Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Precious memories on the camino

We met a delightful Irish girl on the camino who, for various physical reasons, could not carry a heavy pack and who chose not to sleep in the albergues. She started at St Jean Pied de Port and walked to Santiago staying at small hostals or pensions having her luggage transported from place to place by taxi. Some people seemed to disapprove of this kind of pilgrimage but I am of the opinion that where you sleep or what you carry has no bearing whatsoever on your spiritual status as a pilgrim. She walked the same paths, through the same villages and towns and visited the same churches and cathedrals and monuments. She walked the camino and has a Compostela to prove it.

The camino has many levels - something for everybody. It is a physical journey and a spiritual journey. It offers religion and science, art and architecture, history and legend, fauna and flora, music, literature and much more. For me its richest blessings are the pilgrims who walk it and the people who care for them. I do feel that staying only in hotels deprives one of experiencing the wonderful camaraderie and social interaction pilgrims have with hospitaleros and other pilgrims which you only find in the pilgrim refuges. Sure, you can chat to fellow pilgrims on the road and at café bars but it is usually at the end of the day when most pilgrims are relaxing that you meet and befriend so many different people and have the most amazing encounters.
After arriving at a refuge most pilgrims attend to their daily chores of washing clothes, finding food and preparing for the next day. This is never done in isolation, but by patiently waiting your turn at the washtub, chatting with the people around you or sharing your food. Everyone shares, not only food and wine but information, medication, blister products. You break bread every day. Friendships are formed. Distrust among pilgrims disappears. One keeps meeting the same pilgrims in different refuges and if separated for a few days, familiar faces are greeted like long-lost relatives.
The scenes around a modern albergue can’t be too different from a medieval hospice. Pilgrims relaxing together in a meadow sharing food and wine, tending to each other’s feet or massaging aching shoulders. An ethic develops where those pilgrims who need to be alone are left alone and those who need a shoulder are treated with empathy and compassion. Pilgrims develop an open mind and a culture of acceptance, compassion and caring rarely seen amongst strangers. And, many hospitaleros display these same attributes.
In Villamayor de Monjardin the hospitalero took one look at my raw heels and insisted on treating them from her first aid box. In Granon, we had to sing for our supper and had a special blessing before bedtime. In Tosantos, after dinner we climbed into the attic to find a delightful makeshift chapel where we were asked to take a piece of paper out of a box containing the requests for prayers written by other pilgrims. Mine was written by a woman who asked that we pray for her son who had been diagnosed with a kidney disease. In Logrono we could take a prayer from a box (written by children) to present at the altar of St James in Santiago. In Bercianos we all had to watch the sunset over a hill before we were allowed back in to the refuge for our communal meal. At Arroyo San Bol, a young Italian Rastafarian chef cooked us the most amazing meal. At Villafranca del Bierzo, Jesus Jato performed his healing Reiki on pilgrims who were in pain and at Manjarin, a young man with a Mohawk hairstyle and studs in his face cooked us lunch and dinner in between gently caring for a mother cat and her kittens.
These are the jewels of the camino and my most precious memories are not of a soaring cathedral or of stunning stained glass but of the kindness of strangers, the astounding generosity of the Spanish people and the many humble refuges that brought us all together.

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