A cross-cultural friendship began last year when two 2016 Camino Provides patches were ordered by a man named Hans (Buijsrogge) from the Netherlands. When he received the patches, he emailed that he was very excited because he and his best friend, also named Hans (Sleven), were going to walk the Camino Portugués together in the fall. He told me of some health issues they both had, but they were finally ready to fulfill their shared dream of walking the Camino. They were enthusiastically reading my Camino Portugués Stages to prepare, and I was excited for them to soon be following in my footsteps. I wished them “Bom Caminho!” and looked forward to following the adventures of Hans & Hans online. Then, I didn’t hear from them for about six months. An unforeseen tragedy completely changed the course of their journey.
When Hans explained what had happened, I was in tears. He said they would like to eventually share their story on my blog. I remember saying, “Take as much time as you need, and heal.” He recently emailed me this interview, published by the Dutch Saint James Association and translated into English by René Sleven, the son of Hans Sleven.
I am humbled and honored to share their remarkable story of friendship, loss, and Camino camaraderie.
Pilgrim Interview: Hans Walked the Camino for Daan
Hans Sleven dedicated his Camino to the deceased son of his friend, Hans Buijsrogge. Together, Hans and Hans had prepared for their pilgrimage to the point of determining the best shoes, that special lightweight backpack, the distances they would need to walk every day, accommodations, and anything else that could be done in advance. They trained seriously for this Camino and were well prepared for the trip. Three days before their planned departure to Porto to embark on the Camino Portugués, the fourteen-year-old Daan, son of Hans and Floor Buijsrogge, suddenly died.
It was a cold day in December, when I traveled to Milsbeek (near Nijmegen) to meet both “Hans-en.” I listened to their story about Daan and the journey that Sleef had just completed. To make sure we are able to distinguish between them, Hans Sleven (63) will be known as “Sleef” (R) and Hans Buijsrogge (52) as “Buis.” (L)
The story begins with Sleef’s promise—made back in 2010—to walk to Santiago, as he had been confirmed free of bladder cancer. Sleef healed, and he did not forget his promise, but did not start planning his trip immediately after the good news. It was 2015, when Buis asked Sleef, “When are you planning to go, because I would like to come with you?” A bold statement for a person who had ended up in a wheelchair from 2008 to 2010 as a consequence of the autoimmune disease, SLE (systemic lupus erythematosus) that Buis suffers from. During this period, Buis would ask himself: What can I do, while sitting in a chair? My legs and feet don’t work the way I want them to anymore, but nothing is wrong with my hands and head.
Buis made the decision to take another direction in his work, and started working as a photographer from that moment in 2008. He met with a surgeon who wanted to operate on both of his knees. The surgery went well, and from that moment, Buis was able to walk again—so well that he decided he wanted to go on a pilgrimage with Sleef. Meanwhile, Buis lost the cartilage in his hands, and making photos was no longer possible. None of this would keep Buis from walking a pilgrimage.
“Life is a path, but you don’t know where you will end up.”
It was their intention to examine their lives during their journey and discuss important questions with each other: What have I become so far? In what direction is my life going? Where would I want to end up? How do you find new things to seek? Spiritual and meaningful questions close to the hearts of both men. They know each other like brothers and would be able to have long conversations about these questions, analyzing their thoughts, during their 400k journey to Santiago.
The starting date was set for September 17, 2016. From the moment this date was set in January 2016, they started to prepare themselves for their trip. Because of Buis’s physical limits, Sleef and Buis attempted to work out all scenarios that could go wrong. Everything went as planned, and after a good training period, they were hoping for a successful Camino. But then, a tragedy struck in Buis’s family. The death of Daan, the youngest child of Buis, hit very hard. It was very clear to Sleef that he did not want to make this trip on his own, but Buis remained surefooted : “You must go; do this for Daan.” Sleef agreed, knowing this journey would be both physically and mentally challenging, and that he would not be able to attend Daan’s funeral.
