Thursday, June 17, 2010

Intensity of the Camino experience

It is three weeks since my arrival in Santiago de Compostela and I am still finding moments when I look back at my experience of El Camino with moments of great disbelief. Even at the time, I felt that aspects of the journey were surreal. It seems like such a contrast with my present reality and the sensory overload of living in a major metropolis, such as Toronto. Why is that? Trying to make sense of it will probably be an on going process for some time to come.

When I was walking the Camino Frances, the walk was the central activity. That was all that I had to do. From this perspective there existed no Toronto and no outside world. Even better, there was no news, good or bad, unless one happened to glance at a television monitor in a restaurant. So the 'world' had become smaller and more intimate. There was the walk, there was nature, human interaction with whoever you might encounter on the path and there was mealtimes. These experiences took on a greater intensity. One could emotionally be moved by a story in someone's life that in the 'normal' world would have no impact.

Mealtimes would take on a greater importance. This was partly due to the appetite that one would build up after a long day's walk. However, there was the added importance of breaking bread with fellow story tellers. Can I believe that the white wine that I downed with such relish along with three plates of boiled octopus, seasoned with cayenne, sea salt and olive oil was the most delicious culinary experience in my life? It was certainly good, but in the context of the Camino it was excellent.

For me an encounter with a group of school children in Ponferrada took on greater emotional charge. With their natural curiosity for all things, they explored the cathedral, tried desperately hard to behave within the parameters laid down by their teachers, and were fascinated by their meeting with this strange, possibly mad, pilgrim on an eight hundred kilometer walk. Would I have been equally affected by an encounter of a group of school kids visiting a significant monument in my own own home town?

I believe others were affected equally deeply by their experiences of the Camino. In the same city of Ponferrada, I met a pilgrim to whom I described my experiences at the Cruz de Ferro. He was visibly moved by my description of this visit.

El Camino works in a special way to sensitize us in a world that lacks sensitivity and connection.

Saturday, June 12, 2010


Thinking back over the last four months ever since I committed to walking the Camino, I am astounded by my resolve, which flew in the face of what in retrospect might seem reasonable.

Two days after buying my transatlantic air ticket, I started having bad left knee pain. The cause is unknown. Perhaps it was a repetitive strain injury from practicing seventeen years of shiatsu therapy on a mat. I was more inclined to think that this ailment was sent to test me. Walking was painful and, after one disastrous trial 15 kilometer walk along Toronto's lake front, not something which I wished to repeat. My back and other leg went into protective spasm. I was advised that for now I should limit physical activity to strengthening my quads and developing cardio vascular capability.

Friends advised me to postpone my walk for a year or, at least, to wait until I had some degree of comfort and could walk without a pronounced limp. By the time I reached London, just six days prior to the start of my camino, I could still barely walk for more than a mile without pronounced discomfort. My brother suggested that for my first day I, at least, choose an alternative to the more arduous Napoleonic route over the Pyrenees.

During all this time, never did I doubt my ability to undertake this journey. Never did I consider a more gentle route over the first mountain range. This was to be my camino and I would succeed.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

What happened on the Camino?

Now comes the hard part: making sense of El Camino. That may take a lifetime. I suspect it may take a lifetime because it is actually quite simple. What may be a better exercise for me is to examine my own reactions to what happened on my journey. After all the camino is a personal voyage of discovery.

It is twelve days since my arrival in Santiago de Compostela. So much has happened since that time. I spent two days in that city, flew to London for four days before returning to Canada. I have been exposed once more to the stresses and strains of "normal" daily life, along with murder and mayhem, an oil spill of disastrously spectacular proportions, a pending G20 summit in my home town that threatens to bring the City to a standstill, and Justin Bieber is still the heartthrob for countless young teenage girls.

Enroute to the airport on my way for the two hour flight to London, I passed other pilgrims making their entry into the City. Is there a look of joy or achievement as they wend their way towards the cathedral? Actually, they take on more the demeanor of automated Fritz Lang characters as in the movie Metropolis. They have a job to do, and that is walk. At this point there is no awkward news to detract from their path. Emotion will come later. Life lacks complication. At the same time, what we describe in the "real world" as ordinary takes on a almost surreal intensity.

