Thursday, 19 February 2009

Pilgrim People

A life in the day of María Josefa Eiras Díaz
Coordinator, Pilgrims´Office, Santiago de Compostela

María´s name is in the usual Spanish form: first name, father´s family name and then the mother´s maiden name. She is known simply as Mari.

Mari was born and brought up in Santiago. Her parents moved there after they met and married in the little Galician village of Aldegunde which has 5 houses. Her mum lived at number 1 and her dad lived at number 3. She lives with her parents in a flat in the barrio Sar about 15 minutes walk from the Cathedral but she will move out in May when she marries her financé, Jesús.

Over the last 10 years the number of pilgrims arriving in Santiago has steadily increased. Pilgrims are welcomed in the Pilgrims´ Office run by the Cathedral authorities where the staff under Mari´s direction check that they have travelled at least 100 kms by foot or 200 kms by bicycle before issuing the Compostela- the certificate of completion.

In 1999 the Cathedral advertised for volunteers to help in the Office and Mari who was studying languages at the University of Santiago applied. She was successful and for a year she was in charge of the Pilgrims´ Left Luggage, a service they still provided at a modest cost of 1 euro per day.

In addition to Spanish and Gallego, Mari speaks French, English and German.

After a year as a volunteer and a year in France to study she returned to Santiago and the Cathedral authorities remembered her. The Director of the Pilgrim´s Office or to give him his full title, the Canon Delegate of Pilgrimages, is always a priest from the Cathedral. The Director of the day Father Jaime invited her to apply for a paid job. He also gave her a little advice. “If you want this job Mari,” he said. “Take your CV and pray with it at the Tomb of Saint James”. Mari adds with the slightest blush, “I did just that”.

Divine intervention or not, she got the job and after a while was promoted to be one of the two coordinators in the office. She shares this responsibility with Eduardo and they work in two shifts. Mari usually covers the late session.

Mari gets up every day at 8am and has café con leche and fruit. After doing her email she settles down to study advanced English. Her ambition is to become an English teacher in a public school. Spaniards employed in public, pensionable jobs are called funcionarios. This is a much prized appointment as it is generally for life and makes getting an hipoteca or mortgage easier. Mari is preparing for the Oposiciones, the test, to see whether or not she will be accepted.

Whereas breakfast was light, lunch is the more the traditional 3 courses. Usually the family has a starter of soup followed by meat or fish finishing with fruit.

After lunch Mari makes the 15 minute walk to the Office where this year they expect to receive about 120,000 pilgrims. Next year is a Holy Year when the 25th July Feast of St James falls on a Sunday and they expect 250,000 pilgrims to arrive.

Mari supervises a staff of 8 people. Everyone is employed by the Cathedral mostly on temporary contracts of 9 months because of the funding which comes from the Government. One of the things Mari does is work out a rota for the staff team so that the office is always covered.
At 11.50 am every day a member of staff takes the previous 24 hour statistics to the Sacristy in the Cathedral. This enables the priest at the beginning of the Mass to welcome 3 pilgrims from Valencia who walked from Sevilla, 1 pilgrim from Scotland who walked from Roncesvalles and so on.

Mari thinks she has the best job in the world. She works with a fun team. Each year they try to walk a bit of the pilgrimage routes themselves and Mari would love to take a month off to walk from Roncesvalles.

Above all Mari loves the interaction with the pilgrims who come to the Office. Some don´t want to talk about their experiences and others can´t stop. Whilst she recognises that some older pilgrims make special efforts and some other pilgrims walk prodigious distances the aspect which impresses her most is always the commitment of pilgrims to the experience no matter the length of route.

On the other hand some pilgrims expect the pilgrimage routes to have full tourist facilities and complain that there are no public toilets every kilometre or so.

Then there are the “trampas”, the cheats. Mari shakes her head as she describes pilgrims who hitchhike, or get the bus or park minibuses or cars round the corner from albergues and turn up for their Compostela. She thinks they are simply sad people. “What´s the point of having a Compostela if you have cheated?” she asks.

But the Cathedral authorities are aware of albergues being used by tourists and hikers who have no interest in the pilgrimage experience. They are also aware that some unscrupulous tour companies and travel agencies running bus trips are selling their own Pilgrim Passports as part of a package deal. Therefore from January of this year they are only accepting “official” Pilgrim Passports – either the one available in Spain from Cathedrals, pilgrim associations and albergues or outside Spain from recognised Confraterities or other pilgrims organisations.

Trampas are in the minority and Mari has some lasting memories of other pilgrims. Mari talks fondly about a young German woman, “She had no connection with religion and didn´t believe in God. She had some difficulties in her life and friends suggested she get away from it all by walking the Camino. When she reached Santiago she asked if she could be baptised. Her view of life had changed." A fellow pilgrim who had walked with her became one godparent and Mari was the other. They will be life long friends.

Marí laughs as she recounts some humorous stories of pilgrims. In summer a queue forms in the office. One of the staff said to woman standing in the in the queue beside a man “you come with me and my colleague will see your husband.” The women replied, “He isn´t my husband, I have no idea who he is.” A year later they returned, married, to get a photograph taken at the spot where they met. Mari says this is not a service they offer everyone!

After Mari closes the office she goes to dinner at around 9.30pm. Her favourite is a dish of lamb ribs. In her spare time she is an enthusiastic salsa dancer with a secret longing to learn the tango. She is a fervent reader and currently on her beside table is a copy of Blindness by José Saramago.

Does she have three wishes? “Si," she replies lapsing into Spanish to list the traditional, “Salud, amor, dinero y tiempo para disfrutarlos”. Health, love and money…and time to enjoy them!


  1. Thanks Johnnie.... you are bringing us many treasures in your blog.
    I remember well the day I lined up for my Compostela. (I still wasn't really sure whether I should ask for that or the Certificate, but that's another story...) There was a French couple in the line just ahead of me. They'd stayed the previous night in Monte de Gozo, in the same bunk room that I was in, so knew I had walked from Le Puy. When it came time for them to go in to get their Compostelas, they pushed me in ahead of them. I really appreciated their spontaneous recognition of my effort: it made the moment somehow more personal and special.

  2. I'm sure I met Maria in 2002.
    The St James Anglican Church in Durban (South Africa) was celebrating their Centenary. I offered to carry a letter from the Rev Van Zuylen of St James' to Santiago. After the mid-day mass we returned to the Pilgrims' Office for an appointment with Don Jaime. He didn't speak any English so Maria tranlated for him and for us.
    When she told him that St James' church in Durban was celebrating their centenary and that we had brought a letter from the Archdeacon, he was confused.
    "I thought Dublin celebrated their 100 years three years ago?" he said. He did not know where Durban was and had confused us with Dublin!
    He then asked whether we had enjoyed the mass.
    "Oh yes" said Georgette, "we were lucky to see the Botafumerio."
    He was not pleased! "Father says that the Botafumerio is not important to the mass" said Maria.
    Perhaps Maria might remember the 3 South Afrian's who brought a letter from 6000km away.
    PS: A lovely letter (in Spanish) was written to St James' church in Durban later that year.

  3. Johnnie Walker7 March 2009 at 07:09

    Hi Sil

    I am sure she will remember - I'll ask her. When I was there she had a bottle of Irish whisky presented by someone from Dublin - so I am sure Marie at least knows the difference!

    I hope all is well with you in South Africa.