Sunday, 29 March 2009

Scratching the itch - a story of addiction

My name is John and I’m addicted to walking Camino routes

A friend of mine, David Boyle, is an author. He writes a lot. One his books I like is called Tyranny of Numbers – Why counting can’t make us happy.

He’s right. I’m doing a lot of counting at the moment and it certainly isn’t making me happy. First I’m counting the days until the end of Lent and second I’m counting the days of the next three weeks until I walk a Camino route again.

It’s funny how the yearning to walk creeps up on me. It starts with the odd thought about walking a pilgrimage route. Sometime this is prompted by bad weather. Looking out a rain streaked window at grey London is sure to stimulate thoughts of walking through the Spanish countryside on a sunny afternoon.

Admit that first thought and other soon follow. They gather like symptoms:

Route planning
Ordering or re reading guide books.
Surfing pilgrimage sites
Googling pilgrims’ blogs
Spending longer and longer looking a photo libraries
Reaching into my bag on the train to find that I’ve replaced the novel I am reading with a Guidebook
Talking about the last route walked
Becoming aware that friends/family are getting bored listening to talking about the last route
Leafing through the diary as if to will time to become available

Repeating all of the above with increased frequency.

You’d think though that booking the time to go and then the flight would provide some relief…

I did this recently. A week became available so I’ve decided to walk the Camino Inglés again. I very much like the route whether walking from Ferrol or A Coruña as pilgrim friends Bridget and Peter did recently:

This route takes three days and historically is the more authentic arm of the Camino Inglés. It is however less than the 100 kms distance necessary to qualify for a Compostela

That’s why many modern pilgrims walk from Ferrol.

There are two ways to get there. Either fly to Santiago with Ryanair and get a bus to A Coruña or Ferrol or fly direct to A Coruña with Click Air. Me and my compañero decided to fly direct to A Coruña because when you add up the extras which Ryan Air charge these days there was actually very little difference in price.
I’m delighted with this plan because I love A Coruña. I think it claims to have the longest promenade in Europe. Whether or not this is true – it is certainly long. You won’t hear many, if any, English voices. This is the place Spaniards go to enjoy the beach. The place is bursting with restaurants. Dozens of simple roadside bar/restaurants which serve up fish and seafood caught that day. The catch determines the menu. Can’t wait.

We set off in three weeks.

So, err…why am I writing about this now? Well the truth of the matters is that the most seductive thing about this process is the delusion that all of these symptoms will go away when the trip is arranged.

However it is like scratching an itch. You get some relief then the itch moves and suddenly it is itchier.

Now I’m making up packing lists in my head, deciding what to take and what is going to be left behind.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently. I’m interested in the shorter pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela – the Camino Inglés 3 or 5 days, the Camino Portugués 10 days, the route to Finisterre/Muxía 3 – 5 days, the Camino Madrid 10 days.

Whilst the Camino Francés is the best known route it takes around 30 days to walk and the Via de la Plata 36 – 40 days. Many people I’ve met think that the Camino is not for them because they can’t afford the time not knowing that these other shorter and very manageable routes exist.

But I’ve noticed that when preparing for a shorter route it is easy to take more stuff than is really necessary…instead of the usual 3 pairs of socks and underwear (one to wear, one to wash and one spare) it is easy to just stuff 5 sets into the rucksack for a 5 days walk. That principle soon spreads to spare batteries etc. I’ve now promised my self that I will absolutely stick to carrying under 7kgs of kit from now on and less in summer.

So far all of this has just been going on in my head but I know that soon I’ll pack and unpack my rucksack a couple of times and lay out the kit on the bed in the spare room just so I can admire it. And since this blog has a somewhat confessional air about it (being Lent and all) I’ll also admit that occasionally the kitchen scales come out and I have a jolly time working out how light I can make my rucksack.

Laugh if you will but ask any serious long distance walker and they will tell you that weight is a prime consideration. Carrying too much is the enemy. It causes blisters, sore joints and makes what should be a pleasure into a real pain.

I was on a flight from Santiago recently and I noticed the chap opposite bringing out an electronic note book, much like a mini lap top. I’m always interested in gadgets which might help with guide writing. I engaged him in conversation to find he was a pilgrim who was returning home from the Camino Francés. He’d been carrying 15 kgs including his little computer. He must have seen the look of astonishment on my face because he followed it up with “ yes it was heavy but I did it!”. As he stood up later I noticed that both of his feet were bandaged. That isn’t my idea of fun.

