A Handy Guide to 13 Types of Camino Pilgrim

Canadian travel writer Dean Johnston travelled the Camino de Santiago with his wife in 2012. Here he shares with us an excerpt from his book Behind the Albergue Door: Inspiration Agony Adventure on the Camino de Santiago, an humorous (combined with some advice!) account of his Camino.

He encountered 13 different types of Camino pilgrims. Do you recognise yourself in any of them?

By Dean Johnston

The biggest surprise of the Camino for us? That an 800 kilometre trial of physical and emotional endurance would end up being defined, not by the landscape or the hiking challenges, but by the people we met along the way. Some became great friends and almost constant companions. We became very tight with others for a short period of time and then went our separate ways and never ran into them again. Some people we thought were gone would suddenly reappear just when we least expected them, like long lost t-shirts tucked in between the sweaters in your bottom drawer. Many more were casual acquaintances that would drift in and out of our social orbit at random intervals, or we into theirs, depending on your perspective. dean-bookIt was a social dynamic similar to others we’ve experienced while travelling but on a far greater scale. More people, more interaction, a longer time frame working toward a more definite and concrete goal. It reminded me of how I always imagined it would have been to be part of the pioneer rush to the Old West, but instead of hunting buffalo for food, wearing tattered overalls and dreading small pox we hunted tri-daily doses of chewy salami, wore filthy Northface gear and dreaded picking up the annoying dry cough that Dutch guy kept on with all night. The scarcity of pillowcases was probably the same, though.

Hundreds of pilgrims of all ages, nationalities and walks of life meeting, greeting, conversing, sizing each other up and doing their earnest best to describe sausage in all sorts of languages. The variety of the pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago is well-documented and glaringly evident every time you glance around the dorm room to see who is surreptitiously watching you change your pants this time. And just because all these wonderful pilgrims we met had their own particular situation, story and typical blister pattern is in no way going to stop me from taking all these fascinating and unique individuals and trivializing them through the use of some loose generalizations and offensive categorization. Because, let’s be honest here, these groups are all very real.

The Mid-Life Crisis

Recognizable traits
A minor change in appearance that seems unrealistically major to them, such as a haircut or a fledgling beard. Repetitive use of phrases such as “still got it”, “back in my day I could…” and “no, really, don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine”. An inability to have a conversation that does not somehow circle back to their job at home.

Reasons they are great to have around
Fiercely determined to make this the single greatest experience of their entire life. Having grossly over-packed, by day 5 they will be giving away all sorts of expensive gear. They will spring for dinner any time they get three glasses of wine in them.

Why you might want to take a break occasionally
Drawing continuous comparisons between fellow pilgrims and things their children have done. Their mood gets a little dark when the novelty of shared bathrooms wears off. There is a fifty-fifty chance they will try to sleep with you.

The Bucket List

Recognizable traits
Grey hair and two walking sticks. Spending an abnormal amount of time in the bathroom. They never go outside without a hat with a large brim.

Reasons they are great to have around
A pleasant demeanor stemming from a true appreciation for this opportunity. They never want to take a turn on the shared computer but always give away their cheese.

Why you might want to take a break occasionally
They always need a bottom bunk. Snoring is seemingly mandatory. Who the hell is Jimmy Carter and why do they like him so much?

The Journey of Self-Discovery

Recognizable traits
Seem bewildered and confused as to how to start an epiphany. Often seen trying to figure out the new phone they bought to replace the one they lost along with their job. Walking alone in intense concentration.

Reasons they are great to have around
Obstinately open to anything the Camino has to teach them (including new card games). They are seriously humble. Will believe anything.

Why you might want to take a break occasionally
Deep meaning is attached to everything from beautiful rainbows to prematurely ripe bananas. Often seem one broken strap or new blister away from a sniper-in-the-clock-tower episode. Self-reflection often makes them cry.

The Gap Year

Recognizable traits
The large noise-cancelling headphones that make them look like they should be waving a plane in for landing. Earnestly trying to convince people to keep drinking past 10 pm. Mistakenly referring to it as Santiago de Consuela.

Reasons they are great to have arounddean-book-caminoways-blog
You’ll never be the drunkest one. Having someone around to bum cigarettes from. A handy reference for all Rihanna-related questions.

Why you might want to take a break occasionally
Waiting while they do their hair. Repeated use of the terms “yolo” and “cray cray”. Their only travel stories are about spring break in Cancún last year.

The “True” Pilgrim

Recognizable traits
Asking for directions to the local “refugio”. The pity in their eyes when they see you reading a guidebook. Eating alone.

Reasons they are great to have around
A cautionary tale regarding only children and homeschooling. Their unbridled enthusiasm makes your moaning seem almost laid back. The look on the hospitalero’s face when told that charging €5 per night for a bed is equivalent to slapping St. James in the face.

Why you might want to take a break occasionally
Feeling ashamed about checking your email. All the arbitrary rules can cause stress headaches. Getting caught checking into a hotel is punishable by caning.