More on this later,

Friday, May 28, 2010

Arrived in Santiago de Compostela

Finally arrived in Santiago on schedule. The cathedral is fantastic. There is the midday daily pilgrim mass presided on by the archbishop. He speaks several languages. I did not realise that at one point he was speaking English. Fortunately, I was able to understand his Spanish sufficiently well. He was talking about the difference between a pilgrim and a fugitive - a little different than the usual sermon. The party trick at this service is the swinging of a massive incense thurible, reaching a threatening arc of over 180 degrees. After surviving an 800 kilometre pilgrimage, this was the most scary event during my whole trip.

I have two days before departure for England. During this time, I will no doubt start the processing of my camino. This will also be an opportunity to relax and get used to not walking extreme distances. Will I be able to manage the absence of walking? I am, of course planning some gastronomic adventures.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Real Pilgrim V. Sunday Pilgrim

Note the differences between the two types of pilgrims: You might notice the pressed pants, cell phone on left hip, global positioning system on right hip, crisp new equipment just out of the package, matching backpacks, other fashion accessories. May also be wearing ipod headphones in order to block out the sound of nature or any possibility of personal insight, introspection or personal reflection. To be said in their favour, Sunday pilgrims may smell slightly more fragrant.

With the real pilgrim, note the muscled, weather-beaten, relaxed look despite the heavy soiled backpack. Real pilgrim accepts the here and now without complaint.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Rain and more rain

I think the deities have the same sense of humour as me if I were to have the job. I set off at 6.30 a.m. from Portomarin with rain gear at the ready. After all, this is the province of Galicia and, if it is going to rain anywhere, it is going to rain here. Got as far as Gonzar, 7.5 km down the road when it started to bucket down. This was my stopping off place for breakfast. By the time I had put on rain clothes and a waterproof cover for my backpack, the rain had stopped. However, the clouds still looked ominous, so I kept covered up. Trouble with rainproof clothing is that it does not breathe, and from the exertion of walking I was sweating profusely - perhaps even losing weight by the minute. After two hours more walking, I had had enough - it obviously not going to rain again so I thought I could dispense with the extra layer. No sooner was this done, when it started to bucket again.

Throughout the day, I played this game three times. Actually, I rather enjoy the rain as it adds aroma and freshness to the surrounding foliage.

The added benefit of the rain was to see the somewhat dampened spirit of the "Sunday pilgrims," as I have started to call them. I should be letting go of my resentment for some of these people but at the moment, I can´t. They tend to talk non stop among themselves, when not answering cell phones, and it seems they spend little or no time in silent reflection. This seems to be a peculiarity of the last 100 km of the camino. I have really enjoyed my silent walks over the last month

Covered 26.5 km to San Julian and stayed in a rather splendid stone walled "refugio" with a well stocked bar. Price of accommodation can vary from by donation, or any amount you wish, to a fixed rate of anywhere from 3 to 10 euros.
This particular "refugio" had a particular recommendation in a German guide book. I have recently been crossing paths with a very nice bunch of Germans, and they have really helped me along the way when I was suffering some pain. Pilgrim meals always consist of a three course menu with plentiful supply of wine. This is all for a nominal sum of eight or nine euros. The menu here was a vegetable soup specialty of the area with lots of potato and cabbage, a thin slice of fried pork along with mixed salad. Dessert was either cheese, ice cream or a Santiago tart. The latter is my favourite - moist with a slight touch of almond. I have also developed a taste for a digestive herbal liqueur called Licor de Herbas.

Today, I managed another 26.5 km. to Arzua - a not particularly interesting town, but then I will only be staying overnight here. The weather again was somewhat rainy. However, I stopped off in Melide for lunch at a 'pulperia', called Exequiel. This is renowned for its pulpo (octopus). I ordered a glass of wine to accompany, but that does not seem to be their custom - they brought a bottle. This is my first visit to a restaurant where I did not want the experience to finish. I ended up ordering three plates of octopus - one after the other. Other friends from the camino joined me and, in summary, I am astounded how I managed the remaining fifteen km to my destination.

