Thursday, June 18, 2015

Further reflections on walking the Camino

I might forever be adding to my further reflections on walking the Camino. Even from five years ago, I have thought about the significance of this journey on an almost daily basis. It makes up the major component of the book on which I have been working.  

People have asked me whether I would consider a third pilgrimage. Halfway through this last one, I would have answered that there was nothing to induce me to do this again; that I was tired both physically and emotionally. Now, I am not so sure. There is something entirely addictive about walking the Camino. 

Seemingly everyday events seem to take on a supra-normal intensity that gnaws at the psyche: a teacher and junior school students interact with sheer delight in each other’s company in a class project in the town square; a human voice raised in song; the curiosity of a child in a darkened cathedral, desperately trying to behave but yet his natural exuberance getting the better of him; tears of gratitude expressed on someone’s face for some small returned favour; a boy walks with his young girlfriend hand-in-hand; a father walks the Camino with his two sons; smiles, hugs and a genuine sense of happiness when reconnecting with pilgrims that you had met earlier and assumed that you would never meet again. These are all human moments.

In normal life back home you may not notice such times, or you take such gestures for granted and give them but a passing thought. It feels good to be observant of human emotion and, perhaps, we crave such times because it helps connect us together in a world so often disconnected to what is important. We have time to observe life and its important moments. This should be our Camino.

Boy and girl walk hand-in-hand

Father and son

Ferdinand:  He liked to sit just quietly and smell the flowers
Man and his ass

Daughter and father
School children in Ponferrada waving at this possibly mad pilgrim

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Some initial reflections of walking the Camino

 Will I be able to complete the journey or will I have to entertain defeat and spend the rest of the month on a beach in Ibiza? Each time, in anticipating the Camino, both in 2010 and in 2015, my insecurities are at the fore. Supposedly, having completed the Camino in 2010, I know what to expect. However, I am five years older and maybe even less up to the task of more than 30 days of strenuous walking. The perverse thing is that, in the worst case scenario of being unable to walk the Camino, I would probably spend the next month on a beach in Ibiza or some such other warm destination. That’s not too shabby an existence, is it?

Certainly, the first day of the Camino in the crossing of the Pyrenees mountains did nothing to put that fear to rest. Both times, my arrival in Roncesvalles on the Spanish side of those mountains, physically and emotionally drained and to the limit of my endurance, brought me to a place of despair. Although that first day is not the longest stretch of the Camino, it is the first day of extreme exercise. 

The Refugio at Roncesvalles is large and sprawling and I find it austere, the staff unfriendly and maybe even unsupportive of my efforts on this Camino. I have named Roncesvalles the “Valley of Despair.”

The dawning of a new day has brought me new hope and I set forth with a sense of optimism and happy anticipation. I cannot wait to leave Roncesvalles. However, I do not discount the value of having stayed here because I find I need some place of ‘despair’ to appreciate fully the rest of my life journey, which generally has been happy and harmonious. 

What I have noticed in walking the Camino a second time is that it takes longer to get from one place to another than I had originally remembered. However, I try not to focus on the destination but will enjoy every step of the journey one step at a time. Again, this will be my Camino and it is my intent to always walk at the pace that for me is comfortable, grounding and in synch with my psyche. I anticipate a healthy balance of sometimes walking with other people and sometimes walking on my own. I know that I will enjoy both times. Walking with others provides people with whom to share one's experience, and walking on my own is an internal journey and opportunity for reflection.

A few things have changed since my first Camino five years ago. There are many more people walking this path partly as a result of increased coverage by the media, including a film entitled ‘The Way’ starring Martin Sheen, and a documentary entitled ‘Walking the Camino: six ways to Santiago.’ Some pilgrims that I met have criticized this as making the walking of the Camino Frances (St. Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela) too commercialized. Yes, there are more people, but that does not mean that one cannot benefit from an internal spiritual journey of reflection and celebration. If the number of people is too much a distraction, then this suggests that the problem is with the person. It’s more difficult, but it should be possible to find peace and tranquility in the busiest intersection on the planet.
Wifi is now everywhere, including in most of the Refugios. This can be a blessing in that one can stay connected with family and significant other, but it is a drawback in that it takes us away from the process of total immersion in the Camino experience. 

