Category Archives: Interviews

Walking the Voie d’Arles and Camino Aragonés: An Interview with The Solitary Walker


[Mountain view]

Between Jaca and Santa Cilia on the San Juan de la Peña detour of the Camino Aragonés. Photo courtesy The Solitary Walker.

But the Camino had not finished with me. It had gripped me. It had got under my skin. It called me again this year. It drew me back. Be warned, Camino lovers, it does not let you go.
– Robert, The Solitary Walker, introducing his pilgrimage from Arles.

Robert’s wonderful blog, The Solitary Walker, has thoughts on walking and philosophy, poetry and life. It also describes his three pilgrimages to Santiago. The second of these began in Arles, along one of the four major Camino de Santiago routes through France.

[Sarrance]

Sarrance, France. Photo courtesy The Solitary Walker.

Three of the routes meet up just before Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. The Voie d’Arles or Via Tolosana, the southernmost route, crosses the Somport Pass and continues through Spain as the Camino Aragonés before meeting up with the Camino Francés at Puente la Reina.

Robert walked the 870 or so kilometres from Arles to Puente la Reina in 46 days in 2008. He was recently kind enough to answer my questions about the route.

As usual I had no real strategy. My preparations were fast and minimal. I would see in the due course of time what might unfold, what the Camino might reveal…
– The Solitary Walker

Anna-Marie: How did the landscapes and terrain, and the difficulty of walking, compare with the Camino Francés and the Le Puy route?

Robert: Well, first of all, both routes are absolutely lovely—very rural, sometimes quite remote—and I’d walk them again like a shot. They are different, sometimes obviously and sometimes subtly, despite various landscape features common to south-west France:

[Horses]

White horses of the Camargue. Photo courtesy The Solitary Walker.

hills and gorges, woods and forests, flat and rolling farmland. Whereas the Le Puy route starts in the hills of the Auvergne, the Arles route begins on the flat, drained deltaland of the Camargue, a strangely haunting area of rice fields, black bulls, white horses and exotic wading birds. But it’s not long before you’re high up on the breezy plateau of the Causses, with its deep gorges and spectacular limestone outcrops.

On the whole, the Arles route is probably more difficult: it has steeper climbs, more extensive forests, fewer waymarks, a more rigorous descent from the Pyrenees. (To balance this, however, there are three days of flat and easy towpath walking along the Canal du Midi.)

[Camino Aragones]

The lunar landscapes of the Camino Aragonés. Photo courtesy The Solitary Walker.

On the Spanish side, before the routes join at Puente la Reina, the difference in the two trails is quite marked. The Vía Aragonés takes you from the awe-inspiring, high-sided mountains of the Spanish border to the little-visited, lunar landscape of the Aragon valley west of Jaca: a lonely and remote, undeveloped, captivating region of low hills and terraces, deserted villages and friable, grey rock.

From reading your blog, it sounds like there was a lot of pilgrim accommodation. What was it like, in general?

In September I had no difficulty finding pilgrim accommodation and never booked ahead (of course you don’t reserve places in the Spanish albergues anyhow.) I can imagine, though, now the route is becoming a little more popular, a few places will be extending the range of their accommodation to cope with demand. Having said this, I met with only a scattering of pilgrims (and weekend walkers and mushroom gatherers!). Indeed, sometimes I even had a gîte or albergue to myself—or perhaps shared with just one or two others). The standard varied enormously, as usual, but I was pretty impressed—Lacommande, Boissezon, Borce and Santa Cilia come to mind—and a gîte in Lodève was more like a boutique hotel, complete with lifts and an hospitalier who was also a talented chef (not the norm, I might add.) At the other end of the scale, the basic gîte in Barran had flea-ridden bunk beds and a kitchen solely consisting of two rusty electric rings which took an age to heat up.

[Toulouse]

A monastery turned art museum in Toulouse. Photo courtesy The Solitary Walker.

The Arles route goes through a more touristy part of France than the Le Puy route does. Were there more people who spoke English than on the Le Puy route?

I suppose this is true, though to be honest very few parts of the route are ‘touristy’. Of course there were lots of tourists in Montpellier and Toulouse (you pass through these superb cities on the Arles route—well worth spending an extra night in both) and in some historic towns such as Castres.

As for English being spoken, well, it just isn’t—except in some of the tourist offices. Luckily I’m reasonably fluent in French, and can get by in Spanish, so the language barrier isn’t a problem.

You mention being bitten by mosquitos at the beginning of your trip. Was that a problem throughout the route, or only at the outset?

No, only at the outset. The marshy, low-lying Camargue area in late summer teems with mosquitos. Go prepared with a good repellent. I didn’t have any other issues with biting insects for the rest of the trip.

[The Solitary Walker]

Robert and a GR balise (way mark), on a tricky part of the Voie d'Arles after Sarance.

You say you lost the route fairly frequently. Was it usually easy to find again?

Did I really say that? Come to think of it, I suppose it’s true—I often lose my way briefly, though rarely seriously. Quite frankly, if you have a guide book, you’re not going to get lost. Also there are plenty of signposts and red-and-white striped balises and reassuring conchas. I lost the path once in the vast forests of Bouconne, but manged to retrace my steps. Truth to tell, I’m lazy—sometimes I just trust to my instincts rather than bother to get the map (especially if it’s raining!)

Were there serious differences between walking in France and Spain on the Arles route/Camino Aragonés?

The main difference was the utter contrast of landscape, climate and culture between France and Spain—which became immediately apparent as soon as I stepped down that precipitous path from the Col du Somport. As far as difficulty goes, when you’ve crossed the Pyrenees (which isn’t that difficult, in fact) the rest is plain sailing.

What was the best part of the walk for you?

[Limestone pleateau]

The limestone plateau above Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert. Photo courtesy The Solitary Walker.

Oh, so many wonderful places and people encountered, it’s hard to pick out the best. The high, airy limestone plateau above Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert. The wooded valley of the Aspe gradually rising up to the Col du Somport. The banks of the Aragon river. Meeting up again with young Spanish pilgrim friends in Puente la Reina. Sharing raw, freshly picked wild mushrooms anointed with olive oil with some friendly walkers from Lyon. So many great moments, so many rewarding experiences.

The worst?

Well, it would have to be that day and night in Barran, wouldn’t it? You can trace it on my blog if you want the whole, sordid tale! Total physical exhaustion, a thunderstorm, and a flea-ridden mattress. Need I say more?

If someone was having trouble deciding between the Arles route and the le Puy route, what would you tell them?

For someone new to walking Caminos I’d recommend the Le Puy route first—slightly easier, more frequented, more plentiful accommodation, better signposted. From the very start you’re in beautiful countryside—peaceful villages, country churches, gentle hills and valleys. After that you’ll want to return to do the Arles route as soon as you can—I promise you!

