Everybody loves a good Manifesto. Manifestos make you think of burning barricades, tragic youths facing down The Man, overthrows and uproar with a righteous tinge.
I helped to write a Manifesto last weekend, at a meeting of camino people in Villafranca de Bierzo. There were precious few barricades to be seen, burning or otherwise. There was a lot of really good local Mencia wine, though, and a lot of back-slapping and old-friends hugging, a lot of opinions.
These were not young firebrands out to change the world. These were old hands of the trail: Tomas the Templar of Manjarin, Jesus Jato from Ave Fenix (looking very frail). The original old bearded dude who walks the trail dressed in a brown robe. The little saint who runs the bare-bones albergue in Tosantos. Don Blas, the high-energy priest of Fuenterroble who brought the Via de la Plata to the fore. Jose Antonio de la Reira, a bagpipe-blowing Gallego who helped paint the first yellow arrows, and Luis, the TV reporter who broadcast the renewal to the rest of Spain.
They are heavy hitters, these guys. I have a lot of respect for most of them.
When they asked me to step up and be the token North American on the board of the Fraternidad Internacional del Camino de Santiago," their new “camino action group,” I said “sure!” I was honored, even.
Even though I've kinda had it with camino groups. Even though it’s hard for me to keep up with them, language-wise. Even though I don’t always make myself clear. I am dedicated to the same principals they are, and I have some things to offer. They listen carefully when I talk, and they don’t interrupt and overrun my efforts with their own ideas. I am treated with respect in this group… I do not find that in some other gatherings I have attended.
We did most of the work in a splendid old theater in the Villafranca town hall, where a hundred important people from eight or nine countries bashed and hashed out a list of proposals for later clarification and action. Lots of people brought their favorite hobbyhorses and axes to grind, but everyone was reasonably polite and orderly.
Here is the document, translated to English by Yours Truly. (click on the second one.)
There were reporters at the Villafranca gathering, but the ship didn’t hit the sand til mid-week, when the word spread out across the camino Ways. Board members appeared on TV and radio shows, explaining that yes, there are some problems on the magic path, that yes, there are some rip-offs going on, that yes, the public administrations charged with overseeing this UNESCO World Heritage Site are asleep at the switch.
Yes, the Caminos are in danger of becoming victims of their own success. And we the people who love the caminos need to band together and do something, before complete Disneyfication sets in, and the old values of hospitality, simplicity, and kindness are drowned in a wave of Euro notes, souvenir stands, and Ye Olde 4-star Albergues.
Yeah, we live in a Capitalist society. Yeah, the camino is a tourism product now, like it or not. We can’t put that genie back inside the bottle. Or maybe it’s a hydra. It has several heads.
It’s no surprise the developers and builders and people selling things impinge on the old road. It’s an old road. It follows the geographical line of least resistance, it’s got highway access, it’s got lots of potential customers passing by every day. And “the authorities” are a notoriously corrupt and lazy bunch of rascals. Nobody’s held their feet to the fire. Yet.
No one’s really defined what kind of protections are afforded places along a “Heritage of Mankind” highway, so it’s kinda hard to defend the sagging old monastery from benign neglect, or the little Roman bridge from the bulldozer. In Fromista, right here in my neighborhood, the Romanesque church of San Martin, a national treasure, has an apartment block going up a few yards from the back door. It’s perfectly legal, according to local zoning laws. The fact that it’s a crime against good taste doesn’t enter into it. We want to change this.
Other things have changed all on their own, out of control – on the ground, where the old “poor pilgrim on a holy journey to the sacred shrine” has morphed into “well-heeled cultural tourist on a hard-but-really cool hike to an awesome church where you get a Latin certificate at the end that says you don’t have to go to Purgatory! Ha!”
The certificate is called a Compostela. It is issued by the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela to anyone who can prove he’s walked the last 100 kilometers into town (or biked or rode a horse the last 200.) These certificates have a long history. They used to certify (and they still do, in writing) the bearer came to Santiago on a journey of Christian faith, with a prayerful purpose – that he was, in truth, a pilgrim.
But when the pilgrimage started picking up steam again a couple of decades ago, the cathedral came up with a plan meant to filter out the bus-tours and shameless cheaters. They created the 100 kilometer rule. Instead of an identifying letter each pilgrim once carried from their priest or bishop, the cathedral issued its own “credential,” a fold-out booklet issued at the start of the trip to each pilgrim. Each day, the pilgrim’s host rubber-stamps the credential, creating a colorful collector’s item and blessed assurance the pilgrim get his Compostela at the end of the road.
The cathedral and a lot of other people soon woke up to the money-making potential of these documents. Nowadays, boxloads of credentials are sold to tour companies and tourist offices, to be sold at inflated prices to whomever wants one. Pilgrims enjoy picking and choosing which stamps to have in their “passports” according to which is most pretty, which fits best, or which are “weirdest.” (One pilgrim burst into tears when I accidentally put our stamp on her credential upside-down.)
And the Compostela, oh my. The idolatry that goes on at the Pilgrim Office in Santiago de Compostela just boggles the mind at times – the long lines, the drama, the tears, the vapors… all for a piece of paper that certifies the bearer is something he would probably never admit to being – a repentant sinner, saved by God's grace.
But I preach. The 100 kilometer requirement for the Compostela, combined with the ruthless logic of Unintended Outcomes, has created 100 kilometers of overdevelopment, overcrowding, litter, price-gouging, and disillusion, from the little boom town of Sarria right to Santiago itself. One out of every three hikers applying for a Compostela has walked the minimum mileage possible. People who make the whole long-distance voyage step out of a relatively quiet countryside into a clatter that carries them all the way to the end.
We would like to deal with that.
We want to give the camino back to the people on a spiritual journey to a holy place. We want the pilgrim to know he is a holy person, on a sacred mission. We want to see him treated with respect and dignity, and we want him to behave with respect and dignity.
This part of the manifesto has drawn all kinds of indignant denial from just about everyone with a monetary interest in the camino. I was told, personally, that I am naïve, “thinking like a little child.” “That it’s all very nice that you care so much, but who will enforce this?” “Who will push it through, who can change anything that’s already in progress?”
We can. If we want to enough, we can.
It will take a long time, and not everything we propose will work. All we can do is try.
We have time. We are on the side of the angels. The Camino’s been here for a thousand years, through wars and plagues and reformations, it’s been pimped and sold and betrayed a thousand times, probably in worse ways than these. We could sit back and just let it go, let the “market forces” take over and drive this camino into the ground, too. But we don’t have to.
We love this place. It is our home. It’s a holy path.
And homes, ideals, holy things -- they are worth fighting for, no?