It’s the fourth time it’s happened, but I still get the same excitement each time. An envelope arrived in the mail, marked “American Pilgrims on the Camino.” I opened it up with some anticipation and I held its contents in my hands with satisfaction and delight. My 2012 credencial had arrived!
To walk the Camino de Santiago and stay in local hostels (called albergues or refugios in Spanish) a pilgrim must have an approved credential (credencial in Spanish). This functions like a passport — at each albergue along the way the credencial is presented to the hospitalero. It is inspected and then stamped with the unique stamp of that albergue and then dated. As a pilgrim walks day after day the stamps fill in the blank spaces on the credential (see below) and then, on arrival at Santiago de Compostela, the completed credencial is presented at the cathedral, where it is inspected and (after confirming a minimum of 100km of walking or 200km of biking) the pilgrim receives a completion certificate — the compostela.
Approved credenciales are available at many locations, but most commonly pilgrims apply for a credencial from their national pilgrim confraternity. For people from the U.S. this is American Pilgrims on the Camino. This fine organization holds educational events around the U.S., trains people to volunteer in albergues, and supports local pilgrim chapters, like our Seattle group.
Though it’s possible to carry a generic credencial with no obvious country of origin, I like to carry the American credencial. Americans are a small percentage of pilgrims on the camino — perhaps 3% of the total — and it’s fun (and sometimes a little risky) to engage people about international relations and American politics. It starts (and sometimes ends) lots of conversations. I remember in 2008 how most everyone I met on the camino had some opinion about the U.S. elections. We Americans sometimes don’t really understand how the U.S. president is the closest the world has to a worldwide leader. People were amazed that the U.S. had progressed enough to consider electing an African-American, and most admired what that said about America.
So . . . . eight weeks and a few days until I put my credencial to use in Bilbao and then each day for the next month on the Camino del Norte. Exciting!