Heather Conn Blogs

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The Roman road: Cuban intrigue fills an historic route

Part 1

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The lure of the open road . . . (Michael Romo photo)

Crowds of mostly twenty-something males were drinking and partying in the narrow streets when I left Sahagun at 6:30 a.m. (June 16: day 20). With a few girlfriends sprinkled in the mix, they were still celebrating the previous night’s bullfights. Raucous, raspy music invaded part of a block that I walked through, where several street vendors were selling loaves of bread and cooking sausages on portable stoves in the middle of the road.


As I approached a cluster of drunken, cleancut young men on my way out of town, I feared possible harassment or assault, so common in India’s cities. But these men mostly just smiled and said hello. Phew. I wondered if my pilgrim status, so obvious with my backpack, walking sticks, and floppy scallop shell, garnered more respect or admiration than I might otherwise have received.


Soon relieved to be out of town and back on The Way, I watched the sun come up against a pink-blue sky, stretching shadows across the long grass. There were almost no other pilgrims around. Sparrows landed on the pavement of the vacant highway. I reveled in the peace and solitude.


After walking about 10 kilometres, I arrived at the small village of Hermanillos, planning to stop there for the day. It was not even 10 a.m. but I already felt tired, having taken no rest days since Pamplona, more than two weeks earlier.


As the lone pilgrim at a small open-air restaurant, I enjoyed freshly squeezed orange juice and chatted with the owner in my meagre Spanish. Yet it seemed eerie not to encounter any other pilgrims. Where was everyone?


Within minutes, a middle-aged pilgrim from southern California, Michael Romo, arrived and sat at a table across from me. While he drank a coffee, we talked openly about our plans for the day, our respective spouses, and our Camino experience. I invited him to join me at my table, sensing that he was friendly and “safe.”


By the time we had finished breakfast, Michael offered to walk the next section of The Way with me, a 17-kilometre open stretch known as “the Roman road.” Another middle-aged pilgrim, a Korean who lived in Wisconsin, sat down at the same patio and talked briefly to us. Like me, he had planned to stay in Hermanillos.

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I’m about to start down the Roman road (Michael Romo photo).

I felt pulled: stay or go? Michael’s warmth and knowledge of the route—he had thoroughly researched the Roman history of the Camino—won out. Rather than spend a day alone in what was beginning to feel like a ghost town, I would appreciate the friendly company of this former director of a teachers’ association who spoke fluent Spanish. Besides, it sounded as if we walked at the same pace.


So, we set out together. Michael was thrilled to be walking this portion of the path, which was 2,000 years old. Armour-clad Roman legionnaires had once covered the same terrain that we were walking; I couldn’t conceive of them working in clunky, heavy metal wear for days and weeks in Spain’s smothering sun. Dusty and dry now under moderate sunshine, the rough road had many loose pebbles and rocks. It seemed unimaginable that this region had once been marshy, Michael said, and that the Romans had transported stones to the area to construct this same road.

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Michael Romo and I on the Roman road (photo courtesy of a local shepherd)

I learned that Michael had grown up in New York City, speaking Spanish as a child. He was walking the Camino to honour the memory of his Cuban father, Miguel Fèlix Romo, who had always loved Spain; Michael’s family ancestry hailed from Spain’s Basque region. He has dedicated his Camino-themed blog to his dad, who died in 2009 at age 76.

Michael’s dad, as a railway captain in Cuba, had grown horrified by the corruption and atrocities of the Batista regime in the 1940s and 1950s. He had told Michael that under Batista, if a U.S. company wanted a certain piece of land in Cuba where campesinos or peasants were living, for instance, the peasants were simply killed.


Before Castro took power in January 1959 (the same month and year I was born), each trade or employment group in Cuba secretly supported its own cadre of revolutionaries against Batista, according to Michael’s father. They helped smuggle arms from Key West to Cuba to support Castro. His dad had fought on Castro’s behalf.


“It took me twenty years to find out all of this,” Michael told me. “My dad didn’t want to tell me for a long time. He thought there might be repercussions.”


Once Castro came to power, Michael’s dad said that Cuba’s new leader had one of his own contemporaries, a key guerrilla leader, murdered. He also put others in jail. When Michael’s dad had requested their release, this action put him on a death list. He had to leave Cuba, and went to the United States. Michael and I both agreed that many westerners tend to glamourize and over-idealize the Cuban revolution.

To be continued next week


January 9, 2014 at 11:49 am Comment (1)

Self-acceptance on the Camino: Are we following a misguided ideal?

Please note: Some current glitch on my blog is preventing me from uploading photos for this post. Hopefully, my webmaster will be able to correct this soon. I apologize for the lack of visuals.


For the first time on the Camino, I had to wear sandals on day seven because the blisters on the side of my foot hurt too much to wear hiking boots. While walking from Los Arcos to Logroño, I met an Australian marathon runner, who looked sixtyish, who said that he was having problems with his gluteus muscle. (I had no idea where on his body that was, but he said it travelled down his leg.) As we discussed our ailments and those of other pilgrims we had met, he concluded: “That’s the cross we have to bear.” After I shared some sunscreen with him, we each continued on our separate journey.


As I approached Logroño, a middle-aged female pilgrim, sitting at an outdoor café, watched me hobbling into town and said: “It’s not much farther. You look like you’re not doing well.” My instant desire was to swear at her or say something like “Thanks, Einstein,” but I kept these sentiments in check. Then I chided myself for thinking such un-Camino-like thoughts. After all, this was a spiritual journey, supposedly offering a greater sense of altruism.


Horseshit. I was tired and cranky and didn’t need some stranger telling me what I already felt. Yes, while I walked the Camino, as in daily life, my shadow side never seemed too far below the surface. Although I did, indeed, experience many moments of bliss, contentment, and peaceful joy, their opposites, such as anger, self-centredness, and judgmental smugness, made frequent appearances.


Begrudgingly, as with the pains experienced on the pilgrimage, I have learned to live with these parts of myself, even when their presence seems to taint my concept of spiritual growth.


