Unexpected Joy

Hunter with his Dutch friends at a café in Santiago. 

Hunter with his Dutch friends at a café in Santiago. 

I am re-posting this story from a year ago with a new introduction for future pilgrims. As you contemplate walking the Camino, or begin making plans, be aware that this sort of thing is pretty normal. Notice I didn't say "common," because it is a miracle. I want to say that miracles happen more than we might recognize. The following story is the most amazing account of an unexpected Camino reunion we know, and worth reading for the smile it will bring to you. It always points me to meditate on the fact that God is involved in the smallest details of our lives, and creates opportunities for joy when we least expect it. I suggest you read it today with this in mind, "If this sort of thing happened to Hunter and this couple, what might happen to me on the Camino?" You can't plan these things, but be aware that they happen all the time. We might notice them more often on the Camino, because so many of life's distractions are stripped away, but look for them everywhere and all the time.--Helen Van Wagenen

 “The people you meet!” This is one of the top answers returning pilgrims give to the question, What is the highlight of your Camino, and why do you recommend it to others? There are also sacred moments in nature, in a church or cathedral, and even in the midst of mundane daily pilgrim life that stick in the memory and even change your perspective on “normal life.” But the relationships you form with others through a shared pilgrim experience, if only for a day, are some of the greatest gifts you receive on the Camino.

Some of the people you will meet on the Camino may only spend a few hours with you, others will spend days and weeks with you, but regardless of the amount of time you spend together you will find that some individuals leave a mark on you. Whether you find kinship in spirit or share faith or interests, they stay on your mind even after you lose track of them, or part company because of different travel paces or plans. For this reason, the city of Santiago is a wonderful place for reunions.

The plaza in front of the Cathedral (Praza da Obradoiro) is a common place to experience and witness these reunions between pilgrim friends who were separated on the way, but it can happen at restaurants, in a random street, or even on a bus or train. These are sweet moments that can be a highlight of your time in Santiago and overall Camino experience. I have been amazed at the people I recognize again and feel kinship with, sometimes weeks after being together for only a few hours. One story, however, trumps all other reunion experiences I’ve had or know about, and spans several years.

I finally met the couple after a few days of seeing them on the trail in June of 2011. They were instantly noticeable from a distance, both being tall and trim, the man always pulling luggage on a small, two-wheeled cart that looked homemade. He and his wife both had ready smiles as I walked past. The day I introduced myself to them Gerry and Audrey told me some of their story. They had set out walking from their front door in the Netherlands, and were almost 3,000 kilometers into their walk! We happened to stay at the same albergue one night, and everyone celebrated Audrey’s birthday. She was turning 67, and Gerry was already 70! We did not interact very much after that night, and I did not see them after I reached Santiago, but they stayed in my memory. 

Fast forward to June of 2014 when my parents, Helen & Wick Van Wagenen, and I were in Santiago visiting friends. We chose to eat lunch at a corner restaurant in the old town so we could keep an eye out for any pilgrims who looked like they could use a free lunch or some English conversation. As we were settling in at our table, I instantly noticed a couple sitting a few tables away who seemed familiar. Could it possibly be Gerry and Audrey? And would they even remember me after three years? I hesitated to approach them, but with encouragement from my mom I walked to their table and reminded them of my name and our 2011 meeting. Joy and relief filled their faces. 

After hugging me tightly Gerry and Audrey said they did indeed remember me, but had also hesitated in approaching me in case there was a mistake. As we talked, memories of the pilgrimage three years before flooded our minds faster than we could speak, and we laughed and cried for the sheer happiness of such an improbable meeting. It was a sacred moment, one I will carry for the rest of my life.

I have wondered with other pilgrims, are these sorts of experiences more noticeable because we are more alert to them on the Camino, or do they actually happen more frequently on this sacred path than they do in other places? Whatever the case, Camino reunions are part of what make Santiago such a special city, and part of why Camino memories last a lifetime. This one was unquestionably miraculous.

What about you? What are some of the most meaningful reunion experiences you’ve had on the Camino? Or did you experience a Camino miracle of another kind? We would love to hear from you. Write to us at info@CaminoProvisions.com.

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Hunter Van Wagenen’s Camino experiences began in 2007, and he enjoys sharing the humorous and the miraculous stories and practical advice he has lived and collected. He currently lives in Greensboro, NC with his wife Stephie. Their dream is to live in Spain helping pilgrims.