What is the Camino experience? That is a very personal question and I imagine that every pilgrim may have a slightly different answer. My reason for walking the Camino was as a celebration of having reached a landmark year. Apart from the physical activity of walking an average of twenty-five kilometers a day, and the benefits that accompany this, I was looking for a simplification of my life. The central activity is to walk. That is what one does: walking lightly on the Earth and, at the same time, staying fixed firmly in the present moment. One takes one step at a time, placing one foot after the other. Wishing to be somewhere else, perhaps at one’s destination for the day, is to court disaster. Accidents occur when someone is not in the present moment. As I was walking, I realised that a moment of inattention on uneven terrain could result easily in a sprained ankle or a fall, and then it would be the end of this part of my Camino.

While walking, as Miriam my yoga teacher has always stressed, remember to breathe. I am not always good at that. The breath enables one to engage, relax and, therefore, cope successfully with an activity. In a place of either emotional or physical pain, the tendency can be to breathe shallowly. Walking long distances on a daily basis can bring with it attendant pain, so deep breathing is a very good way of dealing with the challenges of a physical effort slightly beyond one’s ability to endure.

Another benefit of breathing deeply is that, with increased oxygen to the brain, I find that it increases my presence on the journey. There are stunningly beautiful landscapes, forever changing, and I have found that, by breathing properly, it intensifies the grandeur of such a dramatic terrain. I tend to notice more the minute details of nature. On this Camino, I was much more aware of the vibrant colour of the earth, the sky, plants and changing vegetation. Without breathing, I  tend to find myself in a surreal fog. I breathe and, as a result, am stunned by how fabulous is the world and this Camino in Spain.

The simplification of life by walking the Camino means that other experiences tend to take on a greater intensity and that includes conversations with fellow pilgrims and meal times. In our real lives back home, it is so easy to dismiss as commonplace this communion with souls. On the Camino, there is no Toronto, there is no waiting business back home or other problems vying for our attention. It is a refreshing change to be away from the negativity of media. 

Above all, in the course of four or five weeks, one easily loses track of the day of the week. Really, in the big picture of things, this is insignificant detail anyway. Life is simple and this is my Camino. Get up and walk.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Alan - a character of great interest

I want to do justice to the man and I fear that my words will provide an inadequate description of the colourful person who has made rich my Camino walk for 2015. Five years ago in 2010, I walked with Pepe from Alicante and it was that man who was so special and meaningful. They are very different in disposition but similar in that they have both influenced my life in a significant way and will not easily be forgotten. Both men are flawed in some way, but it also means that they are human. I want to be surrounded by people that are human.

Alan is Irish, ten years younger than me, has tattoos, a totally shaved head, is muscular and shows signs of a nasal fracture. The latter could be from competitive sport, but I immediately think he may have been involved in some sort of physical altercation. I also detect a lot of anger. There is something about the physical persona that I find scary although, to my knowledge, I have never been wronged by anyone who answers that description. 

I meet Alan for the first time at a cafe along the Camino where we are both enjoying a light lunchtime meal. He is with Sophie, a French woman whom he met along the way and who is resident in London. One meets people on the Camino who are from all walks of life. Sometimes the meeting is a one-time event and afterwards you go your own way.   Life is like that. You walk the same path with someone and then you separate. On very rare occasions, there is something in the relationship that is more substantial and long lasting.

Our tendency is to judge someone on immediate first impression. That can be unfortunate because it is often based on prejudice and doesn’t take in the essence of the person. It may not even be about that other person but about ourselves. Fortunately, there are others forces at play, the most important of which is an energy or vibe that would contradict any manifestation of external appearance. Somehow I must have liked the vibe because three weeks into our Camino we are still together. I also love his sense of humour even if it is directed around some very painful issues.

We get talking about the English-Irish relationship and the historical wrongs that were inflicted by one country on another. I can’t fault him on any of his information because he is well informed about the Easter Uprising of 1916. I may even be on the wrong side of history because, apparently when my family owned a castle in Waterford back in 1790 we were described as “infamous.” That might certainly not help bond us in a  meaningful and harmonious relationship on this Camino.

There is my history and there is his history. He describes himself as a recovered heroin addict. He lost a brother and a nephew to heroin. He had planned originally to walk the Camino with his father three years ago, but his father had developed cancer and died within a short time. So he is walking to Santiago for his father. I am starting to like his story. In answering his question of why I am walking the Camino, I reply that I am doing this walk as a way of celebrating my life despite all the many stupid things that I have done in sixty-five years. I feel lucky to be alive. He tells me that the only thing that he regrets in his life is that he smoked cigarettes until he developed Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. He too describes his journey as a celebration.

