Saturday, July 26, 2008


I'm home now.

I got to Santiago on the 18th, having walked about 85km in my last two days. I was a little bit tired.

My last 10km into Santiago, it was late, so there weren't many pilgrims on the road, but everyone I passed (or more accurately, everyone who passed me) would shout out things like "congratulations, you're almost there," and "only 7 more km!" Old men sitting in bars on sidewalks would tell me to give St. James a hug for them, and some cyclists stopped to tell me that I should turn left at the hill, and I was almost there.

Which all should have been really lovely, except I was exhausted and they were all speaking Spanish which still takes me forever to understand, so my response to all of this was to grumble to myself, "I know how fucking far it is to Santiago, do I look stupid? I've made it 790km by myself already, I don't need your goddamn directions for the last hour, and if you want to hug St. James so badly, do it yourself, douchebag."

Then when I finally got to the city, I was far more taken with all the shops selling clothes that were clean and smelled new, and that nobody had been hiking in for a month than I was with the Cathedral itself.

So, to sum up, I took two things away from my monthlong spiritual pilgrimmage:
1. a loathing for my fellow man
2. a drive to buy lots of shiny new things

Also, I probably learned some things. And I have more freckles.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

How to win at pilgrimmage

I like to win. It's one of my hobbies, right up there with "being right" and "bossing people."

And there are enough old people on the Camino that most of the time I feel like I am winning. It's easy to breeze past the olds with a nod and a "buen camino," and feel young and fit and strong. There's only one problem with making pilgrimmage into a race:


Seriously. Germans are intense. And very efficient. Yesterday I spent most of the day walking with a German guy named Axle, who was a total riot, but in spite of being a chainsmoker in his forties, he practically ran up that mountain, leaving me huffing in his wake. Fortunately I have discovered the solution:

Just when I thought I was going to puke or pass out or die, I would stop suddenly, look down the mountain and sigh, "have you ever seen anything so beautiful?"

This way, instead of stopping because I can't go on, I'm choosing to stop. I'm stopping because I understand that pilgrimmage isn't a race, it's about slowness, and living with intention, and appreciating the little things. And also about winning, if not by being the fastest, then by being the most pious.

So the Germans can win the race, because I am clearly winning at ENLIGHTENMENT.


I'm in Sarria right now, 117km from Santiago. It gets quite crowded from here on, because anyone who has walked at least 100km to Santiago is eligible for a Compostela - basically a 50% off coupon for purgatory.

Now, I know that this pilgrimmage has rewards well beyond getting out of purgatory early, but answer me this: how is it fair that pilgrims who only walk 117km get the same prize that I do after 800? If you had a vineyard, and hired some people to work all day, while other workers only put in a few hours, would you pay them all the same amount?

Totally ridiculous.

Monday, July 14, 2008

They should have sent a poet

I woke up this morning ready to be done with pilgrimmage. I was sick of sleeping in bunk beds, sick of smelling and having sore feet. I wanted to go home.

Then about 2.5km in, I stopped for second breakfast in a tiny mountain village. It was still cool and misty, and the sun was coming up over the hills. Galician folk music was playing in the background and halfway through my first coffee, a farmer walked past with his herd of cattle, then the cafe owner came out after them to pick up the manure. These small villages are unreal. (Or maybe it's our malls and parking lots that are unreal.) At any rate, drinking my cafe con leche and looking out over the mountains that I'd climbed with my own two feet, the Toucan, and mouldy church basements, and Clergy St. crazies and irony and even Judith Butler seemed like worlds away.

I'm 142km away, but I never want this to end.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

I'm not into animal abuse or anything, but...

A couple of weeks ago, I walked past a shepherd leading a huge flock of sheep. He was the only other person I'd seen for miles, walking through beautiful mountains, and the closest thing to signs of "civilization" for as far as I could see were the gravel path we were walking on, and ancient stone caves built into the hills where hermits used to live. (And don't think I didn't consider just moving into one of those caves and never coming home. Until I realized that they probably didn't have wireless.)

Anyway, it occurred to me that although I've heard a lifetime's worth of shepherd/sheep metaphors, I've never actually seen a shepherd with sheep. (And most likely, neither have any of the people who have preached at length about these sheep metaphors. These, for the record, are the same people who really want to get into the Greek root words without ever having studied Greek.)

Then that afternoon, I met two women from Oklahoma who explained to me in Sue-the-missionary accents that they had just finished a Bible study that went through the 23rd Psalm from a shepherd's perspective (their emphasis), and so seeing the sheep in the mountains moved them almost to tears, now that they understood how much a shepherd cares for his sheep and the lengths he will go to for them.

