Sunday, 25 May 2008

The Good, the Bad, and the Self-Absorbed

The best thing about living here, aside from the Moratinos natives, is the pilgrims. 

I know I am whining a good bit these days about bad pilgrims. So is everyone else. The Camino Frances (the "main" camino where we live) is seeing great waves of travelers this year, and the bigger the crowd, the bigger the proportion of losers, jerks, and psychos... and the easier it is to spot someone or something worth bellyaching about. My experience tells me about one in every ten pilgrims is somehow Less Than Nice. 

So. Of the 114,026 pilgrims who claimed to walk, bike, or horse-ride at least 100 kms. of Camino in 2007, a little over 11,000 of them were people, for one reason or another,  you don´t want to be around. 

I looked up the pilgrim statistics kept by the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the people who certify pilgrims and give them their Pass from Perdition. The latest month I could find was March 2008. During that month the Oficina de Peregrinaciones received 5.327 peregrinos. The previous March they saw 1.680. Wow.  That´s a serious jump in pilgrim numbers, especially when you consider that 530 of these people were nasty, as compared to a mere 168 last March.  

(DISCLAIMER: This is my Almighty Opinion. It is not Science, nor Gospel, and it surely is not Statistics as I loathe and fear mathematics of all sorts. But it is true.) 

Count out the 10 percent that´s maladjusted, and that leaves about 80% of  pilgrims who are decent people with a nominal degree of self-control. Most of these are just regular folks. They might drink too much wine at dinner and then snore all through the night. They may use the last of the toilet paper... or steal it for later. They might help themselves to "just a taste" of the cherries or asparagus or grapes growing in the fields or orchards along the path. They might stay at a place that accepts donations in lieu of a set fee, and interpret that as  meaning "free" and leave no payment at all. Their sins are minor ones, their impact is minimal. Some of them find great love, meaning, and inspiration on the Camino.  Others have an enjoyable, cheap, unique backpacking or bicycling holiday. And some find it all too difficult, dull, or painful  and head for the beach after a week or two.  

These same people will shout a friendly "hola!" to a lonely farmer out in his tractor. They´ll share their vitamins and bandages, chocolate and life stories with fellow travelers. Some get lucky, and forge lifelong international friendships. Many snap wonderful photographs, or paint or draw lovely pictures of the wonders that surround them. They meditate in the hayfields, and pray Rosaries, sing psalms and football chants as they stride down The Way, set free from worries about tune and pitch and appearances. They are fine people, having the experience of a lifetime, growing, learning, getting to know themselves. Their Caminos are intensely personal experiences. 
I´ve learned that there´s no one in the world more self-absorbed than a pilgrim halfway through his Camino (except perhaps  someone who is 14 years old).
We live halfway down the Camino Frances. We have learned to make allowances. 

Just when I started feeling cranky about all this today I looked over our little Guest Book, and was inspired by the names written in there to tell about another proportion of the pilgrim throng -- the Good Ones. Any old journalist will tell you, Goodness does not sell papers... or blogs. Good people aren´t nearly as fun to talk or write or read about as bad ones. But here goes.

Good Pilgrims are out there, and I see just as many of them as Bad.  These are the ones who give up their hard-won bottom bunk-bed to an elderly hiker who can´t make another climb at the end of a long day. Like a pilgrim named Horst did last Wednesday in Hontanas. 

Some give up their places in the albergue altogether when the place is filled to capacity and an exhausted mother and child arrive late.  This happened on Thursday, somewhere near Carrion de los Condes.  Hyo Jeong Kim and Kim Yun Hee were the Good Pilgrims that time.  They had sleeping mats, they said, and they slept just fine on the floor of the medical clinic. They´re used to sleeping on hard surfaces. No problem. 

A good pilgrim takes her lame fellow to the doctor, or stays behind for a day to nurse a comrade felled by stomach flu or tendinitis. Sometimes this puts her behind schedule or even snarls-up her entire agenda. The Good Pilgrim adjusts. She abandons her expectations early in the trip, and fills up the empty space with whatever experiences come her way. She knows this enterprise isn´t all about arriving in Santiago de Compostela. It´s about going there.  And getting other people there, too, if she feels she must.  

Good pilgrims help the volunteer at the albergue peel potatoes for the community dinner. They clear the table afterward. In the morning they sometimes stick around after everyone has left to help clean up.  They leave a donation, even when it´s not required. They say "thank you," and "please." They offer prayers, songs, company, or encouragement, even to not-nice people. 

 When the selfish pilgrim shoves aside others´ laundry on the clothesline to make room for his own, the Good Pilgrim picks the washing up off the ground and pins it back up, even if it does not belong to her. (That Good Pilgrim was at Calzadilla de la Cueza Saturday. Her name was Hanneke.)   

And not all Good Pilgrim behavior takes place on the Camino. Federico is a pilgrim from 2001 who is putting his guitar-building skills to work now to create beautiful, tough instruments for use in non-profit pilgrim hostels. He can build one per year. He donates them to carefully chosen places, and word is spreading through the guitarist-pilgrim community as to where these concert-quality instruments can be found. (And no, I´m not telling!) 

Some Good Pilgrims don´t make it to Santiago. Some of them are already there, without having taken a step down the trail. Some live along the Way, and offer fruit and cold water and smiles to the passing parade. And some Good Pilgrims are packed into tour buses that zoom down the modern pilgrim road, constrained by time, money, health, or employers to a motorized visit to St. James´tomb. Gore-Tex clad "real" pilgrims call them "tourigrinos," with all the venom every tourist feels for his fellow tourists.  (I believe everyone who walks or bikes or rides the Camino Frances these days is a tourist, no matter what label he puts on himself.)

Inside each bus crouch a couple of nasty people and a lot of enthusiastic day-trippers and sincere Christians. And scattered among them are a few great old souls who can only dream of walking the trail. They´re on their way to see St. James, however... you sometimes see them waving and smiling at the hiking pilgrims as they pass by.

Now this isn´t science, nor Gospel, nor statistical, but in my Almighty Opinion St. James, and Jesus, too, honor these pilgrims´ intentions just as highly as that of the long-haul hiker, biker, or rider. Pilgrimage takes place on the inside of the pilgrim, in his spirit. The whole idea of divine grace says it´s approaching the presence of something Holy that makes you holy. Hiking 500 miles might make you feel really good about yourself, but it won´t turn you into something you weren´t already. That´s why the Good Pilgrim probably started out as a good person, and the neutral pilgrim, as he walks, often works his way through to the Good Person living inside him. 

The other ten percent? God only knows. But for every 530 bad-asses who walked the Camino in March, there were at least as many Good Ones, too.
I would wonder if they canceled-out one another, but that would be way too mathematical.   


Anonymous said...

Those are some alarming statistics!

CarolineMathieson said...

"everyone walking the camino today is a tourist" - That's quite a strong thing to say, even if you are in fact correct.

I happen to believe that only a practising catholic can be a genuine pilgrim to St James and I am a lapsed Buddhist, so I have never been a pilgrim by my own logic!

But do I care, not one bit! I walk all my camino's for the exercise, the fresh air and most importantly the wonderful people I meet along the way.

Caroline x