Travel as a Spiritual Act

A year and a half ago you might have been reading my blog about the Camino de Santiago. I hope you enjoyed it. I had so much fun writing it that I have been planning for months to put together this new blog. So it is now live for all to read. It is called “Travel as a Spiritual Act.” I don’t know a lot about life, but I know a few things. I like conversation and dialogue. I know a little about travel. I know something about the life of the spirit. So I thought it could be interesting to talk about both aspects of life and how they intersect.

You might take a look and see what you think. I have already posted six entries (even one from today, March 15th). Leave a comment if you are so inspired. Sign up to receive notifications of new posts. Pass the link on to others who might be interested. It will be fun to see what happens. Maybe we can explore together!

Jim Zazzera

By the way, the address for the site “Travel as a Spiritual Act,” is www.travelisspiritual.com.

The Camino Begins in Santiago – O Pedrouzo to Santiago de Compostela

Our last day into Santiago de Compostela was so many things. In many ways it was a revisiting of so much we enjoyed about the journey. We started walking about 6:30 a.m. and our first two hours were in the dark. While there was some walking along the highway, most of that part of the walk was through forest (mostly eucalyptus). We had our headlamps, but the light of the full moon helped show the way as in the beginning days. The weather again cooperated and was crisp and cool.

As this was the last stage of walking, we expected many people and great jubilation, but early in the day it felt like we were alone. Later on the crowds grew, and especially young high school students lent their excitement to the air. Groups walked arm in arm for at least part of the time. As the light came, we saw a few people we recognized and it brought us a sense of comfort. Many were people we only knew by their appearance, the color of their backpack, or the pace of their journey. But they were companions none the less. We eventually crossed paths with one of our “Camino family,” a friend we had met along the way and gotten to know better. This woman from Brazil began to talk about arriving in Santiago with great excitement and even tears. It was the first touch of deep emotion for me that day as I began to well up.

We made sure we got our sellos (stamps) in our credentiál as each pilgrim has to get two each day for the last 100 kilometers to qualify for the compostela. After early morning we found ourselves walking though fields, near a few villages, around the airport, up to Mount Gozo (the “hill of joy” where we got our first real view of Santiago and the cathedral), and finally through the suburbs and outskirts of this large, modern city. Eventually, we made it into the old town and began to see the ancient architecture, the tee shirt shops, the souvenir stores, and the many, many bars and restaurants.

Finally, like many peregrinos before us, we heard the Galician bagpipes calling us in from entry gate, saw more and more pilgrims converge, and began to hear more voices and celebration. We entered Plaza del Obradoiro, saw the spires of the Santiago Cathedral up close, and made our way to the center of the space. I tried not to have any expectations about what I would feel or do or say—and as with many things in my life—I just tried to be quietly open to the moment. Lena gave a high five, reminded me that “we did it,” and tears welled up again.

In a funny way, this arrival couldn’t help but be anti climactic. As Lena shared with me, the meaning of the trip is not so much in the arriving but in the traveling. So there was joy in getting to Santiago, but there is also a sadness in knowing that it is over—the walking, the new friends, the discoveries, the rhythm, the albergues, the villages, the Camino de Santiago. We hung around the plaza for a while, watching people arrive, their emotions, their responses. Many people just chose to lay down in the square, looking up at the great height of the cathedral. I’m not sure if they were in wonder, relief, joy, sadness, or just in the moment.

We had thought we would go to the noon pilgrim mass in the cathedral, we even arrived in plenty of time, but logistics and a need to linger kept us from doing so. So we made our way to the Pilgrim Office to get our compostela and our certificate of distance travelled. Tired pilgrims lined up and entered the office as the monitor reminded us what window to go to. It wasn’t much more romantic than Whole Foods, but we were glad for the efficiency as this office processes hundreds of pilgrims a day. We got our documents and as we were coming out, we saw a Spanish couple we had been seeing for weeks along the Camino. While we never had much conversation with them because of the language differences, they both approached us, gave us big kisses on the cheek, and congratulated us. What a warm greeting!

Later that day, we decided to go to the Pilgrim Mass (in Spanish). We were there very early, thinking it could be crowded, which it did get. We were sitting for about two hours before things began. It was a dramatic shift from previous days, and sitting still in one place was both an opportunity to reflect and anxiety producing.

