It’s been a hell of a day.
If I can say that in terms of a pilgrimage.
I decided to leave early – at 6am – an hour and a half before sunrise. I wanted to do this for two reasons – 1) because I wanted to get the Compostelas for the others, (a Compostela is an official document to verify that you’ve walked the Camino) and 2) because I wanted to walk by myself this morning into Santiago.
I walked an hour before I found a place to have breakfast – a truck stop.
I then hit the road again, eschewing the yellow arrow paths and sticking to the National Route – the highway. I knew the highway would take me to Santiago, and I didn’t want to get lost in the dark.
At about 8:30am I left the highway and joined the Camino proper, following paths that cut through farmland and small villages.
But it very quickly became urban –
As I got closer to Santiago, I started to feel more dislocated. I kept asking myself the question that Steve had asked me: Which are you, a pilgrim or a tour operator?
I knew the answer to that question would become apparent to me today.
Let me explain about the Compostelas. The way it works is that at the start of a Camino pilgrimage, you are given an official Credential, which is dubbed The Pilgrim’s Passport. Each day you get this passport stamped by a hotel, or an albergue, or a church, or at a registered cafe or restaurant.
When you get to Santiago this credential is then examined, to determine whether you’ve actually walked the Camino, and if it all checks out you’re then given your Compostela. This year for the first time there are two Compostelas; the regular one, which is free, and a fancier one which costs, and details how far you’ve walked, where you started from, etc.
Last night I’d gathered up all the group’s credentials and I had them with me in my backpack. My task was to get into Santiago early, go to the Pilgrim’s Office and collect all the Compostelas on behalf of the group, so that they didn’t have to queue for an hour.
Yesterday, 1500 Compostelas were issued. 1500 pilgrims arrived in Santiago having walked a Camino. That’s just in one day. The office was expecting even more today.
Perhaps because I’d set off so early, I walked for most of the day alone. And because it was Easter Saturday, there was hardly any traffic on the road. The air was cool, there was cloud overhead with the threat of drizzle, but it didn’t rain.
We’ve walked the entire Camino without one drop of rain.
Within no time it seemed I was on the outskirts of Santiago, feeling decidedly weird. I passed a concrete column, on which someone had written the word ANGEL. Why write it there? Why write it at all?
The scrawled letters, and on a busy street on a concrete column, all seemed totally incongruous.
Anyway, I knew I had to get the Compostelas quickly, before the group came in. But I also had an overwhelming desire to first go to the Cathedral, and stand in the square. I knew I had to do that first. And then it occurred to me – I must be a pilgrim, if that was my priority.
Me, a non believer.
Me, a non Catholic.
Me, a non Christian.
That’s what I did. I walked into the Cathedral square just on 11am – as the bells peeled off the time, the ancient booming sound resonating through my body. I stood there for some time, letting the energies of the place seep into me.
I watched other pilgrims arrive. I took photos for some of them. And I asked a lady to take a photo of me.
I felt proud to have walked the Camino Portuguese. Even though it’s relatively short, it’s a gnarly little walk with some very tough sections. And 240kms in 12 days – 20kms a day on average – is an achievement.
But for me, it’s not about distance or average kilometres or pace – it’s about walking another pilgrimage route. It’s about following in the footsteps of others over the centuries. It’s about seeing around me every day the reminders of what an ancient path I’ve trodden.
I called Catarina and we then went to the Pilgrim’s Office. Already it was packed, with a line stretching out into the street.
Johnnie Walker, the Camino’s Administrator, had very kindly fast-tracked me – he’d pre-prepared the Compostelas – so Catarina and I walked right to the head of the queue and picked them up on behalf of the group.
We then walked back to the square, and who should we see coming towards us, doing a little jig, was Steve.
He’d gone ahead of the others. We went and had a drink and he offered some gum to Catarina. Later, after much mastication, she put it with the spent olives.
It offended my delicate sensibilities – but it would pale into insignificance compared to what she would do later…
The group then arrived – we hugged and congratulated each other – took a shot, then checked into the hotel.
Catarina had picked up a neat car parking spot very near to the hotel, (she was very proud of how close she’d got the van to the hotel) so we unloaded the bags and each of retreated to our rooms to begin to process in private what we’d just done so publicly.