What is my idea of fun is the end of Lent quickly followed by the Camino Inglés…then I can start dreaming of the Camino Madrid in the summer!

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Camino People - Gino Di Castri Age 16

Robert Burns, the Scottish bard, wrote in his poem To A Louse, these famous lines:

O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us, to see oursels as others see us

Loosely translated as: God give us the gift to see ourselves as others see us.

I met Gino in Santiago. Aged 16 he had come for a week's work experience. He'd never heard of the pilgrimage before and he'd never met a pilgrim. As promised his words are posted as he wrote them:

Teenagers, religion and smelly pilgrims

A life in the day of Gino Di-Castri a student on work experience in the Pilgrims' Office in Santiago de Compostela

"Well, my day seems to kick into gear at a similar time to most others in Santiago. At 8.45 the sprightly tones of my alarm clock wake me up to another fantastic day in Santiago de Compostela. Not like my regular car journey to school at home in St. Albans, I shower then leave the building picking up some sort of pastry and a coffee along the way, far from the normal Bran Flakes and OJ.
As I walk along the street I soak up the Spanish culture which surrounds me. The hustle and bustle of any city in the morning is quite frantic at times but drivers here seem to be more relaxed than others; no bendy busses like London, no honking like Rome and no traffic jams like Bangkok, just an all round more tranquil mood. However as soon as I hit la Zona Vieja of Santiago you begin to understand a different Spanish culture. The contrast of the old narrow streets and antiquated buildings with the convoy of transit vans delivering various products to various bars and shops is a recipe for disaster especially when school children, office workers and the general public are involved. Having been handed the “20 minutos” (the daily free newspaper) and avoiding the traffic I make my way towards the centrepiece of the town, the great cathedral de compostela, another typical aspect of Spanish culture.
The purpose for my visit to Santiago de Compostela is for work experience with a group of other students of my age, 16. We are all currently studying Spanish at A Level at various schools in and around London. Everyone received a work placement for the week and I was given the job of working the Pilgrims´Office. Every morning I turn up at 10 to meet the amiable staff and although there isn’t a huge through flow of people (an average of about 3 pilgrims an hour) I chat to the staff and learn Spanish well. Other jobs range from stacking books on shelves to translating scripts for a local film company, some enjoy their placements more than others, but we all struggle through and get to the evening when the fun really kicks in!

In the office I have been impressed with both the commitment and endurance of some of the pilgrims. Although a little smelly after long journeys which they have been proud to talk about all have been happy to cross the finish line which is the office door. I am surprised at the variety of pilgrims which has come through the doors. Some with huge backpacks and loads of gear, others with just a stick and themselves all completed the pilgrimage proving that where there is a will there is a way. There has also been variety in nationality which I did not expect so much, a few from South Korea, Germany and Denmark.

Spending a week in such a religious place has confirmed and made me doubt my views on religion itself. As a non practicing catholic I have always felt a slight obligation towards God but more recently have started to become quite sceptical about all religion, I still sometimes go to church but find myself thinking and reflecting on myself and others lives rather than praying. Although I admire the blind belief of some religious people I cannot comprehend it and therefore I try to avoid it and just get on with my life but in the society of today there is so much exposure to both extremes of the creationistic and atheistic. Recently the campaign in London by Richard Dawkins both shocked me but I could also see some truth in it. By saying “There probably is no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” he is showing his extreme views but there may be some truth in it in how much of an argued ground it is. We have seen over the years how fragile religious views and how volatile some groups are to the slightest offense. Maybe instead of praying to help the world we should stop worrying and get out there and do something, but it is an issue which will be debated until the end of time.

Moving away from the serious stuff, now for the nightlife. Santiago is a university city which is full of students especially at the weekend. The streets are packed with people in carnival dress from air hostesses to devils and the spirit is definitely that of carnival. With bars in every other window and people running about the streets it is nightlife to please anyone from los viejos verdes to the youth of today.

To sum up, a wonderful city, an interesting pilgrimage but most of all the Gallegos and Españoles are fantastic. A great trip to Santiago, I definitely plan to come again, maybe not by plane next time!!!

Saturday, 21 March 2009

To cut a long camino short - Kisses on the Camino - Story 3

Kisses on the Camino

She was lovely. More than that. She had it all. Dusky good looks. That smile. "Esperanza is my name", she said earlier in an accent that just shivered me. Lips made for kissing – a line I'd overheard and remembered long before I understood the meaning of "cheesy".

