Monday 1 October 2012

The Pilgrim's Mass

It was SRO (standing room only) at the noon service at the cathedral in Santiago. It didn't feel much like entering church as I arrived.more like entering a Broadway theatre....and the similarities didn't stop there.

There was first rate music of course. In this case, a nun with a voice like honey. Those who came early had a little music lesson that prepared us for spots when we could sing along. Later a big pipe organ with pipes placed horizontally like cannons ready to shoot each other across the aisle joined in.

There were great costumes and hats...a lot of green trimmed with gold and the bishop's mitre had plenty of sparkle.

The set featured Santiago himself high on a throne. Pilgrims lined up behind the altar and went up a little staircase one by one and hugged the statue from behind. Every few minutes a different set of hand would appear, although the pilgrims themselves were not visible. Flanking Santiago were two giant gold angels.

There were special effects, like things flying through the air. A giant insence burner called a botofumiero dangled from the ceiling and at a high point 8 brown robed monks appeared, lit it and working together got it swinging, swooping, spewing, smoking.

It brought energy and strength and people left happy. I had promised myself chocolate and churross just once on my trip and here they are.

I felt well blessed body, soul, mind and spirit.

Sunday 30 September 2012

Destinations can Deceive

On Saturday I rapturously arrived at the outskirts of Santiago about noon. It is a large city and it was still quite a distance to get to the cathedral and the other interesting bits in the centre. When I arrived it was mid afternoon and the square had students demonstrating, police trying to drive them out, and bus loads of tourists wearing matching T-shirts lining up for group photos. Shops were flogging their souvenirs. I had been expecting some kind of spiritual feeling. Frankly this was not what I had been walking towards.

I went to the pilgrim's reception office and lined up to get my compostela (certificate). It was equally shocking....line up, wait your turn, show your booklets of sellos (stamps) , fill out this form, sign here, congratulations, get lost. I was disappointed.

On Sunday morning after a good sleep I returned early to the square about 8 am. The morning light was soft. The square was practically deserted...a few tourists, dog walkers, and bicycle team assembling. A young, fit, agile Australian girl lay on her back on the cobblestones to take this photo of me.

I am happy and about to spend the day exploring. I am luxuriously installed in a lovely hotel and part of the day will include a long bath and a siesta. There will also be the pilgrim's mass, tapas, and museums....and rest. It has been a buen camino.

Friday 28 September 2012

Tomorrow i arrive in Santiago

My second last day on the camino had large portions of trail lined with oaks. The packed gravel underfoot was scattered with oak leaves and acorns. Lots of birds singing and the the faint smell of cows on the cool fresh air.Stone markers along the path give that all important far yet to go.


Only 19 km to go tomorrow.


I am exhausted and excited simultaneously.

Wednesday 26 September 2012

A Privileged and Cosseted Life or Is Pain Useful?

A former university classmate once declared about us early boomers..."We are the most privileged, cosseted generation that has ever lived". He spoke these words a couple of decades ago, and I dismissed them because in my view I was taking my life lumps...I was paddling hard.

I was thinking a lot about this today because I am approaching the Lavacolla River just before Santiago. It was here that medieval pilgrims cleansed themselves before they went to the cathedral. The name of the river is derived from " wash and colla...colon or arse". Literally the " Wash-your-arse River"...I will be there in only 3 more sleeps. Meanwhile I have stood under a hot shower everyday of the camino when I came off the trail and I have to admit that I have never enjoyed showers more. Sometimes I was cold from rain. More often I was sweaty and dusty. Always that hot water pouring over me created a sense of rejoicing in the simple ritual of getting clean. Was the struggle and pain of the trail an essential ingredient of that ramped-up enjoyment? I think so.

I am looking forward to arriving in Santiago but I love the camino. Today I met 2 Californians who walk at approximately the same turtle speed that I do. This is rare and worthy of documentation.

Tonight I am in a tiny village

This the view from the window of the bar where I sit.

Here is the bar where I sit having just had a big bowl of chicken noodle soup from a packet. It tasted like the food of the gods...but then I have walked and walked...I have put my rain poncho on and taken it off oodles of times. I am now going to have a strawberry yogurt and I expect that it also will taste superb.

Gratitude overwhelms me that I have the privileges of time, money and health to take this adventure.

