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Art and graffiti on the Camino: How do we create connection?

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One example of a pilgrim-themed mural

Like any pathway of self-expression, The Camino is a repository for art and human musings. These range from professional sculptures and murals that depict a modern or ancient pilgrim to silly scribblings, wise reflections, and indulgent graffiti.


As an art devotee and long-time fan of street art, I was curious whether the offerings along The Way of St. James would reflect greater contemplative wisdom or spiritual enquiry than what usually appears in most cities in North America. After all, at least 100,000 people from around the world walk the route each year, many of them on a spiritual or religious quest. Surely, this motivation would produce words and images inspired by reverie, “aha” moments, and a questioning or deepening of faith?

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Some of the demon art displayed along the Camino

Yes and no. Most people on an inner search are probably less likely to scrawl graffiti across a public space, which I respect. I found that it takes time for many strangers to open up about their deepest reasons for doing the walk. Such revelations require a degree of intimacy, something that a public message can only imply. Graffiti can provide a big-picture view, connecting us in shared sentiment, conveying a sense of community. Yet, because it’s anonymous, we don’t grow any closer to the person who created it. It’s one-way dialogue.


For me, the Camino was very much about two-way communication in one-on-one encounters. However, I still appreciated both the “official” art I saw, publicly funded or in galleries, and found much of the pilgrimage-related graffiti either heartening or entertaining. Sometimes, a simple question spelled out in large capital letters “WHY ARE YOU WALKING?” could prompt some added introspection. Once, the short statement “Keep walking. Don’t give up” was just the extra boost I needed, as if from a silent coach. The suggestion “Open your heart wider,” spray-painted on a cement road barrier, made me smile.

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One high wall featured Spanish verse about the life of a pilgrim and what such a walk means. One pilgrim, an obvious Tom Petty fan, had sprinkled the route with quotes from the musician’s lyrics, written in small letters on the backs or tops of signs. At times, I found the quotations amusing or oddly appropriate. At others, they seemed to irritate me with intrusion.

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The wall of pilgrim-themed verse


Strangely, the quality of graffiti content seemed more puerile the closer I walked towards Santiago; evidently, walking the path produced no guarantee of gains in maturity. One pilgrim wrote on the back of a road sign: “Only pussies walk the last 100 kilometres.” This was a reference to those who walk the minimum distance required to obtain an official pilgrim certificate in Santiago. Ilke, a German pilgrim with whom I walked for the last four days, commented on this graffiti: “Sounds like he should walk the Camino again.”

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Art on a doorway in Chartres,
part of the Chemin de Paris Camino trail


In the final days of the Camino, I was disturbed to see a man’s open letter to a woman (I believe it was “Ann”), painted in about three-inch-high letters on the side of a house that faced the path. Admitting his love for her, he told her how much it meant to him that they had walked together. Her presence had made all the difference, he said.


Admirable sentiments, but why deface someone’s home to advertise your private thoughts? What arrogance and disrespect for others that required, despite an avowed love for one. Perhaps it’s easy to view all graffiti “artists” in this way.


Throughout the Camino, the murals and sculptures of pilgrims reminded me that I was part of a collective historical journey, an archetypal one that reached beyond my own personal trip. These visual reminders appeared on hilltops or town squares as unknown yet familiar faces. Like all meaningful art, they created connection.

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The most universal symbol or source of art on the Camino is the Christian cross. It appears in every imaginable form, from two crossed sticks stuck in a fence to intricately carved wooden ones and medieval or gothic gilt ones in cathedrals. Regardless of one’s beliefs, it is impossible to ignore the evocative power, as an historical art piece alone, that this symbol carries.


From the Crusades to vampire-slaying, we have recognized across cultures, continents, and centuries that the cross carries significant weight. Whether it instills joy, faith, hatred, disdain, fear, guilt, love, anger or any other emotion, the cross communicates more in silence than a million graffiti artists could ever hope for with their messaging. Like great art, it is a mirror of our own projections, transforming us by how we choose to view it and what meaning we bring to it.

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A cross on one of the dozens of memorials that appear along the Camino.

NEXT WEEK: St. James and scallop shells

October 25, 2013 at 2:27 pm Comments (4)

Present or absent? The way of friendship on the Camino

When my husband Frank left our Pamplona hotel room at 4 a.m. to catch his flight home, as we had planned, I felt sad but eager to continue on the Camino. It was day six of my pilgrimage, and I knew that a friend was arriving that night, June 1, to accompany me on the rest of The Way.

