Wednesday, December 19, 2007

our ladies of ottawa, montserrat and kyoto

Hey, just back from our nation's capital. (Okay, I got back last week, don't split hairs.)

But what a town, what a town! My first Ottawa evening was spent in the vibrant company of my sister-in-law's book club, gossiping about the characters in All the Good Pilgrims and consuming lots of Rioja wine. Saturday I spoke to the local Camino gathering, convened by the genial Austin Cooke, who was newly returned from a spectacular Camino that commenced at the shrine of the Black Madonna of Montserrat; talk about virgin trails! We had a fine turn-out of forty despite the fact the meeting fell plunk in the middle of Christmas shopping season. I hope everyone had as much fun as I did.

Saturday night it was off to rustic Dunvegan, where I celebrated Hanukkah in the bosom of the local Jewish community (ie. Ronna and Lionel) before spending the night at Greg Byers' cozy retirement villa. Finally, Sunday afternoon I spent talking up All the Good Pilgrims at Nicholas Hoare Books.

Which brings me to something that impressed me about Ottawa: the degree of Camino awareness. Just about everyone I talked to at Nicholas Hoare already knew about it, whereas at Toronto bookstores most people are hearing about it for the first time. Is this because Ottawa is so near Quebec and its Catholic traditions? Does it have something to do with long holidays in the civil service, or early retirement? Is it all the politicians doing penance for taking envelopes stuffed with thousand-dollar bills? I wonder...

Anyway, a little off the beaten track of the Camino, the Globe and Mail published my Japan article in their weekend travel section. Nothing to do with pilgrimages -- unless of course you want to make a Memoirs of a Geisha pilgrimage.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

live in kingston!

Seems like years, but it's only two weeks ago I was in Kingston, enjoying some local hospitality.

My first night's host, Peter Coffman, was also my partner-in-crime for the weekend's Chapters event. If you don't know Peter's work, find out about it. Three years ago, Peter walked the Camino with Canadian violinist extraordinaire Oliver Schroer. Along the way, Oliver composed and recorded the haunting melodies that are collected on his 2006 album, Camino. The recordings were made in acoustically perfect churches, giving the music a sublime resonance and brightness.

Peter, formerly a commercial photographer, chronicled the journey in powerful black-and-white images. These are featured on the album cover and notes, and won Peter the 2007 Independent Music Awards prize for Album Photography. You can see a few of these images in the Camino gallery on Oliver's website. For the rest, you'll have to be patient till the long-awaited site is finally launched. (Keep checking; Peter promises it's coming soon.)

As for my second night's hosts, well they don't really have anything to do with the Camino (though they crossed its path a few times on a trip to Spain earlier this year) but they're disgustingly talented too: Lise Carruthers, a landscape artist and painter whose tornado-and-wind funnel series make for a unique guest bedroom experience, and Rob Gonsalves, a Governor-General's award-winner for his whimsical, perspective-shifting paintings (see the children's books Imagine a Night and Imagine a Day (Atheneum)). And though Rob doesn't know it yet, he's going to do the cover for the reissue of Virgin Trails, whenever that happens.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

a long overdue update

Eeeeek! How do seven weeks go by like that? Well. Like that.

What's new? I've been up to my old tricks, sitting for hours in cafes around Bathurst and Bloor (lately my favourite has been Aroma, though sometimes lately I've been back at my old haunt, the Future Bakery, where the coffee has either improved or wasn't as bad as I remembered it), writing. Yes, I really do write in cafes. I'm still using the same old battle-hardened Dell that I bought used back in 2001 (with a classic Windows '95 operating system) and I couldn't tune in to the Internet if I wanted to, which is probably a good thing.

So what am I writing? Well, as I haven't been anywhere new or exciting lately (unless you count Kingston), I find myself falling back on old themes. I'm working Virgin Trails up into a dramatic monologue with, so far, pleasing results. However, as I don't have a theatre background I plan to shop my script around soon to see if any local theatre companies are interested in helping me develop it. (Yes, that was a cry for help.) And my other project... Would you believe, a novel set on the Camino? No promises, it's a work in a very early stage of progress. I'll keep you posted.

