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One year after walking the Camino: What gifts remain?

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Stones left by pilgrims on the Camino transform a simple rock into an impromptu cairn.

Exactly one year after starting the Camino pilgrimage alone, I was curious to read my journal responses to a questionnaire about the journey. In a Pamplona hotel room on May 27, 2013, I had filled out a self-assessment in John Brierley’s guidebook Camino de Santiago. Since then, I haven’t looked at my responses.

I certainly remember my fears before starting the Camino. One was of wild dogs. In her book about walking the Camino, Shirley MacLaine describes roving gangs of wild dogs that attacked pilgrims. She had to fight them off with her walking stick.

That threatening image stayed with me for more than a decade. It was likely heightened by my memory of watching the movie The Hound of the Baskervilles as a child. In this Sherlock Holmes tale, a deadly dog, supposedly otherworldly, attacks and kills people.

As an adult, even while attending a day-long series of presentations by people who had walked the Camino, I asked one of them if he had had any confrontations with dogs. He had, but it was with one that was chained. He reassured me that most dogs along The Way just barked and almost all were tied up. He didn’t encounter any wild ones.

“Worry is a prayer for what you don’t want,” wrote one pilgrim in an albergue book. I copied this phrase, mentioned in my guidebook, in my journal. On that day in Pamplona, a year ago, I also wrote: “This trip is ultimately going to be about my ATTITUDE . . . My biggest challenge on the El Camino will be not succumbing to negativity and pessimism. That is my tendency when things are not going well.”

Like life itself, the Camino is a journey of the mind, body, and spirit. Fear can play an overwhelming role or just a bit part. Besides initial concerns about theft along the route, I feared that my joints, a previously injured knee and ankle, would give out. In retrospect, none of my fears proved true. What lesson can I learn from this? Fear can be a cautioning ally or a terrorizing tyrant: the choice is mine.

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The Camino bears many forms of crossing a threshold,
such as walking under bridges like this one.

In response to the question “How do you differentiate pilgrimage from a long-distance walk?” I wrote: “A pilgrimage has an intention of inner searching and divine connection, deepening one’s relationship with one’s divine essence . . . A long-distance walk can become a solo pilgrimage, but doesn’t have the same collective archetypal significance. A pilgrimage is more about how the journey is made rather than the destination itself.”

In reply to the question “What do you see as the primary purpose of your life?” I wrote the following: “to live from my truest, deepest Self, by opening to as much self-love and acceptance as possible, and sharing this with others through love and compassion [now I would add “kindness.”]. I added “using words and imagery through writing, editing and teaching to help others and inspire them on their own spiritual journey.”

I liked that for each day of walking the Camino, Brierley, author of my guidebook, addressed both what he called “the practical path” and “the mystical path.” Under the latter heading, he always included some inspirational story or prompt to consider a deeper intention or more soulful perspective to mundane events. This blending of grace and grit, so to speak, was a perfect metaphor for The Way and again, for life itself.

Yet I still struggle to integrate the often-conflicting desires of my head and heart. My ego seeks validation, recognition or status (separateness or individuation) while my heart or soulful Self searches to reconnect with peace, joy and contentment (oneness or interconnectedness). Walking the Camino confronted me with those choices on a daily basis: tap into the innate energetic stillness of nature, of which I am a part, or strive ahead with worry and concern about how, when or where to reach the next destination.

As part of his self-assessment questionnaire or what he calls “inner waymarks,” Brierley asks: “How will you recognize resistance to any changes that might be necessary?” I wrote: “Fear and worry are my resistance . . .when my motivation might be to prove my worth to myself and others, rather than coming from a deeper place. When I am motivated by a desire for SECURITY and SAFETY, rather than risk and testing the Unknown. SELF-DOUBT and NEGATIVITY.”

When I review my list of factors in response to “What appears to be blocking any change from happening?” it seems like a familiar litany: impatience; self-doubt; lack of trust and faith; sense of unworthiness; difficulty in letting things unfold; desire for control, and so on. Yet I recognize that I sit in the director’s chair for the movie of my life. Each of these qualities, like characters, can play a lead role or not be in the cast at all. The choice is up to me.