I was in a foreign country. Alone in the moment, without complications and the usual reporting lines. It was sunset. It seemed right.

We had met earlier at dinner. Both of us at adjacent tables surrounded by chattering and eating. Couples lapsing into those silences which others observe as either comforting or the product of a splendid indifference aged over time. Old familiars being strangers in their own way.

Our eyes had engaged and then with a staccato rhythm the glances led to the awkward words on the way to the toilet when the inevitable chance meeting was mutually engaged. That she couldn’t speak a word of English became as immediately apparent as the inadequacy of my faltering school boy Spanish. And yet a bargain had been sealed and we both knew when the others were having after dinner drinks and indulging in yet more boring reminiscences we would meet outside in the garden. The hour arranged with fingers more urgent than a deaf person at the bar at closing time.

When you are waiting time always drags. The imagination kick starts and the journey of fears and fantasies begins. What to talk about? How to behave? Listing things for idle chit chat. Doing that adolescent contortionist thing of trying to see if you smell ok.

A kiss? The seemingly unachievable, out of reach, tantalising and forbidden. A prize which only other people seemed to win in this exotic country – or so they said. Could it be me? Would it happen? Questions, doubts, urgent. Don’t!

But they were gone when she disappeared out of the door with the most discrete backward glance. The brief gleam of her eye like a signal to follow. I couldn’t not. Catholics always "couldn’t not", a sentence construction for the congenitally guilty.

Then we were alone. Unable to talk yet mumbling in half words of each other’s language. Yet communication was there I thought.

This is it. Hopes and fears. Oh my God. Gazes fixed on each other I made the move I had rehearsed countless times in my head. It was to be smooth, sophisticated, seamless. The Kiss. And yet as I moved, she turned her head, seamless gave way to lunge. I missed her mouth. She drew back. Saw me for the amateur I knew I was and as my face coloured to the roots of my hair she gave me a look of pity that was worse than disdain. Come back later little boy was the torturing message. I had blown my first kiss. Blown it.

So what is going on? Here I am 40 years later walking on my own enjoying the fruits of a successful career, relationships under the bridge. Mature, confident. Oh really? Then why still blush at that memory? And why has it come back now? And when it comes it brings friends. Other life events to relive like watching an old movie. Only in this production I’m sometimes the one that is hurt and I have to admit the one who is often the author of the hurt. Ouch.

But the pilgrimage has its own way of dealing with these times when the past calls a little too loudly. It may be the fellowship of other pilgrims, the welcome of the people but mostly it is just the walking. The thing I have learned is that the simple action of one step in front of the other creates a meditative rhythm, a oneness with the moment. And rather than thinking the deep thoughts of failure and hurt, of ambitions achieved and desires still to be made real, somehow a sense of contentment descends. Scenes are relived with diminishing embarrassment. Now the strong, over achiever and the wee boy who couldn’t kiss embrace.

They no longer hate each other.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

St Patrick's day that was

There was a time in my life when I thought that Pilgrims were the first people to settle in America and “pilgrimage” was something which older women in our church did on a bus!

Then when I was researching my own first pilgrimage I discovered this alternative universe of pilgrims and pilgrim routes. Today and every day in many parts of the world people will be making pilgrimage to Muslim or Hindu shrines, to the great Marian shrines of Fatima or Lourdes, or to Jerusalem and Rome.

A couple of years ago I was in India and discovered a deep and ancient tradition of pilgrimage throughout that vast country. My Chinese friend also talks about the old pilgrimages of the orient.

Yesterday was the feast of St Patrick, known as Patrick the Pilgrim. Patron Saint of Ireland.

The Emrald Isle is not short of pilgrimages. The pilgrimage to Knock to the Marian shrine attracts 1,500,000 pilgrims every year. The annual pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick takes place on the last Sunday in July when thousands of pilgrims walk up the mountain barefoot. There are others Clonmacnoise, Faughart, Our Lady's Island and of course there is the famous pilgimage to Lough Derg. By all accounts the Lough Derg experience is not for the faint hearted – it is a three day pilgrimage involving walking, strict fasting and staying awake for 24 hours continuously.

But if the Irish take pilgrimage seriously they also take celebrating St Patrick’s Day seriously. Yesterday 350 people turned up in Clapham, South West London, for a Mass to mark the great day. The singing was fantastic and at one point it was as if the statue might join in.

