Communing on the Way

On an icy ridge during a storm, a faithless priest cancelled mass. When a devout young farmer fought his way through the snow and entered the church, shaking himself off in the entrance, the priest was angry; now he would have to go ahead with the charade. But then, as he performed the mass, he looked into the chalice and saw that the wine had indeed turned into blood, and on the silver tray in front of him the wafer hosts had turned into circles of flesh.

On the way home to Princess Crescent the prostitutes don’t bother me because they are more interested in bald men driving overheated saloon cars. The women have been moved away from my street, which is barricaded against them – no cars can enter. The women stand waiting for customers in the adjoining street: Queen’s Drive. The front passenger window of the car rolls down, a girl in tight jeans leans into it and in passing I hear her say:

‘Twenty quid for a blow job, love.’

My bedsit is the carpeted front room of a Victorian house. It has big bay windows and on Sunday mornings I pull open the curtains to let in some light.

This morning, Radio 3 is playing the mediaeval music of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. The singer has just come back from the walk and his voice is thick with excitement.

A priest is saying mass in eight languages. Perhaps the long bus journey to Roncesvalles has stupefied me, because I hear him say:

‘We want you all to join in.’

Out of politeness I take Holy Communion; but it’s just a dry little wafer. It tastes much better when they fill it with sticky toffee and sell it to children as a sweet.

We meet in the morning to drink coffee. The café windows open onto a green and sunken square. The rain is a fine spray. Delicate bunches of grassy purple flowers grow from cracks in the old masonry. On the Day of Saint Iago, 25 July, the pilgrims arrive. Some of them seem to be wearing lederhosen, which is puzzling. The bishop takes us to the roof of the cathedral. We walk carefully across the lead tiles to the dome and look down and see the silver Botafumeiro swing slowly across the congregation, releasing clouds of incense.

In the evenings, after work, Aileen and I can choose between oily, coppery rounds of sliced octopus; small, salted, roasted pimientos de Padron; fried garlic prawns, or baby squid cooked in ink. We drink Ribeiro, which smells of flowers and lemons.

I’m the first in the queue, but last on the bus. There is one seat left. I have problems strapping myself in. The white-bearded man next to me reaches behind me and pulls the strap loose. Then he leans towards me and whispers:

‘Wouldn’t you be more comfortable up front?’

The Camino Frances, for Christians and lovers of tradition, starts from Roncesvalles and ends in Santiago de Compostela. Geographically-minded walkers prefer to start from the French border town of San Juan Pied de Port, higher up in the Pyrenees. They continue on past Santiago to Finisterre, by the sea. But what, Antonio Machado, the poet, says is:

Caminante, son tus huellas el camino,
y nada más;
caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.
Al andar se hace camino,
y al volver la vista atrás
se ve la senda que nunca
se ha de volver a pisar.

Wayfarer, the only way
Is your footprints and no other.
Wayfarer, there is no way.
Make your way by going farther.
By going farther, make your way
Till looking back at where you’ve wandered,
You look back on that path you may
Not set on foot on from now onward.

And although this poem may be a tired cliché to a Spaniard, when I hear it, the poem sounds fresh and full of meaning.

The man in the adjoining seat is Bolivar, a Brazilian. Recovering from his disappointment at my refusal to move seats, he decides to give me his advice – both well-worn and excellent: ‘Start walking before 6 am. You don’t need breakfast so early. I don’t feel hungry until 10, then I eat a little hard bread and this goat’s cheese.’ His eyes look up, his lips purse. ‘The cheese is very strong. Before you put your shoes on – It’s better to have old comfortable shoes – spread petroleum jelly liberally, all over your feet. Stop every three hours to let your feet breathe. Then put on more of the jelly. When you arrive at the hostel, before you do anything else, look after your feet. If they hurt or feel swollen, rub on anti-inflammatory cream. I had my own eye hospital. I was well off, but three things happened that made me question everything about my life. First, my wife discovered I was having an affair and she divorced me. Then I failed to achieve my life’s ambition, which was to be president of the International Rotary Association. You’ve heard of it?’

