Category: Camino History

The Unknown World Or…Days 38-40: June 17-19

Finisterre

   When I was still in preparation for this pilgrimage, I wrote a post entitled “Momentum” about the phases of the journey and the idea of sliding my own footsteps into those of pilgrims many centuries old once I began. Now I can’t even begin to imagine what it was like after, in some cases, many months depending on where they started…finally arriving in Santiago de Compostela–the Field of Stars–and the cathedral with all its opulence, pomp and circumstance. But even more so, for those who elected to make the further journey to Finisterre, Land’s End, all the way to the sea. For some, seeing such a large body of water for the first time.
   What it must have been like…gazing out from the End of the World, as it was known at the time. Anything beyond the horizon was unknown and, for all they knew, could have been The Great Abyss. From the Field of Stars to the End of the World, the two seem linked in some way.
   This is where I went to more reflect on my Camino and where it has brought me. Finisterre is a small town, but I elected to stay out of town away from the crowds, overlooking the sea and a short walk away from the lesser frequented beach on the western side called Praia Foro do Mar. I spent most of my time there gazing out at the view and walking the beach. Indeed the ocean seemed to stretch into oblivion. Depending on the time of day, it shimmered, not much differentiation from water to sky, and could have been easily taken in those old times for a pathway continuing to the heavens.
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   I have been sheltered on this journey in a way pilgrims weren’t back then, or for so many people today. Life has been simple. You get up. You walk. Although I had some challenges, I was not attacked or robbed. I had food and water. I had a bed to sleep in. I was not isolated. The outside world was kept at bay. Life has been simple.
   I made the mistake of turning on TV for the first time since I began the Camino and watched the news on Al Jazeera, known for not candy coating the facts. I saw the reports from home on the latest acts of racism and violence. Having been sheltered from these increasingly regular occurrences for the last two months, I can’t describe the level of horror and sadness with which I took this in.
   Somewhere on this pilgrimage, I read where–I believe it was the Dalai Lama–was quoted, “We see bad news because it is news.” Essentially saying, so much good is in the world it’s not news of difference but the bad is. Perhaps seeing that statement was preparing me for the moment I mentioned above.  It’s something to sit with. About halfway through the Camino, a woman from Greece asked me if I thought evil exists. I answered yes. You can’t have light without the dark. Somehow there’s a way to integrate the two and/or accept what is. I know Indigenous traditions that do, the Maya being one. I don’t know much about Buddhism but think something similar is true within that belief system.
   Although I never really left this world, there was a buffer. Now I’m faced with being reminded to provide my own buffer, while still acknowledging these things are there. It’s the world I’m re-entering. To deny otherwise is fooling myself.
   I started this walk asking to learn how to be most present, and continue doing what I love and care deeply about…but with more grace and ease…and give care to myself much more. I come back to this intent, this question.
   When I bought the bus ticket back to Santiago, the agent said, “It’s good for any day. There are no assigned seats.” To my ears I heard a deeper message: This must be the threshold I spoke of at that communal meal back in St Jean when answering why I chose to undertake this pilgrimage.
   I’m at a choice point. There’s no prescribed path but the one I choose. There never is. I’m disengaging from the footsteps of pilgrims past and landing firmly back into my own–although I never left them.
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   In “Momentum” I spoke of the small (but mighty) Singing Bowl my dear friend Hilary Bee had entrusted me to carry on the Camino. I sounded it during key points for me along the way, the most recent standing, facing the sea, at the End of the World. The vibrations of the Camino live within its shape as much as its pronouncements are sent ahead. With gratitude I’ll send it back across the ocean to Hilary in the UK once I’m back home where I’ll sound it to introduce those vibrations to the larger bowl she made, her community supported, and she gave to me. Full circle.
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***
In Finisterre I booked a place through airbnb.com with Rosa Trabo Martinez for a room listed as Einzelzimmer Cape Finisterre. It’s actually a modern three-story home with other bedrooms available and common rooms, bathrooms and kitchen. I had the good fortune to be the only guest while there at a very reasonable rate. Rosa lives next door and was so accommodating to me. And you can’t top the quiet or view. If you’re thinking of going to Finisterre, I highly recommend.

