Final Day // Santiago

So, I arrived yesterday in Santiago after 32 days of walking (and 2 tourist days).

Santiago is Spanish for Saint James, the first apostle to lose his life for his faith.  There are some early historical manuscripts that note James caring for the people of northern Spain.  It is believed that his remains were discovered around 800 in the area where Santiago is now located.  These remains are in a decorative coffin on view right below the central podium in the Cathdral de Santiago.

The Cathedral is crowded with visitors, even at 10 a.m.  many people trying to claim an early seat for the noon mass.  Already this morning the streets around the cathedral are crowded.  Numerous languages.  Tour groups.  Students on class trips.  And many pilgrims.

Yesterday I felt discombobulated.  Too much stuff happening.  Too many people, lots of noise and activity.  But I met a couple of Canadians I recognized from 3 weeks previous.  We agreed to meet for supper and eventually our table included 2 Americans and an Irish lady.  We had so much fun talking about the camino experience, hearing stories, laughing at the misadventures.  We were the last to leave the restaurant, all of us feeling at peace, restored somehow.  And each of us heading off in a different direction.

And so it is – the restorative fellowship that binds people together for a brief moment in time.

Oops, gotta go.  I need to clear out of my hotel room and get to the train station.  On my way home.  Yippee!

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Day 29 // Spooky Story

Ashley is a thoughtful and caring young lady from California. I have met her along the camino several times and have enjoyed our conversations.

A few days ago I met her at a very unique hostel on the side of a mountain in Galicia.  It sleeps 12 in a very hobbit-like building that welcomes and enfolds all who enter.  The beams are dark, the stone walls are ancient, the food is vegetarian and very delicious.
Ashley was so taken by the atmosphere that she offered to volunteer as a host (hostelaro) for two weeks.  Not knowing for sure when the next volunteer would show up she was welcomed to try it out for while.  So she helped, cleaned, processed, and served for the remainder of the day.
That evening she was led to the house where she would be sleeping, on the edge of the village.  The other 3 hosts were sleeping in a yurt in a field on the other side of the village.
The house had no electricity but with the flashlights it was clear that the main floor was pretty desolate.  There were some mattresses on the floor of the second storey.  She selected one and slipped into her sleeping bag.
A rooster crowed as she turned off the flashlight.  Then cats meuled and dogs barked.  After that subsided other strange noises, rustles, squeeks and creaks persisted through the night.  Ashley’s intuition was ringing alarm bells all night.  She had never felt so spooked.
In the morning she packed her gear, said goodbye to the surprised hosts and continued her pilgrimage.
The next day she was carefully sharing a bit of her story with some others over a coffee.  One of the prople said he knew the hostel and asked her if she had been in the abandoned house on the edge of the village.  He said that he began renovations on that house several years ago but he had felt spooked and did not finish the work when he discovered that an entire family, including the baby had died in the house.

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Day 28 // Phase 3

Earlier I wrote about the first two of the three phases or stages of the Camino.  Stage 1: Physical, Stage 2: Mental, and Stage 3: Spiritual.

Pilgrims look forward to reaching Stage 3.  It has a different name for each person.  For me it is called “Peace”.  I have peace when I am good with God and the world.  And to be frank, I think I entered this camino with a lot of peace.  Stage 3 was always with me.  And writing blog posts has helped me to be in touch with peace.

Conversations with other pilgrims have evolved too.   Towards the end of the meseta, conversations have become more transparent, more honest, philosophical and spiritual.  This journey is affecting everyone.

That’s not to say that the Physical and Mental stages have disappeared.  In fact it seems just when you forget about the physical – you get a blister or a shin splint (the two most popular injuries on the camino).  A lady my age may need to leave the camino because of her knee which has locked up after 4 weeks of walking.  I saw a young woman sewing up a blister on the underside of her foot the size of half her palm.  My “downhill muscles” have been painfully trying to tell to stop.  I of course don’t obey, but I do walk more slowly down hills.  I have actually chuckled aloud at these complaining muscles – they remind me of impatient little children.