This was all getting a little too "framed poem from Cameron's" for me, which might explain why I nearly fell out of my chair laughing when my new friends Fred and Silka told me last night about how they'd seen the same shepherd beating one of his sheep with a stick.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

I thought that walking 800km across Spain was a pretty badass way to spend my summer vacation, but so far I've met the following people who are crazier than I am:

  • Andre, a Danish guy who is running the Camino in marathon-length chunks every day
  • An Austrian couple who started walking in Austria. He is a bearded giant with a tattoo of the Virgin Mary on his left shoulder and one of Jesus on his right, and if you don't find that totally adorable, then you and I could never party together.
  • A guy who zoomed past me one day saying, "I've been walking since Khazakstan, and you could do it too! Drink lots of water and stretch every day!" (Gregoire: See? I told you they all turn into mystics after two months.)
  • And, most impressively, Sam. Sam has been walking since Le Puy, which is about 1500km east of Santiago. His knees are covered with scrapes, because he has cerebral palsey which means he falls down a lot. He takes his time, and usually stumbles into the albergue a few hours after the rest of us, but always just in time to make everyone else in the room look like a total pussy.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

It's 9am and I've already hiked 5k. I'm writing this from an albergue that was once run by Templars, drinking fresh-squeezed orange juice and the best cafe con leche this side of Cuba.

Why can't all mornings start like this?
Yesterday I was walking through a wheat field, and a man who looked about ninety years old, and who couldn't possibly have cleared five feet came around the bend, asking me to sign his notebook and write down where I was from. He was wearing a blue blazer and blue military-type hat, and at least thirty different pins (way above the minimum number of pieces of flair). He didn't speak any English, and I kind of wanted to put him in my pocket until he gave me a pervy, toothless grin and asked if he could have a kiss. (I said no, and kept walking.)

The sad thing is, he's not the first old man to approach me on the Camino and ask for a kiss. The first was an olive farmer who actually got off his tractor to come over, and tell me that I was very pretty and wow, all the way from Canada, and could he please have a little beso?

So either this is a cultural thing nobody warned me about, or Spain is full of lechy old men, or Spain has two lechy old men and I've met them both. But if it happens again, I'm calling the Consulate.

Three reasons I could do this for the rest of my life

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


443km to Santiago.

I don't particularly like my guidebook. It's full of inaccuracies and John Brierly's "helpful" tips for spiritual development and excerpts from his personal journal which make me think that he was - quite rightly - slapped around in school quite a bit as a child. But I can forgive him all that for this one paragraph, reviewing a hostel that I opted not to stay at:

"For a decidedly down-market experience try Victorino's at the top of town which offers very basic accommodation and a pilgrim meal eaten at a communal table. Victorino is one of the colourful characters along the camino and can drink a litre of wine from a porron (jug with spout) without drawing breath, and frequently does, so the menu is somewhat variable. A log fire adds to the convivial atmosphere if the night is cold but beware of amorous advances if you're on your own."

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

I wish Copper Penny delivered.

Sunday night I stayed in downtown Burgos. It's a lively city, (full of annoying soccer fans - I mean seriously, it's just a sport) full of cafes and restaurants and tapas bars. I finally had the chance to get away from the typical Pilgrim's Menu of fish with french fries, and eat something fresh and interesting and delicious.

I ate at Pizza Hut.

I like to branch out, I like to try new things. But I was homesick and tired after two weeks of walking, and wanted something cheesy and comforting and familiar. I think that Kelsey's Club Billy and I may have been made for one another after all.

Thommy, please come to Spain with a carload of stale Cheddar Bay, as soon as possible.

Sunday, June 29, 2008


This morning I stopped for a coffee in a beautiful little cafe about 5km outside of San Juan, where I slept last night. It was clean and cozy (two rarities along the Camino) and sold fruit and fresh bread and cheese instead of the usual pre-packaged stale croissants and potato chips.

The man behind the counter spoke to me in French, but when I asked if he was from France, he answered "Why are we all obligated to be from somewhere? Can't we just be where we are?"

Gregoire told me yesterday that anyone who does the Camino for more than two months becomes a mystic, so the barista's answer made a lot more sense when he told me that he has walked the Camino every year for the last 35 years, once travelling for 168 days. He complained about the tourist pilgrims who get up early in the morning to rush to the next town. "Saint James has been waiting for you for 2000 years, he won't mind a few extra days," he said. "Just walk as far as your legs will take you, and at the end of the day, soak your feet, have a few glasses of red wine, and eat some cheese and olives. You walk forever like that."

And when he puts it that way, don't you kind of want to walk forever like that?