People wore shamrock and there was almost a cheer when it was announced that tradition could be followed and St Patrick’s day was exempt from Lent. For me and fellow musicians that led to an afternoon of boiled bacon, cabbage and over indulgence.

But I was thinking about it: if someone gave me the choice between spending 3 days in cold rainy Ireland walking about in my barefeet, fasting with only a cup of black tea and toast and staying awake for 24 hours or walking at my own pace in the sunshine through unspoiled rural Spain through picturesque villages with friendly locals and ice cold beer… I know which one I’d choose.

So Happy St Patrick’s Day that was but I think I’ll stick with St James!

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Pilgrim People

A life in the day of Ivar Rekve

Ivar Rekve runs the largest forum for English speaking pilgrims on his website The forum has had over 23,000 visitors per month and has over 3800 members who so far have made almost 32,000 postings.

"I get up every morning between 7 and 7.30. After a shower I feed our cat Pepa and our labrador Cuco. Both of them sleep outside in our large walled garden where they can run around.
Our house is in the village of Brion in the countryside about 20 mins drive from Santiago de Compostela. I moved here five years ago with my wife Maria who is a Professor in the University.
I’m originally from Norway, from the village of Ulvik near the Hardanger fjord (pictured above). The family moved to Oslo when I was 13. After studying Psychology at the University of Oslo then Business Studies in Konsberg I moved to Washington State University where I met Maria who is from Lugo in Galicia.

After graduating with an MBA I went off to work in Silicon Valley. When Maria finished her PhD we both got jobs at Colorado State University and we lived there happily for two years. We then had to decide whether we wanted to remain in the USA long term or go back to Europe. Europe was the choice and we were lucky to move close to Santiago.

We both love this house in Brion although for five years we have been renovating it. It is a stone house from 1888 with vines and a 2500 m2 garden. I spend a lot of time outside mowing the law. I also have to press the grapes to make wine. But I don’t mind. The Galician countryside is very green like the best of Norway with the climate of Spain – although a bit rainy at times! I think that Galicians and Norwegians are alike – we are both a bit reserved.

After breakfast I log on to the internet to check e mails and look at what is happening on the Forum. I used to read every single post but nowadays it simply isn’t possible. But I do try to read as many as I can. I rely on the help of a small group of volunteer moderators who work hard to ensure that spammers are banned and that there is nothing offensive being posted. We communicate with each other a lot.

The idea for the Forum came when I was learning Spanish. I didn’t know a word when I came here! My original idea was to build an English language website about the town of Santiago but quickly it moved towards focussing on the pilgrimage. It has its own identity and the forum logo is also on a badge which many members put on their ruckasacks so they can recognise each other. The Forum has grown at a steady rate and I think there is a good mix between veteran pilgrims and new pilgrims who are just starting out and have lots of questions. It is a very friendly forum and people try to be helpful especially to newcomers. Spammers who post multiple offensive or advertising posts can bring a Forum like ours to its knees very quickly. Without the vigilance of the moderators constantly updating the forum software we could easily have 50 – 60 spammers signing up per day. But pilgrims find the Forum useful and I take a lot of satisfaction from that.

I work part time at the University so every day I make the drive there or to my new office at the Camino Travel Centre.

I usually have lunch at the University. It is amazingly good value with a Menu del Dia for 5 Euros – even better than a Pilgrims’ Menu.

My work at the University is IT focussed but over the years I have come to know more and more about the Pilgrimage routes to Santiago. I’ve also learned about the work of the Pilgrim Associations like the Confraternity of St James in London. They do a huge amount of work and they have been very supportive of the Forum. A few months ago Maria and I went to London to visit the Confraternity Office and to a church service and party to celebrate its 25th anniversary.

Through all of this I became aware that there are no dedicated facilities and services in Santiago for the increasing numbers of English speaking pilgrims. Pilgrims have been telling me that often they need help to make hotel or transport bookings, negotiate complicated transfers or just a place to go for help if they need to leave a bag in left luggage or find a way of getting out to Finisterre and back in one day. There are also individuals and groups for example in the United States or other distant countries who want to book hotels or hostals in advance of their Camino or need help getting to where they want to start.
Therefore I’ve decided to launch a service to meet these needs. I’ve called it the Camino Travel Centre and it is located right on the Camino Francés where it enters Santiago. I will soon offer a full range of services, transport and accommodation booking, I can organise a luggage forwarding service for those who needs it and left luggage in Santiago. All the practical travel assistance pilgrims might need.

