As most readers know, Reb and I live on the Camino Frances.
Have done for seven years now.
No need to explain what it is on here, I'm sure.
Lately, there have been some rumblings about happenings on The Camino and discussions on linked forums. The tone is often querelous, and generally involves - or relates to - money.
For several centuries, until maybe only five or six years ago, money was a secondary consideration to pilgrims and the people who provided them with beds and food - the albergues, in short.
In fact, the albergues were generally in monasteries, and underwritten by the charity of the wealthy ruling class.
As recently as 2006, when we arrived on the scene, to see a bowl with money in it at the albergue door with a message saying, "Take whatever you need, leave whatever you can," was not uncommon.
The bulk of albergues (also known as refugios) worked on a "donativo" basis - that is pilgrims would leave whatever contribution they could, or wanted to.
Which might be nothing.
But The Camino is becoming a victim of its own success. The number of participants (those who earn a "Compostela" at least ) has risen from 100,377 in 2006, to 183,877 in 2011.
The number of albergues and hostels catering to them has also zoomed up. Competition is sometimes fierce and occasionally vicious.
And the donativo ideal, overwhelmed by freeloaders and rising overhead costs, is a dead duck.
Spain is in crisis. The Camino is in crisis.
And possibly the reasons are not dissimilar. When we arrived in Spain, the European Union-driven economy was going gangbusters. Vast blocks of apartments and endless rows of terraced houses appeared apparently overnight, like the mushrooms in the few still-adjoining meadows.
This, even in places where the local population was already dwindling fast. Everyone thought the progress would never end, the money would always flow free. But wages were low, no one could afford the high-priced houses. Banks reined in the free funding, the developers went bust, then the banks went bust, too. Those new buildings stand empty now, their prices still well out of reach of the Spanish populace. One-fourth of the workers are unemployed. They´re saddled now with the debts of the banks that started the whole mess.
A different scenario, certainly, from the rapidly rising numbers on The Camino. But the reality in both cases was the unreality.
Yes, The Camino is not - or is supposed not to be - about money.
Very few people open albergues with the intention of becoming rich.
But an extraordinarily large percentage of them seem to believe The Camino operates on much kinder and more forgiving standards than those of the rest of Planet Earth -- or Spain, for that matter.
And this is patently not so. A mortgage is a mortgage is a mortgage. Still, starry-eyed former pilgrims optimistically open albergues and guest houses and hostels, believing that God, or divine providence, or St. James will continue providing ever-growing numbers of well-off pilgrims to offset the cost of the regulation fire alarms, expensive emergency staircases, and stainless-steel kitchens.
Do any of them do any math before embarking on quixotic ventures involving "pilgrims"? Any more than they would buying a shiny new suburban villa?
The Camino, is for us, at least, a fine place to live: peaceful, endlessly interesting and often downright inspiring. And we have never regretted our own move here.
We were lucky, or smart. We paid cash for a beat-up mud farm in a dying town, instead of an overpriced suburban crackerbox with an expensive mortgage.
We don't rely on The Camino for a living.
And we never will. Please God. Or providence. Or St. James.
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