This and the next article are coming ‘live’ from the Camino de Santiago during the Compostela Holy Year, as I walk for two weeks across La Mancha to Toledo and possibly as far as Avila. As always on the Camino, I will just have to see how the pilgrim journey works.

It was sad to say goodbye to my donkeys, even for a short trip away, but they are in good hands. The donkey-sitters will enjoy looking after the animals for two weeks, but I still wondered: will I enjoy the Camino? It would have been good to walk with the pleasant company of my big dappled Matilde, but things are complicated enough on the pilgrim roads due to the Covid pandemic, without adding an equine to the equation, so the donkey had to stay at home.

Matilde the donkey wishes the pilgrim a ‘Buen Camino’.

I stepped down from the bus in La Gineta and walked straight out of the place, into the vast flat plains of La Mancha, high up in the Spanish central meseta. It seemed an irony to begin the Camino in that scruffy town filled with diesel fumes, on the main highway between Madrid and Albacete. People tell me it has a reputation for being the rendezvous point for truck drivers and prostitutes; so, what a great place for a pilgrim to begin his walk in a Compostela Holy Year! Outside the town, walking west, there was a sprawling industrial estate. The main industry there is the manufacture of knives, so I wondered if knives are in great demand because truck drivers fight over the ladies?

As I put that place behind me step-by-step, finding the right walking rhythm on the Camino again, I began to study the agriculture of the wide-open plains. I could not identify the cereals grown there, for the only remaining signs of the season’s produce after the harvest were the great stacks of fresh straw bales for animal feed. The tractors were already plowing the wide-open spaces ready for sowing the winter crop. In some places, the grape harvest was underway, the vendimia, which is labor-intensive and I noticed that some of the half-demolished old farmhouses of depopulated rural La Mancha have once again been made habitable, with repaired roofs made of corrugated iron and holes in walls patched-up with wooden pallets and black plastic sheeting. For a new class of farm workers have arrived here, discovering their place in the rural economy. These are African migrants who have crossed the Mediterranean from countries where war and climate change have been the push factors forcing migration. Here they have found a welcome because their labor is valued. Generations of Spanish rural workers gave up the hard life of La Mancha and sought industrial or construction jobs in cities like Madrid or Barcelona.

My first day’s walk brought me to the town of La Roda. I arrived too late for Saturday evening Mass. I had walked only 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) because most of the day had been taken up with the bus journey to arrive at La Gineta and begin walking again at the place where I left off this particular route, six years ago. The church in La Roda was still filled with incense but the people had gone and the priest told me Sunday Mass was at ten o’clock, which is too late for a pilgrim, who needs to be on the road early to make good progress and avoid the heat on the plains. So my first challenge was where to find Sunday Mass the next day.

At the end of my first day’s walk, I found accommodation in La Roda, and having missed Saturday evening Mass, I wandered around the side streets near the medieval church. They were filled with African farm workers, dressed in their best clothes for the weekend, gathering in small groups and chatting or talking into mobile phones – maybe communicating with family far away in Africa to whom they send part of their wages as international money transfer or ‘remittances,’ which have a dramatic effect on global economies. They pay back their families, who originally clubbed together to finance the migrants’ dangerous journeys, sometimes paying people-traffickers to smuggle them to Spain in overcrowded inflatable boats. These migrants are now integrated into the social life of rural towns and can be seen chatting with friends or taking part in the evening walk in the cool air of a Saturday evening.

I had been reading Laudato Si’[1] on the bus as I traveled to the Camino on the first day and it is my only reading on this Camino journey. Pope Francis writes “The worst impact of climate change will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades. Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing, and forestry. They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters… This in turn affects the livelihood of the poor, who are then forced to leave their homes, with great uncertainty for their future” (LS 25).

Yesterday, I walked out of La Roda at 6 a.m. when it was still dark, intending to make as much headway on the Camino as I could, then stop in the early afternoon when I found accommodation, thus making a nice easy second day’s walk to begin gradually building up the daily distances. But there would be no accommodation for thirty kilometers, and I would be lost, tired and dehydrated by the end of the day. This turned out to be one of the most challenging days in my experience of pilgrimage on the Way of Saint James.

As I walked out of the darkness and the sun rose behind me – projecting my elongated shadow onto the dry dusty fields alongside the Camino, I contemplated the various crop irrigation equipment placed around the fields and stopped to talk with a farmer to see how the water shortages are affecting agriculture here. The farmers are having the same problems here in La Mancha that face the growers of fruit and vegetables in my home province of Alicante: the rivers Tajo and Segura that are the sources of irrigation are drying up and running lower each year with reduced rainfall in the river catchment basins.