Stamp and Confession

 Lavacolla is where, in the old tradition, pilgrims wash themselves before continuing on the last distance to Santiago. This is where I reserved a place to stay for the night. Shortly before the village there was an old church. A sign outside said: Stamp and Confessions.
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  I went in to stamp my pilgrim passport. Confession? There are many ways of washing oneself clean. I saw no priest. I’m left with any readers here as witnesses, which is more relevant to me personally.

  I’ve never pushed my physical limits like I did with this journey. My body responded accordingly. With outrage, complaining…not so different than the psyche has when I push my ego boundaries.

   A multitude of warnings, some I hadn’t previously documented: shooting foot pain, strain, exhaustion, consistently (alarmingly) bloodshot, watering eyes. Swollen ankles. Troubling but painless red marks moving up to my calves. The latter now gone. I can see my ankles again and my foot has quieted. I had no idea my body could send out so many forms of protest. I paid attention.
  Over my adult years, I’ve continually pushed the limits of my mind and spirit, often intensely, choosing to put myself in unknown, often uncomfortable territories, scary places, different cultures. The spiritual realm has been wonder-filled, in hindsight beyond what I could have imagined. That aspect has always been easy for me. The places where the ego needs to stretch and get beyond limitations, small-mindedness, not particularly easy or graceful but in the end…freeing–always.
  The first book I wrote was really about sorting out so much of what I’d encountered to that point, to find meaning, sometimes awkwardly. There was a chapter I called “Bootcamp for the Soul.”
  Here’s what I’ve discovered: This very physical Camino has been another approach to the same end. Another bootcamp and way to integrate the whole.
  Much, as I’ve written, has been mundane and difficult, a challenge. During the first communal meal…all the way back in St Jean…we were asked to say why we were undertaking the Camino. I said, “It’s a threshold.” People waited to see if I’d say more. But that’s all I could say. There was nothing else.
  In this process, I found beauty in my surroundings and camaraderie in conversations over dinner or a roadside cafe stopping for coffee. I have been reminded what it is to be fully present.
  I walked alone but found myself in community. There were times when I seriously needed physical help. I learned to be comfortable asking for assistance–and angels appeared in my path. I persisted within my physical strength which has brought me to this place.
  These awareness are coming fairly swiftly. I just wanted to jot them down. They may be better formed and more conclusive at some later point.
  This is my confession.
  Better to capture and state now. I’m getting ready for the traditional washing–in this case a shower–and these random awarenesses may otherwise disappear down the drain.

Contrast Or … Days 25-27: June 3-5

Leon

There’s always contrast on a journey. Things that get your attention because there’s an unexpected juxtaposition. I chose Leon for mine. It’s a city of about 130,000 that grew up around its historical center having significant importance to the Camino. I’m staying toward the train station. Hence, in a more urban area. The first thing I noticed is how beautifully stylish the Spanish city women are. Their fashion sense reminds me of Paris in some ways; what amazing things can be done with jeans, a scarf and the right shoes. Of course, I can tell you…we pilgrims have none of these things. We’re into function no matter where we’re from.
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The second has to do with art. After weeks of appreciating Medieval art, I was ready for a change. I stumbled upon a place on a hostel website. It turned out to be family-run Hotel Quindos. What attracted me was its tag line: For the love of art. One review said, “Weird art.” That cinched it for me. Where have you stayed in lodging that has original artwork in every room, every few feet, including the one where you sleep? I almost feel like home.
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Well, there’s one piece I can’t quite figure out. At first I thought it was a political statement having to do with Franco. It’s a large work and takes a while to sort it all out. Now looking at the image I took…not so sure. Interesting anyway.
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I asked the man at reception about the contemporary art museum. He said they just have rotating exhibitions. I decided I was game. When I returned he said in perfect English, “Sometimes these artists like that don’t let us know what they’re thinking.” Enough said…except I’d rather see edgy art than something made solely for commercial purposes. Art in its best sense documents culture and makes a statement. After all, what we know of the past is well said through art and literature, or tells of the future, reaching deeper. So much more than meeting criteria: It must fit over the sofa perfectly and match the decor color. That’s probably what I appreciate about Hotel Quindos. They don’t care what you think.
Then I wandered down to the historic area and was surprised to find an early Gaudi.
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Then there’s the queen: Cathedral de Santa Maria de Leon. There’s an unusual delicacy about its soaring spires and buttresses. But the same could be said of a number of cathedrals I’ve seen. What makes it so special is the interior “play of stone and light”, as it said in the guide recording. They were referring to all the stained glass, one next to the other with out-of the-ordinary color schemes and images of any I’ve ever seen.
In Michener’s Iberia, he tells of a time when a prominent local coerced him into coming to the church plaza at 3 a.m.–after a few bottles of Rioja–saying he had a special surprise. This would have been about 50 years ago and Leon was a mere shadow of its present-day self. Few were out. The night had wound down. But suddenly as they were standing out in the plaza…all the lights inside the church flipped on, shining through all the stained glass into the night. The local had a confederate inside who performed this trick just for Michener…who said it was a sight to behold. But nothing like when they went inside with full lights illuminating all the glass. It’s difficult to capture all within the format limitations of a camera. But here’s an untouched photo to get the idea.
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I also also spotted an interesting relief on the outside mixed in with the others. I’d seen others similar elsewhere. Built on the backs of men?
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The rest of the time I spent people-watching and couldn’t resist this dog, too.
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Tomorrow I’m headed to Sarria on a train from Leon, to make up for time I was laid up, where it is my intent to finish those last 111 km walking into Santiago. All good thoughts welcome. I appreciate the time-out in the city, but I’m ready to return to the relative quiet of the open path and villages.

