The Company We Keep

The formal Camino ends at the Cathedral in Santiago, but you can extend it to Finisterre.  From there you can further continue to the other side of the peninsula to a small town called Muxia, which has its own legends, a striking sanctuary church, and a sea that was stormy and gray.

I am still a couple hundred kilometers short of my 1,000 km goal, so two days ago I walked the 30 km up to Muxia, then yesterday walked back.  On the way up I walked with Michael from Denmark, on the way back with Yoshino from Japan.  The path was the same but the experience totally different.

Michael has been homeless for years.  He has been addicted to hard drugs, served time in prison for a bank robbery, and been hunted by Middle Eastern gangsters.  He served in the French Foreign Legion to escape for awhile, and the military left its stamp on him.  He wears camouflage pants and a sleeveless olive T-shirt, and has the quick, firm-bodied movements of someone familiar with violence.  He walks with two dogs on short chain leashes, has buzz-cut hair and sun-weathered skin.

Though not overtly aggressive, he has that “problem with authority” and frequently gets into arguments with albergue owners.  Unable to find a place to stay with his dogs in Santiago he slept in an abandoned building on the fringes where rats ate his last remaining money.  With two bags on and the dogs, he moves like a compact tank, despite only being around 5’6”.

When we were walking through a tiny farming town and stopped in some shade to eat our bread and cheese lunches, an old woman kept a suspicious eye on us from inside the house opposite and all the neighborhood dogs barked at us without pause for the entire time we were there.

Yoshino is a petite Japanese woman with a ready smile, open pretty features, and a willingness to talk to anyone.  She speaks excellent Spanish and I think everyone in between Muxia and Finisterre yesterday learned that it was her birthday.  Everyone enthusiastically wished her a happy birthday.

When we stopped for a break we chatted with a local lady who made very sure we knew how to get where we were going; people she said hello to called out tips from upstairs windows.  Sitting on the beach in Finisterre we made friends with a local fisherman who guided her throughout the town looking for a salon to get her hair cut, his plastic bag of fresh calamari on hold until she had an appointment.  (The locals here, as in most places with heavy tourist flow, are somewhat separate, and though friendly, they are not overly quick to engage you in conversation).  The dogs we passed all approached, wagging their tails, and sometimes paced us for a while in friendly companionship.

Now, obviously the presence of Michael’s dogs has a lot to do with at least the last one, but the disparity of experience on the two walks was glaring.  Their physical appearances and demeanors heavily determine the lives they experience.  They are also both great people, and I am thankful to have met each of them.

One of Michael’s dogs, Keisha, he found beaten with a bat and shot with a pellet gun.  He nursed her back to health and has taken care of her for five years; she still get upset when people take pictures of her, mistaking cameras pointed at her for guns.  He carries a second pack in front, heavy with dog food, and does not leave them alone even when that means he has to sleep outside too.

Nevertheless, when we got lost in the woods I was aware that it was just me and Michael and his dogs, with no one else around.  And to my shame, I passed a beautiful scene that day and did not take a picture of it because I didn’t want him to see my camera.  To be honest, this is mostly because of my own fear of being perceived as spoiled and privileged, but I have to suspect that there was also an element that I didn’t want him to know I was carrying anything expensive.

He is very open about his mistakes in his past, but is trying to turn his life around.  He was happy to get his certificate of having completed the route to Muxia, which he will send with his Compostela (the certificate for completion of the Camino) to his son who he has not seen in 11 years.  His son is 13.  He wants his son to “know that his dad is capable of something.”

But people don’t see that, they see someone who has lived a hard-bitten life, and who has done whatever it takes to get what he wants.  And they are cautious around that.  The police question him regularly and shopkeepers keep an eye on him.  I was not surprised to hear that he has spent time in prison.  I met and very much liked people he reported as being intolerable assholes.

Michael and Yoshino will never be perceived the same (at least until age has blurred them both to innocuousness).  Yoshino’s generosity of spirit shows through and people immediately trust her.  Michael’s bad choices have left their marks, but hopefully his good ones will show up too.

For me, I have poorly patched battered jeans (which I love), but a ready smile.  I am an unknown (and usually scruffy) young male, but a greeting for everyone.  I guess we all make our own caminos.