Sunday, 22 February 2015

Squirrelly


The Month of the Pilgrim continues. It is extraordinary. It is exhausting.
Every night this month but one we've had at least two people, sometimes the full-capacity six or even seven, but almost always somebody.  They walk 31 kilometers to get here. It's another nine kilometers to the next stopping-place. We cannot in good conscience leave people to sleep outdoors.
We chose to live here because there's a relatively steady stream of pilgrims flowing past. We like the pilgrims, we've been pilgrims ourselves -- they keep life interesting in a town that would otherwise be stiflingly isolated and insular.
We've been at this for nine years. We have never, in all that time, had such a steady flow of pilgrims stay with us, day after day after day.
They are nice people, sometimes funny, always cooperative. I've had only one ask for a hair dryer, and I've only had to tell one person "This is my home, it is not a hotel."
They clean up after themselves (mostly), they often phone ahead to tell us they're coming. Some of them are really interesting characters -- we've had a Dane who runs a Ribero del Duero winery, and a Swiss woman who rehabilitates injured wild animals up in the Alps, and the editor of the Korean Airlines in-flight magazine.
A Korean man left a message on our shopping-list blackboard: "I love here," it says.
On Ash Wednesday there was no Mass in Moratinos, so we had a rite of our own. We anointed one another, told one another "from ashes you come, and to ashes you shall return." Even the unbeliever, the "rationalist." He's the one who put the cross on my forehead. He's the one who, the following morning, on his way out the door, assured me that yes, he will pray for me out there on the road. "Yes, I can do that," he said.
It's moments like that that keep me going.
Because keeping going is getting tough now, three weeks into this extraordinary February onslaught.
I like the pilgrims, but I very much miss the quiet, the long evenings of no one but us. Simple dinners, or no dinners at all -- a sandwich, some fruit. A good book, or a writing or editing project. Able to go out for the evening, able to make evening plans. Long stretches of my own company.
I am spoiled rotten this way, or I was, up til Bruno left.
Two weeks is the standard limit for volunteer hospitaleros. After that, they go all squirrelly. Two weeks is more than enough for a lot of volunteers. Most don't come back again.
I think of Bruno and Lourdes and Jato and Tomas the Last Templar and Edu in Boadilla, people who do this all the time, every day, for years. People who have to do this to earn enough money to pay their bills. People who do this because they just love pilgrims. And I see why Bruno takes two months off every year, and why Lourdes only opens her doors in wintertime, and why Jato and Tomas and Edu have gangs of people helping them out. And I remember some of the "sensei" hospitaleros of years past -- Anna of Ages, who helped us get settled in here. The couple who ran the albergue in Eunate for years, and Cirauqui before that. The couple who opened the albergue in Villares del Orbigo, or the Brazilian guy who ran the place in Vega de Valcarce...
They are gone now. Sold-up, moved on, retired. There's a lifespan for full-time hospitaleros, and it does not seem to be a long one. There's now enough pilgrim albergues on the market to support at least one specialist estate agent.
Paddy is unhappy. He still turns out beautiful omelettes and couscous and stodge every day, and I heard him laughing out loud this afternoon with three semi-hysterical Korean ladies... but he glowers at me from behind his computer, even as the merry pilgrims chatter and laugh all around him.
There's hope. February is almost over. And last year, the albergue in Terradillos opened up again in March.
Please, God. I am happy to be a hospitalera now and then, but I am a hermit in my heart. I am not cut out for full-on sainthood. Not even for the shortest month of the year.  

In other news, I do not have breast cancer.
I got the test results. They did not get a clean biopsy sample, even after sinking the needle three times. But none of the tissue they did get showed any sign of malignancy. Something is still in there, but so far it's okay. I am okay. I just have to keep going back every six months to be sure.
Glory be. And thanks to everyone who supported me in this little adventure, with good thoughts, prayers, and words of encouragement.
I love you guys.
Please pray for us, whether or not you believe anyone is listening.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Que Tranquilo!

Rosalia de Castro, resting between mouse-slayings
Spaniards are always astounded to learn we live in rural Palencia year-round. "Que tranquilo!" they exclaim... "How quiet!" And between the lines they mean "Que aburrido!" How boring!

But it suits us right down to the ground, at least the way we play it. There's plenty here to occupy our minds.