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a birthday rose for my friend

It was her seventieth birthday and we were going to celebrate that evening; I had bought her a long-stemmed rose and card. To mark her special milestone, we had chosen 2013 to walk the Camino together, after talking about it for years. That spring, she had invited me to join her for a day of informational workshops about the Camino. After attending an excellent event hosted by the Canadian Company of Pilgrims, I felt more inspired than ever to go. Now I looked forward to our reunion and a new phase of my trip.

By late afternoon, when she had not arrived at the hotel, I asked the man at reception if he had any messages for me. No. A few hours later, I asked again. Still nothing. I had received no emails on my iPhone. Assuming that she must have missed her flight, I figured that she would arrive the next morning. I knew that she was travelling without a cell phone, so I could not contact her; unbelievably, I didn’t have her flight information.  Assured that nothing serious was wrong, I felt disappointed that we would not be together on her birthday to celebrate.

The next day, after still not hearing from her, I wondered if she had decided against the trip. Originally, she had wanted to go later in the summer, but I had said it would be too hot and crowded then for me. The previous month, health issues had made her decide not to walk the Camino, but then she had changed her mind. Did she reschedule the trip to her liking, after all, and not tell me, knowing how angry I would be?

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The view from our hotel window in Pamplona

I checked again at hotel reception, my email and phone for messages, but nothing. The next morning, same thing. Not wanting to spend yet another day in Pamplona, I wrote in my journal on June 2: “[It] looks as if this will be a solo trip.” I gave her rose to the man at reception, who looked stunned. “Give it to your wife or mother,” I told him, in Spanish.

Impatient to head out, I left just before 9 a.m., leaving my friend a message at reception in case she arrived after my departure.

Alone, I walked out into heavy winds on my first Camino day without rain. As someone who has always relished solo travel, I felt partly pleased at this surprising change of plans. I like the freedom to move at my own pace, answerable to no one. Because my friend walked much more slowly than me, I had wondered, while still in Canada, if our different paces would cause friction.

On the first few days of the Camino, I had already recognized that walking the route brought out my competitive side; I enjoyed passing people on the trail. I had felt impatient waiting for my husband, who walked much more slowly due to a previous knee injury. Chastizing myself for this perspective, I later paid little attention to the notion of being ahead or behind. We were all on our own path, travelling at our own speed.

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Frank took this photo during the rainy first days of the Camino.

In the following days and weeks, I alternated between anger, compassion, and forgiveness towards my friend. What had happened to her? Why didn’t she contact me? Sometimes I wondered if she was just a few days behind me on the trail. In a notebook for pilgrims provided at one roadside stop, I even wrote to her: “Where are you?”

Some mornings, waking up angry, I focused on releasing my irritation while starting to walk. With each step, it was easier to let go. I realized that in absentia, she had become a spiritual teacher on my path. Her silence and not showing up became external mirrors for my frame of mind each day. Was I going to let her absence control my mood?

As I walked, my mind had endless time and space to imagine an array of scenarios from confrontation and a severing of the friendship to joking about it decades later. I had the power to choose how I would respond to this situation, ranging from self-pity to self-righteous triumph. My mind would determine the quality of my process, both on the Camino and everywhere. I, alone, was responsible for how much light and shadow I brought to my experiences.

As I met and walked with various pilgrims for consecutive days along the way, I realized that if my friend had been there, my connections with these people would likely have been very different. Perhaps I would not even have spent much time with them. I felt grateful for these encounters, realizing that solo travel often provides opportunities for people to reach out when they might not otherwise. Strangely, I felt like thanking my friend, whose absence allowed me to make these new friendships without her.

Yet I still felt annoyed at not hearing from her. Along the way, as different people asked why I was walking the Camino, I explained the story. Many were aghast. The pilgrims in their twenties, in particular, were incredulous that in today’s plugged-in world of social media, my friend and I had not communicated.

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Only 50 kilometres left to go . . .

On day 30 of my pilgrimage, four days before arriving in Santiago, I finally found out what had happened. In an email, Frank said that my friend had left a phone message at our home, sounding terrible; since he had been away for several weeks, he did not receive it until he got back. She had been found unconscious near downtown Victoria, suffering an adverse reaction to a recent change in medication, and had remained hospitalized for days.