Carl Jung called the “shadow” the dark side of our personality: those more primitive traits that we’d rather have people not see, whether it’s lust, greed or envy. As someone who considers herself spiritual, I strive to let go of these unpleasant qualities, since they don’t fit my notion of compassion, understanding, and oneness.


Many times, I heard myself and others describe some pilgrim’s behaviour as not “Camino-like.” Yet, I wonder now what ideal we thought we were living up to and what right we had to judge someone else. Did this not enhance our own sense of self-righteousness?


At a global level, people have created a mythological aura around the Camino pilgrimage, reinforcing the notion that anyone who walks this route enters a shared force field of kindness, welcome warmth, and overall good vibes. I do believe that this is true, but it tells only part of the story.


We each bring our own inner shit into this mix. By walking the Camino, we don’t automatically become more evolved; our soul doesn’t gain brownie points for entering heaven or wherever else our eternal beingness might be destined. At a simple level, we each receive an opportunity, while walking The Way, to open ourselves up further and “see” ourselves in more all-encompassing terms than we might have previously.


The Camino provides a convenient backdrop for this, since it removes our usual distractions of work, money-making, and status markers and offers space, solitude, and relative silence to invite contemplation. But this doesn’t mean that we can’t achieve this deeper sense of self in a different setting, without meeting thousands of people from around the world. We can start the process anywhere, any time.


It begins with acceptance. Can we truly accept all of who we and others are, even when we feel ashamed of our not-so-pretty characteristics? I find such acceptance an ongoing challenge. I still prefer to align myself with my own notion of goodness.


Yet I am realizing how dishonest this stance can be. It projects an unreal image of perfection; as humans, we are all flawed. We can try to undo these faults and foibles, and appear more honed and “positive,” but we can never banish the undesirable aspects of ourselves. They remain with us. We can learn to transmute these “negative” aspects through ongoing self-awareness, whether it’s via meditation, yoga, or whatever method we choose. That way, these unwanted characteristics will gain less of a hold on us; we will no longer identify completely with them.


It’s like taking a star’s name off a marquee, and instead, making him or her only a bit player, film extra or walk-on cameo in our life. These gremlins of our personality don’t like to lose the limelight, but as long as we still acknowledge they are there—give them a movie credit, as it were—they will not interfere as much in our thoughts.


Therefore, walking the Camino or choosing a spiritual path is not about denying who we truly are. It’s about embracing all aspects of ourselves, even the pieces we like the least. It’s about allowing ourselves to be more of all we are.


Otherwise, we can lose ourselves in spiritual ideology that says we must think, act, and behave in a certain way to meet an ideal. Many spiritual thinkers demonize the ego, saying that it’s the façade that prevents our deepest Self from shining through. But to me, it’s a vital intermediary; like our shadow self, we can allow it to work either on our behalf, or against us. Life is much more complex than a simple duality: the angel on our one shoulder, the devil on the other.


We each choose how to view who we are and aren’t. Easy to say, not so easy to do. It’s a lifelong journey.

December 31, 2013 at 4:21 pm Comments (5)

Social media on the Camino: barrier or portal?

After hours of walking the Camino every day, I always felt grateful to arrive at a café or restaurant to rest and have a drink or snack. But too often, outdoor tables were full of people texting or talking on their cell phone. It seemed that for many pilgrims, finding a place with free Wifi was more important than food or drink.

Some pilgrims accessed the internet on their phone to find out the weather in the next main town along the route. While sitting at the table, they sometimes shared facts about this upcoming location, such as population, current temperature, and historical points of trivia, which they had just found online. Although I appreciated hearing more about certain places, this new knowledge also seemed to remove the mystery of the experience for me. There was no more joy of discovery—much had already been revealed.

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Universal symbols require no technology or language to communicate their message.
At one roadside eatery, I enjoyed seeing the pilgrim icons
used to identify the respective washroom for men and women.

Others on the Camino used email to contact pilgrims they had met, to arrange where they would meet up or agree to stay that night. This seemed practical to me, but at the same time, it imposed planning on a process that I liked to keep more open-ended. Whether it’s on the Camino or in daily life, we all choose how much control we want to impose on what we do. We each find the balance that works for us. How much are we letting go and allowing life to come and meet us—making room for the Unknown—and how much are we trying to shape it ourselves ahead of time?

It jarred me to hear Spanish people talking on their phones as they walked. This occurred only a few times, thankfully, since the chatter of a voice ruined the serenity and silence of a moment. Yet, when I felt irritated by these occasional disruptions, I reminded myself: These people are not far from home. Their friends and loved ones are readily accessible. Why resent their desire to stay connected? Maybe I just needed to learn more tolerance.


After all, I was carrying an iPhone, which I used to send and receive emails and for taking photographs. How was my behaviour any different?

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As an editor, I chuckled at these multi-language instructions in one Camino washroom, which included others’ attempts
to correct vocabulary and syntax.


Like most Camino pilgrims, I daily searched for outlets at albergues to recharge my iPhone. At one hostel, all were constantly in use, and I was unable to recharge it. The next day, I walked a whole morning without being able to take photos. It surprised me how unnerving this felt; I could not seem to let go of the sense that I was missing out on one-of-a-kind visual opportunities. I was more attached to my identity as a photographer than I thought.


Although I enjoy taking pictures, I recognized that to stop on the path, find a place to put down my poles, take off my gloves, dig my iPhone out of my zippered fanny pack, and take a picture—often when it was so bright that I could barely see more than a faint silhouette on the screen and didn’t even know if the image was in focus—I was disrupting the flow of my walking journey.


Holding up an iPhone to take a picture of someone or something creates a barrier to direct experience. I was stepping into the role of recorder, framing and capturing the image inside a tiny rectangle rather than observing it with my own eyes. I wanted the picture as a memory of the scene, yet I was removing myself from the event to do this. The immediate connection to a moment was gone.


