Friday, March 13, 2015

Our Camino, Chapter 10: Ribadiso to Santiago de Compostela

(This is the tenth installment in my newly edited story of walking the Camino de Santiago with my daughter in 2012. The ninth chapter is here.)

Our penultimate day on the Camino de Santiago was a mixed bag. Whenever we walked on dirt paths through woodlands surrounded by soaring eucalyptus trees, we could think we were still far from civilization, from Santiago, from the end of our pilgrimage. But from early Friday morning when we passed a large Repsol filling station complete with self-service carwash bays until we straggled through pouring rain into a busy commercial suburb of Santiago de Compostela with three names, Arco, Pino, and Pedrouzo, we often felt the grind of asphalt on our shoes and could all but smell the city.

Santiago de Compostela is a holy site, a bishop´s seat, and the end of a pilgrim journey, but it is also the capital of Galicia complete with an international airport we had to walk around. I had long since given up any notion of the Camino as a nature walk. A pilgrimage is, by definition, a walk through this world toward the next one, and today our world is one of cities.

We had slept relatively well in an albergue in Ribadiso on Thursday night, which qualified as news. After several sleepless nights in large municipal refuges at the beginning of our Camino, I had pushed for simple but private accommodations. What had changed? Maybe it was a fatigue I couldn’t deny that had made it possible to sleep anywhere, or maybe I was just starting to feel like even the loudest snorers were family. The Camino de Santiago will play tricks on you like this.

Still, from 3:15, when I padded to the toilet, the madness of communal sleeping on the Camino was on full display. While I stood at the urinal, I heard a man puking violently in the toilet stall behind me—possibly one of the zealous fans of soccer and alcohol who had filled the bar Thursday night to watch Spain play for the 2012 European Cup. (In a qualifier, La Roja smoked Ireland, 4-0.)

An hour later, I woke to the sound of heavy boots on the floor above, as though a large person were packing a knapsack while practicing the foxtrot. At 4:30, someone fell loudly. At 4:45, another pilgrim came down steps through the open, split-level dormitory, dragging a pack along the metal newel posts of the stairway, creating an atonal xylophone effect. Just after 5:00, someone turned on the lights. I hissed a loud “No!” and after a count of three, the lights went out. A few minutes later, another early exiter played his headlamp all around the sleeping space while gathering his stuff. There is no way a light sleeper can just roll over when hijinks like these are going on.

We breakfasted and walked out of Ribadiso with our Portuguese friend Ana. In a continuing back-and-forth about faith, Ana and I talked about the importance of Assisi in our journeys. She was raised Catholic and steered toward Opus Dei, but found the whole thing too confining, too dogmatic. World Youth Day in Rome in 2000 turned her back to the Church, especially after a side trip to Assisi. I told her about my first visit to the home of St. Francis 29 years before hers, or 10 years before she was even born. I added that three European sites had figured prominently in my conversion: Assisi, Lourdes, and Notre Dame de Paris. Incidentally, 2014 would be the 800th anniversary of Francis´s own Camino.

The rain pelted down in the afternoon. We got soaked. We passed the Singing Spaniards for the fourth or fifth time. Friends of Ana, the six young pilgrims serenaded us as we slogged through a tunnel where they had huddled out of the weather. By the time we came into Arca our animal survival instincts rose up to squash any more sacred impulses. Marian, Ana, and I searched up and down the main drag for beds. Finally, Marian and I took a double pension, and Ana went off to the albergue up the hill, agreeing to meet us for the 7:30 evening mass.

We did meet for a lovely mass celebrating the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and the three of us ate a pilgrim meal afterwards. Like the day, it was happy and sad. Ana especially seemed to have found something in her friendship with Marian and me, but her work schedule in Portugal would make it necessary for her to leave early from her albergue on Saturday, while Marian and I, with more time, could be leisurely about checking out of our pension. We did not need to reach Santiago on Saturday, as Ana did. Realistically, we did not know how many of the sudden intimate friendships formed on the Way, like ours with Ana from Portugal, would stand the test of time.