What I found most interesting as we sat waiting was that we had a view of the statue of Saint James behind the altar. The statue sits above his burial place. Pilgrims are allowed to walk up behind James and literally “hug” his statue. I found it quite interesting to watch as people of various shapes and sizes came behind him and give him their own personal style hug. Some gave him a brief touch, other reached both arms around the statue to give him a long warm grip. Still others seemed to give him a kiss on the check or whisper something in his ear. It actually seems rather appropriate that pilgrims offer themselves to James in this way, after all, he is the reason for the initiation of the Camino in the first place. We did our hugging of James the next day, when we had some free time and renewed energy.

The rest of the mass was less simple than some of the other Pilgrim services we have been to. It was in Spanish, so I didn’t understand much, but there were about eight priests from around the world who participated and mention was made of the number of pilgrims who arrived that day and from what country. As a final bonus, we witnessed the swinging of the botafumeiro, a tradition that doesn’t happen every day. This 5 foot tall container is filled with incense, hoisted on a pulley, and swung over the congregation by eight specially trained men. The incense in the thurible is said to represent the prayers of the people wafting up to God, but more practically has been explained as a way of dealing with a sanctuary full of smelly pilgrims in times past. Either way, the high velocity movement of this object is a thing to behold.

The next day was a particularly strange one, marked as much by what we didn’t do as by what we did. We didn’t walk 15 miles (although we did mange to put in 8 miles just walking the city). We didn’t get up early. We didn’t have to find a café for breakfast. We didn’t find our selves exhausted from walking through the day.

What we did do created a strange energy for us both. Since we didn’t bring lots of clothes with us because of the weight, we told ourselves we would buy a few articles of clothing and maybe some new shoes. So we found a local mall and went to H & M with its reasonable prices on basic clothing. Needless to say, it is a bit of a shock to go to a shopping mall after 35 days walking through cities, villages, and the country side. It is a bit disorienting to think about buying some new clothes when the ones you have been wearing seem like faithful old friends. Both Lena and I would say that in some ways, those few hours were some of the most exhausting we had in weeks. I wonder what I am supposed to learn from that?

Last afternoon and evening, however, was a wonderful highlight and appropriate end to our time on the Camino. Though it was cold and rainy, we were able to greet a few more of our Camino friends who arrived that day or before. We ran into more people than we imagined seeing, some whom we met very early in our time in Spain. That evening, we shared one final meal with three of the friends we made. For us, it was symbolic of the journey, that perhaps the most important thing about the Camino is not whether or how you finish, but the people you meet along the way. Not a bad metaphor for life.

One last thing. There is a saying, “The Camino begins in Santiago.” What I think this means is that the learnings that have shown themselves on the roads of Spain will break out in our lives in the days and years ahead. (Like it or not.) I have a friend who walked the Camino two years ago and he tells me that the Camino, its people, its places, its memories, and its lessons are still forming his life. So, as always, just when I think I am finished, something new is being born. Thank you Saint James. And thanks to all the peregrinos past, present, and future!

The Only Prayer – Arzúa to O Pedrouzo

If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough. – Meister Eckhart

Today as I walked I realized that this brief period in my life is coming to an end. So it seemed right to think about all the things for which I am grateful.

  • Dogs who greet us with a friendly bark and not sharp teeth
  • Fresh orange juice for breakfast and the people who make it

  • Accurate arrows and distance markers to point the way to Santiago
  • Clean bathrooms at all the bars and cafes
  • Headlamps to light the path on dark mornings

  • Rain that reminds us of the challenges of life
  • Beautiful sunrises
  • A best friend to walk with who is patient and forgiving

  • Amazing weather to invite us into each day
  • Compeed bandages for our blisters
  • Laughter

  • GPS mapping on our iPhones
  • Washing machines and clean clothes
  • The menu del dia

  • The amazingly gracious nature of the Spanish people
  • My weathered but durable feet
  • People who pray for us all the time

  • The “agricultural” fragrance of many small villages
  • The stone work of so many buildings – ancient and new

  • Comfortable beds
  • The moon

  • Being greeted with the phrase “buen camino!
  • My backpack

  • Memories—both new and old
  • Churches along the way

  • A smooth walking path
  • A rocky walking path
  • A hilly walking path

  • Water
  • Thousands of pilgrims who have come before us
  • Philip and Maree, Magdalee and Sarah, Lisa, Nelson, Andrea, John and Linda, Doug, Czoba, and dozens others whose names I don’t remember
  • Ibuprophen

  • People who take pride in their work
  • Vineyards, sunflowers, and corn fields
  • Kindle books
  • A partner who is always willing to ask others, “Where are you from?”

  • Friends from everywhere who offer words of encouragement
  • Eleven more miles to walk to Santiago de Compostela

Gratitude is one of the best things I have found in Spain – and in myself.

