Tag Archives: Camino

Portrait of a Pilgrim

The Plan

We are on our way back to North America after having spent about five weeks in Spain, most of that walking the last 120 kilometres or so of the Camino de Santiago. What was the point of all that, you might ask? Why did we feel the need to drag ourselves, and in the end, a wheelchair, across a chunk of northern Spain? It would be great if I could say something glib like, “Because it was there” or “Because we like to go on vacations with a bit of a twist” but it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Santiago de Compostela, Spain

For one thing, we can’t really afford to just jet off and wander around the Spanish countryside for weeks on end. Usually, we either need to find a way to keep working on the road (Internet access makes this possible, though it can also create huge logistical challenges when connectivity is not quite as good as we need it to be). Even better is when we can find a way to tie a project to a travel destination. Sometimes it’s as simple as writing a destination travel article about a place we want to go (or, happen to be going anyway). Sometimes it’s using a destination or activity that takes place in a distant place (climbing, for example) in a book. Taking copious notes, reference photos, or conducting interviews to gather information is a way to write some of the travel costs off as long as the material is used somewhere down the road.

Digital nomad at work in a small cafe in the middle of nowhere.

In the case of this trip along the Camino Frances, though, the intention all along was to write a book about the trip and to find a way to integrate art (Dad’a art in particular). Not only is Dad’s work integrated into the written project, he is also beavering away on a series of works exploring the idea of creating a portrait of a pilgrim to be presented in an exhibition of work.

At the end of a long day of walking, Dad works on a drawing of the Castillo de Pambre

One of the the good things about being a writer or an artist is that all of life becomes a potential source of inspiration. That’s also one of the tough aspects of this type of job. There isn’t really a way to shut life off, close the office door and go home. Everything is raw material and holds the potential of the next great bit of writing or amazing painting. For someone in the arts, each day could be the one where our desire to create something worthwhile is realized. Just the act of living life becomes a pilgrimage of sorts, full of challenges and roadblocks to overcome on the way to coming up with something decent.

When we set off on the road to Santiago we knew we wanted to create something (visual art on Dad’s part, written work from me and Dani), but beyond that we weren’t exactly sure what our story would be. After all, we had plans, but plans never exactly correspond with reality.

The good news is that post trip we have plenty of raw material for a book and Dad is well on his way to creating some very cool pieces unlike anything he has ever done before. The walking together, the conversations in the evenings, the time spent looking at art, watching Dad create art, listening to conversations among other pilgrims, reading about the act of pilgrimage, visiting museums – all that input, that raw material provided a massive amount of information, stimulation, and inspiration. The creative wheels aren’t just turning, they are spinning fast.

We knew that part of the challenge after a trip is coming back and being thrown into real life distractions, so we decided to spend a couple of weeks together after we finished walking to Santiago in order to focus on the project. The process has been as challenging as anything we faced on the journey.

Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

Some of our conversations have been predictable – like comparing notes about various high (and low) points of the trip, but we’ve also talked about mortality, what inspires us, surprises like how much we all liked the Segrada Familia, Gaudi’s ode to nature and God in Barcelona, and what makes a great portrait. We’ve asked ourselves a lot of questions about the nature of pilgrimage and what a real pilgrim looks like. We sought out images of pilgrims in art and now, as we begin to write (and Dad continues to work with pen and ink and wax crayon and tempera paint sticks and watercolours) what is emerging is a story about our pilgrimage, but also a meditation on what it means to be a pilgrim – in words and images.

We collected dozens of pilgrim-related images on our trip… this one from the Pilgrim Museum in Santiago.

Dad is also exploring juxtapositions of self portraits with ancient depictions of pilgrims. He’s playing with stylistic twists and bold colour, taking fresh inspiration from time spent in the presence of Gaudi’s work, Picasso’s ever-evolving approaches to art and portraiture, and the many, many pilgrims we have seen in carvings, sculptures, murals, painted, drawn, and etched into stone.

We have been privy to Dad’s creative process in ways that have never been possible before now – living in close quarters for so long there is no way to avoid seeing how he comes up with ideas, starts sketching, restarts, scribbles, and polishes. At the same time, Dani and I have been clicking away on our keyboards.

The artist goes shopping – finding art supplies was easy in Barcelona.

I’ve been working on recreating our journey, integrating notes about art and history found along the way. I’m also trying to figure out the best way to share the conversations Dad and I have had over the past six weeks or so that we’ve been travelling together. Dani is digging deeper into the many moments that make up a pilgrim’s journey, writing a series of reflections and information essays that take the reader behind the scenes on subjects as varied as bedbugs and courier systems. The more we write and draw and talk and question, the more we discover to explore, describe, question and discuss.

