Heather Conn Blogs

spoutin’ about by the sea

A pebble in the sea: My Camino pilgrimage completes a circle

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A portrait of my pebble
before it enters the Atlantic Ocean



I threw my pebble into the Atlantic Ocean at sunset, by the lighthouse outside Finisterre, a fishing village on Spain’s northwest coast. It was late June, more than a month after I had picked up the small, speckled pebble on Roberts Creek Beach back home on Canada’s west coast. This tiny memento had come from the Pacific Ocean, and now it was returning to a colder, faraway sea.


I had carried it with me for my entire Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, to this coastal spot about 90 kilometres northeast of Santiago. Along the route, at different times, I had reached places where I could have left it: at rock cairns, where pilgrims had piled small stones, and at Cruz de Fer (Iron Cross), the highest spot on The Way. This giant cross stood on a mound of stones left by pilgrims, mostly in memory of a loved one or as a personal gesture, as if to say: “Look, I’ve done it.”


It never felt right to me to leave my pebble in any of these places. Along The Way, I pondered what this small grey-and-white stone symbolized for me. My father had died almost three years earlier, yet it did not represent a memory of him. Nor did I think of it as something to honour my elderly hiking friend Peter Jolly, who had died just over two years before. Throughout the Camino, I had thought of both of them, and their essence had stayed with me as I walked. I did not need a pebble to commemorate that.

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The lighthouse at Finisterre on Spain’s northwest coast

No, this wee weight, kept inside the zippered pouch of my fanny pack, in a corner next to my crush of coins, represented some element of home to me, my beingness, my minute place in the interconnectedness of life. When I threw it past the tall boulders below the lighthouse into the smooth sea, it felt as if I was completing a circle of sorts, symbolically joining two bodies of water. I was sending the pebble home. Although this transfer spanned thousands of kilometres separated by land, the pebble was going back to part of the same salty waters that had shaped it.


Before it had landed on Roberts Creek Beach, from where had it begun? How big and how old had it been?


“When you drop a pebble in the water, there are ever-widening circles of ripples,” writes Robert Anderson in the play and movie Tea and Sympathy. “There are always consequences.” Indeed there are. During the walk, I had met hundreds of people from around the globe. With many, I felt camaraderie, closeness or gratitude. With others, I grew frustrated, impatient or irritated. Each encounter could elicit a different response, depending on my mood, tiredness, hunger, pain or desire for silence or solitude.

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I’m at the 0 kilometre marker by the Finisterre lighthouse on a windy June evening. Once in Santiago, many medieval and modern pilgrims choose to continue their walk to Finisterre.
Due to time constraints, I took the bus.


Yet like the connection of land and seas, we pilgrims were all a community, all travelling to the same place, all nudging each other along in some way, like pebbles in a stream. In the vast waters of life, we all tumble and flow. Within this broader journey, what are we going to do with our beingness, our pebble of personhood?


After Finisterre, I was going home. The Camino was over for me, yet I would carry this experience of a shared community, a sea of souls, with me, like a pebble in my pocket. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that people can carry a beautiful pebble, carefully washed, in their pocket. Every time they put their hand in their pocket, they touch the pebble and hold it gently. They can use it as a reminder to focus on their breathing, with awareness.

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Fishing boats in Finisterre

When someone is angry, the pebble becomes the person’s dharma or Buddhist teaching: while holding it, calmly breathe in and out, and smile. Hanh admits that this might sound childish, but he acknowledges the value of this practice. Holding the pebble brings you back to yourself. It is a tool to create mindfulness.


We can think of the pebble as a rosary or prayer bead; it reminds us that our teacher is always with and within us. The pebble allows love to be born inside us, Hanh says. It helps us to keep that love, and our version of enlightenment, alive.

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Finisterre at dusk

On the Camino, I did not use my pebble with such conscious awareness. Perhaps it offered teachings that I was not yet ready to receive. Regardless, I have let it go, and now I can begin learning again. I can make every day my Camino pilgrimage.


This ends the Camino-related story on my blog. I have written 34 posts, one to commemorate each day that I spent on the pilgrimage route. However, I plan to augment this content into a book. If there are any particular aspects of what I wrote that you would like me to expand on, please let me know.


I’ll return to my regular blog content after a brief break.   