Here We Are

We had planned to spend Saturday night in an albergue four miles from Santiago, then to enter the holy city on Sunday morning, Father’s Day, like cyclists on the ceremonial final day of the Tour de France, with nothing to prove but the glory of it all. But once we reached the albergue, so close to our pilgrim destination, by two in the afternoon and with so little distance left, we walked on. The only negative of Plan B was that we had agreed to meet Ana at the albergue. But from the beginning of our Camino, Marian and I had agreed that, above all, we wanted to walk into Santiago together, as father and daughter. So I felt less guilt than I otherwise might have about not touching base with the young scientist from Porto.

We arrived beside the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela at 3:30 Saturday afternoon. With Marian's usual golden touch as our translator and negotiator, we got the last double room in a former major seminary facing the southern side of the cathedral (pictured here). It's now an enormous pilgrim hostel with private rooms and baths.

Our double on the top floor was humble, probably once used by a first-year priest-in-training. But Marian immediately noticed a faded print of Mary and Jesus on the wall over her bed, and the room was just right for our purposes, including ample hot water. We took a room for five nights for a grand total of less than $200. That was two nights for Marian, who planned to walk to the ocean at Finisterre on Monday, and five nights for me, who would pick her up by car on Thursday. Plus seven breakfasts. You don't get that at a Red Roof Inn in Poughkeepsie.

Leaving our bags at the Hospederia San Martin Pinario, we walked downhill and beneath a tunnel that led out into the square in front of the cathedral. Who would you guess was the first person we recognized, coming at us through the tunnel? It was Ana. Her face lit up like wildfire and the three of us hugged one another. She was apologizing to us for not waiting at the albergue faster than we were for not stopping there. The Camino de Santiago plays tricks on you like this. Try it and see for yourself.

We did as our friend Ricardo from Brazil had instructed us and lay down on our backs in the square, looking up at the Cathedral of Santiago. We were not alone. Strewn around on the paving stones were several dozen other pilgrims, lying, lounging, leaning on their packs, just staring at the 1,000-year-old façade. A police cruiser drove around us, and a giant tour bus did the same. We lay there looking up at the statuary, the two great square spires, the yellow oxidation dripping down in front of them like golden watercolors. The massive steps in front were crawling with pilgrims. The sun was out. It was amazing.

As I wrote earlier, Ricardo had given me a small plush heart to carry to Santiago for a friend of his who could not make the trip. Marian and I had a picture taken of the two of us holding the heart in front of the Cathedral (with our Swiss friend Jean-Pierre from Lausanne, right in photo at top of this post), and she sent the picture to Ricardo by e-mail.

I could finally confess it, now that I was in Santiago de Compostela. I never really believed that the remains of St. James the Apostle were buried at the cathedral in Santiago. I fully the accepted the skeptic's view: that a shepherd found some bones, a bishop declared them the Apostle's, and a pretext was created for a military buffer zone across northern Spain to keep 9th-century Muslim armies at bay in the first stage of the reconquista. I just never thought you had to believe the legend to make the pilgrimage.

Then Saturday afternoon, while hundreds lined up to hug a statue of the Apostle behind the main altar, a sort of kiss-the-Blarney-Stone tourist moment, Marian and I instead went down into the crypt containing the alleged relics of St. James. There were only a handful of people passing through. If you've seen the film “The Way,” you may remember a scene where Martin Sheen kneels with his son’s ashes in front of a silver casket behind a grill. That's the crypt, and there is a kneeler in front of it, wide enough for four or five.

