Santiago de Compostela…a place of pilgrimage and your destination once you leave your home on Camino. Last year, 327,378 pilgrims arrived into Santiago to receive their cherished compostela in the Pilgrim Reception Office on Rúa das Carretas. The Pilgrim Office relies on volunteers from around the world.
During May this year, I met “El Sherif” in the Pilgrim Office at Santiago, following my Celtic Camino. He was working as a volunteer at the time. 2019 would mark his sixth consecutive year offering his services to help arriving pilgrims. Generally, he is there for a month from mid-July through mid-August of each summer.
We discussed the issue of volunteering in the Pilgrim Reception Office at Santiago and asked if he wished to write an article on what a typical day entails. This article will be published over 2 issues due to its length. So here it is…
I am a pilgrim, first and foremost.
A common definition of “pilgrim” might include a person, who makes a journey, especially a long one, made to some sacred or holy place as an act of religious devotion (e.g. a pilgrimage to Lourdes.); or, perhaps, a person who makes any long journey, especially one undertaken as a quest or for a votive purpose, as to pay homage or to show respect (e.g. a pilgrimage to the grave of Shakespeare.).
So, in this context, I am on a long journey. My interim destination has been the relics of the Apostle Saint James the Elder, in repose under the main altar of the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. However, as one born into the Roman Catholic faith tradition, my ultimate destination is eternal repose in Heaven. In this, I remain very much a work in progress.
I made my first pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago, via the Camino Frances, walking from Saint Jean Pied de Port in southern France, starting in late April 2013. After some 37 days, I managed to make it into Santiago de Compostela. At the risk of oversimplifying the effects of this experience, allow me to just state that it profoundly changed my personal view of myself, the world around me, my faith, and my personality. I ingested and assimilated all the lessons the Camino has to teach. It literally changed me forever.
Anyway, at the old, old Pilgrim Office, then on Rua do Vilar, one had to climb stairs to get to the office where Compostelas were issued. On a rainy day (it always rains in Galicia), on my way up the stairs, an American volunteer chatted me up. He asked bluntly if I had ever thought about becoming a volunteer.
I do recall quipping to him that “as I had just walked some 800 kilometers, so, no, it was not chief among my near-term goals…” This fellow merely informed me that he found that he had gotten far more out of the experience than he put into it. He then suggested that I think about it and instructed me to look up volunteer opportunities on the website of my national pilgrim association. In this case, he was referring to the American Pilgrims on the Camino (APOC).
On returning home, I did search out volunteer opportunities on the APOC website. This led to my making application the following winter. I was accepted to work from the end of May through mid-June 2014. So, I planned to walk another Camino and end at Santiago, before going to work.
In late April of 2014, I again walked the Camino Frances, from Saint Jean Pied de Port to Santiago. My arrival on a Friday was convenient for my starting work at the old Pilgrim Office on Rua do Vilar the following Monday.
My first volunteer stint was for two weeks. As my Spanish was limited to basic, Camino survival phrases, I was asked to do various tasks around the office to support overall operations. This is a polite way of saying that I was “Cinderfella.” But, I was happy to do whatever needed doing.
After this two-week experience, I was hooked. Before I departed, I asked politely if I could come back next year. At the same time, I also offered to serve for a month. My point was that there were personal costs involved in getting there, and coming for only two-weeks was less cost-effective. Anyway, the response was positive. We negotiated dates, and I went home.
This started an annual pattern for me. Each summer, I come to work from mid-July through mid-August. I do this because the annual national holiday and HUGELY popular feast of Santiago is held every 25 July. The city is jammed full to overflowing with upwards of a million festive tourists and pilgrims. All albergue and hotel bed space is literally full.
On the evening of 24 July, just before midnight, there is a world class laser light show, followed by a huge fireworks display. There are concerts, performances, and all sorts of festivals and processions. In some years, the Spanish king will attend, as there is a long-standing tradition of the country making a gift (usually money to the Archbishop of Santiago). This reflects the devotion that the entire country of Spain has to Santiago. He is the patron saint of all of Spain, and of the province of Galicia.
