Another encounter that left a major impression was Hape’s interaction with an old, long-bearded, bespectacled shaman. We meet him in one of my favorite chapters called “Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere Beyond Leon.” The shaman ends up having multiple aliases, such as “Americo Montinez de la Something,” Ruco Urco, and Jorge from Ecuador. His conversations with Hape are both profound and outrageous, sounding at times like the words of a wise man and at other times like the ramblings of a madman.
The shaman encounter is just one example of many mystical moments that happen to Kerkeling along his pilgrimage. He comes across signs that read, “Do You Know Who You Are?” and “Welcome to Reality” as he struggles with bad knees from one town to the next, collecting his pilgrim stamps to prove he has gone the entire way. Characters appear and disappear and reappear again, often with uncanny timing, forcing Hape to write that he is not inventing any of these seemingly coincidental encounters.
Not only does I’m Off Then work as a diary for Kerkeling’s trip along the Camino, it also offers a number of flashbacks to Hape’s life and career, serving as a bit of autobiographical filler to flesh out who exactly the author is. Rather than being distracting or tangential, these moments fit in well with the progression of the story, since they occur during times along the journey when Hape is most vulnerable, whether from loneliness, fatigue, spiritual doubt, or some other overwhelming emotional hurdle. During the pilgrimage, Kerkeling reflects on his own life. That is one of the purposes of his quest to find himself and confirm his purpose in life and within the universe. As he writes: “Everything that has happened in my life up to this point seems to resurface here on the Camino, and the facets of my experiences come together.”
It is a life changing, or rather a life affirming, pilgrimage. He even criticizes those who take the journey to promote their own piousness instead of engaging in it to better themselves. For example, he sees a few hypocritical “ultra-Catholics” who flaunt their multiple pilgrimages. As Hape says, “This journey ought to transform me in some way,” but he sees these holier-than-thou pilgrims as the “same people as before the journey,” unchanged, still clinging to their imperfections as if they were virtues and not embracing the transforming potential of the road to Santiago.