All Roads Lead Home
A storied Spanish hiking trail delivers a full-circle moment for ’90s alum Alex Chang and some lucky current students. “On the Camino, everybody writes their own story,” says Chang. “Everybody gets something different from it.”
By Kevin Markey
Photos by Yuhang Rong and contributed by Fresco Tours
ast summer Ngozi Taffe ’97 (BUS), ’02 MBA, ’20 Ph.D. stepped onto Spain’s storied Camino de Santiago trail with her daughter Sidney ’24 (CLAS), a political science major. They laced up their boots in the small town of Sarria in Galicia and, over the course of 10 days, walked 70 miles to the medieval cathedral city of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. Along the way they passed through ancient oak and chestnut forests, working farms, and cobblestoned villages that have sheltered pilgrims since the time of the Crusades.
Last summer Ngozi Taffe ’97 (BUS), ’02 MBA, ’20 Ph.D. stepped onto Spain’s storied Camino de Santiago trail with her daughter Sidney ’24 (CLAS), a political science major. They laced up their boots in the small town of Sarria in Galicia and, over the course of 10 days, walked 70 miles to the medieval cathedral city of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. Along the way they passed through ancient oak and chestnut forests, working farms, and cobblestoned villages that have sheltered pilgrims since the time of the Crusades.
After falling in love with Spain during UConn study abroad, Alex Chang ’94 (BUS) went on to found Fresco Tours, a leading Camino de Santiago tour company. “It is a great joy to be able to show people a country that has become my second home,” he says. Walkers on the fabled trail often place stones atop markers, symbols of burdens they’re leaving behind.
“At first I thought, this is crazy,” says Sidney. “Walking 100 kilometers? I wasn’t sure I could do it. But you get out there and you meet other people and you hear their stories, why they’re walking, the things they’re dealing with, and it becomes this intense bonding experience. When you reach the cathedral in Santiago, it’s very emotional. There’s such a huge sense of accomplishment. People are hugging and crying, and you feel so connected because you’ve all walked the same path.”
Falling in with different people is a big part of the Camino experience, says Alex Chang ’94 (BUS). Chang is the founder and owner of Fresco Tours, which led Ngozi and Sidney’s trek. “On the trail, people wish each other, ‘Buen Camino,’” he says. “‘Good walk.’ You bump into a man from Belgium or a woman from Japan and you learn a little bit about their lives.”
Chang first went to Spain while still an undergrad, spending the summer after his junior year studying Spanish art and culture in Madrid. At the time, the classes seemed a bit outside the scope of his marketing major, but decades later he points to them as a critical piece of his education. “Living in Spain, exploring the culture I was immersed in, it really affected me.”
So much so that Chang returned after graduation to work in the Madrid office of a global market research company. He had no intention of staying beyond a year or two while he figured out what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. But an answer began to emerge on his first Camino de Santiago trek — ironically, he’d gifted himself 18 days hiking the fabled network of pilgrimage routes that arc across Europe as a way of saying goodbye to Spain before heading back to the States.
… a way to be mindful and to shed some of the stresses of the past few years.
Months later, the Camino was still with him, and he had Spain on the brain often while trying to settle back into corporate America. What had really fired him up, Chang realized, was sharing his passion for different cultures. He connected the dots back to UConn, where one of his favorite activities had been giving tours to prospective students as a Husky Ambassador. It was a way of letting people in on the magic.
“It’s part of my personality, I guess,” he says. “It just feels right.”
So Chang went back to Spain and, 17 years ago, started Fresco Tours, running full-service guided walks on the history-drenched Camino. Now a leading tour operator, the company is a repeat winner of the Tripadvisor Travelers’ Choice award, among other accolades. Meanwhile, the Camino itself, known as the Way of St. James in English, has exploded in popularity. The 1,000-year-old trail system drew nearly 400,000 pilgrims from all over the world last year, each of whom walked for their own reason — to reflect on their lives, to let go of a burden, to give thanks, to disconnect from the hurly-burly of wired life, or simply for the physical challenge.
Beginning in May, UConn students will be joining these modern pilgrims, learning about Spain — and ideally, themselves — as they trek into Santiago with Fresco Tour guides. In a full circle moment, Chang’s journey is doubling back to the place where it started, as he partners with UConn’s Office of Experiential Global Learning on this 10-day Camino de Santiago study abroad opportunity.
That, of course, is what brought the Taffes to Spain last summer. Before committing to the study abroad program, Ngozi, who is the associate vice president of UConn Global Affairs, needed to make sure the trek would be a good fit with the University’s global mission. “At UConn we aim to give students a life-transformative education,” she says. “Part of this is giving students a global view of the world in a meaningful way.”
As it passes through farms, villages, and backyards, the Camino encourages chance encounters. “You have lawyers, bricklayers, teachers, retired people, students, all religions, all ages, all sexes, all socioeconomic backgrounds,” says Chang. “You put them together in the pot and it works.” When people meet, they always ask two questions: “Where are you from?” and “Where did you start?”
“You feel so connected because you’ve all walked the same path. On the trail, people wish each other, ‘Buen Camino. Good walk.’”
The combination of history, culture, and human connection ticked all the right boxes for her. “With the pandemic and everything else going on over the last few years, we were thinking of innovative ways to create space for our students,” she says. “Something a little bit different than what we traditionally offered, a way to be mindful and to shed some of the stresses of the past few years. We want to cater to students not just from a course perspective, but holistically, developing the whole person. There’s an educational component and there’s a growth component.”
Two additional criteria for Ngozi were accessibility and affordability. She wanted the program to be within reach of students of varying means and degrees of outdoor experience. Partnering with Chang allowed her to address those needs. Meals are included and accommodations are communal, keeping costs down and camaraderie high. And the trek won’t require specialized training. If a student reaches a certain point on a hike and feels maxed out for the day, Fresco Tours will pick them up in a van and shuttle them to the next stop.
“Alex’s guides were amazing, the amount of information they were able to provide, the historical context,” says Ngozi. “They break the trip down into bite-size chunks, and each evening you learn about the next day’s segment, the terrain you’ll cross and landmarks you’ll encounter, castles and monasteries, ancient ruins.”
… the terrain you’ll cross and landmarks you’ll encounter, castle walls and monasteries, ancient ruins.
Above: Hillside farms nestled between ridges are characteristic of Galicia in far northwestern Spain, the “green corner of the Iberian Peninsula.”
Sidney describes the final day of the journey with her mom, when they hiked out to a remote promontory overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. As waves crashed against the rocks at a place named Fisterra, literally “end of the earth,” they suddenly heard the opening notes of a familiar melody. A man with a guitar was playing “Redemption Song” by Bob Marley.
“I’m half Jamaican,” says Sidney. “And when I was a kid my dad always played Bob Marley. ‘Redemption Song’ was our favorite. It’s about emancipating yourself from mental slavery, and that’s what the trip was like, letting go and being yourself. My mom and I looked at each other, like ‘Is this really happening?’ Then we started to sing.”
All part of that communal Camino experience, says Chang. Because UConn students will be walking continuously, they will run into people on day three that they met on day one, which will allow them to bond not only among themselves but also with the larger community traveling to the same place. “This is synchronized slow travel at its best,” he says.
“Come with an open mind,” he adds. “Come with a smile. Those little things will get you a long way on any journey.”
“And a good pair of shoes,” says Ngozi. “I definitely recommend good shoes.”