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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)