People and Places Or… Days 21-24: May 30-June 2

Calzadilla de la Cueza-San Nicholas del Real Camino-Sahagun

Sahagun is said to be the halfway point for the Camino Frances…and I’m here. Arriving, I couldn’t help but notice all the swallows swooping through town and three storks nested on top of the old church now housing the municipal hostel. That and the celebratory halfway point was a good excuse as any to stay a couple of nights.
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Pilgrim passport with stamps documenting my walk. Sahagun starts the other side.
Before I left home I’d downloaded James Michener’s Iberia. I enjoyed his books many years ago, although they were often quite dense. One thing could be said for him in that he was faithful to the history and flavor of the region he wrote about, which is why I brought this one along. I finally opened it last night. It’s a combination travel diary and historical reference documenting his lifelong love affair with Spain and her people. There’s a very long section about the Camino. He’d traveled it three times. Below is one reminiscence.
“…Once I had walked sixty miles through this peninsula, carrying a pilgrim’s staff eight feet long, and as it swung methodically through the air…I had discovered what it must have been like physically to lug such a heavy staff across Spain; the kinesthetic sense of the staff swinging ever onward had drawn me forward with it. But not even the walk and the staff had told me how the pilgrim had felt inwardly, but here in Castrogeriz, as I swung along the road and into town, I became a pilgrim in imagination as well as in reality, and from that moment on I was to have a sense of what these distant hordes of people experienced as they picked their way from town to town across an inhospitable land, finding occasionally in a monastery or hospital a friendship so warm as to reward them for all the hours of isolation…”
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I can really resonate with this passage. The walking stick does seem to pull me along. I’ve developed a thump-step-step-thump rhythm. And I can tell you it’s a comforting companion. Particularly when I left Carrion de Los Condes headed for Calzadilla de la Cueza. In the guidebook there was a warning that nothing but dusty road through endless fields existed along this stretch. No trees. No villages with a possibility of rest stop on this 17 km. Take plenty of water and something for lunch. The distance itself wasn’t beyond my capability but being without what was absent made for a tough day walking in solitude in the hot sun.
It’s amazing to me how some of the villages can hide in small dips in the landscape when it appears that the trek stretches on endlessly. I can tell you that Calzadilla was a welcome sight as was the great hospitality in the place I stayed. Many of those who run the albergues and hostels have walked the Camino themselves…and they know exactly what a pilgrim needs at the end of a long day.
Reading Michener’s encounters with local scholars and characters made a point. If you sprint through these places you don’t really experience the people who live there. The other pilgrims and those who service them…sure. But there are whole communities who open their arms and hearts. We pilgrims are guests and most of the locals treat us as such.
Particularly the older residents greet me in passing and say, “Buen Camino!” I got into Sahagun  early and went to a cafe to wait for the tourist office to open for information on a hostel that would lodge me two nights. The cafe owner told me about a family-run hostel – “muy amable” – took me outside pointing down the street, indicating to just go straight. No street name. Well, pretty soon a few streets came together, and it was impossible to tell what straight was. I finally ended up on Plaza Mayor, looking quite lost I’m sure. An older gentleman approached me asking if I was looking for the Camino. I told him not today but showed him the paper with the hostel’s name. He motioned to come with him, talking all the while we walked, until he showed me a street and motioned. I thanked him and set out. But not before hearing him stop a very elderly woman going in my direction, asking her to make sure I got there. She did. This morning I returned to the cafe from yesterday for coffee and croissant. The owner’s face brightened. She beamed at me and said, “I was thinking about you so much and worrying if you would find it!” She was genuine.
Spain has had a very rough time in the economic downturn. Many of the villages look deserted, a number that were once rich strongholds of the Knights Templar now greatly diminished in size and importance. There has been an ebb and flow of pilgrims over the centuries. I am so glad this current upsurge has brought a new economy to these small burgs, making life a bit easier for these down-to-earth, hardworking people. I’m happy to spend my euros here.
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 If I have any regret, it’s that I don’t have better fluency in the language or the privilege that Michener had in being introduced to local sages and scholars…or his vast understanding of the art and architecture of the Middle Ages. His words on the page make the mysteries and meaning of those times come alive for me. I’d like to return and linger in each village and town, his writings on these places helping to ferret out what once existed and more appreciate what still does.