We bought a big box of everything Chopin ever wrote, played by tip-top musicians. We got the stereo to play out of four speakers instead of just two, and put one speaker out on the patio, so the whole Peaceable can be All Polonaise, All the Time. Superb!
Two weeks ago, I had a large-needle mammary biopsy of a half-a-lentil-size something in my right breast, without any anesthesia. Yow! Anything but boring, that.
While in Paris, while consuming a sea-salt caramel, a 30-year-old filling came loose from an even-more-venerable tooth. (Lots of other stuff happened there, but that would be a digression.) I had the filling repaired in Sahagun, also without anesthesia. It appears that news of my September over-reaction to dental anesthesia has made the rounds of the Spanish healthcare system. So now, minor surgical interventions are a practice in Being Present With Pain. Zen discipline is my new way of life, whether I like it or not!
So far, I find authentic pain not much worse than the eeeugh of being shot-up with local anesthesia. And none of it compares to the horror of being strapped into the Magnetic Resonance Imaging device. So go ahead, doc, poke me with needles! Anything but that clattering bondage chamber!

...But I shall not be one of those old ladies nattering on about her latest "procedure."
Suffice to say I will, hopefully, learn on Monday whether or not I have breast cancer.

And that is my excuse for not writing a whole lot these days.

That, and it's winter, and I am depressed. And I have a great big toothsome editing project to work on, and a speech to give (in English) at the university in Palencia, and a radio interview after that (in Spanish.)

And we're putting out to bid a big renovation on the little kitchen/despensa/bathroom by the front gate, to make it its own nice little weatherproof solar-powered apartment. The dollar is strong. The time is right. We might need someone to come here sometime and help us out, and they will want their own space. I thought long and hard about buying one of the two fincas for sale here in town, but decided we might as well make the most of what we have already. I cannot save the whole adobe world on my own. At least not until I hit the lottery.

Since Bruno left we have lots and lots of pilgrims, relatively speaking. Most of them are South Koreans, and some of them speak a few words of a language we can handle. They are decent company, they keep the days rolling along, they keep things interesting. Kindly people from far away send us donations to help pay their way, because most of these pilgrims leave only a fiver in the box. It all comes up even in the end, I think.
I try not to think too too much. It is almost tax time, when I have to tally up all the numbers and tell all to two countries, in two languages.
But money is almost as boring as medical procedures.

Like I said, I went to Paris for a quick visit. I ate oysters, and had my spirits lifted. I went last week to Santiago de Compostela, for a "more of the same" hospitalero get-together and some Quality Time with my buds John and Stephen... and Laurie, up on the mountain on the way home in O Cebreiro. Spirits again lifted. It is good to get out, to see how others like me are coping with the grey skies and manuscripts and daily demands.

Plans are moving forward. Schemes are being schemed. Soon I will reveal details of a cool new FICS hospitalero opportunity which I hope will not consume me until I get the latest book edited. Paddy is headed down to Malaga, to visit family and soak up some rays and escape the pilgrim onslaught for a few days. Nothing at all is happening with the Asociacion Cultural, but I can't afford to worry about that just now.

People ask me how I can stand the silence and boredom of this isolated, underpopulated place. And sometimes I say the winter sky here is startlingly clear when the wind blow
s, especially at night. At night I go out and look up at Venus and Mars and the rings of Saturn and the belt of Orion, and I know how small I am, here on our little ball two rocks from the sun.

I know none of us means much at all.
And I will be all right.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Shelter for the Hardcore

