August 31, 2007

Putting the grim in pilgrim

I recently spent a few days on the Way of St James, walking the stretch across the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles in Spain, the site of Roland's mythical last stand against the Moslems in 778 AD. I joined a soccer friend, Seth, and his friend, Greg, on their pilgrimage from London to Santiago de Compostella, site of the supposed remains of the apostle James, a fisherman who became a fisher of men.

The first day was a washout, more like snorkelling than walking, then the sun came out, the foothills of the Pyrenees cast their spell and we strode on. As pilgrims, 'pelerins', we received kindnesses along the way. Until we reached St Jean Pied de Port, where several routes converge before the push across the Pyrenees, our route from the north seemed hardly used by pilgrims and we were a little special. You can identify pilgrims by the scallop shell swinging from their sack or their broad-brimmed hats.

Greg is a damned liberal and I'm a damned conservative. He's just gained a first class degree in 'Developement Studies' and plans to take a Master's in 'Peace Studies' at SOAS, the infamous School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He's recently been in Palestine, mewling and puking over the oppressed Palestinians, and cares little for history prior to the start of 'de-colonization'. Any normal person would ostracize him or pelt him with rotten eggs. I relished the mental fight and the klicks (kilometers) flashed by unnoticed as we cudgelled each other with words up hill and down dale. I won all the arguments (you know the stuff: Hummers are greener than Hybrids; everyone should pay the same tax; no tax, no vote; the Palestinians are lucky to have the Israelis as enemies; American soldiers are heroes), but I rubbed it in by grinding his liberal arse to dust at chess. Greg, you've been mugged by a neocon and one day you'll be mugged by reality, but you're a good sport and I relished being baited back.

I'm invited to re-join them towards the end of the pilgrimage and I might, especially if they want to go the extra 90km to Cape Finisterre
Land's End/End of the World. This mythical promontory symbolizes for many pilgrims the end of the terrestrial way and the beginning of a spiritual renewal. It is the tradition of pilgrims who continue to cap Finisterre to burn their clothes and sandals as a sign of this renewal.