I felt grateful to know, at last, that she was okay and why she hadn’t come. For almost my entire Camino journey, her fate had symbolized the unknown for me. Her absence, indirectly, was my gift, to help me deal with the unexpected.

Upon my return, we reconciled by phone. Our friendship continues.

October 18, 2013 at 2:39 pm Comments (3)

Not just bars and bravado: retracing Hemingway’s past in Pamplona

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Statue of Hemingway by the Plaza del Toros

While seeking out Ernest Hemingway’s favourite haunts in Pamplona, I admit to feeling like a groupie. The Camino is a spiritual journey, I told myself, so why do I care where a famous alcoholic author, who was macho, petty, and self-absorbed, liked to hang out?

I know these labels don’t cover all of who he was. Besides his chiseled writing style and literary wonders, I admire his willingness to support the International Brigades, risking his life to fight fascism in Spain’s civil war as an ambulance driver. In daily life, he mucked about equally with illiterate fishermen and Hollywood stars, never wallowing in his celebrity status. From his home in Cuba, he tutored young boys in boxing and kept young baseball teams afloat by providing uniforms and equipment.

And Hemingway made a significant pilgrimage of his own to a basilica near a different Santiago, in southwest Cuba. Was it superstition or humility that motivated him to leave his home near Havana and deposit his 1954 Nobel Prize in Literature, a medallion, at the shrine of the Virgin of Charity (La Virgen de la Caridad), Cuba’s patron saint?


Sure, having read Hemingway’s Women, I know about his four wives, and how he never left one until he had lined up another. Yes, he could be a drunken, brutal bastard and for most of my life, I’ve condemned him. Yet, recently, I have felt more compassion for him after learning that he, at age 19, was sent onto the battlefield after an explosion to sweep up the body parts. That would traumatize anyone.

He seemed unable to forgive his talented third wife, journalist Martha Gellhorn, for scooping him on a deluxe Second World War assignment; she was the sole foreign correspondent to gain coveted access to a certain allied aircraft carrier to report on the war first-hand.

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Having fun with Hem in the bar at Cafe Iruna

And what’s with his fixation with having a large rod in his hands while fishing or hunting?

Yet under his bluster and bravado, a cowering little boy lurked. The 1976 autobiography How it Was, by his fourth wife Mary, reveals not only Hemingway’s meanness and spite but his tenderness and vulnerable need for loving reassurance. She documents his later descent into paranoia and struggle with mental illness. How could a man, formerly at home in vast landscapes, free on the roiling ocean and African plains, stay sane and contained within a locked, isolated room in an institution? While reading that book, I felt compassion for the suffering of his soul.

The writer in me felt drawn not only to the places he frequented in Spain, but to his rebel soul that disdained mundane journalism for a passion-filled life of irreverent adventure.

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My husband Frank on a dreary day in Pamplona’s near-deserted Plaza del Castillo. The white awning of Cafe Iruna appears in the right foreground.

Hemingway’s great literature, skillfully created, added grit and guts to the otherwise snooty veneer of the land of American letters. His bylines came with a lot of sweat, swearing, and swagger; he was a man of the seas and the street—no starched white lapels for him. Although I don’t condone bullfights and his enjoyment of them, I recognize his love of Spanish people and culture and how his view of both expanded North American sensibilities.

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Inside the popular Cafe Iruna in Pamplona

When I strode across Pamplona’s Plaza del Castillo, the large square that housed Hemingway’s favourite hotel and café, it was easy to imagine the expatriate writer arm-wrestling over one of the many patio tables or downing too many absinthes or whiskeys in fading Spanish light. The wicker seats that once filled his haunt Café Iruña (Basque) are gone, but the large, high-ceiling place with overhead fans and polished lights feels like a touch of Paris. In the adjoining bar stands a near-life-size statue of him. Many framed black-and-white photos in the bar show him in informal poses. In one, he’s in the midst of making a cocktail; in another, he’s laughing with friends.  

I wasn’t surprised to discover that Pamplona’s tourist office supplies a free map of Hemingway-related sites. At Plaza de Toros, the bullfighting arena, there’s a Paseo or street named after him. Next to it, a sculpture in his honour — a bust atop a stone shoulders and folded arms — stands as a solemn monument.

Besides notable folk like Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles, Hemingway used to stay at the tall, elegant Hotel La Perla, where a small bust of him rests on a table in the lobby. Although this five-star “perfect combination of tradition, history, and comfort” offers discounts for Camino pilgrims, I found the atmosphere impersonal and uninviting.