June 23, 2014 at 12:10 pm Comments (2)

One year after walking the Camino: What gifts remain?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Some rooftop solar panels, rarely seen on the Camino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One of the many clean creeks along the Camino route

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A beach view en route to Finisterre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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An empty café patio in Plaza del Castillo in Pamplona

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

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

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


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


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


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

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The deserted rose garden at my hotel in Oleiros

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


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

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


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


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



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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

Time on the Camino: spiritual solace or a tough taskmaster?

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Stopping to smell and admire flowers and nature along the Camino
was an easy way to experience a sense of timelessness.

I have always paid great attention to time. I hate being late. Most of my work life revolves around deadlines. I frequently check the time on my watch or computer to orient myself to appointments, and feel surprisingly naked and vulnerable when not wearing a watch. In grade seven, I even wrote a speech about the nature of time.


Therefore, it was disorienting when, in just over a month, I went through three watches while walking on the Camino.

First, my cheap Timex stopped working and the strap came off; I lost the tiny metal pin that attached to the wristband. Then, I lost the square face of an expensive, artsy German watch I bought in Chartres; only the wide, expandable wrist band was left.


I told myself this was a sign to let go of my attachment to time. I’m too caught up in it. Deepak Chopra calls this “time-based thinking”; he says it’s the domain of the ego. In contrast, spirit is timeless. It exists beyond our sense of linear time.


I tried to convince myself that I didn’t need a watch; I could check the time on my cell phone or ask others. But my ego won out. After about three weeks of walking, I bought a whimsical, brightly coloured watch in Léon for 16 euros; it had a cute image of a cartoon dog flying in a plane. I admit: I felt attached to it. By the next day, it had come off my wrist and was gone.


I told Elke, one of my walking companions during my final week on the Camino, about my watch issues. The next day, her watch stopped working. Jokingly, she blamed me.

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With blisters, a sore knee, and fatigue, my then-54-year-old body certainly didn’t feel ageless on the Camino.


I remembered reading Chopra’s Ageless Body, Timeless Mind years ago, in which he reinforced that our attitudes and perceptions help create our level of consciousness. This, in turn, affects the level of stress or tension in our bodies; it reinforces the mind-body-spirit connection. How we react to time becomes part of that equation; are we stuck in the past, worrying about the future, rushing to catch up to people and events—pushing the river, so to speak—or letting go and allowing things to unfold organically?


I have definitely been a push-the-river type. Learning to let go has been a challenging lesson for me in the last few decades; it’s why I made “Let go and go with the flow” the unspoken message of my children’s book Gracie’s Got a Secret.


My mind felt timeless when I lost myself in the surroundings, in solitude, and experienced a deep connectedness with all around me. But more often, I was wondering: How much time to the next town? How much longer can I walk? I made time a taskmaster: it’s what prompted me to leave early in the morning to increase the likelihood of finding a hostel bed at night.


I was following a plan with a determined destination, dividing my days into kilometres and hours. What a contrast to my extended time of solo meditation and spiritual exploration in India. With no schedule in that country, it didn’t matter to me what day of the week it was.


That’s why learning to recompartmentalize my sense of time, upon my return to Canada from India, was one of my biggest adjustments. I had rarely thought beyond a day at a time.

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Timelessness is ever-present if we can shift perceptions from ego to spirit.

On the Camino, having to stick to my predetermined arrival date in Santiago felt oppressive at times; my return flight was already booked. This didn’t allow for diversions or the spontaneous desire to stay extra days in a certain place.


I appreciated the leisurely options of retired Europeans who lived so close to home and booked their return train or plane passage based on when they felt ready to go back. Time seemed to be able to expand for them; it didn’t have the same urgency that it seemed to have for me.


If I walk the Camino again, I will choose only a portion of the route and stay longer in some places, giving myself more time to explore and relax without a schedule.

April 14, 2014 at 12:10 pm Comments (4)

Twelve types of Camino pilgrims: from warm-and-fuzzies to zoomers

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A woman rests on a sculpture in San Marcos Square in Leon that depicts a medieval pilgrim.

When Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his late-14th-century Canterbury Tales, he shared the stories of 24 pilgrims, from The Knight and The Wife of Bath to The Friar and The Merchant.


This crew of characters was travelling only about 100 kilometres, from Southwark, then a town south of London, Eng., to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral, southeast of London.