His language is quite harsh  and abrasive with a large smattering of different swear words. Despite the colourful vocabulary, from the rest of our conversation it becomes apparent that he is extremely well read and knowledgable on many levels from literature to music, history, and politics. I don’t like his take on American involvement in the world, which he sees as providing a police force and I see as interference. We are now moving beyond the superficial austere look of tattoos and Yul Brynner haircuts.  But where is the heart of the man? I want to see what makes him tick. I have an intuitive sense, just as I had with Pepe, that I have something to learn from him.

What do we do on the Camino? We tell stories. He loved his brother, but his brother has passed on. He had been in a remand home at age thirteen run by the Christian Brothers where he was physically and sexually abused. In later life, he was a high achiever until he overdosed on heroin. How does the survivor get over that? Some of us do and some of us don’t. It’s hard not to be tainted in some way by such an experience. Alan won’t forget and he won’t forgive. He’s wary of all priests although he has some who are golfing buddies. Where am I in all this? There’s me who wants to fix the world and wants him to let go of the past and move on. I realise that this is an unrealistic expectation that sets me up for failure and I cannot force the issue. It’s not about me. 

Alan is now a caregiver to his brother’s son, who is grown up but diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome. He is missing his nephew while away walking the Camino although he describes the process of looking after him as sometimes frustrating. I sense that Alan sees his responsibility of caregiver beyond being a familial duty. He does it because it is the right thing to do.

Alan is experiencing neck and shoulder pain and, although I try to relieve this through physical therapy, I am just not having any significant positive result. I have to let go of that expectation. Again my wishing to have positive results is pure ego on my part and has no place in the equation. I want him to have a long and healthy life, but this is not my responsibility. I cannot grant this nor is he asking to be fixed.  

Alan has the gift of being able to effectively engage people we meet along the Camino and has a remarkable ability to remember names and faces. He has a genuine interest in his fellow travelers and seems ecstatically happy when we happen to bump into someone that we had met several days previously. I phoned him this morning from Toronto and he tells me that he is meeting next week with four Irishmen that he had met on the journey and that Sophie will be flying over from England to join them. Relationships for Alan are forever. I know that from the stories he tells.

One afternoon along the way we meet a twenty-five-year-old German man whom Alan had encountered three or four days previously. At that time, the young man was evidently in huge discomfort, disoriented and headachy. It was probably heat stroke. Alan had ensured that a passing motorist take him to a hospital for medical attention. Now the German is tearfully thanking Allan for his attention. Alan dismisses the gratitude as something that we do for each other on the Camino. Is it really?

Despite a seemingly tough exterior (back again to my image of the tattoo and shaved head) there is a soft and vulnerable side. He has wanted his “credencial” certificate for completion of the Camino to be made out in both his name and that of his father. I am prepared to give him mine if they will not allow this. On arrival in Santiago de Compostela, we go together to the Pilgrim office to have our Camino passports examined for all the necessary stamps needed to receive our certificates. What’s important in a piece of paper? Apparently lots. We exit the office together. We hug. The tears flow. We’ve done this together. We’ve been on an important journey: physical, mental and emotional. We've done it.

I love you, brother.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Arriving in Santiago

I have arrived in Santiago de Compostela. I am tired - very tired. Still no real aches and pains through mechanical malfunctions because the body has responded just as I hoped it would.  Five years ago I experienced knee pain through degenerated cartilage, shin splints and plantar fascitis. This time, none of that. For this, I have to thank the contributions back in Toronto of Heather Speer, my personal trainer and Miriam Patterson and her gentle yoga classes. These have helped with both the physical body and the emotional.

The extreme fatigue is something else. Today, the last day of walking into Santiago was comparatively a short hop - a mere twenty kilometres. This was in contrast to the thirty kilometre days.  However, today seemed the longest day of the whole Camino. All I could do was put one foot in front of the other and somehow propel my way forward. I suspect that it has been difficult because it is the last day of walking. Put me back in the middle of a mountain range and I could easily walk for another month. It´s a habit and it´s what one does, perhaps like brushing one´s teeth. With the final destination in close sight then it is so easy to lose momentum. I wonder whether it is like dying, that final moment of letting go. I felt like this when crossing the flat plains of the Meseta - I thought it was only the young who had problems with that because there is a lack of extreme visual stimulation. I am still thinking about that - with the sun directly behind me, I am in pursuit of my shadow.

