Answering "the Call of Nature"
A common misconception of future pilgrims I regularly have to correct is that the Camino de Santiago is a wilderness trail. Most Americans who hear about a 500-mile trek across Spain instantly imagine the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail, where hikers have to carry tents, food, and every necessity for days at a time. Not so on the Camino. There are villages and hamlets dotted across Spain, so it is rare to walk more than five miles without finding a place to eat, sleep, or take care of other business.
That said, answering the call of nature is still more difficult on the Camino than it is at home; the concept of public restrooms doesn’t exist in most places in Europe, and even with all of the infrastructure along the Way there will still come times when you need to go in the middle of nowhere. So what’s a well-hydrated pilgrim to do?
First of all, when you’re in a city or town you’ll deal mainly with two kinds of bathrooms (servicios, in Spanish). If you need to use the facilities on your way through a town, you are perfectly welcome to enter a café and ask, but before you do so it is considered proper etiquette to buy something. Restrooms are for paying customers only, so assure the barista that you plan to be a patron and she will much more gladly tell you where the facilities are. Even if you’re not hungry or thirsty for what the place has to offer, it’s worth the Euro or two to be polite and be able to use their servicio.
The other kind of servicio you will experience most often is what you will encounter in your albergue each night. These range in quality and cleanliness, sometimes becoming quite wet if they are in the same room as the showers, but the main discomfort that most English speakers will experience is the decreased privacy, and the cultural gap regarding showers and bathing. Most restrooms have stalls, yes, but sometimes only a curtain separates you from fellow throne room visitors, and the restrooms and showers are often not separated for genders. I have found most pilgrims are respectful in these cases, but consider this fair warning if you are shy. It took several showers with me huddled in a corner while a friendly Spaniard faced me full on during our conversation before I even approached being comfortable.
That’s all the etiquette for bathrooms in civilization, but what about when the need strikes between villages? When the Camino was relatively obscure, there was a good chance you could simply put some distance and a tree or bush between yourself and the path and not have to worry about some poor soul encountering your deposit; but now, as numbers continue to rise, you will actually see signs prohibiting pilgrims from relieving themselves at certain points along the way.
Our Camino Provisions team wants to prepare you not only to have the best experience possible on the Camino, but also to show respect for the Spaniards who live and work along the Way. As such, we recommend that pilgrims carry travel packs of tissues for clean-up and pet waste bags for their trash and waste, to be deposited in the closest trashcan. These small packs of tissues (pañuelos) are readily available in markets, and fit neatly in your pocket or pack. A couple of small rolls of pet waste bags are easy to buy before you leave home. Neither of these items are expensive or heavy, and “packing in/packing out” your waste will go a long way to keeping the Camino clean for everyone. While carrying some of your own… stuff… may not be the most appealing idea, remember that you are a guest in the country. If you don’t deal with your own crap, no one else will.
Hunter Van Wagenen’s Camino experiences began in 2007, and he enjoys sharing the humorous and the miraculous stories, in addition to practical advice he has lived and collected. His dream is to live in Spain helping pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. He currently lives in Greensboro, NC with his wife Stephie, who will walk her first Camino this summer with Hunter. hunter@CaminoProvisions.com