John Brierley, author of the popular Camino guidebook that I used, recommends not bringing a camera on the pilgrimage. He writes: “[D]on’t forget that you can’t photograph an inner experience, so don’t set up a disappointment for yourself! . . . The camera . . .insulates the photographer from the reality of the experience.”


Strangely, I did not consider my writing process (jotting words in my notebook along the way) as the same form of separation from a moment. For me, this writing felt more like an extension of my inner thoughts, sometimes the result of an inner experience. Usually, I just wrote a few lines or a quick paragraph to jog my memory in the evening, when I would write in more detail in my journal. Yet while doing this, I was still stopping along the way and removing myself from those around me.


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Without pen, camera, phone or any other distraction,
I found nothing more exhilarating than directly experiencing
Oneness with Nature, as if an altered state.


Some Camino pilgrims bring along iPads and share their comments and photos as they go, either on email or on Facebook. I think that’s great to stay in such constant contact with people, but I chose not to do that. Consciously, I knew that I wanted to write about my experiences after my return, not en route. Before leaving, I told my husband that I would email him when I got a chance, but not to expect daily communication.


In that sense, I was creating separation. I realize now that my view of a spiritual journey, ultimately, is a solo one. While on the Camino, I sought out others with whom to share my spiritual self and related perceptions, appreciating that sense of community. But in a given moment, there was nothing more exhilarating than tapping directly into Nature’s energetic essence, stopping to feel this everpresent sense of Oneness. No technology is required for that at all — it only gets in the way.


December 20, 2013 at 6:32 pm Comments (3)

Find faith in liminal space

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The rosette stained-glass window
on the front of Chartres Cathedral



Not surprisingly, on a pilgrimage route dedicated to a Catholic saint, I met quite a few practicing Catholics and Christians. In some ways, I envied the Catholics’ sense of faith; they seemed to have such a vast well to draw from, whether it was Latin liturgy, knowledge of saints, familiar rituals like genuflecting and crossing themselves, or reciting Biblical scripture. The outward signs of their religion seemed so accessible, like membership in a global fan club, yet I had not joined. Although I shared the same physical sacred space when entering a church, I could, and did not, relate to the inner sanctum in the same way at all.

In each church and cathedral, I gazed with historical respect at the array of crosses, some simple, some in ornate gold. I admired stained-glass windows, looked at tombs and statuary, and admired medieval stone work and paintings. I stood before a multitude of representations of Jesus alone, and with Mary, hoping that perhaps these images would reach me with some profound sense of otherworldly presence. I closed my eyes and tried to meditate. Nothing seemed to reach me.

I watched one forty-something Catholic priest, a lively fellow whom I had known for a few days, stand before one towering array of baroque gold over a cathedral altar. His eyes were closed, his hands clasped in prayer. He bore a serene smile. His body seemed to speak a quiet sense of supplication. I felt as if I was bearing witness to his heartfelt devotion. I knew how much his faith fuelled his life.

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The interior of Chartres Cathedral’s rosette window

Again, I recognized my envy. This array of overt symbols had reached him, touched him, held significant meaning for him; to me, they were little more than furniture. What was I missing?


I thought of the spiritual symbols and imagery that spoke to me in India and Nepal, and still do today: paintings and statues of Tara; the Om symbol; Buddha; various Hindu gods and goddesses. How are these any different than Christian iconography?


Where does my faith lie? I have faith in the gift of my husband’s unconditional love. I believe that a divine force or Source unites us all, an energy that defies codification and easy representation. However, this seems so vague and abstract compared to the solid, visual emblems of Christianity and Catholicism. Perhaps that’s why I start to doubt this Presence when life events are not unfolding as my ego believes they should. There is no formation of pews that I can join; I simply sit, close my eyes, and meditate.

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The ceiling rosette pattern that I admired so much


In one simple stone church, now empty and abandoned, Camino pilgrims had left dozens of handwritten notes folded on the remains of the altar. Part of me wanted to open a few and read them, yet I didn’t, feeling drawn to respect the privacy of their words. In this peaceful space, stripped of religious décor, I found this human act of leaving something highly personal behind—a prayer, a blessing, a plea?—more heart-tugging and enduring than the officially sanctioned art work of the cathedrals.


Inside the large cathedrals on the Camino, in cities like Leon, Burgos, and Santiago, I found myself most absorbed by the ceiling patterns, the rosette-styled designs with architectural arches that evoked the sense of a mandala. These curved circular forms felt like giant blossoms poised high above me, visual motifs that imitated star flowers or the centre of a rose. To me, in utter simplicity, these formations surpassed religion, serving as a silent yet universal reminder that all life is interconnected. They evoked awe and connection unlike anything I found in the traditional relics and figures.

Overall, the myriad forms of religious representations on the Camino left me thinking about the concept of faith. How, and why, do designated buildings, with their crosses, tombs, stained-glass windows, and statuary, symbolize religion and faith? Is it the gathering of people within the space that reinforces this notion, or the shared rituals that have occurred inside them for centuries?

And why do humans have to complicate and name everything, when Mother Nature, in her blousy sky and forested skirts, can evoke more than enough wonder on her own?

Walking the landscapes of The Way forms an all-embracing cathedral in itself. Rather than tucking inside cloisters, removed from the elements, a pilgrim enters blessed space amidst muck, rain, wind, thirst, fields, forests, rivers, and creeks.

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The abandoned church that bore the altar full of pilgrims’ notes

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The altar full of notes

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A close-up of the messages

I like the notion of liminal space, which comes from the Latin word limens, meaning “threshold.” Religion can create faith as a fixed entity, something concrete and named, one supreme answer, usually under the word “God.” I prefer the term “spirituality,” which is more unformed, an eclectic grab-bag of beliefs and interpretations. I mix a large portion of Taoism with some Tibetan Buddhism, pantheism, and the Divine Feminine.

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Ultimately, these terms all point to the same    thing: divine love and compassion, held within liminal space. This refers to those in-between places of transition, when we wait for the new to appear after we have let go of the old and familiar. Such ambiguous times, rife with the Unknown, can hold the greatest anxiety and produce tremendous doubt. Yet, we continue walking forward, resting in the moment, often amazed at what unfolds before us, guided by faith in whatever form it appears to us.