I am now just 40.5 km from my destination.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Sarria to Portomarin

Today, I decided to walk only 23 kilometres - for me now, this is a gentle stroll in the park. Did not get up before the crack of dawn - I am feeling lazy. However, it seems that I am already on the road by 7.10 a.m. I even stop off a couple of times - the first, after about an hour for a cafe con leche and pan tostada. The second stop is half way to my destination for a mixed salad of lettuce, cured ham, asparagus, cheese, olives and a glass of red wine. The olives here are fabulous and lack the bitterness of canned olives and lack the greasiness of the Greek olives.

The camino from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela is now populated with a different kind of pilgrim. To get a certificate showing that you have completed the pilgrimage, all someone has to do is complete the last 100 kilometres. So, many have joined the camino here. The ones that have joined here seem to be prone to rapid conversation, argument, carry cell phones, which they use frequently and are less likely to be contemplative. My Spanish is now good enough to gently repremand a "pilgrim" for answering his phone. Actually, my best course of action is to lengthen the space between them and me. I do get some amusement watching some of the newcomers nursing blisters after a mere 5 kilometres. Still, I have met some people who have joined the last stage of the camino, who seem to have a purpose other than a cheap holiday.

I am now only 95 kilometres from Santiago de Compostela and have quite sufficent time to cover this distance.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Another mountain

My German friend, whose name I do not know, and I have planned an early rise so as to avoid the extreme heat. The climb will take us from 640 meters to 1337 meters. Despite my improved condition from the day before, he is not in such good shape. He tells me that yesterday he had experienced nausea and, despite the high temperature, cold sweats. These are some of the symptoms of heatstroke. Despite this, and his 71 years, he sets out at a rapid pace that soon leaves me way behind. I think this is potentially harmful. Along with the poor choice of foods that he wishes to take with him, I realise that this is his camino and I have no responsibility for his well-being. So far, I have not seen him again.

I have decided that I will not make the same mistake of attempting both the ascent and descent all in one day. So I travel only 23.5 kilometers to Fonfria. Today, again I started my walk in the dark at 6.00 a.m. I choose not to take breakfast until I feel that I have made sufficient inroads into my journey. The 9 kilometer descent was extremely challenging and by 9 a.m. when I reach Triacastela at 675 metres, I am already tired. By this time already, the sun is quite high.

It seems that at my destination point today of Sarria, there are many pilgrims who join the camino to complete the last 100 kilometers. As a result, accommodation tends to get booked up. I have had to make a reservation for where I will stay tonight. This has meant that I have had to arrive at my destination by 3 p.m. This has been quite a challenge in this heat to cover the distance of 31 kilometers.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Not such a good day and a better day

I started out from Molinaseca in good form at first light and easily covered the eight kilometres to Ponferrada. After a brief stop in that city, in which I encountered a whole lot of young children facinated with meeting a real live pilgrim. Actually, I am not so sure that I am alive as this day the pain in my shins developed later to a really terrible plantar fascitis. This slowed me down to such a slow pace that for the last 5 kilometres to Cacabelos, I was forced to take a taxi. The plantar fascitis feels as if I have a large rock inside the sole of my shoe. Therefore, each step forward gives immense pain. Couple that with thirty two degree temperatures and I was in no condition to continue. Still I have managed 25 kilometres. My fear has been that my thirty seven kilometres the day before had done lasting damage that might have resulted in the end to my camino.

What I have learnt from this is that I need to realise that there is a limit to my endurance. Avoiding excess will stand me in good stead.

Last night I met Hubert, a Swiss who practices Reiki in his spare time. Somehow he has given me renewed energy because today I managed the walk to Vega de Valcarce relatively pain free by 1.30 p.m. This was a more reasonable distance of only 24 kilometres. From now on, if possible I will avoid the marathons. What I have found is that getting up before light is a very good way of avoiding the extreme heat. My travel companion today is from Germany. I would like to apologise to all the Germans who I have encountered along the way who I had dismissed as fanatics for disturbing my beauty sleep. Walking at first light is really peaceful and meditative.

Tomorrow is another mountain range. I am not yet sure what my destination will be. I am going to take it one moment at a time and see what is possible.