I'd been thinking where to go (and what to write about) next. Top candidates were the Shikoku Buddhist pilgrimage in Japan, the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome and the Cammino di Assisi (something I've only heard of recently, it follows the path of the first Franciscans through the Appenines (see if you're interested in knowing more).

Yeah, there's lots of long walks out there. But if I pursue this Camino novel idea, then next spring will probably find me back in those glamour spots of Spain: Castrojeriz, Mansilla de las Mulas, Ponferrada... Ah, the Camino life for me!

One quick note before I go. It's already getting late to think of Christmas, but if there's some little knick-knack or gift you didn't pick up while you were in Santiago - a pin, a pendant, a fridge magnet - take a look at, a great German mail order website that stocks a wide range of Camino souvenirs (you'll find the jewelry under pilgerschmuck, which is not what I thought schmuck meant. Live and learn...)

More soon, promise.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

downtime and dervishes

Hello? Anybody still out there?

I haven't been blogging the last couple weeks. Partly that's testimony to how easily habits can be broken. Mine, anyway. My Internet was out of service for a few days and boom - that was enough to throw me off my blog, as it were. Partly too, it's because I've been working on other writing. The blog is fun, I enjoy researching topics and hunting down illustrations, but it's time-consuming and I have other things that want very badly to consume my time.

In the past few weeks I've been working to finish off four travel narratives, all of which have been simmering on the back burner for more than a couple years, all of which I would be delighted to see in print. Two are related to the Camino, two are stories about my travels in Greece and Turkey of a few years back, all are about sacred journeys and the sweet ironies of travel. Here's the first page of one of them. It's called "Ringing Rumi's Doorbell" and it's about a trip I made to Turkey in pursuit of the Whirling Dervishes.

Some years ago I saw a film called Baraka - do you know it? - an amazing montage of human and natural moments captured all over the world and corraled into a single movie. In one scene there were whirling dervishes. I knew at once that's what they were, though I'd never seen one before, nor even knew that such creatures still existed save as part of an outmoded figure of speech. Yet there they were, direct from the Arabian Nights, living, breathing, whirling like...

They spun across the screen for only three or four minutes but they left an indelible impression. Their whirling was not the frantic, Tasmanian devil-dance I had assumed it would be. It was, rather, a celestial turning, a wheeling of the crystal spheres. The dervishes whirled in an airy, bright room with wooden floors and high windows. One at a time the long, black figures approached an elderly, bearded man, tipping their heads in close enough for him to speak into their ears. Then as they stepped away their black cloak slipped from their shoulders, the white gown beneath was revealed and they began to turn. They were beautiful and solemn, their forms strangely elegant, from the tall cylindrical hats down to the wide billowing gowns. As I watched them I fell into a peaceful embrace, a spell, a trance, a waking sleep. It reminded me of a feeling I knew as a child, when I would watch my parents engaged in some quiet work (editing an article, stitching up a seam) till I was absorbed in their absorption and drifted out of myself, out of time.

The religious or the spiritually inclined might call this a mystical experience, a glimpse through the veil. For me it was simply a moment of beauty, a dreamy solipsistic moment. All I wanted was for that moment to go on and on. Instead I kept having to rewind it. There was no way around it, if I wanted the feeling to last, I would have to find a high, airy room where dervishes twirled through beams of light. And if that meant going to Turkey, so be it. I don't know if other people plan their trips this way, but it seemed perfectly reasonable to me.

It was a few years more before I actually got to Turkey. I didn't worry about the delay, however. The dervishes had been around for a long time; they'd wait for me. Looking back now, I'm surprised at how casual I was about the whole business, never even bothering to look into the wheres and whens of their performances (if that was the word for what they did). I thought they'd be easy to find. So it was that I arrived in Istanbul ignorant bliss intact.

Friday, September 14, 2007

living in the spiritual world

September 14th is a special day for pilgrims to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the day when the discovery of the True Cross is celebrated. According to Jewish legend, the fact that this commemoration falls at the same time as Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is not a coincidence but an attempt by the early Church to Christianize a Jewish holy day.

