Indiana State University Newsroom

Walking the Way: Professor travels the Camino de Santiago

May 7, 2013

Out of breath, tired and glistening with sweat, Lisa Calvin leaned against the massive stone pillar. She shrugged off her backpack, causing the scallop shell attached to it to clatter down the column in the expectant silence before it landed at the base. After 95 miles, her journey at an end, she stood panting until a woman slid over in a pew and motioned for Calvin to join her.

She watched as the tiraboleiros began to swing the Botafumeiro - a thurible filled with smoking incense - through the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. Incense and smoke spread through the cathedral and Calvin watched an ember fall as the thurible flew up and heard the whoosh as it swung down.

"It gets into all of your senses," Calvin, associate professor of Spanish at Indiana State University, said.

She didn't think she would make the noontime pilgrim service at the cathedral. She had left the hostel late that morning with an 11 kilometers walk to the city. But when she stopped at 10 a.m. for a café con leche (coffee with milk) and a fellow walker along the Camino de Santiago mentioned they would make it by noon, Calvin first thought he would but she would be far behind him. But then she thought, why not? She picked up her walking stick and the backpack that she had carried for 11 days and began to place one foot in front of the other as she had almost 100 miles before.

"It's one of the amazing things that I ponder," she said about making it to the service that day.

Calvin's journey on the Camino began decades before. After finishing a year teaching in Barcelona, she traveled throughout Spain and began to hear about this medieval pilgrim trail. In Leon, she saw brass shells inlaid into pavement on the streets and first heard of the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James), a trek to Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, which reportedly houses the bones of St. James.

"I kept bumping into places about the Camino," she said.

In 2001, the professor in Indiana State's department of languages, literatures and linguistics, received a grant from the Spanish Embassy to return to Spain and to study in Santiago. That's when she set a goal of one day walking the Camino. The most popular route covers almost 500 miles, crossing northern Spain through the Pyrenees Mountains. Most pilgrims, who travel to Spain from more than 200 countries, take six to eight weeks to complete the journey.

In the fall of 2012 she went on sabbatical and, with grants from Indiana State for international travel and research in diversity, Calvin opted to walk the last 95 miles from O Cebreiro, an area known as Celtic Spain with its round rock houses topped by thatch, to Santiago in 12 days.

"It was on my bucket list," she said. "It's one of the things I wanted to do before I got older and my knees wouldn't hold up."

But she also saw a research component and a way to bring history to the present day for her classes at Indiana State. Calvin teaches about Medieval Spanish history and pilgrims have plodded down the sometimes rocky and up the sometimes steep path, winding their way over mountains and streams, past fields and towns since Medieval times. She has taught legends that have filtered through the dusty ages of Spanish history as part of the class. Now, she can bring in fresh experiences, insights and photos into the classroom that wipe the cobwebs from history.

Calvin also researches graffiti in Spain and she wanted to uncover what graffiti decorated the Camino. She first became intrigued by Spanish graffiti while teaching in Barcelona when she came across the scrawled message in the Catalan language: "Do you want to get more out of life? Learn Catalan." Catalan people have long supported independence from Spain and France.

"I really liked that piece of graffiti. They use whole sentences and have messages," said Calvin, who does speak Catalan. "We're used to seeing tags or gang names or sexual messages or profanity."

During the Occupy Movement in Spain, graffiti messages appeared in Barcelona about police brutality and wanting jobs.

"They include the tilde, accent marks and question marks," she said. "Spanish graffiti is so much more political than American graffiti."

Before beginning her walk, Calvin passed days in Barcelona and Bilboa exploring the alleys and byways photographing graffiti she found there. Then she traveled by bus to O Cebreiro to begin her walk. Along the Camino, she found different graffiti, which can be separated in three categories: encouraging, religious and humorous. One piece of graffiti urged the pilgrims to "Walk Your Pain Away," which Calvin said could be read at different levels.

"People do walk the Camino for reasons, they got a divorce or lost a spouse," she said. "As they walk on this journey, it has closure for them. It's also a message of encouragement for those who have sore feet."

Usually, the Camino graffiti can be found on kilometer markers or on the back of roadway signs or in tunnels under roadways or on the occasional cement block house in the middle of historical buildings. Walkers would also scribble their names and hometowns or regions along the route.

But not only Catholics walk the route. She found the Hare Krishna written on the back of one sign.

"I met very few practicing Catholics on the Camino. It really is a place of diversity," she said.

From Muslim to atheist to Christian pilgrims, in 2012 168,000 people walked the route. During holy years, when St. James Day falls on Sunday, more than 200,000 will traverse the Camino.

"It may be a pilgrim route, but pilgrimage means different things to different people," Calvin said.

She also found a diversity of body types and abilities. A Finnish woman, who Calvin estimated weighed more than 200 pounds, pounded on the table as she told Calvin, "I'm old and I'm fat but I did it." A man in a wheelchair accompanied by his wife also was attempting to follow the Camino. At times, it became too much for the wife to handle. A Spanish youth group, who encountered the couple, decided to journey with them so that they could lift him over obstacles.

"It became an act of service for the group," Calvin said.

Calvin also experienced kindness on the trail. On a hot and tiring day of walking, she stopped for a snack and with a gulp drank the last of her water, without knowing how far she would have to travel to the next town. A few minutes later, three 20-something-year-old girls - two Austrians and a German - greeted her and asked if she was ok and if she had water. When they learned she had just finished hers, one of the girls insisted upon sharing.

"They are living examples of random acts of kindness from people you'll never meet again," Calvin said.

She encountered such kindness again and again, such as in A Calzada where she stopped to rest for the night. Nearby, she knew of a church, Vilar de Donas, with medieval frescoes that she wanted to see. "If it were in Italy, it would be a major tourist attraction," she said. Yet, her tired feet did not want to walk the three kilometers it would take. Instead, she asked a man at the café to drive her and the man offered to wait for her to take her back to the hostel.

Such kindness was among the life lessons Calvin learned along with wearing two pairs of socks to keep from getting blisters and the importance of a walking stick to help balance during the rocky, uneven places.

"The Camino is a kinder, gentler place. If exercise can be the Brady Bunch, this was it in a way," she said. "It's hard work, but the people are just nice."

Photo: - Lisa Calvin, associate professor of Spanish at Indiana State University, pauses at a kilometer marker covered in graffiti on the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Calvin)

Photo: - Scallop shells are a symbol of the Camino de Santiago and walkers often wear one on their packs. (Photo by Lisa Calvin)

Photo: - Graffiti on the back of a sign along the Camino de Santiago (Photo by Lisa Calvin)

Photo: - Lisa Calvin, associate professor of Spanish at Indiana State University, follows tradition by placing a rock she picked up from the train track while training for her walk in Deming Park at the Mount of Joy outside of Santiago, Spain. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Calvin)

Photo: - A fellow pilgrim traveling the Camino de Santiago on a misty morning. Photo by Lisa Calvin

Photo: - Lisa Calvin's walking stick next to a kilometer marker on the Camino de Santiago. (Photo by Lisa Calvin)

Contact: Lisa Calvin, associate professor of Spanish, Department of Languages, Literatures and Linguistics, Indiana State University, 812-237- or

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, associate director of media relations, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-7972 or