Friday, June 27, 2008

Why I love the French

My newest favourite is a Frenchman named Gregoire, from Marseilles. And when I say he's a Frenchman, I mean he is every inch a Frenchman. He has shaggy, greasy hair, he walks in very short cutoffs, chainsmokes Galuoises while he walks, drinks red wine by the gallon and every second word is "fuck."

Last night as we were all sitting around at dinner, there weren't enough wine glasses to go around, so the man sitting next to me poured wine into his (empty) beer glass. Gregoire wagged a finger in his face and said, "I hope you're doing the Camino as penance for that. On your knees." I like a man who takes these things seriously.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Camino Life Lesson #1: I'm an idiot

Last summer when Meg and I were driving to Halifax (Renee was also in the car, but asleep, so she's innocent in all of this) I saw Meg miss a turn-off and didn't tell her, because I'm bad at telling truth to power. This proved two things: 1) I'm not very bright, and 2) I have a pretty loose definition of "power," if I'm scared of Meghan Sheffield.

This afternoon my truth to power deficiency reared its ugly head once more. I got to a fork in the road, and there weren't any yellow arrows around to tell me where to go. One went uphill, and one was flat and shaded. So in spite of the fact that the Austrian couple who had zoomed past me a couple hundred yards back were taking the uphill route, I picked the flat one, figuring that they'd also had to guess, and had probably guessed wrong.

Well, I don't know how long it took me to realize I was lost, or how long I wandered around in that vineyard for, but I know that it was long enough for me to take my shoes off, lie down and have a nap. And then wander some more. Finally I saw Najera (the town I'm sleeping in tonight) in the distance and dragged myself into town.

Except it wasn't actually Najera.

It was, however, siesta. And I don't know if you've ever tried to find someone to get directions from in a small town in rural Spain during siesta, but let me tell you that these people take their naptime very seriously.

A few hours later I'm finally in the hostel in Najera, waiting for a shower to free up, but I am very sore and cranky.

Lessons learned today:
1. The easy path and the right one are not always going to be the same thing.
2. I should never be trusted to find anything.
3. Seriously, never follow me anywhere.
4. No, really. I'm an idiot with directions.

P.S. Dad, relax. I'm fine. I made it here.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Someone warned me to be careful in Spain, believing that everyone doing the pilgrimmage must have something wrong with them. I haven't encountered too many crazy people, but I have come across a couple of characters.

I have a huge peregrina crush on Ingrid, a Dutch woman who works in advertising. She speaks five languages, hitchhikes and says 'shit' a lot. She's basically every fiery tempered hot tomboy in every German/Eastern European movie ever. I'm pretty sure that when she's not on a pilgrimmage, she'd dress a lot like Sarah Harmer (down to the shoes), but I totally want to be her best friend anyway. The only thing stopping me from bringing her back to Kingston to have sleepovers with me and Meg is the fact that she would embarass us by being so much cooler. (Sarah shoes notwithstanding.)

Duval is a French doctor I met yesterday whom I assumed must have gotten lost when his car ran out of gas in the countryside, but he's a pilgrim just like the rest of us. Just like the rest of us, except he's walking the pilgrimmage in a shirt and tie. (He's even wearing cufflinks. Seriously.) I'm completely in love with him because after we'd spoken for a few minutes in French, I told him I was Canadian and he said that he'd thought he detected "un peut d'un accent." This is such a colossal understatement that I was tempted to wash his feet with my hair.

Miladen is a young man (young man? it would seem that being old is contagious, and that I'm catching it on the Camino) from Chile whom I walked with for most of the morning, in an informal ESL lesson. He has spent the last three years studying to be a Catholic priest, but has decided against it, and now is walking the Camino "trying to find anything," in his words. He asked me if I like Beyonce, the song from Titanic, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and Cher. I have my own theories about why he abandonned the priesthood.

Monday, June 23, 2008

I LOVE Spain

So in spite of what I said earlier about how much I love the waymarking along the route, I´ve still managed to get lost a few times along the way (which surprises no one). I wandered around the outskirts of Pamplona a few days ago for quite some time, trying to find the bridge into town. The locals are usually very friendly toward pilgrims, and so I couldn't understand why I got such a strange look from one in particular. It turns out that my Spanish is even worse than I realized, and I had spent the afternoon approaching strangers and saying, "Excuse me? I LOVE the Magdelene bridge." And then looking at them expectantly. Fortunately I somehow got pointed in the right direction.

Then last night, I had another "geez louise I really don't speak any Spanish after all" moment in a pizza parlour (pizza parlour? what am I, like ninety?). The manager was trying to explain to me that it would take awhile for my pizza, an explanation which involved him taking me into the kitchen to show me that the oven wasn't warmed up yet and lots of pointing at the clock and repeating things slowly. Before leaving, I tried to thank him for being so kind, but it came out like this: "Thank you, you're're very...[pause while I search for words like 'nice,' 'kind,' 'patient,' or 'helpful,' and then give up] TE QUIERO." Then I ran out of the restaurant horrendously embarassed about just having professed my love for a pizza cook.