The Shell, Daan
Daan joined Sleef during his journey to Santiago in a special way. Sleef received a big shell from a sailing friend that had been left somewhere by a Pilgrim. It was Buis that came up with the idea to give the shell the name “Daan.” He told Sleef, “Carry this shell with you during your journey to Santiago, and Daan and I will be there with you all along.”
And this is how Sleef went—with Daan. On September 17, 2016, Sleef took the plane to Porto; the day after that, his pilgrim’s journey began. Soon after his start, other pilgrims joined Sleef on his journey. He told them about Daan and his reason for this pilgrimage. These fellow pilgrims formed a group with Sleef, and they stayed together for the rest of their journey. Sleef felt safe, a part of the group, and most of all, not alone anymore.
September 22, the day of Daan’s funeral, was physically and mentally a tough day. That day, Sleef found a place to commemorate Daan. The following day, the walking felt lighter than ever before. He could handle it more easily and felt mentally strengthened. He recognized that on the journey of life, one gets what one needs.
At the moment of arrival in Santiago, Sleef walked to the plaza of the Cathedral (Praza do Obradoiro) and was happy to have accomplished his journey. Sleef now was walking around with the question of what to do with the shell that had been with him all that time. He decided the shell must be put someplace safe. He hesitated, but the following day, when he was walking around in the cathedral, he heard a priest speaking French. The priest had just finished his pilgrim’s confession and walked into the cathedral. Sleef speaks French, and he approached the priest. He told the priest about his friend who was not able to join him, and about Daan and the shell he was carrying. Sleef then asked the priest whether he wanted to bless the shell. The priest listened attentively and said, “It is good that you did this and came to me. A blessing of the shell could mean a lot for the parents of Daan.” The priest pronounced a blessing over the shell and wished Sleef a safe trip home.
Sleef was not planning to travel directly home. The group with whom Sleef had been traveling for the past few weeks decided to walk to Muxia and finish their journey in Finisterre (the end of the earth). Sleef decided to join their group.
The Shell was still traveling with Sleef, and after long thought, Sleef decided he would not leave the shell in Spain, but bring it back home. The reunion at the airport was not only with Sleef’s own family, but also with Buis, his wife, Floor, and their daughter, Eline. In an emotional moment, Sleef handed over the shell to Buis. A recap of his journey was not necessary. Sleef has been in contact with Buis every single day since to discuss all that Sleef had experienced. At a later time, Sleef and Buis’s family visited Daan’s grave together.
Buis explained to Sleef that Daan’s funeral was full of symbolism. That is what survives—symbols that make him Daan, remembered and not forgotten. During his journey, Sleef constantly felt his own strong connection with Daan. Sleef told Daan’s story to anyone who would listen. Sleef was reminded that when he would visit Buis, Daan always wanted to sit on his lap. Buis: “Daan was a special child. He was remarkably disarming, also at school. There, he filled the gaps between people. That is who he was. Daan.”
End of interview.
Hans told me the Camino provided a way both to heal from the loss and to remember his son, Daan. He ordered 2017 patches and sewed one on his backpack next to the 2016 patch. He wrote, “In the end, Hans and I finally walked a Camino Portugués together, in April this year.”
He added, “This time, I walked with Daan’s blessed shell, and after we returned to the Netherlands, we went to his grave and put the shell there, and it will stay there. We will start our second Camino together in September 2018. It will be the Camino Primitivo.”
Even though we are in different worlds—I in California, and they in Holland—we have a Camino connection and send each other virtual hugs. And guess what? I’ll be doing the Camino Primitivo in 2018 too! I hope our paths cross in person someday. Until then, Buen Camino, Hans and Hans!
For those who would like to connect with Hans, email him at email@example.com.
I have added this story to the Pilgrim Interviews & Camino Reflections page.
If you’d like to contribute your Camino story, email me with your text, and photos or video. The guidelines are simple. Introduce yourself, describe what Camino route(s) you have experienced, and share what the Camino provided for you. It can be a personal essay, or a short and sweet reminiscence.
The Camino Provides Official Patches are available on Etsy.com/shop/caminoprovides.