Bruno’s burned-out, gone back to Italy until April. He left us with a big pan of tiramisu and a set of keys to his albergue. And every pilgrim who comes down the pike.
Winter’s usually pretty dead on the Camino de Santiago. We don’t mind being the only place open to pilgrims in 20 kilometers, because almost no one walks this part of the path this time of year. In February and early March, if you’re walking westward, the wind tends to blow freezing rain right into your face. Even in June, the tourist-pilgrims complain and skip past this bit because “there’s nothing to look at out here.” There’s even less to look at in February.When you can see past the ice on your eyelashes.
I exaggerate. Only every other day is that bad. We see plenty of blue sky, too. But you don’t see a lot of sky when you’re watching for ice underfoot. It’s winter on the prairie. Most people have good sense enough to stay home by the fire.
Except pilgrims. This winter there are still tons of the buggers out there. Most of the restaurants and pilgrim shelters are closed for the season. The ones that are open are often unheated. That means the walk between stops is much longer than in summer, even as the daylight hours are shorter. There are very few fellow pilgrims to keep you company. Winter pilgrims are a serious lot, a tough breed. They used to be few and far between. 
But that's changing. In January, 1,217 people were awarded “Compostela” certificates at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, a new record for the month. Today, eleven pilgrims got theirs. Eleven. We used to get that many pilgrims in a winter month!
We get pilgrims every day now. Partly because we’re the only open place between Calzadilla de la Cueza and Sahagun. Partly because the winter pilgrimage is getting better organized. Lourdes Lluch, a hero of the modern-day camino, is responsible.
Lourdes is the Ur-Hospitalera, the pioneer. She opened the first pilgrim albergue on the modern Camino Frances, in Hornillos del Camino, back in 1983. She helped to organize the Federation of Amigos del Camino de Santiago, a national non-profit group dedicated to the pilgrimage. She helped create a hospitality network based on donations and voluntary service -- all in the most humble, quiet way. On a camino bristling with experts, "coaches," academics, and documentary filmmakers, almost nobody knows how important she is. 
Lourdes is still around. In Fromista for the past few years, Lourdes and her husband open their apartment in wintertime, when all of Fromista’s for-profit albergues close down. Following the same path Lourdes laid down 30 years ago, they give the pilgrims food and a bed, and ask only for a donation in return. They do it because it’s the right thing to do, because they believe in the pilgrimage. They almost break even.
This year, Lourdes decided to put her camino contacts to work. Starting in December, she made up a list of every open albergue on the Camino Frances – with telephone numbers and email addresses. She updates it frequently, as places open and close almost at random in winter. We’re on the list.
We get a lot more telephone calls lately, people making sure we are for real. We see fewer pilgrims sleeping rough on church porches. We get more pilgrims in here, sometimes too many. We’re eating more lentils and beans and spaghetti. Cheap carbs, easily multiplied. “Pilgrim stodge.”  
We’re meeting some cool people, hearing some hair-raising tales of derring-do, and testimonies, too, of faith found and kindness shared. Everyone’s too tired to cause trouble. Nobody has much money. Many of them walk alone, but everyone’s pretty much met everyone else who’s walking out there. The care for one another. 
After they settle in and shower the pilgrims text each other, to learn where everyone ended up. They text with translation software, because many of them have no common language. They cannot talk to one another on the phone, but they want to be sure that Soo-Rin or Lindsey or Manuel’s found a place to spend the night.
They are tough and quiet and decent, winter pilgrims. They don’t ask for blow dryers, or the best room. They eat all their stodge, and wait til everyone’s done before they ask for seconds. They do the washing-up. Sometimes they talk, sometimes for hours, sometimes in languages I barely understand.

I used to feel bad about not being needed anymore by pilgrims, now that Moratinos has other accommodation options. But now I look at Lourdes, and I see she’s got it figured out. She is a hospitalera to her bones, but she’s found a way to do her service in winter, when the weather weeds-out the party animals and the lightweights, the drama queens and spiritual consumers. 

Winter pilgrims are the real deal. I’m glad Lourdes sends them our way. 
Bruno leaves the best for us.   



Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Why People Stay Home

The bag is packed, the tickets printed out, money and pills and notebooks all in order.
Train to Madrid, plane to Paris. I will see two good old friends, and a lesser-known but very rich museum I’ve been wanting to visit. I will buy India ink and stinky cheese. I will eat oysters and drink wine and (if it’s clear at night) show my godson Nicolas how to use his new telescope to see the seas of the moon.
The city of lights. People I love. I planned the trip a month ago, to escape the long, long stretch that is January on the meseta. That "slog through the fog." 

I don’t want to go to Paris.

