Monday, January 24, 2011

Looking forward to being a 'touro-grino"!!

Having walked long Camino routes in 2002 , 2004, 2007 and 2009, I think I've earned my stripes as a 'real' pilgrim.  I've had horrible blisters, black toe nails, aching back, bursitis, worn out shoes, gypo tummy and a funny summer tan. 
And, I've tried to encourage hundreds of others to have the same experience!  I've organised Regional St James Feast Days since 2003, annual practical pilgrim workshops for hundreds of wanna-be peregrinos since 2004, and  I've trained 120 South African pilgrims to be hospitaleros.
I've queued day after day with all the other 'real' pilgrims for a bed, for the loo, a shower and a wash tub to wash my clothes. I've slept on the floor on numerous occasions and have eaten frugal meals and gone to bed hungry.
Like any 'real' pilgrim, I've slept in up-market, college-dorm-like pilgrim hostels and in basic shelters with no beds, no electricity, running water or toilets.  I've worked as a hospitalera in a 20 bed pilgrim albergue, scrubbing floors, showers, and loos and cooking meals for pilgrims every night.   Over the years I have evolved as a pilgrim.

In 2002 my backpack weighed over 10kg. I sent 3kg on to Santiago after three days walking and struggled on with a 7kg pack. I swore never to carry such a heavy load again. In 2004 my pack weighed 6kg and I still got bursitis swellings on my collar bones and aching feet at night.

By 2006 (on the Via Francigena) I managed to get the pack down to 5kg. By 2007 it was still  5kg and that's where it stays. No luxuries, no perfumes, no day and night creams - 2 shirts, 2 shorts, 3 panties, bras and socks. Everything lightweight, wash 'n wear.

Now, in 2011, I'll be doing a completely different Camino, as a touro-grino! Tourogrinos are those people you see walking with little daypacks while their large pack is transported from one place to the next. (Mine is a nifty little 20 litre Sea-to-Summit pack that weighs nothing - well, everything weighs something and this one weighs 2.4 oz / 68g).)
Tourogrinos can't stay in traditional albergues because they have their backpacks transported.  They have to stay in small hotels, inns, casas, pensions and private albergues.
They book these ahead of time so that they don't have to scramble for accommodation, especially in the height of the summer crowds. They sleep in a bedroom (instead of a dormitory) in a bed (instead of a bunk), with sheets, blankets and pillows (instead of a sleeping bag). They have a bath or shower en suite (most of the time).
Even though I know that I might still have horrible blisters, black toe nails, aching back, bursitis, worn out shoes, gypo tummy and a funny summer tan, I  am really looking forward to this new Camino experience. I'm looking forward to sleeping in late and having a leisurely breakfast.
I'm looking forward to ambling along the paths, stopping for tea, taking time over lunch, maybe enjoying a siesta under a tree if it is a hot day; having time to wait for a church or museum to open or doing a detour off the Camino path - all because I know that there is a bed waiting for me at the end of the day.  I might even send my pack ahead on some sections. Whoopee! I'll be able to pack a few extras this time! Shampoo AND soap instead of an all-in-one body, hair and clothes wash. I might pack a little number for evening meals!
Wow - imagine that!! Its going to be a very different Camino experience for me.
I anticipate a few disapproving looks and maybe even a few disparaging comments from the first-timer, pilgrim fundamentalist! But, hey - I think I can live with those!
Most of all, on this Camino I'm looking forward to walking with a wonderful group of like-minded people who are all just as excited about this Camino as I am. We are going to take our time, share good food and wine, go on a few side trips - lunch at a typical Basque restaurant in St Jean, visit the castle at Clavijo, Las Medulas World Heritage site and watch the sun go down over the Atlantic at Finsiterre snacking on a basket of Galician Regional pinchos and wine - what a pleasure!!  I can't wait! 

Friday, January 07, 2011

A Spiritual Experience on the Camino

Many pilgrims, most with no religion, recount having had a ‘spiritual’ experience whilst walking the Camino even though the majority find it difficult to describe the experience. As a non-theist, I too have found it difficult to explain the spirituality of walking the Camino, leaving aside the history, the religion, the traditions, and the folk-lore. It’s more than all of that.
If we look at the word ‘spirit’ it might help to explain the state one reaches when on a long-distance hike. I have often explained my own spiritual state, after a week or so on the Camino, as being in the ‘Zen-zone’ – when mind separates from the body and the whole becomes one with nature. (This is especially so when walking on the wide open plains of the Meseta).