Tuesday 25 September 2012

What a friend we have in Cheeses

Once when I was visiting my Aunt Ethel and Uncle Alvin as a child, a cheese tray was presented for guests and my Uncle Alvin uttered words that have continued to stick my whole life....What A Friend We Have in Cheeses. I remember giggling and my Aunt Ethel somehow expressing disapproval...mostly as a reminder to her husband that impressionable child's ears were present. This of course upped the likelihood of my remembering it which I have. I confess to never seeing a cheese tray in the subsequent 6 decades without Uncle Alvin's lame pun running through my mind.


Galician cheese starts with these gorgeous creatures. Cheese was definitely an appropriate choice of fuel.


Generally I don't speak the words the wise words of my Uncle Alvin out loud anymore largely because a lot of people won't get the joke. Unless you have attended a certain kind of Sunday School during a certain era you will not know about the rousing gospel hymn, " What a friend we have in Jesus".

So it was with Uncle Alvin's wise words in mind that I set out to prepare to climb O Cebreiro. It is the highest point on the camino and involves scrambling up a rock path for 9km. That is by personal calculation about 18,000 puffs by me.

As usual I planned well and bought a little circular packet of laughing cow cheese wedges and a box of toasts. The plan was to refuel regularly, and it worked brilliantly. Here I am at the top.

I had planned on doing it in one big push but was stopped part way up by rain. Rain in Galicia, the northwesterly portion of Spain, is a given. It is simply a question of how hard, how long, from which direction etc. The area resembles Scotland and Ireland and the inhabitants are Celts. They have the bagpipes although I have not heard them yet. They also speak Galego, a Celtic language that apparently has lots of different words for rain. The rain that stopped me part way up was a callebobo rain which based on my sketchy understanding means a rain that drives everybody off the streets or calles except the bobos.

Saturday 22 September 2012

Time to smell the flowers

Another big day of walking....32 km from Mollinaseca to Villafranca. I set out at 6:15 am and ended at 4:30. I am realizing that every camino day takes me through a similar range of emotions... Optimism, confidence, doubt, confusion, revaluation, resignation, discouragement, fatigue, rest, excitement, curiosity, delight, amazement, surprise, fun...and always accomplishment.

Today the trail included a lot of suburban housing and industrial development around a small city called Ponferrada. Gone was the wild sky and the sweeping I decided to look for flowers...those brave plants that risk investing in a second bloom....can you smell a metaphor coming...dammit I will just come out and say it. I want to risk a second bloom.



Tonight I rest for a big climb tomorrow. I am pleased that I can climb hills. I simply puff a lot and take it slow. Other are troubled by the descent which strains knees and legs and feet. In this, I seem to have the muscles and joints to take it. Perhaps the years of carrying my extra weight left me with strong legs.

The camino is full of people of all ages and stages. I learned yesterday that many Spanish young people are doing the camino in order to be able to use this on a resume. The unemployment among Spanish youth is alarming. I think it has a lot to teach folks of all ages.

Friday 21 September 2012

A big, long, high, strong day

My good sleep prepared me well for a great start at 5:30 under the stars. All that I could see was a few lamp-lighted steps of the path before me and the stars overhead. I could not judge the incline or know how long the up part would last. All that mattered was the next few steps and the breaths that would make the feet routine was simple...inhale on the left and exhale on the right. Each breath produced 2 steps. It is a strategy I understand well and perhaps over use...but it is unquestionably useful.

By sun-up I had travelled to a little town, had a coffee with pilgrim friends from previous days.

In no time the great pile of stones appeared. This moment is anticipated by pilgrims who often bring a symbolic stone. In my case it was a chance to shed a notion of myself that I no longer want, find useful etc. I had been practicing for this moment but now it was suddenly upon me.

IThe whole thing is a bit of cliche. My guidebook suggests arriving before 11 am to miss the tour buses who disgorge their motorized pilgrims for the requisite photo-op.

I quickly climb up and tuck my broken stone in a crack of the wooden pole.

I have done it.

My photographers cheer and I open my arms. Did it work? Who knows? It felt good.

My photographers are full of fun.

I stopped briefly at an eccentric establishment on the camino. The proprietor considers himself a modern day Templar and likes to welcome pilgrims. He does make a nice strong cup of tea with milk and listed 3cups worth.



Altogether I walked 32km today, and I feel great. It was fun to meet folks from Etobicoke just beginning. I was able to pass on some camino reassurance that it gets easier and that felt good.

I have taken to buying a drink for every Canadian I meet.

It was a big, long, high, strong day