Sunday, 9 May 2010

Seasoned travelers

My bags are packed and I hope to be in Santiago tomorrow. But the volcano has sent up another cloud and yesterday many airports in the North of Spain were closed. I’ve been sending information gleaned from websites to friends in Santiago who are trying to get home. However we’re all getting used to the possibility of disruption and if my flight is cancelled tomorrow I’ll simply go when the airports open again. I’m much less anxious about it this time. If there is a point I wonder if that’s it. I wonder if every now and again Mother Nature delivers a slap to the human race to remind us we are not in charge no matter how much we think we are. Sometimes no matter how hard we plan it just doesn’t work out the way we think it will.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week. In last weekend’s posting I tried to express my view that there are many kinds of pilgrimage and although we walking pilgrims can think of ourselves as a cut above the rest, those who travel to Santiago by plane, coach or car are often pilgrims too. Pilgrimage, it seems to me, is a state of mind rather than a mode of transport. But my observation brought a sharp reaction from a couple of people who wrote to me. Their view is that rather than spiritual thirst the huge increase in numbers of “pilgrims” to Santiago this year is largely due to the selfish, grasping motives of the Spanish tourist authorities who for purely commercial reasons are heavily marketing all things Camino.
There is of course an element of truth in that view and many pilgrims rail against what they see as the over commercialisation of the Camino. In truth this is at the heart of my love hate relationship with the Camino Francés. I love the fellowship of others on this route. I love the vistas of endless vineyards in La Rioja and the sight of the long meseta stretching to the horizon. On the other hand I hate the intrusive advertising, the posters on country paths announcing the features of the next albergue and the one after that. I detest signs telling me I can buy a Full English Breakfast in rural North West Spain. And although I’m Scottish, I’m not mean, but I thoroughly object to paying 1 euro for a bottle of water in a shop that costs 15 centimes in the supermarket.
However I have no doubt it was forever thus and that in medieval times the growth of pilgrim numbers led to commercial exploitation. Wherever there is demand the market will respond. Maybe next there will be a chain of McPilgrim restaurants along the Way offering a menu of a Big McPilgrim with large fries and a coke all advertised by a living St James. Oh wait a minute isn’t that the lomo and chips that appears universally already?
Those who are concerned about the rampant commercialisation of the Camino should brace themselves this year. To cope with huge numbers tented villages will appear with all their attendant services. Sports halls and community centers will be sleeping centers. During the first week in August the Spanish European Youth Pilgrimage will take place when 30,000 young people will walk at least 100 kms into Santiago using all of the main routes. They will arrive on the 7th and 8th to get their final sello and Compostela. Inevitably the quaint stalls selling Camino trinkets will adapt and expand accordingly.
Can anything be done about this march of Mammon? Plenty. I can buy my water in a supermarcado and deny the profiteers their euros. We can seek out and support those albergues run by the Confraternities, Amigos and religious groups who offer a simple welcome and hospitality based on the traditional donativo rather than a scale of charges. We can cherish people like Rebekah and Paddy who open their home and hearts to pilgrims on the Way in their Peaceable Kingdom. We can embrace new groups like the Peterborough Pilgrims who are unequivocal in their Christian approach to pilgrimage. They may not be for everyone and they may step on a few toes to begin with but we should applaud their motives. They like many others are the signs that amid the money,  profits, and self seeking, pilgrims with good hearts still walk.

This week I got a letter from someone I haven’t seen for quite some time. In a quiet moment a few years ago he shared that he had always wanted to journey to Santiago and that one day he set off for France in his car. He parked at St Jean de Pied Port bought a walking stick and set off over the route Napoleon. The rain came on. His feet were sore. Halfway up he decided that this was not for him. Back in his car he set off for Santiago. He reached the destination. There are those who would say he isn’t a pilgrim but here is an extract of what he wrote to me this week. You decide.

"Dear John,
On Monday I’ll be 70 – becoming an old guy now – adjusting to the slow unfolding of life. When I was young, I couldn’t understand how anyone would give up the chance of excitement – to potter in a garden; makes me smile to remember. The swallows returned this week – suddenly the fruit trees are in full bloom; the terracotta Bhudda smiles from its new niche and I’ve started planting sweet peas and the like. The rewards of manual work and closeness to nature are much undervalued. I find myself absorbed.

Often, when I’m gardening, a tall gaunt woman passes – a toff – ages with me but more mobile. I’d guess, from her face, that she is familiar with ‘the grave and constant’ of human suffering – but her spirit seem undefeated. She usually has the smell of strong drink about her – sometimes glides past in a beatific state of drunkenness – but we always exchange smiles; seasoned travellers who know that the only path through life is the one we make with our footsteps.

The Tao Te Ching was written 2500 years ago – we don’t really know by whom. 81 short chapters – timeless wisdom on the art of living in harmony with the way things are. There are at least 30 current English versions – the one I mostly use is by Stephen Mitchell. In chapter 67, it says: ‘‘I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion’’. I’ve decided that these are what I want for my 70th birthday – to help me navigate the remainder of my journey."


  1. Two posts to make us think Johnnie. In these days of mass tourism, I guess the lines between pilgrim and tourist are very blurred.
    I have been to Lourdes where I think most people were there to pray. Perhaps the presence of so many sick/disabled people served to focus attention in that way. As a lapsed Catholic, I felt sort of on the 'outer' and not a 'real pilgrim', but I prayed in my own way, and for many reasons my time there was a very special experience.
    I could not say whether I was a genuine 'pilgrim' to Santiago, as I know I am not a Christian believer. And I didn't perform any 'pilgrim rituals' in the Cathedral- I hugged a pilgrim friend rather than the 'Saint'. But I do believe that walking all the way from Le Puy was one of the most important things I have done in my life- walking in the countryside with rhythm and simplicity was a place of real happiness for me.
    And I hope to walk again in France in a few years. Maybe I will not exactly be a pilgrim, but for whatever reasons, I feel drawn again to walk long distance. Maybe the outdoors is where I meet 'God'.

  2. Sorry, I meant to say about Lourdes, that it is a definite pilgrimage place, but most people go there by train- hardly anyone walks there.

  3. Wonderful letter from your friend, Johnnie.

  4. If you consider pilgrimage to be a sacrament, then, by definition, it is an outward sign of an inward grace. It is the movement of the heart that is important, not the movement of the feet...I am sad to hear about the commercialism, though.

  5. For me the movement and rhythm of the feet was a crucial part of what happened on the route to Santiago. I long ago forgot what I ever learned about sacraments, but it seemed quite sacred having my feet hit the earth.