A Quick Trip to Nugget – Palas de Rei to Arzúa

We are now within two days of our goal. Less than 40 kilometers from the Cathedral in Santiago. It is basically just a bit farther than driving from our house to the Nugget Market on Florin in Sacramento. Seems strange.

But this is life at 3 miles per hour (or less—depending on hills, weather, and how we are feeling). I was trying to savor a bit more today, even though our tiredness by the end of the day was getting the best of me. Today was one of our longer days, with my Health App reading over 20 miles.

But the beauty, the weather, and the journey has been worth savoring. There are more people out on this part of the Camino, with many people starting at Sarria and some connecting the rough the Camino Primitivo today. There were quite a few places where we could see 10 or so people at a glance down the trail. That has been rare except for the beginning of the trip in St. Jean.

Again, we started early, and we could see a person or two in front or behind us. We all helped each other in looking for the trail markers, for even though we had headlamps, the way markers can be easily missed in the dark. I love the mornings, the mist, the crisp weather, the sunrises. Lena has many beautiful pictures of this time of day, as the color of the sunrise and the geography paints amazing images.

Today we didn’t go through as many farms and small villages, and there was less of the beautiful stonework to admire. Our Irish traveling companions tell us that this region of Spain reminds them a lot of their home country.

I realize that with all this walking, we are people who are goal setters. We know where we want to go each day (and usually have reservations there). I really admire the people who just walk until it seems right to stop. They seem to take in the beauty around them, to savor a leisurely meal, and to engage in conversation frequently. Sometimes our goal setting, while it serves us well, can take me away from just being in the moment. Continuing message to Jim—be in the moment.

So we have two more days of moments before we conclude THIS Camino. Life at 3 miles per hour.

Wear Patterns – Portomarín to Palas de Rei

Have you ever paid attention to the wear patterns on the soles of your shoes? I’ve been studying mine carefully for a few weeks. At one point I even considered buying new shoes to get me the whole way to Santiago without the soles breaking down. But I decided they would last quite long enough. I notice on my left foot that I drag a bit and the back part of the sole is worn down. I can also see considerable wear on the outside of both shoes. I guess that is just the nature of walking – certain areas take more stress than other areas.

I wonder if that is true with our lives right now as well? Are there areas where I am feeling more stress? Parts of my being where I am breaking down? To be honest, I am not sensing it in too many places. We had a good strong walk today, my Health App reads 15.4 miles. Much of our time was spent just talking with one another, in silence, or listening to music or an audiobook. The weather couldn’t have been better. Cool and crisp much of the day, but not wet at all. It was getting sunny and warm by the end. Right now it is about 65 degrees and clear. We got going early, had our traditional second breakfast at 10:30 a.m. and an early lunch with a fabulous pesto pasta, salad, and apple “pie” (empanada). We ran into a few people we have met along the way and had some good but short conversations and connections. We found our albergue/pension with no problem. No “wear patterns” stand out today.

It would be fair to say our bodies are a little worn. Although I may be stronger, I am having a harder time getting up and going each morning. My clothes are a little worse for wear. One pair of pants has enough stains that I have given up on keeping them. My favorite shirt (I wear it walking about every day) may just be something I let go of when I am done. There is a tradition, now discouraged, that pilgrims walk from Santiago to the Atlantic coast to complete their pilgrimage and burn their clothes when they get there. I won’t be doing that.

I do wonder, however, if there are other areas of stress and wear. The food? So far I haven’t grown tired of it. A new bed each night? The places we have stayed have been mostly clean and comfortable. I do find myself challenged by the language. I make attempts but I don’t really speak Spanish. I find that mastering the accent of a word is often more helpful than knowing lots of vocabulary. The problem is, if people think you are conversant in their language, they say a lot of words to you very fast. So then I feel way out of my element. I feel inadequate and ashamed. It is then that I feel the “wear patterns” and frustration of being in such a different environment.

There are also the wear patterns of my own personality. I am alternately introverted, egotistical, embarrassed, and thoughtless. These qualities are what peeks though when the nicer tread of my more loving self is worn away. Lena is kind and forgiving enough to deal with me quite compassionately. Frankly, I run out of patience for this part of myself. Maybe sometimes my “soul” just gets worn down.