Marian and I knelt where Sheen knelt, the only ones to do so, and I was not touched half so much by anything else I had seen or heard since arriving in Santiago. First, the casket is beautifully ornamented in silver polished to perfection. Light practically pours out of it. But what struck me most was this. Just suppose that in that casket there really do lie the remains of a human being who, two thousand years ago, walked and talked with and touched the garment and heard the voice and saw the holes in the hands of Jesus Christ, the son of God. Suspend your disbelief for one moment and accept that the legend of Santiago de Compostela is not legend but truth.

Whether James's remains are there or not, the possibility that they are there suddenly made the reality of God's presence in the world—the Incarnation—visible, tangible, utterly convincing for me.

To my knowledge, the remains of no other Apostle have been found. We know where Peter is buried, beneath the Vatican, but his bones have not been identified. Is there so much as a relic remaining from any of the other eleven? This casket "containing" St. James is a unique link with our Lord.

One Thousand Years

The rest of the day and evening were marked by brief encounters:

—With Jean-Pierre from Lausanne, who had walked all the way from Lausanne, starting at his front door in Switzerland on March 18, three months before. He got in on the heart pics in front of the Cathedral.

—With a group of ten traditional Spanish musicians: We sat in a café for a coffee, bread, and cheese about 5:30 pm. Within a few moments, bearded guys wearing capes sewn with what looked like Boy Scout merit badges and bearing traditional instruments, including what looked like 12-string lutes, began taking seats two tables away from us. When they had assembled and ordered their first round of beers, they began playing rousing Iberian melodies. (I don't know from folk music styles. You'll just have to go with "rousing Iberian melodies.") Five minutes later, the little plaza holding the café was filling with Spanish singers clapping along. Two hours later, when we walked by again, they were still going strong.

—With Antonio from south of León, who calls Marian la guapa and me the garda guapa (watchful guardian of the beautiful young woman).

—With Vivianne from Quebec City and her future mother-in-law, who walked the Camino together from León, where Vivianne's future husband is studying. Can you really imagine walking 200 miles with your future mother-in-law?!

—With several friends of Marian, with whom she went out after 9pm, while the garda guapa was settling in for a long summer's nap. But not before . . .

I walked into the square in front of the Cathedral after seeing Marian into the company of Fabian from Germany, who was taking her to where the other young people were. I stood alone in front of the façade again as the westering sun poured onto it over the distant hills and through a gap in the facing buildings. I sat on a stone bench in the sunlight.

A Spanish man we had met several days ago, one who spoke no more English than I speak Spanish, came over to embrace and congratulate me. He smelled of cigarettes and beer and needed a shave and a change of clothes. But I was thrilled to see him.

"One thousand years!" I said, pointing to the Cathedral, which has been greeting pilgrims that long. "Mil años!" he answered, if I had the Spanish right. We embraced again and bid each other adios.

I hadn't been seated more than another minute when a little old man in a dapper herringbone fedora, matching jacket, and non-matching wide-wale green corduroys approached me and began talking in Spanish. He had spoken three or four lines when I realized that he was speaking in rhyming couplets. I saw a book under his arm, his book, written by him. He was a poet, and he was reciting his verses for me, with an enormous smile on his face.

He asked me if I spoke Spanish, and I said no, but that his ritmos were muy buonitos (the best I could do with beautiful rhythms). He appreciated my literary criticism and extended one more warm handshake before moving on to four other people seated at the next stone bench.

These four Italians seemed puzzled by the poet. Meanwhile, I sketched him. I was amazed at the speed with which I drew. I am no artist, and my sketch was hardly perfect, but it was in proportion. I caught the fedora, the nose and smile, the way he clutched his book of poems against his body with his left hand and a folded purple umbrella in his right.

The four people noticed that I was sketching, and they brought this to the poet's attention. He deemed my sketch as good as I had deemed his verses, and he graciously told me his name and age: José Manuel, 86. Perhaps I had a vision of the old man I would be some day.

To celebrate, I bought two scoops of ice cream—chocolate and "After Eight"—and wolfed them down before heading back to the seminary for the night.

(For the eleventh and final chapter of Our Camino, click here.)

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