We stayed last night in a private room in an ultra-modern albergue in Palas de Rei and not long after we start walking this morning we fall into step with a Spaniard who speaks English well. He is from Madrid where he has just left his job as a lawyer with a bank and is walking for eight days to ponder his future. He has a wife and two young daughters. When Martha asks him his name, he says, “Santiago, and I am going to Santiago to find myself.”
The Spanish economy is not doing well. Unemployment rates are high, especially among youth, and this led to a youth rebellion known as the Indignados, or the Outraged, that preceded the Occupy movement in North America. I ask Santiago what has happened to the economy in Spain. He says that Germany’s power in the European Union means that the central bank has been fixated upon keeping interest rates low in order to make it cheaper to finance German unification and to bolster its exports.
With interest rates so low in Europe and a lot of money available for lending, more and more people have been encouraged to take on greater household debt. In Spain a lot of them bought houses or speculated in real estate. When the banks’ reckless financial practices (my words not his) almost brought down the world’s economies in 2008-09, the credit taps were turned off and many people could no longer refinance their debt. For them, the bubble had burst.
This does not entirely explain how and why the economies of countries such as Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Greece got into such deep trouble. But the response by most governments has been harsh austerity measures that have shrunk the public sector, slashed services that people need, and driven up unemployment. Santiago says, for example, that public sector salaries have been reduced by 30 % in Spain. I would have had more questions but at some point Santiago politely takes his leave saying that he has to rest. I understand that to mean that he has life decisions to contemplate and that he needs solitude to do that.
As pilgrims and tourists, we are in a bubble and we really do not know what is happening in the country we are visiting. I have, however, encountered occasional glimpses of the malaise, even if they were not presented in the macroeconomic language of someone like Santiago.
Juan and Magdalena
Quite early in our walk, just prior to reaching the city of Burgos, Martha and I shared a room in an albergue with a Spanish couple named Juan and Magdalena. They were perhaps in their early 50s and live farther south near Valencia. They were walking the Camino for one week this year.
Our talk as we stood among the bunk beds that afternoon soon turned to our respective children and it became clear that they are concerned for theirs in the current economic climate. They have two sons in their 20s, one who is studying engineering and the other medicine. They are worried that the engineer may find no work. They are less concerned about their son studying medicine, but they fear that either or both of their sons might leave for greener pastures in Germany or Britain and not return. There is labour mobility among member countries of the European Union and young people use it to leave their home countries and go to where they believe they might find work.
Poverty along the trail
The harsh economic reality in Spain was brought home to us in a more dramatic form along the trail. One day, early on, we came upon a makeshift cardboard sign beside the path saying that we would soon be meeting someone who would sooner sell to us than steal from us. Soon, at a high bend in the rocky trail, we came upon a young woman with a paltry inventory spread out on a cloth draped over a flat rock. She was selling coffee, juice water and fruit. She told me that she lives in Spain but comes from Romania and that she has not been able to find work. I believed that she was Roma but did not ask.
It happens often that people set up little stands out on the trail to catch hikers before they will reach the more established bars and cafes in towns and cities. I remember, in particular, our buying some delicious watermelon from two younger women who were accompanied by their father at a stand set up at a strategic point along the trail. Another young man embellished his stand with blunt messages about the high rates of youth unemployment.
It is a reminder that we are not yet back to where we were in 2008 when the Great Recession struck. Any politician who says we have made up all of that lost ground is not being honest — and to a great extent it is young people whose prospects have been most severely affected.
Most people walking the Camino exist in a pilgrims’ bubble, most likely concerned with their own issues or hopes for the future and unaware of the economic reality that exists around them. Speaking of the trail, tonight we are in an albergue near the tiny village of Ribadiso, 42 kilometres from Santiago. We hope to get there the day after tomorrow.
This is a change. When we were there in 2010 we would often walk by an open stall of fruit or juice where a basket was placed for donations on an honour system. Locals had been providing this kind of charitable hospitality for centuries. It is a shame that people have so little now.