This next part will only make sense to Kingstonians. I was walking on a quiet country road today, and a farmer passed me with his flock of sheep. I don't know if it was the sun or what, but I could swear that the shepherd was Andre's exact double. And then I started to imagine other Kingston panhandlers as shepherds in rural Spain, and OH MY GOD PAT NEEDS TO MOVE TO SPAIN TO BE A SHEPHERD. Think about it: Thor could use his woodworking skills to carve a crook for her, and she could wear her leopard-print bike shorts every day and natter on at the sheep who wouldn't even mind. Then Andre could have her spot in front of the Goat and everyone would be happy. I understand that she recently lost her can - maybe that was a sign that it's time to move on and find a new profession?

Sunday, June 22, 2008


Only 683km left to Santiago.

A Dutch woman at the hostel in Pamplona told me that after the fourth day it stops hurting. This was a lie. It is getting better, though. Last night I had to use my hands to lift my foot onto my bed. Tonight my leg can lift itself, if I swear under my breath enough.

One of my favourite thigns about the Camino is how the trail is marked. There are a few 'official' signs with a stylized scallop shell and a stick figure of a pilgrim, but for the most part the way is marked much mroe haphazardly. Yellow arrows, spraypainted or drawn clearly without a stencil, but just a can of paint and a paintbrush are everywhere. They´re painted on rocks and trees and hydro poles and sidewalks and storefronts. Not often enough that you can always see one, like blazes, but enough that just when you think you´ve taken a wrong turn, one pops up to reassure you. They´re helpful in the country, but walking through cities like Pamplona and Puente de la Reina, they feel like a secret code. In the cities they are inconspicuous and look just like any other graffiti, barely noticable, but meaning the world to the pilgrim at a busy intersection. They feel like a wink from across the room.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Day 2

I still haven´t cried. Seriously.

Last night when I finally got into Roncesvalles (probably not pronounced the same way as the street in Toronto) I hobbled into the very first building I saw. It had a picture of a bed and food outside, which seemed promising. I´d intended to stay at the municipal albergue, which apparently has 120 bunkbeds in one room (and in a town with a resident population of fewer than 100), but I didn´t speak enough Spanish to stop the woman from showing me to my private room with an en suite bathroom, in what I can only assume was not the municipal albergue. Thank god for the language barrier. The other great thing about my private room was that I managed to sleep in until about 10:30. I hadn´t planned on starting that late, but it let me lose the 37 year old Peter Pan from BC who walked beside me yesterday, telling me all about his motorcycle. We'll just call him "every mistake I've made since I was 19."

Being on the camino, particularly at the beginning, feels a bit like the first night of camp, if camp were full of retired Catholics. In St Jean Pied de Port, especially, the whole town was humming with a kind of nervous energy for the next morning.

(Speaking of the first morning: just between you, me, and the lamppost, I may have started in the wrong direction. A few hundred metres outside the town, I couldn´t figure out why I hadn´t seen any blazes or other pilgrims, until I realized I was headed back into France. A fitting start.)

Now, at dinner and on the route, I love watching people fumble for a common language. Last night I had dinner with a lawyer from Switzerland and his teenaged son. He complimented me on my French as I barely managed to choke out that I´m a student from Toronto and would he mind please passing the water. Then we switched to English and talked about bills of rights and judicial activism. I thought it might be a bit rude to tell him that his English was pretty good, but maybe the word he was looking for was "anti-miscegenation?"

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

I haven´t cried yet...

They call the route I took through the Pyrenees this morning the Napoleonic route, because it was Napolean´s favourite way to move his troops across the border.

Remember when Napoleon marched his troops into Russia and forgot to pack winter coats for them and they all died? Let´s just call that the SECOND dumbest thing he ever did. My guidebook referred to the first day as a ¨baptism of fire.¨ but it´s really not that bad. Which is to say that being baptised in fire (then having the fire put out with acid, and then being punched in the throat by your grandmother) wouldn´t be as bad as climbing those mountains this morning.

But then something magic happens. You turn around and look down the mountain you just climbed, and see all the sheep and tiny fairytale houses and it´s magnificent. Which is handy, because you can pretend to be stopping because you´re wowed by the scenery, when really you´re just trying to stop the heart attack that´s already in progress.

BUT I SWEAR I HAVEN´T EVEN CRIED A LITTLE BIT YET! So basically the trip is already a success.