Friday, 10 April 2009

To cut a long pilgrimage short - Cupid's Arrow

I got a telephone call from Bob the other day. He’s one of my best friends. He and his wife Lida are going to Santiago for a short holiday in July and wondered if we could meet up there.

Bob said the reason for the trip is that whenever I see them I tell so many stories about the Camino and Santiago they’ve decided to see it for themselves.

This is quite a compliment as Bob is a great adventurer and story teller himself. He’s a journalist to trade but spent many years helping the poorest in society such as working undercover in South Africa during the days of apartheid helping to fight for better conditions for black workers. He was one of the first journalists into Romania after the revolution which deposed the dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu. It was Bob who first reported the plight of the “Aids babies” – the babies who had been infected with contaminated blood provided by a corrupt regime who denied the existence of the disease. We met shortly after this and we organised a mission to Romania to help fledgling enterprises become established.

It was in the centre of Bucharest he told me some of his stories including how he had recently met Lida. He had been travelling in Romania researching a book and had been visiting some of the orphanages where children lived in appalling conditions. That brought him into contact with the nascent social services and he was invited to a party to meet some people.

He described the feeling of being rooted to the spot when he entered the room and his eyes met those of a beautiful Romanian social worker. Instant Love is what he calls it.

When he told his friends about this cataclysmic event they said:
Don’t be silly
She is almost 20 years younger than you
She speaks no English
Coming from an underdeveloped country she will never cope in Britain
There’s no fool like an old fool – put in even stronger terms

But there was one friend who told him that whilst all of that may be true, in these matters only the heart is important. Bob and Lida have now been married for the best part of 20 years and have a most beautiful and talented daughter Catherine.

I don’t see them often but I did see them shortly after I had finished the Via de la Plata, the route from Seville. Frankly they were incredulous. “You walked 1000 kms?” they asked. “In a total of 36 days?” For some reason they kept repeating the answers I gave back to me as questions. “Why did you do it?”, “How did you get there?”, “How did you know about it”, “How did you find your way?”, “Where did you sleep”, “What did you take with you?” .

In fact their questions boiled down to the few things that pilgrims actually need to know.

· How to get there
· What to take
· How to find your way on the route
· Where to sleep
The truth is I spent many hours, almost obsessively, researching, planning, preparing. Then doing it all over again. I suspect we all do the same.

However the reality is that actually all we need to do is get to the start of the route, carrying as little as possible and then follow the arrows. Everything then unfolds in its own way, at its own speed, with its own momentum.
This is a very difficult concept for everyone to grasp. In the beginning I behaved as if I was travelling to the far flung regions of a third world country. Even although I knew Spain quite well! I tried to prepare for every eventuality. To predict every scenario.

But cutting to the bottom line as ever Bob said in his broad Glasgow accent, “Wee man, tell us the story of the arrows”. And so I did borrowing the words of Laurie Dennett who wrote in Roads to Santiago:

“The 16th century witnessed the beginning of a decline in the popularity of pilgrimage. Even in Spain, the once-great pilgrim roads gradually fell into disuse. The modern renaissance of the Camino Francés began with the efforts of the Galician priest Don Elias Valiña. From the 1970’s onwards he waymarked it, wrote the first guidebooks, and created a chain of “Amigos del Camino” along its length. Over 100,000 people a year now follow his famous yellow arrows.

Of the many stories about Elías - the inventor of "the yellow arrow" and rejuvenator of the Camino in modern times - this one perhaps captures him best. In Spain it is very well known, but here, less so.

One day in 1982, with fears of terrorism rife, the sight of yellow arrows painted on trees along a Pyrenean road aroused the suspicion of the Guardia Civil. Following the trail, they came upon a battered white van. A small, smiling man got out. When prompted, he opened the van's back doors to reveal tins of bright yellow paint and a wet paintbrush.

"Identification!" barked the Guardia.
"I'm Don Elías Valiña Sampedro, parish priest of O Cebreiro in Galicia."
"And what are you doing with all this?"
"Preparing a great invasion…"

I’ve learned that in life people are often driven by noble causes some deeply personal. One memory which will last for ever is when Bob stood up beside his new wife at his wedding reception. He faced a large gathering of family and friends some of whom found it difficult to hide their concern bordering on cynicism at this foolhardy undertaking. Bob dressed in a kilt drew himself up to his impressive height of 6’2, looked his audience in the eye and said, “ I’d like to tell you how I feel about this woman by my side.” And with a voice I’d never heard before he sang:

O, my love is like a red, red rose,
That is newly sprung in June.
O, my love is like the melody,
That is sweetly played in tune.
As fair are you, my lovely lass,
So deep in love am I,
And I will love you still, my Dear,
Till all the seas go dry.

Till all the seas go dry, my Dear,
And the rocks melt with the sun!
O I will love you still, my Dear,
While the sands of life shall run.

And fare you well, my only Love,
And fare you well a while!
And I will come again, my Love,
Although it were ten thousand mile!

I’m not entirely convinced that the bride fully understood every word at that point but together they have been following the arrows in their own life for along time now.


  1. John, you make me smile!!
    First I loved the "...preparing for an invasion" story.
    Then the song
    And of course the arrows analogy.
    Great story-writer you are.
    Keep 'em coming!

  2. Wow two things:-

    Firstly your explanation of the Camino was much better than anything I could come up with

    My name is also Jonny Walker I just spell mine differently

    Ultimately you do just start walking and see what happens and that's why it's so beguiling