This year, something is different about the long, long stretch.
I am no less depressed than I ever am, in the mid-winter. The weather is rough – gray and bitterly cold in the mornings, dangerously icy. Last week I fell. I still feel it in my back. Walking the dogs is dicey business.
Yesterday morning the greyhounds ran away after a fox, out beyond the tumberon. I saw them go, far away across the fields, stretched out full-length like figures on a tapestry.
Snow spat down, and a piercing wind picked up. Paddy turned for home with the less-ambitious dogs. I headed out into the fields after the runaways. An inch of fresh snow squeaked underfoot. The fields are sown with winter rye, the turned soil barely frozen. I tracked the dogs an hour down and up a sunken lane. More than one fox lives out there. Deer had passed by, and maybe pigs, definitely a weasel. I did not see or hear them, but I saw their tracks. I did not see or hear Lulu or Harry. I walked on tractor paths, across fallow fields, alongside the wild arroyos. The hills rose and fell. Nothing moved but snow.  
On some flat places you can hear the roar of trains blowing through Sahagun. The lonesome whistles blow, miles and miles from town. The wind carries the sound. Sometimes, some places you hear the autopista, the howl and roar of truck tires, air horns, jake brakes. But not very often. Not so far out.
I lost the dogs’ trail in a rough-plowed field. The black sky moved eastward, toward me.
I strode back toward the tumberon. It faded away fast in the snowfall. I listened hard, wondering if that little noise down the valley was dogs barking, if maybe they’d got the fox to ground. I stopped. I slowed my breathing, listened.
Maybe a dog bark. Maybe a crow, down in those black trees. The moaning sound was the wind in my earrings. Loops. The wind catches in them, it whispers and moans right into my ear. I heard the rasp of my fingertips inside my gloves, inside my pockets. I felt warm, I felt healthy and well. My eyes looked hard down the valley, into the wind. I could see only an out-of-focus eyelash, and a skeleton tree.
The rest was silence, milky white. Utter silence. I let it stretch out for minutes, til the black cloud rolled over my hill and the wind struck hard as iron.
I felt embarrassed, having spent the last hour shouting after dogs. I realized how noisy I am, just walking, my feet crunching down, my nose snorting, my prayers chattering words into the empty air. Into this wide place, so silent almost always, silence heavy and almost holy. A place nobody knows. Nobody sees, but maybe a weasel or a wild pig, and now and then a tractor.
This sanctuary stands within a mile of my house. I can go there whenever I wish.  

True, Madrid is a couple of hours away. I can be in Paris a couple of hours after that. But why? Why would anyone want go to rackety old Paris?    

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Slog through the Fog

If you know me, you know I get a little crazy in January. And here we are, nine whole days in.
It has to do with the fog. Most days here are bright sunny and frosty, just lovely. But lumbering slowly over the plain like great grey mastiffs are fogs. Miles and hours of fog, thick and dark and damp. Youcan see them coming, like a squall on Lake Erie, and once these guys roll into town, they stay around. Day turns to semi-night, sounds are oddly muffled, and nights are very, very long.
After a day or so of fog, I start feeling like I'm under water.
I wrote a blog a few days ago, based on a very good poem I found. It was very apt to my present spiritual state, so I got down and all lyrical with it.
I posted it. I found a typo, so I went in the fix it.
And somehow I blew away the entire thing.
I blew all the color off the blog page, too. God knows how. The fog rolled onto it, too.
I let it go. It probably was not very coherent anyway, knowing what month it is.
Hardly anything moves outside but crows, hawks, and sometimes owls.
The animals stay near the fire, or inside their barn. The hens are not laying many eggs. I am not writing any books. Or blogs, either.
I am trying to register the association with the tax authorities, but I need copies of ID documents for the secretary, treasurer, and vice president. The one person who lives in Santander sent hers right away. The two who live within a mile have not moved. I have not seen them around.
Maria de la Valle lives in the Canary Islands. She spent her holidays here in Moratinos. She is an educated woman, open and bright; her husband Joaquin is a psychologist, they like us, we hung out a bit in the last few weeks. They help me with association business. They have ideas, they have family here, they can communicate things I cannot.
photo:"Memorias de un Labrador Castellano," by Modesto
We came up with a couple of good ideas. One is for a cachapera, little hut made of straw or grapevines, modeled after a photo I found of a local history book.  Back when there were vineyards all around here, farmers built these pointy-topped temporary huts and hired an old man to stay there while the grapes ripened, to keep away grape-thieves.
This summer, during the fiesta, when all the children are in town, we could engage young and old in building one of these ages-past structures. We could put it up in the rarely-used playground, and the kids could use it for a playhouse while they're in town -- we could have a camp-out, and get out the telescope and show them the stars! Long as it held up, adventurous pilgrims could use it, too.
We still have vineyards enough to provide vines to build one of these little huts. God knows we have enough straw, or switches from the chopo trees in the plaza. We'd have to track down someone who knows how to build one, or work it out for ourselves... or contact Antonio, my friend down in Badajoz -- he is building a chozo right now, a stone version of the cachapera. (the swineherds and shepherds down there use them in summer). Antonio says he'd love to come up and help us out. He owes me a favor.
stone chozo, a la Antonio
The kids would have fun. It wouldn't cost much. We'd put it on community land, out of the way. What's not to like?
My pet project is a simple sign. A sign made of metal, with a little roof over it, at the foot of the drive 'round the bodegas. The bodegas are the first thing pilgrims see when they come into town -- a series of little doors dug into a tall hillside, one for each household. They are wine caves, but visitors have no way of knowing that. They think they are Hobbit Houses, or fallout shelters, or some kind of mine. We need to put up a sign and tell them what they are. Bodegas are interesting, and they are what makes Moratinos unique along this route. And because pilgs are lways asking! (If we had enough money and interest we could explain the dovecotes, too.)
Maria de la Valle threw up the ideas at a recent gathering of her family, and no one thought much of them at all.
A sign. Like this.
They don't remember cachaperas, or they don't know how to make one, or they'd rather use the grapevines for barbecue fuel.
As for signs on the bodega -- everyone in the Association knows what the bodegas are for! Why spend good money on people who are only here for five minutes?
They'd rather go on excursions, really. But to interesting places. On a daywhen the nurse isn't coming  to check blood pressures and when no one has an appointment in Palencia, or when there's plowing to be done. And what about the grants? Haven't we applied yet?
"They do not see it the way we do," Maria told me. "You have your work cut out for you." She kissed me on both cheeks, and flew away back to her island paradise.
And left me here in the fog. In my yellow house. My yellow submarine.
I am trolling the junta and provincial websites. I continue plotting and planning, hoping I find a foundation or a bequest or a program...
Something will work itself out. This all is to be expected. Just gotta keep moving forward.
Forward, toward February, and back out the other end to March. The fog breaks up and the sun comes out again.

