Saturday, 22 May 2010

You get more than an Indulgence

I picked up a leaflet in Santiago from the foyer of an hotel. The headline runs, “Los peregrinos en 2010 no sólo ganan el Jubileo”. A translation was also provided: “In 2010, pilgrims are not only granted the Jubilee indulgence”. What they ARE granted with this little leaflet is a 10% discount at the duty free shop at the airport. Well, hold me back!
At first sight this will be considered evidence of more commercialisation of the Camino which has been the subject of much discussion of late. Other examples are the fact that the cost of a credencial has increased from 50 centimes to 65 centimes for the Holy Year and for 2010 only it costs 300€ to fly the Botafumeiro rather than the usual 240€. Following my last post about the festivities I even got an e mail signed “Outraged of Milwaukee”. Things are definitely looking up for this blog.
My own view is that whilst there is clearly evidence of increasing commercialism along the Camino Francés in particular it seems to me that as the market grows this is inevitable. I also believe that it was always thus and there are many tales of the profiteers of the middle ages who wanted to cash in on the pilgrimage. At least nowadays they haven’t reverted to systematically murdering pilgrims to plunder their rucksacks. Maybe this is another benefit of lightweight walking?
The fact of the matter is that Spain is no longer a country where food, drink, accommodation and other commodities are dirt cheap. The Spanish economy and the volatile exchange rate have put paid to that. We also have to remember that in this economic crisis Spain is not in a good place. The national debt has soared, the economy is weak, bank lending is nil and unemployment is at 20%. More in rural Galicia they say. It is against this background I find myself using words like timo or estafa (both mean “ripoff”) with increasing frequency. I’ve found a good way to calm myself down is to compare what I am complaining about to London prices and ask why I expect a gigantic Spanish gin and tonic to be a third of the price of its British diminutive counterpart?
Thankfully the Camino brings a sense of peace and perspective. As we walk with everything on our backs we learn that we don’t need very much to meet our needs, there are no phone calls from the office, soap opera plots to follow, bank statements to fret over and, unless you go looking, not even news of world events to ponder. Therefore for some the realities of Capitalism on the Camino, can be really quite ugly.
But I’ve found there are always antidotes if you look for them. Last week for example under the neon lights and through the packed streets the pilgrims still came threading their way to the Pilgrims’ Office. It was busy. I looked up at one point and one of my colleagues another volunteer from Japan called Annuska was talking to a pilgrim with a very pained expression on her face. I saw the pilgrim was wearing a kilt and so I went over. Annuska was trying to explain in broken Spanish with a Japanese accent to David from Dunblane that the name written on his Compostela was his only it was in Latin. He was saying in the calmest of measured tones “But lassie, Davidem is no the name that ma mither gied me”. I provided a translation for both. Annuska bowed respectfully and Davidem doffed his hat. Content. I took a break to talk with this Scottish pilgrim. Clear eyed, tanned and lean he had walked from France to Santiago. His face was lit as if by an inner light but the thing that really got me was the sense of calm and peace he exuded. Within a few sentences we had moved from social niceties to talk about the profound spiritual basis of pilgrimage, how the complicated becomes simple, how we learn to separate needs from wants. Our conversation was interrupted when a group of pilgrims arrived who flocked to embrace David warmly. They had walked together but had split up in the last few days. They were pleased to be together again. From the opposite end of the age spectrum young Alex hugged the older man, their friendship palpable and I suspect lasting. David looked at me and said, "you couldnae buy this, ye know ".
Usually for a break I go over to the Alameda Park to read a book in a quiet corner. This is where the Portugués route enters the City. This time the fun fair and ferris wheel had taken over and so to stretch my legs I decided to walk out a little of a couple of routes. The first was the Camino Inglés where I had received reports that some arrows were missing near the city centre. The arrows were fine and as I walked the last 15 minutes of the route I was reminded of the beauty of the gardens through which it passes.

A couple of days later I strolled out half a kilometer or so from the Cathedral on the Via de la Plata. Victoria in the office had told me I should go and visit her parish Church. “The oldest in Santiago”. Rebekah had also mentioned it. A short walk took me to the very beautiful 12th Century Church of Santa María del Sar. It has everything. Fabulous flying buttresses, a beautiful cloister with fountain, a nave constructed of columns which lean out like the Tower of Pisa, and a sense of peace which must strike believer and unbeliever alike. Here is a place truly set apart.
Ten minutes before I had walked out of the throbbing, noisy centre of Santiago in full fiesta mode. Here I could hear nothing but the gurgle of the fountain. I sat and gazed and thought of the opening words of the Disiderata, “Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence”.
Yes, even with a 10% discount, you couldnae buy it!


  1. You've made me stop and think about all that there is in be seen and felt. So many people seem to say that when they get there they feel so let down, and yet in the midst of it all, a jewel! It almost seems like people turn off their open hearts and eyes and minds when they cross into the city. Silly us! Ahh till I get to go again.

  2. There should be more publicity advising checking out the other Camino "entrances" to Santiago. I wish I had visited them.

    Jim Allen