The most visible pilgrim in Israel today, however, is Madonna - the pop singer, that is. "Esther," the Hebrew name she has taken for herself, is attending a Kabbalah conference at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem along with her husband and kids, designer Donna Karan, Rosie O'Donnell and the Moore-Kutchers. She's been pushing Jewish mystical practices on her fans and friends since 1998, including selling copies of The 72 Names of God: Technology for the Soul by Kabbalah scholar Rabbi Yehuda Berg at her concerts.

Berg's Kabbalah Centre (which was quick off the mark to claim the treasured web address) has come under fire for commercializing Jewish esotericism. In mainstream Judaism only men are permitted to study these writings, and only after years of intellectual preparation. Berg fires back with the claim that the Kabbalah was written by Abraham and "predates Judaism," citing Isaac Newton and Plato as Kabbalah followers.

Living in the material world? Not this girl.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

walking to end breast cancer

This past Saturday and Sunday saw Toronto's fifth annual "Weekend to end breast cancer." My niece Emily was one of 5,521 participants who together raised $17.3 million dollars in what has been called the biggest single-event fund-raiser in Canadian history. How did they do it? By walking sixty kilometres! Thirty k's a day, a positively Caminoesque distance, and mostly on hard pavement, with Saturday night's lodging in a tent city and a rainy Galician-style start to Sunday morning. Way to go!

Meanwhile, over in Spain, the fifty members of
Dilo caminando were soaking their feet. Dilo caminando -- "say it by walking" -- is a group of women affected by breast or ovarian cancer who last year started walking the Camino de Santiago to raise awareness of cancer and dispel the taboos around the disease. The 2006 walkers, all from the province of Aragon, covered the route from Somport to Pamplona. This year's pilgrimage, which was joined by walkers from Navarra and Leon, began September 1st in Puente la Reina and wound up Friday the 7th in Leon, where hundreds turned out to welcome the women to the city. Next year's goal is Santiago de Compostela. Animo peregrinas!

(Toronto photo by

Friday, September 7, 2007

september 8th, Mary's birthday

I'm off to Canada's vast northlands (does a hundred miles northeast of Toronto qualify?) for a boy's weekend of beer and barbecues, so I'm posting my September 8th blog a day early. Tomorrow is the feast of the Nativity of Mary, one of only two saint's birthdays celebrated by the Catholic Church, along with that of John the Baptist (most other saints being remembered on the day of their death or martyrdom).

The Bible has no birth records for Mary, but this day was allotted to her in both Byzantium and Rome from at least the 7th century. It falls a neat nine months after December 8, the feast of her (immaculate) Conception, and at the point of transition from summer to autumn, the time of the harvest. It is an occasion for lively local pilgrimages in many parts of the world.

Fitting, then, that it was on September 8th, 2002, that the first image of Mary, accompanied by a strong scent of roses, appeared in the window of a greenhouse in the Metis community of Ile-a-la-Crosse, northern Saskatchewan (Canada's real northland). The image of a hooded, standing woman was followed by others, including a rosary, and soon crowds estimated at up to a thousand were making the pilgrimage to the greenhouse from all over the vicinity. The following months brought new images, in Fond-du-Lac, Black Lake and several other Dene and Metis communities, which drew new crowds of the prayerful, the sceptical, the curious.

There was some reporting of these incidents at the time, but soon, as usually happens with such things, public interest loped off elsewhere and there has been no news since - at least none that I've been able to scare up on the Internet. But I'll come back to this next week, to see if the images -- and the pilgrimages -- have persisted.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

listen up! new mp3s!

How many of you have felt, on coming home from the Camino that nobody really wants to hear about it? There you are, fresh from this great, burgeoning, life-altering adventure that you're exploding to talk about -- and no one's listening. You don't get so much as a 'How-was-your-pilgrimage?'