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Elke and Pam of Langley, BC were among those
I created heartfelt friendships with along The Camino.

One year after walking the Camino, it is still tough for me to embrace the journey itself rather than the destination or goal. Yet I continue to learn to let go more easily and to trust the Unknown, especially as I continue in the path of self-employment. I am still a work-in-progress and always will be.

How did completing the 800-kilometre route change me? It allowed me to overcome fears; to rediscover and reinforce the power of resilience and perseverance; to open to new and lasting friendships; to strengthen a sense of innate Oneness; and discover the joy and satisfaction of fulfilling a life’s dream. That’s more than enough for now.

May 28, 2014 at 8:22 am Comment (1)

Spain and the environment: What’s the carbon footprint of a Camino pilgrim?

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Some rooftop solar panels, rarely seen on the Camino

Since Spain gets so much sun, I expected to see many solar panels while on the 800-kilometre Camino route. Surprisingly, after more than three weeks of walking, the first one I came across was on the roof of a home outside San Martin del Camino. After that, despite walking hundreds of kilometres, I saw only a small handful.

When I mentioned their scarcity to a middle-aged Spanish taxi driver, he said that they were visible in many other places in the country. He didn’t like them because he thought they looked “unaesthetic” and suggested that was why they weren’t situated on the Camino: they were unsightly blemishes on this classic path. His reaction left me stunned—save appearances, not the planet?

It sounds like the south of Spain is the place to see many solar panels. I found out that Solucar, just outside Seville, is Europe’s biggest solar plant.

Unlike traditional solar panels, this complex does not use photovoltaic cells. Instead, long rows of almost 2,000 huge glass mirrors (heliostats) spread across 1,000 hectares to focus solar radiation. This, in turn, produces intense heat that drives steam turbines. This one location supplies clean electricity to about 94,000 households, according to its operating company Abengoa Solar.

As an advocate of alternative energy, I was happy to learn that Spain has 57,900 solar-powered plants; these provide 4.3 per cent of the country’s electricity. Although this obviously doesn’t solve all of Spain’s power needs, it’s heartening progress compared to Canada’s long-term, embedded dependence on fossil fuels and Alberta’s Tar Sands.

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A row of wind turbines is barely perceptible on the farthest hilltop
in this photo, creating three levels of visual barriers.

Along the Camino route, wind farms are the most obvious sign of alternative power sources. At times, these tall white turbines are only a few metres off the path, where you can hear them roar and whir as you walk past. But in most places, they stretch across the horizon like a row of silent angels.

Last year, wind power was Spain’s top source of electricity, producing more than 20 per cent of its energy needs. I can attest to the ferocity of the wind in that nation; many times on the Camino, even in the lowlands, I walked with my windbreaker zipped up to the top, shielding my face with a bent head. Yet I find forceful winds energizing (except when kayaking); they serve as a bold, tactile reminder of nature’s presence.

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Spanish schoolchildren listen as their teacher
demonstrates where to put a plastic bag for recycling.

In general, there was less litter on the Camino than I had expected; I understand that in more remote areas, a network of volunteers picks it up periodically. Yet it surprised me that some pilgrims still brazenly threw empty plastic water bottles or lunch remains in a ditch or on the path.

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One of the many clean creeks along the Camino route

In the first few days on the Camino, I found a regular trail of used kleenexes discarded on the ground ahead of me. I couldn’t nail down the culprit, but guessed that it was one of a small cluster of Japanese women in their sixties. Such acts still amaze me as an overt sign of our sense of disconnection from the earth.

In some Spanish restaurants and cafés, I was surprised to see small piles of paper trash littering the floor below a counter. No one seemed concerned about them. When I asked Michael, my Cuban-American pilgrim friend, about this, he said that it was a symbol of customer satisfaction and good business. The owners left this garbage for many hours or a few days as if to advertise how well they were doing.

Some pilgrims left their abandoned boots or items of clothing along the route, often on top of a stone waymarker. In some cases, these could help out another pilgrim as an anonymous gift, yet I still felt that this detritus tarnished the journey. I could fully understand someone’s desire to no longer carry something heavy and unwanted, but couldn’t they at least wait until finding an albergue or a garbage can?