Therefore, you might expect that someone like me, while walking the much-longer Camino Frances route, would likely encounter dozens more types of pilgrims, much different than those described in Chaucer’s book. Yes and no. In general, all of the hundreds of pilgrims I encountered over a month fell into one or several of these 12 categories:


  • Camino “virgins”: Like me, they were walking The Way for the first time. While en route, some researched thoroughly, frequently consulted their map, and booked their accommodations ahead each day. Others just maintained a mental note of their desired destination and its distance and trusted that the waymarkers and yellow arrows would guide them there;
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Three Camino “virgins” await a bus along The Way.


  • Christians out loud: These people, often ministers, sometimes prayed out loud in their hostel room, shared Biblical stories and references, and sought out fellow Christians for group prayer and informal worship;


  • eager love-seekers: Although women fell under this label, I encountered the male version more so. Some subtle, others not so much, they voiced their desire to find a wife or expressed unhappiness with their existing mate. Some were happily getting laid along The Way;
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This man, who walked the Camino with a donkey, is said to more or less live on the route.
He was one of the love-seekers I encountered.


  • hearty partiers: These pilgrims liked to over-imbibe on local beer or wine, sometimes on a daily basis. Some tried to sneak out past curfew at a hostel or arrive drunk in the wee hours and try to get back in;


  • mellow old hands: Those who had walked the Camino numerous times gladly embraced a slower pace and laissez-faire approach to the walk. Many retired Europeans chose to walk only a two-week portion, with no return ticket, knowing that they would come back another year to continue the route. I loved spending meals and days with these people, who knew the wisdom of taking time to enjoy one’s surroundings, relax, and let go of plans. They were masters of serendipity;
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My friend Dieter was one of the mellow old hands who made my trip so enjoyable.

  •  memorial marchers: To those who were walking the Camino in memory of a loved one, the route took on more poignancy. They could be honouring a recently deceased parent, spouse or relative or a child who died in infancy. The memorials along the way, to commemorate those who had died en route, added symbolic significance to the theme of these journeys;


  • nitpicking nudniks: Despite considerable choice in food and accommodations, there was never a shortage of those who found the Spanish bread too stale, the coffee weak, food poor, prices high, etc etc. Thankfully, these were the minority. (I love the word “nudnik,” which I learned in Asia while briefly travelling with some Israelis. From Yiddish, it can mean “a pestering, nagging, or irritating person; a bore”);


  • questioning Catholics: I met lapsed Catholics who hadn’t been to Mass in decades and others, including a priest, who held devout faith yet, because of hypocrisy and alienation of the church’s authorities from its worshippers, were wondering whether to remain with the church;


  • social media maniacs: At any café or restaurant stop, these were the first to whip out their cell phone and scurry to find a Wifi signal, seek out the next day’s weather and facts about upcoming destinations, text, browse through Facebook, and basically stay as electronically plugged in as they possibly could while in a daily pursuit ideally designed for a deeper form of plugging in. This behavior was hard to watch, yet admittedly, I was a less-frequent, more half-hearted part of their ranks;
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Here I am in front of the cathedral in Santiago.
I considered myself one of the soulful soloists.

  • soulful soloers: Many people, spurred by their own sense of spiritual connectedness, walked alone contentedly, seeking to connect with their own heart and nature’s rhythms, glorying in the unfolding beauty and culture around them. The Camino is an ideal place for such self-exploration;


  • warm-and-fuzzies: This term applied to almost every hospitalero I met; all experienced Camino walkers, and many retirees, they knew the hardships and high points of such a venture and greeted weary pilgrims with kindness, caring, openness, active listening, a sense of kinship, and sharing of insights;
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A cyclist rests outside a Camino hostel in Burgos.


  • the zoomers: Whether macho cyclists racing past walkers with little warning or athletes striving to walk at least 40 kilometres a day, these speedsters were determined to get to Santiago as soon as possible. Why the hurry?
March 27, 2014 at 1:32 pm Comments (3)

Revisionist history on the Camino: whitewashed versions prevail

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A simple stone church along the Camino route in Spain

Since I grew up in a family full of secrets, I’ve always remained sensitive to what stories are hidden and not told. When it comes to official histories of families, societies, nations, and religions, collective denial seems to overcome any need to say what really happened. Why are we so afraid of the truth?

The reality of revisionist history was evident to me while walking the Camino in France and Spain. On the entire 800-kilometre route, not once did I come across any mention of the Spanish Inquisition on signs, in churches, museums, etc.