I’ve been really busy setting this up but I try to leave for home at around 6pm every evening.

My favourite dinner is Peppered Steak with sauce and fries and if I can eat it with Maria and have Pink Floyd playing in the background it would be perfect. In music I also like everything from De Lillos to Luar Na Lubre.

The one confession I have to make is that I’ve never made a pilgrimage to Santiago. I am going to put that right soon. I promise.

I try to get to bed reasonably early. I am a great reader and I’ve recently finished the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson. On my bedside table at the moment is a copy of Myren (Swamp) by Arnaldur Indridason.

If I was to make three wishes they would be:

1 That my new venture will help pilgrims and will be reasonably successful

2 That next winter will not be so long and rainy

3 That Ryanair starts a new daily route from Santiago to Oslo "

Ivar Rekve will soon open the new Camino Travel Centre

Camino Travel Center Rua de San Pedro 3315703 Santiago de Compostela

Thursday, 12 March 2009

To cut a long camino short - a mortality tale

Marching in the same direction

Strange as it may seem I find many similarities between life in rural Spain and life in rural Scotland. Or perhaps rural anywhere. Of course the weather in Spain is better and for me the rhythm of the day more relaxed. But in these small country communities the same issues are faced and often the same solutions emerge. Like the postman on the island of Islay off the west coast of Scotland…well the postman is also the bus driver because the post van has seats in the back and he actually has a proper ticket dispenser! But that is only his morning job in the afternoon he cuts peat to be stacked and dried as winter fuel and in the evening he has his own beasts to attend to, 10 cows and 50 sheep. I was once in his house and we were having a dram in the kitchen. I asked him if he also kept pigs. “Only for part of the year” he replied. “And then you sell them?” I enquired. “No” he said, “then we keep them in there” as he pointed at the freezer.
Romantic it may seem to outsiders but the work is hard and often monotonous. Community life has the great benefits of solidarity and mutual aid but of course the down side of everyone knowing everyone else is that inevitably everyone knows everything about everyone else. This can be claustrophobic especially for young people who may travel to the city or a larger town for school or college and taste another way of life. In Spain I sense that the restlessness of young people to up sticks and leave villages is just as intense as in Scotland.

But there is a strong community spirit and sense of identity in these villages where arrangements for the fiesta to celebrate the feast of the local saint are joyously made. When there is a birth the whole village celebrates new life and when there is a death everyone shares the grief.

When I got to Castilblanco de los Arroyos at dusk I followed the guidebook and made my way to the garage on the main road. The attendant stamped my Credencial with great ceremony, told me there were no other pilgrims and gave me the key for the albergue which was behind the garage.

The albergue was well appointed but it was freezing. I could see my own breath in the dormitory and the water was cold. I went back to the garage and the attendant said that for 12 Euros I could get a room at house number 43. Off I went to explore.

As I turned the corner into the street he had sent me to a church bell started to toll somewhere deeper into the village. As if in response to some tribal call doors opened and people starting walking in what I assumed was the direction of the church. At first it was one or two women, then a couple, then a family. I followed and quickly it seemed as if every house had emptied. I knocked on the door of 43 but got no response. At the junction people from another street joined and then another until a great procession emerged out onto the village square in front of the church. The church filled rapidly and the throng simply stood outside. The buzz of conversation silenced and the crowd parted to allow the entry of a hearse. As the coffin was borne into the church I could almost feel the silence broken only by the muffled sobs of the grieving relatives. And so Lorenzo’s funeral mass began.

I have been to lots of funerals. Funerals are funerals so to speak. But what struck me about this funeral was not the grief of the family or the indifference of the undertakers or the clinical efficiency of the priest. What has remained a lasting picture was then entire community filling the church and lining the square. Faces all different but with a common look. Stoic. Jaws set against the loss. Like stone but with the kindliest eyes. As this community stood in solidarity with one who has died and those left behind there was a huge sense of our individual and collective mortality.
I went back to the albergue to find there was now hot water and next day my own journey continued as does life. But I was left to wonder how much of this community spirit has been lost in the modernity of the great cosmopolitan cities like London and New York. Here in sophisticated London people don’t even know their neighbours yet in rural Spain they certainly do.

