I’ve been following a thread on one of the forums – about a series of armed robberies on the Camino Via de la Plata. A couple of men wearing balaclavas and brandishing knives have been stealing money off pilgrims walking alone.
It was a disturbing thread for a number of reasons – firstly, you set off on a pilgrimage believing you’ll be safe. That somehow the sacred nature of your journey will guard you from harm. But of course that’s nonsense. The Camino is like any other public place. You are vulnerable to the vagaries of man.
Secondly it’s disturbing that the economic situation in Spain is such that some men feel they need to rob others with a threat of violence. That’s sad.
Historically, pilgrims have always been subject to robbery and sometimes violence along the Camino. In ages past it was far far worse than it is today. The police in Spain want to prevent crime on the Camino, because the Camino brings much needed revenue to towns and regions that desperately need it.
And let’s put these recent incidents into context. The robberies have evidently been occurring on a remote part of the Via de la Plata out of Seville, where there are long distances between towns or habitations. Not the more popular Camino Frances. And it seems like this recent spate is the work of just two men – not several different thieves on different Caminos.
Of all the people who walk the Camino each year – and we’re into the millions – how many report being robbed or threatened? Hardly any. So the Camino is not unsafe. It’s just that you’ve got to be aware of your personal safety as you do anywhere, particularly if you’re a woman walking alone.
(Just on those figures – John Walker from the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago told me that for every pilgrim who receives a Compostela each year, the Office estimates that there’s another ten that walk the Camino but either don’t complete the pilgrimage, or don’t receive a Compostela. More than 200,000 pilgrims received a Compostela last year – so multiply that by ten, and you have more than 2 million people walking parts of the Camino last year. That is staggering.)
People regularly report stuff stolen from their backpacks in albergues – even those that put their valuables in their sleeping bags while they’re asleep. And in some of the larger towns, pickpockets are known to target pilgrims.
I’ve always said, being a pilgrim walking the Camino doesn’t imbue you with a spiritual immunity from crime.
Particularly for someone doing their first Camino, there’s a warm fuzzy sense of being a part of a spiritual journey, and a belief that your fellow pilgrim has the same purity of intent that you do. You trust your fellow pilgrim. You want to believe that because they too are part of this sacred and ancient walk, that they too are honourable honest people.
And 99% are.
But the Camino does attract opportunists. Waiting to prey on the weak and vulnerable. And pilgrims are at times very vulnerable. They’re vulnerable because they trust, they’re vulnerable because often they’re exhausted or suffering from injuries, some are vulnerable because they’re naive or innocent. The Camino might be their first big trip alone overseas, and they’re not savvy to the scams and the dangers.
Someone on this post said all pilgrims are good people. Let me tell you, they’re not.
But amongst those 2 million people who walk along the Camino each year, some are thieves, some are scammers, some are simply not nice people. Labelling yourself a pilgrim, getting your Credential and putting a scallop shell on your backpack doesn’t immediately make you a good person with a good heart.
In an albergue in Astorga, I saw someone leave their iPhone on a charger and head out for dinner. I warned the person, but they shrugged and smiled, said it would be ok. Later they came back and of course their phone had been stolen.
The Camino for me represents the journey through life.
You go through various stages – of hope, of disappointment, of frustration. Sometimes you get angry. You have times when you strike obstacles, when you struggle, when everything is boring and tedious. But then you also have times when you’re unbelievably happy, when you triumph. When you win. When you can only ever see beauty around you. You meet people along the way that change your life, and you might in some way change their’s too. And you learn huge lessons.
That’s the Camino. And that’s life.
As in life, you’re going to meet some good people, and some whose energies are confused. Sometimes foul. They’re not bad, because I don’t believe anyone is bad – they’re just unwise.
As in life, you have to be careful. You have to be aware. But you must never let fear take over. Fear limits you. Fear reduces and taints your experiences. Fear leads to antipathy. To hate. To rejection. Fear takes away the joy.
The Camino is a joyful experience. But it doesn’t give you spiritual immunity.