Note: Please excuse the errors in spacing and just general typos. I cannot make Blogger give me "insert" spaces! 

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Shut Up and Feel the Shimmer


If God is everywhere, then everywhere must be holy, no?
Sometimes, all you have to do is shut up, and there it is. There's a shimmer on all kinds of things, even ugly things. That's God.
I keep a diary. In it are listed many, many holy moments. (If I don't write them down, I tend to forget them.) This has been a holy year.
Yesterday on the road to Paco's vineyard, three owls lifted out of the ditch and across our path. They vanished into the fog. They were perfectly silent.
With Laurie in July, on a cow-path in a mountaintop meadow near Penalba, with Ponferrada far down in the distance. We stopped and sat against the steep hillside. I pulled off my boots and stretched out my toes. I felt my feet smile.
With three beloved people in a stone house in the mountains in France, staring up at the stars in the back garden, laughing and exulting over divine cheese and wine and Rachmaninoff on the radio. "It's 3 o'clock in the morning!" someone said. We all fell silent. We all looked at one another, then smiled. It was God we felt in the room. God was there.
In a cave with hands painted on the walls thousands of years ago.
In my car, stopped in the middle of a terrific thunderstorm, the rain roaring on the roof and nothing at all visible outside.
In my arms while Murphy Cat died, in the horror of his suffering, and the tenderness of Mo cat and Rosie dog, who came and touched his body with their noses once he finished. How Paddy's hands tucked the towel 'round his head, and so softly laid the dirt over him out back.
How Paddy's hands put ends to suffering hens, because I just cannot do that myself. Paddy is not godless, no matter what he says. He buries our dead. God is with him.
God is with me at church, as you'd expect. I taste him at Communion, I feel the rush of him in my pew. I heard his voice in the canary songs, and the crows' sour voices, too.
I hear him in the poetry of priests. In February I read out the poetry myself, in English, in my deep Scripture Voice, in the great cathedral shrine at Santiago de Compostela, I stood and recited the Gospel Truth as winter rain poured through the roof above, and the holy ghost moved all around our side-chapel of St. Andrew.
He came too, in May, to Crystal Gardens Banquet Facility in South Detroit, when I read scripture at a somewhat wrong moment of my son's Muslim wedding feast. I was forgiven. I think I was actually heard.
I felt God in September outside the Bar Luna in Sahagun, just after I had an impacted molar pulled. I had lost consciousness, frightened the dentist, gave myself a scare, too. I was stunned, bloody, The anesthesia was wearing off. The waiter brought me a shot of Four Roses and a glass of draft beer.
I drank them down, and felt the strength of ten men roar into my being. God with us!
Sometimes God is obvious. He came with the strength of two men late last Winter, when I planted a tree. It was a big tree, too big for me to handle on my own, a meaningful tree, in memory of a fallen pilgrim. I stopped and stilled my bothered-ness and asked for help. And up the trail came two strapping pilgrims, who helped me wrestle the tree into the hole and stand it straight and fill in the dirt around it. They even snapped photos!
He sat in my hands this summer when I treated a pilgrim with a ruptured Achilles tendon. The man was a doctor. He knew what was wrong. He was ready to go home. And in the morning, well... I still don't like to say it. The tendon was whole again. The tear had repaired in the night. The pilgrim headed out onto the trail rejoicing. I was stunned. I still am.
But when I think of where I see God, and I think mostly of mundane things, daily things. St. Teresa of Avila, a great Christian mystic from here in Castilla, told the Grand Inquisitor that "God lives in the kitchen, among the pots and pans."
This year I saw God in mud-and-straw adobe bricks, in my sudden outburst of properly conjugated preterite imperfect verbs. I saw him in the faces of Antonio from Badajoz, Miguel Angel from Paris, Andy from Birmingham, Kathy from San Francisco. I saw him at Thanksgiving in Madrid, and here in Moratinos, in the fog, in the ditches, the plaza, the bodegas.
He's here. He brings holiness with him.
And if we just show up, he makes us holy, too.
   