Leaving Sarria…

“Is that where we are going?” Dad asks, pointing up.

“Unfortunately,” I answer.

“Oh my God. I haven’t trained for this.”

At one point we all worried that we wouldn’t have anything to say about our trip, that our three creative wells would simultaneously run dry. In fact, the opposite is happening. We all have found so much to explore I’m thinking our bigger task will not be thinking of what to include but what we will need to eventually trim out.

No fears about not having enough reference material!

Dutch Power!

Dani and I were trucking along today and about the 6 kilometre mark after leaving our hostel in Salceda a couple of Dutch guys slowed down and insisted in taking a turn in pushing Dad. For a couple of kilometres they stuck with us, chatting away and helping us on all but the steepest of downhills.

Then, it was better for us to hook up our patented “D-brake” system, with Dani behind and connected to the wheelchair with the laundry line and me hanging on to the handles of the chair. As soon as we hit level ground again, though, the fellow from the Netherlands (I can’t believe that throughout the entire time we spent together nobody mentioned names!!!) took over again and kept pushing.

We made excellent time and found out about a documentary film called “I’ll Push You” https://youtu.be/W7gKD3q0-V0 about two friends, one in a wheelchair, who do the CAmino together. Turns out one of the Dutch brothers is a Camino-phile. This trip along the French Way is his fourth, his seventh Camino in total. In 2013 he happened to see the guys on their wheelchair trip, stopped and took a photo. Then, recently, he saw their documentary film and (I think) watched it with his brother. And, when the brothers saw us, they immediately wanted to stop and help.

It was pretty cool to hear their stories and share a bit of the journey with them. One of the things we have really missed in our journey so far was the camaraderie so many pilgrims speak of. Our Camino family has been limited to the three of us as moved so much slower than everyone else. Now, though, people don’t pass us nearly so quickly and when they do, it doesn’t throw them off schedule too much to walk with us for a short while and have a chat.

After a couple of kilometres it was time for us to stop for lunch, which was lovely in the warmth of a late autumn afternoon.

The Dutch brothersa continued on their way and then Dani, Dad and I finished up the day here in O Pedrouzo. As soon as I get somewhere where I can stream video, I’ll have to watch “I’ll Push You.” From the trailer, though, it makes our little jaunt look pretty cruisy!

The Kindness of Strangers

Albergue Camino Das Ocas

The common cold. A few days of feeling crummy, a runny nose, being irritated with the inconvenience of a cough. But really, it’s not that big a deal. Until you are past 80 and a cold is no longer a small thing to shrug off. A few days ago Dad started sniffling. Then the cough started. And now, several days in, this bug is hitting him hard. The past couple of days have been really tough going, so we had several conversations about what to do next. Send Dad ahead in a cab? Take an extra rest day and try to make time up later? Some combination of cab and walking where Dad went as far as he could and then we called a cab? That sounds reasonable, except a lot of the route is not on a road and given our limited Spanish, it could be tricky to describe which cow field near which hill we had chosen as a potential pickup point in the event Dad needed to be rescued en route.

Yesterday we visited a local hospital – nothing to do with the cold, but rather to get Dad a blood test. He takes blood thinners (post heart valve, he needs to keep things flowing smoothly) and he was due. While we were waiting to be seen, I noticed a couple of wheelchairs standing around in the waiting room and that made me think that perhaps we might be able to find one somewhere we could use to complete the journey.

We decided to see how last night was going to go and then make a decision this morning. At three in the morning I woke up to Dad’s coughing. Awful – persistent and grim-sounding. It didn’t sound like any walking was going to be on the cards. That’s when I really began to fret about where we were possibly going to find a wheelchair. It’s the weekend and Azura is not exactly a metropolis, though it is definitely bigger than many of the teeny one-farm villages we’ve stayed in. I wondered about the hospital and if, with my limited Spanish and Google translate I might be able to convince the to lend us a wheelchair. Then again, given how hard it had been to explain that we needed a common blood test, that seemed unlikely.

We had seen a couple of physiotherapy offices and I thought perhaps they might be able to help. Dani, too, tossed and turned all night and by morning, she was also formulating plans. Over breakfast we hatched a plot… Or first stop was to visit the helpful tourist info centre. The lovely woman on duty there did, indeed, offer suggestions – but because it was Saturday, they involved taking a bus to Santiago about 42 kms away. And, we were told, it was going to be tricky to find anyone open before Monday.

Back at the coffee shop where we had left Dad nursing a cafe con leche, we had a go at Google. We found a website called Accessible Spain Travel accessiblespaintravel.com with a phone number. I called and explained our situation and the very helpful guy at the other end said that he would see what he could find out for us.