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Hemingway’s five-star accommodations, Hotel La Perla,
appears to the left in this image of Plaza del Castillo.

One of Hemingway’s favourite hangouts, Bar Txoko, was empty when I first looked in. Dominated by a wide counter that runs the full length of the establishment, it has a photo mural at one end. When my husband Frank and I popped in later, the cozy joint was full of Spaniards drinking and talking after work, standing in huddles. Hem would have easily fit into this laid-back, intimate bar.

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Bar Txoko, one of Hemingway’s favourite hangouts in Pamplona

I have toured Hemingway’s home in Key West, Florida, with its tropical garden, mangy crew of five-toed cats, and the salt-water pool that his wife Pauline built for him and he never used. The image of his writing room there, with a typewriter, chaise lounge, and mounted animal heads, has remained with me as a symbol of inspiration. I look forward to seeing his house in Cuba and some of the island’s local places that Mary writes of fondly in her book.

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A photo in the Cafe Iruna bar
shows Hemingway preparing a drink

After walking the Camino, I reread Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, appreciating his description of the same areas and towns where I had walked. But while still in Pamplona, after seeing the token spots that had attracted Hemingway’s boozy interest, I began to feel restless.  After spending two days in Pamplona — days five and six of my Camino pilgrimage — I was ready to leave the city and return to the open, rural paths of The Way. Like this far more famous writer, I craved untamed space and the lure of the unknown.

NEXT WEEK: The gift of little miracles on the Camino

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October 12, 2013 at 11:46 am Comments (2)

Sacred space needs no official designation

“Anywhere can be a sacred site—it only requires us to see our land as special and we will learn to tread more gently upon it.”
Alliance of Religions and Conservation website


A short, squat man in dark clothes and peaked cap, whom I thought was a priest, was about to lock the front door—a thick, dark, wooden one—of the Santa Maria La Virgen Blanca church in Villalcázar de Sirga.


My guidebook recommended seeing the interior of this Knights Templar church, a national monument, which housed the tombs of royalty and nobles. From the twelfth century onwards, one task of the Templar knights was to protect pilgrims on their journey to sacred Christian sites.

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The entrance to Santa Maria La Virgen Blanca church in Villalcázar de Sirga

Curious, I ran up the front stairs and got inside, just before the man turned the deadbolt. Leaving my friend Dieter at a café across the street, where he was enjoying a cool drink in the shade, I figured a 10-minute visit would be enough; then we’d continue on The Way.


After the short man made sure that I had paid the 1 EU entrance fee for pilgrims or peregrinos, he began a tour inside the church for a busload of middle-aged Spanish women. Previously, when they had spilled onto the lazy town square, I had called them “chickens” for their noisy, non-stop squawks and talk.

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The view above the front entrance of the church

Wandering around the church, I sat on a dark wooden pew, trying to meditate briefly in the semi-darkness. Soon, the coolness of the church’s stone floor and walls became too cold for me, and I wanted to leave. The inside of the front door, separated from the rest of the church behind a small entrance, stood in solid darkness. With the help of my pocket flashlight, I tried to jiggle the dead bolt and piston lock, which was embedded into the ground. Nothing moved.

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Part of the church interior


We were locked in. Approaching the guide during a brief break in his narration, I asked him, in basic Spanish: “May I have the key to open the door? I have to leave.”


“No,” he replied. In Spanish: “You’ll have to wait until the tour is over.”


Frustrated, I tried to accept the situation, but irritation soon won over. I was prisoner of a church! About a half-hour later, some of the Spanish women were also cold and wanted to get out. The man wouldn’t let them. “We could get sick and end up in the hospital,” one muttered in Spanish. Three of us huddled around the door but despite our attempts to escape, it remained locked.


After about 15 minutes, we approached the guide together and demanded to be let out. With about two dozen female Spanish tourists thronged around him, he thrust out his arm and pointed at me, wagging his finger while saying something in Spanish to the effect of “It’s her fault that your tour is ending now.”

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A view inside the church

Feeling like a marked woman, I laughed, but was pleased to see him get out his circle of skeleton keys and head for the door.

Once outside, back into 23-degree-C sunshine, I felt grateful to see Dieter again, sorry that I had kept him waiting. “I was ready to come looking for you,” he said, adding with a chuckle: “I thought you must be doing thirty years’ worth of confessions.”