The Movie Buff

Recognizable traits
Their backpack matches Martin Sheen’s from “The Way”. Constant complaints about the movie “not mentioning anything about the pain”. Crossing the Pyrenees on day 1 they suggest travelling in a group for safety.

Reasons they are great to have around
They can point out all the landmarks from the film. They still believe all Dutch guys are jolly. They no longer expect Canadians to be.

Why you might want to take a break occasionally
They actually believe you could take a swing at a cop and walk away the next day. They think it’s cute to fail in an attempt to quit smoking. The goatee that matches Emilio Estevez’s.

Just Here for the Party

Recognizable traits
Spanish. Drunk. They appeared out of thin air in León.

Reasons they are great to have around
Lightening the atmosphere. Learning a lot of new Spanish profanity. Feeling energetic when you start hiking before anyone else in your dorm room has woken up.

Why you might want to take a break occasionally
The difficulty of falling asleep to the clink of wine glasses and people bellowing “Salud!” every eight minutes. Wine belches in a small space. Morning lineups for the toilet.

The Returnee

Recognizable traits
A ridiculously small backpack. Enthusiastically describing the next town in great detail while still in the one previous. Taking lots of breaks to just soak it all in.

Reasons they are great to have around
Relentless grinning. Hearing about how much harder everything was last time around. They know all the best places to buy bananas.

Why you might want to take a break occasionally
Getting tired of sentences that start with “last time”. You start having nightmares about the Meseta a week before reaching it. You know the complete life story of three of their previous pilgrimage companions and have become Facebook friends with a fourth.

The Hiker

Recognizable traits
Baffled looks every time a stranger talks to them. Stories about where their backpack has been. Leaning against things to stretch out their calves.

Reasons they are great to have around
The extra state-of-the-art carabiners they can lend you. The detailed hike overview they prepare daily. An endless source of hiking advice.

Why you might want to take a break occasionally
Knowing how many ounces their sleeping bag weighs. They refer to rest breaks as “time theft”. An endless source of hiking advice.

The Upper Class

Recognizable traits
Trying to pay for a café con leche with a platinum card. Peering at you from the window of a van during the difficult stretches. Their bags are waiting for them in their hotel room with a view of the cathedral.

Reasons they are great to have around
Unifying outrage toward them brings everyone in the albergue together. They can get you as many individual shampoo packets as you want. Feeling superior even while you are sobbing on the toilet.

Why you might want to take a break occasionally
They get upset when the bar doesn’t have a bottle of 2001 La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza in stock. The exhaust fumes from their passing van makes it hard to breathe on that steep uphill section. When they visit the albergue just long enough to take some photos of the “dorm folk”.dean-book-image2-caminoways-blog

The Devout

Recognizable traits
Spending several hours per day taking photos of churches. Explaining the concept of purgatory. Grimacing whenever you describe something as a “shitstorm”.

Reasons they are great to have around
Will forgive anything, even leaving your wet towel on their bunk. They know how Mass works. Heaven by association?

Why you might want to take a break occasionally
Describing things they like as “seriously pope-worthy”. Silently judging admiration for Snoop Dogg. Insisting your blisters are part of God’s plan.

The Breakup

Recognizable traits
A hang-dog expression and red-rimmed eyes. Stories starting with “When [blank] and I were still together…” Long hours spent on Facebook intently examining party photos for tell-tale gestures and dead giveaways.

Reasons they are great to have around
Wingmen always get free drinks. One word – rebound. They are used to splitting the cost of things.

Why you might want to take a break occasionally
Their schedule is based entirely on that of the cute guy with the hat that said hi to them at lunch. Weeping in the middle of the night. Asking you thrice daily what your take is on the “hottie situation”.

The Biggest Loser

Recognizable traits
Noticeably overweight. Asking shopkeepers where they keep the celery. Drinking Coke Zero.

Reasons they are great to have around
They make you feel good about your slightly smaller paunch. The book of celebrity diets you can borrow. Every time you say “I had no idea how many calories were in just one cup of ice cream” they will give you theirs.

Why you might want to take a break occasionally
Repeatedly asking what you think about the girth of their thighs. Always mumbling “no more for me” with their mouth full. The way they leer at you while you eat doughnuts.

The bottom line, however, is that we made a lot of good friends and spent far more time with them than we had expected to, and when the Camino ended and we all left in different directions it felt abrupt, shocking and sad all at the same time. Kind of like when I found my first grey belly hair. Of course, the list of people who influenced our Camino was hardly limited to people we hiked with and came to consider friends. For better or worse, every day was filled with interactions that alternately enriched, frustrated or brightened our days and nights. Every bartender, every passing pilgrim, every unshaven old man lurking in the bushes with his fly undone had an effect on what we ultimately took away from the whole experience.

*This is an excerpt from Behind the Albergue Door: Inspiration Agony Adventure on the Camino de Santiago. You can find out more about it, or check out Dean’s Camino de Santiago blog at http://deanjohnston.net/

Leave comment