By Marijn Thijs
Getting up at 6.30am, Bouwe van Rijn starts his day later than most travelers. Some start packing their bags as early as 5am, afraid they will not find a place to stay that night. He knows better – on this road there are always places to sleep. He needs half an hour to prepare himself before heading out in search of a coffee, a pain-aux-raisins and a baguette to eat during the day. Life is simple; the day consists of rituals. With an open-minded attitude he ties his shoelaces and hikes off.
An average morning on the Camino de Santiago for sixty-four year old Bouwe van Rijn, who has completed the pilgrimage three times over the past five years. Van Rijn currently lives in Assen, but is originally from Katwijk aan Zee, a town on the Dutch west coast. He enjoys life in Drenthe, but he and his wife intend to move back west one day. After a 30-year period of working at Shell, this family-man retired in 2012. “Retiring to me meant having time to do other things, such as walking.”
The final destination of Van Rijn’s hiking trips was the Galician capital Santiago de Compostella. The long route leading up there is the ‘Camino’. The road to Santiago is one of the world’s most famous pilgrimage routes because it is the place of burial of St. James, the patron saint of Spain. The travel can be done by foot, by bike or on horseback. Each year, tens of thousands go to Santiago for different reasons, including faith, an interest in art and culture, the physical challenge, or the desire to reinvent themselves.
“I was about 50 years old when I first read about the Camino in a paper,” Van Rijn says. “Back then I told myself, as soon as I retire, I will walk that route.” He kept this plan in mind, and when the year of his retirement arrived, he even started to train. “I never hiked. I had played sports, but I never walked long distances.” He took his preparation seriously from the start, developing a passion for hiking, and walking 750 kilometers in the first six months of training.
The Camino was originally a religious pilgrimage. But for Van Rijn, that was not the reason for the trip. “My views on religion did not change along the way. I was raised religious, but it was not the main motivation for me to go – the cultural and sportive aspects were more appealing to me. I mainly wanted to find whether I was still going to do something after retiring, but when I got to Santiago I still didn’t know.”
Van Rijn spent the average afternoon walking long hours over the winding French and Spanish roads, devoted to the goal of following the route. His surroundings were different each day: one day it was mountainous, the next it was flat. The often rocky roads led him through open fields and bushy woods, through scorching heat or pervasive rain showers.
The number of people travelling to Santiago is increasing year by year. In 2015, 262,516 pilgrims were registered in the city, according to the yearly reports on the Spanish Pilgrims Office’s website. Only in 2010 more pilgrims arrived. Generally, the route is becoming more popular, more crowded and more commercialized. Van Rijn shrugs. “You obviously can’t take away the pleasure someone gets from walking the route,” he ponders.
He noticed the route being crowded, but it didn’t bother him. “I always feel like if you go travel, you should travel alone anyway. There were periods in which I walked with others continuously, hanging out with fellow travelers I met along the way. After a few days we split up again. That came naturally. I liked the variation – when you’re alone you don’t have to watch anyone, and you can go wherever you want to go.”
He tells about how he met a couple with whom he walked together for three days straight – sharing everything. Out of the blue, they decided to quit their trip. The couple tried to rekindle their fading love, but it bore no fruit. “We said our goodbyes there and then. It was surreal.” Five days later, he ran into the guy while taking a rest, “he had left his girlfriend behind and resumed his trip. I walked together with him for a week after that point.”
The fact that the Camino is becoming busier did not hold him back from going a second time in 2015 and a third time this year. He says he likes being on the road, being free and meeting new people. “You step out of daily life, and you really are on your own, which I really enjoy. Walking the Camino is a sort of virus, people who go once will usually go more often.”
After reaching Santiago for the first time, Van Rijn prioritized sharing his experiences. “I went to a gathering in Haren, and I immediately felt I should give something back, give people the same feeling I had.” There, he volunteered to help the regional board of the Dutch Association of St. James – a society set up to help Dutch pilgrims prepare for the route and to provide a platform for story-sharing afterwards. He was asked to be a liaison, before taking over the chair position of the regional board for Groningen three years ago. During his term as chair, he set up a region-based website for local Santiago-goers, as well as major gatherings and regional activities. He intends to resign from the position at the end of 2016.
During his second and third trips, he noticed a change within him compared to the first trip. “I spent time thinking about the cause of the differences, because I felt a difference, but I couldn’t pinpoint it,” he says. “The first time everything is still new, and the second time you are more familiar with the concept of pilgrimage. You have a different mentality.” He developed into a guide for those who needed help. As a veteran pilgrim, he knows best the ways to travel, and that there will always be a place to sleep.
His intention to be a guide for others is even more evident when he pulls out a suitcase filled with maps, documents and small notebooks. He proudly shows off the documents, while passionately telling many more stories of people he has met and special moments along the road.
Van Rijn thinks that the Camino has changed him as a person. “I have learnt how to be calm, and I tried to transfer this calmness to others as well. On top of that, I think I have become more helping in general, especially when it comes to the Association. Everyone on the route wants to help one another, and that is something I have really taken with me.”