Danger on the Camino: Trust in Allah and tie up the camels

By Katharine B. Soper

(Kate Soper was featured in the most recent issue of The Crazy Wisdom Journal (September through December 2015 issue) as a linguist, feminist, adventure traveler, lawyer, and activist. Her book on walking the Camino in northern Spain was recently published. In the post below, Kate Soper shares more about her adventures on the Camino and what her experiences have taught her.)

One of the biggest changes on the Camino in the 13 years between my first journey and the one this past summer is an increased danger to women pilgrims, and not just the young ones. Even on that first trip, I heard reports about women being harassed by men who would expose themselves or urinate in public. But they were few and far between, and none resulted in any physical injuries.

Sadly, it's a new ball game. When I arrived in Astorga, a town of 11,826 inhabitants 203 kilometers from Santiago, on June 1, 2015, I learned of the disappearance of Denise Thiem, a 41-year-old American pilgrim. She had vanished from the trail after leaving Astorga on the morning of April 5, Easter Sunday. According to newspaper reports, she ate breakfast with an Italian pilgrim, attended Mass, and headed out on foot around noon, expecting to arrive later that afternoon at the village of El Ganso. Friends reported her failure to arrive that same day, but the Spanish police appeared not to take her disappearance seriously. After all, they reasoned, many pilgrims who walk the Camino are seeking to escape from busy lives, family demands, pressures at work.

By the time I got to Astorga two months later, it was clear something was amiss. (See "Warning to Camino de Santiago pilgrims after female walker disappears," The Guardian, May 27, 2015; http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/27/warning-to-camino-de-santiago-pilgrims-after-female-walker-disappears.) Missing person posters had appeared in shop windows. The Spanish police announced that they were setting up regular patrols in the area where she was last seen. Albergue and hotel personnel began acknowledging the incident and urging women pilgrims not to walk alone on the isolated stretch between Astorga and Rabanal del Camino. Everyone took these warnings seriously, and in the spirit of the Camino, pilgrims traveling in groups and men traveling alone insisted on walking with unaccompanied women on this stretch. Everyone I spoke with was pretty freaked out. This was the first time that a pilgrim on the way to Santiago had disappeared without a trace. Finally, on September 11, police found Ms. Thiem's badly decomposed body under a tree in a field a few kilometers from Astorga. (See "Body of American pilgrim in Spain found by police," by Stephen Burger, The Guardian, September 13, 2015; http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/13/denise-thiem-american-pilgrim-missing-spain-found.)  A local recluse was arrested in connection with her death; he confessed two days later when the forensic report was released.

Might Ms. Thiem have been found alive if the authorities had not been so slow to take her disappearance seriously? Perhaps. Are precautions being taken to avoid future such incidents, to the extent that's possible? Apparently. Does this incident brand the Camino as unsafe? I think not.

In the early days of the pilgrimage to Santiago, the pilgrim trail was fraught with deadly danger from human forces, including murder by brigands and intentional drowning by ferrymen. (For some particularly gruesome examples, see The Pilgrim's Guide, A 12th Century Guide for the Pilgrim to Santiago de Compostella, Confraternity of St. James, 1992, translated from the Latin by James Hogarth.) In modern times, there have been reports of muggings, harassment of women pilgrims, and even attempted abductions; pilgrims have heart attacks and have been known to die in car or bike accidents (just like at home). But according to statistics on pilgrim deaths on the Camino gathered by the Federación Española de Asociaciones de Amigos del Camino de Santiago, this is the first time in the 20th or 21st century (to-date) that a pilgrim has been murdered. We'd like the odds of being abducted and murdered to be zero, but in reality, the actual odds are pretty good, especially given the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who make their way to Santiago each year. The Camino de Santiago is not Disneyworld. It's a pilgrimage that comes with certain hardships, and yes, an element of danger. Some isolated sections of this 1,000-year-old trail may no longer be safe for women to hike solo. But does that mean women should stay home?

My middle sister and I have had many conversations about the dilemma of balancing safety concerns with potentially risky undertakings. We start from the proposition that nobody gets out of this life alive. She travels frequently to Africa for her work with organizations that try to improve the lives of the poorest of the poor - women and children in third world countries who live in conditions that are unimaginable to most of us. I admire her enormously but I also think she's completely nuts to go to politically unstable parts of Africa and risk her life to disease and violence. She thinks I have lost my mind to walk alone through rugged, isolated countryside for weeks on end, not knowing where I will end up at night or even whether I'll have a bed to sleep in. She worries that I will fall in an isolate area, and now she worries that I will be abducted and murdered.

But my sister and I agree on one thing: we are not about to stay home just because there is a chance the plane might crash or we might get attacked or have a detached retina when we are miles from medical care (it runs in the family). And when it comes to the specifics of a particular activity, we make our little lists of pros and cons — our father taught us to do this as children — and decide if it's worth the "cost." We may disagree about the wisdom of each other's choices, but once the decision is made, we agree that it's time to stop worrying and start packing, relying on a proverb she brought back from her travels: 

"Trust in Allah and tie up the camels."

Katharine B. Soper is a retired French professor, lawyer, and University of Michigan administrator. She continues to learn about the pilgrimage to Santiago by volunteering at pilgrim welcome centers in France and by talking with prospective pilgrims and interested armchair travelers at book clubs and book talks. She and her husband live in Ann Arbor, Michigan; they have a son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter who live in Minneapolis and a daughter who lives in Northampton, Massachusetts. You can contact Kate at stellairepress@gmail.com.

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Posted on November 30, 2015 .