Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Doing the Camino

It just doesn't seem like a pilgrimage any more. 'The Camino' is a machine of economic exploitation. Each pilgrim is anonymous to the local people - there are too many now to be considered individuals. The difference between how Spanish pilgrims are treated and how foreigners are is extreme. A native orders a glass of wine at the lone bar in a dusty village, and gets the basic table variety for 40 cents; a foreigner orders, and the question is immediately a complicated verbal list of different types for 1,50. A Spaniard askes for a glass of water, and it's from the tap for free; a foreigner is given bottled water for a price. It's a commercial enterprise now, and a test of endurance. No one likes to be taken for a putz.

The churches are all locked up. There're no notes on the doors with the name of the resident who holds the key. There are no priests in the villages, no churchladies to ask for advice. No one I speak with cares about the pilgrimage, no one touches my face or asks for a prayer to be said when I arrive at my not-so-far-off destination. There are few statues on the exterior walls of the churches, where are the Saints staring down with encouragement? What's so pilgrimagey about this?

The saddest part of the economic element is that the villages along the pre-selected route are not interested in helping a single pilgrim, they're motivated by the masses. The masses start arriving in mid March and continue until the end of November. For the winter pilgrim, there's little financial incentive to keep the pilgrim houses open. I had to walk an astonishing 54 kilometers in one day, passing from one village to the next trying to find a pilgrim house that wasn't locked up and no one around with a key. In the end, unable to walk another 7 kilometers to the next village where I had little confidence the pilgrim house would be open, I paid a pretty price for a hotel. Sure, photocopied lists of pilgrim houses and services for each village are readily available, but they all differ and contain errors. This is an unexpected challenge. Tomorrow, I'll be out of the expansive plains and in León. I hope that more pilgrims will be on the trail again, which will motivate the villages to open the pilgrim houses.

Since Ronscasvalles, the readiness for 2010, the Holy Year, has been astounding - rest stations, drinking fountains, shade trees planted along the trail. Something on the order of 250,000 pilgrims are expected to walk the Camino next year, for the glory of entering the Cathedral of Santiago through the special Holy Door and, for the ardent believers, receive a plenary indulgence for their sins. This is the right time, economically speaking, for the villages to close their pilgrim houses for refurbishment and repairs. It just bad timing to be a pilgrim now.


Amawalker said...

Perhaps your experience is closer to the medieval mendicant's experience than most 'summer peregrinos' even dream of having? Suspicous, greedy, disinterested inn-keepers. At least you don't have to fear being murdered in your sleep!! There is a young Irish lass ahead of you who is walking with her dog. She has been turned away from most albergues (because of the dog), has had to sleep in the porticos of the churches or in a little tent in the snow.
Yep - winter pilgrims sure do have it harder than the fair weather pilgrims do.

Compostelle 2008 said...

Dear Ann,

Be patient, once you are in Galicia, the people are friendlier, the landscape is prettier and more varied. Good luck and keep on treking.

Michèle from Ottawa (Canada)

Katja said...

Dear Ann(e),

I am sorry to hear that is all different than your last trip. Harpe has it's share in burning the glory of pilgrimage on the Jacobsweg. You almost made it. Just a few more steps to Santiago. Keep on tracking. I am sure there are more good moments to come.