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Santiago or Bust: A Pilgrimage of Learning and Self-Discovery
Posted 02/28/2019 09:29AM

By Tiffany King

Dr. Carla Bluhm showcases her guide to the Camino Portugues and Pillgrims Passport, which are essential items for her pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

Dr. Carla Bluhm will soon traverse 1,000 year-old paths on her pilgrimage to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain from Tomar, Portugal. Bluhm, an associate professor of psychology at the College of Coastal Georgia, will spend a month participating in the centuries old tradition of the Camino de Santiago, known as the Way of Saint James.

The Camino de Santiago is an ancient pilgrimage to the burial site of the remains of the Apostle St. James at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The journey has been made by pilgrims for centuries, taking different routes from their homes across Europe. Bluhm will start her own walk in Portugal, known as the Camino Portugués.

"A true camino starts with anyone in Europe who opens their door and walks to Santiago, Spain. Some people see it only as a walk, but in its true sense it is a pilgrimage. You drop whatever you're doing, get a little bag, and walk," Bluhm said.

For Bluhm, the Camino Portugués is the perfect route to use. She is familiar with the country, has friends there, and her mother's side of the family was Portuguese. Bluhm enjoys the outdoors, is fascinated by long walks, and has been teaching about long walks. She is so passionate about the practice that she wants to develop a course called "Psychology for the Natural World." Her fascination with the subject led her to the camino.

"I thought if I was outside for a month, I would learn new things about myself and my relationship with nature," she said. "It's a great opportunity to experience walking along the coast, through woods, and really old Roman towns. A lot of the camino in Portugal is cobblestones, old Roman roads."

On the Camino Portugués

Dr. Carla Bluhm will do the Camino Portugues for her pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

Bluhm's monthlong pilgrimage will begin March 12 when she flies into Lisbon, Portugal, and will end April 12 leaving from Porto. Upon her arrival in Portugal, she will spend a day in Lisbon then travel north to Tomar to visit the Castle and Convent of the Knights Templar and officially begin her Camino Portugués.

"Tomar has this ginormous Knights Templar castle on the hill, so I'm going to use that as my official starting point. I'm going to visit the Knights Templar because they were the original warriors who protected people on pilgrimages, not only for Santiago, but those walking to Jerusalem. I'm going to explore the Templar castle, center myself there, and then walk the way to Santiago," Bluhm said.

Bluhm plans to pack very lightly and has been wearing a pair of boots for a year to get them supple for the camino. She trusts that Europe and the people there will have whatever else she needs, saying, "The camino usually provides for the people."

An essential item Bluhm will need is her Pilgrims Passport, the official credential of the Camino de Santiago pilgrims. Like a regular passport, pilgrims get their books stamped along the way, documenting their progress. Pilgrims can get stamps at shops, bars, restaurants, and churches on their route. Having the Pilgrims Passport will also allow Bluhm to stay at pilgrim hostels for 5 euros and enjoy special pilgrim meals that are also 5 euros or paid by donation.

Although there are many paths to Santiago across Europe, all caminos merge at a certain point.

"I've read that you'll come together and meet people on the route and walk for a while, and if one person wants to stay in a town for lunch but you're not ready to stop, you'll then say goodbye and continue," Bluhm said. "Maybe you'll see them again at Santiago or maybe not. The spirit of it is to treat everyone like a passing pilgrim."

When Bluhm finally reaches Santiago de Compostela she will go to the cathedral and provide her Pilgrims Passport as proof of her journey, especially the last 100 kilometers of the camino. In order for pilgrims to earn the "compostela," which is the accreditation of the pilgrimage, pilgrims have to be vigilant in getting their stamps during the last 100 kilometers, Bluhm said. Caminos can be walked, biked or done on horseback but there must be proof of the last leg of the trip with about four to five stamps a day.

"At the cathedral they will ask, 'Did you walk for religious, spiritual, health, or cultural history reasons?' I guess you don't really know the answer until you get there—which is awesome. You could start for one reason or ambition and end with something different," Bluhm said. "Do you experience new emotions on the camino? What do you dream about when you've walked all day? I won't know the answers until I get there and experience what happens."

The pilgrims will also have the opportunity to say their name, country of origin, where they started their camino, and how many miles they travelled.

Her trek to Santiago will be a solo camino. Although friends and family have expressed their concerns, Bluhm isn't worried. She has travelled to Europe many summers to teach study abroad in Paris and always makes a habit of visiting Portugal during that time. She also lived in Porto for a short time and described Europe as safe with extremely low crime. While researching other women who've done solo caminos, she found that many had no problems and highly encourage other women to "just do it." On her camino, Bluhm will stay in contact with friends and family through a blog chronicling her time. After her trip, she plans to make her blog accessible to her colleagues and students.

More Than A Walk

Bluhm never thought she would do a camino herself, despite her fascination with long walks. She is very grateful to the College for allowing her to take the time to go.

"I have permission to explore this walk and the natural world," she said. "If I get the chance to teach cross-cultural psychology in the future, I think it could be extremely valuable to be a pilgrim—to come across people not as a tourist or a resident, but a pilgrim."

Her camino can also provide more insight into other areas of psychology, such as the elements of awe and the psychological impacts of global warming. She hopes to present the academic conclusions from her camino at the American Psychological Association conference next summer.

Dr. Carla Bluhm holds up her Pilgrims Passport and guide to the Camino Portugues.

Bluhm will take away many things from her trip, such as new experiences, sights, and a stamp-filled Pilgrim's Passport, but there's one item she hopes to get after completing her camino. Bluhm is a member of the Golden Isles Strummers, an amateur group of musicians from St. Simons, Brunswick and surrounding communities who play a variety of ukuleles and other stringed instruments.

"I made a promise to myself that if I felt good about my walk, my reward is to go to Braga (in Portugal) by bus on my way back, where they make the first ukuleles in the world. I would buy myself a new ukulele and bring it back here and use it for the band—sort of a living vibrant remembrance," she said.

Bluhm is very excited about her camino and most importantly what she'll learn about herself along the way.

"It's a gift to be able to go. It really marries together everything I love—the outside, a cross-cultural experience, and the psychology of long walks," Bluhm said. "You change when you walk a lot. I've read of people who go on these long walks and instead of saying, 'I don't want to do that again' they say 'I want to do it again.' I want to get in touch with what that force is when you do it. I trust myself that it will really be positive."

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