When pilgrims meet on a route there is an immediate connection and for some travelling communities are formed where you can walk alone if you wish or walk with new friends with everyone coming together in the albergue or at table in the evening. Pilgrims help each other. They take what they need and give what they can. Why does this happen? Perhaps pilgrimage is the realisation that with Lorenzo we are all marching in the same direction.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Let's get personal

I had lunch with “the girls” yesterday. Well actually only 2 of 5 of them. “Girls” is a euphemism for a group of the brightest, most assertive and at times scariest women I have ever worked with. I met them in my previous professional life. We worked together, became friends and we still meet. Now with children, partners and mortgages their brains are still as large as planets and they are still challenging.

We met in a posh part of London – they live there, I had to travel from the other side of the tracks. We caught up on all the news before lunch. Julie is pregnant, again. Sandra unbelievably is nearly 40. There’s another Sandra who is now scaring people in Holland and Fiona is at home with three children. Kara is still a senior with McKinsey.

But before you could say "red mullet and spinach" they started on their questions about walking the Camino routes to Santiago. I felt the full force of their need for analysis. It went something like this:

“We’ve read the blog, pretty pictures, nice scenery. You actually walk everywhere? Like….walk all the way… no buses or taxis? Do you stay in these pilgrim inns with other people? Do you walk every day? Does someone carry your rucksack? You carry it yourself? Wow. Isn’t it boring? Do you have e mail access?”

It is relatively easy to answer these questions individually but of course what they really wanted to know is: “What do you get out of it? and “Why do you go back for more?”

I find these questions much more difficult to answer because the pilgrimage experience is a complex alchemy of physical effort, daily repetition, being out of your comfort zone, engaging with others on a new level and beginning to experience what is most important in life.

Not every one “gets” this. Take Laurence for example. I’ve known him for a few years. He is liberal, tolerant, kind, very environmentally friendly and has spent his life helping others. One day many years ago he drove to France to start his pilgrimage. He got out of the car, set off on the route and after a few hours it started to rain. Her turned back and returned home. He hadn’t realised he might have to walk in the rain!

But I mustn’t get diverted onto other people. The questions were directed at me. I found myself facing the problem many pilgrims face – just how do you explain the experience to people?

I was aware of that dilemma very early in my first pilgrimage. After a few days I felt a sense of freedom. I was walking surrounded by stunning scenery. I was greeted by friendly local Spanish people who couldn’t have been more helpful. I met a few other pilgrims and realised that in the journey there is a common bound.

But things also started to happen inside me as well. I slowed down. Walking alone I thought about a lot of things in life. Good and bad. And it can be easy to dwell on the bad. But the rhythm of the walking, just putting one foot in front of the other, time after time, washed all thoughts away, both good and bad. Like meditation I suppose.

After a few days the Camino takes over. You have to get up and have breakfast. Then set off for the next destination. There are yellow arrows marking the way. You know the distance to be walked. Quickly you realise how many kilometres per hour you walk on average. For me that’s 4. So if I set out to walk 25 kms in a day that is 6 hours walking plus roughly one hour in breaks. 7 hours. Nearly a working day. But oh so different!

Then arriving in yet another small village. Finding a bed. Is there a church to visit? Having dinner. Then bed. Deep sleep.

Day after day.

The very simplicity has a major impact. Daily needs are taken care of and “wants” turn from a new model of car or mobile phone to whether it will be soup or salad to satisfy the hunger at the end of a day’s walking.

It was on one of these days I realised how difficult it is to explain this Camino experience.

I was walking the Camino Inglés as a break between walking the two halves of the Via de la Plata. It was a hot July day. The day before I had walked along the waterside at Pontedueme and eaten fresh sea food. I started early because I wanted to get the steep climb over the hill to my next destination out of the way before it became too hot. By mid morning the sun was shining. It was glorious. As the day went on the temperature continued to climb. It was hot. Very hot. As I walked up a short but steep incline I was aware just how hot it was.

I followed a yellow arrow to the right, along a forest path. It was lush. Long grass. The trees above forming a canopy like a cathedral ceiling. Cool. Dark. Green. Suddenly like a spotlight on a stage a shaft of sunlight pierced the forest shade and illuminated a cloud of butterflies dancing on the path in front of me.
The intense beauty of the sight in the relief of the cool shade was almost overwhelming. Uplifting.

Afterwards as I thought about it I realised that many other camino experiences are just like that: dramatic, unexpected, magical, deeply spiritual and personal.

