Saturday, 19 May 2012

A toast to the Amigos

The Amigos number One with Eva who couldn't resist being an Amigo!
Two weeks ago the new Welcome Service started. Larry and Sean our first Amigos arrived and took up residence in the apartment which was to be their home for two weeks. Larry is a retired headmaster from Ireland and Sean is a computer consultant from England. I met them both on their arrival and so it really was a case of, "the Scotsman the Englishman and Irishman went into a pub..." Both are experienced pilgrims and their understanding of pilgrims' needs combined with their own talents for empathy and communication made them ideal Amigos Number One.

On their first day they were shown round the office and the domestics were dealt with as well as introductions to everyone. They spent some time seeing how the Office works and the way in which pilgrims are dealt with and data collected.

We then had a briefing meeting which was attended by Mari who coordinates the morning shift. We went through the FAQs I had sent in advance and then we had a session on the city map so that they could familiarise themselves with how to locate the main places which pilgrims ask about.
The weather was not good in the preceding days with fairly constant heavy rain. We decided to establish an information/reception desk at the top of the stairs and that both Larry and Sean would take turns during the day at staffing it. We also agreed that two of us would attend the entrance and the courtyard to chat to pilgrims coming in and out. This worked very well indeed and the information desk was particularly welcomed by everyone. We have an excellent supply of city maps to give to pilgrims and they very much appreciate the welcome and practical help they are receiving. 

In the first two weeks of the service we have been inundated with pilgrims despite the early bad weather. In the two weeks Sean and Larry were welcoming pilgrims around 10,000 arrived. They have been working from 9- 3pm which is the busiest time in the office when 70% of pilgrims arrive. Larry and Sean have therefore personally greeted some 7000 pilgrims on their arrival in Santiago.

We have had a queue down the stairs  of the office frequently. When this happens one of us marshalls the pilgrims at the front of the queue to keep them moving into the office when a member of staff is free. This gives some time to chat but the biggest thing is that it keeps the queue moving and waiting times have been no more than 15 mins.
All in all this has been a very good start. The atmosphere in the office and on the staircase is quite different. It is lighter. There is a lot of joking and laughter. Our words of "welcome and congratulations" are spreading. Goodwill is infectious.

In the last two weeks there have been instances where pilgrims have needed practical help - how to change a flight, how to get in touch urgently with another pilgrim, where to print a boarding card, where to buy a SIM card and so on. There have also been instances where pilgrims have been in tears just because of the kind words of an Amigo congratulating them on getting their Compostela.

I was looking out of the window the other day. It was pouring rain. There was Sean under a big umbrella out in the street in his blue Amigo's T shirt shaking hands as the pilgrims came in and answering question after question as pilgrims left.

Our first two Amigos have embraced the flexibility which is needed in this role. At times they engage in crowd control. If there is no one to take a rucksack in left luggage - they step forward and do it. They very much understand we are exploring how this can best work.
As well as helping with rucksacks there have already been many occasions where their kindness and pastoral approach has been necessary and welcome. Cynthia an 83 year old pilgrim who walked from Sarria was greeted with huge congratulations on her arrival. Another pilgrim who had walked from St Jean Pied de Port to Burgos when physical problems prevented him continuing was profoundly disappointed not to receive a Compostela. The Amigos provided support. The Pilgrims’ Office wrote a letter of sympathy for his problems and of welcome to Santiago. Much help was provided as he changed his plans and contacted his insurers. Pilgrims helping pilgrims.

The staff of the Pilgrims' Office could not be more welcoming. They can see the power of pilgrims helping pilgrims as they witness the conversations on the stairs about blisters, and the weather and how good a poncho is compared to a rain jacket. Some of them even tried to get in on the act.

Don Jenaro went out of his way to welcome both Amigos. He has clearly been thinking about this project. Without prompting he said, "On the Way pilgrims greet each other with "buen camino!" now when they arrive in Santiago they have fellow pilgrims greeting them with "welcome and congratulations!".
At the end of the two weeks the next two Amigos arrived, Laraine and Patro. So too did representatives of the Confraternity of St James and The Irish Society of the Friends of St. James. They were joined by Bishop Ralph Heskett who with Don Jenaro the Canon Delegate of Pilgrimages celebrated the Pilgrims’ Mass on Wednesday 16 May. This was a splendid occasion. All of the visitors wore the distinctive blue Tshirts of the Amigos. We sat within the altar rails. After the Mass the Botafumeiro flew. Then the Bishop and Don Jenaro stepped forward. They said:

“We are delighted to be here today to celebrate this new service where pilgrim volunteers are coming to live and work in Santiago to serve their fellow pilgrims. The pilgrim organisations in the United Kingdom and Ireland are to be congratulated for supporting this initiative. The first volunteers appropriately called “Amigos” are here with us today  in their distinctive blue Tshirts– on behalf of all of the pilgrims who will be welcomed by them to this great city I offer our warmest thanks for all of the work they do.
Father God we ask your blessing on these pilgrim volunteers who have come to Santiago to serve their fellow pilgrims. We ask you to strengthen them in faith as they work each day in the Pilgrims´ Office providing a warm welcome and information to all pilgrims who have travelled to honour the tomb of the Apostle Santiago.”
A resounding “AMEN” sounded in the Cathedral.
After the Mass we assembled in the cloister of the Cathedral so that both Bishop and Canon could thank the Amigos personally. Later the Amigos Number one, Larry and Sean were presented with gifts and a special Certificate from the Pilgrims’ Office accompanied by this message:

