Tag

camino de santiago

Adventure, Europe

This Is Why We Walk—Maybe

spain, camino, walk

Ancient Practice in the Modern Landscape

 

Sixteen kilometers of open road. No turns. No twists.
The trees are thick on either side, and I’m grateful for the shade they provide. The road tilts up, then drops down again. Relentless.
It is my third-to-last day on the Camino del Norte. My legs are already tired, my feet already sore. I have walked already ten kilometers when I begin this section of road.
Normally, there are trails, or a dirt edge to walk on at the least. Not today.
The occasional car speeds past. They will arrive at the end of the road in minutes.
The road is hard. Straight. Empty.
Relentless.

***

I’ve said it before: traditions have a way of reviving themselves.

We as humans are wired for ritual. We seek it, gravitate toward it and cling to it, and when we don’t find it the world suffers.

It has been theorized that there is a cross-cultural link between lack of ritual and conflict. Or, to put it positively, ritual is a necessary component of conflict resolution. That’s a longer discussion I’d love to have with you personally.

If this gravitation is (as theorized) a response to a lack of ritual in modern society, the wild success of trends like yoga and meditation would arguably be the same. I believe that tendency to seek meaning through practice has everything to do with the recent resurgence of interest in the Camino—and other pilgrimage.

The juxtaposition of this ancient journey with the modern landscape through which it now passes fascinated me from start to finish.

What does it mean to walk a centuries-old trail alongside a six-lane highway? Beside a railroad track? Through a buzzing city like Bilbao?

How does the addition of asphalt, smartphones, gortex and wifi change the experience? Enhance it? Devalue it?

If you change everything—the trappings, the clothing, often the landscape, the food, the language, the Road itself—but keep the journey, is it still the same Camino?

I’m inclined to say yes—in spirit.

If you take a human body, give it artificial limbs, blood transfusions, organ transplants—replace everything, say—do you still have the same person?

Your answer may depend on whether or not you believe in a consciousness, a soul, a Self (call it what you will) that is greater than the sum of all its parts.

If you change every piece of the Camino, from the culture around it and the people walking it to the very structure and environment of the journey, what remains the same?

In my opinion, it is the spirit of the journey. It is the seeking, the act of walking, that has somehow drawn us across history to follow the same path.

And you can lament the omnipresence of wifi or cell service, you can dismiss the validity of smartphone navigation, you can wax poetic about the good old days when pilgrims carried nothing but a skein of water and the cloaks on their backs…but to what end?

This is our world.

There is asphalt that wears down our joints. There are trains that travel many times faster than our feet. There is social media and multiculturalism and sturdy trekking gear.

One thing has not changed.

Us.

We still walk on two feet (when we choose).

We still require food and water to survive—for now.

We still seek—relentlessly—to create meaning in our lives.

That is why, I believe, an ancient rite like the Camino de Santiago still makes sense. In spite of this modern world and modern landscape. Maybe because of it.

It is not just possible, but perhaps necessary to walk the same paths we have walked for centuries. Maybe that connection is the ritual we’re seeking.<

What do you think?

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Did You Find What You Were Looking For? (Camino Reflections, Part 10000)


My last visit to London, in July of this year, I had dinner with a former classmate. We had taken “Intro to Buddhism” together.
I didn’t know it then, in my first semester at Middlebury College, but many themes from that course would wind their way through the following years of my life.
Over our glasses of red wine—Merlot, I think—I recounted a memory of that class that stands out from the rest. It’s funny, sometimes, what ends up sticking in our minds.
Someone had asked our professor if he wanted to reach enlightenment—if that’s what he was seeking.
He had answered softly (he always spoke softly):

“I’m not so interested in enlightenment. I’m interested in the possibility of expanding my awareness.”

Maybe this is unhelpful, and maybe I’ve spent too much time around Buddhist philosophy, but this is what I have to say in answer to that oft-repeated question, “Did you find what you were looking for.”

No.

Longer answer: 

I wasn’t looking for anything, so I doubt I would find it. That’s the difference between a trip and a journey—only one has a destination.
I found no thing on my Camino journey. Nothing. I did not have any epiphany. My life did not change.
If you set out walking (meditating, praying, anything) in search of enlightenment, I think you will be disappointed.
And that’s not depressing; it’s inspiring. It is exhilarating, this not knowing. It is enthralling, this seeking-but-not-finding. It is magnetic, this grey in-between-ness of no-thing—neither empty of wisdom nor full of answers.
If “no” is not a satisfying response, I’m sorry, but it’s the only one I’ll give—at least for now.
No, I did not find what I was looking for.
I wasn’t looking for, you see.
Something on the same subject I wrote about halfway through the Camino, in a moment of clarity:

“Will I come back wiser?” asked my ego. 

