august in santiago is an absolute shocker. when i first arrive back here, i eagerly head into the old town, which is ten minutes on foot from my apartment. wandering around the old town i encounter a frenzy of people and i experience extreme dissonance. where are my quietly curving stone streets? my romanticised memories have been replaced by swarms of tourists, haggard pilgrims (and i will be one of them soon enough), and a ridiculous road train that looks like it was designed by the folks at walt disney. this caricature of a train carts people around, marking a steady rhythm on the streets of the historic centre. it is the galician version of the open-top double decker tourist bus. in order to know where they are in the easiest way possible, the passengers are listening to a recorded voice (a spanish woman who sounds like she is giving a history lecture to six year olds) telling them what they are looking at. slightly disconcerted, i go into the cathedral and sit down, as i often do. i suddenly notice something strange. looking towards the statue of st james, i notice that every few seconds arms appear out of the darkness behind and wrap themselves around the shoulders of the statue. what is this? as i continue to watch, different arms appear, each taking their turn before receding back into the darkness. afterwards, walking up behind the cathedral (at la puerta de la gloria) all is revealed. there is a queue forming outside one of the entries to the cathedral and the disembodied arms are connected to the people in the queue outside. the mystery has now begun to be solved. phew!
as you know, the pilgrims journey typically ends here, in caminoworld. of course, the whole (metaphoric) point of the camino is that it doesn’t begin or end anywhere, but this thing called the camino de santiago, if it is to be understood as a thing, needs to be bookended. you can’t package and sell an experience without a beginning or an ending. connected to beginnings and endings are a set of rituals that pilgrims have done upon arrival for a very very long time.
Ο the first thing you might do is go to the place where st james stands and place your hands at the base. when you do this, you might say a prayer in honour of the thing that brought you on the pilgrimage in the first place.
Ο then, on the other side there is another statue, this time of the stonemason, and here you might touch your forehead to the statue’s forehead three times, in order to receive its’ wisdom.
Ο hugging st james is another part of the ritual.
Ο finally, you might attend the pilgrim’s mass, and if you are lucky you will see them using the botafumeiro, an enormous (more than 100 kg once loaded) intricately designed silver coloured incense burner that swings from one end of the cathedral to the other, releasing fragrant clouds of frankincense.
on that note, i read somewhere that in ye olden times the immense size of this “thurible” came about due to the need to mask the stench of the masses of pilgrims that would congregate. clearly now, with the invention of showers and mass produced deodorants, this isn’t such a problem. and sudden mental note: when i see the botafumeiro i can’t help imagining the burner flying free from the ropes that it is attached to, causing death and mayhem. has this ever happened? ok, so after a brief consultation with google, i can report that apparently there have only been three accidents. in 1499 and 1622, no casualties (ropes broke). and again, in the 20th century, a few broken bones (someone got too close to the botafumeiro while it was swinging).
anyway, i digress. my point is that these rituals have extended beyond the realm of the pilgrim and into the general tourist population. for example, for the modest price of 200 euros, i hear that the folks at the cathedral will get the botafumeiro out for members of the public. out on the street, you can buy a walking stick complete with shell and gourd for 15 euros, amongst other pilgrim accoutrement. there are souvenir shops all over the place and guys in front of restaurants coaxing you in off the street to order food from menus in four languages. caminoworld has undergone a metamorphosis from being a place that was a (solemn? joyful? ritualistic?) arrival point for pilgrims, into a finely tuned machine, heaving and pumping tourists and the contents of their wallets into the city, giving them an interesting ride and then sending them on their way. i think the interesting thing for me right now is that space right there. that is, the ways that we can see the original pilgrim journey being sucked into and translated by the present day neoliberal context. by seeing those reflections from the past, we can more clearly define the present.
the friends that i have here all come from here, and more than once i have heard them grumbling about the tourists/pilgrims, and the ways that the whole thing has complicated their city dweller lives. despite the odd camino terrorist, in the smaller towns and cities along the way, i imagine that people are generally more appreciative of the tourist euros that the camino brings. over the years this pilgrimage has revitalised places in the north that were quite frankly dying. you can’t help but wonder what the face of santiago would be now without the camino. nevertheless, being a large city that happens to be the “ending” point of the caminoworld phenomenon, i can now see how the average person in santiago might feel distant from any benefits that the camino might bring to their lives directly. hence the shit attitude. on the other hand, people involved in the service industry and most definitely the catholic church, are no doubt rubbing their hands together with glee and thanking god for st james every time they go to the bank.