This is also, statistically the highest of the peak arrival times for pilgrims at the Pilgrim Office. During the summer months of July and August, the proportion of arriving pilgrims who are Spanish goes from around half to 80 percent or so.
Also, to my observation, there seems to be a practice or tradition to try to get date of Santiago’s feast on your Compostela. So, and I am NOT putting this too lightly, it is literally ‘all hands to the pumps’ around this date.
The really high peak continues at least until the next national holiday, and major religious feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, on 15 August. After mid-August, the madness settles down into a seasonally adjusted really busy time through early September.
So, THAT is why I choose to volunteer at that time of year. The staff desperately need all the help they can get. I know they appreciate my efforts. Plus, I am thankful for their support.
The other reason I choose to travel to northwestern Spain to volunteer at that time each year is that my home is in South Florida. The months of June through September see daily temperatures of 35 – 40 degrees Celsius, with humidity that seldom dips below about 70 percent. We call this the “icky stickies.” It is when most Floridians look for a cooler place to travel to, until things literally cool off at home. I should point out that, in comparison, the summer weather at Santiago de Compostela is approximately what we have in South Florida from December through April. In other words, the weather is perfect. Need I say more…?
The bottom line is that, I will continue to return to help as long as they will have me. In the off season I use www.Duolingo.com to improve my Spanish. I try to practice for an hour each day. And improve it has. I will never be a fluent speaker of colloquial Castellano. But, each time I return, I find myself having longer and longer conversations with my friends at the Pilgrim Office, staff in shops, and people I meet on the street. It starts to get scary when you actually reply to a Spanish tourist asking directions, and give them good directions, that they understand… like HUH!? What just happened?
A Day in the Life…Birth of “El Sherif”
Once upon a time, about two years ago, I was working on greeting and chatting up arriving pilgrims on the queue awaiting Compostelas at the Pilgrim Office. While I was doing this, one of the local security staff commented to me that they really liked when I was working the line. His statement was that when you are working everything is “suave y en orden” (smooth and in order). He went on the comment, in English, that “…you are like the Sheriff…” Of course, I took this as a compliment, as trying to keep the queues in order and all the pilgrims content while they wait can be a lot like herding cats…
This also made the proverbial light bulb go off in my pea brain. When I returned home, I remembered this exchange. I researched the term “Sheriff” and learned that in English it has very old English roots than come from the 11th or 12th centuries.
However, in Spanish the term is “El Sherif.” In this context, the historical use of the term “sherif” comes from the Moorish occupation, and the word “Sherif” comes from the Arabic Sherif or Sharif. However, in colloquial Spanish use, the term Sherif has essentially the same meaning as it does in English. So, in a flash of inspiration, El Sherif was created…!
During the off season, I found a package of gold, plastic five-pointed toy Sheriff stars in a local party favor shop. At home, I had a variety of Camino and Santiago lapel pins that I collected. I do not collect stuff, in general, but I do have a large collection of Hard Rock Café and other lapel pins collected in my 40 years of global travel.
I selected a red Cruz de Santiago lapel pin. Using a drill, I bored a hole through this badge and used Super Glue to mount the lapel pin, so it looked part of the badge. Now, the impression is that the wearer of the star is a “Sherif of the Camino de Santiago.”
The next year, when I showed up to work at the Pilgrim Office, I pinned the badge to my volunteer t-shirt. It was an instant hit. The security staff thought it was highly amusing. The office staff thought it was hysterical.
But the pilgrims actually took it seriously. I had, and still have to tell them it is a joke, “una broma” (in Spanish). The interesting thing is that it actually gets pilgrims attention, induces them to chat, and causes them to comply with polite requests I might make.
Over time, the legend of El Sherif continues to grow. I am not trying to virtue signal here. But, when Pilgrims get to the counter to request a Compostela and have a unique or personal request they discussed with me, they usually say: “…the Sherif told me to ask…” Just sayin…
The final instalment – next issue.