A big part of this, of course, is that the Camino can't be summed up in the sort of easy categories we use to talk about other trips. I mean, how were the accommodations on the Camino? How was the food? What did you see? The highlight of your Camino might have been the meal of potatoes and onions fried in olive oil that you whomped up with some pilgrims one night at the refuge; or the time you looked down at the path and saw your name written in stones by some friends who had gone ahead; or the day you tripped and busted a tooth and the first person you met in the next town was a dentist who fixed it for free; or the icy night when you looked up at the stars swirling in the black skies over El Burgo Ranero and tears began to stream down your face for no reason that you could tell.

All these things happened; some of them happened to me. They were things of the heart, of the moment, of feelings that can only be understood with a thorough knowledge of the circumstances and the context that gave them meaning. And who has time for context these days?

It's one reason why I write books. It lets me get the tales out of my system. It's a funny thing, but I know people who wouldn't listen to me tell stories for ten minutes, yet are happy to spend hours reading them. Still, that old hankering to tell, to just open up my mouth and let the stories out, never goes away. Which is why I enjoy reading from my books so much and why (ah! I sense he's coming to the point) I have recorded four passages from All the Good Pilgrims FOR YOUR LISTENING PLEASURE.

Yes, once again I have ventured into the recording studio with Our Lady of the Soundboard, Helena W., and emerged with... Well, hopefully with something you'll enjoy. The shortest of the four tracks is under three minutes, the longest nearly twelve. There are plenty of rough spots and mistakes, and I have an awful time trying to locate a Dutch accent, but what do you expect from an amateur? Give 'em a listen. Hope you like 'em.

Monday, September 3, 2007

what's wrong with this picture?

I knew there was something wrong with this picture.

In the year 2000, while I was in Paris taking notes for my book Virgin Trails, I paid a visit to the impromptu pilgrimage that had sprung up in the Place d'Alma, above the tunnel where Princess Diana's fatal crash occurred. I thought I might sneak something into the book (Princess of the World vs Queen of Heaven?), but the whole business got lost in the editing process and my notes and photos from that day went into cold storage. Permanently, I thought.

Then several days ago, I decided to do a blog on the tenth anniversary of Diana's death and suddenly they were relevant. The notes were close to hand in my computer (lovely things, computers) but the photos were stashed in a shoe box..... somewhere. So I skimmed around the Net till I found this photo on a website about the Statue of Liberty (many thanks.)

But somehow the photo didn't jive with my notes. For instance, my notes speculate about the first pilgrim/mourner to come to this site "with a can of glue," and later mention civic workers "scraping photos" off the memorial. Yet the image from the Net clearly shows that the photos are not pasted to the statue, but hang primly from the little guard rail that encircles it.

"Guard rail?" I thought. "What guard rail...?"

Tonight I located my photos from 2000 and, eureka, they show that there have indeed been some changes to the "Princess Di memorial." The barrier is new and all of those lovely photos (and broadsheets proclaiming conspiracy theories) have been bundled away. Decorum rules. Here's a glimpse of what the place looked like in the days when pilgrim enthusiasm was unbridled.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

random acts of kindness day

One thing every pilgrim and traveller has experienced is the random act of kindness. The unostentatious, open-hearted gesture that comes out of the blue and leaves us speechless with gratitude. A stranger goes out of his way to set us on the right road. A farmer offers us a handful of chestnuts or a cluster of grapes. A bartender pours us a drink on the house. Another pilgrim takes our pack for a while, or invites us to share her meal, or goes fumbling in her bag to dig out creams and blister pads for our beat-up feet. We can all think of stories.

But the point of random acts of kindness is that they're random. They just happen. You can't institutionalize them. Or can you?

In New Zealand, they're giving it a shot. September 1st, 2007 marks NZ's second national
Random Acts of Kindness Day, a day when everyone is supposed to do something to "lift the kindness temperature" of the nation. This is not a national holiday, more of a private initiative (with sponsorship from World Vision and Starbucks, no less), but it looks like it's worth a try. I say we go international with it. Let's all get out there today and shock someone with a random act of kindness.