[Puente la Reina]

The famous bridge in Puente la Reina, where the Camino Aragonés meets up with the Camino Francés.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention to people who are considering walking the route?

If you don’t know any French or Spanish, you’d be amazed how just a few words and phrases—along with a friendly smile and an inquiring expression—make all the difference. If you can learn more than this—perhaps go for a few French or Spanish lessons beforehand—I guarantee you won’t regret it, and you’ll have a far deeper and more meaningful Camino. Buen Camino, everyone!

* * *

You can read more about Robert’s journey along the Voie d’Arles (and see a lot more photos) on his blog. Scroll down to the bottom on each page and click “Newer Post” to navigate through the entire pilgrimage.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 10:29 am
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Walking with a Donkey: An Interview with Roland Garin


[Roland Garin and Praline]

Roland Garin and Praline. Photo courtesy Roland Garin.

I photographed a donkey in Santiago’s pilgrim office when I was there at the end of May. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet and Sarah De Martín (thanks, Sarah!), I discovered that the donkey was named Praline. She walked some 1,900 kilometres of the Camino de Santiago—from her home in France to Finisterre—with Roland Garin.

Roland was kind enough to answer my questions about walking with Praline. Thanks also to Aude Verbeke, a friend from my first Camino, for editing my translation from the French. (Ici est la version française.)

Anna-Marie: Was this your first time walking the Camino?

Roland: I walked previously on the Camino de Santiago from Lyon to Le Puy to train myself. The first time was with two donkeys. Praline was accompanied by her friend Amandin. The second time with Praline alone, and then we did the GR-70. It’s also called “The Stevenson” in memory of Robert Louis Stevenson, the Scottish writer, the author of the adventure novel Treasure Island.

Where did you begin your walk?

We left from Saint-Pierre-la-Palud, a village of 2,500. It’s 25 kilometres from Lyon, in a region that we call here “les monts du Lyonnais.” We took the following route: Saint Pierre to Le Puy to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela to Muxia to Fisterra. It was around 1,900 kilometres in 77 days of walking.

Why did you decide to walk with Praline?

Why with Praline? That’s a good question! Some people go alone, with a friend, with their wife…. Me, I like donkeys. (There are four at my house.) Praline is my walking partner and since we’ve been walking together we’ve made a good couple. Between us there is a complicity and an affection that only donkey owners can understand.

[Roland Garin and Praline]

Roland Garin and Praline. Photo courtesy Roland Garin.

What was the best part of walking with a donkey?

As I told you already, when there’s complicity between the man and the animal, it’s a true pleasure. Praline regulates the walk: it’s not the man who guides the donkey! The man walks in the footsteps of the donkey. I must confess that I’m lucky to have an exceptional animal. I talk to her all day and even if some people are skeptical about this, I know she listens and understands every word … to the right … to the left … straight ahead. Sometimes she follows the marks on the way before I have the time to tell her! I am very lucky.

The worst part?

There’s no worst part with a donkey! It’s a question of education … the donkey is a very intelligent animal. Some say that it’s one of the most intelligent species of animal in the world. Unlike a horse, you don’t train a donkey: you educate him.

All is complicity, sweetness and patience … you don’t impose your will on a donkey! Some say that the donkey is stubborn. That’s not true; he thinks … he analyzes the road, the danger, the sounds. When a donkey doesn’t want to advance, it’s up to the man to understand why. And when the man becomes as intelligent as the donkey, all goes well!

Where did Praline sleep?

At night I slept in a tent and Praline slept beside it. Donkeys sleep very little and they use the night to eat. Praline felt secure to know that I was next to her. Sometimes I slept in gîtes d’étapes … she was very unhappy and that caused problems because she didn’t stop braying all night. The other pilgrims didn’t always appreciate that!

Did she need special food while walking?

Above all, don’t supplement a donkey’s diet. The donkey is a rustic animal; he is happy with grass and hay. And fresh water … and, as a reward for working all day, a fruit or a crust of stale bread. If you really want to make him happy, a handful of crushed barley…. But he himself needs to carry it … so….

Did you have any difficulties walking through cities?

Walking in a city isn’t always easy. The man with a steering wheel in his hands thinks he’s master of the world, so he often becomes the worst of the boors and cretins. I’ve never had a problem going through big cities (Pamplona, Burgos, Léon and Santiago). Praline is used to cars and they don’t bother her.

I was especially afraid of being stopped by the Guardia Civil, because some guides specified that donkeys and horses were forbidden to pass through cities. But I never had any problems. On the contrary, representatives of the police force made me feel very welcome. I even took some photos with them. The biggest difficulty was crossing certain metal bridges. Praline didn’t want to! So we had to avoid them … and all went well.

The most dangerous thing wasn’t the cities, it was when we had to walk along national roads with heavy traffic. The trucks were fast and made a lot of noise, so any animal could have been scared…. I had to stay close to Praline to give her confidence. The worst is when people honk their horns … but I can’t blame them: it comes from a good sentiment. They want to say hello to us.

How far did you walk each day?

That depended on the road, on the place: we walked better in the forests than in the cities. It also depended on the altitude of the stage. As I told you already, it’s not the master who commands; it’s the donkey who controls the speed on the path. It depends on whether the road is rugged or easy. We did some 20-kilometre stages, but also some stages of almost 40 kilometres. But our average walking was 25 kilometres per day.

Do you have a favourite story about Praline on the Camino?

[Praline]

Praline joins the pilgrim throngs outside the pilgrims' office in Santiago de Compostela.

There are hundreds of stories about Praline. In fact, she’s started to write her memoirs…. The book should be 600 pages! We work every day to write this work. Praline dictates her impressions to me and I transcribe them on the keyboard. It’s not fast, because she is very, very demanding and often the work from Monday goes in the garbage on Tuesday. But we have done the Camino together … so we also write together.

The most fantastic story is that not a single day went by in Spain without someone wanting to buy Praline from me. Someone even tried to steal her! Each time someone asked me “Se vende? se vende?” I answered no, obviously. But the people insisted, so I said: “Okay, 30,000 euros … 50,000 euros with the equipment.” The exorbitant price discouraged the buyers. But I confess I would have been very annoyed if someone had accepted, because I wouldn’t be separated from my Praline for all the gold in the world.

Where is Praline now? Does she live with you?

Praline is in her meadow, next to the house in the village of Saint-Pierre-la-Palud. She is with Cadine, Florentine and Kakao. She rests, waiting to go out on another journey … maybe at the end of the month of September we’ll go on a fifteen-day hike in the centre of France. Sometimes on Sundays, we go on walks through villages, and meet people who are interested in the Camino de Santiago. We speak of the association “Le Chemin Pour Tous” (The Camino for All) which takes some people with disabilities to Santiago every year.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

Other things that I want to talk about…. I’m going to write about them mainly so that others may benefit from my experience on the Camino. I want to tell them about the beauty, the hazards, the fantastic events but also, because nothing should be concealed, about the hardships of the road.

