Camino de Santiago: a female experience.
Last fall, I travelled almost 800km by foot. I started in St. Jean Pied du Port, a tiny village at the foot of the Pyrennaes in the southwest of France, and I walked all the way across northern Spain until I got to Santiago de Compostela, and then further until I reached the ocean and silently watched the sundown at the most western edge of Spain.
The Camino de Santiago.
Walking the Camino was certainly one of the most special things I've ever done. I will write more about it in other posts. In this one, however, I want to share some of the explicitly female experiences of my pilgrimage.
Before I started my journey, I briefly skimmed several internet forums where you could get all sorts of advice for your pilgrimage. I was mainly interested in the weather conditions during the autumn and also searching for advice about appropriate clothing and tips to save weight (it's recommended that your backpack should not exceed 10% of your body weight). But again and again, I stumbled upon forum threads in which women discussed the safety issues for female pilgrims travelling alone. At first, I simply ignored it. I normally rather stick to the motto "ignorance is bliss" when it comes to safety warnings for my travel destination. I think that reading every warning, every report, every horror story just makes you paranoid and anxious.
But these questions kept on popping up, no matter what Camino page or forum I was visiting. Eventually, I read a few discussions and articles but although they mentioned some pretty nasty incidents of harassment and molestation, they didn't keep me from going on the walk alone. As fucked up as it is - but as women, we are always exposed to the danger of harassment, no matter where we are. When I read accounts of female pilgrims facing exhibitionists who were watching them and masturbating, I thought of my friend who once had the same experience in an elevator in the middle of town.
"Being in the middle of nowhere, no streets, no cars, no houses, no people anywhere near, without a phone, without anyone who knew where I was, without knowing where to run in case I'd need refuge, I felt vulnerable and exposed."
So while I cannot emphasize enough what an incredible and life-changing experience my pilgrimage was, there were certainly some drawbacks that many female travelers will recognise.
For me, it was very annoying that I had to adjust my days to other pilgrims. While many people liked to get up before sunrise and start walking between 6.30 and 7.00, I liked to sleep in a little longer to avoid the big morning rush. I found it much nicer to wait until most pilgrims had packed their stuff and hit the road before I got up and ready for another day of walking. I liked to walk in my own slow pace, marvel at the nature surrounding me, dwell on my thoughts, and take breaks wherever and whenever I wanted. Those who got up early and walked fast usually arrived at the next albergue in the early afternoon. That's when I oftentimes had walked not much more than half of my day's route. I loved the afternoon and early evening hours, when the light slowly started to get softer, the air cooler, and I sometimes wouldn't see another pilgrim for 10km or so.
But the problem was: those were the times when I felt most unsafe. I am not an anxious woman. I travel alone, I hitchhike alone, I take long wanders through forests, fields, mountains, I walk in deserted streets at night. But still I decided not to walk the Camino alone during late afternoon and evening hours, let alone after nightfall. Being in the middle of nowhere, no streets, no cars, no houses, no people anywhere near, without a phone, without anyone who knew where I was, without knowing where to run in case I'd need refuge, I felt vulnerable and exposed. All of a sudden, the silence around me felt threatening, and whereas I'd initially been happy to be rid of the constant stream of pilgrims behind, ahead, and around me, I suddenly noticed that nobody would be there if I needed help. All my Camino friends and acquaintances had either stayed in the last village or were far ahead of me and wouldn't know that I was still on the road. So I mostly ended up hurrying along, covering up any bare skin on my body, no matter how hot the sun shone down from the sky. My heart was racing, I looked around every other minute, didn't dare to listen to music over my headphones, and kept my pocket knife in my belt bag. Sometimes, when I heard motor sounds in the distance, I would hide behind trees or bushes, just to avoid any risk of facing uncomfortable or dangerous situations.
During those moments, it was simply pure instinct that kicked in and turned me into this alert, tense, frightened animal. The Camino is a very safe travel route. In fact, I never met so many single female travelers of all ages, which was an amazing and heartening experience. I also want to stress that I met so many wonderful guys and two of them became my best Camino friends. They supported and understood my decision to not walk alone when I felt unsafe and offered me their company whenever I felt like I wanted to push an extra few kilometers at the end of the day. Nothing happened to me, and I was sure it wouldn't. But in fact, I did have a few very uncomfortable encounters with men when I was walking on my own. They would start walking or driving very close to me, leering at my body and talking to me, no matter how much I tried to ignore them. Guapa, where you from, why you out here all alone, a pretty girl like you, don't you have a boyfriend to take care of you?, and so on. I know that this is completely normal in many countries (and I have experienced it many times) but does that make me feel any better? No. I was lucky and those men gave up after a while, I think it was just their normal way to interact with single females they encountered along their way. Still, these incidents left a bad taste in my mouth and I decided to better be safe than sorry. So no lonesome afternoon/evening walks anymore.
Spanish phrases you should remember as a female pilgrim, just in case: "No me toques!" (Don’t touch me)."Estoy casáda!" (I am married). "Mi marido está en el albergue!" (My husband is at the albergue).