‘In private phone calls the board members had promised to vote for me. I had my acceptance speech ready. I packed my bags and flew to New York. Of course, they chose an American, instead. It’s an American organization. What was I thinking? Then a woman with diabetes begged me to perform an operation on her eyes. She really begged me. I warned her of the risks, but after she went blind, she took me to court anyway. If I was no longer the good husband, Rotarian and doctor, then who was I? At seventy years old I decided to discover the answer to the question: Who am I? And I’ve been travelling for 8 years. I’ve even met the Dalai Lama. You know what’s great?’ He says. ‘There are vineyards next to the path. In autumn, when the grapes are sweet and ripe, you can lie on the ground underneath them and bite.’

‘Is that allowed?’ I ask. ‘It’s a bit unfair on the farmers.’

‘That’s not the point,’ he says.

The hostel on the outskirts of Leon is ugly, dark and almost empty. A man sits bolt upright in the sitting room. He has a solemn, ghostly face. His hair is neatly trimmed. After a long silence he interrupts my reading.

‘How has your walk been?’

‘Interesting, though I don’t think I’ve learned very much.’

‘My name is Enrico. Let me tell you my story. I liked fast cars, I flew my own plane. I had a great job. I loved taking risks. I was the driver when a car slammed into the passenger side of my car at a junction. My brother was paralyzed and my spine was crushed. I could still walk, so I refused an operation – they said it was urgent. I looked after my brother at home until he died. It was my penance. Then the injury in my spine got worse and I was forced into a wheelchair. By now I was in constant, never-ending, excruciating, pain. Pain affects your mood. It makes you hard to get along with. After three months I lost my job. After six months my wife divorced me. The pain was astounding. It was inconceivable. It was beyond your imagination or the imagination of anyone who hasn’t felt it. After two years I decided to end my life in a Swiss clinic. But the day before I was due to go, I found a new treatment on the internet. It involved inserting wires alongside the nerves and running a small electric current through them. Miraculously, my nerves regrew and I could walk again. After a year of treatment, I was able to go home. I married my nurse, but she treats me as if I were made of porcelain. I decided to do the Camino to prove to her, and myself, that I am stronger than she thinks; to prove that I have recovered.When I see someone cry or complain bitterly because they have blisters, I don’t laugh. Pain is subjective, it’s relative. For some the pain of a simple blister is unbearable. They are sensitive. They have not experienced other kinds of pain. One should sympathise.’

In the forest there is a monument to eighteen people slaughtered by right-wing militias after the war. Far more people were killed by the fascists after the civil war. As I stand respectfully, I see a young man in the distance stop to watch me. He waves.

In the town the bars sell simple knives with wooden handles. I buy two. In the third bar I go into there are scythes and shears on the walls. The man sitting next to me stares as I drank my coffee. He says, by way of introduction:

‘Those knives you are looking at are for killing sheep. In the old days we knew how to deal with stray sheep. We slit their throats.’

I think of the monument in the forest, and turn to face him:

‘When Franco was still settling scores you were just a baby sucking at your mother’s tit, so don’t try to bullshit me.’

He freezes. There is a silence. Then his four drinking companions start to laugh.

I pay for my coffee and stand up to leave. As I leave his friends jeer:

‘Bravo Ingles! Bravo ingles!

The man who had waved to me was in the hostel. He asks me what business I had at the memorial.

‘I was paying my respects.’

He suggests we share dinner. He is an apprentice, a factory worker from the Basque country, and he smiles and says. ‘I want to pay my respects too. This summer, if I can save enough money I’m going to London to a reunion of the International Brigade, to meet and thank the survivors who attend.’

Tonio is particularly kind. He looks after the feet of anyone who complains of blisters. He has a little medical kit which he carries round with him. Javier is taller. He has a deep voice and smokes cigars – like a slimmer version of Fidel.

‘It was Javier’s fault,’ says Tonio.

‘We were married to two sisters and subsequently became friends in adversity,’ says Javier. ‘The sisters were cold, hard practical women. Tonio and I got respite by going on walking holidays together, but they always refused to come. Eventually they decided to divorce us both – at exactly the same time. Instead of moping about we decided to stick together and make the best of our retirement. We carried on walking.’

‘Once we got lost in a snowstorm,’ says Tonio.