One final thought. The wear patterns I am seeing on my shoes during this Camino are exactly the same wear patterns that I have always seen on my shoes. The struggles I face on the Camino are not different from the challenges I face in all of life. Undertaking this journey does not remove the core of who I am. The problems I faced in Sacramento are the same ones I face in Spain. The Jim I knew before retirement is the same Jim I experience today. The wear patterns of life that emerged on the first 63 years of my journey are the same ones that have popped up in this past month. Weird, huh? Maybe not.

Jesus Wouldn’t Start at Sarria, and Other Judgements – Sarria to Portomarín

Last night we stayed at the Spanish town of Sarria, known as the “last” place you can start the Camino and still get a compostela (certificate of completion). Pilgrims are required to walk at least 100 kilometers of the Camino. We were told that because of that reality, we would see quite an increase in pilgrims on the Camino starting today.

For various reasons, many people start their Camino at Sarria. (Not surprisingly, Sarria is the city with the greatest number of pilgrim albergues.) Additionally, we were told that this is where school groups (high school walkers) often start their Camino, and it is wise not to schedule to finish your Camino in Santiago on a Friday (which is of course is exactly what we are doing).

As in any aspect of life, there are judgments about where people start their Camino (as well as what they carry, where they stay, the time of year they travel, etc.). But I love what John Brierley, the author of the most well known English language guide to the Camino, says about this:

Note for “seasoned” pilgrims who commenced (for example) in St. Jean Pied de Port or further back in Le Puy, Geneva, Budapest? Beware of signs of irritation at the intrusion of new pilgrims on “my” camino — remember that many of the new arrivals may be nervous starting out and the last thing they need is aloofness built on a false sense of superiority. None of us can know the inner motivation or outer circumstances of another. A loving pilgrim welcomes all they meet along the path with an open mind and open heart…without judgement of any kind. (A Pilgrim’s Gide to the Camino de Santiago, John Brierley, p. 246.)

I was thinking about this, when just before the 100 kilometer marker, I saw this grafitti: “Jesus wouldn’t start in Sarria.” This idea, tongue in cheek of course, is in complete opposition to Brierley’s pilgrim concept and (I think) the spirit of the Camino. It is like saying “Jesus wouldn’t eat too many carbs,” or “Jesus would never get a ‘C’ in math, ” or “Jesus wouldn’t [you fill in your judgmental comment].” By the way, if it isn’t already obvious, Jesus never walked the Camino.

I, of course, have my OWN judgement about THIS judgement—and it is not a positive one. What is true, however sadly, is that I also have many of my own unspoken judgements about people and situations in life. I am not proud of this, and I know that just because my judgments are unspoken does not mean that they do not have an effect on others. It actually wouldn’t surprise me that my unspoken judgements have harmed many relationships in my life. So, I really do want to embrace the individual and open nature of each person’s Camino and of each person’s life. I think it is part of what I am here to learn.

I also do know what Jesus really said and did—not about Sarria—but in his own life. He told his followers, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” (Matthew 7:1, NRSV) I will leave the meaning of that thought for others to ponder, but for me, this idea has an immense bearing on my life, on my Camino.

All in all, it was a really good day and you might check Lena’s Facebook page to hear about the amazing high schoolers we had the chance to walk with. These two young women from an international high school outside Paris, France made our day a real joy.

It is hard to believe there are only four more days of this walk. A certain sadness is starting to set in for both of us. So for tonight we rejoice in another tomorrow when we GET TO walk 15 miles!

Romantic or Realist – Triacastela to Sarria

The online Oxford English Dictionary gives this as its second definition of the word “romantic”: Of, characterized by, or suggestive of an idealized view of reality. That’s me, at least in part. I have always been a “romantic” in this way. The Camino both challenges and affirms this romanticism in me. A few thoughts…

  • A romantic sees beautiful form and color, a realist sees a rotten pear.

  • A romantic meets a guide sent by the Spirit, a realist is irritated by a homeless dog.

  • A romantic experiences a walk through a lush green forest, a realist suffers through a painful trek up a hill.

  • A romantic remembers the beautiful countryside, a realist is frustrated with the dangerous traffic.

  • A romantic worships in a space where people have brought their hopes and dreams for centuries, a realist decries a crumbling building and institution.

  • A romantic delights in the stories of the many people she meets, a realist doesn’t want others to use him to unload their problems.

Now please don’t think me critical of either one of these perspectives. Life takes both romanticism and realism. Both idealism and down-to-earth decision making. So does the Camino. Good feelings and hopes won’t get a pilgrim through a 15 mile day. But without an ideal to reach for, why bother?