Last night I had dinner with David and Vivienne, an English Anglican Minister and his wife. They have helped support me in my journey and have supplied me with topical pain killer. We have had very interesting discussion on the history of pilgrimages. Plus, along the way, we have again discovered commonality in people we know - six degrees of separation.

I have just another 10 days left on this particular camino. I am facinated why I am pushing myself to these extremes. What I do realise is that this is addictive.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Charlotte, Torben and 37 kilometres of travel

Today was an unusual day. For the first time got up at 5.30 a.m. with the intention of traveling some distance. I am starting to worry that I may not have allotted sufficient time to get to Santiago de Compostela. I was also a little concerned that I needed to be well on my way before the sun was at its most intense. Found that the battery on my flashlight was almost completely depleted. Therefore, without waking my fellow travelers, I was floundering about in the dark trying to pack a backpack

I was on the road by 6.15 a.m. just a little after first light. By early evening, I had set a record and exceeded my own personal best distance and was 37 kilometers closer to my destination. Despite the crossing of a mountain range that included a differential of over 500 meters, I found that the ascent was comparatively easy. My cardio vascular is excellent. The descent seemed to increase the pain in my shins. With an evening meal inside me and copious amounts of red wine, the world is fine again. The weather has gone from unseasonably cold to unseasonably hot. Certainly, the camino has the ability to test. I am now in a little town called Molinaseca - just 8 kilometres before Ponferrada.

Have heard that a Spaniard on my path today had to be rescued by helicopter because of heatstroke. This camino requires vigilence, without which you can easily be taken out of the picture. It is essential to stay in the present.

Have met some interesting people along the way. The first was Charlotte, who is originally from South Africa but has been living in Germany with her husband. She is 67 years old and was a violinist with a leading orchestra in Germany. Her husband was a bassoon player. She decided to come on El Camino because her husband has always organised all aspects of her life. She fears that if he were to die, she would be incapable of taking care of the minute details of daily life. So here she is along on the camino. She tells me about her children, one of which is also a bassoon player and married to a flautist. The children had met at the University of Freiburg, when they were students of William (Wib) Bennett. Six degrees of separation because Wib had conducted private lessons at my house in Toronto.

I have asked her whether if, in walking, she hears music? Yes indeed she does, but it is not classical, but more a rhythmic four breaths in and three breaths out. My own music, with the 30 degree temperatures, are the music scores of Sergio Leone movies - the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Occasionally, I will move into Ten Green bottles.

The second person along the route was Torben who introduces himself as "Torben and I am 125 kilos." Grammatically, he is correct. However, that is not who he is. He is a man who does neuro linguistic programming and he has a personality that is inspiring.He says that he is on the Camino because, with his weight problem, he would rather died here than die in front of a computer at home. Along the way, I see a young man running up hill towards us - crazy in this intense heat. It turns out that this is his son who had gone on ahead to book accommodation and who has returned with fresh water. Their embrace brings a tear to my eye.

Almost at the summit of this mountain range, I came to a monument called the Cruz de Ferro (Iron Cross) set upon a huge pile of stones. This marks the border between the land of the Maragatos and the region of El Bierzo. Adding a stone from home to the pile is an important modern pilgrim ritual. It is an exercise in letting go - perhaps a relationship that has disintegrated, the death of a loved one, or just a symbol of some aspect of the self that no longer works. I found myself overwhelmed by the energy and intensity of what was there. Some had inscribed their stones, some had written love poems and in one corner was a picture of three children between the ages of six and ten who had died in a car crash. What unbearable pain.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Santa Catalina de Somoza

Another very hot day. However, I will try not to use this as an excuse to complain. Coming to the end of the flat lands of the meseta. Approaching ever closer are snow capped mountains. In the next couple of days there will be a physical challenge equal in intensity to the Pyrenees. I will be ascending to altitudes upwards of 1500 meters. As of tonight, I have just another 257 kilometers to Camino de Santiago.

Rather sad news. Linus - a Canadian from P.E.I. who started his Camino two days before me has succumbed to a heart attack. I met him along the path but did not know him too well. I dedicate the rest of my own Camino to him and to his family.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Hospital de Orbigo

I reached my destination today but miscalculated the distance. I travelled 36 kilometres all before 4.p.m. and feel in good shape. I have some degree of pain but maybe this is part of the course.