I don’t know, my more honest self replied. I think I’d be the last to know.Do any of us come back “wiser” from anything? 

I have my doubts. 

I will come back with bigger calves from walking and stronger shoulders from carrying my pack. 

This is certain. 

I will carry in my heart thirty peaceful mornings where dawn breaks over still meadows, and the wind whispers a song only I can hear. 

This is certain.

I’m not interested in finding. The beauty is in the in-between.

***
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Adventure, Culture, Europe, Nomadism

Pilgrimage Today—It’s Still Relevant

Pilgrimage Museum, Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain

I placed the noise canceling headphones over my ears, and an ancient melody flowed straight to my soul.
It was my foodsteps—hundreds, thousands of them—plucked from a harp. It was the daily rhythm of walking made song.
I stood at that display in the Pilgrimage Museum for a long time, and I listened to some of the recordings of the Resonet Musica Antiga group more than once. Recreated from sheets music in the Cathedral’s archives and reconstructed medieval instruments, the music might have run through my head at a distance.
But somehow it didn’t. Somehow it connected.
I arrived in Santiago on Friday, July 1, 2016. That Friday marked the culmination of a month of walking across Northern Spain (approximately 800 kilometers) begun in the vague interest of “seeking.”
(We can talk about what I “found” once I figure that out—story for another day.)
Pilgrimage is an ancient phenomenon. Historians have found evidence of its occurrence in Mesopotamia, Vedic India and ancient Egypt. Wherever it appears in human history, it follows the same principle: an outward, often arduous journey serving as an allegory for the spiritual path.
Since the alleged discovery of the remains of Saint James (one of the Twelve Apostles) in the ninth century, Santiago—and its cathedral—has been one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the world. It is said that the Camino de Santiago—the Way to Santiago, and there are many—is a metaphor for the trail marked by the Milky Way across the sky. Again, a physical manifestation of a metaphysical path.
That sounds heady and outmoded, right?
Wrong.
In the last decade, traffic on the Camino Frances (the most popular route) has surged into the thousands. Clearly, the ancient tradition still resonates. And lately, its popularity is growing fast.
Just as ritual will always revive itself and traditions will be reborn, pilgrimage is finding its place in the modern world.
The scallop shell, long worn as an insignia by peregrinos walking to Santiago, now hangs from my backpack, too. Symbol of water, life and healing, it is as timeless, endlessly resonant, as it is timeworn.
These themes are eternal:

WanderingSeekingThe JourneyWalkingLooking to the SkyWalking upon the Earth
Questioning 

The WarriorThe SeekerThe Scholar [1]

As I listened to those modern recordings of centuries-old music, I heard my experience translated—so precisely—into sound. I walked a path that thousands, perhaps millions, had walked before me, and though the asphalt beneath my feet and electric lights in the distance were new, the the experience had somehow been the same. [2]

That, in short, is why pilgrimage is still deeply relevant today.

***

[1] The Warrior, The Seeker and The Scholar are the three archetypes represented by Saint James.
[2] Sadly I have not been able to find the same recordings anywhere online. This is the closest I could find, but you may have to visit the Pilgrimage Museum in Santiago to hear the music I’ve described:
***

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The Camino de Santiago in 100 words and 27 Untouched Pictures

When I set out for the San Sebastian (my starting point for the Camino del Norte) at the start of June, I decided not to take my camera with me.
Too heavy. Too much of a burden. Too unnecessary.
Then came the bright idea to take only one to two (smartphone) photos per day throughout my thirty-day walk. To capture what captured my heart, without being a slave to documenting the journey—that was the idea.
And I think it worked pretty well. On average, I took two pictures a day—sometimes none, sometimes three—and while the result is not comprehensive, I believe it is in some way representative of those days.
I have selected twenty-seven of those sixty photos and paired them with lines from a brief stream of consciousness I wrote one day to summarize the experience of walking the Camino. The collection below is not chronological, and it isn’t complete, but I think it is more true than a complete, chronological photo diary could ever be.