It’s the road of stars … but you know, both roses and brambles have thorns.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 12:33 pm
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A Pilgrim in Japan: Wayne Emde on the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage


[Henro sign on the 88 Temple Pilgrimage]

Henro (pilgrim) sign on the 88 Temple Pilgrimage.
Photo by Wayne Emde.

A few weeks ago, I got an e-mail from Wayne Emde. He’d found my blog through The Camino Documentary, he said, and he was one of the pilgrims director Lydia Smith had mentioned in my interview with her.

Wayne didn’t know I was Canadian, but he said that he and his friend Jack, an Anglican priest who’s also in the documentary, have done Camino presentations a few hours away from where I’m living.

[Wayne Emde]

Wayne Emde, on his way to Temple 13.
Photo by Jason Emde.

When I wrote back, I asked where he was. It turned out he lives only an hour away from me.

And we have more in common than geography. We studied history at the same university, and have both worked as journalists. He used to teach photography and I studied photography near to his hometown.

So of course we had to meet. Wayne and Jack came out to Kamloops, and we spent nearly three hours in a café, talking about the Camino Francés, the Vía de la Plata, and, particularly, the Shikoku pilgrimage in Japan, which Wayne walked in 2008 with his eldest son, Jason.

On Pilgrimage in Japan

[On the 88 Temple pilgrimage]

On the 88 Temple pilgrimage.
Photo by Wayne Emde.

Wayne didn’t know much about Buddhism and had never heard of the Shikoku pilgrimage when he flew to Japan for Jason’s wedding.

But when Jason told him about the pilgrimage and invited him along, Wayne felt something in the journey calling to him.

The two of them spent seven weeks walking 1200 kilometres around the perimeter of the island of Shikoku. They visited each of the eighty-eight temples sacred to Kobo Daishi (“Great Teacher”), the man who brought Shingon Buddhism from China to Japan in 806.

The temples are strung out along the route, some in clusters and some on their own. Sometimes the pilgrims visited five or six in a single day; at other times they had to walk eighty or so kilometres between temples—several days’ worth of travel, since they averaged twenty-four kilometres per day.

[Buddha]

A Buddha along the way.
Photo by Wayne Emde.

In the mornings they walked together and talked—about everything from Bob Dylan and books to their worries and dreams to their family and its history.

They walked separately in the afternoons.

In the evenings they usually camped, but every three or four days they would stay in a hotel or minshuku (bed and breakfast) or occasionally in a temple, so they could have showers and do laundry.

There weren’t formal campsites, Wayne said. He and Jason would usually just stop wherever they happened to be when the day ended.

Sometimes it was in a city park, a beach, a shrine, or a mountainside. … It was really amazing that at the end of the day, someplace to pitch our tents would reveal itself to us.

They carried about thirty-five pounds each in their backpacks. And the walking could be difficult—the terrain was a lot steeper than was usual on the Camino Francés. Henro (pilgrims) mainly walk on highways, Wayne said.

But when the path led inland to some of the mountain top temples, it was usually a well-trod trail. Mountains were very, very steep, and many of the paths had stairs cut into the side of the slope. Some days we climbed 900 metres to the temples, and a couple of days we did this twice.

[Lanterns]

Lanterns and cherry trees along the pilgrimage route.
Photo by Wayne Emde.

A Solitary Pilgrimage

The 88 Temple pilgrimage was much quieter than the Camino Francés, which Wayne walked the following year.

“The Camino was a much more social thing,” he said.

Most Japanese henro do the pilgrimage in bus tours. Wayne figures fewer than 1000 people per year walk, and he and Jason rarely met other walking pilgrims.

The language barrier wasn’t a problem for Wayne because Jason spoke Japanese, but they didn’t meet a lot of English-speakers. There were three other western henro walking the route, and a few people in temples spoke English.

The first question they would ask was how old he was, Wayne said. And then they wanted to know where he was from.

Walking with Kobo Daishi

[Kobo Daishi]

Kobo Daishi.
Photo by Wayne Emde.

Pilgrims on the 88 Temple pilgrimage are said to be following in the footsteps of Kobo Daishi.

The historical Kobo Daishi probably didn’t have much to do with most of the temples on the route—in much the same way that the historical Saint James likely never set foot in Spain.

But the myths and miracle stories that grew up around Kobo Daishi link him to each of the temples on the pilgrimage.

There’s a belief that Kobo Daishi travels with every pilgrim as a protector and guide, Wayne said. And a gift to one of his pilgrims is a gift to the great teacher.

Local people along the route gave Wayne and Jason gifts almost every day. If they stopped at a 7-11 to buy something, the sales clerk would give them an extra item free. An old woman once gave them money to buy a drink, and someone even gave them a garage to sleep in.

One day they were walking through a valley when a pick-up truck pulled up beside them. A hand emerged, offering two boiled eggs to the tired pilgrims.

And there was more, Wayne said.

People [would] go out of their way to show us a place to camp, and then come back half an hour later with food.

Temple Rituals

No suffering, No cause of suffering,
No cessation of suffering, and No path leading to the cessation of suffering.
No wisdom and no attainment,
Because there is nothing to attain.
—The Heart Sutra

Wayne still has the accoutrements of a Japanese pilgrim. Henro dress the part, with a conical hat, a white tunic and—when they arrive at temples—a stole. They carry a bell, a rosary and a white satchel, along with the candles, incense and osamefuda (paper with the henro‘s name, address, age, and a prayer) they need for the temple visits.

And then there’s the Shikoku version of a pilgrim’s credential. It’s a substantial book, with thick pages, each with hand-drawn calligraphy.

[At a temple]

At one of the temples.
Photo by Wayne Emde.

Pilgrims may choose to perform none, part, or all of the temple rituals, and Wayne and Jason chose to participate.

They would do the same thing at each of the eighty-eight temples.

Each bowed at the gate, rang a large bell, washed his hands, lit three sticks of incense and a candle, put his osamefuda in a box, put a coin in the offering box, rang a gong, bowed, said the heart sutra, recited the Namu Daishi Henjo Kongo (“Homage to the great teacher who brings light to all the people”) three times and bowed.

[Calligraphy]

Signing a pilgrim book.
Photo by Wayne Emde.

Then they would go to the temple’s Daishi Hall and do the exact same thing again, before getting their books signed and stamped. The entire ritual would take about twenty minutes.

“It makes you slow down and pause,” Wayne said.

“I’m convinced that there’s meaning in rituals.”

After the rituals, the pilgrims would have a cold drink, walk around and take some pictures, and bow at the main gate.

Then, apart from the few times they stayed overnight at temples, they would keep on walking.

 
Endings and Beginnings

[Henro]

A henro.
Photo by Wayne Emde.

