure of a place to stay each evening, but found value in dealing with the uncertainty.
“Being in sort of a rougher environment with limited resources certainly made me realize how fortunate my life was,” she said. “There were a few times that we had to share lodging with complete strangers—but that was a neat experience in itself because we got to meet all sorts of individuals.”
In addition to some delays in finding lodging, the students faced other challenges.
Randall had a little trouble finding her pace at the beginning of the walk, she said, but once she did, “the trip dramatically improved for me.”
“The physical aspect was the major challenge,” DeVos said. “After that, it was all about getting out of my comfort zone to make myself understood in a country where they didn’t speak my language.”
Savarese said his biggest difficulty during the trip was getting food poisoning and spending two days in the hospital, so he probably wins the prize among the Erskine participants for “greatest challenge faced.”
Walking alone, or not
Although the Camino path is wide enough for pilgrims to walk side by side, many choose to take the opportunity for solitude.
“It was a different experience every single day,” Watkins said. “Some of the time, when I walked by myself, I definitely used that to talk to God or talk to myself about things that I needed to get done or to look forward to in the upcoming semester.”
Savarese also appreciated the opportunity to walk alone, and “prayer and meditation was the start and end of each day” for him.
Watkins also enjoyed walking with the entire group, or with just a couple of people, playing games and having interesting conversations about movies, music, books, Christianity, career aspirations, economics, politics, “almost everything.”
DeVos found that “physical endurance was always at the front of my mind” during the walk.
“At first I walked with friends, but a lot of the time I walked alone,” she said. “The Camino was an opportunity to get away from the daily annoyances of life at home and focus on learning some things about myself and life.”
For Randall, too, the walk was a time for learning. “Walking the Camino daily was a time to enjoy God’s creation on a very personal level, and also a great opportunity for self-reflection and prayer,” she said.
“At times, I would join new friends to walk, and the conversation was always intriguing and upbeat – like hanging out with friends at home, except that we were walking with packs across Spain!”
Friendships: foreign and domestic
Friendships and conversations were as much a part of the Camino experience as the landscape. Thrown together during the weeks of the travel course, Erskine students who might not have known each other well in the beginning came to a deeper understanding of each other.
“Even with people in the class who went with me, the relationships we had before were for sure strengthened after going on this trip,” Watkins said.
Savarese, the only male student in the group, said, “All the girls who went on the trip proved to be great people, and made the trip a lot of fun. Dr. Burriss was also great to know.”
Randall said friendships within the Erskine group were strengthened—or in some cases created— during the Camino trip, and conversations could go in many different directions.
“When you walk with someone for six hours through ‘empty’ countryside, you end up talking about almost anything,” she said. “Favorite foods, music, what you really thought about the movie Frozen, how the weather can affect your attitude for the day, and even what you would do if your friend broke a leg on the trail.”
Meanwhile, members of the Erskine group were meeting people from everywhere. “I met people from Latvia, Australia, Korea, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Hungary, and more places all over the world,” DeVos said. “The Camino has a way of bringing together people who have absolutely nothing in common other than the Camino itself.”
Savarese agreed. Referring to the fact that the Camino comprises several routes that converge on Santiago de Compostelo, he noted that near the end of the path, pilgrims from across the world are “all walking toward the end together.”
“I definitely created some new friendships!” Watkins said. “We met people from all over the world and it was so cool to get to know them in such an adventurous environment.”
“One of my favorite conversations involved me listening to a Galician’s opinion on the Basque region’s independent movement,” Randall said. “And I was able to explore different dialects and languages, which I personally find fantastically intriguing.”
“I will probably never see any of them again,” DeVos said of pilgrims she met, “but our conversations and times together are memories I will never forget.”
Big backpacks, less stress
Walking through the Spanish countryside with your belongings in a backpack can pierce through the preoccupations and distractions of a college student’s life. Time for prayer and reflection, the stimulus of new surroundings, even coping with another culture seemed to help students achieve some insights or give them a sense that they had changed somehow.
“When you are by yourself walking for that long in a country you’re not used to, you have a lot of time to think and reflect,” Savarese said. “This allows you to contemplate anything and everything. It also changes you in little ways that you are almost unable to describe.”
Randall enjoyed the absence of busyness. “I think I definitely affirmed my affinity for languages and politics,” she said. “Usually, I don’t have time to truly appreciate the things I study, but in Spain, there were no assignments or papers to write—I could simply absorb what I was learning through experience.”
Watkins liked having time to think. “Especially when I was walking alone, I had plenty of time to take in the view and just be alone with my thoughts,” she said. “I’m usually so busy during the semester I just think about things on a week-by-week basis really. This trip gave me the best opportunities to truly relax and calmly process everything that’s been stored up in my head but not really looked at.”
A new take “on many topics,” Watkins said, resulted from that interlude of calm. “How I relate to people, how I go about doing a task or chores, everything I do from now on will somehow be tinted a little with what I learned from my Camino experience.”
DeVos found herself letting her mind wander, thinking of “metaphors for life, which were plentiful on the Camino.”
“There is always another hill,” she said, “no matter now many times the professor tells you it’s the last one.”
Burriss reflected on previous Camino experiences as well as his perspective as a professor leading students on the trip.
“It’s not a guided tour. It is a very individual journey,” he said.
“As always, the most rewarding aspect of the trip is the realization that when faced with insurmountable odds you overcome through God’s help, others’ generosity, and the knowledge that you have no option but to keep walking.”
DeVos found that carrying everything on her back simplified her thinking. Now that she has returned, “I find myself a lot less attached to physical things and a lot more confident in my ability to figure things out when it’s tough,” she said.
“People, places, and problems came and went on the Camino,” she added. “I think the most valuable lesson I learned was how to let go of what didn’t matter and hold onto what does.”
See more photos here.
More about Santiago de Compostela here.