Phase 2, the Mental, is making a come back among many pilgrims.  It seems that after more than a month of pilgrimage many, including me, are looking forward now to the end of this.  I just think “this is the last Saturday” and “tomorrow is the last Sunday”.

I left home in August and tomorrow is October. I miss home but it was nice to WhatsApp with Tet today.  (The wifi is good at this hostel.  Though it seems that I am the only English speaker here. I get friendly nods from the other guests.)

I think these three phases (Physical, Mental and Spiritual) are our familiar companions in our regular lives, “back in reality”. For me, having a strong centre in the Spiritual Phase helps me cope with the challenges the other two throw at me.  For me, peace brings with it a sense of humour and reminds me that life is just a journey, a pilgrimage, and tomorrow is another day with new hope.

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Day 27 // Walking Sticks

About half of the walkers use walking sticks.  They are adjustable in length because they need to be.  On long uphills the sticks are shortened by about 3 inches.  And they are lengthened for long downhills.  This is done in 20 seconds while walking.

Many people keep rubber tips in a handy pocket for when there are paved surfaces.

Walking sticks reportedly reduce knee stress by more than 5%.  If the backpack weighs 10% of a body’s weight, then the sticks take care of half the extra weight.

Today we were walking under oaks and chestnut trees.  The nuts underfoot were like marbles.  Another good reason for walking sticks.

One more good reason for walking sticks: there are lots of dogs in farm country.  I saw a wild boar a few weeks ago, the size of a small couch, with high haunches – it would have caught up to Usain Bolt very quickly.  It ran across a field, crossed the path about 100 metres in front of me and disappeared into a vineyard.  Another pilgrim told me about a wolf that was eyeing her and her daughter.

Interesting uses for walking sticks.  Likely pretty useless against a wild boar though.

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Day 26 // The 3 Basic Questions

The Roman Catholic Church that has mothered Spain for centuries is in decline.  However, some of the churches are bright beacons of blessing along the Camino.  In the Santa Maria Cathedral in Carrion de los Condes I attended an evening mass on a weekday.  I went a half hour early for a time of reflection and prayer but the church was already filling.  Soon it was full of Spaniards and Pilgrims.  I shared a pew with a young family of four.

The service was extremely catholic.  Lots of prayers to Saint Mary.  Robes, ritual, smells and bells, and the strong sense that this church is indeed the mother of the people.  Unapologetically catholic.  Yet many pilgrims filled the pews, most of them not catholic and many I spoke with, while claiming spirituality would not want to call themselves religious.  After the service was done, the pilgrims were invited to the front for a blessing.  The priest, blessed with a grumpy face, was joined by two smiling nuns with guitars and a young translater who spoke in English.  Grumpy priest said a few words and then the super happy-charged nuns took over rambling blessings all translated into English by the young man.  After a song or two, the priest and the nuns laid their hands on our heads one by one pronouncing a blessing and giving each pilgrim a home made star of David.  At one point the priest asked for the names of the countries represented.  The calling out of countries lasted over a minute with every continent well-represented.  Pilgrims left feeling blessed.

In somewhat different ways, this was played out in some other churches along the way.  These churches appear to be alive and busy.

I think, knowingly or not, these churches are addressing the 3 Basic Questions for All Churches (and organizations and businesses):

1. Who am I? (a mining exercise)

2. Why am I here? (a discerning and dreaming exercise)

3. Who is my Neighbour? (or who am I called to love or serve)

Clarity on Q1 (which can take some deep work for many organizations) helps to acheive clarity for Q2.  Clarity on Q1 and 2 leads to clarity on Q3.  This makes profound sense for businesses and service organizations. (if you don’t think so, talk to me) And why not for the church?

These lively churches doing something useful along the camino are clearly catholic, they have decided why they are there, and they know who they are called to love.  And therefore I have witnessed Agnostics, Buddhists, Jews, Protestants of many stripes, and vaguely spiritual people remembering Christ together and being blessed.

These 3 Questions sound simple, but they are powerful.