The 88 Temple pilgrimage is a circle: Temple 88 is near Temple 1. Pilgrims can start at any point—but they are supposed to finish at the temple where they started.

Wayne and Jason started at Temple 1. They’d meant to end there, too, but ended up having to head home after Temple 88, leaving their pilgrimage incomplete.

They returned in spring 2010 to finish the journey.

“Going back to Shikoku last spring was not only necessary, but very satisfying,” Wayne said.

He and Jason walked from Temple 88 to Temple 1 over the course of two days, also stopping at several other temples they’d visited the first time.

Temple 1 was very quiet, unlike our first visit, and we spent a great deal of time looking closely at the details of the temple that we had missed. After, we returned to Koyasan, the headquarters of the Shingon sect and spent two more days there, revisiting the resting place of Kobo Daishi and thanking him for bringing us safely through, dedicating wooden plaques to my wife, my mother-in-law and Jason’s wife’s grandfather, who passed away the day I arrived in Japan, and getting the final stamps on my scroll.

As Wayne said a year after completing the pilgrimage, “journeys don’t end when you leave the path.” The pilgrimage continues to be part of Wayne’s life as he still talks a lot with Jason about their shared journey, and gives occasional presentations about the route.

[Jason and Maho]

Jason and his wife Maho, who joined the Wayne and Jason for a week of walking.
Photo by Wayne Emde.

* * *

Wayne wrote a great article, “Nothing to be Achieved,” about his experience on the route, which accompanied by more of his wonderful photos.

To learn more about the 88 Temple pilgrimage, Wayne recommends the Pilgrimage to the 88 Sacred Places of Shikoku website.

Shikoku Japan 88 Route Guide is an English guidebook that can be purchased at Temple 1.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 12:27 pm
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The Camino de Levante: An Interview with Andy Delmege


[Camino de Levante]

Walking from Rielves to Torrijos on the Camino de Levante.
Photo by Andy Delmege.

The Camino de Levante is a quiet pilgrimage route that runs from Valencia, on the east coast of Spain, through Toledo to Zamora, where it joins up with the Vía de la Plata.

Andy Delmege, an Anglican priest from England, walked a large portion of the Camino de Levante in autumn 2009. He went from Valencia to Toledo on foot, and then took the train to Zamora. From there, he walked the Camino Sanabrés variant of the Vía de la Plata to Santiago.

He kindly agreed to answer my questions about the route and his experiences while walking.

Anna-Marie: What drew you to the Camino de Levante for your first walking pilgrimage? (I gather it was your first?)

Andy: It was my first in Spain. I had done a few week-long group pilgrimages to Walsingham twenty years ago.

I wanted a quiet route where I could encounter Spain and I wanted to visit the sites associated with the Carmelite Mystics. Talking it over with one or two people who know the Caminos well and researching on the Pilgrim Forum and the CSJ site decided me that the Levante fitted the bill.

On your blog, you described the first few days as “hellishly difficult.” Why was that?

[Camino de Levante]

The Camino de Levante near Mora, on the way out of La Mancha.
Photo by Andy Delmege.

I was ill. I had a stomach bug and could not eat. Also the enormity of the task I had set myself as well as being alone (there were no other pilgrims and I was walking solo) hit me. If I could have gone home without anyone noticing, I would have done. There were a few very tough few days. I got some medicine and appetite returned and began to make some impact on the mileage, realizing that I could do this.

One important thing was that I promised myself before I started that I would only go home if instructed to by a doctor; this helped me keep with the Camino when things were at their hardest.

In your article The Walking Becomes the Praying, you write that there were three parts to your pilgrimage: the “empty flatness” of the stretch from Valencia to Toledo, walking and driving with friends in the Toledo area, and then a “more relaxed walk” with more pilgrims from Zamora to Santiago. What was it like transitioning between the different parts of your walk?

The first part (which begins with urban Valencia, industrial farming and then some remote hill walking before the flatness of La Mancha) I walked entirely alone. There were no other pilgrims. This was hard but also good.

Some friends from home were coming to Toledo on holiday at the same time as I arrived and I decided I wanted company and to spend time with them. We did a little walking, and then visited Avila and Segovia by car. There was no problem transitioning to this—I was looking forward to the company of friends.

I then rejoined the Camino, deciding to go take the train to Zamora as this meant I could finish the Camino at a more relaxed pace and in order to meet pilgrims walking up the Vía de la Plata. I was anxious about this but was fine once I started to bump into other pilgrims. I formed close relationships with two people in particular.

I noticed you walked with a Spanish guidebook, and I’d imagine there weren’t a lot of English-speakers around on the first stretch. How much Spanish does a pilgrim on the Camino de Levante need to be able to speak and read?

I had done a year of classes and had basic conversational Spanish. I think to be able to do this route you need to be able to ask directions, sort out accommodation and the like. I only met one person who spoke English in the first three weeks.

What was the accommodation like along the way?

There is less pilgrim infrastructure than on the busier routes. There are albergues, but not every day. Some of these are excellent, for example the ones in Algemesi and Las Pedroneras. Others are basic Red Cross shelters. Sometimes it was impossible to find who had the key; other times they turned out to be homeless people’s hostels. It would have been possible to sleep in Sports Centres, but I decided (particularly as I was completely solo) that I would stay in Hostals. I never had a problem finding accommodation.

[Camino de Levante]

Walking the Camino de Levante.
Photo by Andy Delmege.

The route sounds like it can be difficult to follow in places. Did you have any serious problems?

I gather that the way marking is less good than other Caminos (certainly once I got to Zamora and joined the Vía de la Plata, marking seemed superb). I got lost a few times, but generally just the sort of thing that adds an hour or so onto the day. The strip maps in the Spanish Guide were generally good. I found with them, the arrows and a compass I did OK. Finding my way out of towns was quite often difficult.

There were a few times you fell asleep while walking. I didn’t realize that was possible. What was it like?

Towards the end of the very long forty kilometre stage between Almansa and Higueruela there was a small straight road with no traffic. I was exhausted and just plodding until I reached the end. Several times I came to, realizing that I had been asleep. There wasn’t much I could do about this. I didn’t want to stop and sleep because I wasn’t sure I’d get up again if I stopped.

I suppose it did me no harm!

You talk in your blog about the kindness of the Spanish people. What are some of your favourite examples?

Walking in afternoon heat, the manager of a farm employing people with learning disabilities told me to wait and then reappeared with a bottle of ice cold water. Some farmers above me on a hill called me over and presented me with a water melon. Several times, stopping in a bar for a cafe y refresco, the owners refused payment because I was a pilgrim. A nun giving me two kilos of home made biscuits.

You’ve written a little about the importance of rest days. What was your favourite place for a rest day?

[Chinchilla de Monte-Aragón on the Camino de Levante]

Chinchilla de Monte-Aragón.
Photo by Andy Delmege.