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The official seal of the Spanish Inquisition’s Tribunal of the Holy Office

Perhaps, with my meagre Spanish, I missed something in translation. Yet, although I was not on The Way as a historian or researcher, it still seemed to me that the Camino emphasized the Christian cross of its roots far more than the sword. (Both symbols appeared side by side on the official seal of the Inquisition’s Tribunal of the Holy Office, although the cross, in the centre, predominated.)

 As a quick historical recap, Spain’s monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella established the Inquisition in 1478 to maintain Catholic control and supremacy in their kingdoms. They passed decrees ordering Jews and Muslims to convert to Catholicism or leave; however, any who chose to convert and stayed were still considered suspect.


Under the Inquisition’s forceful power, people were burned at the stake for any number of “sins”: being a Protestant, a “blasphemer,” for mocking church images, eating meat on forbidden days, or reading a banned book. Neighbours spied on neighbours. The Inquisition, which was not abolished until 1834, led to widespread pogroms, imprisonments, torture to extract false confessions, trials, executions, and burning at the stake of so-called heretics.

 It is estimated that just between 1480 and 1530, about 2,000 people were executed in Spain, mostly those of Jewish origin who had converted to Catholicism. Not surprisingly, while walking the Camino, I met few pilgrims of Jewish descent.

I’ve already mentioned in this blog the lack of information along the Camino about the burning of witches. (See “Witches on The Way: Remember the Camino’s tarnished halo.”)

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Hmmm . . . to be a pilgrim or a knight?

Similarly, along the The Way, even the Crusades (cruzada) seemed to get a glossy, whitewashed treatment. I saw paintings, memorials, and glorified depictions of knights, portrayed as gallant heroes doing the Church’s sanctified work. (The Crusades were military campaigns in Europe during the Middle Ages launched to ensure the domination of Christianity. “Knights of Christ” (milites Christi) led expeditions, fought battles, and saw themselves as leading an armed pilgrimage to Jerusalem.)

Armed pilgrimage—not like today’s tens of thousands of peaceful El Camino pilgrims. Kill, maim, and destroy in the name of Christ anyone who does not match a narrow description of a good Christian. Yet this aspect of the knights’ activities seemed missing in the Camino content that I saw. Just as those in today’s war zones use the term “collateral damage” for civilian deaths, the knights’ actions seemed antiseptically removed from their slaughter of others. I saw no estimates of related fatalities.

In reference to more recent times, I was both shocked and strangely glad to see a one-line mention of historical truth while staying at the beautiful five-star Parador San Marcos Hotel in Léon. At the museum attached to the hotel, I viewed the sarcophagi of religious and unknown people dating back to about 1300 AD. The museum church had the usual gold décor and gilt sculpture of Christ, rooms dedicated to Mary and the baby Jesus, prayer areas and so on.

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The five-star Parador in San Marcos Square in Leon

However, one sign, in English, provided a single sentence that alluded to Spain’s regressive past: Francisco Franco had used the Parador, a former twelfth-century monastery, as a concentration camp (the Catholic church had supported his fascist dictatorship, by the way).

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A Parador interior

I knew that the Parador was originally founded to provide lodging for pilgrims, like me, travelling to Santiago; even now, this magnificent stone hotel offers much-reduced rates to Camino pilgrims. But I was stunned that this castle-like Renaissance building, whose lush comfort, stately air, and numerous artifacts had given me so much welcome and comfort, was associated with such grisly history. What tortures and other atrocities had occurred within its walls, where I had blissfully soaked my blisters in bubble bath?

 It wasn’t clear whether Franco had used the Parador for prisoners during his entire reign from 1939 to 1975. Nonetheless, I was grateful that someone, most likely against the wishes of many others, had had the courage to include this unseemly truth amidst the otherwise pious language of Spanish history.

March 13, 2014 at 8:32 am Comments (3)

A thousand different pots of water: we all reflect the same sun

“[W]e are always charged with the vibrancy of a larger presence . . . the complexity of our humanity mirrors this larger presence. . . .  [W]e mirror everything living as we climb and stumble our way up the mountain to the cliff of yes. I recognize each person I come across because I am each on any given day. What matters is whether I shun those who bear my flaws or help them up; whether I turn away when this larger presence seems too strong or keep my birth-eyes open; whether I find a way to meet what is incomprehensible and somehow draw strength from it.”