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December 13, 2013 at 4:26 pm Comments (2)

Wonder and stillness on the Camino: where’s your entry point?

Leaving at 6:30 a.m. from Santa Catalina, walking alone in quiet, I saw the sun lift into a sky of muted pink. The peaceful simplicity of this natural start to a day embraced me as I walked, surrounded by rolling, thick rows of heather. These radiant mounds of purple and white, next to yellow bushes of broom, were as tall as me. I had never seen heather grow so high; their presence brought wonder to my journey.

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Some of the multi-coloured heather in the mountains of the Camino pilgrimage.

It was June 21, my twenty-fifth day on the Camino — only nine more days until my destination of Santiago.

While walking in a lively wind under overcast skies, I allowed the gusts to nudge me along, through the glorious array of mountains and brash colour. Swallowed into nature, I let myself wallow in the luxury of solitude and boundless beauty. A phrase came to me: “This is the gift.”

All day, I walked on footpaths, seeing few people amidst scrub and conifers, feeling energized by the cold, clouds and wind. I passed dozens of wind farms on distant hilltops, an audience of skinny figures both still and moving. 

Later, the steep descent down to Acebo, full of a lot of loose shale and stones, demanded my concentration and slower movement. My ankles and the bottoms of my feet were aching. I took an ibuprofen. For a considerable time, I heard the constant squeal of a cyclist’s brakes as he went down the same route.

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One of the many examples of uneven terrain, with loose stones, along the Camino

At least three times, with no one else around, I stopped to rest my feet, express gratitude, and drop more fully into the landscape. At these times of stillness, I felt as if the fields of dried grass heads, waving in the wind, were linked to me in one energetic flow. It seemed as if they were the sole motion that mattered.

The next day, I wrote in my journal: “One awareness that came to me yesterday was that it’s all there in life and nature — it’s just up to me to stop, find the stillness, and connect to the peace that is everpresent. This is not an earth-shattering awareness and it’s not as if I didn’t know that before, but I feel as if I got it at a visceral level. It came to me in such simple clarity. It is always there. It is up to me to decide to tap into it or not. I create any state of ‘not peace.’”

Rather than through walking, my usual gateway to this felt sense of oneness has been through the stillness of seated meditation. With eyes closed, focused on my breath, I don’t have the distraction of my moving body. At such times, my mind seems more willing to slow down, even if it’s only briefly. Author and Zen Buddhist Natalie Goldberg says of this form of meditation: “The great ground of being opens up and holds us. Sitting still joins us to that true marriage.”

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This stone seat along the path invited pilgrims to stop
and find rest and stillness on their journey.

At times, I wondered if my mostly constant movement on the Camino worked against me in finding this sense of stillness. I thought that a meditation retreat, with prolonged periods of sitting in one place, would probably allow me greater and more frequent access to Presence or Source than a destination-based pilgrimage. But perhaps that’s just another illusion of the mind, yet another form of creating separateness, rather than connectedness.

While on the Camino, I noticed that I resisted doing sitting meditation. Even now, I don’t meditate regularly. Decades ago, while in India for many months, I often meditated twice daily for an hour at a time. Since I was there for seven months, I more easily let go of my sense of time. While on the Camino, I was keeping to a schedule and convinced myself that I didn’t have time to meditate, except for brief periods.

A willingness to let go of something, whether it’s a deadline, an identity, possessions, money, goals, status or needing approval, creates an entry point to Presence and Source. That’s one reason why I think so many people are drawn to the Camino: they recognize, either consciously or unconsciously, that it offers a way to let go of their daily accepted identity markers, to leave their regular life behind. Through walking its path, we can let go into the Unknown, finding stillness in motion, joining nature as one, unified force.

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— Elke Wehinger photo
I’m at bliss in one albergue, enjoying a coin-operated foot-and-calf massager.

In childhood, my entry points to the Great Connection were art, creativity, writing, and spending time on the Lake Ontario waterfront, although I certainly didn’t view them that way then. In adulthood, I’ve added yoga, meditation (I’ve tried the open-eye method of Shambhala Training and the more traditional closed-eye ways), walking meditation, and SoulCollage®.

We can all find our own paths inward, whether it’s while cleaning a toilet or sitting with someone who’s dying. For a British climber I was involved with in India, ascending rock faces, ice walls, and the world’s tallest peaks were his spiritual entry point. Combining intense focus and connection with rock, ice or snow, within vast, panoramic spaces, brought him in intimate touch with a force greater than himself.

If we are willing to move beyond our own limited self and step into all-embracing Self, we can honour a moment no matter where we are. We don’t need to walk the Camino to experience this; it begins with simple awareness, appreciation, some form of stillness, and one, conscious breath.

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December 8, 2013 at 4:06 pm Comments (2)

Fear and worry on The Way: All part of mindfulness?

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Only 50 kilometres left to go . . .

Before starting the Camino, I was worried that my ankles and knees wouldn’t be able to sustain me for the duration of the 800-kilometre walk. I had had arthroscopic surgery in my right knee, along with torn ligaments in my right ankle, which I had also sprained. Would I be willing to accept “failure” if I was unable to complete the walk? What if I injured myself irreparably?

For the first few days on the Camino path, walking in rain and mud, my right knee made a clicking sound that I had never heard before. Uh oh, that’s not good, I thought. If my body is already reacting this way so early in the journey, how on earth will I complete the pilgrimage? Luckily, the noise in my knee soon stopped. My body must have adjusted to its load. I was carrying only 15 to 20 pounds in my backpack; in earlier decades, on hiking and trekking trips, I had carried at least double that. But how would my middle-aged physique stand up to this?

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Like many people on the Camino, I wore a knee stabilizer on my right knee. At times, that knee and lower leg felt numb or half-asleep. At first, I worried that if I wore the stabilizer for too many consecutive hours, it might cut off my circulation and cause a blood clot. But I ended up wearing it all day, every day, on the Camino, without a problem.