The Way Before Me

The double entendre of this post title is intended. Standing in the shelter of a threshold I can look back to history as well as gaze forward into the unknown with expectancy. No longer hovering before the threshold, I took the step forward. I’m actively preparing. But the next big move is placing that first footfall on the dirt of the Camino Francés.

PilgrimScallopI can’t tell you exactly why I decided to walk the Camino de Santiago. When I think about it, I realize thoughts of the Camino had been hovering in the background for years—but without any aspirations or inspirations. I may have read a book about it way back when. I do note that I used the term “pilgrim” as a thematic metaphor in my first book Calling Our Spirits Home. It’s not a word I could recall using before writing that book and haven’t since until now. But maybe in its use a seed was already germinating. Now I’m about to become one in an official sense. Soon I’ll receive my pilgrim’s passport, which will be stamped along the route.

Here’s what cinched it for me. Last August I spent two one-week sessions back-to-back as a Vaughan Town volunteer in Spain. My sole job was to have conversations in English, most times one-on-one, with Spanish business professionals who were learning the language. It was somewhat akin to those speed-dating venues, albeit no romantic search intended, except each one lasted an hour with serial partners every day while we were all sequestered in lovely locales. After a while I got quite bored with telling my own background, and they were sick of telling theirs. So I took that opportunity to do a little research, asking each if they knew anything about the Camino. I was surprised to hear that a good number of them had done it, even more than once. And, to a one who had done so, they greatly encouraged me to do it, too. I was pulled to do the Vaughan Town adventure and knew there was a reason. Aside from returning to Spain after many years and having a great time getting to know Spaniards, I believe I needed to hear their encouragement. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t be at the juncture of this 500-mile foot journey.

Legend has it the tomb of St. James was found by a hermit in 9 A.D. after a vision led him to the site in the Galicia area of northwestern Spain, now Santiago de Compostela. In the months since my decision to go, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on this pilgrimage that goes back to the Middle Ages: the meaning of it and the multitudes who have gone before me, people searching for something or forced into it through Inquisition-ordered penance, better than being burned at the stake no doubt. The journey was a difficult one dealing with uncertainty and extreme hardship. Yet they went. Many didn’t make it home. Such extremes don’t exist on the Camino today. But it remains a multi-leveled challenge. A visit to any of the online pilgrim forums will tell you that.

The SpiritWhy do people continue to go? Why am I going? There’s something about pilgrimage, the holy places and those who go there with intent. There’s an energy that builds over time and remains resident in the very earth of a place. I think about the millions of feet that have traveled over the very places I will place my own. And I know I will feel, at the visceral level, the hopes, dreams, pain and joy—all those aspects of the human condition—that remain resident there as I slide my footsteps into theirs and uncover my own similarities and discover the gifts of the Camino.

This is what I’m holding right now, as I’m resting in the shelter of the threshold, considering what’s ahead.

My old friend Oscar Panizo and I are undertaking the Camino together. He’s the perfect companion on this journey. Oscar acted as translator, support and fellow space-holder for years in my spiritual travel programs in Peru. We’ve already experienced many flavors of pilgrimage together: the full range of ecstatic to difficult. We know we can depend on each other and have similar temperaments. We’ll officially begin the Camino on May 7 in St. Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees. But I think we’ve already begun.

To be continued…