Not long after, he texted that everything was closed that might be useful in Arzúa but that he had managed to reach Jose Manuel in Santiago who could meet us at his shop as long as we could get there before 11 am. Though the shop was shut, he was willing to come and meet us and fix us up with a wheelchair. Alas, there was no way to get to Santiago by bus in time, so we sprinted back to the Info Center to find out where we might be able to get a taxi.

Once we figured out where the cabs were, we grabbed Dad and all leaped into the taxi with Pepin, our driver, who not only took us to Santiago, but then waited patiently in the street with Dad while Dani and I waited for Jose Manuel to arrive, let us in in and give us a wheelchair. That process was crazy – no forms to fill out, Jose didn’t even ask for my name – would only take 30 Euros for ten days rental, and wished us well.

Meanwhile, the taxi driver then drove us all the way back to Arzua but then took less than half of what should have been the metered fare.

We were ravenous by the time we got back, so we had lunch and then set off. We experimented with all sorts of travelling variations – Dad pushing the wheelchair for a bit (which was ok on flat terrain and as long as the distances were short), Dani pushing, me pushing. Hills were an adventure. The going in places was steep and not exactly smooth. It took both of us pushing (Dani pushing the wheelchair and me pushing Dani) to get up some of the rough spots. Likewise, going down, it took two of us to slow things down – one of us leaning back against the handles and one pulling back on one of the walking poles we had attached to the back of the wheelchair.

By the time we finished our not-quite 5 kms, we were all bagged! A whole new set of muscles hurts! However, we made it!!! And it looks like we will get all the way to Santiago in one piece, as long as we keep going, don’t rush, and no further afflictions decide to sneak up on us.

One of the delights of the day was the contact we had with locals all along the way. A farmer (83) who walked with us for a bit after turning his cows out to pasture, a number of pilgrims who stopped to cheer us on (and take photos), the hostel-keeper who provided a great ground-floor, fully wheelchair accessible room for us, and a full-time pilgrim travelling with his donkey (worthy of a blog post all his own…)

Despite the physical challenges today (and, earlier, the stress of not knowing how on earth we were going to magically produce a wheelchair), today turned out to be a good day, in large part because of all the small kindnesses shown to us along the way.

That Way!

I am famous in my family for my ability to get lost. Spectacularly lost. Like, in Canmore (a cute town with half a dozen streets, town where I now live, town in which, yes, I still get lost). Before we set off on this trip there were quite a few jokes about how if anyone could get lost on the Camino it would be me.

Ha! I LOVE how incredibly well marked the route has been. Ever since we spotted our first arrow outside the albergue in Sarria we have never faltered. Occasionally there are a couple of options (a slightly more rural path versus following the road for a bit) but mostly every place where one could possibly get confused has a bright yellow arrow or a stylized shell or an official marker or all three…

Where the path crosses a road, motorists are warned to slow down.

Though we are tracking our progress closely using both google maps and the Nike+ Run app (Dani is using the latter to let her know exactly when she reaches each kilometre mark, at which point she snaps a photo – no people and within 10 steps of the km mark) there is really no need for technology when it comes to figuring out where to go.

Of course, the string of pilgrims stretching as far as the eye can see is another indicator we are heading in the right direction!

Now all I need is for the rest of the world to catch on to the idea of superb way-finding assistance… and maybe I need to figure out where in life I want to be going so the yellow arrows will start to appear whenever I need to see one!

Packing Light as Light Can Be

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At 18, I had dreamy visions of traipsing around the world, my guitar slung over my back. Except… I didn’t own a neck strap and my massive, overstuffed orange backpack took up all the available space on my back.  (Photo by Justin Clark on Unsplash)

I have never been a good packer. I wish I could put my hands on the photo of me in my late teens wearing bib overalls and sagging under the weight of my bright orange (very uncomfortable, rigid frame) backpack. Draped over the top was a very thick, voluminous wool poncho (it wouldn’t fit inside the bulging pack). Because I couldn’t squeeze everything I wanted to take inside, I also had a large shoulder bag as well as my camera slung around my neck. And a purse. Oh yes, and a leather passport holder, tucked inside my shirt. I looked ridiculous for various reasons, but if you knew what I had inside the pack you’d really be laughing…

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Several books (assorted recreational reading as well as guidebooks and train timetables and hostel guides and such-like), a collection of notebooks and pens, a dozen spare rolls of film (because heaven knows you couldn’t buy film in Europe), a stash of tuna fish, a tin opener, spare shoes, multiple pairs of jeans and sweaters and tops and shorts and sandals and… and… and…and… Yes, I do believe I also started that trip to Europe with a guitar. Not stuffed into the pack, of course, but bashing against my leg in its unyielding hard case. The guitar was one of the first things I ditched at a hostel somewhere along the way, collected later as I retraced my steps from hostel to hostel, collecting possessions I realized I did not have any use for.