I have several. Chinchilla is a wonderful historic hilltop town close to Albacete. I had walked a couple of very long stages to get there and a rest was essential. The parish Church is superb with a beautiful statue of la Virgen de las Nieves and a very robust Santiago Peregrino looking down from the roof.

Much later on, I spent a rest day at the private albergue ‘Casa Anita’ at Santa Croya de Tera, a few days beyond Zamora. This was a wonderfully nourishing place. Anita and Domingo were wonderful hosts, feeding us, drying soaked kit and dispensing vast quantities of wine. The Church at Santa Marta de Croya, just across the river, has the earliest statue of Santiago Peregrino and was a place of prayer.

I spent a couple of days at Oseira Monastery shortly before Santiago. This small retreat gave me the space to pray through the Camino before my arrival.

You say: “solo pilgrimage, although hard at times, can also become self-indulgent.” What do you mean by that?

When I am walking by myself my routine, pace, daily mileage, and the like are all about me. I walk and live in ways that entirely suit me. When I walk with others I have to keep other people’s needs in mind too.

You say, fairly early on: “I have learned the hard way not to push to much. The two things I am praying for myself are linked to this and to the pilgrim-pace: to learn to be much more relaxed and accepting, and to learn what it is possible for me to do wisely in a day and to accept this. Reliance on God and others in other words.” Was that something that developed as you kept walking?

It did develop while I was walking. It was something that I had been thinking and praying about before I walked which affects all of my life, not just the days out walking. The space and prayer of the Camino, along with the practical lessons you can learn on it helped a lot with this (although it is something I am still working on).

Can you tell me a bit about how, in your words, “the walking became the praying?”

[Note: This is an excerpt from Andy’s article The Walking Becomes the Praying, first published in the Fairacres Chronicle, Vol. 43 No. 1, Summer 2010. You can read the entire article on Andy’s blog, Pilgrimspace.]

[Cross on the Camino Sanabrés]

On the Camino Sanabrés.
Photo by Andy Delmege.

What I gradually discovered was that the walking became the praying. Alan Ecclestone describes the pilgrimages of Charles Peguy to Chartres: A pilgrimage gets to the holy place at last but what gives it its part in prayer is the slamming down of one’s feet to complete the journey while praying the while for all its features[ii]. In putting one foot in front of another, in the tiredness, in the blisters, in the being at one with myself, the landscape and God, in the mind quietening, in all this, walking, pilgrimage itself, became prayer.

The simple goodness of walking and praying the Camino was a falling more deeply into God. The walking became a deeper loving. The incarnatedness of pilgrim prayer, its coming out of kilometre after kilometre, mile after mile of effort, is tested because the Camino is also a School of Charity. I have already written of how generous the people living along the Way were. One important thing for me was to learn to receive it. It can be more testing to learn to live with other pilgrims. Busy albergues can be challenge. Everyone is crowded into a simple dormitory with some showers, facilities for hand washing clothes, and maybe a kitchen. Everyone is tired. Most people want to get an early night. Some people snore. Some people get up to prepare for walking at four in the morning. Dealing with this is an exercise in the practical love that comes out of praying. It is also part of learning basic pilgrim attitudes. These seem to me to revolve around gratitude; to be grateful for the love and care expressed in so many ways, while accepting the difficulties and discomforts with grace.

Another key aspect of praying and prayerful attitudes that came out of the pilgrimage was trust. Going off to another country to undertake a challenge that was greater than anything I had done before was a risk. I had to learn to trust myself and my abilities, to trust others (and also to discern when it was right not to trust others), and to trust God. This could be seen, for example, in finding accommodation each night. At home know that I will always be sheltered and comfortable. On the Camino I did not know where I would spend the next night. As I walked, I relaxed and the anxiety about whether I would get a bed slipped away. This is an attitude I must work to keep now.

You wrote in your blog: “I do not know what I feel about finishing. I have both loved and hated the Pilgrimage; it has been one of the best and one of the most difficult things I have done. My friend John sent me a text a couple of days ago saying that the benefits will emerge over the next few decades.” How do you feel about it now, more than a year later? What benefits have continued to emerge.

When I came back, people said that I had grown. I think it has made me more confident and stronger (if I can do that, I can probably do anything …). The things that we touched on above about faith, trust and pace are also important and continue to emerge. I learned, and continue to learn, important lessons about my need to rely on God and others rather than myself; on the being realistic about possibility and its limits; and about what my limits are.

Footnote

[1] Alan Ecclestone, A Staircase for Silence, DLT, 1977, p13.

* * *

To read more about Andy’s journey and his thoughts on pilgrimage, visit his blog, Pilgrimspace. (Here are the stages he walked.)

If you’re interested in the Camino de Levante, the Confraternity of Saint James has some good information.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 11:59 am
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Running the Camino: An Interview with Jenny Anderson


[Jenny Anderson]

Jenny Anderson, preparing for the Camino.
Photo courtesy Jenny Anderson.

Jenny Biondi Anderson, a Spanish teacher from Virginia, will start the Camino Francés in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on February 27. She hopes to arrive in Santiago de Compostela, nearly 800 kilometres away, ten days later.

She’ll do the whole distance on foot—running. Her goal is to beat the World Speed Record of twelve days for the route.

Jenny recently answered my questions about her upcoming trip by e-mail.

* * *

Anna-Marie: What made you decide to do this trip? Why the Camino Francés in particular?

Jenny: I love 1) “long trails” 2) challenges 3) Spain and Latin America, and 4) the idea of doing a Pilgrimage. I have heard from several people about the Camino Francés over the years and so I have had it on my radar for a while.

In the summer of 2009, I did a long trail endeavor in North Carolina for a speed record and I used that time to gauge my fitness level, emotions, and mental toughness for attempting another another long trail endeavor at record speed. I found myself dreaming about El Camino de Santiago much of the time.

I finally committed to the idea in the fall of 2010.

Have you looked into the pilgrimage aspect of the route? Do you see yourself as a pilgrim on this journey?

I absolutely see myself as a pilgrim on this journey. Some might say, “Well, you are not slowing down and really having the experience of meeting the people.” I can answer that by saying, “True; and someday I will return and take my time on the Camino. But this pilgrimage is about speed and spending some long tough days on my own putting one foot in front of the other—day after day until I reach Santiago.”

I will have to dig deep into myself and my faith as I endure some hard days. In the end, I will be a different person. This experience will change me.

What made you decide to do this without a support vehicle?

Well … I have backed off from that idea. Normally, I would absolutely do this run without support and I might come back someday and attempt this endeavor unsupported. The trail lends itself to not needing a lot of support because of the frequency it comes into town.

Recently, however, I have been alerted to the fact that the time of year that I am going (weather and low tourist volume) is not conducive to attempting this run without support. I have realized that most of the “albergues” (hostels) along the trail do not have heat and are too damp to dry your clothing. Cold and wet conditions are going to set me up for failure.

