20 Oct 2019
Several days have passed since my arrival in Santiago and the end of my Camino. In that time, I presented my Pilgrim Passport at the Pilgrim Office here and received my Compostela, the official certificate of completion:
Even with my Compostela in hand, I keep thinking I need to get another stamp in my credential.
Spent my last Camino night, the one of my arrival, in The Last Stamp Albergue, to get the full experience one last time. It didn’t fail to deliver: bunk beds, snoring, late night lights, early and noisy departers, tight spaces, communal living, little sleep. I loved it. I know I’ll have dreams about walking the Camino for some time. I already miss the pilgrim community.
I’ve spent several hours per day in the last few days at the plaza in front of the cathedral here. Pilgrims arriving in the plaza have typical behavior: they hug, some kneel, some pray, all are ecstatic. They take pictures of each other, or group shots, and take it all in. Some are very emotional. Some note and photograph the last Camino scallop marker, the “Kilometer Zero” marker on the ground in the middle of the plaza. There’s a lot of great energy in the plaza.
Large tour groups congregate around the plaza and occasionally some really inconsiderate guides put them right smack in the middle of things, for an extended period, where all the pilgrims would like to stand to have a picture – very rude.
I’ve noticed many pilgrims coming back to the plaza, like me, the second or third day they’ve been here, to relive the moment of arrival and watch the joy of new arrivals. When I’ve returned to the plaza, I’ve tried to help arriving pilgrims by taking their group photos and giving them directions to the Pilgrim Office.
“Where did you start?” is a common pilgrim question and those of us who can answer “St. Jean” get immediate respect. One pair of pilgrims even said to me in response, semi-jokingly, “We are not worthy”. The long walk from France is apparently the King of the Caminoes (there are other routes, all shorter).
Meanwhile, the cathedral itself is undergoing renovations ahead of the 2021 Holy Year celebration and access is limited. I went through but declined to get in the long line to “hug” the statue of Saint James. The gold leaf in the tiny part I was able to see was dazzling. As I’ve done in most churches I visited along the way, I lit a candle in memory of my late sister.
I’ve been thinking about the contributors to my, and other pilgrims’, success. The owners and staffs of small cafes across Spain deserve to be mentioned and given our thanks. They put up with our backpacks and wet ponchos, our trekking poles and muddy boots, with our poor or non-existent Spanish language skills, our inability to count well-marked Euro coins, with our practice of removing our boots (and even changing our socks) in their dining areas. Most did this politely and professionally, many with good cheer and encouraging smiles. They fed us, served us endless cups of cafe con leche, provided dry, warm shelter and restrooms, and cleaned up the messes we left behind. They held onto the hats, cell phones, wallets, poles, and other stuff we left behind, until we returned to claim them. They decorated their establishments as Cowboy Bars, Knights Templar forts, 1950s clubs, and other imaginative places. They were there when we most needed to sit down, needed to put our feet up, and desperately needed to take a break. They called a taxi when we were injured or couldn’t take another step. Yes, the Camino economy keeps them, and sometimes their towns, alive but we still owe them our deep gratitude.
So, what was it all about? The inner stuff, the accomplishment and achievement, the challenge met, sure. I think it was also about the pilgrims I met, and met again later, along the path. There was something spiritual going on there for me. The unlikely connections and can’t-be-random interactions with people from all over the world kept me in tune with the special moment of what I was doing on the Camino. This walk also came at a transitional time in my life, my retirement, and that colored my views and conversations, too.
That’s what I have for now, though I expect new things will bubble up in the next few months. This was often a difficult and uncomfortable undertaking for me and I’m glad that it’s over. And I so very glad that I did it.
I think I’ll have one more post in this series, a “Camino post mortem”, where I review what things I packed that I shouldn’t have, and the decisions I made that were wrong or meaningless. Hopefully it will provide some guidance to anyone contemplating their own camino.