What a difference a few decades make. I don’t have the least bit of interest in pack-muling my way anywhere these days. I just weighed my pack for the Camino and it came in at a whopping 12.5 lbs – including the pack and a super lightweight sleeping bag. Not only have I pared down what I need to carry on the Camino to a bare minimum, I have way more computing and camera power tucked into an outside pocket than I could even have imagined on my last backpacking trip. Train timetables? Thank-you, Internet. Hostel guide? Internet. Books – recreational and reference plus a bonus stack of magazines? Digital library. Communications center? No more waiting to find a Post Office in some remote village each week so I could send home a TELEGRAM (!!) all of three words long – AM ALIVE. NIKKI. Occasionally I would splurge and make a three-minute phone call back home to let everyone know more or less where I was and where I was likely to be during the following week. Facebook posts? An up-to-the-minute Instagram feed? Hah! Postcards lovingly scribbled and then mailed (usually from the same post offices where those telegrams came from) took ages to get back to Canada and by the time they did their contents were very old news.

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And the new pack itself? We found a used Osprey pack online and it compresses down to carry-on size while still having tons of room for the modest amount of stuff I am taking. And it’s so comfortable compared to the Orange Beast I schlepped around way back when. Granted, I was a lot younger, but still…

That orange pack nearly killed me when, after renting a sturdy shopping-style bicycle in the Lake District I decided (somewhat ambitiously) to ride across England to visit some relatives near Newcastle. In a single day. With all that crap strapped to my back and stuffed into panniers and tied to the back of the bicycle.

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This is pretty similar to the bike that nearly met its end in England’s last patch of wilderness….    Photo by Khachik Simonian on Unsplash

Things went very sideways when I took a shortcut (you can hardly blame me, I was trying to avoid the massive mountains in the middle of England) and wound up slipping off a slick, moss-covered smallish cliff thing, doing a summersault, and crashing down into the forest below still clutching my handlebars. Said handlebars were somewhere up and behind me where the bike landed and wedged itself against the base of the cliff. Unfortunately, the sturdy frame of the backpack (still on my back) jammed itself into the frame of the bike rendering me helplessly pinned to the ground, unable to get up. Lying there, staring up at some picturesque English trees, I had visions of people, years later, stumbling across my skeleton entangled in the rusty bike frame. I imagined them flipping through the mouldy pages of the Collected Works of Franz Kafka pulled from the tattered and faded remnants of that pack and wondering if the tuna fish was still edible.

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The Lake District is a gorgeous place – until you have to pedal up and over those mountains to leave… Photo by James Qualtrough on Unsplash

Obviously, I managed to extricate myself eventually and other than the fact the bike chain popped off, neither I nor the bike suffered any serious damage. Unfortunately, the bike chain was cunningly protected by a steel shield and though I had all manner of things with me, a screwdriver was not one of them. That meant I had to carry the bike over hill and dale to get to a tiny farm way down in the valley below in order to get some assistance from the resident farmer… but not before being charged by a very angry ram protecting his harem. That was a very long field to cross, I can tell you – being battered and bashed by a furious sheep every step of the way.

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Photo by George Hiles on Unsplash

Fortunately, the bike served me well as I held it up between me and the curly-horned monster like a shield and managed to stagger backwards all the way to the gate — and safety — on the far side…

But, I digress. I have no intention on this trip of straining myself unduly. I am still a few weeks away from my departure date so I will repack and reconsider several times more, but before I set off I’ll post the exact contents of what’s in the new pack – just because I can!

Buen Camino! (because, I think, once a person has packed the bag the trip has already begun!)

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An update about the Camino

Our trip to Spain is getting closer! Follow the link below to my writing blog for more details…

There is nothing quite like receiving that email confirming your flight is booked. In this case, the series of emails (Calgary to Paris via Montreal, Paris to Madrid and then various bits and pieces of the return trip plus information about trains within Spain) have triggered a crazy mix of wild excitement and sheer terror. […]

via Camino tickets BOOKED!!!!!! — Nikki Tate – Author

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Over on the writing blog… what’s keeping me busy these days…

After three months of being a writer in Paris (oh, it was fun to just write that phrase!), I am back in the Rocky Mountains with a list of To-Do lists! [Click on the link below for the rest of the post…]

via Pushing Forward on All Fronts — Nikki Tate – Author