For the first two days on the pilgrimage, my quadriceps ached and my feet felt as if I had walked barefoot for hours on small stones. But these symptoms disappeared.

Many times, during that first week of walking, I thought of one-legged Sarah Doherty of Roberts Creek, who completed the Camino using crutches. When sliding through mud on steep terrain, I asked myself: How did she do it? A trained athlete, she undoubtedly had enough strength, endurance and optimism to continue.

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Each day, as I walked the route, I realized that none of the things that I had feared or worried about had come true. On June 5, my ninth day on the Camino, in response to my own question “What have I learned in this first week?” I wrote: “My knee is stronger than I think”; “I can rely on my body to get me where I need to go”; “I can still walk the El Camino when I have blisters and heat rash.”

Yet my mind seemed to seek out new worries: Would I be able to make it for several days on the plains of the Meseta, with little shade, under relentless sun? For this portion of the pilgrimage, to ease the challenges, should I pay to have my pack transported ahead? In the end, a cool breeze accompanied the heat as I walked that region, and there were more shade trees than I had expected. On one day, it was overcast. I carried my backpack the entire time.

When consulting my quick-reference map, I remember how daunting all of the unwalked days ahead looked. My guidebook had divided the journey into 31 panels of mini-maps, three per vertical column. Each map panel represented a day’s walk, from the shortest distance at 18.6 kilometres, from Mansilla to León, to the longest, at 31.2 kilometres, from Mazarife to Astorga. When I folded out the map panels and looked at them all as one unit— eight panels of 24 days on one side, and nine remaining days on the flip side—I remember thinking: “There’s no way I’m going to be able to do this.”  

Yet, as the pilgrimage progressed, I realized that I was conquering all of those squares of unknown terrain. Flipping over the pullout map page to the final nine-day section felt like triumph. I was overcoming the distance and my own fears.

My worrying and “what ifs” were, and are, part of what Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh might call “busy mind” or “monkey mind.” My focus on the future, worrying about what might lie ahead, prevented me from truly being present in the moment. If I chose to view the Camino as a struggle and attached to that thought, that’s what it would become.

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To produce true presence in the here and now, Thich Nhat Hanh recommends returning to the mind and body through mindful breathing and walking. As I’ve learned in hatha yoga, it is common to use shallow breaths, ones that barely engage our body from the belly. When breathing deeply, from our belly, we fill more of ourselves with air — we take in more life, as it were.

While walking the Camino, I did focus on my breathing at times, especially when going uphill. Sometimes I seemed to shift to belly breathing without even realizing it, which gave me extra oomph, like a turbo-drive motor, on steep ascents. But too often, I was more caught up in what lay ahead and when on earth I was going to make it to the next town to eat, drink or rest. My perceived survival needs trumped my spiritual ones.

When I tried to walk as a form of contemplative meditation, I found this easier to do when no other people were around. Mindful walking meant that I gave full sensory attention to my surroundings, breathing in the smell of sage, listening to a cuckoo, staying present with how my feet and boots touched the earth, and admiring flowers, birds, and landscapes.

Mindful walking did not mean that my fears or worries disappeared, only that they just flitted through and I could let them go, rather than harbor them as nagging reminders. The process of walking the Camino became an extended, expanded version of my daily life: a mental dance between fear and trust.

December 2, 2013 at 10:35 am Comments (4)

Open your heart and transform: the Camino and Burning Man share similar values

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The Burning Man festival offers a phone booth in which
you can “talk to God,” via a true, interactive human voice.
On the Camino, such conversations are far less public.

While walking the Camino, few people probably draw parallels to the Burning Man Festival, an artsy, week-long bacchanal that draws about 50,000 people a year to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. But having attended Burning Man twice, including as a partial honeymoon destination in 2006, I began to see similarities between the two events that resonated with me.

Externally, both events use an iconic figure—a stylized stick figure man, and a Catholic saint, respectively—as a defining symbol and repeat motif. Both the Camino and Burning Man attract people from all over the world, of all ages, yet seem to draw proportionally more middle-aged folk. Regardless of what motivations individuals might have for participating, the over-reaching unity of an intentional community, along with related values like self-reliance and communal effort, are shared.

As I’ve stated earlier on the blog, many people walk the Camino for spiritual or religious regions, drawing on its heritage as a pilgrimage route through churches and cathedrals and its association with St. James. The resulting insights, however seemingly small at the time, that can emerge from tapping into this archetypal journey can be profound.


Burning Man offers an eccentric mix of huge wooden open-air temples, often designed by architects and professional artists. Meant to be enjoyed as venues for rituals and raves, these massive structures are ceremonially burned into nothingness as a tribal tribute to letting go and releasing attachment to the material world.

 A core part of Burning Man, as stated in its ten principles, is “radical inclusion.” As the festival’s website states: “We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. . . .We make the world real through actions that open the heart.”

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One of Burning Man’s open-air temples, with a reflection of a mandala pattern reminiscent of a rosette pattern
on one of the Camino’s many cathedrals.


In both places, deciding when, how, and with whom to participate created initial conflict for me. On the Camino, for the first few weeks, I enjoyed the same group of pilgrims that I saw each day. As individuals, we shared our innermost views, then came together in the evenings for rituals and meals. This was a welcome part of my early experience that reinforced the sense of community that I was seeking.


Yet, I also recognized that staying with the same familiar people was becoming predictable. I wanted, and needed, time to spend alone on the path, to commune more deeply with my surroundings without the distraction of conversation and others’ presence. I also wanted to meet new people. Finding that balance between solo and communal time became part of my “dance” of the Camino pilgrimage. It required reminding myself that the choice of who to spend my time with was up to me.


At Burning Man, as part of the raw spirit of the event, I consciously chose to participate in any group activity, be it dancing, pairs yoga, or a workshop, rather than just observe. Yet this frustrated the photographer side of me, since many events, involving people in astounding costumes and startling art, went unrecorded by my camera. My eyes witnessed and composed remarkable images, yet they remained uncaptured. Instead, I put myself within the frame.  I had to let go of my frustration over missed shots.