***
Walking. 
Walking in mud, in rain, 
in grass; 
on gravel, asphalt, 
bridges stone, wood, paved; 
at first light, 
at last light, 
under clear skies 
and into fading sunsets.
Waking beneath stars in freezing meadows, 
waking in a village whose name already evades recollection.
Glossy maps,  
cafe chairs, 
Spanish words that somehow make sense.
Bare feet,
dirty feet, 
tired and sore feet.
The same hat every day, always a different flower in it.
Yellow arrows, yellow arrows, yellow arrows.
The path ahead. 
Sleep that comes without invitation. 
Absence of thought.
Peace of 
single-minded activity. 
Never boring. 
Seashells. 
The way forward. 
Yellow arrows.

***

The Camino in Short: 

Walking. Walking in mud, in rain, in grass; on gravel, asphalt, bridges stone, wood, paved; at first light, at last light, under clear skies and into fading sunsets. Waking beneath stars in freezing meadows, waking in a village whose name already evades recollection. Glossy maps, plastic cafe chairs, Spanish words that somehow make sense. Bare feet, dirty feet, tired and sore feet. The same hat every day, always a different flower in it. Yellow arrows, yellow arrows, yellow arrows. The path ahead. Sleep that comes without invitation. Absence of thought. Peace. Single-minded activity. Never boring. Seashells. The way forward. Yellow arrows.

***

About

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The Modern-Day Renunciate

Sobrado de Monxes Cathedral, Galicia, Spain.
He asked if there was water nearby.
The two dogs, attached to his belt by lengths of thick rope, were thirsty.
We were about sixty kilometers (or several days) outside of Santiago when we met him. I regret that we didn’t get a chance to ask his name.
He carried a huge walking stick, clearly decorated and carved by him, and an unraveling straw hat with a green band around it advertising for Amstel. He carried fishing gear, slept in a tent with his dogs and was running out of money. He had lost his passport one night in a flash flood, given away his watch. His hair and beard were unkempt and reddish brown. His eyes, wide, never quite focused on ours.
In a thick, thick accent, he briefly told us his story.
He had been a farmer in the Czech Republic. In December of 2015, the bank took his farm and everything he owned. So, he left with his dog and started walking. The second dog they found drowning in a river one night—still a puppy, it had huge paws, sure to be a big dog.
When he reached Santiago via the Camino Frances (the most popular route, a bit farther south), he turned around and started walking the other direction along the Camino Norte (the Northern Way, where we met him). After telling us about the dog, the money, the passport and the watch, he concluded:

“So probably I will spend my life walking. Just me, the dogs. I speak Spanish, so when I run out of money maybe I will find work somewhere, for a while. I think it is a good way to live, just to walk.”

I think I can empathize. If I lost everything like that, I would probably lose any faith I had in property, money, things. I would probably—maybe—start walking and settle into a state of non-owning, non-needing, non-grasping, too.
On the Camino, you run into a few of these modern-day renunciates.
They’re not out for a month-long holiday, or even a six-month sabbatical. They’ve dropped—or lost—everything, and they’re walking, not for pilgrimage, not for a temporary detox, but for life. 

I admire them, just as I admire anyone with a single-minded passion so single-minded that it borders on pathological. I think I understand the impulse, though I can’t imagine ever committing my life to just one activity. Different strokes, is all.
More than anything, I’m fascinated by what appears to me to be a growing global trend, as the “real world” becomes harder and harder to stomach, of starting walking (or traveling, or what have you) and never stopping.
Society has always had its renunciates. Those who live outside the bounds of normalcy—normal time, normal family, normal work, normal life—and follow another Way. I suppose the only difference is that our modern world doesn’t know as well what to do with them. It demands passports. It requires that we identify our place, our role, our function. It is, quite frankly, nonplussed by this growing race of outsiders. And yet, they are growing. 
If you ask me, there will always be renunciates—those who chose not to participate in the world offered to them. And if you ask me, it’s not a problem; rather, it is for the rest of us to accept and allow their presence, walking the narrow paths between the borders of society.
We told the former Czech farmer that there was a small shop in a house in the next town, just a kilometer farther along. He woke the dogs from their nap on the sidewalk, and we set off in opposite directions.

Without a doubt, he is still walking.
***

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Welcome to the World: First Post-Camino Reflections and Impressions.

