Wednesday, 19 September 2012

It isn't how far you travel...but...

I’ve been away from Santiago for a week visiting London. I had to sort out some personal stuff. As I crammed into the Tube to travel 30 minutes underground I knew where I’d rather be. The pace of life is different in Santiago and whilst of course I love the excitement and buzz of London, nowadays a short visit is enough for me.
 When I got back I found that pilgrims were still arriving in considerable numbers  and I was happy to help write some Compostelas whilst Amigos Lesley and Séan, both from Ireland, chatted to the pilgrims.
Even with the pressure of a seemingly unending queue the atmosphere in the office is usually light-hearted. Colleagues are courteous and helpful to pilgrims. Usually. Laura on my left raised her eyebrows when we both overheard the usually mild mannered Fernando speak more loudly than usual. “Look”, he said, “I don’t make the rules.” He then proceeded to explain to a Spanish cyclist that to qualify for a Compostela he had to have cycled at least 200 kilometres to Santiago. I glanced over at the man’s credencial which Fernando held in his hand. There were few sellos to be seen. Fernando rehearsed the policy for the third time and for the third time the cyclist started arguing with him. He had cycled 100 kilometres and felt he was entitled. His complaints got sharper and his voice grew louder. Frankly it was ugly.
Pietr, Trudy, Barbara, Dominique
It was with some relief I looked up at the next two pilgrims who had arrived at my desk. The woman, Trudy, handed me four credenciales. Thinking they were for the two of them I said, “ 2 credenciales each. Where have you two walked from, St Jean Pied de Port?” The man, Pietr, said with a broad smile and his eyes twinkling. “No, I’ve got four as well” and promptly plumped them down. “We started from our home in Holland” Trudy beamed. “2,700 kilometres” Pietr chimed in, “109 days walking” added Trudy. Just then two more pilgrims stepped up to Laura. They were Barbara from Italy who had walked from St Jean Pied de Port and Dominique who had walked from Paris. They had all met on the Camino Francés and were overjoyed to be at the same desk to get their Compostelas. I have to confess I was being mischievous when I turned to Fernando who was still dealing with the very rude cyclist. 
“ Fernando, two of them have walked 2,700 kilometres from Holland, one from Paris and the other from St Jean,  do you have any idea of their total together?” I asked. Fernando cottoned on and started to calculate. He turned back to his desk to find the difficult cyclist had departed. Let’s hope we see him another day.
It isn’t about miles walked or cycled. The policy of having to walk 100 kilometres or cycle 200 kilometres is purely arbitrary. It was introduced to give the Compostela some meaning and to recognise that many, many pilgrims travel extraordinary distances to reach the Tomb of St James. Pilgrimage is about the internal journey we travel in our hearts and minds as we walk along the road to Santiago. But I have a special fondness for the long, long distance pilgrims. In addition to Trudy and Pietr, Barbara and Dominique here are some others who have arrived in the last few days:
Meet Koreans Dong Hyeon and Hee Bum. They walked to Santiago from Istanbul and Sofia respectively.  They were overwhelmed to have arrived. They were humble and deeply appreciative of the welcome they received. They had difficulty expressing what the journey had meant to them. “A dream” said one, “ My private world has opened”  said the other.
Istanbul was also the departure point of cyclist Nicholas from New York who had also cycled from Istanbul and would hug St James before setting off on the next leg of his journey to Tangiers!
The Camino doesn’t all have to be done at once and this group from Segovia arrived with a huge sense of achievement.
One of them, Rosa, said, “We come from Segovia and we have arrived in Santiago after two years and four attempts: Spring and Autumn in 2011 and now 2012. We started from Roncesvalles and now we are here! I can now rest my sore feet.”
However the most astonishing achievement we saw celebrated this week was when Francisco Guillen arrived. He has set himself a challenge for his pilgrimage and he set out from his home in Castellón in Spain, travelling over the border to France, then to Rome, then to Switzerland, Belgium, and Holland before making his way back to Spain to follow the Camino to Santiago. All 6165 kilometres travelled in his wheelchair.
His words are a lesson to the cyclist who was mean to Fernando. They are a lesson for us all:
“The mind is the limit, but what this shows is that a pilgrim has no limits to his spirit. In the human spirit we see the greatness of people”


  1. Thank you, John, for this. Your posts are always so upbeat and encouraging, and your appreciation and respect for the pilgrims you meet is patently genuine. Good on you!

  2. Those proud and happy pilgrim faces brought me to tears...