Who Flocks to Santiago de Compostela?


A poster in Galica for the camino Santiago
A poster for the Camino Santiago

A Pilgrimage Begins at Home: Forrest Gump, Quasimodo and the Weary Wanderer

By Paul Shoul

Paul Shoul in the cathedral at Santiago-de-Compostela
Paul Shoul in the cathedral at Santiago-de-Compostela

I realized that the faithful who flocked to Santiago de Compostela were not the first pilgrims that I had met and that my journey did not start in the city of Tui, where my visit to Spain officially began, but rather, like all journeys, it had begun the second I locked the door to my home and set out on the road.

A week earlier, on the bus to New York to catch a plane from my small town in western Massachusetts, I met the original Forrest Gump and a modern day Quasimodo. My Forrest was a man named John from England. He was a walker, a long walker.

He was returning home after completing a 300-mile stretch of the wilderness trail in Vermont. Full of simple bits of wisdom that he randomly repeated in his “box of chocolate” voice, he told me stories of his other 500-mile walks around the world through Europe and Argentina and the Atacama Desert in Chile.

The Soulless Mountaineer

“Once” he said “I was walking up a mountain in Chile that was so hot it melted the soles right off my shoes. I was the soulless mountaineer.”

Across the aisle from us, Quasimodo listened intently to our conversation, smiling and wanting in. He did not have a hunchback, he had on hockey helmet. His name was Gary. He chewed gum very fast. Three years ago he was in a car accident that took the life of his wife and left him with a crushed head.

“I should have died,” he said. He was one of the most alive people I have ever met. Removing his protective helmet before a gawking group of passengers, his head was flat down to his eye sockets.

He had been through three brain surgeries and had ten days to go before the next one. Skeptical about his chances for survival, not allowed to drive or to fly, he was on this bus going somewhere yet to be decided.

A recorder player in Pontevedra
A recorder player in Pontevedra

He asked me, “If you only had ten days left Where would you go?”

“Good question,” I said.

A young passenger from the rear of the bus yelled out, “Amsterdam! You know what I mean?”

“Good answer,” Gary said. We all laughed.

Gary had brought us together. We were pondering what we would do. He said he was thinking of going to Las Vegas where he hoped to engage in every possible sinful act, many times. I have no doubt that he did.

Rich Women With Ridiculous Little Dogs

My journey was not totally painful. The bus may have been an hour late and I had to shell out an extra 70 bucks for a cab to make my flight, but the driver had great stories to tell about rich women with ridiculous little dogs he has taken to fancy late night parties, and I was upgraded to first class on TAP (Air Portugal) for my flight to Porto in Portugal, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, through which I traveled to Spain.

My time in Galicia was much too short. I had to cut my trip by two days. At the airport in Santiago I tried to change my flight from Madrid back to the states to later that day. It did not look good. There were twenty people on the list in front of me, but I went ahead on stand by and hoped I would get lucky.

The Madrid Barajas International Airport is the worlds largest. The new multi-billion-dollar Terminal Four, designed by Antonio Lamela and Richard Rogers, that opened in 2006 is an immense and beautifully sculpted building. Luggage crisscrosses the sky above on sparking chrome conveyor belts. Trains whip you around the four terminals at a frightening speed.

Being a resident of Massachusetts, the scope and scale of it reminded me of the Big Dig. Except that this project actually functions well.

“Run Like Hell!”

After retrieving my luggage I began a mad dash from counter to counter of Iberia Airlines until I found the right one that could tell me my status. I was the last person to be called. The ticket agent smiled, congratulated me and then said in perfect English, “Run like hell! Just follow the signs to gate U70; follow the signs.”

Having made stand by, if I missed the flight I would forfeit my ticket. I was 30 minutes away from a flight that left in 10. This was going to be ugly.

Passport in hand, I followed the signs to gate U70. Down escalators, up stairs, on trains, I ran. People gave way before me like the Red sea.

A Weary Wanderer

Padre Dario
Padre Dario – “We all have different ways of getting to the same place.”

His name was Padre Dario, an itinerant preacher who has been on the road for 37 years. “I’m in a different country every two weeks,” he said. Last week he was in French Micronesia, the week before it was Indonesia, before that he preached to 160,000 people in Brazil and recently to 260,000 in Poland.

“I am tired of being a pilgrim,” he said.

I told him about my time in Santiago, about being an atheist, about my love of the road and of all people I had met in Spain. He looked at me calmly and said, “We all have different ways of getting to the same place.”

We drank wine, told stories from the road and talked for hours. He offered me a place to stay in New York if I could not get a flight back to Boston.

The last I saw of the Padre, he was grabbing some complimentary toilet kits that people had left behind in first class and stuffing them into his bag. “They make great gifts for the altar boys,” he said. The stewardess smiled as if she knew him.

I did make my flight home. As I walked to my front door, I thought back to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and the new pilgrims who were arriving there, and about how my own pilgrimage had started here. Then I sat down and burst into laughter. I had lost my key.


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Paul Shoul
Paul Shoul is a Northampton, MA-based photographer who doubles as a staff writer for GoNOMAD. For thirty years he's lived in the Pioneer Valley and chronicled life there though his work in the Valley Advocate and Preview magazines. He's also been seen in the Boston Globe, New York Times, BBC, the Chronicle of Higher Education and many other publications. Today as well as shooting around the world for GoNOMAD he works for local nonprofits, banks and advertising agencies.