"Dear Amigos Larry and Sean, 
In the last two weeks you have made history by being the first two Amigos to work in the Pilgrims’ Office welcoming pilgrims, listening to their stories, answering their questions and ensuring that their waiting time is kept to a minimum. This was very important in these last two weeks when the weather was so bad pilgrims arrived soaked and exhausted. They were met by your ready smiles, your words of congratulations and at times your wise advice. We watched as Sean stood in the street often under an umbrella directing pilgrims into the office. At the top of the stairs Larry soon proved that he had truly kissed the blarney stone. When the queues formed you both got into action ushering pilgrims to our desks so they could be dealt with quickly. As you leave with our fondest best wishes we also want to say Bienvenido, welcome, to Patro and Laraine we know they will carry on the good work you have started.
We hope that you have begun a new tradition of welcome in Santiago. The pilgrimage continues to grow. Prior to the Holy Year of 1993 numbers had grown over the previous 10 years from less than 2000 pilgrims in 1983 to almost 10,000 in 1992. But in the Holy Year 1993 the numbers swelled 10 times and in that year 100,000 pilgrims arrived. We hold this to be the year of the birth of the modern pilgrimage. You are the symbols, the embodiment, of this new era but in bringing something new you are also reviving the old principles of pilgrims offering a service of love to other pilgrims. Therefore we ask you to accept these commemorative medals from that Holy Year of 1993. We also ask you to accept these certificates recording our thanks – they are printed on familiar paper! And they say:

"To  Larry Farrell and Sean Hampton
On behalf of the Pilgrims’ Office and the pilgrims we serve I offer you our sincere gratitude for the service you have given as a volunteer in the new Amigos Welcome Service.  For many centuries pilgrims have arrived in this city of Santiago de Compostela to venerate the tomb of Saint James. On the Way they face many hardships and also experience many joys. One of these joys on arrival is to be welcomed and helped by other pilgrims. You have given your time to your fellow pilgrims freely and generously. We give you our thanks in abundance.
Don Jenaro Cebrián
Canon Delegate of Pilgrimage"

That evening 16 of us sat down to dinner to celebrate the launch of the Amigos Service. It was a happy occasion with speeches of thanks and much fellowship. At the end the lights were dimmed and the traditional Galician Queimada was prepared. However rather than the usual words which are proclaimed to ward off evil spirits one of the guests read a ext which was much more in keeping with the day.  It ended a great day perfectly:
"Tonight we celebrate being together at the start of the Amigos Service here in Santiago de Compostela. We close our meal with fire and a toast. As the Queimada is prepared we remember its Celtic origins. When the people of the cold countries discovered how to distil alcohol this heady brew was soon invented. Traditionally the ritual preparation of the Queimada was intended to ward off evil spirits but tonight we use it for a different purpose. Just as the family gathers around the hearth we gather around this fire tonight as friends, as Amigos, at the launch of a service of welcome as potent as the brew before us, as needed as the heat on a winter’s evening and we hope with a flame which will last for a very long time. Traditionally the Queimada is accompanied by a spell, the “conxuro”. Tonight we use no spell. Rather we celebrate with other words written in these last few days by Sean Hampton one of the Amigos Number One:

The rain is lashing down again                      Others travelled shorter ways
But still the Pilgrims come                             To reach this mighty place
Some have walked for 30 days                     Tired, strained or battered legs
And rarely seen the sun                                 And blisters slowed their pace

But an overwhelming thought engulfed         So to the square, the pilgrim makes
Their mind to force them on                           And sits or lies and stares
The pain will stay just a short while                And feels the pulse of a million hearts
But the joy will linger on                                  Who have also stood, just there

The tall facade of the Cathedral now             Of their journey and their sacrifice
Begins to draw the Pilgrim’s mind                  And their friends along the way
A tear descends from a weary eye                And the overwhelming comradeship
As the memories remind                                All combined to give this day

Into the nave for Pilgrims Mass                      The Botafumeiro is hoisted up
A time that some rejoice                                 And the Cathedral feels a hush
Others just reflect a while                                A very special moment
But all hear an inner voice                               To prolong the Camino rush

But the journey isn’t quite complete              Just through the Arch and up the stairs
Another place in sight                                     The journey meets its end
Across the Praza das Praterias                     That final stamp and acknowledgement
Then slightly to the right                                 From that last Camino friend

Ladies and Gentlemen please be upstanding as together we toast “The Amigos”.    


  1. I cannot tell you how much joy it gives me to read this!

    It's well written, and I am so thrilled to see the Amigos program in action! I can't wait to find out the best way we can add to this spirit of welcome and celebration! I also love the poem. I am going to share it and link back to your blog.

    Keep up the excellent work!

  2. Great John, I enjoyed reading your post. I could smell and feel and see the Amigos in Santiago while reading your post. You know what I mean!

  3. One day - when I am big and have lots of free time - I want to be an Amigo too!