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The grid pattern of the temporary town of Burning Man
in 2005, as seen from a visitor’s small plane.

 On the first day of Burning Man, pedalling on my basic bicycle through thousands of theme camps arranged in a circular, labyrinth-like grid, I got lost, unable to find a desired workshop location. In the extreme heat and dust, I had a headache and felt crabby and unfulfilled. I missed the event. This wasn’t my hoped-for blissful inner exploration. After discussing this with my husband and another “Burner,” I realized: I have to let go of my expectations. Don’t make plans. Just open myself to the experience, go out, and meet what comes my way.


That’s what I had to learn to do on the Camino too. During the first four days, when it was pouring rain almost non-stop, muddy and numbingly cold, I seriously considered quitting the pilgrimage. I thought: I wouldn’t be hiking in this weather at home, why am I doing it now, on vacation? I had not yet made a deep, spiritual connection with anyone. Why was I even doing this? I thought of travelling to Portugal instead and relaxing in the sun. But as the weather improved, and my encounters with others deepened, so did my desire to continue.

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A modern pilgrim, from Germany,
dressed somewhat in the style of a more ancient time

Both on the Camino and in the Black Rock Desert, physical surroundings and weather became defining factors for the quality of my experience. At Burning Man, with only a light rain or bucket of water, the parched, cracked earth could transform into thick, caking mud within seconds. In high winds, the super-fine dust could swirl into tornado-like eddies, blinding you if you didn’t have eye protection. Even in the heat, socks were de rigueur at all times; otherwise, you could contract playa foot, a painful condition whereby the desert’s dust lodged between your toes, creating cracks and welts in your skin.


On the Camino, I learned how important socks were because the sweating that mine caused produced an allergic reaction. It took me weeks of blisters before I realized how valuable it was to stop, take off my socks and shoes, and air them out to avoid damp feet. And in both Spain and in Nevada, I kept myself covered at all times to avoid sunburn and heat stroke.


Aspects of communal living were ever-present in both places. The Camino features bunk beds and shared co-ed rooms, bathrooms, and eating facilities at albergues. At Burning Man, we pitched our tent among dozens of others, side by side, in the Green Tortoise camp. Thousands of others sprawled out around us. The culture there is nomadic by definition; it’s a temporary town of transplanted souls, joined by the concept of a gift economy.


Through a guiding principle of “decommodification,” the Burning Man festival disallows commercial sponsorships, transactions or advertising. Except at centre camp, where coffee, lemonade and other beverages are available, there is no money exchange. Individuals are free to give away their own belongings, whether handmade expressly for this event or not, as symbols of gratitude and appreciation.


On the Camino, money is exchanged daily at the albergues, cafés, and restaurants along the way, yet the same ethos of “pay it forward” prevails. To a pilgrim with limited belongings in a backpack, a simple bandaid, safety pin or shoelace presented as a gift by another pilgrim can make the difference between grating discomfort and peace of mind.

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The giant effigy of “The Man” illuminated prior to its incineration at Burning Man

It’s pushing the comparisons to state that the desert at Burning Man is called, ironically, “the playa” (Spanish for “beach”) while the Way of St. James, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, is associated with a beach symbol, a scallop shell. But one factor found in both places is liquid spirits: many camps at Burning Man offer a panoply of free booze while the Camino route has tasty, cheap and fresh local wines.


Just as Burning Man glorifies the collective burn of “the Man,” a giant figure, several storeys high, displayed at the centre of the festival, and many other structures, Spain has its own legacy of fire. In many places, especially Galicia, the bonfires of St. John are celebrated in late June: people burn large figures of wood and papier mache, in a ritual called the Hugueras.

I talked to a few pilgrims who had tasted some kind of ritualistic drink with Spaniards at a raucous party, perhaps as part of these celebrations. I wondered if it was something akin to the Queimada ceremonies in Spain on Nov. 2, All Souls Day. In modern Galacia, some Spaniards set ablaze a powerful drink called the Aguardiente, a distilled mixture of grape skins, coffee beans, fruit, and sugar.(Aguardiente is also a generic term used for booze drinks that have between 29- and 60-per-cent alcohol by volume.) They scoop the drink from a bowl and pour and repour it until fire seems to run from the ladle. This Spanish custom is supposed to have originated during the country’s occupation by the Phoenicians around 800 BC.

 NEXT WEEK: Social media on the Camino: barrier or portal?


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November 25, 2013 at 5:05 pm Comments (5)

Surprises on the Camino: Little miracles are waiting everywhere

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One of countless poppies seen in fields as masses of red on the Camino

Before going to sleep in the evening at a nunnery-run albergue in Santa Domingo, I grabbed a heavy wool blanket from two stacks of them in a tall wooden cupboard. It stood next to my lower bunk bed, one of about a dozen in the room.

For two weeks, many mornings had been brisk on the Camino; I could see my breath when leaving in the early morning. This was an uncharacteristically cold summer in Spain; some said it was the worst in thirty years, colder than the previous winter. My thin nylon sleeping bag, chosen to cut down on carrying weight, did not provide enough warmth; I was always grateful to use the blanket provided by the hostels.

It was June 8, day 13 of my pilgrimage. Some people in the dark room were up at about 5:30 a.m., using their headlamps to pack up their belongings. Not long after, I got up and began to fold my blanket in preparation for leaving.

Three or four Spanish coins flew out of the blanket and onto the floor. Where did they come from? I knew they weren’t mine; I was always careful to keep my change in a zipped compartment in my fanny pack. Had they fallen down from the pilgrim sleeping on the bunk above? Unlikely, since the beds were tight against the wall, without space for anything to slip through.

This unexpected discovery made me smile. I wondered if one of the nuns had tucked them into the folds of the blanket as a sweet surprise. It made me think of the phrase “manna from heaven.”

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Thousands of picturesque doorways appear
in Spanish villages along the pilgrimage.