Jennifer wanted to go get something to eat – so we had a meal up the road in a favourite cafe. it just so happened that in this crowded cafe, there was a table by the front window.
While sitting there, I happened to look outside into the square and I noticed a vehicle about to be towed. There were police cars everywhere, and this black van was being hooked up to a tow truck.
Hah – I thought. Same type of van as ours, but ours doesn’t have that railing on the roof.
Or does it?
I rushed out of the cafe. The tow truck operator had now lifted the rear of the van off the ground, and was about to tow it away. The cops were writing it up.
I raced up to them, told them it was my vehicle, that I was a tourist and didn’t know any better, and that I was also a pilgrim – and that they should have mercy on my soul. Or at least my wallet.
A pilgrim driving a brand new black Mercedes van didn’t seem to hold a lot of sway with them. They kept writing it up.
Meanwhile tthe rest of the group had wandered up, and was watching with barely concealed mirth.
The cops needed to see the rego papers, so I scooted back to the hotel, (luckily it was really close) to get the van keys off Catarina, who was asleep. I called her room, told her what happened, and she was mortified. “But it was such a great parking space,” she mumbled, half asleep.
€173.50 later, it was sorted.
Catarina had parked the van in the morning, along with several other vehicles that had parked there. But she’d failed to notice a sign which said you couldn’t park from 10:30am on. It was 3:30pm.
The whole incident provided us with a lot of laughs, some embarrassing photos, some lessons for a young driver, and another example of PGS.
If Jennifer hadn’t suggested we have a bite to eat at that cafe, if that table by the window hadn’t been free, if I hadn’t spotted the tow truck and wandered out… then the van would have been impounded, we might not have got it back till after Easter, and it certainly would have cost a whole lot more.
Later that evening we had dinner together, and I handed out the Compostelas. Everyone clapped as each of us got the formal document, in archaic text and script, to say that we’d walked the Camino.
Peter then said some very kind words on behalf of the group – thanking Jennifer and myself – and Ken, bless his socks, read out a poem he’d written about the tour. It was very funny and insightful. He’s given me his permission to publish it separately.
I in turn told everyone that Jennifer and I had been so fortunate to have such an amazing group of people. And that each day for us had been enormous fun. And it had been. And I in turn thanked them, for making it so easy for us.
I also thanked Catarina. Her parking prowess aside (“But Bill, it was such a great parking spot!”) she’s been a huge asset to the tour. Funny, gorgeous, always incredibly helpful, she’s been terrific. If we were to do another tour, then she would definitely be a part of it.
It was a low key dinner – I think because we all had the sudden realisation that after two glorious weeks, it was coming to an end. Tomorrow, Easter Sunday, would be our last day together.
Over drinks after dinner, Donna asked Peter and me whether walking into the Cathedral Square was more emotional second time around, than the first. Peter and I both agreed that it was – Peter saying that today he knew his way to get to the square, so he could anticipate more, and it hit him more deeply.
I agreed, and also told Donna that last time I’d been confused – confused that I should have felt something when I didn’t. I felt very flat last time. This time I did feel very “zoned in,” as though I was walking in a bubble, and all sounds were muted, and my vision was limited to only what was immediately ahead of me, what would lead me to standing out front and looking up at St. James, and sensing the enormity of the occasion.
Not the enormity of what I’d done, because that was by no means enormous in any sense of the word, but in following the footsteps of millions of others. That’s enormous – what what pain they’ve gone through, what suffering and deprivation, what faith and belief they must have had, to do what they did.
Standing there in the square, looking at the hundreds of people milling, I told Steve that I believed we were witnessing a shift in human consciousness. The Camino is becoming a cultural phenomenon. Why? Young kids are walking the Camino, old people, sick people, people from all over the world. What’s going on here? The Camino is hard. Don’t anyone try and tell you otherwise. I’ve now done two, and both have taken the stuffing out of me.
But I would do it again.
I really don’t know.
Tomorrow is Easter Sunday, with a big mass at the Cathedral, followed by a large Semana Santa procession. It will be an incredible last day.