Spain, Spring 2010.
I was approaching the end of my walk along the Camino de Santiago, an ancient trail that connects Santiago de Compostlla near the west coast of Spain with cities across the country and the rest of Europe. I was making good progress through large cities and tiny towns, pausing briefly to request a sello or stamp from ayunamientos (town halls), refugios (pilgrim’s shelters) or any bars that would also provide them.
This stretch of trail led through another farmer’s land up a hill covered in rocks and mud. Tractors and hay spreaders rested on the grassy unplowed land to my right, and a patch of thick brush grew to my left. At the top of the hill, I saw an old man begin his walk towards me. He was dressed in flannel and looked like any of the dozens of other old men I’d seen working in fields with their hands or driving tractors in their fields.
As he greeted me, he seemed more eager for conversation than the many residents who had crossed my path. He asked how I was doing, and then asked if I had a place to stay for the night. I answered that yes, I planned to sleep at the refugio in my destination city, several kilometers on the way to Santiago.
As I approached Santiago, advertisements for hotels, resorts and hostels multiplied. Refugios are utilitarian and cheap. For 3-5 Euros per night, they offer a warm shower, bunkbed and possibly a laundry or kitchen. These were everything and all I needed, so I had no use for the more luxurious rooms in higher priced hotels. I imagined that he was probably just going to offer his hotel to me and encourage me to splurge on a restorative rest during the last week of my journey.
No, his offer would be much more surprising than that. He asked how my body was, how everything was doing. While the Camino is a physical challenge, it is not beyond the ability of many retirees, who complete it yearly. Many of the peregrinos (pilgrims) are middle aged or even elderly. Many people who passed me from behind were gray old men, and one group of older German travelers was the fastest walkers I’d ever seen. Each morning, they seemed to fly past me without warning!
Then he asked if I’d like to meet some senoritas in the town a few kilometers from the trail, later in the evening. Wait a minute, where is this offer going? To make his offer even clearer, he reached over and patted at my crotch. OK, now it made sense. This man was running an entirely different kind of business!
How many customers had he found from the many peregrinos passing towards Santiago? The Camino began as a Christian religious pilgrimage, to offer forgiveness of sins or pardoning of a serious crime. While these traditions ended long ago, most travelers still seek some spiritual growth during their journey. This wasn’t Las Vegas, and didn’t even look like a red light district. There were barns and livestock around us, not seductive ads and hotels! This was definitely my biggest surprise of the Camino. Having a meeting with the world's oldest profession would have never crossed my mind starting out.
With that, I flatly refused his offer, angrily letting him know that yes, my entire body was just fine and I wanted nothing from him.
Adios y Buen Camino.