Spirit (n) L. spiritus

My large, heavy Websters gives at least 18 different meanings of the word ‘spirit’.

1. Breath, courage, vigour, the soul of life.

2. The thinking, motivating, feeling part of man as distinguished from the body, mind, intelligence.

3. Life, will, consciousness, thoughts etc, regarded separate from matter.

What does this mean, “.. the thinking, motivating, feeling part of a person as distinguished from the body and intelligence?”

I remember reading the Pulitzer Prize winning book by Professor Carl Sagan, the well-known scientist, called “The Dragons of Eden - Speculation on the evolution of human intelligence.” Although it was written over 30 years ago, the information, suggestions, speculations and assumptions he made then are just as relevant today.
In the chapter on the development of the human brain he focuses on the differences between the left (mostly rational) and right (mostly intuitive) hemispheres, suggesting that our pre-verbal, pre-ambulatory ancestors relied on their ‘intuitive’ non-verbal perceptions and cognitions to survive in the world.
“Intuitive knowledge has an extremely long evolutionary history: if we consider the information contained in the genetic material, it goes back to the origin of life.
The other of our two modes of knowing – the one that in the West expresses irritation about the existence of intuitive knowledge – is quite recent evolutionary accretion.”

Sagan says the people in the West have made so much contact with the left-hemisphere functions of our brains and very little with the right, that we find it difficult to connect with our intuitive brain. The scientist Robert Ornstein compares this to the stars being invisible to us during the day, despite the fact that they always there, day and night. ‘The brilliance of our most recent evolutionary accretion, the verbal abilities of the left hemisphere, obscures our awareness of the functions on the intuitive right hemisphere, which in our ancestors must have been the principal means of perceiving the world”.
He suggests that in the meditative state of many Oriental religions the left hemisphere of the brain is suppressed which allows the ‘stars to come out’.

Isn’t this what meditation and spiritual ‘awareness’ is all about? An Eastern guru said, "Enlightenment flowers when individual consciousness merges into universal consciousness. It is an experience beyond mind.”

Spirit - the thinking, feeling part as distinguished from the body and intelligence.

You can pick out pilgrims who have been on the road for a long time. They have calmness about them, serene and laid-back they don’t rush to be the first to leave the shelter in the morning; they are never the first to arrive, they don’t get caught up in the rush for beds. They don’t judge other pilgrims. They don’t complain about the shelters, or the food, or the paths or even the weather. They have become the Camino – the Way – they are in the Zen-Zone.

Is adrenaline? Endorphines? Is it Seretonin that induces that feeling of emotiona wellness? Is it Zen?
“Zen emphasizes experiential wisdom in the attainment of enlightenment. As such, it de-emphasizes theoretical knowledge in favor of direct realization through meditation and dharma practice.”

Walking-Zen is the exquisite state you reach when you walk without awareness. You are no longer aware of the pack on your back or the blister on your heel or the sun on your head. You are one with everything around you and although you see everything, you do not think about them in words, they just are. You just are. You are just walking.

You are in the Zen-zone – having a spiritual experience.

Monday, January 03, 2011


In 1994 I started walking for leisure and fitness.  In 1996 I did my first long walk, a two-day 90km charity walk on the famous Comrades Marathon route from Pietermaritzburg to Durban.  Things progressed from there and I was soon looking for other long walks to do but I never, in a million dreams, saw myself walking multi-day half marathons in different countries!
Its amazing how becoming a Camino pilgrim opened up a whole new world of trails and travel, traditions, history, folk-lore, art and architecture and other pilgrim friends and pilgrimages. I never imagined in 1999, when I was researching the possibility of walking from Leon to Santiago, that I would still be walking and talking el Camino 12 years later! Until then I'd never heard of 'The Camino' and was more interested in doing different marathons to long distance walks.
I did the London Marathon in 1998 with Clare and heard about the 'Coast to Coast' walk across England so in July 2001 I organised for a group of 10 local walkers to do the CtoC from St Bees to Robin Hood's Bay.  That was my first experience of walking with a group.
As things turned out, I didn't get to walk the Camino until 2002. By then I'd read Shirley Maclaine's rather frustrating book 'The Camino' and Paolo Coelho's metaphorical (metaphysical?) account of his search for his sword in 'Pilgrimage' - neither of which I found very inspiring! I wanted the nitty-gritty bits about walking a camino - trail conditions, distances, accommodation etc, - not stories about previous lives or masters of the universe.
My first Camino was in May/June 2002 with two walking buddies who belonged to the same athletic club. Clare was a career woman and could only be away from her job for 30 days so I planned a 27 day walk, averaging 28km per day from Roncesvalles to Santiago.  We did it - every inch of the way - but even though we did it fairly comfortably (I had trained a year earlier to run the gruelling 90km, Comrades ultra-marathon and kept up the level of fitness after the marathon) it was a bit of a slog and there wasn't any time for detours or rest days.   We sometimes walked up to 40km and had a 'rest' day by walking a shorter distance the following day.
 In 2003 I joined the newly formed Confraternity of St James of South Africa and soon became the contact person for local pilgrims, arranging St James Feast Day celebrations at my home and annual practical pilgrim workshops.

