Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Hobo Road

He is at least 45 years old, but he is a homeless child. He´s walking without high-tech, ultralite backpacks or hiking staffs, or even shoes that fit. He´s got no money. He speaks only Portuguese. He asked for children´s books, and pored over the pictures. I had to put his name in the register for him, as he cannot write. He assembled the toy train and made choo-choo sounds along the floor. He is from Braga, Portugal, he said. He is walking the camino to Lourdes, alone.
He is José, pronounced "Cho-say," the Portuguese way. He was a high-maintenance pilgrim. He never stopped talking, and we only understood some of what he said. He needed things -- a razor, so he could  shave. A towel. He needed a t-shirt. When we offered to launder his things, he overloaded the machine with his sleeping bag, coat, flannel shirt, pajama bottoms. I split the laundry into two loads and he panicked, thinking I was taking away his belongings. 

He ate voraciously. He had eaten nothing but cookies for the past two days.
He is walking the camino backward, west to east. His shoulders sagged under the straps of his cheap sports bag, his hands weighed down by plastic shopping bags. He was small and feral. Most of his teeth were  gone. He needed a haircut.

He didn´t look like a pilgrim, but deep inside his bag he had a valid pilgrim credential. He can stay in pilgrim shelters, but most of them charge a nominal fee. If he does not have even that, he sleeps wherever he can find a space out of the rain.
His fellow pilgrims do not always find him worthy company. A week or so ago, José rolled into a town near Astorga with his sneakers and shopping bags, and stepped up to register at the pay-by-donation pilgrim shelter. A couple stopped him at the door. Where were his hiking boots, his proper backpack? they asked. Why was he walking the wrong way? He was a bum, a fake. This was a place for real pilgrims only. He´d have to move along.

And so he did. He slept in the churchyard. It was not so bad, he said. 
"He´s a bum," one of the neighbors said when José showed up at the after-Mass Vermut on Sunday, asking for a place to stay. "With a pilgrim hostel and an albergue here now, the pilgrims aren´t going to make it to your house. They´re going to send you the bums. Bums and freeloaders."
José was a bum, and so was Jan, a ragged Czech who stayed last week. They are homeless and jobless, wandering the road because there is no other place for them. Given an opportunity, they ask for what they need (Wily Antonio, another Portuguese drifter, shows up here every few months with a wish list!). If nobody gives them food and a bed for the night, they sleep outdoors and eat meals of cheap biscuits. They are poor in an honest, matter-of-fact way.
The Camino de Santiago has for centuries been a hobo road, full of drifters and hustlers. Today it´s no different. Alongside the bums are the freeloaders, pilgrims suffering a different kind of poverty -- a poverty of spirit.

Freeloaders have enough money to vacation for weeks at a time, but they gleefully consume resources designed for people who can´t afford anything else. Freeloaders take up the "donativo" bunks in the pilgrim shelter because their friends are staying there, because albergues are "integral to my camino experience." Paying little or nothing for their bed, they can spend the savings elsewhere. They sip beers at their café tables and discuss what makes an Authentic Pilgrim: Walking every step of the way. Prayers. Sacrificing personal comfort and hygiene by sleeping in scruffy pilgrim beds. 
Meantime, on the porch of the church, the bums bed down on the benches.



ksam said...

Thank you for being there to take him in. Even if it is only one night.

This reminds me too of Philippe, walking with us last year. All he had was his dog. No money, no family, no job to return to and at the time, no prospects. Just the road ahead. We'd take turns buying rounds of things and include his with ours. Or buy dog food. I wonder where they are now. A few prayers, for them and prayers of gratitude for the wealth I have. A house to call home. A family. Food on the table, enough to share. Time to sit comfortably at "my" computer. Yup, maybe not by some folks standards, but blessed and wealthy!

Thanks for reminding me. Philippe, were are you now?

Anonymous said...

I deeply appreciate you being there for the Joses and the Phillipes of the world...there may be more and more...I sure don't think the stranger at Emaus had a dime in his purse (if he even had one) ...

We have our Francisco here, who comes up from Mexico ever so often even when the Federales export him back home as there is nothing for him there. In San Francisco, so people give him odd jobs or a bite to eatin exchange for some witicisms...but some have him work and then don't pay him because he's 'illegal'...what a life...makes me very, very grateful...

love, k

Johnnie Walker said...

You said it sister. Thank the Lord you and Paddy do what others can't or won't.

Blessings on your ministry to ALL pilgrims.


Tracy Saunders. said...

The Fool on the Tarot pack is the happiest man alive. On his own Camino with his little dog at his heels he is about to step off into oblivion ... or is he? Nietzsche's child is the Overman: he (or she) makes his own values out of the residue of "duty" torn down and sticks with them. They are innocents. In some ways we envy them even when we claim to despise them. God be with Jose and Jan on their pilgrimage through life.

Robert said...

Rebekah, Thank you for sharing that very moving story and reminding me how fortunate and wealthy I am in so many ways. Your kindness and generosity of spirit is evident from your blog and from your posts I have read on the camino forum. That goes much further and has a much greater impact than the meanness of the freeloaders. I hope you will be at home when I walk by Moratinos sometime around the end of May. I would very much like to meet you and thank you in person.

Anonymous said...


This made me very quiet. Thank you.

Betadolphin said...

Thank you for this blog. May I contact you privately? How? Thanks Jill Karlin, friend of Jim Peele in Lake Worth, Florida...planning a second Camino experience in summer

Anonymous said...

Hi Ksam, I know Phillipe having met him in 2011 on the Camino Frances. Last year I saw him again outside of Ages and then again in Burgos. He was traveling with some friends and still has his dog. I speak limited French, but I understand that he had worked for awhile as an hospitalero in France.