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The Camino Journal

Chapter 8: June 26, 2004

WE DID IT!
WE ARE IN SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELLA

I wrote the last report from Monto de Gozo, the evening of the 24th, just a few km away from Santiago. It seemed to be clearing up a bit as well, so we thought we might have a better view as we walked into the city. We had been talking to many people and strategizing on how to maximize the chances of me playing in the Cathedral, given the general difficulty of doing that in Spain. Some folks that had done the Camino several times said that the thing to do was to stay in Monto de Gozo, in order to arrive at the cathedral at opening time. Things were not so ridiculously crowded then, and we could perhaps find a priest to talk to in order to get permission to play. Well, the last day, my foot felt quite a bit better, aided by lengthy icing sessions the day before (we never did see that doctor. Apparently they like to prescribe whacking doses of morphine-based pain killers, and we thought the cure might be worse than the condition). We got into Santiago, walked through the urban sprawl, and arrived at the Cathedral at 7:45 in the morning. Mass was being said in many of the side chapels. We were finally at the destination we had been walking toward for such a long time. We looked around, wandered through the huge sacred space... Elena found a sacristy door, and talked to someone going in about seeing a priest. He asked what this was about, and she explained. He said “I am the head sacristan, and I am the one who gives permission for this sort of thing. You don’t talk to a priest about this. Come back at 2:30 tomorrow, and he can play!” Well, it seems that of all the people we needed to talk to, Elena had chosen the exact one. Guided by the hand once again! I could not believe it.

We wandered around in a bit of a daze, and met several people from the Camino, some who had arrived a few days before us. Joyful exchanges of greetings all around! Then we got our Compostelas, the actual certificates that say you have completed this pilgrimage. Suddenly, the official part, the striving, the walking, the getting up early, the 25 km a day were over, and we were tourists. Well... sort of tourists. You could tell there were in fact busloads of tourists in town, and then there were the pilgrims. Just as we were waiting in line for the Compostelas, Gert, our Dutch friend walked up with a big smile. He had stuck around, and was looking much healthier than the last time I had seen him.

One of my big regrets at having the foot injury close to the end, and going so slow was that the people we had befriended walking from Leon now passed us. As I sat there, when I first realized that I was going to have to cut a stage short and rest, I saw familiar face after familiar face pass by, and I felt sad that our second Camino family was now leaving us behind because our pace was dramatically dropping. But in fact, we did see many of these friends again, either en route or in Santiago. Santiago has its own logic for meeting people. You run into people in the oddest ways, and just wandering around the old city, you keep seeing another fellow pilgrim. Once you are in Santiago, the whole mood also changes. The fact that a pilgrim used a support car to cheat on carrying their own pack, or that they snored loudly at night in the refugios and kept you awake, is now forgotten. Now, they are just fellow pilgrims who are also finished, and everybody is happy to see each other. I had people who had not met me, but who had just passed me when I was at my worst on the last days of walking come up and congratulate me on making it. We even saw Rambo at the pilgrim’s mass (remember Rambo?).

What a change from the last 100 km of the Camino. I am not talking of my foot here either, although that did colour the experience. I am talking of the change in mood from the earlier walking. To get a Compostela, one has to walk the last 100 km. That means people are jumping in right at the end and doing the last bit in five or six days – not enough time to forge Camino friendships. There is an absolutely enormous influx of pilgrims, quasi pilgrims, tourists, all walking, all competing for inadequate accommodation at the refugios. That is why some folks got up in the middle of the night to walk. It had become a rat race, and many people we talked to were struggling with this – the spiritual aspect of quietly walking, thinking, or perhaps talking to a fellow pilgrim, were replaced with a headlong rush to be first in line at the next refugio. It became quite a dog eat dog scenario. People had to come to their own terms with this, by choosing not to let it bother them, or choosing not to compete, i.e., finding some peace with the last part of the road, which one thinks should be a sort of summing up, a special focusing on arriving. Instead, it had become a circus. For us, my foot was a factor that made us slow down, made us walk that last part without rushing. So, pain or no pain, it was a bit of a blessing. Although just a the point I had injured myself I was sure looking forward to stretching out those legs and seeing what they could do. Not being able to do that, and slowing down the others, was hard.

A MILLION STEPS

I will have so many thoughts and perspectives about the Camino in the upcoming weeks and months, I am sure. I will sort out the final analysis of what I think and feel about much of this as the whole experience grows and matures inside of myself. The funny thing is, you experience cold, pain, blisters, heat, more pain, fatigue, frustration... and you forget most of that and remember other things instead. I had so many memories, so many hours of walking. I know I will be drawing on those memories for years. We walked about 1,000 km on this pilgrimage – a million steps! It took forever, and it took no time at all. So many times, I did not think I was going to finish. It just seemed too far, too long. And then it was not even about finishing. There is a saying many pilgrims liked to quote “The path is the destination...” Yes, I wanted to finish, but a million details weave the fabric of this journey, and make it rich and complex.