Others haven't been so lucky. In 2015, Denise Thiem, an American woman, was raped and murdered on the Camino. That seems to have (re-)sparked a debate around sexual harassment of peregrinas (female pilgrims). Exhibitionists, harassment, attempted rape. The list of reports is long and the internet forums suggest that these experiences are quite common. It seems that many cases are never reported, or if they are, the police does not take the issue serious. Even in pilgrims' forums, personal accounts of harassment get (male) comments such as: "Has been like that for years. Like any country. Walk safely and not alone.". And to be honest: I have been in various situations (though none on the Camino) where strangers grabbed my butt or tried to pull me close. Would I ever report that to the police? No! It is such a normal part of female experience that at the time I didn't even think of it as harassment.
On the way, I met an amazing woman from Italy, Grazia Andriola, who was on a protest march (#steptostopviolence) to raise awareness for violence against women, and publicly mourn the murder of Denise Thiem and Pippa Bacca. Grazia was certainly fierce and formidable. By the time I met her she had walked well over 2500 km in the burning summer sun through Italy and France, and looked like a beautiful battered Camino warrior. I fought to hold back the tears when we talked because I was overwhelmed by the strength and love and wisdom in her eyes. I adored her for remaining so calm and friendly when she talked to men who were questioning her mission (I overheard one of these conversations), without ever giving up on her cause.
I myself get mad when I talk to male travelers who don't take me serious or roll their eyes at me when I tell them how different (as in: more difficult, dangerous, intimidating) it is to travel as a single female. Who question my credibility, who question every woman's credibility, and in all seriousness explain to me why I am wrong and my attitude just perpetuates outdated gender divides (my favourite sort of mensplaining: mensplaining feminism and female experience). Strangely, those guys are mostly tall, very attractive, very charming, and react very allergic to the words "male privilege".
It gets me mad how normal (and necessary) it is to have safety warnings directed solely at women. For the Camino, there are entire lists for female travellers, including advice as:
* Walk through the airport or bus/train station with confidence. If you don’t know where you are going, go directly to the tourist information desk.
* If asked if you are traveling alone and you feel uncomfortable with the person, say that your friend/husband/boyfriend is meeting you at the next stop.
* If you drink alcohol, don’t over indulge. A drunken woman can too easily become a target of unwanted attention.
And then the Spanish phrases you should remember as a female pilgrim, just in case: "No me toques!" (Don’t touch me)."Estoy casáda!" (I am married). "Mi marido está en el albergue!" (My husband is at the albergue).
Violations of female travelers are not bound to specific countries or cultures, just as misogyny is not bound to a specific country or culture. There are countless horrifying reports about barbaric rape and murder of female travelers all around the world. They rarely make it into the headlines and they are hardly ever connected to paint a picture of systematic male violence. Lauren Wolfe reflects on female travel experience in her NY-Times article: "We weigh our bodily integrity against our desire to see the world. For us, for women, there is a different tourist map of the globe, one in which we are told to consider the length of our skirts and the cuts of our shirts, the time of day in which we choose to move around, and the places we deem 'safe.'" And this is so true. Even on the Camino de Santiago with its reputation of safety and mutual protection, women have to make small decisions all the time: Should I walk alone through this forest or not? Should I talk to this guy or rather walk away? Do I have to be friendly to this male pilgrim who follows me around wherever I go? Can I cross this room in my underwear because there is no hangers in the showers? Do my clothes reveal too much of my body? Can I let him buy me a glass of whine or will that be interpreted as an invitation for more? Can I sleep in panties and crop top because it's steaming hot in here? How can I tell this guy that me being friendly doesn't mean I wanna hook up with him? Can I walk some more kilometers although it's getting dark? Will he believe me that my friends are only a little behind? Can I use my hiking pole for self-defense?*
If someone would ask me if the Camino is safe for female pilgrims traveling solo, I would definitely say yes. My pilgrimage took nearly six weeks and there were only three times when I was actually scared. Twice for a reason (guys approaching me in a way that scared me) and once because I thought of all the rape stories and got paranoid while walking 13km alone through a huge forest. Nothing bad happened to me or any of the female pilgrims I spoke to (apart from one woman who told me that an elderly pilgrim had tried to get into her bed!). I am quite sure that most of my fellow peregrinas did not even take notice of these little annoyances because they are such an integral part of female (travel) experience. The risk is certainly higher when you decide to walk alone for long stretches through deserted or remote areas but plenty of women do that without any bad experiences. Still, if you want to stay on the absolutely safe side, walk in a group or with one the fabulous individuals you'll meet on the way. If you prefer to walk alone, make sure there are pilgrims behind and ahead of you - even if you can't see them, it helps to know they are there. Take a look at the manifold advice online but don't let anything or anyone stop you from embarking on this amazing journey!
I myself will continue traveling, I will continue being inspired by all the amazing women who travel the world on their own, and I will continue standing up to guys who question our experiences.
* RyanAir lists trekking poles as weapons and I once used mine it to fend off an aggressive street dog, so I guess the answer is yes.