Companions on the Way – O Cebreiro to Triacastela

We have had many companions as we walked the way to Santiago. Some we walk with for a moment or two, some for a few hours, some we connect with for a few days. Just the two days ago we ran into a woman from South Africa whom we shared a room with on our first night in our first town on this journey—St. Jean Pied de Port. Yesterday we had breakfast with a woman from Atlanta, a freelance event planner, whom we met and shared a meal with on the second night of our trip—in Orisson. Today we had a few different companions…

The first was a canine partner, who met us just as we were leaving O Cebreiro in the dark. Initially, he startled me, but he soon became a comforting presence as night turned to day. At first, I thought he would just walk a few hundred feet with us, as I thought he might be the mascot at the Municipal Albergue in O Cebreiro. But he stayed with us. He didn’t really follow us, but he led us, even in the darkness. He kept turning around and looking back, and I could see the reflection of the light from my headlamp in his eyes. He was constantly waiting for us to come forward. I finally just chose to think of him as a kind of leading, comforting, “God presence.” It sure helped in those first three miles. This big dog, who looked like a St. Bernard/Lab mix, kept showing us the way and then finally he offered his service to other people. Eventually, we thought he had tired of us and returned home, but by the time we were nearing our final destination for the day he was still making contact. When we finally made it to Triacastela, a 15 mile day, he walked with us to the door of our albergue. Interesting and encouraging. Lena is a little worried about him making it back to his home. I, for one, think he knows exactly what he is doing and where’s he is traveling to.

Another of our companions today was a mother/daughter duo. The mother (newly retired and about our age) is a physical therapist from Portland, Oregon. The daughter is an ceramic artist and teacher who lives in West Sacramento. We walked with them for about an hour, but had a wonderful connection. It made the time go by so quickly to be in the presence of women with such life. They had only recently decided to do the Camino (September), had only recently chosen to do it together. They had just begun their walk in a village we just moved through today. I know Lena had a wonderful conversation with the mother while I enjoyed talking with the artist/daughter about her art, her teaching, Gaudi, Sacramento, and training for this walk. I suspect we were shopping at REI more than once at the same time.

Our final companion (Lena walked with her more than I) was a young woman from Western Canada. She was probably 20 years old and is traveling the Camino on her own. She had great stories about the effort she made to vote in Victoria’s recent municipal election, her experimentation with helping on farms with a variety of animals, and what it is like working at an independent bookstore in this day of digital books. She was an energetic and fascinating young woman.

But what was most interesting to me is that she walked the Camino with her parents about ten years ago at the age of ten. Can you imagine? She shared how she was remembering places as she walked this time and was often surprised by what came to her. Trust me, there are few children out here on this journey. I do not think I have seen any ten year olds with their parents. But I so admire what she and her parents did. What a gift to offer your child, to do something like this WITH them. Frankly, if they would be open, I would love to do something like this with any of our children (or grandchildren). It might be challenging, but it would be something to celebrate.

Little Things and Big Things – Villafranca del Bierzo to O Cebreiro

Today was a day of major accomplishments. Big things. We entered a new province – the province of Galicia. We are now in the last week of our journey. If all goes well we will arrive in Santiago a week from tomorrow. We are within 100 miles of our final destination. “Just 100 miles left!” It feels strange to say that! It was also a long day of more than 18 miles with a big uphill component. But we planned and executed it pretty well. We are glad to be here, and will head to the evening mass and the Pilgrim Blessing in a bit.

It was also a day for small things. Some small things really bugged me. I was prepared for all the uphill, but hadn’t anticipated all the flies that gathered around us. I suspect it may have had something to do with all the horses (and their poop) on the trail. Sounds like a small thing, but for a bit it had a big impact on us.

Then there were some other small things with a more positive effect. The “artisanal” bakery that provided us a marvelous lunch in a delightful setting. We planned an early lunch because of the big, long climb and this place did not disappoint. (Fried eggs and ham sandwiches are definitely underrated food items.) Another small but delightful thing was an uphill walk through the shady forest of chestnut trees. I have memories of chestnut trees from my youth. I always remember that after breaking open the prickly exterior of the chestnut how smooth the brown skin of the actual nut is. Chestnuts also remind me of my dad. I remember him roasting and eating them, especially at Christmas (“chestnuts roasting on an open fire”). Must have been an Italian thing…

Other little things also gave us energy. Eating a banana at the top of a challenging hill. A scoop of fresh water from the local water source. Finding out that after visiting the 10th Century church in O Cebreiro that our room for the night was only steps away. Small things bring so much goodness to a day.

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Finally, and this is not such a little thing, we are getting our first real taste of the beauty of this region of Spain.