Playing my violin in all of those churches was definitely a positive and invigorating experience. One of the fun things was the living and growing story that took shape along the Camino of the tall and nameless pilgrim who shows up and pulls a violin out of his knapsack and plays. It was collective story, passed back and forth between the various people that heard me play on different occasions. Sometimes (besides my own walking party of course) there was an audience of just one; sometimes there were quite a number of people. Some pilgrims kept pace with us, and so heard us several times. Some talked to me about the music, and although they expressed an interest to hear it, we were just never at the right place at the right time. There was a very spontaneous element to the music I played on the Camino. I did not want to make it a trip about recording and ‘getting a take’. I wanted to play in various churches in as unselfconscious a way as possible. And I believe that did happen. I can’t wait to listen to all of the tapes. I sent most of the tapes on ahead to Canada because I was worried about their safely. Now my trusty engineer Andrew is busy backing them up and complaining to me on my answering machine about recording levels! At least the music is safe. How many memories that will bring back.

JUNE 26

Today, we slept in (all the way to 8 am) and took a taxi into town from our hotel on the outskirts. Last night, we rambled and ambled about town... what a crazy nightlife. People are just up all night here. It is the end of the pilgrimage, and it is a busy city with a university, and a rich life quite apart from the pilgrimage. So the hordes were out, and we actually stayed up until about 1:30 am – insanely past our bedtimes for the past few months! Street theatre, cafes, bars, friends talking and milling about... Apparently it goes on ‘til about 7 in the morning. That night there was an dance company that set up a show in one of the cathedral squares – these are performers paid by the junta of Galicia to put on special shows for the Jacobeo, the holy year. Unfortunately, it was the very worst of modern dance. Pretentious, juvenile, artless, embarrassing. I was sitting on the cathedral steps, and I knew right away I would have to get out of there fast. There were so many people, and my leg was bad, which made getting out of there a dicey proposition. But I remembered I had the cane. So I did instinctively what old guys do. Whacked younger folk aside with my cane to clear a way out for myself! After that, we were very skeptical when there was another modern dance show a few nights later. But this time, it was the very best of modern dance – breathtakingly spectacular.

I am getting ahead of myself, however. On this day, we wanted to be at the cathedral for the 12:00 pilgrim’s mass, the real end of the journey. It was a very moving ritual, connecting us with 1,000 years of pilgrims doing this journey in one way or another. The end of the mass is marked by the swinging of a huge censor as tall as a man, filled with burning incense. In the old days, they used it to fumigate the stinky pilgrims. It is suspended from a long rope from the ceiling, and they start it swinging. Then 8 men haul on the ropes to make it go higher and higher, kind of like swinging on a swing and making it go really high. The effect of this HUGE object hurtling directly overhead was astounding. At the apex of its swing, it almost touched the ceiling of this very large cathedral on either side. When it came overhead, it barely missed us. It was dramatically cathartic, releasing all of this kinetic energy along with the incense. It was like a joyful leap into the air, the end of the journey.

We came back at 2:30, and Pepe the sacristan made good on his word. He led me up to a space in front of the altar, and I played for about half an hour. There were many people milling about. It was noisy. But many pilgrim friends were there, people who had heard me play along the way. I played for them. I played for our safe arrival. I played for all of the pilgrims still walking. All those who would walk some day. It was a very emotional end to the pilgrimage. And I played for Myra, the sister of John.

There are so many Camino stories out there, thousands of them... a thousand years of them, in fact. But I am going to share just one more with you as I sign off. A few weeks ago, I had met an Irishman called John. John was quite a jolly chap, and I could often see him hanging out and hoisting a pint with some of the other Camino travellers. We said hello off and on, but I never heard John’s story. Yesterday, I saw John again. I asked him if he would do an interview with me, and he became thoughtful, and declined the interview, but asked if I had heard his story. No, I answered. He then told me that his sister Myra had walked the Camino twice, and that he was walking for her. She had liked it so much the first time, that she decided to do it again (many do) and so last year, she walked from St. Jean Pied de Port. She finished her Camino, went to pilgrims’ mass, spent a pleasant evening, lay down to sleep and never woke up. A tumour she never knew she had exploded that night, ending her life. So John was walking, day for day, stage for stage a year later... he had his sister’s diary, and so he knew where she had been on every day. He stayed in the same refugios. He would read her entries into the guest books. Now he had completed his/his sister’s trip, arriving on June 23rd, just as his sister had. Life really is so mysterious, and the layers peel back in such unexpected ways.

So now, dear armchair pilgrims, I leave you... I am flying back to Canada in a few days. It will be strange to be inside for a whole day at a time... not to wake with the birds, not to walk and walk and walk. Our second last night of pilgrimage, in Monto de Gozo, Elena spotted some graffiti on the bottom of the bunk above her.

"On the Camino, your best friends will be blisters, heat, pain, and snoring travellers – if this is for you, then you will really enjoy your pilgrimage."

All this is true, and yet... and yet I am at a loss for words to describe this incredible adventure that has become part of the fabric of my life. Peter said this morning after the mass, "I took 2 months, and gained 100 years of experience." It really is a lot like that.

Oliver Schroer, Santiago
June 26, 2004