Approximately 112 kms from Santiago on the Camino Francés is the town of Sarria, which is a popular place to start a short Camino. Maybe because it takes about a week including travel and you still get to see Santiago … and maybe because the minimum distance you need to walk to claim your Compostela, is 100 km.
Sarria in itself is just another nice northern Spanish town with a river and all the pilgrim facilities you would expect, but it is also a watershed of sorts. At Sarria, the trickle of dusty and sun-bleached wanderers is hit by a flash flood of excited, fresh-legged and fragrant new peregrinos with colourful clothing and excess energy – especially the school children and teenagers chaperoned by teachers or priests. Things change. The longer you have been on the Way, the more you notice it.
The Sarria Thing is hard to explain and different for everybody, but some concrete changes are noticeable for the pilgrims who started further away:
– There are suddenly people everywhere. A lot more people. And they seem different than the ones you were walking with before. They don’t say Buen Camino (possibly because they don’t know about it) or even hi, they sometimes behave as if they are in any other crowd on any pavement in any city in the world. Of course they do – they have just stepped off that pavement somewhere and not had the benefit of weeks of gentle removal from that world.
– It is harder to find a moment to be alone, almost impossible to take a photo without other pilgrims in it – and the new people tend not to think twice about walking into the lovely landscape picture you have waited two minutes to take because the last batch of daypacks took their time to get out of the frame. But remember they see only what is there, pilgrims and all, and not the path you have had to yourself.
– The influx of people means a lot more pressure on accommodation. There is also a lot more accommodation to choose from, and people you have seen almost every day for weeks suddenly aren’t in your albergue anymore. Some of the newcomers have prebooked beds or rooms, and soon the Dusties start doing the same to avoid the ‘bed race’ or just so they can take their time to get there and really savour the last week of their journey (also by starting late to avoid the crowds).
– The number of people with small daypacks increases dramatically. The majority of pilgrims around you seems to have sent their luggage ahead, and there is a bus around every corner waiting to pick up part time walkers to take them to prearranged meals and reserved rooms where their luggage will be waiting. I am all in favour of people doing the Camino the way they want, any way they can, but it still creates a tangible difference on the road. It’s like the old and new pilgrims don’t merge, because they get so few chances to – the luggage transport ones have normal clothes waiting in their hotel and don’t even look like pilgrims in the evenings, so how are you supposed to know which ones to invite to join you for dinner and share the pilgrim menu wine with you? Also there are lots of large groups who stick together and have no time or need to get to know random dusty folk that they’ll probably never meet again anyway.
– The dusty folk can also be guilty of a certain arrogance, of looking down on the Sarrians and their clean clothes and their short walk and their perceived Compostela greed. The Dusties have had their time on the road, have seen sunrises and mountain vistas and laughed and cried and found out things about people and life and, with some luck, themselves. Who knows how many of the Sarrians would have loved to have that opportunity, but for some or other reason can’t get time or find the money to do this. We Dusties should spend the walk from Sarria contemplating our luck, not letting excited Sarrians eat away at our Zen.
Basically, it can feel like the Camino you know and love is breaking up, desintegrating, and drags you kicking and screaming out of your bubble and back to the real world. It’s not a nice feeling, and it’s easy to (unfairly) blame it on the ‘new people’.
What I am trying to say, I suppose, is that walking to Sarria makes me think a lot more about why we do the things we do, how we choose to do it and how hard it sometimes is to let others do their thing their own way without prejudice or judgment. Personally I love having less in my pack and keep it with me all the time, I love the flexibility and freedom it gives me, but I have friends who could never walk the Camino without the help of luggage transport and the safety and comfort of private accommodation. I have no problem with that. I feel a little bit sorry for some of those who let doubt or fear convince them they couldn’t do it on their own and spent lots of money on the services of a Camino company. But while this can provide peace of mind, it also effectively locks them into an itinerary that might not to be right for them. I sometimes think that more people miss out on important life lessons from having to pare down the amount of stuff they carry with them and experiencing that it is possible to manage with less. I think it’s such a relief to let go of the make-up, the hair dryer, the TV, the habits and masks of everyday life and be someone same but also else, a pilgrim, a wanderer, an explorer.
Just some musings on a topic I know will pop up when I start my walk from Sarria with a first timer. I have been the Dusty, this time I will be a Sarrian, all fresh and fragrant – but hopefully not judgmental either way.