Some of you may know, just before meeting my dad in Pamplona to start our Camino, I spent the previous week volunteering in the pilgrim office in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port (SJPdP), France. Many people begin their pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in that town. They walk into our small office thinking we are there just to sell them their Camino credential (passport) and give them their first Camino stamp. I did both of those things for 60 to 90 pilgrims every day. But in addition, we give them a list of all of the pilgrim accommodations along the 500 mile journey, an elevation map, and go over with them—in detail—the route for their first day (because it is the hardest day of the entire Camino and we want to do our best to prepare them). In addition, I answer any and all questions they have (to the best of my ability). I would get questions about accommodations, safety, food, alternative transportation, pack transfer services, my own Camino experiences, and many other things. But it was made clear to me in the six pages of instructions I received via email a month before I arrived: my number one job was to reassure people. Which now makes so much sense to me. Deciding to walk any portion of the Camino to Santiago is a big decision, and to finally arrive at your starting point, the thing that people most want (though they may not realize it) is reassurance.
It takes most pilgrims 3 to 4 days to walk from SJPDP to Pamplona. Therefore, I knew that the people I was checking in on Friday and Saturday were ones that I might see again—as I was going to take the bus to Pamplona to meet my dad to start walking the following Wednesday.
And here we are. . . nearly every day it happens that someone smiles at me and then pauses and looks quizzically. Some recognize me right away. Others are not sure where they’ve met me before. One young man saw me, Dad, and Patricia having dinner in Estella. He came over to us to specifically thank me for helping him at the start of his journey. It turns out he had been sitting at the table next to us that night, and after sharing his thanks he gave us the rest of his bottle of red wine before he headed back to his hostel for the night.
Last night, Marjorie approached me thanking me for my help before she began her journey. It was now the last night of her one week walk on the Camino, and she shared with me the details of her challenging first day, and how proud she was of what she had accomplished.
Many people who have volunteered on the Camino told me, before my first time volunteering, that volunteering along the route was even better than walking it. Having volunteered twice so far, I completely understand the sentiment. But I might change it to say that even better than walking or volunteering is doing a hybrid of both. Getting a chance to see the people that you were able to help is quite an incredible way to experience the Camino to Santiago!