 —    Mark Nepo, Seven Thousand Ways to Listen

Walking the Camino de Santiago functions like a giant mirror of our soul and personality: it reflects our light and shadow places more rigorously than regular daily life. The physical challenges of the route, combined with the array of people encountered, offer numerous chances to shun or embrace others.

I recognize how readily I judged or rejected those who irritated me along the way. My almost-instant ability to label, dismiss or criticize others—to focus on their shortcomings— reflects how I relate to myself inwardly; my insecurities and self-hatred separate me from that larger presence within myself and others.

I reacted most strongly to two women, each travelling solo, whom I met repeatedly throughout the pilgrimage. One woman, a middle-aged banker from Brazil, never carried her pack; every day, she paid to have it forwarded to her next destination. She always phoned ahead to reserve a room. She stayed in near-empty hotels rather than in hostels.

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My German friend Dieter (left) and others at this table
made my Camino pilgrimage particularly memorable.

At one point, this woman told me that I should be wearing the straps on my backpack closer to my body. When I told her that I had adjusted the straps and it was better, she surveyed them and said “un poco (a bit).”

I felt judged. Who the hell was she to tell me how to wear my pack? I thought. She’s not even wearing one! It was difficult for me to see that she was trying to ease the burden of my journey.

One hot day, she approached me on the path after walking behind me and my German friend Dieter.

“Your pack’s leaning to the left,” she said. “You might want to readjust it.”

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These are two of the many warm and welcoming hospitaleros, or hostel volunteers,
encountered along The Camino.

By then, I had walked for several weeks without discomfort from my pack. Doesn’t she have anything better to do? With some resentment, I stopped, readjusted my pack, and put it back on. After a little while, the Brazilian woman approached me again.

“Your pack is still leaning to the left. And it looks like your [pilgrim] passport is about to fall out. You don’t want to lose it.”

I took off my pack and angrily threw it to the ground. My passport wasn’t visible anywhere; she had mistaken a square, laminated image of a scallop shell, which I had added to the outside of my pack, for my passport.

She kept on walking. Dieter made some joke about how rigid bankers were. I was surprised at the intense level of my anger. Why couldn’t I see that she was trying to help? Instead, I felt unjustly criticized.

At the time, I recognized some envy on my part; I was slogging through the heat with a 20-pound pack while she was blithely strolling past with a tiny, near-empty day pack. In retrospect, it is easy to see that she reflected the perfectionist part of me that’s quick to point out the flaws in myself and others. She also symbolized my genuine desire to help others, a part of myself that I often find hard to see.

I tried to avoid another solo traveller, a brash middle-aged woman from Colorado. Whenever she arrived at a restaurant or hostel, she would loudly complain or demand immediate service and maintain a running monologue about herself and her needs. She seemed to treat any male pilgrim who accompanied her as if he was her princess’s footman, there to fulfill her wishes in any moment. Sometimes, while listening to her, I thought: I don’t care about the minutiae of your life. Get over yourself.

Why did she grate on me so much? She mirrored some of my own self-absorbed behaviour, the part of me that seeks attention and expects instant service from others.

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Pam (left) and Elke, new friends from Langley, B.C.,
made wonderful pilgrim companions during my final days on The Camino.

While on The Way, I realized that each person who made a deep connection with me, from my gentle, caring friend Dieter to my loving, generous fellow pilgrims Pam and Elke, mirrored these aspects in me.

I like what Indian spiritual leader Mata Amritanandamayi, known as “Mother,” says: “The sun shines down, and its image reflects in a thousand different pots filled with water. The reflections are many, but they are each reflecting the same sun. Similarly, when we come to know who we truly are, we will see ourselves in all people.”

March 3, 2014 at 10:10 am Comments (3)

Here’s why the movie The Way didn’t work for me

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A pilgrim’s abandoned hiking boots
adorn a Camino waymarker.





While walking the Camino, it surprised me how many pilgrims I met were inspired to do the pilgrimage simply from watching the movie The Way. I confess: I’m not crazy about the film.


However, among those who have walked the Camino, saying that you don’t like The Way is almost akin to admitting that you don’t like babies or kittens or fresh-baked bread.