The weather has finally turned warm and for the firt time I am able to wear shorts.

I really enjoyed my stay in the hotel in Leon on Sunday, although the bathtub was very small. I never knew I could contract myself into such a small space. I spent the evening going from one tapas bar into the next. I will supply more photos once I have the opportunity. My computer today does not allow this capability.

I travelled today with someone from Korea who has just arrived from his homeland. I think he was counting on me for guidance on the beginning of his camino. This sort of a distance may be a little much for his first day. Time will tell. In describing his involvement with meditation back home, his teachers continually asked him the question, "who are you?" I still do not feel that I can answer this. Not sure after my walk today whether I am a peregrino, a pelegrino, a pelecino or a penguino. Actually, now that it has turned warm, I am probably not the latter.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sunday in Leon

Have decided to take the day off on my journey and stay in Leon. I have checked into a hotel in order to have some lone time and access to my own shower. It will be nice not being in a dormitory in cramped quarters.

I have enjoyed walking around the walled city, stopping off for tapas and a class of tinto, whenever the mood takes me and just enjoying being here. The weather has cooperated. I noticed a strange golden orb in the sky, emitting something that felt like warmth. This is almost the first time in two weeks.

I stayed last night in a Benedictine convent (photo taken from the convent is incuded in this blog) Did not even get the strap! Actually, I really enjoyed the nuns and have understood their Spanish. Went to their evening vespers service, partly out of a sense of nostalgia for things of the past, but also for a more complete immersion into the camino experience. Isabel has suggested that perhaps the camino may lead me back to a greater reconnection with my catholicism. We shall see.

Before taking the bus to Leon, I bumped into Erica, who I had not seen for 5 days. She had travelled ahead of Isabel and Sonia, who are about two days behind her. I really enjoyed meeting up with her and experiencing her emotional reaction. I felt at this moment a real connection with her. I send her my love and wishes for a great camino.

Tomorrow, I plan to get up at sunrise and continue my camino with a 30 kilometre walk to Hospital de Orbigo. I am feeling up to the challenge. I feel the need to pick up the pace.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Friday night and Saturday

Yesterday, I travelled a small 18.5 kilometres to Carrion de los Condes, and was at my destination by 1 p.m. I stayed at the Monastery of the Santa Clara. As incredible as the building is, the space with ones fellow travellers is extremely cramped. By now, I am used to pilgrims getting up at 5.30 a.m. in order to get a start on their journey. I wonder why the hurry. I like to get up at 7.00 a.m and start the day with a hot shower and a cafe con leche.

The problem is that I have slightly miscalculated my timing on this journey. I have a flight booked to fly to London from Santiago de Compostella on May 30th. Therefore, there are not enough days left to walk the whole distance. Therefore, I am taking a bus to Leon for just over 100 kilometres, which should cut off about 4 days walking. I will really miss walking over the flat landscape of the meseta. There is something meditatively attractive about the flat lands.

Two days ago, Pepe caught up to me at Castrojeriz. Somehow he had travelled from Burgos to that town in one day. Anyway, we spent a little more time on the walk together and had dinner a couple of times. We said our final goodbyes yesterday. I had already had my dinner a little earlier, had dropped into the local church and there he was. He asked me to join him for dinner and I really did not have the heart to tell him that I had already eaten. Therefore I ended up eating twice that evening with - of course the requisite amount of red wine. Still no hangover!

So, I will be sad not to see Pepe again on this trip. You will be always in my heart. "Estoy estar chupao"`

Thursday, May 13, 2010


Another day started with temperature barely above freezing. I almost feel the privilege of having been exposed to Canadian winters. Rain gear was needed today. Still problems with confronting mud. Very important to stay in the present, as a moment of inattention resulted in me landing heavily face forward in the mud.

Today I managed 26 kilometres to Fromista. I could have travelled further but then one runs the risk of arriving at one´s destination to find that all accommodation has been taken.

Technically I am in the flat landscape of the meseta. At this point it is more like rolling countryside.