‘It was my fault,’ admits Javier. ‘He suggested we go walking in the mountains in winter. But then we dug a hole in the snow and huddled together for warmth. We survived – barely.’ He holds out a big wine skin. ‘Drink. To be one of us. To be a Pepo like us, you must keep warm. You must drink this beautiful wine.’

‘I want to be a Pepo. The Pepos are afire!’
From then on I can always guess where Javier and Tonio are. Whenever I come across an unexpected party and everyone is happy, singing and laughing, at the heart of the fun are Tonio and Javier.


The Spanish language was said to originate from Samos monastery. But there are only eleven Benedictine monks left there when I visit. In the afternoon, the sunlight lights up courtyard after courtyard.

‘The Republic took the monastery away from us,’ says the monk giving us the tour, ‘but Franco didn’t give it back as he promised he would. Instead, he leased it back. We had to pay rent on our own monastery.’ In the big church the voice of the monk is diluted. On either side of the altar there is a statue of Alphonso the Wise. The right foot of each statue of Alphonso rests heavily on a decapitated turbaned head. ‘Alphonso’s idea was simple,’ says the monk. ‘One of his ships found the bones of Saint James floating in a stone coffin off the coast. Alphonso took the bones, put them in a silver casket and built a cathedral over them. He invited all Christians to pilgrimage. Alphonso knew the Knights Templar had been kicked out of Jerusalem, so suggested to them that they come to Spain and protect the pilgrims walking to pay their respect to the relics of Santiago. The knights agreed. Then Alphonso negotiated a treaty with all the other Christian kings along the way to provide safe passage.’ The monk smiles. ‘What Alphonso created, in the end, was a strong defensive line against further Muslim encroachment. That is why Santiago is the patron saint of Spain. That’s why he is called: Matamoros. the Arab Killer. Alphonso’s achievement was to draw the starting line for the re-conquest of Spain.’

I go into the little park to eat my whole roast chicken. In front of me is a sad man in a pristine khaki-grey walking suit. It’s hard to eat a chicken in front of a sad man, so, instead, I introduce myself and he tells me his story.

‘I’m a Catholic, a dentist, I have dreamed of doing this walk my whole life, but now it looks as if my dream is over.’ He starts crying ‘I’ve only been walking three days and my feet are full of blisters. I can’t go on. It’s too painful, It’ll take me at least three days to recover and I have to be back at work in two weeks. I won’t make it to the end.’

Well, this is upsetting, so I give him half my chicken. He takes it, and thanks me.

‘Are you sure?’

‘Go ahead.’

I remember Tonio’s medical kit. I ask him to take off his shoes and socks and show me his feet. He takes off the shoes, peels off the socks, and, yes, he has large blisters on his heels and his toes. I hold his feet and consider what to do.

Remembering Bolivar’s advice, I wait until they dry out a little. Then I gingerly apply a lot of Vaseline onto them from the pot I carry with me.

Remembering what Enrico the Italian had told me about pain (and how one must understand that it has different meanings and strength for different people) I try to give him a different way to look at it.

‘The pain you feel is very real to you now, but I’m sure it will diminish. You will get better soon, and don’t worry because everyone will help you.’

He puts on his shoes and finds that he can walk without the blisters rubbing painfully. Then he looks at me in surprise.

I look down at my chicken and my hands and then look up.

‘Over there at the chemist.’ I point. ‘Buy your Vaseline there.’

‘Thank you so much,’ he says. ‘How can I thank you?’

‘Never mind.’ I say. ‘That’s just the way it is. We help each other on the Way.’

There was a fountain nearby. I wash most of the grease off and eat the remaining half of my chicken. A whole one would have been too much anyway.

The young Japanese man is boring me.

‘What do you do?’

‘I’m an office worker.’

‘Are you married?’

‘Not yet.’

‘What car do you drive?’

‘A small Toyota.’

He answers everything in a small, irritating, unsure voice. It is hard enough to keep walking without having to force the conversation. So, I decide to change direction.

