Imagine growing up with the finish line of the Camino de Santiago at your doorstep. That’s what Monica Montero, founder of the Pilgrims of Santiago project, experienced as a child. She grew up in New York and spent all her summers with her grandmother in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Every day she witnessed pilgrims pushing through the end of a 500-mile (or more!) journey, making their way to the square where the monumental cathedral stands. “It was a natural sight for me,” she reflects. This upbringing instilled in her a love for storytelling, inspiring her career as a journalist and a curiosity to meet people and hear their stories.
In September 2019, she started the Pilgrims of Santiago project as a way to document the feelings and thoughts of pilgrims. “It’s meant to be a source of inspiration straight from those who have just experienced it,” Monica explains.
Without further ado, here’s Lotus Compass’s interview with Monica Montero of Pilgrims of Santiago.
How did you learn about the Camino de Santiago?
I´ve known about the Camino de Santiago since I can remember. My father is from Santiago, so for many years it has been one of those things that I grew up with and didn’t think about too much.
How did that change? What does the Camino de Santiago mean to you now?
My father was born in a small village along the Camino. Once, together with some cousins, we began walking the Camino from the door of that family house. Then, a few years ago when my dad was in a critical operation at the hospital, I made a bit of a desperate promise to walk that same last leg of the Camino if he survived. He made it through and I walked the Camino again. I´ll never forget the happiness on his face when he saw me come in through the front door, realizing that I had walked all those kilometers for him. I felt like my legs were going to fall off and he kept teasing me for it. I had walked it for him.
Wow – that’s so inspiring!! How did you come up with the Pilgrims of Santiago project?
You inevitably meet pilgrims when living in Santiago. My parents and I would often tell each other over lunch about a pilgrim we had spoken to that morning. I realized how beautiful and meaningful some of these conversations were. As a journalist, I wanted to document and share them.
What inspires you to continue working on it?
Plus, they have proven to themselves that they can overcome obstacles they once believed to be impossible and this is powerful to see. It´s humbling to speak to someone who has just finished the Camino. I feel very lucky to be able to speak with them. I remember each and every conversation because each is different and unforgettable.
If you had to guess…how many pilgrims have you interviewed so far?
I record and take notes for all of them. So far, I´ve interviewed around 80 pilgrims.
Can you remember an interview/a pilgrim’s story that profoundly impacted you while working on this project?
There have been many pilgrim stories that have impacted me. I´ll share them with you in their own words:
– Matthew from Vancouver Island who had been hit by a car and thought the Camino would be just one more physical challenge on his bucket list to prove his strength: “In all my trips I had an idea in mind. I wanted to say ´screw the world!´, I can still do these things. I came into the Camino thinking this would be just like my biking trip, that it would be a physical challenge. Turns out, I was in for a spiritual one.”
– Father Steve, Texas: “I bring United States combat veterans on the Camino to heal from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and moral injury since 2016.”
– Kana from Japan: “I always feel that I am so fragile. I did the Camino to show myself that I am strong, mentally and physically. Last week I wanted to quit and return to Japan, but I became strong and finished it.”
– Bill from Oklahama: “Two little old ladies stopped me in the street and one of them gave me the medallion she was wearing around her neck. In my limited Spanish I understood that she wanted me take it to Santiago for her. Someone had given it to her many years ago. She blessed me with it and said it would keep me safe. She kissed me on the cheek and put it around my neck. My newfound quest was to cross Spain and bring this medallion to the Cathedral of Santiago.”
– Matthew from Wales who ran 1140 kilometers in 21 days to raise money for CMMB, an NGO that helps women and children suffering poverty in South Sudan. “I had become a bit disillusioned with the bureaucracy of the health care service back home (UK). About 2.5 years ago I went through a difficult time and had half-managed it. The Camino was my way of connecting with my deeper side and with other people as well.”
– Gaffar from Kurdistan: “I did not do the Camino for religious reasons because I am Musli
I also met a group from a U.S. organization called I´ll Push You that brings volunteers to push the wheelchairs of pilgrims who cannot physically walk the Camino.
There are also some very original pilgrims like Taz from Tasmania that literally flipped a coin at every point along the way to choose which path to take in honor of the Greek god Dionysus.
Many pilgrims are simply trying to find clarity after having lost their jobs, a divorce or just to take some time off to think about their future. Everyone has a story to tell.
What do you think pilgrimage can teach the modern-day person?
Man´s need to understand the most basic and universal questions such as the meaning of life and our place in the world is as old as time itself. Since ancient times pilgrimages allow us to take a break from our everyday in order to connect with something “bigger” that we cannot easily define, but we can all feel.
No matter how scientifically advanced we may become, these same universal tenets and questions will remain and continue to define us as human.
Perhaps we need pilgrimages now more than ever amidst the upheaval and uncertainty that the entire planet is undergoing.
Any advice for someone who would like to walk the Camino de Santiago one day?
I think the best advice is to do it with an open heart and let the Camino reveal itself to you. A Spanish pilgrim named Eduardo once told me, “The Camino always teaches you what you need at that moment; perhaps not what you want, but what you need.”
The beauty is that for each person the Camino takes on a different form. For some it takes the form of a physical challenge, for others it is a pause and for others it is more of a spiritual journey. Many pilgrims have told me that they were surprised by “things that happen” along the way.
I totally agree. That’s great advice. Any other comments to conclude?
The best known Camino is el Camino Francés. However, there are several other ancient and traditional caminos that also lead to Santiago de Compostela such as el Camino del Norte which follows the northern coast of Spain, el Camino Primitivo, and el Camino de la Plata.
There are many more things I could say, but I don´t want to ruin the elements of surprise and spontaneity. We´re losing them in our super connected and image saturated world. I rather each pilgrim experience the Camino for themselves and not risk spoiling it by saying too much! 😉
As Monica says, “Few experiences in this world are comparable to El Camino. ” We most definitely agree with her. Thank you, Monica, for sharing your story with us, and thank sharing the stories of pilgrims from all over the world! You can follow the Pilgrims of Santiago project on Instagram. While you’re at it, check out Monica’s website here where you can read the international publications she’s written.