I’m a bit late with this one – it was supposed to go out on January 19th but I was distracted by my Deliverance and Apocalypto posts. There’s a connection of sorts, though, in that the peculiar tradition of the Jarramplas, which takes place in Piornal, Northern Extremadura, is in its way as sacrificial as what the Maya get up to in Apocalypto, while the people of Piornal are every bit as fond of their squealing pigs and attendant embutidos as the mountain men of Deliverance. They are, quite literally, the mountain men of Extremadura, Piornal being the highest village round those parts, and this is what they get up to, every January, on Saint Sebastian’s Day.
Yes, to paraphrase Orson Welles (advertising Findus Peas) “we know a place where the snow lies thick upon the hills, and every January hundreds of young men pelt a be-costumed volunteer with turnips.” But who is the Jarramplas? He is a young villager, selected at random to be the scapegoat, dress in colourful fabric and wear a strange, somewhat African horned mask on his head. He walks the streets, banging his drum to summon the attackers, and they pelt him with root vegetables. Why do they do this? One theory goes that the pelting of the Jarramplas symbolises the punishment and expulsion of a Native American cattle thief, as witnessed by the first Conquistadors (who were, of course, from these parts, and pretty tough turnips they were too). Whatever its origins, it has become a part of the fabric of Extremenan life, and an annual exorcism of evil.
In that respect, it resembles the Stoning of the Devil or ramī al-jamarāt which takes place in Mecca during the Hajj. Here pilgrims ritually cast pebbles at three walls in a symbolic re-enactment of Abraham’s rejection of the Devil. Everybody must get stoned, as Bob Dylan put it so poetically (poetically enough to get a Nobel Prize). Unbelievers and infidels are afforded a rare insight to the ramī al-jamarāt in the extraordinary French-Moroccan movie Le Grand Voyage, made in 2004 by Ismael Farroukhi. This is a film which deserves to be better known, more widely seen. It starts intriguingly enough, with the “Westernized” Réda roped into driving his devoutly Muslim father across Europe to Mecca. But the film really comes into its own when they get to Mecca, the boundary between fiction and reality blurs, the communal power of pilgrimage is revealed, and the dad dies happy.
A Christian version of the same tale exists, sort of, in the form of the Emilio Estevez film The Way. In a reverse of Le Grand Voyage, it is the son (played by Estevez) who dies on the Camino de Santiago, and the father (Martin Sheen, Emilio’s real life father) who undertakes the pilgrimage as a homage/tribute to his son, carrying his ashes. I like The Way, but it’s an American film, and so, almost inevitably, more sentimental and schematic than its French counterpart, particularly so in the episode where a gypsy boy steals Sheen’s backpack (containing his son’s ashes). While not an improbable occurrence on the Camino, it swiftly descends into melodrama when the thief’s father returns the backpack, saying (in perfect English) how ashamed he is of his son, and by way of apology invites Sheen to an “intimate gathering” with food, drink, music and dancing around a fire, which provides plenty of colour to the film but detracts from the otherwise plausible storyline. Take it from me, there are very few Spanish gypsies who speak fluent English.
On the other hand, there’s a good chance of being ripped off on the Camino. In 2011 police in Navarre arrested two men who were stealing from hostels along the route. In 2014, a man from León was arrested in Boadilla del Camino, where he had carried out at least 20 robberies. The same month, thieves made off with several thousand euros from a hostel in Lugo. And if petty criminals don’t scam you, the hostels and restaurants probably will. But robbery isn’t the only risk. Between 2010 and 2014, there were at least 7 rapes on the Camino. Then, in 2015, a 41-year-old American pilgrim, Denis Thiem, went missing. Her body was found buried near the village of Castillo de los Polvazares, and a local man confessed to the killing. The president of the Korean Association of Friends of the Camino (there’s a KOREAN Association of Friends of the Camino?) said that many women were afraid to travel the route alone. Spanish authorities argue that more than 200,000 people travel the various stages of The Way each year, and that crime levels are well below the national average. Very few of the people who die on the Camino are murdered, it’s true. The majority die, like Emilio Estevez, in road accidents, or of natural causes, such as heart attacks brought on by climbing the numerous passes. One or two have drowned, perhaps intentionally, at Finisterre, the end of the line, but my favourite Camino death is the 65 year-old Irish pilgrim who died in 2014 when he “fell off his bicycle”. And the Jarramplas? He’s well padded. He gets a few bruises but nothing to worry about. He’ll be back next year, for more turnip-bashing.