Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Sex, lies and Compostelas

The lady who sat down at my desk was large and impeccably well dressed. She was in her mid sixties and her well groomed hair was silver with a blue tinge to it which only ladies of that age seem to achieve. She wore a watered silk dress of deep blue set off by many strands of gold around her neck and even more on her well manicured, puffy, fingers. “Can I help you?” I enquired. “I’ve come for my Compostela with my husband,” she replied. With that she handed over her Credencial or Pilgrims’ Passport. I went through the routine first confirming her name. “Maria Angeles Rodriguez Garcia?” “Yes,” she nodded. Then looking at the stamps on her passport I said,” You started your pilgrimage in Ferrol on the Camino Inglés?” I enquired. “Yes,” she nodded. “Did you walk all the way? Did you only travel on foot?” “A pie” (on foot) was her quick reply. “Could you fill in this form please?” I continued.
I watched as she filled in her name. Then in the box marked Sexo (gender) she marked H. By this time I knew that in Spain the words Masculino and Feminino aren’t in common usage. They are biological terms. The older generation are more likely to use Hembra for woman and Varón for man. Younger people would use Mujer for woman and Hombre for man. People from other countries are comfortable using Masculine and Feminine. Confused? I certainly was in the beginning.

But if the terminology is different from country to country one thing which unites all pilgrims at the end of the road in Santiago is their possession of a Pilgrim Passport or Credencial full of the stamps they have collected along the way. They need this record of their journey to sleep for a few euros in the huge network of albergues along the routes. They also need it if they wish to get the traditional certificate, the Compostela in Santiago. For some this is just a piece of paper which holds no importance. For others it is a very significant symbol of the journey they have made and the effort it took. Compostelas in some form or another have been issued for 300 years. To obtain the Compostela pilgrims need to have walked or rode on horseback the last 100kms or to have cycled the last 200kms into Santiago. Stamps or sellos are very easy to get and pilgrims usually get one where they sleep and in a café or restaurant along the way.
The lady handed me back her form. I gazed at her credencial again. The stamps were all there. However I know the Camino Inglés very well. It is a tough little route with considerable bite in places. “Had this manicured lady really walked to Compostela?” I wondered to myself. “Que tal el Camino Inglés?” I enquired how she had found the route. “Bien” she said, not giving much away. “You walked all the way?” My fingers walked across the desk in case there was any doubt what I meant. “A pie” she said again. I decided to enquire just a little further without appearing to be a smart Alec. “This stage between Betanzos and Hospital de Bruma” I pointed to the two sellos, “Did you walk that stage too?” My reason for asking is that 11 kms before Bruma there is a steep ascent which takes the best part of an hour. If this woman attempted it she would need oxygen and possibly a helicopter. My question hung in the air. At that point her husband, the Varón, approached. They exchanged a few words. He fixed me with a stare and said, “Hemos andado toda la ruta” confirming they walked all the way and defying me to say otherwise. I reminded myself that we are not the police.
The general principle in the office is that if the pilgrims say they have walked all the way and they have the sellos then the Compostela should be issued. Colleagues try to give most people the benefit of the doubt. For example three young people from Germany arrived. They had very few sellos. One colleague thought they should be refused. One was undecided. The other said “ show us your camera and describe the route.” This they did describing where they slept and details of the walking. They were issued with their Compostelas. But in the office they also talk about the “Trampas de Agosto”. The August cheats. The people who drive the routes collecting sellos on credenciales just to end up with a Compostela on their wall. The embarrassing thing is they are almost all Spanish. The staff of the Pilgrims’ Office think that telling lies to get a Compostela is hugely disrespectful to authentic pilgrims many of whom walk hundreds of kilometres to get to Santiago but some people continue to do so.
Enter 18 Italian pilgrims all chatting excitedly. One of them a young lassie came to my desk. I was registering her when voices were raised across the room. There was a man surrounded by several others in this group arguing loudly with one of my colleagues, Maria. She is very experienced and has been a pilgrim herself. Eagle eyed she spotted a gap of more than 50 kilometres without stamps. The spokesman who turned out to be a priest assured her repeatedly and increasingly loudly that all 18 of them at various ages had walked every step of the 50 kilometres in one day. Colleagues were not convinced and Eduardo the coordinator was sent for. Eduardo is kindness personified and around the room staff winked to each other. “He will take their word for it as he generally does” was the message between us. Some people even started writing the compostelas. “What’s the problem?” Enquired the young lady at my desk. She spoke in Spanish not Italian. I pointed to the place on her passport and explained that colleagues were finding it difficult to believe they had walked the 50 odd kilometres being claimed by the priest. With the most innocent look on her face she said “But he must have forgotten we took the bus for that part”. Light the blue touch paper, stand well back. Fireworks.
The sad thing is that they left empty handed. Had they explained that for whatever reason they had been forced to cut the journey short they would have had the stamps of the Cathedral and individual certificates. Like most times in life lies only make things worse.
So fellow pilgrims when you reach Santiago and someone asks you if you have walked all the way don’t put your feet on the desk and say “look” as I felt like doing, just understand that some people don’t!

