I had been working as an Amigo in the Pilgrim Office in [Santiago de] Compostela for a couple of days, and had started to recognise the signals that pointed to someone who was on the verge of tears.
The Three Amigos
It was an older woman who had received her Compostela and had stepped back from the counter while she waited for her husband to receive his certificate. I moved closer to her so that the other pilgrims nearby could not hear what we were saying, and said “Congratulations on finishing your walk”. She turned to me, with eyes brimming with tears, and said “I did not do the walk for myself: I did it for the six babies I have lost”, and then began sobbing as if she would never stop. Her husband immediately turned and held her, and they rocked slowly from side to side as she sobbed. There was nothing I could say, but I wanted the husband at least to know that there was someone else there who cared, so rested my hand gently on his shoulder, fearful that he would shrug it away, but he accepted it readily. I took my hand away after a short time, and they went off, gently down the stairs of the old Pilgrim Office, and out into the street.
I still pray for them.
Robin, Hazel and Alan inside the Cathedral: the bright blue Amigo shirts says “Welcome” in 9 different languages. Robin joined us for the last few days in 2013.
I got a job as an Amigo by tearing my Achilles tendon. I had paid for my trip to Spain with the intention of doing a Camino, but once I had torn the Achilles, that became an impossibility. Not wanting to miss out on a trip to Spain, and maybe some of the money I had already paid, I looked at alternatives. More out of hope than anticipation, I wrote to Johnnie Walker of the Pilgrim Office in Santiago and asked if he knew of any volunteer possibilities in Compostela, expecting that if I did get a job it would be scrubbing toilets in an albergue somewhere. John replied with the offer of me becoming an Amigo at the Pilgrim Office. The offer was made on the understanding that, as an Amigo, I would pay for my own transport to Compostela and for my own meals during the 2 weeks I was there, but the accommodation would be supplied.
I had read a little about the Amigo program, but was not at all convinced that I would be suitable. Despite my trips to Spain, my Spanish is very poor, and most of the pilgrims are Spanish. But John had devised the Amigos with the express aim of greeting English-speaking people as they arrived at the end of their Caminos, so I accepted his invitation to join a team. It was John’s vision and foresight that established the Amigos my thanks, Johnnie, and the thanks of many more.
I arrived a couple of days before the rest of my team, and was lucky to meet up with Annie from Sweden, Bianca from America, and Jim from Ireland. They invited me to join their team and see what went on – thanks guys, you took me in, and showed me how. Their example of humility and generosity towards the pilgrims could not have been better.
In 2013, based upstairs in the old Pilgrim Office, we worked as teams of three. The morning shift was from 9am to 2pm, and the afternoon shift was from 2pm to 7pm. Well, I can hear you say, only 5 hours, how easy is that? Indeed one team that I knew of were dismissive of the 5-hour shifts and declared that they would work much longer hours than that! They did the first day – after that they reverted to working the standard 5-hour shift. It was not the physical labour that was tiring. It was the emotional input that was needed – you never knew from one pilgrim to the next just what they were going to say to you – would there be tears? or a story of joy? or hardship? You name it, we saw it all over the two weeks we worked there. Usually after the shift we would go home just drained. Also the fact that we did not have a day off in that 2 weeks had a tiring effect.
Amigos mix with peregrinos queuing up for their Compostelas
I was absolutely blessed with the team that I was put with. There was Hazel from Scotland and Sean from Ireland, and we shared an experience we will never forget. Saying ‘thank you’ cannot express the debt I owe those two.
May 2014: Amigos Alan, with Liz (from Scotland)
At times being an Amigo was the best job in the world. To be there when the Pilgrim Office was opened in the morning and to see the line of smiling faces was exhilarating. Often I was asked how did I get the job – I would usually reply that I just got lucky! A favourite memory from last year (I was an Amigo in 2013 and 2014) was greeting two young Queenland girls well down from the front of the line who gave me running scores from the State of Origin match being played in Australia – they were getting scores via the Internet on their mobile phones. We kept a lot of people amused as we gave each other a lot of cheek! It was hard to know sometimes if we helped people but, when I got home this year, a friend from Orange said that he had met a recently returned pilgrim who had a lovely memory of being greeted at the end of her Camino by an Aussie Amigo!
We were granted accommodation while we worked as Amigos, and this of course did not come without cost to the program. Funding for the program came from the Pilgrim Associations of Canada, America, Holland, Ireland and the CSJ of Eng- land. The CSJ may not be contributing in future years as they are looking to spend the money on their two albergues, but in any case the Amigo program has been put on hold for 2015 while the Cathedral works through the process of establishing the new (newest!) Pilgrim Office below the site of the Parador. Our accommodation was coordinated by Stephen, like John, a Glaswegian, and who did all he could to help this disparate bunch from around the world. Thanks Stephen, you could not have done more, or done it better.
Alan presenting Maria, a Pilgrim Office supervisor, with a stuffed koala for the Office staff
The Amigo program the next year, 2014, was changed in that we were only two to a team instead of three, because we had shifted to the downstairs Pilgrim Office and had less to do. Sean from Ireland was back again, and Hazel briefly. The other two on the team were Mila from California and Liz from Scotland. Mila spoke good Spanish and was often behind the desk in the Office writing out Compostelas for pilgrims. Liz is a trained teacher of English as a Second Language, and when she found that a young waitress in a restaurant we used to visit was trying to improve her English, she promptly appointed herself as a teacher, and used to visit the young girl to give lessons when she was free of her Amigo duties. And did I tell you that Sean and his wife are fostering a baby boy? or that Hazel and her husband care for seeing-eye dogs when their owners have to be away and will soon take on one of these dogs for the initial training period of over 12 months? or that Mila is hoping to be in SdC this year at her own expense to work in the Pilgrim Office writing Compostelas? The generosity of all my fellow Amigos was (and is) humbling.
Pilgrims Office staff
As to what I personally received from working as a Amigo, where do I start? First of all, I hope I have a greater sense of humility. The struggles that so many people encounter in finishing a Camino are much greater than any I have encountered, and they bear them bravely, and without complaint. And the examples I was given by my fellow Amigos, with their generosity and their love for others, have set the bar so high that I will not reach it, but they would be upset with me if I did not try. Guys, I will do my best.
Robin, Sean, Hazel and Alan at the Amigos farewell celebration dinner (in Spain they don’t stint on the size of the glass!)
To finish, I think it only fair to tell a happy story. Only a day after my encounter I related at the start of this article, I saw a tall English woman who had just been granted her Compostela. She was sobbing fit to bust, with tears pouring down her cheeks, but she had an odd look on her face that somehow did not fit with the sobs. She kept trying to speak but she could not get the words out because of the convulsive sobs that racked her. Eventually, after many tries, she got out what she was trying to say. It was: “I have never been this happy!” The odd look on her face was a huge smile. She was, literally, weeping tears of joy.
PS. There is no Amigo program this year: it may restart next year. Instead I am walking from Madrid to SdC to meet up with Amigo companions Annie and Mila.