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Manifesto of the Camino Dreamers

Everybody loves a good Manifesto. Manifestos make you think of burning barricades, tragic youths facing down The Man, overthrows and uproar with a righteous tinge.

I helped to write a Manifesto last weekend, at a meeting of camino people in Villafranca de Bierzo. There were precious few barricades to be seen, burning or otherwise. There was a lot of really good local Mencia wine, though, and a lot of back-slapping and old-friends hugging, a lot of opinions.

These were not young firebrands out to change the world. These were old hands of the trail: Tomas the Templar of Manjarin, Jesus Jato from Ave Fenix (looking very frail). The original old bearded dude who walks the trail dressed in a brown robe. The little saint who runs the bare-bones albergue in Tosantos. Don Blas, the high-energy priest of Fuenterroble who brought the Via de la Plata to the fore. Jose Antonio de la Reira, a bagpipe-blowing Gallego who helped paint the first yellow arrows, and Luis, the TV reporter who broadcast the renewal to the rest of Spain. 

They are heavy hitters, these guys. I have a lot of respect for most of them. 

When they asked me to step up and be the token North American on the board of the Fraternidad Internacional del Camino de Santiago," their new “camino action group,” I said “sure!” I was honored, even.

Even though I've kinda had it with camino groups. Even though it’s hard for me to keep up with them, language-wise. Even though I don’t always make myself clear. I am dedicated to the same principals they are, and I have some things to offer. They listen carefully when I talk, and they don’t interrupt and overrun my efforts with their own ideas. I am treated with respect in this group… I do not find that in some other gatherings I have attended.

We did most of the work in a splendid old theater in the Villafranca town hall, where a hundred important people from eight or nine countries bashed and hashed out a list of proposals for later clarification and action. Lots of people brought their favorite hobbyhorses and axes to grind, but everyone was reasonably polite and orderly.

Here is the document, translated to English by Yours Truly. (click on the second one.) 

There were reporters at the Villafranca gathering, but the ship didn’t hit the sand til mid-week, when the word spread out across the camino Ways. Board members appeared on TV and radio shows, explaining that yes, there are some problems on the magic path, that yes, there are some rip-offs going on, that yes, the public administrations charged with overseeing this UNESCO World Heritage Site are asleep at the switch.

Yes, the Caminos are in danger of becoming victims of their own success. And we the people who love the caminos need to band together and do something, before complete Disneyfication sets in, and the old values of hospitality, simplicity, and kindness are drowned in a wave of Euro notes, souvenir stands, and Ye Olde 4-star Albergues.