If you haven’t heard of this 2010 U.S. movie, it follows the journey of a father, Tom, played by Martin Sheen, who decides to walk the El Camino de Santiago to honour the memory of his son Daniel, played by real-life son Emilio Estevez. The son died while on the Camino, so Sheen’s character wants to complete the trip to fulfil his child’s dream.


I loved that motivation and the father-son relationship, even though Estevez barely appears in the movie. Sheen’s character is thoughtful and open and he’s led by his heart. I liked the scenes in which he shared his pent-up anger because they came across as raw and real and utterly believable.


Parts of the plot, to me, were contrived, but I don’t want to dwell on that. What struck me as deflating and ultimately discouraging were the end results of the main characters that Tom meets.


I liked the character Jack, a pithy Irish travel writer who’s suffering writer’s block and has dreamed of penning a great novel; as a writer, I couldn’t help but like him.

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I’m standing next to the hilltop Alto del Perdon, wrought-iron portrayals of medieval pilgrims,
about 7 km west of Cizur Menor. These statues appear in the film The Way.

Tom also walks with Joost, an overweight, too-chatty Dutch guy, who’s determined to lose some pounds along the way. And he meets Sarah, a Canadian who’s fled a violent husband and plans to quit smoking by the time she reaches Santiago.


I found both of these characters uninspiring. By the time he finishes the pilgrimage, Joost hasn’t lost weight and Sarah is still smoking. Sure, I know that it’s only human to have goals and not meet them, but the idealist in me wanted something more uplifting.


After walking the Camino and returning to Canada, I decided to watch The Way again. I reasoned that perhaps this movie, which has obviously influenced many pilgrims, might prove more meaningful to me. The second time, it was heart-warming to see the same scenery, pathways, and landmarks that had so recently absorbed me. I loved that part.


I could also understand more innately why the four pilgrim buddies, each ensconced in a private room in a Santiago hotel, sought each other out to reconnect within its walls. The binding sense of community on the Camino is a powerful force.

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But even so, I came away from the movie with the same hollow feeling. It’s been hard to articulate why the film disappointed me (I admit: I’m always guilty of high expectations), but this morning, I read something that provided a way of explanation.



In Seven Thousand Ways to Listen: Staying Close to What is Sacred, Mark Nepo likens life to a fisherperson’s (he uses “fisherman’s”) net that we are constantly untangling. He says that learning to accept the weave of tangle is intimately tied to the rhythm of being whole-hearted and half-hearted. In his words: “When we are half-hearted, we tangle the net. When we are whole-hearted, we untangle the net.”


In The Way, Martin Sheen’s character is whole-hearted: originally, he flies to Spain on a purely practical mission: to retrieve his son’s body. But once there, because of his vulnerability and willingness to open to grief, he tunes into his son’s beingness and vision and decides to walk the Camino himself. This decision and journey transform him deeply.


I realize now that the characters of Joost and Sarah bothered me because their quest, in my view, is only half-hearted. Unlike Tom, neither is truly committed to his or her respective goals; they have not made the same whole-hearted investment. There is not as much at stake for them. Tom is dealing with the weighty issue of death and the value of love and life itself. He has plugged into a drive greater than himself, his son’s essence; that’s part of why his journey spoke to me, and theirs didn’t.


Perhaps I reacted negatively to these characters because they reminded me of my own half-heartedness in different matters; I judged them as “less than.” Maybe I’m too fixated on a whole-hearted pathway, rather than accepting the half-hearted way as part of the same net of life. The human experience—imperfection—isn’t easy to live or watch.


February 16, 2014 at 5:22 pm Comments (0)

Three men, a map, and an arrow to nowhere

The Roman road: part two

Michael and I walked for hours on the Roman road without seeing anyone else except a Spanish shepherd, his flock, and three scruffy dogs. We both had to squeeze to the edge of the dry, dirt road to make way for the sheep, which passed us as one moving huddle.


Michael and I reached an umarked turnoff, which did not make the way to Reliegos clear. We weren’t sure where we were. We had passed a narrow canal, as marked on our guidebook map, but discovered that the map showed the canal, plus a nearby prison and highway intersection, in the wrong place. This was the first time that my Camino maps had failed me.


Two male pilgrims, the same middle-aged man from Wisconsin we had met earlier and a fit man in his twenties, approached us. We all wondered in which direction our destination, Reliegos, was.