Yesterday, met some young Australians 29 and 27 who have been experiencing real problems with the cold, the rain and the mud. They are getting married in November and decided that they wanted to do El Camino before their big event. One might have thought that El Camino might be more easily accomplished by the young. The reality is much different and I have encountered many young people experiencing real hardship to the point of having to cut short their journey as a result of severe blisters, tendinitis, knee problems and shin splints. The city of Burgos, two days back, seems to be the collecting place of the walking wounded.

Perhaps it is the ones unreasonable expectation of El Camino that are to blame.

An example of someone most likely to succeed in her journey is Isabel. I have not seen her for 4 days now although I have had word that she is just one day behind me. In my early days of El Camino she usually arrived at her destination ahead of me. At age 77 she is about 5´feet tall. One of her more flippant answers as to why she is doing El Camino is that she thought climbing Mount Everest might be unreasonable. She embarked on El Camino against the advice of her children when one of her grandaughters might pòssibly accompany her. She is completing El Camino one step at a time. She sees the positive in everyone she meets and is fabulous company on the journey. I really miss her. Perhaps one of her reasons for success in her journey is that she is very much in the present moment. If she gets caught in a rainstorm, there is little point in her wishing she was somewhere else. It is her acceptance of her reality that is an inspiration.

I might wish for warmer weather, just enough rain to be able to cool off, even single room with en suite bathroom, but that is not the reality.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Walking and the weather

Voltaran continues to be my friend. After two hours of walking out of Burgos, I was still feeling twinges of leg pain. 8.5 kilometres brought me to the little town of Tardjos - not a memorable eating place and I was fearing that I might get stranded here because of limited ability to walk with reasonable speed. However, a cafe con leche and a ham sandwich somehow seemed to give me new strength and I was able to get all the way to my target destination of Hornillos del Camino - about 21 kilometres. By my time of arrival the beds at the refugio were full and my only choice was to sleep in a massive gymnasium. Actually, that suited me fine as an alternative to cramped bunk beds. Others around me were complaining of the extreme cold. For me this was no hardship with a Canadian sleeping bag rated to minus 10 degrees.

The highlite of the evening continues to be the evening meals with copious amounts of Rioja.

Today, I managed another 21 kilometres, this time my 1 p.m and am installed in Castrojeriz for the night. One of my fellow pilgrims has suggested that this may well have been the setting used for the filming of some of the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns starring Clint Eastwood. That seems somewhat ironic as the image portrayed in the movies is of extreme heat. This is not what I have been experiencing for the last two weeks.

This has been the coldest May on record in Spain for the past 125 years. When I get up each morning, temperatures are barely above freezing. So far I have been in luck that this has not been accompanied by much rain. It has tended to thunder and rain during the night. Although the temperature makes walking not too unpleasant, the rain has resulted in mud clinging to the shoes and adding another two kilos in weight and more strain on the legs.

This is certainly a camino, not necessarily how one would wish the journey to proceed, but how life happens.

Somehow I am enjoying the experience.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Commercial Message

I would like to thank Advil and Voltaran 50 mg for having made possible the crossing of the Pyrenees without pain and for having solved my shin splint problem. Of course some proper stretches, advised by Richelle back at the clinic have also helped immensely. I feel like a racehorse again and am ready to proceed. I had thought that I would be sidelined for a little while while recovery took its time. Not that that would have been a bad thing.

I also want to thank Doug, Averill, Donato and Don who have been encouraging me onwards from back home in Canada.

I have loved Burgos - birthplace for me of Ferdinand the Bull!! - my favorite childhood story, originally written in 1939 about a bull that would not fight and only wanted to smell the flowers. I won´t spoil the whole story for you, but he becomes the hero. Burgos is also home to El Cid who managed mythical proportions in his fight against Moors. This is not such a great story as, under their occupation, there was at least religious toleration for Jews and Christians.

Last night I was feeling a little down and bumped into Brad at a bar opposite the cathedral who I had not seen since Los Arcos - approximately 5 days ago. He works with inner city kids and is from New York. We ended up having a few beers together and then going with a bunch of people for dinner. Thanks Brad, you helped me more than you realize.