The next day, at an albergue in Belorado, the same thing happened: I was folding my blanket and a few coins flopped out onto the floor. I checked my zippered fanny pack; there was no way that anything escaped from my wallet. I told the young Swiss-German hospitalero about it, but he shrugged it off and seemed surprised. Was this some random act of kindness that albergues practiced as a secret tradition?

I told a pilgrim buddy Eddie about my coin surprises. A writer from Ireland, he had walked the Camino numerous times and had not heard of anyone experiencing this. For me, it happened on only these two days, in roughly the middle of my walking along The Way. This repeated event intrigued me.

The following day, in an albergue run by monks in Carrión, I awoke in the early morning and heard a loud male voice utter a stream of words. All I could make out was something like “Vaia con Dios” (Go with God). Everyone else in the room had seemed asleep.

I assumed that this was the monks’ wake-up call, yet when I later checked my watch, it was only 4:30 a.m. It would have been about 3 a.m. when I heard that voice. That was too early for a wake-up call. Was it some spiritually minded drunk who had decided to appear outside the window and provide an odd blessing?

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In a small village, this Spanish couple in their 80s were harvesting their garden produce.

In the morning, I asked others if they had heard anything, but they said no. Did I dream that? I don’t think so. I can’t explain it. Perhaps it was the ramblings of a wayward monk.

Whatever the source, I took the message as a nudge to loosen the hold on my ego and trust my spiritual Self more consistently. As for the coins, I thought: “Gee, money comes to me even when I’m not looking for it.” I needed this reminder.

Upon my return to Canada, a number of people asked me if walking the Camino had changed my life. They wanted to know some highlights. I found these questions difficult to answer. Rather than several outstanding events, the walk to me was a long series of small, but poignant or meaningful surprises, which came in many forms, from these unexplained moments with the coins and voice or a sudden realization in conversation to the appearance of a nurturing companion at the “perfect” time or a powerful encounter with nature or wildlife.

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The U.S. pilgrim Michael Como, with whom I shared a memorable day on the Roman Road while seeing only two other pilgrims, shared the words of St. Augustine: “Life is a series of little miracles.” That’s how I like to think of my Camino experiences. Tiny miracles are waiting for us everywhere, if we’re open to them.

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November 15, 2013 at 1:35 pm Comments (2)

From medieval hospices to today’s memorials, death walks the Camino

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One of dozens of pilgrim memorials along the Camino

For hundreds of years, death has followed some people on the Camino, either literally or figuratively. Many pilgrims walk the path to honour the loss of a recent loved one, leaving a stone to the person’s memory at the Cruz de Fer (Iron Cross), the highest point of the route at 1,504 metres. At this spot, a cross stands on the end of a tall pole, which rises from the top of a large mound of earth and stones that’s several metres high. Each small rock added to this pile represents someone’s life, a pilgrim’s symbolic gesture of letting go or reinforcing a dream, or a way of saying: “I have been here.”


On the first day of our Camino adventure, after crossing the Pyrenees from France into Spain, my husband Frank and I learned that two months earlier, in March, a lone male pilgrim had gotten lost and disoriented in the mountains and had died of exposure. Some said it was a Canadian, others a Brazilian (I find out later he was Italian). We heard that as a result, a tourist office in France was urging all pilgrims to take the lower route, via Valcarlos, rather than the higher one (Route de Napoléon) across the Pyrenees.

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This looks to me like someone used table legs to make this memorial. Whatever works, I guess.

Frank and I had already made that decision ourselves; our guide book recommended using this lower route in poor weather. Since we were experiencing fog, cold, and non-stop rain in late May, we did not want to chance poor visibility at higher elevations. On our second day, before we had walked about 25 kilometres and reached Roncesvalles, it had snowed briefly. Thick mist drifted down from the mountaintops and seemed to shroud the view ahead. We saw only seven people the entire day.


Although initially reluctant to have missed panoramic views available from the higher route, I now felt grateful that we had taken the cautionary path and had arrived safely.


With such weather conditions, it’s not surprising that in medieval days, the Camino route offered many hospitals and hospices to cater to pilgrims’ needs. Back then, people walked the path in sandals, simple shoes or went barefoot. They had no Goretex or specialized waterproof gear. There weren’t over-the-counter medications, tetanus shots, first aid kits or a pharmacy in every town. A simple dog bite, infection, or attack by roving robbers could have resulted in death or serious injury.

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Health wise, these early pilgrims did not enjoy daily hot showers and potable water. They couldn’t walk into a restaurant and order a filling, three-course meal. Many, understandably, got sick and never completed the route. In such cases, they might end up in a hospice bed, tended to by nuns, where they could be carried into a particular church or cathedral and receive the same sacred song or blessing as if they had finished the path.


Back then, kings and queens chartered hospices as a way of currying God’s favour as a shortcut to heaven. In the medieval form of lay charity, specialized religious orders sheltered pilgrims and others to reflect their ideal of holiness as practical and accessible rather than separate and cloistered, according to James William Brodman, author of Charity and Religion in Medieval Europe.


This sounds like the height of practical religious service to me: Come down and be close to the people rather than have them seek you out in hallowed places, especially when they’re ill and near-death. Camino pilgrims, after all, are great symbols of people with their feet to the ground, rather than their head in the clouds.

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One of my Camino companions, a Brazilian, rests beside an informal memorial.


In these early hospices, pilgrims’ spiritual needs were considered just as, if not more, important than their healing or palliative care. Those tending the sick and dying made the patients’ need for sacraments and religious burial a top priority.


(In the 12th century, although there were no lists of “Ten best places to die on the Camino,” the Codex Calixtinus, widely considered the world’s first travel guide, gave pilgrims basic information about the route. This publication is said to have been available from 1140 on; even then, tourism surrounding the Camino was organized.)


Some of the centuries-old former hospices and hospitals are still standing along today’s route or have been converted to albergues. As a hospice volunteer, I wanted to find out more about these historic structures and services but have uncovered little about them so far.