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Day 25 // Power of Peace

I met Mario’s eye as he entered the crowded dining room and waved him to my table.  He gladly accepted and we enjoyed a conversation over a Pilgrim Dinner.  With intelligent eyes and a hollywood smile, the young man told me his camino story.

He had been in and out of California medical clinics, the diagnosis becoming more mysterious with time and the medicines becoming more deadly.  One injection he was taking would help his symptoms but he was informed that this would eventually give him cancer.  Mario could see the writing on the wall.  Being the oldest child in an immigrant family he purchased a generous life insurance policy, quit his job and walked the camino, against the strong advice of his doctors.  Surprisingly, he found the walking much easier than he expected.  Within days he stopped taking his medicine.  He returned home hale and healthy.  The doctors were amazed, did more testing and judged that his health issues were most likely the direct result of unhealthy stress.  The camino gave Mario peace and peace restored his life.  That was a year ago.

This year he was walking the camino as a victory lap.

Blessed are the peace-makers.

I walked 30 km today with little effort.  Lots of little hills, more trees.  The weather varies dramatically.  Layers are coming off and coming back on.  The locals complain about the cold.  I find a very nice hostel with friendly staff that could speak English and bunk beds that don’t squeek every time I turn around around.

Wow, the previous night in Astorga I slept in a cramped room with 8 people in a large old monastery.  There was a lady around my age sleeping soundly when the rest of us climbed into our bunks.  Immediately she began to snore, freight-train, ghetto-blaster loud.  One guy was so upset he took his mattress into the hallway and slept outside our door.  Twenty minutes later the lady turned on her side and we all fell sound asleep.

Day 22 // Psalm 23 The Lord is my Shepherd

A flock of sheep crowded down the path toward me.  I stepped aside.  The shepherd, wearing a baseball cap and blue coveralls, shouted at me in Spanish to keep walking as the sheep would part around me.  I just smiled at him, taking in the scene.  He shook his head.  His two dogs kept the strays in check.  The donkey kept his senses about him, watching for coyotes and wolves.  These sheep were well looked after.

Its Sunday so I have re-written the most well known psalm.

The Lord is my shepherd

I am fully looked after

My soul is at peace

He leads me to a cafe whenever I am needy

There are bocadillas, coffee and cervesas aplenty

Smooth, refreshing

Even though I walk alone through the stoney, shadeless meseta

I am not afraid

Because my Lord is with me

His big sky blankets me with protection

And he shows me another directional arrow when I need it

So I am never lost

Even when I am surrounded by my enemies:

fear, doubt, guilt and impatience

God provides so abundantly

I am over-flowing, bursting with blessing

His loving care lifts me up

I really am his child


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Day 21 // Another Love Story

I remembered this today.  Four years ago on the camino as I was entering Pamplona I met Esteban and Louise, a 50ish couple from Australia.  Esteban, a compact, charming and  charismatic man, had Spanish blood in him and was determined to play host in his motherland.  Tonight, he said, we will do a Tapas Crawl.  That evening about a dozen of us followed our “host” from bar to bar drinking wine and eating tapas – a Spanish specialty consisting of a variety of hearty foods placed on pieces of toast.

Conversation flowed like water as the growing group of pilgrims connected around the various tables.  But there was dead silence when Esteban told us how he met Louise.  As a young man, he was returning home to his town in Spain having completed his service in the army.  As he stepped off the train he was awestruck by the sight of a stunning Australian woman waiting on the platform.  He immediately  recognized his future wife, walked right up to her and invited her for dinner at his parents’ home.  Not many days later they flew to Australia to meet her parents, get married, and the rest, as they say, is history.  Now after 25 years of marriage they are walking the camino.

That evening we managed to sneak back into our hostel just as the doors were being closed.  The hostel was a large cathedral.  The pews had been removed and replaced with two stories of cubicles and catwalks to accomodate 114 beds.  The snores, whispers, creaks and groans reverberated in the sacred space below the stone arches like a dischordant gregorian chant, making sleep difficult.

Today I walked from Leon to Villar de Mazarife, about 21 km.  It is hot and the terrain is changing.  More trees and small hills.  And strange new pilgrims because I stayed a day in Leon.