I had the idea that one way to explain all of this would be to bring together personal experiences with beautiful photographs and inspirational words. That resulted the wee book the Spiritual Companion which celebrates the 25th anniversary of the Confraternity of St James. (see bottom of the page)

The truth of the matter is that the Camino experience has been so powerful for me I’m still trying to explain and describe it. And so I wrote some stories and then I got a blog.

I’m not bored yet and I hope neither are you.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

More pilgrim tales from Santiago

Pilar and Rosa Reminisce

The Pilgrims’ Office in Santiago is located on the first floor of 1 Rúa Vilar, next to the Cathedral. Here pilgrims show their pilgrim record to prove they have travelled the requisite distance and are presented with their Compostela.

Pilar and Rosa have both worked in the Pilgrims’ Office for 2 years. In that time they and their colleagues saw more than 200,000 pilgrims. They are both realists and know that with that number of people there will be those with joyful stories and those with sadness in their lives, pilgrims who are grateful and those who can be difficult and those who are downright...err unusual. This is a random collection of some of their memories of the last two years.

Pilar recounts an elderly French couple whose daughter had died. They had decided that when they finished their pilgrimage in her memory they would have a mass dedicated to her. Pilar dealt with them. They filled in the form and got their credencial stamped and having ascertained that they had walked for spiritual reasons she issued each with a Compostela. They then asked Pilar how arrange a Memorial Mass for their daughter.

The trouble was that they could only speak French and Pilar could only speak Spanish. Having made several unsuccessful attempts to communicate with words they reverted to sign language. It became increasingly funny and ended with the woman crying uncontrollably with laughter. They all gave up. No memorial mass had been arranged. In that very moment, Pilar reports, she decided to learn French and she set about going to lessons, always remembering the elderly couple who had inspired them.

One year later they returned. They didn´t recognise Pilar but she recognised them. Moreover she could talk to them. This time the Mass was arranged and they have all remained in touch ever since.
There are also unusual people like the woman who wanted to be assured that having walked to Santiago she was in receipt of a plenary indulgence releasing her from all time she may have to spend in purgatory if she died. "If fact" she demanded, "If I die right now, can you categorically guarantee that I will go straight to heaven?" Rosa is very level headed and gave the diplomatic reply that she hoped and prayed that the woman would not die and that entry to heaven was a matter for God and not the Pilgrims´ Office. The woman lodged a formal complaint with the Cathedral Authorities because she hadn´t been given the guarantee.

Some encounters leave deep memories. One day a Dutch woman approached the desk. She appeared to be disabled, her movements were uncoordinated but she refused assistance from Pilar and slowly wrote her details holding the pen with both hands. She went on to explain that she had been diagnosed with a brain tumour and was heading home to have surgery. He Camino had been her preparation for this. Pilar wished her well for the operation and for her future. What she didn´t disclose is that she hoped that the woman fared better than her own father who had died of a brain tumour 1 month before. She has often wondered how the woman fared...

But life in the pilgrims´ office is not all heartwarming stories or gentle chuckles at the eccentric. They get very difficult and at times nasty people too. With 100,000 people per year moving through the office how could it not be so? Pilgrims can be very opinionated perhaps because of the determination needed to complete the journey. For some that can be taken to extremes. Even whilst I was there a pilgrim who had been very pleasant when receiving the compostela came back to the Office to complain that on the banner outside which list countries with a welcome in different languages had Spain at the bottom of the list. "How can that be so when it is OUR pilgrimage?" he demanded. The ever patient Rosa quietly replied, "If you read it from the bottom up…Spain is first". He left quietly.

The Cathedral authorities take the spiritual nature of the pilgrimage very seriously. They believe they are the guardians of the tradition of the pilgrimage to the shrine of St James which has gone on for over 500 years. Therefore on arrival in the office pilgrims fill in a form with their name, age, point of departure, occupation etc. They are also asked to indicate whether their pilgrimage was inspired by purely spiritual motives, or a mixture of spiritual and other motives or non religious reasons. A tick in the box of the first two leads to the Compostela being issued. If someone says they have walked for non religious reasons another certificate is issued.

Some people take exception to the rules and the staff of the office have been spat at, had certificates and credenciales torn up and thrown at them and on one occasion a drunk pilgrim vaulted the counter and threatened to assault them. I´d have a policy of zero tolerance introduced in a jiffy with the police called at the first sign of trouble. But whilst the staff recognise that point of view, they sincerely want to give all pilgrims the benefit of the doubt...even the most difficult may still see the light.
Let´s hope so.