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While walking the Camino, I saw dozens of memorials that honoured the life of a pilgrim who had died en route. Most were simple stone, wood or concrete structures with a cross. Some bore a photo of the person and a brief summary of his or her life. In one small town, I discovered that a bicycle sculpture I had admired on a steep street was actually a memorial to a pilgrim who had died while cycling downhill.


I don’t know how many pilgrims die on the Camino each year, whether most suffer a heart attack or get hit by a car. Our guidebook warned us in a few places where there had been a traffic-related death. But the handful of deaths in recent years is teeny compared to the 183,366 who walked the route in 2012, for example.

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This niche along the path includes memorial messages and a prayerful plea
from a mother for help with her wayward teenage daughter.

It never saddened me to see one of the memorials. I believe that almost every person who had died along the way was middle-aged; perhaps they were fulfilling a lifelong dream or challenging their physical boundaries. Regardless, they died as part of intentional travel, on an adventure. I felt a kinship with these pilgrims of the past. Their souls live on.

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November 9, 2013 at 9:00 am Comments (2)

The Camino adopts the scallop and St. James as global brands

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A pilgrim’s walking stick with a gourd
and scallop bearing the St. James cross


Before walking the Camino, I knew nothing of Saint James. Excuse my ignorance, but I now know that he and his brother John were among Jesus’s first apostles; they were the fishermen to whom Jesus said “Come, let me make you fishers of men.”


A pagan at heart, I felt little affinity to this notable Christian, particularly since he tried to convert Druids in Spain. But when I learned of his beheading in Jerusalem by King Herod in 42 or 44 A.D. (official dates vary), he gained greater favour in my eyes; viewed as subversive, he had died for his beliefs, evoking my sympathy for the wronged rebel. He’s now the patron saint of Spain.



It seems fitting that the memory of someone who worked in the sea is now paired with an ocean emblem like the scallop. Different legends explain the origin of this connection. In one popular myth, a ship that transported St. James’ body from Jerusalem to northern Spain smashed on rocks during a storm; when his body was recovered, it was covered in scallop shells.

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This scallop image appeared as a repeated symbol on this Camino bridge.

Today, the scallop is to the Camino what the golden arches are to McDonald’s: a global brand and repeat motif that every Spanish village and town displays in myriad forms along the route. Just as in India, where the “Om” symbol graces hats, souvenirs, carved rocks and any meditation-related surface, you’ll find a scallop logo on the Camino embedded in bridges, sidewalks, roads, on manhole covers, in stone waymarkers—anywhere where pilgrims’ eyes and feet will pass.

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A yarn-bombed waymarker bearing a scallop shell


Each urban municipality along The Way presents its own version of a stylized scallop. Seeing such a variety of presentations, I assumed that some lucky graphic designers must have enjoyed healthy contracts to create such distinctive, professional-looking images.

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A scallop image embedded in a cobblestone street,
next to my bandaged toes


I bought my own souvenir scallop at the albergue in Roncesvalles on day two of my Camino journey. It’s a real shell, about four inches across, with a red St. James cross painted on it. A long loop of red cord makes it easy to attach this to a backpack. This scallop version is the one most commonly seen dangling from pilgrims’ packs. It’s an overt yet silent way of saying: “I’m part of this particular global walking tribe.”


As I walked along, my shell clinked or bobbed. Whenever I rested, I made sure to lean my pack down gently so that the shell wouldn’t smash. Once, just after I had stopped and written something in my journal critical of the Catholic church, the shell fell off my pack. A subtle message in response to my sacreligious sensibilities?

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One of the many representations of St. James along the Camino

Some pilgrims will wear an additional scallop, perhaps as a hat or lapel pin. I bought a beautiful one, about two inches wide, hand-carved by a young German from the remains of a church pew. Suspended on a suede cord around my neck, it became part of my daily pilgrim attire, much like a bolo tie.

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The German carver who created
my wooden scallop necklace


In medieval times, pilgrims attached a scallop shell to their hats or clothes and used it as a portable bowl or dish. They’d use it as a scoop to receive a scallop’s worth of food donated at churches or other pilgrim-oriented centres along the path.


On day 21 of my journey, in the small village of Reliegos, I met an 82-year-old Dutch man who was walking the Camino for the twentieth time. He told me that the Canadian regiment that had liberated his city in the Second World War had worn scallop shells on their hats. Based on subsequent internet research, this must have been the Lincoln and Welland regiment, based in St. Catharines and Welland, Ont., which liberated Arnhem under the leadership of General Sir Isaac Brock. I had no idea that scallops had been part of this wartime victory.

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The 82-year-old Dutch man
with U.S. pilgrim Michael Romo and I

Some of today’s European languages still draw a connection between St. James and scallops: in French, a scallop is coquille Saint Jacques and in German, scallops are Jakobsmuscheln (James mussels). In Dutch, Jacobsschelp means “shell of St. James.”


My constant viewing of scallop imagery along the Camino, combined with an assortment of life-size and smaller public statues of St. James, reminded me that walking this path plugged me into an archetypal history, one that valued his selfless service to others and the power of community.



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A statue of St. James


Although James has become a saint, I like that he was supposed to have been fiery and impetuous, blowing up at those who ran afoul of his visions. This makes him more accessible as a symbol of imperfect humanity rather than some beatific angel basking in the glow of his halo.


His heritage does give him saintly “street cred,” though. His mother Saint Mary Salome was at the foot of Jesus’ cross during his crucifixion and later brought herbs and spices to his tomb to anoint his body.

I had thought that James’ mom was the famous Salome of the dance of the seven veils; a Catholic-educated friend quickly corrected me on this (thanks, David M.). But I still like to think of James—dare I call him Jim?—with a soul of earthy rawness. Just think if he had become linked with oysters, instead of scallops . . .

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A depiction of St. James’ beheading
from a door panel in the cathedral at Santiago


By the time I got to Santiago, I didn’t care if the sacred relics of St. James in the cathedral were real, fake or nonexistent. I had made it—unlike him, with my head intact.


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November 5, 2013 at 11:11 am Comments (2)

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