Yeah, we live in a Capitalist society. Yeah, the camino is a tourism product now, like it or not. We can’t put that genie back inside the bottle. Or maybe it’s a hydra. It has several heads.

It’s no surprise the developers and builders and people selling things impinge on the old road. It’s an old road. It follows the geographical line of least resistance, it’s got highway access, it’s got lots of potential customers passing by every day. And “the authorities” are a notoriously corrupt and lazy bunch of rascals. Nobody’s held their feet to the fire. Yet.    

No one’s really defined what kind of protections are afforded places along a “Heritage of Mankind” highway, so it’s kinda hard to defend the sagging old monastery from benign neglect, or the little Roman bridge from the bulldozer. In Fromista, right here in my neighborhood, the Romanesque church of San Martin, a national treasure, has an apartment block going up a few yards from the back door. It’s perfectly legal, according to local zoning laws. The fact that it’s a crime against good taste doesn’t enter into it.  We want to change this.

Other things have changed all on their own, out of control – on the ground, where the old “poor pilgrim on a holy journey to the sacred shrine” has morphed into “well-heeled cultural tourist on a hard-but-really cool hike to an awesome church where you get a Latin certificate at the end that says you don’t have to go to Purgatory! Ha!”  

The certificate is called a Compostela. It is issued by the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela to anyone who can prove he’s walked the last 100 kilometers into town (or biked or rode a horse the last 200.) These certificates have a long history. They used to certify (and they still do, in writing) the bearer came to Santiago on a journey of Christian faith, with a prayerful purpose – that he was, in truth, a pilgrim.   

But when the pilgrimage started picking up steam again a couple of decades ago, the cathedral came up with a plan meant to filter out the bus-tours and shameless cheaters. They created the 100 kilometer rule. Instead of an identifying letter each pilgrim once carried from their priest or bishop, the cathedral issued its own “credential,” a fold-out booklet issued at the start of the trip to each pilgrim. Each day, the pilgrim’s host rubber-stamps the credential, creating a colorful collector’s item and blessed assurance the pilgrim get his Compostela at the end of the road.

The cathedral and a lot of other people soon woke up to the money-making potential of these documents. Nowadays, boxloads of credentials are sold to tour companies and tourist offices, to be sold at inflated prices to whomever wants one. Pilgrims enjoy picking and choosing which stamps to have in their “passports” according to which is most pretty, which fits best, or which are “weirdest.” (One pilgrim burst into tears when I accidentally put our stamp on her credential upside-down.)

And the Compostela, oh my. The idolatry that goes on at the Pilgrim Office in Santiago de Compostela just boggles the mind at times – the long lines, the drama, the tears, the vapors… all for a piece of paper that certifies the bearer is something he would probably never admit to being – a repentant sinner, saved by God's grace. 

But I preach.  The 100 kilometer requirement for the Compostela, combined with the ruthless logic of Unintended Outcomes, has created 100 kilometers of overdevelopment, overcrowding, litter, price-gouging, and disillusion, from the little boom town of Sarria right to Santiago itself. One out of every three hikers applying for a Compostela has walked the minimum mileage possible. People who make the whole long-distance voyage step out of a relatively quiet countryside into a clatter that carries them all the way to the end.
We would like to deal with that.

We want to give the camino back to the people on a spiritual journey to a holy place.  We want the pilgrim to know he is a holy person, on a sacred mission. We want to see him treated with respect and dignity, and we want him to behave with respect and dignity.

This part of the manifesto has drawn all kinds of indignant denial from just about everyone with a monetary interest in the camino. I was told, personally, that I am naïve, “thinking like a little child.” “That it’s all very nice that you care so much, but who will enforce this?” “Who will push it through, who can change anything that’s already in progress?”

We can. If we want to enough, we can.

It will take a long time, and not everything we propose will work. All we can do is try.

We have time. We are on the side of the angels. The Camino’s been here for a thousand years, through wars and plagues and reformations, it’s been pimped and sold and betrayed a thousand times, probably in worse ways than these. We could sit back and just let it go, let the “market forces” take over and drive this camino into the ground, too. But we don’t have to.

We love this place. It is our home.  It’s a holy path.
And homes, ideals, holy things -- they are worth fighting for, no?