Heather Conn Blogs

spoutin’ about by the sea

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)