“Nobody cares about our livelihood or our crops,” said the farmer. “Los politicos never address these problems.”

Pope Francis in Laudato Si’ writes about the interconnectedness of the environmental problems faced by humanity. “To seek only a technical remedy to each environmental problem which comes up is to separate what is in reality interconnected and to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system” (LS 111). He talks of the way we need to reshape our priorities and insists that the economy must be reordered. These farmers would agree with him.

Here in the wide-open space of La Mancha, the Camino de Santiago usually follows a dead straight line to the horizon, and here I could see the tower of the church of Santiago in Minaya for hours before I finally arrived. On the edge of the village is a typical windmill of the Manchego style – made famous by Cervantes in his novel Don Quixote – and the little plot of land in front of it was filled with two-dimensional farm animals including a donkey. I glared at the Disneyfied scene and knew I was already missing my donkeys. When I reached the church I found that I had arrived in time for Sunday Mass, and the parish priest Padre Josico stamped my pilgrim credencial with the parish seal: a figure of Santiago Matamoros.[2] [2] He then set about his pre-Mass routine of scolding the congregation for chatting in the pews as they waited: “¡Silencio! You can gossip outside after Mass: say your prayers now and wait silently.”

Modern statue of Saint James and retablo in the parish church of Minaya.

At the parish Mass two sisters, ten and twelve years old, were receiving their first communion so it was a longer service than usual. They were dressed in typical Spanish long white first communion dresses and had their hair immaculately dressed with fresh flowers for the occasion. From the altar, after his sermon, Padre Josico put three questions to each of the sisters to test the success of their catechesis, and they answered the questions with rote-learned responses, flawlessly, word-for-word from the Catechism. The priest beamed at them and they received communion first, followed by the congregation.

When I went up to receive, I held out my hands and Padre Josico reprimanded me: “Left hand uppermost, not right!” I briefly wondered if Padre Josico ever noticed Pope Francis repeatedly telling priests that rigidity is counterproductive, but looking at the faces of the congregation as they were repeatedly rebuked, I concluded that they simply regarded their parish priest’s constant corrections as an eccentric foible. I felt privileged to be scolded by the parish priest, for it seemed that was the main welcome to be had here![3]

In Minaya, the hostel where I had intended to stay was closed for the end-of-season break, so I had lunch in a bar and set out again into the hot plains. After an hour I was completely lost and struggling across freshly-plowed fields, trying to get a compass bearing from a nearby highway and stopping every fifteen minutes to get the fine stones out of my boots. I ran out of water.

The pilgrim lost in La Mancha.

Finally I saw the village of Casas de los Pinos in the distance and it seemed to take forever to reach the place. When I entered the bar and asked for a cold drink, the woman serving looked at the state of me and told me I must sit down for half an hour before drinking anything, as I was overheated and a cold drink might kill me! I protested, but she was adamant. So I went to the washroom and drank from the tap until I had quenched my thirst! Once again there was nowhere to stay, so I had to walk another ten kilometers to San Clemente where there were three hotels and all of them were closed for end-of-season breaks. A helpful stranger directed me to an unlisted casa rural in a side street, a sort of bed & breakfast house in a vast 16th-century townhouse with a knight’s coat of arms sculpted in stone above the door. It too had a sign on the porch saying it was closed. I rang the bell anyway and explained how far I had walked and how tired I was. The proprietor said, “Come in. We cannot leave a pilgrim with nowhere to stay the night. I will do you a special reduced price.”

Entering San Clemente at the end of a long day’s walk.

That is where I am now, for I asked to stay an extra day and have a complete rest, and I have been to morning Mass at the convent of the Carmelite sisters. Suddenly the Camino has provided its usual welcome and I have put some of the darkness behind me.

Notes:

[1] Pope Francis’ encyclical letter Laudato Si’: on care for our common home (Vatican Press, 2015.)

[2] I wrote about the controversial figure of Saint James the Moorslayer in my earlier WPI series, Postcards from the Camino, and I am not a great fan of this particular Santiago iconography.

[3] Is the idea of receiving the host in the left hand to pick up the host with your right hand to put it in your mouth? Do Catechists in Spain teach that the right hand is ‘holy’ and the left hand is ‘sinful’? The rebuke by the priest was a bit of a mystery!


Images: Header photo: windmill in Minaya with fake farm animals. All photos were taken by the author on 18th-19th September 2021.


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Gareth Thomas lives a solitary life in the mountains in Spain with his donkeys. A former aircraft engineer, Franciscan friar and geography teacher, he is a veteran of the pilgrim routes to Compostela and writes about the Camino de Santiago on his blog Equus Asinus (equusasinus.net).

The Camino Revisited – Part 2: Walking out of the dark
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