In March 2003 I really walked-the-talk when I joined the Open Door Crisis Centre's 'Breaking Free' team of 16 people from Durban and walked from Durban to Cape Town (± 1800km) in relays for 2 weeks to raise awareness of abused women and children. There were four teams of four walkers and each team walked 15km in the morning and 15km in the evening or at night.
There was a team on the road every minute of the day and night. When we weren't walking, we drove the camper van or seconded the wealking team.  We only had 6 hours sleep a night but rarely managed to sleep that many hours. It was a long, hard walk with very little sleep but the purpose and the goal made it worthwhile.
In May/June 2004 I walked from Paris to Roncesvalles on the Via Turonensis with my friend Joy and then from Sarria to Santiago (so that she could earn a Compostela).
That was a groot trek! Long, flat days, lots of walking on roads and, until we reached the south of France and Spain, not much pilgrim type accommodation. 2004 was a Holy Year but only 40 pilgrims started in Paris that year.

In June/July of 2006 I arranged a walk on the Via Francigena from Lake Lausanne to Rome with Marion and Val, my Coast to Coast companions, and Kathy and Rayna from our Athletics Club.  Some
days were scary (like hanging on chains in the rock face whilst perched on a ledge above a precipice on the way to the Gr St Bernard Pass) and some days it reached 40°C - in the shade.   It was a very scenic walk and I'm pleased I've done it but I don't think I'll walk it again soon.

In August/September 2007 I organised another walk on the Camino Frances with Marion, and Anneliese a Dominican Nun from the Holy Trinity Church in Durban.  It was a new season for me and I loved that it was harvest time and not as crowded as in spring and summer.  Many places on the Camino had changed in the 5 years since I'd walked it, new cafe-bars and shops had opened, some albergues had closed and lots of new private hostels opened.  Finn met us in Sarria and walked the last section with us to Santiago thus earning his first Compostela. We hired a car in Santiago and spent a week after the walk driving back to Pamplona, staying over in Lugo, Oviedo, Castrojeriz, Roncesvalles and Pamplona.

In June/July of 2009 I oragnised  a walk with Marion and Val from Lourdes to Somport and on the Aragones route to Pamplona.  Val had to leave us in Pamplona and fly back home but Marion and I continued on to Lugo and el Ferrol where we started the Camino Ingles to Santiago.  Marion left me in Santiago and I walked on to Finisterre where I met with Bejo and spent two days at the Fistera albergue learning the ropes of registering and showing pilgrims around. 
From 1st July to 15th July I served with Isa, a young Basque woman from San Sebastian, at the San Roque albergue outside Corcubion as hospitalera for two weeks.  It was an amazing experience to be on the camino, but not as a pilgrim, and I loved serving the pilgrims from all over the world who stayed at our albergue.

March 2010: In March I was invited to spend a long weekend with Camino pilgrims Pam and Franklin Stern in Cape Town. We had corresponded via email and spoken on the phone but had never met. It was a wonderful weekend and whilst there, we discussed the possibility of taking people on the camino who did not want to walk alone or who needed someone to organise the walk for them. We decided that if we did this we would do it properly so that people could have the best possible experience of their Camino walk.
amaWalkers Camino was formed and a three week, 19 day "Best of Both" walk on the best three sections of the camino was planned.  12 people quickly signed up for the walk and Pam and I are now looking forward to walking the Camino with them from Roncesvalles to Logroño, a night each in Burgos and Leon, walking from Astorga to Villafranca del Bierzo and then from Sarria to Santiago.  We will top it off with night trip to Finisterre to watch the sunset over the Atlantic.  I can't wait!!