However the confusion about gender terms and the heated arguments about who walked where and when did nothing to dampen the immense pleasure of meeting to many pilgrims during my 5 weeks there. During that time all pilgrim records since the middle ages were broken. We issued 2,500 Compostelas, one day, we were going at a rate of 220 per hour, we passed the 200,000 barrier which will be hard to beat in future. On one weekend 12,000 young people arrived. It was hot and got hotter. But I have many memories of these weeks…

Just engaged
The pilgrims who shared it was their birthday only to be embarrassed by this mad Scotsman singing Happy Birthday to them. The two couples who happened by my desk at different times. In answer to the question, “que tal su camino” they announced, “fabulous we got engaged”. The German couple who had walked the Camino Inglés without an official passport. “We used this” they said as they laid open their family bible on the desk, the front page stamped with sellos. “ Did you use a guide?” I enquired. “Oh yes a very good guide by John Walker, do you know him?” Compostelas issued instantly! The two separate pilgrims in wheelchairs who at different times waited patiently in the queue and only when they reached the front did they send their carers up the stairs to ask if there was access for wheelchairs. There isn’t and I went down to issue the stamps and Compostelas. They were hugely proud. I’ve told you about the day Amado arrived having walked barefoot from France and the queue parted to cheer him into the office. Just after that I took him and a French priest over to the sacristy as they wanted to concelebrate the 12 noon Mass. Amado whispered to me and so I asked the Master of Ceremonies, “This priest has walked from Lourdes in his bare feet and he is asking if you would consider it discourteous for him say Mass also in his bare feet.” The Master of Ceremonies of this grand Cathedral spoke directly to him, “If it is your wish, it is our privilege”. The many families with children who were as proud as punch to have completed their camino. The pilgrims both men and women who wept quietly at a journey well made and now ended. And many, many more.
A final word about the growing respect I have for the people who have limited time to walk to Compostela because of work or family commitments. In the main they are Spanish and mostly they walk from Sarria just over the 100 kms limit. These are the ones the long distance walkers disparage. “Tourigrinos” we’ve all called them. No doubt some are and no doubt some use buses or cars to collect sellos. But there is no doubting the evidence of my own eyes as I’ve seen them limp into the office in a state of exhaustion with feet covered in blisters and tendons strained but every one of them says “It was worth the pain”. Their chests swell with pride when they get their Compostela. I’m left in no doubt they are as much pilgrims as anyone else.
But there are exceptions and as the lady in the blue silk dress walked away with her husband both with their Compostelas in hand I wondered what the point of having it is if you haven’t earned it? That's their problem.


  1. What an experience Johnnie! A microcosm of life itself - the good, the bad and the ugly!!

  2. What a wonderful post!! All manner of men (& women)! I was so moved by the couple with their bible (to say nothing of their excellent taste in Guidebooks!) All in all it sounds like you've had the most wonderful summer, and thanks as always for posting!

  3. Thanks amigas. I'm very lucky that Santiago is so close. Despite all of the talk about "official" credenciales people still come in with all sorts - home made, bits of paper, post its with individual sellos and dates, notebooks - and of course the family bible!

    Best wishes


  4. Johnnie, I immediately thought of one Spanish family group -two women and several teens- who started from O'Cebreiro, and who were ecstatic when they reached Santiago. Their first night was challenge enough: they had arrived at the top of the mountain by taxi, so lacked priority for the albergue, and ended up sleeping outside on the mountaintop. They were obviously not used to walking, and their shoes were more 'city shoes'. They soon had some dreadful blisters. But day by day, we saw them persevering with their walk, all the way to Santiago. I think their's were the widest smiles I saw on anyone when I saw them in the square in front of the cathedral.

  5. When I was at the Pilgrim Office, I, too, witnessed an upheaval when a group of Spanish people were denied their Compostela. And I, too, wonder what possible value there is in owning that Compostela if you haven't earned it! Thanks for your post. It helped me relive that moment of joy. At that time I never dreamed I would yearn to walk the path again, but...oh, how I miss it just three months later!

  6. A very generous and open-minded posting.
    Thank you.