Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Camino de Santiago, Day 31: Portomarín to Palas de Rei

For the past three days, the flow of pilgrims has been inversely proportional to the flow of rain. Monday, as we walked down from O'Cebreiro, high gate to Galicia, it poured and poured. For half the day Marian and I walked alone, huddled under our ponchos, dripping, soaking, and praying for dry feet. Tuesday, when it only sprinkled, we noticed a new crop of walkers sprouting up like spring blooms. Many had joined the Way at Sarria, last point of entry to qualify for the Compostela, the pilgrim diploma. We walked through Sarria at coffee time Tuesday morning.

Today, Wednesday, sun poured down, and the roads swarmed with pilgrims. I thought I would resent people jumping in for the last 100 kilometers, after we real pilgrims had done so much more. But Marisa and Alfonso, Spanish friends of Marian, had told her that many of the most religious Spaniards use the last 100 kilometers as a short, true pilgrimage. Others have said that Spaniards put the pilgrimage on their résumés, and who can blame anyone seeking an edge in the dismal economy here?

Whatever the reasons for the wave of newcomers, it was great fun—a surge of fresh, happy energy that Marian and I rode for 25 kilometers, all the way into Palas de Rei. The sunshine had a lot to do with it, but no one knows how to have fun like a pack of Spanish men and women on holiday, religious or otherwise. We ran into several packs of them, along with new friends from places like Buffalo, New York, and Lausanne, Switzerland. We met volunteer hospitaleros from California and Indiana, and meanwhile old friends continued to reappear, including Marie from New Brunswick and Wendy from Texas by way of Virginia.

Among the old friends were Hubert and André from Belgium, whom Marian and I first met in an albergue in Navarette during our first week on the Camino. I ran into them again one morning while walking alone through Mansilla de las Mullas, and we saw them Tuesday evening in Portomarín. This morning we bumped into them three or four times, as they passed us, then we passed them, and repeat—the way many friendships reinforce themselves here.

The two Belgians, age 63 and 69, stopped at a café where we were already seated. Generously, they gave us some literature they had picked up along the route, including a Pilgrim Prayer from O'Cebreiro, which touched Marian. Part of it reads:

Although I may have seen all the monuments
and contemplated the best sunsets;
although I may have learned a greeting in every language
or tasted the clean water from every fountain;
if I have not discovered who is the author
of so much free beauty and so much peace,
I have arrived nowhere. . . .

They also gave us a three-page printout in French, entitled (my translation) "The human and spiritual dimensions of the Camino de Santiago." It is a Christ-centered document put together by the Parish of Saint James the Pilgrim (Santiago Peregrino) in Triacastela. It ends with a series of statements beginning "Il n'est jamais trop tard…"

It is never too late for a personal encounter with Christ.
It is never too late for happiness.
It is never to late to love.
It is never too late to smile.
It is never too late for an encounter.
It is never too late to reflect.
It is never too late, no matter how late it is, to begin.
It is never too late to meet yourself.
It is never too late to live the truth truly.
It is never too late to love and to feel oneself loved— by the Love of Christ.

I translated aloud for Marian at the café. At one moment, André looked over at me and said that these words of wisdom were for Marian, not me. Then he cited a song by the French singer Jean Gabin which says, "When I was 18 I knew everything; now that I'm 70 I know nothing!"

About an hour later, Marian's attention was caught by a humble refuge by the wayside. It turned out to be the mission of an organization called Agape, based in Barcelona, with volunteers running it, serving coffee and tea (for donations), providing bathroom facilities, and handing out literature, handshakes, and smiles. As I have written before, the number of overtly Christian missions along this traditional Catholic pilgrimage route is so small that it is refreshing to find one anywhere. Marian and I enjoyed meeting and talking with Don from California and Joelle from Indiana, both volunteering for a week.

As we walked on, Marian and I talked about whether a donation-based business was even a possibility back home in the states. Of course, we have our non-profits, but how many places offer coffee and tea—or any product or service—for whatever you can spare? This led each of us to elaborate thoughts we have had about what each of us might do after the Camino is over and we return home.

Among the new pilgrims joining the Camino in the past few days, we met two joyful Antonios today. The first, from Spain, had met Marian before and today referred to her as la guapa (pretty girl). Today he began calling me padre de la guapa, or something like garda guapa (father or guardian of the pretty girl). The other António, with the accent, is a Herbalife franchisee from outside Lisbon. With his sales persona never fully switched off, he gave each of us a business card and invited us to friend him on Facebook. But his gestures of friendship seemed sincere, for all that. Later, he saw us sitting at a sidewalk restaurant for dinner and joined us for coffee, then offered us a piece of traditional sweet Galician cake.

The town of Palas de Rei, where we are spending Wednesday night, must have something to do with a royal palace, but there's no evidence of anything kingly in this simple town. Still, we are now only 65 kilometers from Santiago, and tomorrow we're planning to knock off another 25 km en route to Ribadiso.

[NOTE: This series of posts on my Camino continues here.]

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