Since the Camino is such a high-profile tourist destination, my guess is that Spain tries to maintain it as a showcase to the world. Therefore, you don’t see oil slicks in rivers or lakes or overt signs of water pollution. Yet irrigation from Spain’s many vineyards is reducing its water tables. And I can only imagine what impact the run-off from fertilizers is having on rivers and creeks.

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A clearcut directly on the Camino route, about four days’ walk before Santiago.

I did pass several clearcuts immediately along the route, which brought unwanted reminders of their common appearance in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest. Yet I did not get a sense of massive deforestation in northern Spain, although the country’s forests overall have been called some of the world’s most endangered. Thankfully, Spain is part of the Iberian Forest and Trade Network, a World Wildlife Fund initiative to stop illegal logging and promote conservation.

After arriving in Santiago, my final destination, and heading by bus to the fishing village of Finisterre, I marveled at my first glimpse of the ocean and coast on that trip. After weeks of slogging on the walk, the sparkling turquoise and teal waters, white sand beaches, and palm trees looked tropically ideal. Some areas reminded me of West Vancouver and I felt homesick for the Pacific Northwest.

However, like at home, I knew what environmental damage such pristine waters can hide. Spain is among the world’s top dozen nations responsible for polluting oceans with fishing-related plastic, according Plastic Pollution: An Ocean Emergency, written by representatives from University of B.C.’s Fisheries Centre.

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A beach view en route to Finisterre

But as mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I was not in Spain as a researcher or activist. Soothed by the ocean breeze, gleaming water, and the thought of fresh seafood, I was happily content to rest my weary limbs, chat with fishermen mending their nets, and indulge in the same kind of coastal ambiance that endears me to my home.

Since then, I have been curious to contemplate: What’s the carbon footprint of your average Camino pilgrim? Excluding air travel, if you factor in methane emissions (smile) and limited travel by internal combustion engine, the impact is probably relatively low.

Click here to read more about solar power in Spain. Canada’s energy writer Andrew Nikiforuk shares his perspective in a May 3, 2013 article Solar Dreams, Spanish Realities (originally published in Vancouver, BC’s The Tyee.)

Click here to read more details about the environment of Spain, from its wildlife habitat to pollution record.

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May 20, 2014 at 1:05 pm Comments (0)

A general strike on the Camino: Where does inner awareness fit in a recession?

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While walking the Camino, it was difficult to ignore the impact of Spain’s severe recession. By the time I arrived in late May 2013, the nation had already suffered two consecutive years of economic decline. Unemployment stood at more than 23 per cent, based on Bloomberg data.


On May 30, the day I arrived in Pamplona, thousands of protesters were marching through the streets as part of a city-wide general strike. Flyers for “huelga generale” littered the cobblestones. (Trying to find my hotel, I ended up asking directions from a firefighter, who was using a hose to put out flames in a dumpster.) More than a dozen unions, both public- and private-sector, had called for the strike to protest government cuts and corruption and rising taxes.


In major centres such as Pamplona, the main squares such as the popular Plaza del Castillo were almost deserted in late May. Outdoor patios and drinking establishments sat empty. In most places where I had a snack or wine, people in work clothes would gather for a drink but never stayed for dinner. I assumed that eating out was too expensive for most citizens.

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An empty café patio in Plaza del Castillo in Pamplona

Even in the large plazas of Santiago de Compostela, a city of about 96,000 and the final destination for Camino pilgrims, only small clumps of travellers appeared. In tourist shops in that city, I usually saw no customers or perhaps only one or two.

When I arrived in Santiago, a shopkeeper told me that the city’s small businesses were supposed to be closed that day as part of a strike, but he had opted to remain open. I sensed he was desperate for sales.

In several places along the Camino route, I passed new yet abandoned subdivisions of multi-storey condos, eerie in their emptiness. In most places, other than city centres, I could walk for a day and see no more than two cars pass by on a highway. This, too, felt strange: movement defined my journey in Spain, yet the nation’s roads seemed to stand still.


