Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Having the stomach for it

“How was your camino?” is a question I ask almost every pilgrim who comes to the Pilgrims’ Office in Santiago. Some become very emotional about the experience. Others describe the blisters and tendonitis they suffered inevitably adding “merece la pena” – it was worth the pain. All of them however are united in saying that is the other people they met on the way who made the entire experience memorable, and for many, life changing.
Here in Santiago things have been busy. After a few quiet days the number of pilgrims arriving is increasing as the August surge begins. In fact the reordering of the Pilgrims’ Office in its new accommodation has led to greater efficiency and far shorter waiting times for pilgrims. Everyone is pleased. Gossip and rumour about the missing Codex continue to abound in the bars and in the newspapers. The rumour with most currency is that it is an “inside job” perpetrated to embarrass Cathedral officials some of whom are deeply unpopular. I suspect this theory may be wishful thinking.

But I’ve hardly had time for thinking. I’ve unpacked boxes, reluctantly put away camino gear, rearranged the apartment, installed new telephone and internet, become registered to live in Spain, and opened a bank account with a Spanish bank so that I can have a mobile telephone contract with a Spanish provider. I’ve also registered with the Spanish Health Service so that I can see a doctor when I need to and get repeat prescriptions at a discount price as I did in London. To do all of this I’ve been to the police station, local government offices, banks and the medical centre not once but several times. It has been exhausting. Processes which are time consuming in one’s native language are strange, arcane and energy sapping in a different language. I’ve got used to being called a “foreigner” and having to go to the departments which deal with “Extranjeros”. Poco a poco the ingredients essential for permanent daily living here have been coming together.
There are many new faces in the Pilgrims’ Office and I have been getting to know them as well as starting to work there regularly again. Welcoming fellow pilgrims continues to be rewarding and I am developing ideas about how more volunteers can come to Santiago to provide information and support to pilgrims arriving. However I become increasingly convinced that such volunteers have to have been walking pilgrims themselves. I’ll tell you more about this project as it emerges.
I’ve also started playing regularly in Pontevedra. The church is very well attended and is extremely beautiful. At the family mass on a Sunday morning there are over 300 children in addition to the adults. You can imagine the noise. The services at 12 and 1pm are more sedate affairs with much better music nowadays I may add! Then there are the funerals and weddings. In the last 10 days I’ve played at 5 funerals. This could well become a full time job.
But the magnetism of the camino remains and I miss walking. On Thursday I’m off to walk back to Santiago on the Camino Portuguese from Padron. In the few quiet moments I also been browsing through my photographs from the Camino Levante. Everytime I see the face of some of the people I met on the way I remember vividly what we talked about. I thought I’d share some memories with you:

Meet Manuela, 76 years of age who still works everyday in the family bar in Rionegra del Puente. She and her husband live upstairs with their son and his wife. There is a really good albergue in Rionegra but we struck up a conversation with Manuela and she offered us a house for 15 euros each. Yes, a house. Well, I tell a lie, it was actually a bar...their former bar with their former flat above. Private garden, facilities for washing clothes and the opportunity to play at being a barman. I couldn’t miss the opportunity. Manuela is a character with a huge sense of humour and we had a great laugh especially when I showed her the photograph and told her I was opening up in opposition to them. However Manuela’s brows knitted in earnest when I said that her dish “callos” was delicious. “Would you tell me your recipe?” I asked. Her voice fell to a whisper lest anyone would hear the secret family formula...it was then she uttered the memorable words...”You take one whole stomach and first wash it with salt and vinegar...”
Second in line for a mention has got to be Segundo who at the age of 79 almost overtook me on a long open stretch of the camino. Our friend Rebekah Scott had joined us for a few days walking and Segundo just joined the party as if he was going to walk all the way to Santiago with us. “I walk for miles every day” he explained as his walking stick tapped out his footsteps. Very quickly Segundo related his whole life. Born into a huge family he had worked the very land around us. He peppered everything he said with tangents...”the route used to be over there” he pointed. Then he rounded on Rebekah...”and what about you? Where are you from? And how do you get time to walk like this, I mean, you’re young?” he said as he drew appraising eyes off me in comparison to Reb’s obvious youth. Before Rebekah could draw breath he rhymed off the next set of questions, “ are you rich because you are obviously too young to be on a pension?” As we walked on the sun beat down. I tried the tactic of asking him questions but he was undeterred. It was my turn. “What about this heat, this sun?” He asked me, rapidly adding, “where’s your hat, don’t you know that you are bald?”
Next up is Carmen who I met in Puebla de Sanabria she is pictured with the packed lunch she provides on departure to all pilgrims who stay in her hostal. As ever a conversation ensued within minutes of us meeting. I told her some camino stories and she told us about her life there and her family. “I have triplets” she said proudly. “Three daughters, all aged 18 now and very beautiful.” I asked her if bringing up three babies all of the same aged hadn’t been difficult? “Not all all,” she replied, “It was wonderful, and still is.” “But isn’t your house like a war zone at times with three teenage daughters all the same age?” I enquired having some experience in these matters. “Not at all,” she said. “Of course they fight at times but mostly it is peaceful.” Carmen comes from a long line of twins and her husband also had twins in his family. Sadly they are no longer together. She never said why but what she did share might provide a clue. Leaning over the counter she said, “having triplets is the best thing that ever happened to me, in fact I passionately want another three before I am too old.” All we could do was wish her luck with that particular project.

In the next few days I’ll tell you more about the people I met on the way and what they said. Until then, remember...if you want to make callos take a whole stomach...


  1. What an enchanted life you seem to have, John :-)

  2. Thak you John for this post especially. Brought a smile to my face.

  3. Looking forward to reading about your experiences and thanks for sharing that great 'callos' tip... :)