During today´s walk, an Australian pulled up alongside me and all he could do was complain about his journey, the people he did not like along the way and, probably by extension, his life. I told him that I would prefer to walk alone and perhaps I am now included among the "inhospitable." Walking through woods in the early morning and the approach to Santiago has been  superb despite the fatigue. Breathing in the air tinged with a tinge of woodiness and eucalyptus is stimulating.

Me arriving in Santiago in 2010

Me arriving in Santiago in 2015

Matt, Richard, Gunnar

Fr. Bart and myself

Myself and Aly

Sally and Alan

At night by the cathedral, the shadow of a phallic shaped objects resembles a pilgrim with staff

I want to write about someone with whom I have been travelling for several days. His name is Alan and it will require a posting all to itself. Along the Camino, one sometimes meets some very special people. For me, Pepe was that special person five years ago. This time it is Alan. So, stay tuned.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

O´Cebreiro and onwards to Triacastela, Sarria and to Portomarin

There is less than 100 kilometres to Santiago and the end of this Camino. I have loved getting lost in time: I have no idea what day it is unless I check my iPhone. Time is not important and really neither is one's destination. It´s about the journey and setting one foot in front of the next and walking. That is the central activity of the day. Get up early in the morning and walk. I love stopping for my Cafe Solo and love stopping for meals. I have also loved sharing experiences with people along the way.

Several nights ago in Vega de Valcarce, I decided to pay for a hotel rather than stay in a Refugio in shared accommodation. It is nice to have that for a change. The hotel was 28 Euros which seemed a rather good price. However, you really do get what you pay for. The electrical light switch in my room was taped over and I felt obliged to check for bedbugs before settling in.  The bathroom was down the hallway and seemed to have no hot water in the men´s facilities and only scalding hot water for the women.One could hear the squeals of pain coming from each place.

The hotel manager closely resembled Pancho Villas and had several important teeth missing. He asked me to join him in a game of Poker in which I have neither skills or interest. In any case, I suspect that he would easily outdraw me in a gun fight.

As you know, I tend to dwell on the positives of any experience: the Camino is a spiritual experience and I suppose therefore that one is lucky to have a towel in the washroom that clearly resembled the "Shroud of Turin" and might even have been the misplaced original.

Tomorrow on to Palas de Rei and only 68 kilometres to Santiago de Compostela.

Walled herb garden of the Refugio at Rabanal

Another piece of Santiago tart for anyone?

Approaching La Cruz de Ferro

Sophie, Alan and me at Ponferrada

Villafranca del Bierzo

Shiatsu therapy clinic in San Xulian near Palas de Rei

Brothers Andy and Mike from London

Gunnar, Aly and Matt

Monday, May 25, 2015

To Astorga, Castrillo de Polvazares, to Rabanal del Camino and beyond

I have been disappointed that I was unable to post photographs to my blog during my walk because the images are worth a thousand words. I content myself with the thought that a thousand images are worth one Zen moment.

Antoni Gaudi's Episcopal Palace in Astorga

Cathedral in Astorga

Some wanted company

Refugio and Benedictine monastery

Tea is served every afternoon at 5 p.m. - very civilised

Whereas, I was feeling tired while crossing the Meseta, the prospect of crossing another mountain range has energised me. I am not sure whether this is in my imagination, but the colours of the landscape seem to me much more vibrant and alive. I have also loved the pathway strewn with thyme and lavender.

Even when I am spending time with Alan and Sophie, my richest moments are when I am walking alone. I enjoy their company and our shared humour but love the solitude. They tend to walk at a faster pace than my own. My pace is the pace at which I can derive the most benefit from my Camino. Walking with Alan and Sophie has brought out my frivolous and silly side, never very far from the surface anyway.

Yesterday I walked across the mountain from Rabanal to Molinaseca. Five years ago, this journey was accompanied by physical discomfort. This time it has been almost effortless, partly because I will take breaks in my walk when necessary.

Today I have been walking through Ponferrada and on to Cacabelos.  It is in Ponferrada that Sophie will be leaving to return to France and eventually back to England. Tomorrow I will be passing Villafranca del Bierzo and onward to Vega de Valcarce before tackling the third mountain range of O´Cebreiro. I am loving this journey.