The old man considered me carefully, sizing me up, his face a map of time. He looked me up and down, taking in my pale skin, my dust-spattered face, my shabby cycling gear, noisy cycling shoes and looked briefly over my shoulder at my fellow riders who were trying to form an orderly queue behind me. He looked down at the folded ‘passport’ which I had handed him.
Slowly, almost reverentially, he examined it, opening the dirty, oil-stained gate fold to view the stamps I had already accumulated. With small, firm hands he traced a finger across the various stamps and then looked back at me, pausing on my eyes and then looking back down at the passport. He grunted, satisfied with some small detail.
It suddenly occurred to me that actual border-control agents in US airports were not this thorough, this careful and, well, patient. Or I perhaps wished that they were. Or maybe I just wished they demonstrated such pride in what they did.
This man exuded pride.
Not in an arrogant or overbearing way, but rather in a way that inspired pride in me. Pride that I was riding the Camino, that ancient, winding European pilgrimage route, steeped in history and myth. A history I suddenly felt deeply, wonderfully connected to.
Outside the ancient church door, a cow could be hearing lowing in the distance, a small breeze rustling the trees. I wondered how many of these Camino passports this old man had examined and stamped. How many people had he wished a ‘buen camino’ to? How many decades had he been here, doing this?
How many people had come through the door of this dark, musty Gothic church over the centuries? How many of them understood just what they were becoming part of? All of them, I quickly thought. I bet they all knew.
And then, with a sudden flourish of speed, a graceful snap of the wrist, he stamped the passport with a careful but satisfying ‘thunk.’
I was authenticated, approved. Elevated. Stellified. One of the worthy.
‘Buen camino’ he said with a kindly smile, handing me the passport.
‘Gracias’, I replied, filled with an immeasurable warmth. ‘Gracias’.
Images: Taken on the Camino de Santiago, Spain (C) Damien DeBarra, 2015.
Words: (c) Damien DeBarra, 2017.