I left later than usual this morning, around 8, because I slept in.  However, I was the first pilgrim to arrive at my hostel.  I did a shorter walk today because I had a cramp in my calf yesterday and did not want to stress it.

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Day 20 // Cathedral of Leon

I was a senior structural engineer for some years and tried to teach an intuitive approach to design.  “Always design something with your head first, your gut, your intuition.  Then start using the calculator, the computer programs and the books.  You will then have a double check on everything you design – and you will develop a useful intuition that you can listen to.”  I haven’t done any structural design for several years now, but I still have my intuition.  And my intuition was buzzing almost immediately this morning when I entered the Cathedral of Leon. “Alert!  Pay Attention!”

The style of the cathedral is gothic, but the latest gothic before the rennaisance started.  In this cathedral the walls are thin and they are punched full of large stained glass windows giving the impression that the walls are almost all glass.  These walls are close to 16 stories high.  How do they do this?  The roof of this cathdedral is heavy and the winds are strong and the structural walls are almost non-existant.  In addition, the roof is arched stone.  The arch is certainly efficient, but everyone knows that arches exert tremendous outward thrust at their ends,  And a heavy stone arch produces very heavy thrust.

Some of you are thinking – there must be flying buttresses on this building.  Well, there are – but even they are quite skinny.  This building strikes me as a very tightly balanced structure.  One thing goes wrong and the whole thing is in jeopardy.

And my intuition was relieved to discover that was true.  About 300 years ago an additonal roof dome was added where the cross shaped building intersects.  Over the next two hundred years groans and cracking could be heard eventually resulting in pieces of stone falling and the entire building being declared unsafe.  It took 50 years of large-scale demolition, heavy duty scaffolding and other significant renewal and artisanal work to restore the fine balance.  Which it now has.  And it is beautfully, breath-taking.

At ten in the morning there are already well over a hundred tourists inside. Other pilgrims are there as well (they are so easy to spot with their hiking clothes) having decided to spend a day here, soaking in this lively Spanish city.

Leon is a large contrast to the villages we have walked through, most of which are clearly dying and whose churches are spartan, worn, almost baren.

I had hoped to attend a pipe organ concert in the cathedral last night but the line up formed two hours ahead of opening.  Not for me.  Would have been nice.  The organ has just over 4000 pipes, many of which are trumpets.  The good news is that the organ could be heard outside.

I enjoy a late supper and pleasant conversation with a German pilgrim and then head to a nice hotel for a sleep of luxury.  Ahhhh!

Day 19 // Leaving the Meseta

The meseta is the Prairies of Spain.  I am still in it, but not for long.  Something has changed.  I can see mountains on the western horizon.  They are still far off, but getting more clear by the hour.  And I (and other pilgrims) am having mixed feelings about this.

Walks across the meseta begin each morning in cold darkness.  Everyone wears all their layers.  The cold is refreshing.  Next comes the sunrise – and it is beautiful every morning lasting just short of a half hour.  After about 5 – 10 km, eyes search the path ahead for plastic chairs and canopies – sure signs of a cafe with coffee and croissants.  Some mornings this takes longer.  Yesterday it was 17 km.  Then after coffee the temperature starts to rise and layers are removed.  By noon the temperature rises closer to 30 at times and bright sunshine.  Usually by 2 pm most people arrive at their hostels.

But there’s an interesting thing thats been happening to the pilgrims.  Just a few days ago many walked in groups, enjoying the camaraderie of this international camino.  That’s changing.  Most pilgrims are choosing solitude for a good piece of their day.  It seems that solitude is the best way to experience the meseta.  It is a holy place where noise distracts and silence is golden.  It is a place of healthy introspection.  It is so open to the sky, so open to the presence of God, that vulnerability becomes comfortable.

I am enjoying my many conversations with so many pilgrims of so many ages (I will write more about that soon).  But I am also tremendously treasuring the silence of solitude.  The meseta is a special place.

Tomorrow I am heading into Leon, a big tourist city.  I plan to spend a day there.



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