I thought it ironic that a public building like a church, which is supposed to be sacred space and a comforting sanctuary, had kept me trapped. I wondered: To what else am I held prisoner? The list is long: expectations, ambition, judgments, comparisons, envy . . .


This was day 19 of my pilgrimage. Before walking the Camino, I had expected that each albergue would offer group spiritual activities from shared meditation to facilitated discussions. But less than a handful did. By week two of the Camino, I realized that rather than seek out groups of spiritual community, which I ultimately found anyway, I needed to create my own versions of sacred space.


So, at times, I made myself stop along the route, lean against a tree, close my eyes, and silently absorb my surroundings. For me, this usually proved more meditative than constantly moving through an environment.

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What makes space sacred? With Pam and Elke of Langley, BC

At one albergue in Belarodo, the hospitaleros, a thirty-something European couple, had hosted a brief, evening session of informal song and meditation, using the organ as accompaniment upstairs in the church next door to the hostel.


A handful of us had gathered in the bone-cold church under blankets, singing a few lines of a Latin song as a round. It was one that Camino pilgrims sang in medieval times, the male hospitalero told us, and translates roughly to the following:


Every morning we take the Camino,
Every morning we go farther,
Day after day the route calls us,
It’s the voice of [Santiago de] Compostela


Way of earth and way of faith,
Ancient road of Europe,
The Milky Way of Charlemagne,
It’s the Chemin of all the Santiago pilgrims,
and so on . . .


The chorus “Ultreia, ultreia, Et sus eia, Deus adjuva nos” is “Onward, onward, and upward, God helps us.” I appreciated the historical link that these words made to pilgrims who had walked the same path centuries earlier.


Before walking the Camino, I had read that it was customary for Spanish residents along the route to call out “Ultreia” (also spelled “Ultreya”) to pilgrims as a sign of support and encouragement. Yet, I heard no one say that word once during my pilgrimage. Instead, today’s common greeting is “Buen Camino” (Have a good Camino.) Along the way, I saw “Ultreya” written in only a few places. Otherwise, the term seemed obliterated.


For me, discovering and singing the word “Ultreia” on the Camino was a significant thread, a form of creating sacred space over time. It invited union, commonality, between pilgrims and non-pilgrims, and those who had walked The Way now and in the past.

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A view along the Camino

In the small town of Manjarin, on day 26, I heard beautiful Gregorian chant next to a restaurant and noticed the word “convento,” in large letters, on the side of a nearby building. Thinking that perhaps live monks were singing or I could hear sacred harmonies in a nunnery, I headed towards the source of the music. Looking up, I saw a loudspeaker mounted above patio tables and umbrellas. This was the source of the music. It was a recording.


Feeling like Pavlov’s dog, I laughed aloud. Some savvy business person sure knew what would draw pilgrims’ attention. Even my guidebook mentioned the music in this specific place: “Perhaps Gregorian chant (from a well-worn tape out of the Cluny sanctuary of Taizé) will call you to stop.”


Sacred space on the Camino or anywhere certainly doesn’t need to be within a church or cathedral or some form of monument collectively deemed powerfully poignant, such as the Cruz de Ferro at Puerta Irago. At this highest point on the Camino, at 1,505 metres, a giant cross stands atop a high pile of stones, each one left by a pilgrim to honor a dream or loved one or trait that someone wants to release.


Sacred space needs no official designation. It is created through ritual and recognition that all life is sacred; we are the ones who bring meaning to what touches us. We decide what words, acts, ceremonies create sacred sharing. Yet the earth is innately sacred; if we do not see it as such, does its sacredness disappear?


Every encounter upon The Way, whether at a drinking fountain in a village plaza or in the flat plains of the Meseta, can become sacred. Over the years, dozens of pilgrims have broken off two branches to form a cross and added them to different fences along the way. Each one can represent the life of a loved one lost or a symbol of someone’s faith.

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Some of the informal crosses that pilgrims leave along the route

Even my encounter with the tour guide and the locked church was sacred, although not one I appreciated at the time. It was an opportunity for me to learn patience and to join in a common goal with women I had previously judged and deemed separate from myself.


A meeting of two kindred hearts and spirits, in itself, creates sacred space. What lies within each of us—a lush, tended garden or withered barren land? How well we cultivate our inner space determines how much we have to give to others and ourselves.

NEXT WEEK: Hemingway and the Camino

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October 4, 2013 at 1:20 pm Comments (2)