Capitalism on the Camino de Santiago

Back in The Day when pilgrims were darn likely to die en route of disease, bandits, exhaustion, exposure, drowning, falling off the Pyrenees, or (my own closest hazard) sneezing until their brains liquefy and leak out the ears (I believe the Latin term is Mortis Supersneezus) their devotion and Calling to their faith was rewarded and assisted by a spirit of charity that ranged from locals giving water and food, to organizations like the Knights Templar which risked their own wellbeing to patrol the Camino.

Nowadays most locals don’t seem to notice pilgrims anymore, moving around them the way you unconsciously move around puddles after a month of rain, and the Guardia Civil (Spanish police) only interacts with you if you look Moroccan.  (I know, that’s inflammatory, but shit man, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a police force more given to racial profiling.  It‘s worse than Arizona.)

Anyway, what I was getting at is that the spirit of charity for pilgrims has generally dissolved.  This is entirely logical, given that instead of death, we only risk physical discomfort, and instead of a few devout/crazy individuals, today you find everything from students on a cheap holiday to retirees proving their mettle (far more of the latter, and still all varying degrees of crazy).  With ATMs and guidebooks we don’t have that same level of dependency on the goodwill of others.  Plus there’s 150,000 of us annually.

The problem I see is the speed with which a certain dearth of charity is evolving into outright exploitation.  

Up until a few years ago all the accommodation was based on donations by pilgrims.  Apparently their numbers outpaced their generosity, so a modest fee of a couple euro became standard.  Now it is pretty much just the religious shelters, “parroquial” albergues, that are donativo, and not surprisingly they conserve a very different feel and attitude than the private ones.

Guide books from even last year advise typical prices for lodging as 3 Euro, a bocadillo sandwich is 2, and a pilgrim menu 7.  I found few incidences of any of those three that were less than 2 euros higher than those prices, with a lot of the private albergues charging 12.  (Just in case, bocadillo is the Spanish sandwich whose predictability has kept me alive and utterly bored flavor-wise for the past month, and menu is in the European sense of a two course meal plus wine, bread, and usually dessert.  That sounds luxurious, and fairly is, but pilgrim menus are a standardized, almost fast-food version of a two course meal, served on the cheap, and you burn something like 5,000 calories a day walking.)

Some of these albergues, especially those that combine lodging with food service, are making an absolute killing off of pilgrims.  5 euro for every body in a bunk bed in a 100 bed room where you don’t even provide sheets, and 9 euro for every cheap dish of meat and French fries, and I am starting to look for a Knight Templar to protect me from the bandit, you know?

Now, I don’t want to bitch and moan about 2 euro…and I’m not.  I’m bitching and moaning about 2 euro for everything, every time, and around something that is supposed to be about high-falootin‘ stuff like personal transformation, spirituality, and the goodness of mankind.  And it is seemingly increasing dramatically in only a year or so; what is the future?

Capitalism is infiltrating the Camino de Santiago.

Now, I know it is all relative.  If you were to go for a personally transformative experience in a New Age center like Sedona, I don’t know but I expect you would be paying exponentially higher amounts.  But damnit, that’s their problem, they’re even farther off-track.  (We can talk about the psychology of humans and how they only value things they pay for another time.)

This being said, there is a flip side, but these columns, though narrow, look intimidatingly long so I will put that in a separate post…

Oh, and this is the town from the other post that is growing so quickly…Hontanas, hidden in the plains of the meseta a day past Burgos.  The albergue was in the ?th century pilgrim hospital.