After spending 16 days walking the Camino de Santiago, Breanna Walker arrived in Barcelona feeling as if she was “being held in a safe space.”
“I was humbled and grateful to the country for opening its doors to people from around the world,” she says of the warmth and generosity she experienced along the trail. “I felt a real sense of community and support….
“[The experience] helped me reconnect with the reality that the world is inherently a good place.”
That “new headspace” was tested when she found herself three blocks away from the terror attack that killed 13 people, including the father of a Vancouver Police Department officer.
Walker was walking to Barcelona’s Picasso museum on August 17 when she stopped to have dinner. To get to the museum she needed to cross Las Ramblas, a popular pedestrian thoroughfare filled with market stalls and restaurants. She tried once but the street was blocked by police. Thinking there had been an accident, she walked up a few blocks and tried to cross again. It was blocked. She tried a third time. Blocked.
It wasn’t until she chanced upon a crowd gathered outside a store with a television in its front window that she was told what had just happened. A man driving a van had deliberately mown down tourists who, just like her, were simply out enjoying the Spanish city’s beauty.
To her, she was now faced with a choice. Frightened by the random brutality of it all, she could fly back to Vancouver early. She could stay holed up in her Airbnb to feel safe and secure. Or she could make a conscious decision not to let the attackers destroy her renewed sense of humanity’s basic goodness.
“It was the ultimate test of this new reality — the sense of community and sense of safe space,” she says a few days later, sitting on a sunny plaza beside the offices of Inspire Health, where she works as an exercise therapist.
“One choice was to continue exploring a city I didn’t know on my own at a time of tension and fear. Another choice was to let [the attack] taint my experience and knock down this joy — I felt so alive after walking the Camino. I could have just let that go and flown home.
“I chose not to let it affect me…. As soon as you live in the place of fear, you help to create that space where strangers don’t trust each other and tourists don’t feel safe.”
Walker and her friend had arrived in Spain a few weeks earlier not realizing that most Europeans take their holidays in August. Expecting to stay in albergues — rudimentary hostels along the route that are for walkers, or pilgrims, only — they were surprised to find that many hostels were full. In fact, any sort of accommodation was often sold out.
Luckily, they had brought a tent and were able to find places to set it up, sometimes on the albergues’ ground, sometimes in a churchyard, sometimes on a flat spot along the way.
“Immediately, as soon as you set out to follow the path, everyone knows that is what you are doing,” Walker says. Not only did they find stations of free water and fruit, but when the end of the day neared and they didn’t have a place to stay, they learned it was okay to knock on someone’s door and say, “Hi, we’re from Canada. Can you help?”
People opened their homes to them, offered food and drove them to the next town to find someplace to sleep. “Never once did I feel uncomfortable or unsafe. I just felt held and honoured.”
Walker was still in this headspace when, 250 kilometres of walking the Camino later, her friend continued along the path and Walker headed for Barcelona, where she had booked a three-night stay.
It was on the evening of her first full day in Barcelona that the attack took place. “I wasn’t in any rush so I stopped at a restaurant. As I came out, there was a bunch of people moving really quickly but I didn’t think anything of it.”
When she was told not to cross the police line, she thought a bike had been hit by a car or there had been a fight. Repeatedly disovering that Las Ramblas was blocked, she decided to head for a nearby public square. She was on her way when she noticed the hundreds of people gathered around the storefront. She couldn’t read the television’s Spanish subtitles or understand the conversations around her but she knew something big had happened. “Don’t you know? It’s a terrorist attack,” a French man who spoke English finally told her.
Her Airbnb was a five-kilometre walk away. As police and ambulance sirens blared, she overheard passersby talking into their phones, telling their loved ones that they were not injured. “I’m fine; I’m safe,” people kept repeating. Once back at her accommodation, she too was able to let the people in her life know that she was okay.
“The question became ‘What do I do next?’” And that’s when she made the decision to not let fear dictate her life.
Asked which would win — terrorism or the sense of faith in humankind’s generosity — Walker says, “Absolutely, without a doubt, it’s the feeling of connection, of safety and support and togetherness.”
On her Facebook post on Sunday night, she wrote, “The few weeks I spent on the Camino de Santiago opened my eyes and heart in a profound way; I was humbled daily by the beauty of the natural world and the generosity and kindness of strangers. This magic carried me through a challenging time in Barcelona —being amidst the chaos of the attacks the city experienced was equally yet differently humbling. As always, I return gratefully to BC and the warm arms of my love, my friends and my family.”