Sunday, 4 July 2010
The Coast of Death and Life
I find Finisterre a strangely underdeveloped little village. It has a few hotels and hostels but the harbour remains very much the work place of small fishing vessels which have plied their trade here for a millennium and beyond. It is messy with all of the smells of diesel oil and rotting fish, discarded ropes and fragments of fishing nets. Every day the seagulls still herald the return of the boats.
As pilgrims walk through Finisterre, past the albergue and up the hill out of town excitement mounts. Everyone I met when I was last there felt it. Near the top the waymark records 0 Kilometres. The end has been reached. The pilgrims I met fell to silence. The little group dispersed. People had their own thoughts. Private reflections on the journey which had gone and perhaps a cocktail of emotions about going back to the life left behind. In a whoop of excitement a boy made a little fire with paper and with great ceremony burned his socks. Although I suspect they may soon have disintegrated anyway we watched as he carried on a pilgrim tradition. Some burned all of their pilgrim clothes and plunged into the sea. The symbolism of leaving pilgrimage behind and beginning the next stage of life cleansed at the end of the world is powerful but I shudder at the thought of trying it myself.
Often when looking at the history of the sea and its people we can get caught up in the excitement of stories about piracy and smuggling, treachery and daring-do. This coast line has all of these from the tales of locals leading ships onto the rocks with lanterns so they could plunder the shipwrecks, to more modern tales of smugglers bringing in booze, tobacco and sadly latterly narcotics.
There is another side to the story and Antonio gave me the book as a result of conversation we had about his childhood as a small boy being sent out on the fishing boats and how hard the life was. The women waited to see if their husbands would return as this can be a savage coastline with merciless seas. In 1890, for example, the Royal Navy training ship, the Serpent, went down with loss of the lives of 172 boy sailors. To this day the small “Cementerio de los Ingleses” marks the spot at Punta Boi. The author has recorded some 200 shipwrecks over the 100 years to 1987 which resulted in 3,000 deaths. Even today some 20 sailors and fishermen per year lose their lives off of this coast marked by numerous granite memorial crosses . Small wonder that Antonio’s mother with the others in the village waited to see if the ships brought home more than fish in the evening.
These are people who have had more than their fair share of personal and environmental disasters to cope with. At this time when we are thinking about the situation in the Gulf of Mexico we remember that three of the world’s worst oil tanker disasters occurred on this coastline. The last was in 2002 when the tanker, the Prestige, floundered on the Costa de la Muerte the coastline most threatened was around Finisterre and Muxía. People rose to the occasion and thousands of volunteers turned up to help clean up Galicia’s beloved coastline. “Nunca Máis”, “Never Again” became the slogan on posters everywhere some of which can still be seen by pilgrims.
This is the land to which pilgrims have travelled for over 1000 years. For many the end of their pilgrimage on this Coast of Death marks the beginning of a new way of life. From death to life – how could it not be so?