Thursday, 8 December 2011

The Seamy Side of Santiago

Along a two-lane highway we walked, our coat-pockets stuffed with slippery green litter bags, our hands in gloves, our hearts in the right place. It was me and Keith from Halifax, Yorkshire, preparing the Way of the Lord.

Me and Keith, an out-of-work statistician who got on a plane in London early this week and flew to Valladolid and took a train to Sahagun and walked to our house to join me on out here on the seamy side of the camino. He brought along a handy litter-grabber device, which made the job do-able from his six-foot height. There were two of us, one little van, rakes and shovels, and two sizes of bags.

In four days we did every inch of the way, from San Nicolas to Itero. Almost 70 kilometers. All of Palencia. 

The Camino de Santiago is a UNESCO Cultural Itinerary, a Spanish national treasure, the Main Street of Europe, the Way of Stars and Stones. It is also a trash-dump for tourists, pilgrims, and local folk alike. In December, after the weeds die back, a year´s worth of litter lies exposed along the path. (With more than 150,000 pilgrims passing this year, that´s a lot of litter.)

And a lot of organizations want a piece of that action. They line up to plaster their logos on We Luv Camino signs all up and down the path, but none of them has arranged a comprensive trash-removal program. Municipalities and local clubs or confraternities supposedly keep an eye on the trail and pick up the clutter. But Spain now has no money. Cities and towns are too strapped to waste labor on outlying hiking trails, especially near county lines or municipal borders. It´s winter, and nobody wants to work outside. It´s "the holidays," when everyone is supposedly "spending time with family." The old folks are too stiff for all that bending and lifting. The young ones all live in the city.

Camino litter is a hot topic on some online pilgrim forums. Foreigners find it appalling. They shoot photos of the granola-bar wrappers, poop-and-toilet paper assemblages, and drifts of empty water bottles in the ditches. They post them on their blogs, they analyze what kinds and nationalities and age-groups of idiots would desecrate a holy path with sewage and garbage. Spanish school-groups and bicyclists come in for a kicking. Heads are shaken, "tut-tut" is said. There are cries of "someone ought to do something," and "It is not my mess and not my problem."

And after all the outrage, accusation, and bloviating, the hubcaps and toilet paper are still out there.

Advent started last week, the penitential season leading up to Christmas. A year ago I had a profound Advent. I wanted to continue with that. I wondered what kind of project I could do this year to mark the season. The Scripture verse at church gave me the answer: "Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. The valleys will be exalted, the mountains and hills made low, the crooked straight, the rough places plain... and the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord."

And so it came to me: Pilgrims walk the Way of St. James to find God. So I oughtta pick up the trash on the path. Prepare the Way of the Lord for them, so if the Holy Ghost whispers their name they will not be distracted by the half-mile of wrappers that once were a KitKat 6-pak. I had found a way to make boring old waste management into a righteous pursuit!

I posted on the website with all the trash-complainers -- I am out to clean up the Way, maybe all the way from Burgos to here. Anyone want to help? (I did not expect much response, but I took a chance. It would be much simpler logistically if there were two or three of us.)

Keith put his hand up right away. The Confraternity of St. James of South Africa left dozens of plastic litter bags with us when they did a "Spring Clean the Camino" campaign two years ago, and a kindly blog-reader from America donated money enough to cover our lunches.

The work is harder than it appears at first. We followed along the camino far as we could with the furgoneta-car, and walked the rest of the way. On the stretches between Revenga and Fromista and Boadilla and Itero we drove slowly, eyeing the ditches alongside, stopping and jumping out to snatch Coke cans or plastic bags as they appeared. We tried all different ways. At the notorious picnic area outside Carrion we just stopped and shoveled. At Villacazar de Sirga I dropped off Keith with a bundle of bags, and drove myself to Carrion de los Condes, and we each walked toward the center-point along the two-lane, picking up the bottles, cans, cigarette packs, styrofoam  and hubcaps tossed away over the past months by pilgrims and bikers and drivers of the passing cars. The weather is perfect for this. We are still healthy and spry enough to do this work. We are tired when we finish, Paddy is feeding us very well, and we sleep very well these nights.   

It´s the sleep of the righteous. We are righteous trash-pickers, I am not afraid to say it. Sinners saved by grace, grubby and tired but full of life. I´ve decided to make trash-picking into a regular spiritual practice.  

I made a fine stöllen for St. Nicolas Day
...hosted by Daniel and Martina at the new Hostal Moratinos (she is German)



Anonymous said...

Brava, dear heart...I'll join you next year!

love, k

Libby said...

You are righteous, indeed!

Kiwi Nomad 2008 said...

Reb, I think that only you could make rubbish collecting sound so interesting- and make me laugh at the same time. Sounds like you have collected a heap of the dirty stuff- so hope you sleep well for the rest of Advent.

Gerry Snape said...

I really love the fact that you have thought of this on a practical level. I think that God does as well.
We took it as a "command" when we read God's word to the first people...look after the earth!

ksam said...

Gracias! A beautiful post and reminder to, at least those reading pack it better pack it OUT! When I've got the dinero..I'd be more than happy to pick up along the way. One of these days! Thank you, truly, for keeping it clean and clear. This could grow, really grow!

Annie said...

Thanks so much for doing this, Reb!

Under Seven Skies said...

Que gracias, peregrina. I so appreciate what you do and am inspired to do it more, myself.

The Solitary Walker said...

Inspirational, Rebekah.