|Three creatures deeply dedicated to appalling behavior|
There are tons of people behaving out there, and some of them are behaving very badly.
May is a big, big month on the Camino de Santiago. Thousands of people are on the trail, hundreds pass through our town each day, each on his own deeply personal journey of faith and self-discovery.
Unfortunately, few of them are on a pilgrimage.
Maybe it´s just the sheer numbers -- put too many animals in a cage and they´ll savage one another. Maybe it´s the uptick in Americans and French people on the trail, people accustomed to comfort and cosseting and convenience, people from consumer cultures where Money Talks, and the Customer is Always Right.
Maybe it´s the unusually cool, damp weather.
Or maybe people are just awful.
Talking to other hospitaleros, talking to restaurateurs and bartenders, talking to pilgrims themselves, it seems there´s an awful lot of bad behavior happening these days. I have seen some of it myself, with my own eyes.
Stupidity. Cluelessness. Cultural disconnects. Or just sheer bad manners.
This week in La Rioja: An ancient nun was locking up a village church, heading back to the convent for her lunch or prayers or nun business. Three pilgrims arrived just then. They wanted to see inside the church. The nun said no. The pilgrims told her she was un-Christian, they´d walked miles, they were PILGRIMS, that all the churches on the camino are locked-up, but the churches in their country are always open. The Catholic Church in Spain rakes in millions, they said, but evidently does not care about pilgrims´ spiritual needs.
Sylvie, a Canadian hospitalero who volunteers over at Bruno´s albergue, was passing by just then. She understood the language the pilgrims were speaking to the nun, who clearly did not understand them. Sylvie told the pilgrims to stick their spiritual needs someplace where the sun don´t shine. Sylvie is short and stout but not to be trifled with. The nun clung to her. And when the righteous hikers finally left, the nun began to cry.
I think it is safe to say: Proper pilgrims do not abuse elderly nuns.
Paddy and I were miserably sick last week. We took two days off from the pilgrim business, for our sakes as well as the pilgrims´ -- we were contagious. When six bright-eyed young pilgrims arrived on Thursday evening, I told them (eyes streaming, nose red and running) that we were unwell. We do not have room or food for six people, that they should go over to Bruno´s place.
"But you don´t understand," a young man said. "It costs nine Euro to stay at Bruno´s. We don´t mind if you are sick. We are healthy."
These are not the words of an evil person. Just a very thick one.
Just yesterday, driving out of town, I turned the corner onto Calle Real and glanced up the street. Pilgrims were pouring into town. Pin´s car was parked in front of his house. Between the car and Pin´s front gate was a pilgrim, a female pilgrim, crouching with her pants round her ankles, clearly visible from both east and west. With wide fields and generous ditches stretching for miles around town, this person relieved herself on Main Street, on someone´s very doorstep. Appalling.
Last night and this morning at Bruno´s albergue, a pilgrim demanded special food, extra bedding, free refills, discounts. When the backpack-transport service arrived this morning to take her bag, she wanted it delivered to the train station in Sahagún. The service does not deliver there, Bruno told her, it´s not safe to leave bags unattended.
"Then you should just deliver me, along with the bag," the lady said. "You won´t have to worry then about my bag. I won´t take up much room in the van. It´s only nine kilometers."
"I don´t have a taxi license," the delivery lady told her. "You should just call a taxi."
"I am a poor pilgrim. I cannot afford a taxi," the lady said.
Fact: The person calling himself "a poor pilgrim" always has perfect, white teeth, and usually wears $200 boots. He drinks up all the wine at dinner, steals the toilet paper, and leaves 10 cents in the box.
Paddy calls these people "ghastly."
Equally ghastly are a couple of albergue owners east of here, who are taking advantage of the current crowds. In dormitories with bunkbeds, the lower bunks are often reserved for the injured or elderly. This spring, they are gouged an extra 2 to 5-Euros for a bottom bunk. Disgusting.
Yes, I am whining. Admit it, you love reading about these awful people, because you are not one of them!
The Camino de Santiago really IS a magical place. Amazing things happen here. People discover God´s grace in action, they experience generosity and kindness and acceptance like they´ve never seen before. Before they are finished the buttoned-down and self-possessed often find themselves sharing their food, hearing the confessions of broken-hearted strangers, and binding up gory wounds on rainy roadsides. It is glorious and wonderful and very varied.
And among the crowds thronging the path and looking for something are plenty of sharks, lowlifes, losers, addicts, pikers, thieves, cheapskates, whiners, and manipulators. Some are pilgrims, others are the townspeople or churchmen or volunteers charged to care for them. They´ve been part of the camino scene for a thousand years, and they´re not going away anytime soon.
I stood up on top the bodegas yesterday, marveling over the floral spectacle of May on the Meseta (while looking for two badly behaved greyhounds). I considered all the human awfulness going on out there in the world. I watched two more pilgrims pounding into town, saw them marching round the foot of my hill, checking out the little hobbit-house doors. I wondered if one of they were stopping to have a pee against the door of my bodega. (Yes, that happens, and yes, it does smell after a while.) I stepped over the crest of the hill and down toward them, just to be sure they kept moving. A man was there at the door of our little cave, but he was not sinning against me. He was snapping a photo. I clambered, casually as I could, down the steep hill to the little lane where they stood. I said hello as I found the foot-holds.
They looked up and smiled at me. The straps of their backpacks squeaked as they reached upward, as they took my hand and my elbow, as they helped me down the last two steps. They were gentle.
I thanked them.
"It is nothing," they said, in Italian. "It is steep. Be careful in those shoes, there are thistles here."
They´d met suspicion with kindness.
We all are humans, we all are sinners, some more appalling than others. We all need to be forgiven. Even me.
And we need to forgive one another.