I went off to Santiago to work in the office and collect stories to tell. I was grumpy when I left. My broadband at home had failed and couldn’t be fixed until Monday 26th April. Ah well. I would blog from Santiago, I thought. Little did I know my time on the internet there would be occupied with other things.
In the first week fewer pilgrims arrived than I expected and I noticed posts in internet forums saying that albergues on the routes were surprisingly empty. It appears that this is a lull after the busiest Holy Week in the Pilgrims’ Office in memory. During Semana Santa they saw 2000 pilgrims per day and the waiting time was several hours. More on the lessons learned later. But even in this last 10 days numbers are double that of the same period last year.
I was joined in Santiago by one of the priests from the church in London where I play the organ. Michael has been hearing about the pilgrimage for many years and always wanted to see the great Cathedral and of course the Botafumeiro. My welcome to him at Santiago airport was slightly marred by the worrying announcement that flights were being cancelled across Europe because of a volcano. I was unconcerned, “cloud of ash? Flights will be back on in a few days”, I thought. The next day the full extent of the air chaos emerged. I still thought that by the following Monday, when we were scheduled to fly back to London, all would be well. I went to work in the office and Michael made his way around Santiago seeing the sights.
The pilgrims who arrived in the office still had that serene aura which pilgrimage brings but gradually at the desk they would receive their Compostela and ask if there was any news of flights. Some had heard their flights were cancelled and asked about cheap hostals for a few nights. Within a couple of days the full horror of flight cancellations set in. Over the weekend I realised that our flight was unlikely to leave on Monday. I spoke to a colleague in London. “There is a bus from Santiago to London leaving on Monday,” he said, “ but it takes 42 hours, I think” he added glumly. Reluctantly I asked him to check availability, thinking that the bus would have to do if all else failed. There were no available seats until the following Friday. I almost ran to an internet café. It was full of pilgrims phoning home and using the internet. One was cursing continually. Another cried quietly. “I have no money” she said. Luckily I got on to the Veuling site and they accepted a booking and payment for a flight to London from La Coruña airport. One hour away by bus. Surely I thought flights will be back to normal by next Thursday?
For the next few days Santiago continued with the business of receiving tour groups and pilgrims. The Cathedral was packed. One day the Botafumeiro flew at four masses then at a fifth hurriedly arranged for a group of visitors from the Orthodox tradition.
Pilgrims coming to the office were a mixture of the totally laid back about getting home to the extremely anxious. Everyone was very helpful. There was sadness when Pablo from Brasil cried when he realised he would get no Compostela. He had caught a bus in Sarria to try and catch a flight home. A single tear trickled down his cheek. He was smiling the next afternoon when he explained that he had tried all morning to find another way home. His boss and family understood the situation. His airline had given him a new flight in 10 days time. He was off to walk from Sarria. “And perhaps Finisterre” he added with a laugh. For a couple from Poland it was more worrying. They were on a strict budget. They had children at home waiting for them. If they didn’t get back to work, they didn’t get paid. A bed in an albergue was found for them.
The Tourist Office could not have been more helpful. But like everyone else they would have to wait and see.
I had half decided that if my enforced stay in Santiago continued for much longer I would simply stay for a month particularly since I am due to return there on 10th May. “Could I attend important meetings in London by telephone?” I wondered. But what about Michael? He occupied his time reading, strolling around Santiago and reflecting in the sunshine in the Almeda Park. But I also found him gazing at his diary from time to time. He had commitments back home. People suggested a ferry from Santander? Or Bilbao? Or even Calais. But Michael speaks no Spanish. The bus became an option again. Then he was offered a lift to the ferry by a friend…but it became clear there were no tickets for many days. Ouch.
The anxiety of this news was lessened by the pleasure I got from welcoming Rebekah Scott to Santiago at the end of an epic pilgrimage. It was one of these camino moments. There was a queue in the office. As a pilgrim left my desk I looked up and saw my friend Rebekah whose turn it was next. The final stamp and Compostela were followed by drinks in a restaurant garden and a wonderful dinner of a veritable banquet of seafood.
Rebekah was leaving by train the following morning and for us a plan emerged. We reserved tickets for the bus for Friday on the basis it would be cancelled if the flight left. We waited to see if the flight from La Coruña would leave on the Thursday.
It did. The passengers were mostly Spanish people. There was loud cheering when the flight touched down in London. We were home.
I have the warmest memories of fellowship during our time there. Pilgrims remained calm and Santiago rose to the occasion. Everyone was helpful. We took Michael into the Cathedral to meet Don Jenaro. He ended up on the altar saying Mass on the Archbishop’s right hand. Did he see the Botafumeiro? Oh yes. And he filled it with incense before it flew. He was well pleased …but I suspect a little reluctant to return to the pilgrims’ destination. As for me…I can’t wait. More from the Santiago Diary when broadband is restored!