Additionally, I have discovered that many albergues are closed during the time I am going because of the weather and/or because of Spain’s current economic challenges.

Lastly, albergues close early for the evening and so if I come into town at 8 pm looking for a room, I will be out of luck without my crew holding a spot for me somewhere.

Therefore, I am sad to say, I am decided to move this run to a supported endeavor. My mom, stepfather, and one of my daughters will be there for me at the end of each day. I will be on my own throughout the day and I will even sleep in a completely separate town from my family but I will see them for about two hours each evening as I finish.

[Janny Anderson]

Jenny Anderson, on a previous run.
Photo courtesy Jenny Anderson.

You’ll be trying to average more than seventy-three kilometres per day. How many hours will you be running in an average day? How does that compare to long-distance runs you’ve done in the past?

In the past, I have mostly done ultra-races (50k to 100 miles); however, I accomplished the SB6K program in the summer of 2009, which entailed summiting forty of North Carolina’s 6,000-foot peaks some of which were off trail. This 280 mile (450.6 kilometre) endeavor was completed in less than a week with the equivalent amount of climbing as summiting Mt. Everest twice. We covered approximately forty miles (sixty-four kilometres) a day on some pretty mountainous terrain. We averaged about fifteen hours a day. I say “we” because I did this with two other female friends.

I anticipate covering seventy-five to eighty-three kilometres a day on the the Camino Francés (averaging eighty kilometres [fifty miles] a day). I hope to average about four miles (6.4 kilometres) an hour which would be about thirteen to sixteen hours a day depending on the degree of elevation. I will need to be very patient but steadfast.

You plan to carry a five-pound (2.3-kilogram) backpack. What will you take in it?

I will carry a five-pound pack and I have been training with five pounds since October. In fact, I haven’t run a step without it. I have been putting in 90 to 125 mile (144 to 201 kilometre) weeks with the pack. I will carry the Delorme GPS and SPOT check locator. I will carry my micro-spikes for the snowy and icy mountain passes. Additionally, I will carry a camera, lots of layers of clothing in case it gets cold or wet, as well as food and water.

Will you be blogging along the way?

I will send text messages using the Delorme SPOT check and locator. I can send these messages via satellite throughout the day to my friends and family at home. Additionally, my mom and stepdad will email and call home for me to give updates. My husband will update my blog and Facebook page daily.

You say on your blog: “My pilgrimage is nothing in comparison to the life and death journey others are facing daily around the world. I will run for them and their individual stories.”

Can you tell me a bit about the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and what made you decide to fundraise for them? How is the fundraising going?

When originally looking for “the cause” that I wanted to promote and bring to light, I thought of two things: 1) I want something or someone that will truly “move” me when the going gets particularly tough in Spain, and 2) I want to help an organization that has credibility financially and logistically.

There are a lot of organizations out there that do not utilize their funds efficiently and there are several charity watchdogs that pick up on this. I turned to the American Philanthropy Association when looking to find a worthwhile organization. Several charity watchdogs have given The IRC an “A+” (the highest rating) for efficiency and use of funds. Ninety percent of all their money goes directly to refugees.

The IRC has videos all over YouTube that express and depict the impact this incredible organization has had around the world. The IRC was started by Albert Einstein over seventy-five years ago and so it carries further credibility through its longevity.

Additionally, I love the fact that this organization helps those that are on very tough journeys. These people are enduring hundreds (sometimes thousands) of miles to escape persecution and death.

They inspire me. They will be the ones that keep me going when I feel like I can’t take another step. To think of their endurance, courage, and spirit is the most moving and motivating thing I can imagine.

My fundraising goal is $2000. My campaign will end during the third week of March. I have $300 more to go and I have no doubt that I will reach my goal. $2000 will feed 400 refugee children for a month.

It’s a start.

[Update: Since writing this, Jenny announced that she’s already reached her fundraising goal.]

You wrote in your blog: “I must honestly say that I do have fear for the amount of pain I will endure. I have fear of how my emotions and perspective will alter as the suffering deepens and I run though very dark and lonely hours. Nonetheless, this is part of the journey. I would have it no other way. It will make the end that much more beautiful and worthwhile. Fear. Pain. Suffering. These are not the enemy. The enemy is using them as an excuse to not meet a goal or attempt a challenge.”

You’ve done some long runs before. How did you deal with the fear and pain then?

I have always been the type of person to subscribe to the philosophy that enduring life’s toughest moments is the only thing that truly builds character. Each difficult moment in my life has taught me the most significant lessons. I view challenges as stepping stones to great lessons and so I never run from them.

Endurance is the greatest gift I could pass on to my children. Enduring the difficult, the painful, the uncomfortable, and the impossible can be our saving grace. I think about this philosophy when times get tough.

Other things that get me through the lonely and dark moments are: 1) my abiding faith in God; 2) knowing that others are enduring a much tougher road than I so it is important to suck it up; and 3) “this is who I am and what I do.”

Is there anything else about the trip that you’d like to mention?

1) Support the IRC!

2) There is no such thing as impossible.

* * *

To learn more about Jenny—and follow her run after February 27—visit her blog, Jenny’s Journey.

You can learn more about the IRC at the International Rescue Committee website. If you’d like to make a donation through Jenny’s campaign, visit her iRESCUE page.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 12:37 pm
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Music and Life, the Road and Photography: Oliver Schroer and Peter Coffman on the Camino


[Camino cover image]

The Pyrenees from the Route Napoleón.
Photo by Peter Coffman.

  this album is the record of an intersection,
            the story of a line…

                 …un Carrefour entre la musique et la vie,
                 le chemin et la photographie…

          es la combinación de música e imagines que
      nacieron de un paisaje y tiempo especiales…

…music born of a particular landscape and time.

—From the liner notes of the album Camino

The story begins, fittingly, with a pilgrim musician in a French church.

Architectural historian Peter Coffman was on vacation in Moissac with his wife, Diane, when he walked into a church, and found a man playing a flute wandering the aisles. The man, it turned out, was a musician walking an ancient route to Santiago de Compostela, stopping at churches to play and sing along the way.

That brief encounter stayed in Peter’s mind, and after he and Diane returned home to Toronto, Canada, he mentioned it to his longtime friend, fiddler and composer Oliver Schroer.

I said, “Isn’t that a great idea, doing a musical pilgrimage, where you stop in these places which are so acoustically amazing, and you make music?” And I said, “We should do this sometime.”

And Oliver said, “Yeah, let’s do this sometime.”

“So naturally,” Peter says, “nothing happened for several years.”

Five years later, in 2003, the two friends were living on opposite sides of the country, but they met up at Oliver’s family home for his father’s wake.

As they sat on the couch talking, the idea of a pilgrimage—something they hadn’t discussed in years—resurfaced.

But now, Peter says, the timing was right.