“This map sucks,” said the young one, Andrew, a Malaysian lawyer who lived in London, Eng. I looked at the map, baffled by its array of thin lines and small squares, then let Michael and the other two haggle over the options. Watching the three men hunched over a tiny map, I thought: How ironic. This group consultation is defying the stereotype of males never asking for directions.


Michael and I kept going in bright sun, expecting to see a town over the next rise. Across the dried flatness, we could see one over to the left and behind us. Arrows and signs seemed to identify it as Reliegos. But someone had used white paint to cover the arrows on the road. We found out later that this was due to a turf war between two neighbouring towns, one trying to reroute Camino pilgrims to bypass the competition.

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Albergue Gil in Reliegos (Michael Romo photo)

When we arrived in the next town, we assumed that it must be the larger centre of Mansilla, 7.6 kilometres beyond Reliegos, but indeed, this burg was Reliegos. Michael and I plopped ourselves down under an umbrella at a table outside Albergue Gil’s restaurant, and he treated me to a beer, which I ordered with lemon flavouring.


“Ah, that tastes good,” said Michael. “And it’s great to be in the shade.” The wind picked up, feeling lovely and vibrant after our hot day of walking. When Andrew and the Korean (I don’t remember his name) arrived, Michael treated them to a beer too. These three men were the only pilgrims I had encountered all day on the Roman road. Clinking glass beer mugs, we toasted the road and ourselves, a mini-tribe on this shared path.


“We did it!” I said, feeling like a pioneer or conquering hero.


“My Camino comrades,” said Michael.

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The four conquerors of the Roman road


“You inspired me,” said the Korean to Michael. “This morning, I was going to stay in the last town but seeing you two leave made me want to push on.” I credited Michael for also inspiring me.


“I’m glad you were with me or I would have been afraid I was going the wrong way,” Michael told me. A laudable admission, I thought.


We all considered it odd that no other pilgrims had come this way, particularly since the guidebook identified the Roman road as the preferred route. They must have taken the bus or train to León, we figured, which was about another 26 kilometres ahead.


A trio of Canadians appeared—middle-aged Steve, his brother-in-law Mike, and Mike’s 10-year-old son Reece—who I had seen off and on the Camino since I started. But they soon left in a taxi for Mansilla since Steve’s leg was sore and needed medical attention.


Michael, Andrew, the Korean scientist, and I shared dinner and wine at the same table outside the albergue. I had stuffed red peppers with seafood and so-called “Cuban rice”: white rice with tomato sauce and a fried egg. Michael and I agreed that this was definitely not a Cuban meal. We all shared travel tales, Camino highlights, and stories of our work and education. Andrew, who was walking 40 kilometres a day on The Way, normally trained weekly in tae kwon do with an Olympic athlete.

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With Michael and the Korean scientist from Wisconsin

Fate, decisions, and route choices had brought the four of us together; I could have joined the three Canadians in a cab, but chose not to. To me, our small grouping felt complete. As someone who always likes to look at things symbolically, I said to my dinner mates: “In Jungian terms, four represents unity and wholeness.”


Silence. No one responded. Guess this wasn’t an artsy crowd for sharing such observations. Reminded me of my family dinner table in childhood.


Eager talk resumed. We joked that Andrew should send John Brierley, our guidebook author, a note on his legal letterhead saying that his maps were wrong. Apparently, the one for the previous day had been incorrect too.


“What’s the lesson here?” I said to Michael. “Don’t believe everything you read.” These errors made me glad that I had not used maps too much on the Camino. So far, my trust system had worked well.


Past dusk, it grew so windy that the restaurant owner closed the umbrella that was over us. As Michael chatted with him in Spanish, we learned that this business had been in his family for three generations. This restaurant was evidently a popular social spot for locals. Men and women hung out inside and on the street around us as several dogs tried to beg scraps from us. I wallowed in the relaxed, welcoming atmosphere, a treat after the trial of non-stop walking in the heat.


The four of us stayed talking until past 10 p.m. It was still light. Contentedly, I later padded off to a private room in the same albergue, shared with two middle-aged women, both teachers in Arizona. Rather than the Roman road, they had taken the path to the left, seeing only six other pilgrims all day. I lay awake on a top bunk bed, feeling energized by the talk and camaraderie. Another day on the Camino—only two more weeks to Santiago.


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January 21, 2014 at 4:18 pm Comments (2)

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