to be fair, the fact that this type of tourism flows from a catholic paradigm means that i cannot help making negative judgements right away. there is an element of hypocrisy to this judgement because i have engaged in such ritualistic tourist practices myself over the years. i have rubbed buddha bellies from brisbane to beijing, i have tied my dreams to japanese trees on pieces of fabric, and i have stuck my hand down la bocca della verità (and kept my hand). i have been THAT tourist. so, rather than feeling like i am an inhabitant of this place, which is how i want to feel, the effect that all of this has on me is to remind me that really i am just another tourist in some kind of religious amusement park, full of rides and food/beverage outlets.
on another occasion, i go with jenny to the pilgrim’s centre that has now moved down to another location by the plaza de obradoiro. she needs to buy her pilgrim’s credential before we head off to ourense. outside the centre, there are pilgrims flopped on the street and a steady stream of people coming in and out. we are greeted at the entrance by a slack-jawed security guard who asks me for my credential. having been there two weeks earlier to get one before walking to fisterra, and having wandered straight in that day, i feel like i need to ask the guard what the deal is. i cannot resist. he looks like an idiot and quite frankly his face annoys me.
in the typical spanish macho style of a man who has been given a uniform, and with it, some sort of power, he defers from giving me an explanation and just repeats that he needs to see my credential. lets see. if i don’t have a credential, and i need to enter to buy the credential, how is it that you won’t let me in if i don’t have a credential? the jaw slackens even further as he points out that yes, that is right, this is the place to come to buy the credential. here, he lazily flicks a thumb in the direction of an office inside. yes, but you won’t let me in if i don’t show you one. can you see that that doesn’t make any sense? why do i bother? the uniform is obviously some kind of logic deflecting device. plus, his face is annoying me even more now. ok, well show me some identification then, he concedes. i give up and begrudgingly pull my i.d out and he peruses it blankly before waving me/us in (but not before he forces jenny to explain that she also needs to buy a credential ergo she doesn’t currently have a credential). ok, i will admit it. this has less to do with the camino and more to do with the complete lack of logic that is produced when you mix a certain type of spanish man with bureaucracy. afterwards, for mental health reasons i begin to try to rationalise this weird interaction. i wonder if there was just added security that day, and i begin to remember my friend iria who argues that if she were someone wanting to enact jihad against christians, santiago de compostela would be the first place she would think of. she has a point. you would get some serious bang for your terrorist buck at caminoworld. especially in august. hmmmmmmmmm. did that slack-jawed guard somehow play a role in potentially saving all of santiago from terrorist attack? and i will never know about it?ummmmmmmmm………………………………………….nah……
then, in the office, the woman who sells jenny her credential starts rattling off the rules, and the main one concerns how many stamps you have to get per day during the last 100 kilometres of the camino. presumably, if you don’t fulfil these requirements then you can’t get the compostela at the end (a type of “certificate of completion” although that doesn’t fully describe it). here, i see shadows flickering again from another part of the history of the camino. in the past, when people did the pilgrimage, many of them were fulfilling some sort of promise, and this included those who were doing it as a form of penance. it would be interesting to look into this system of judgement and punishment. those pilgrims would carry, i think, pieces of leather (the ancient version of the present day credential), and they would have to have it stamped as they moved along the way, so upon arrival in santiago there was evidence of their journey and they could be absolved from whatever it was they had done. now, besides getting a stamp at the albergue (which is what i thought the requirement was), you must also get a stamp from a bar, which i suppose will increase the likelihood of people spending money in bars along the camino. there is that neoliberal slant again. however, neoliberalism also has a positive side. while there are still rules and regulations to this thing, now you have more of a choice as to how you engage with them. getting a compostela no doubt equates some type of currency for certain types of people, a type of dangling carrot that helps them take those footsteps. but if you are like me, and you couldn’t give two hoots about the bit of paper, then it is a case of no harm, no foul. this definitely works for me.
walking out of there, jenny and i have a conversation about all of this. ultimately, we come to the conclusion that the modern day neoliberal manifestation of the pilgrimage, that necessarily includes the bookending, commercialisation and bureaucratisation of this place, and the ways that it allows people to have the experience of walking long distance, actually have one pivotal and very positive side effect. whatever the reasons, whatever the methods, and whatever the distance travelled, the fact is that people are using their bodies to escape the mundane and move themselves slowly across the land. within this space, there is so much going on. pilgrims are connecting with something. they are walking alone, in groups, riding on horseback or on bicycles. even in solitude, they/we are generating this thing together. beyond the tourist euro, there is so much that still emerges out of that, so much good on a personal level. whether or not someone is drinking the caminoworld kool-aid is interesting, but is it worth negative judgement? when you are on the road you will often hear people criticising those who only walk the last 100 kms (“turigrinos”), or the ones who have their bags transported from town to town. i say that like everything else, to survive, this phenomenon has adapted itself to the existing system, to fit the needs of people who inhabit this world, at this time. and god knows, when you look around at what is happening, that can only be a good thing.