Owning a car appeared out of reach for too many people in Spain. While I was there, gas consumption had dropped 14 per cent from the previous year, according to Bloomberg. The price of unleaded gas—about 1.45 euros or $2.20 Cdn a litre (about $7 U.S. dollars a gallon)—made it unaffordable for most people. Officially, Spain’s gas unaffordability was 8.48 per cent; that meant, according to Bloomberg, that citizens would have to pay 8.5 per cent of their daily wages to buy the equivalent of a U.S. gallon of gas.


On my next-to-last day in Spain, a middle-aged taxi driver who took me from the bus station in A Coruña to my hotel seemed desperate to get an additional fare, my drive to the airport at 4 a.m. the following morning. I felt glad to oblige.


At the handful of guest houses where I stayed, none were fully occupied, even when they mostly had only two or three rooms.

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The deserted rose garden at my hotel in Oleiros

On my final night in Spain, I treated myself to a marvelous hotel in Oleiros, in the hills overlooking A Coruña. I was the only person staying at this four-star place, with a maze of lemon trees, sumptuous landscaping, a rose garden, a recreation facility and indoor/outdoor restaurant with a glorious view and excellent food. I thought: How can this place even afford to stay open?


As a foreign visitor on the Camino, I tried to reconcile my spiritual journey with the day-to-day lives of residents in Spain. In the smallest villages, it was clear that their survival was tied directly to the daily business they gained from Camino pilgrims.

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My dinner of fresh scallops while the only patron
at an Oleiros hotel restaurant


I wondered: Did Spanish youth, facing an unemployment rate of 56.1 per cent (as of August 2013), resent pilgrims like me, visiting from around the world, who had the relative luxury of time and money to take such a trip? Or were they grateful for our business?


I sensed that it was the latter. At no time on the Camino did I ever experience a Spaniard expressing resentment or animosity towards me as a tourist. This contrasts to sneers and contempt I’ve received in places from Asia and Latin America, even while travelling within Canada and the U.S.



Some of this is due, in part, to the historical tradition of pilgrimage within Spain and respect for the physical challenges and sacred significance of a Camino journey.


Yet, although acknowledging these outward signs of Spain’s serious recession and high unemployment, I found myself wanting to keep them at the periphery of my travel experience. It was as if I was afraid they might serve as a blight on my psyche, an influence that could mar my sense of what a path of spiritual discovery is meant to look and feel like.


Seeing the pro-Basque graffiti that promoted separatism from Spain reminded me of equivalent sentiments in Quebec against nationalism in Canada.

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Some pro-Basque separatist sentiment
appears as graffiti on the Camino.


The idealist in me wants to believe that we can all live in peace and harmony, finding salvation through heightened inner awareness. Spain’s external signs of struggle, unrest, and discontent marred that vision. Therefore, I observed them as intrusive blips, not giving them much attention or exploration. I told myself: I’m on holiday, after all; I’m not here as a protester, advocate or activist.


I might as well have said: “I’m on an inner journey towards peace, goddammit. I don’t want to hear about your problems. I have enough of my own.” What, then, is my ultimate view of a spiritual journey? Why did I mentally separate myself from elements that appeared undesirable?


In retrospect, I realize that for me, ideally, a whole-hearted spirituality needs to encompass all aspects of reality, whether they’re viewed as pleasurable, disruptive or negative. That process starts within me; rather than push away parts of me that I don’t like, it is important to embrace and recognize the value in all aspects of myself. Whether in the spiritual or political realm, this is a perspective of oneness, rather than separateness.


Otherwise, as Vivian King says in Soul Play, those parts of me that I try to distance myself from, whether they are fear, envy or self-criticism, start trying to gain my attention like unaccomplished actors in the inner theatre of my life. They want to be recognized and valued or else they’ll stomp onstage in the middle of a so-called production and try and grab the spotlight like applause-hungry prima donnas. I need to ask: What message do they want to give me? What can I learn from them? How can they help me?


The government of Spain, not to mention Stephen Harper’s in Canada, might well adopt such an all-inclusive approach to its citizens. When people’s needs and discontent remain unanswered, they will rebel, protest, and demand attention until their voice is heard and some requested changes occur.


Spain had deep troubles while I was there. As part of my spiritual quest, I wish that I could have been more open to its plight, containing that more fully within my heart as part of my Camino walk.

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May 2, 2014 at 2:35 pm Comments (3)