We decided at that moment, “Let’s do it next year. Let’s book off May and June. And we’ll promise to each other now that we won’t make other commitments.”

And that’s what they did.

Full Backpacks

[Backpacks on the Camino]

At a rest stop in O Cebreiro.
Photo by Peter Coffman.

Oliver and Peter didn’t see each other again until May 2004, when four of them met up in the small French town of Entraygues-sur-Truyere to begin walking: Peter, his wife Diane, Oliver and his wife Elena. They didn’t have time to walk the entire Chemin du Puy and Camino Francés, but they planned to walk a significant portion of each: more than a thousand kilometers altogether, from Entraygues-sur-Truyere to Pamplona, and then from León to Santiago.

The contents of the two men’s backpacks differed from the more usual pilgrim gear.

Oliver described his extra burden in the liner notes of the album that was to emerge from the journey:

                 in my backpack,

          I carried my violin like a wooden chalice,
like my own precious relic,

  carefully packed in its reliquary of socks and underwear and
          waiting to work a miracle.

                 my pack also contained a portable recording studio.

But Peter’s pack was heaviest. When the four pilgrims met up in France, he says, Oliver wanted to see what he was carrying.

“That’s not a backpack,” Peter remembers Oliver saying, after he’d looked inside. “That’s a camera bag with a little bit of clothing in it.”

[Peter Coffman with his backpack]

Peter (and his pack).
Photo by Diane Laundy.

The pack held Peter’s Nikon F3 (a brass-bodied camera), three heavy lenses, a bag full of film, and a tripod. Socks and underwear were crammed into a few small compartments. As near as Peter can remember, the whole thing weighed 13.5 kilograms (30 lbs).

Peter had thought long and hard over his decision to bring the camera gear.

Lugging it around wasn’t, as he points out, the most practical thing to do. And besides, he had burned out in the past working as a professional photographer. Since then, he’d done a bit of architectural photography for his job, but no more than that.

In the end, though, he decided to bring the equipment, and to shoot black-and-white film.

I did it black-and-white because in some way that seemed to suit this sort of romantic notion I had of the pilgrimage being an opportunity to shed all extraneous things, and just focus on essentials.

Before doing the Camino, he’d noticed there weren’t any books that fully documented the route photographically.

“And of course,” he says, “once I started walking along carrying this backpack with camera gear, I realized why.”

Art on the Camino

[Eglise de Sensacq]

Eglise de Sensacq.
Photo by Peter Coffman.

While they were walking, neither Oliver nor Peter knew they were creating music and photography they would end up sharing with others.

In the on-line journal Oliver kept for his family, friends and fans, he wrote that “the main plan is really to walk a huge amount and to concentrate on that. I may do some playing or some recording of things along the way, but the focus is most definitely the walk.”

Peter says he felt the same way about his photography.

The trip itself is challenging enough, both physically and psychologically in some ways, that I found it had to be my main focus. I couldn’t put anything other than the actual experience of walking … at the centre of things.

He brought his camera gear hoping to get some good shots, but because he was shooting film rather than digital, he didn’t know how the photos had turned out until he got home.

I didn’t know what I was capturing. I didn’t know whether or not I could do anything with it afterwards. I just thought, I’m going to go out, I’m going to shoot whatever I can—as much as I have energy for and so on—and I’m just going to gather raw material. And I’ll worry about what, if anything, all this stuff amounts to later.

Asked if he ever considered sending the camera gear home, Peter responds immediately in the negative. He didn’t enjoy carrying the gear, but he was having too much fun using it to send it home, he says.

Photographing the Camino brought back his love of photography, “this joy of going out and experiencing the world and responding to it by making these images of it.

It’s something I had always loved, and kind of lost touched with. But I was reconnecting with that, and it was great.

As Peter rediscovered photography, Oliver was fiddling in churches and cathedrals.

When the pilgrims walked into a building, Peter says, the first factor that would determine if Oliver would play was whether or not he had the energy. If he did, he’d walk around clapping his hands and making noises to test the acoustics.

And if both the energy and the acoustics were there, he’d take his fiddle out of its backpack cocoon—removing everything else in the process (“I was prone to strewing underwear or socks in the general area if I was not careful,” Oliver remarked in his journal)—and play.

Oliver described the experience in the liner notes:

in some churches I played for many people, in others for a single listener.

          j’ai joué quelques unes de mes vieilles
                    pièces fractales et spirituelles…

improvisé mucho.
          a través de semanas andando,

                    new pieces came

                              – one hill, one valley at a time.

Peter is a longtime fan of Oliver’s fiddling and would have loved to hear it anywhere, but the old buildings added another dimension to the music.

They were unlike anything Oliver was acoustically accustomed to, Peter says.

[As Oliver played in churches,] he started to understand his own music as something, in a sense, that exists in three dimensions—something that has to travel through space as well as extending through time. I could see him playing and listening to himself at the same time, and thinking, okay, what happens if I do this? What happens if I change my timing here?

Conques

[Fiddling in Conques Cathedral]

Oliver playing in the Cathedrale Ste-Foy de Conques.
Photo by Peter Coffman.

The four pilgrims reached the medieval valley town of Conques a few days into the journey.

Oliver, Peter says, had not had a good day. He hadn’t broken in his walking boots ahead of time, and was suffering because of it. The steep, rocky descent into the town was particularly tough on his feet.

But then they reached Conques, and he—like so many pilgrims—was entranced.

Peter had been there already. “But when you emerge in that town, it’s so staggeringly beautiful,” he says.

“It’s an amazing feeling.”

They settled in, and soon headed for the cathedral, where Peter so much wanted to hear Oliver play.

But there was a musical event on, involving the cathedral organist and some school children. The pilgrims waited around for a while, but the event dragged on, and there was no chance for Oliver to play.

“We began to think, is this actually going to work?” Peter says.

But he knew the cathedral doors were often open well into the evening. Much later, the group return to the cathedral, and found it empty. So Oliver gave a private concert to his three companions—his first time playing on the trip.

It was an evening to remember, as Peter describes it in the liner notes:

may 6, 2004.    a lanky figure in muddy boots enters through the west door of conques. out of his backpack he pulls a violin, gently disentangling it from the socks, underwear, and yards of sleeping bag that have protected it from the wear and tear of the road. it is hopelessly small in his large hands, in this huge building.

    l’homme commence à jouer.
    les notes et l’espace s’embrasent
    comme s’ils avaient attend cet instant depuis toujours.

“I was not just playing my violin in this church; I was playing the church itself with my violin,” Oliver wrote.

It felt like the largest instrument I had ever played. Playing a note was like sounding a gong. The sound bloomed out of the first attack, and then subsided only slowly.

In the morning, Oliver had a chance to improvise with the cathedral organist—another amazing experience.

“We were in Conques less than 24 hours,” Peter says, “but it was a very, very rich part of the pilgrimage.”