Sunrise over Bolibar, Basque Country, after an accidental four a.m. start time.
High heels tap-tapping on the pavement. SALE signs in every storefront. The familiar turning on sound of my shiny laptop that I haven’t heard in a month. 
Not one single “hola, peregrina!”* as I pass crowds of strangers in the streets.
Walking through central London is quite the “welcome” to the world. But arriving in London town on this beautiful July day, that’s just what I’ve done, scallop shell hanging from my backpack, dusty shoes on my feet and cool breeze on my face.
While many reflections are sure to follow, here are the first thoughts I’ve had since officially “returning” from my journey:

I’m damn proud of what I’ve just done.
Estimates vary from 795 to 863 kilometers (San Sebastian to Santiago de Compostela), but whichever way you hang it, that’s a long walk. I’m proud of these legs that have put up with unplanned 35-kilometer days, these feet that have weathered blisters and mysterious swelling without (much) complaint, this brain that has learned passable Spanish in four weeks. While part of me was underwhelmed by my accomplishment and tempted to understate it, another part of me felt like turning around in the street and shouting, “Look what I did!”
I really want others to know that they can do it too.
Over the past month, I have heard of or personally encountered pilgrims on horseback, bicycle (“bicigrinos”) and wheelchairs; overweight men, non-athletic girls and heavy smokers; young children, women in their seventies and everything—everything—in between. Think you can’t do the Camino? I think you can.
Being a pilgrim is a privileged way to experience another place—maybe the most privileged.
Never have I been so utterly accepted in my travels, nor my purpose and my role so completely understood. As a pilgrim (as opposed to a traveler/tourist/visiter/all the other things I have been), I found local people exceptionally welcoming, caring, understanding and accommodating. The people of Northern Spain have happily put up with my (and thousands of other pilgrims’) poor language skills, smelly clothes, abysmal navigation and overall cluelessness as we passed through their homes. It was a privilege to be received so kindly.
I’ll miss it.
Backpack, staff, sturdy shoes and scallop shell. The trappings of the modern day pilgrim are different from those of our predecessors, but nonetheless unmistakeable. On a daily basis I received unsolicited directions and support from passerby. From farmers in their fields, cyclists whizzing by and cars on the road, shouts of “Hola, peregrina!” and “Buen Camino!” were common and comforting. To be so firmly rooted in a fixed purpose, and to have that role understood and supported by the community, infrastructure and even landscape around you is a rare gift. Though difficult to describe, pilgrimage as a state of being was an unparalleled experience, and I will miss it.
I definitely don’t know what I’ve learned yet.
Deep thoughts? Rare. More common: “My feet hurt.” “I’m hungry.” “Why is the sky still spitting at me?” “Ooohhh, that’s a pretty mountain.” “Cows are funny.” “Goats are funny.” “Hehe, sheep are really, really funny.” “Ooohhh, pretty horses.” “Hmm, my feet still hurt.”
You get the idea. Even more common: “…  …  …” Clear mind. That was the best part. So, I don’t know yet what the big lessons were—but I’m sure they’re in there.
But everything was perfect and exactly how it needed to be.
There’s no “right” way to do the Camino. Everyone will walk at different paces, stop different places and learn different lessons. And that’s exactly as it should be. I’m still entirely in the processing phase of my return, but I know one thing for certain about my journey: It was perfect.


*Peregrino(a) is the Spanish word for “pilgrim.”
***

Some bonus awesomeness: Check out my friend and fellow pilgrim, Margaret’s inspiring campaign, WALKING FOR WOMEN WITH BREAST CANCER IN TIMOR-LESTE – HALIKU.

***

I expect to be writing a fair bit in the coming weeks and months about the Camino, so if there’s anything in particular you want to hear about, please let me know!

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Off to the Camino… Travel Update and See You Later!

On Sunday, June fifth (yes, that’s tomorrow), I will close my laptop. I will put it on a shelf, and I will not see it again for a month. I will put two pairs of pants, three shirts and a sleeping bag into my backpack, and I will head to San Sebastian in the Northeast of Spain.

I’ve been waiting for this day for a while now.

I need a vacation, yes. I need a total break from society—also yes.

But it’s more than that. It always is.

The Camino de Santiago has been on my list for awhile now. (It’s not a bucket list. I like to call it my, “Do These Things as Soon as Possible List.”)

I don’t know why I want to do it, just like I don’t know why I want to travel the Trans-Siberian Railway, ride on horseback across Mongolia or sail the seven seas (all on my list). Except, I know that it calls to me; I know that adventure is my way of searching—of seeking.

I know that a search need not have an object—that it is the act of searching that matters—sometimes…


***

So, that’s about it. I’m not packing my camera, so I’m sorry to say I may not have many beautiful pictures to show for this trip at the end of the month. I also haven’t decided how much, if at all, I’ll stay connected. I may be updating here over the next month—or I may not. If not, I’ll be back in a month with a whole lot of stories to tell. See you then! 🙂
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