‘You should understand that in Europe we plant food next to the road. These beech leaves,’ I pick the leaves and eat them. ‘These berries.’ I pick an anonymous berry and swallow it. ‘Those flowers. You see them?’ I pick two large yellow squash flowers from a field and give him one to eat. ‘Delicious aren’t they?’ He eats a petal, then smiles and nods. ‘And there is an important tradition we must follow.’ I say. ‘You must stop off at every bar and ask for Orujo. Here’s a bar. Let me show you.’ We go inside. The barman smiles at my request and brings out a clay jar of Orujo from under the counter.

We drink two shots, have a beer each and continue with our walk.

Things are looking up.

The looking-glass sun is shining bright, as we come to a stream. A young bearded man is sitting next to the stream playing a zither. He sees us, stands up, and comes towards us, humming.

‘Relax.’ I say to the Japanese clerk. ‘This is a European custom. We always do this.’

The bearded musician puts both his hands over each of our hearts: smiling warmly, and looking directly into our eyes, he sings in a deep vibrating buzz.

A few days later I come across a French woman. She is a 1950s dream of femininity. She jiggles.

‘I’m hot, let’s paddle,’ she says. We walk through a meadow and down to a river bank, take off our shoes and paddle our feet in the water. After a while, as we sit there, she says, thoughtfully, ‘A strange thing happened last night. I was sleeping in a cemetery and a Japanese man came up and asked permission to put his sleeping bag next to mine. I told him I didn’t mind. But he kept me awake all night. He was giggling and laughing and he didn’t stop.’

‘Ah…’ I say. ‘I think I might know him.’

As I walk out of the city at dawn, I see a circle of eighteen birds of prey all pegged to a patch of grass on the edge of a town square. I come very close. One of the eagles stands three feet high. He is breathing softly through his hood. The small hawks and kestrels are all asleep, unaware of the rising sun, but one of the big owls is unhooded and opens its eyes and looks at me, unblinking, blinking. In the distance I hear two American voices harmonizing.
There’s a darkness upon me that’s flooded in light
In the fine print they tell me what’s wrong and what’s right
There’s a darkness upon me that’s flooded in light
And I’m frightened by those that don’t see it

They are two friends walking together from the University of North Carolina, singing songs by the Avett brothers, who are also from North Carolina.

Our steps entrain. Now we are walking faster and faster. It is as if we are in the water on the edge of an invisible cataract. Santiago is near. For fifty kilometres we walk through forest and finally arrive at a hostel only nine kilometres from Santiago. One of the boys is retching from the effort. There is only one bunk at the hostel, but they insist I take it.

Next morning my legs are stiff. I decide to run the last leg. My rucksack jangles for seven kilometres, first uphill and then downhill into Santiago. It’s changed. It’s not as I remember it. There are demonstrators in the square in front of the cathedral. The main entrance has been closed. The townspeople are sitting in the front pews in their Sunday best. I am standing next to them. There is no sign of the Botafumeiro in the cathedral.

The priest says: ‘Let us offer each other a sign of peace.’

But not one of the townspeople stretches out their hand to me. Is this all? I think. Is that all there is to it? But then, in the silence and emptiness, in the solemn moment when the real Christians are taking Holy Communion, I hear someone shouting. The man is on the other side of the church. He’s calling. The congregation stares at him, but he ignores them. He comes towards me. It’s the dentist. He gives me an enthusiastic hug and laughs. ‘Thank you so much, I will always remember what you did.’ Forgetting the embarrassment, I hug him back. He goes back to his group of friends, friends he has made along the Way.

It’s 3 July. On the platform in Kings Cross I am wearing long shorts, but my calves are bare. A drunk falls to his knees and hugs my legs. ‘My God!’ he says, ‘Where can I get a pair of legs like these?’

‘It’s easy,’ I answer. ‘Start in the Pyrenees and walk to Santiago de Compostela. Walk at least twenty-five kilometres every day for thirty days.’

After the walk my devout mother-in-law asked me about my experience. She admired my pilgrim’s certificate and then said. ‘Were you in fact to be Catholic, I am sure, after your walk, your soul would be as white as snow, but you aren’t a Catholic, and it isn’t.’

Philip Richard Hall is a socialist, a teacher and a writer. He is married with three children and lives in New Malden, when he isn’t snorkeling in the Arabian Gulf.

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