The Journey

[Peter Coffman and Oliver Schroer]

Peter and Oliver (with cow) in France.
Photo by Diane Laundy.

And so as pilgrims do, they walked, and walked some more.

Peter, asked if there are any stories he wants to tell, says, “For me to pick any particular story seems almost arbitrary in a sense. Because there are just so many. Where would I begin?”

Oliver’s journal relates some of these stories: the first day, when they started out walking nine kilometers in the wrong direction; the time the shops were all closed and they were out of food, but a local man befriended them and offered them a feast; the day Oliver lugged a bag full of cooked pasta—soon dubbed Fred’s brain—around in his backpack; an impromptu concert for a large group in a church in the woods; the evening Oliver and Peter scared local cult members away from the town hall where they were spending the night; an improvised, very moving ceremony at the Cruz de Ferro; the accidental eating of pigs’ ears; the joy of being able to dash over mountains once they’d were finally in good walking shape (“Mountains. HA! I laugh out loud at those puny hills!”); and tales of all the pilgrims and others they met along the way.

Oliver didn’t downplay the physical effort, either.

“I thought that somebody could make a tourist attraction called CAMINO!” he wrote from France.

It would be a theme ride in the tradition of Disney. On the ride you would be on a treadmill, with a 360° movie of beautiful landscape playing all around you. Fans would blow the most amazing medley of smells in your direction, while somebody repeatedly hit your feet with a 2×4. You would be under heat lamps the whole time, but every once in a while, someone would throw a bucket of cold water on you. CAMINO! EXPERIENCE THE WONDER! FEEL THE PAIN!

Peter said the other day, “Actually, the Camino is really easy, apart from the walking and carrying your pack!” That about sums it up.

When Oliver fiddled in churches, he didn’t always know if he’d be allowed to stay—he might be kicked out after half a minute, or have a chance to play for over an hour.

He couldn’t take the time to warm up, since he might only have time for a single song. So he would launch straight into the music he wanted to play.

“And I’d have to just put heart and soul into it,” he said in Silence at the Heart of Things, a documentary about his life.

The frustrating times when Oliver got kicked out of churches brought home to him how much his music meant to him.

“At home I can play any time,” he wrote. “But when I can’t [play] it bottles up inside me and I become very sad … it is a deep hunger that needs to be fed.”

Santiago de Compostela

[In front of the Santiago Cathedral]

Peter, Diane, Oliver and Elena in front of the Santiago Cathedral.
Photo by Peter Coffman.

After seven weeks’ walking, the pilgrims arrived in Santiago de Compostela, where Oliver was asked to play his violin at the pilgrims’ mass.

At first, he just wanted to say no. Peter never did figure out exactly why.

I think he was perhaps afraid of the responsibility of being an integral part of this event at which he’d expected just to be a spectator, in a sense. Although having said that, it was never like him to shy away from the stage, or the spotlight. I sensed that for some reason it was an emotionally complicated thing for him. He was very resistant to it.

But the sacristan at the Santiago cathedral had given Oliver permission to play at the cathedral whenever he wanted, so fiddling at the mass seemed like the right thing to do, Peter says.

He just realized that it wasn’t about what he wanted. It was about other things that needed to take priority.

And so Oliver played at the mass, and “of course it sounded fantastic and was such a great thing.”

Peter wrote in the liner notes about the pilgrims’ mass at the cathedral, and the point when he heard the words “cuatro de Canadá.” Four from Canada.

there was a time in our lives before the camino, and there is a time after it.

                              those three words mark the transition.

                at the climax of the mass a giant censer roars past us,

                                              a massive arc, leaving a sweet trail of smoke.

             it is joyful, celebratory, and incredibly exciting.

The botafumeiro had a big impact on Oliver, too, which he described in his journal.

The effect of this HUGE object hurtling directly overhead was astounding. At the apex of its swing, it almost touched the ceiling of this very large cathedral on either side. When it came overhead, it barely missed us. It was dramatically cathartic, releasing all of this kinetic energy along with the incense. It was like a joyful leap into the air, the end of the journey.

Camino: The Album

[Camino: the album]

The cover of Camino. Peter Coffman won the 2007 Independent Music Award (Album Photography) for his Camino photos.

Peter started developing his film immediately after returning to Canada, and began scanning and printing the photographs soon after—”just because it was exciting to see this stuff,” he says.

At the same time, Oliver was going through his recordings. As the two sent photos and music flying back and forth across the Internet, Peter says, they realized they had a potential album on their hands.

[Oliver] had all this music that sounded great. I had all these images that in certain ways, in their sensibility, seemed to fit the music—partly because they were black and white. There was this sparseness to the images that seemed to work with the sparseness of the music. That’s when we began to realize, we’ve got some interesting stuff here. People might like this stuff.

Two years after walking, Oliver released the album Camino. On it, his playing mixes with the sound of bells, of children playing, of pilgrim footsteps. The cover and liner notes are full of Peter’s photos, and writings by both men about their Camino experience.

In the documentary, Oliver described Camino as “an album of duets between violins and buildings.”

And the liner notes are another duet, this one between images and words.

Epilogue

[Oliver]

'On June 5, 2008,' Peter writes, 'Oliver played what he knew would be his final concert to an absolutely packed house at Trinity-St. Paul's Church in Toronto. It was a sweltering, intense, beautiful, and unforgettable night.'
Photo by Peter Coffman.

Oliver Schroer was diagnosed with leukemia in 2007, about two and a half years after walking the Camino. He passed away in July 2008.

A month before his death, he threw a concert, Oliver’s Last Concert on his Tour of this Planet. At one point during that evening, he spoke about the Camino, and played one of the pieces he composed along the way. It’s obvious, watching the footage, that the walk was important to him.

Peter was at the concert, of course, and recorded parts of it with his camera.

He’s kept up a connection to the Camino since the walk, through an exhibition and talks about his own photography, and by attending Camino-related events.

The Camino never really ended for him, he says, while he was working on his photographs and listening to Oliver’s music.

In a way, it kept us on the road; it kept the road with us. And that’s been the case ever since.

Every year, Peter says, he meets people “who connect to this [Camino] story in one way or another.

It’s one of those things that, for me anyway, once you’ve done it, once you’ve got it … you carry with you everywhere.

* * *

To hear some of Oliver’s music on-line, try a YouTube search. It’s bound to leave you wanting a copy of Camino, which you can purchase through Borealis Records (where you can hear parts of every Camino track) or Amazon.ca.

For more about Oliver Schroer, his music, and his experiences on the Camino visit his website, read his Camino journal, and/or check out my previous post on Camino (which has an excerpt from the documentary Silence at the Heart of Things embedded into it).

To learn more about Peter Coffman and his photography, visit his website. He has three wonderful galleries: the Camino de Santiago, Oliver Schroer, and historical architecture. (Use the bar at the bottom to slide sideways through the galleries.)


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