(NB: the video is from 2006, the first RAK Day. And there does seem to be an international RAK movement. Check out the website of the American Random Acts of Kindness Foundation, which identifies itself as "the US delegate to the World Kindness Movement, an organization that contain various nations." If you know more about the RAK movement, let the rest of us in on it.)

Friday, August 31, 2007

place princesse diana, paris

It looks so much shorter in real life, the tunnel at the Pont de l'Alma. In those second-by-second TV reconstructions of the accident (or as some would have it, "the accident") it seemed to stretch for miles. In reality, it scarcely merits the name tunnel; "underpass" is more like it. Nevertheless, this is where it happened.

And by some - can we say? - happy chance, up there above ground, directly over the entrance to the tunnel, where the living stroll and breathe and laugh, there sits a tiny park with a modest memorial: a golden replica of the flame of the Statue of Liberty, looking like a soft ice cream cone in a strong wind. It is the centrepiece of "Place Diana, Princesse de Galles, Princesse du Monde."

Well no; actually it's a symbol of Franco-American friendship offered to Paris on the occasion of the centenary of the International Herald Tribune in 1987. But in the minds of the people who flock to this site, leaving behind photos, bouquets of flowers and the inevitable graffiti expressing undying love and conspiracy theories, the golden flame burns for Princess Diana.

Doubtless the International Herald Tribune will continue to regard the square and the monument as its own. But Diana was the people's princess, and the people have expressed their will in this matter. It must have started simply enough, with curiosity, a desire to see the place where it happened. People came and found a theatre for the expression of grief. The flame gave them something to pose in front of for the necessary photos. Someone started posting the photos. And a pilgrimage was born. The body is not here of course. Diana is interred on her own tiny island on the Spencer family estate. But here, her death is more present. You only need to peer over the guardrail.

One day, a last flower will be laid by a last mourner. Some civic worker will tidy away the last of the photos. And these heart-felt memorials will seem as quaint and remote as the grief expended over the death of Victor Hugo or Sarah Bernhardt. But not anytime soon.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

fly the sacred skies

Air Pilgrim has taken off. According to the CBC, Mistral Air, a small Italian carrier, has signed a five-year agreement with the Vatican to offer flights from Italian cities to pilgrimage sites including Fatima, Santiago de Compostela, Czestochowa, Sinai and the Holy Land. Yesterday saw Mistral's inaugural flight, to Lourdes. By next year the airline hopes to be carrying 150,000 passengers.

Cardinal Camillo Ruini, CEO of Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi, says the aim of the airline is to let pilgrims live their pilgrimage from the moment they leave their homes to the moment they return. To that end, flights will include periods of spiritual preparation and meditation, and in-flight videos with religious themes. The seat covers will bear the Papal arms of the ORP and its motto, "I seek your face, Lord." (There is apparently no truth to the rumour that "On a wing and a prayer" was ever considered as a slogan for the airline.)

Budget carrier Ryanair was quick to respond to the launching of Mistral, claiming in a statement that, "Ryanair already performs miracles that even the Pope's boss can't rival, by delivering pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela for the heavenly price of 10 euros."

Italian news agency ANSA reports that Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi is an organ of the Holy See, founded in 1933 with the objective of making organized pilgrimage, "a valid means of human advancement and evangelization." Last year, ORP presided over the holy travels of some 350,000 pilgrims, both incoming (tours of Rome and the Vatican, including audiences with the Pope) and outgoing. Its staff includes over 900 priests and some 400 lay pastors and co-ordinators who act as spiritual and technical guides for its pilgrim package tours. ORP also charters the "special trains" that give nightmares to French and Italian rail-schedule planners. In 2006, over 200 such pilgrim trains plied the Italian rails, 154 of them, carrying over 100,000 pilgrims, bound for - where else? - Lourdes.

A few more staggering numbers, courtesy ANSA:
number of pilgrims worldwide, 2007: 190 million
pilgrims to Lourdes this year: 8 million
most frequented pilgrimage site: Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico City, 10 million

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

world sauntering day

Put on some comfy shoes and get ready to go nowhere in particular because August 28th is World Sauntering Day. The observation goes all the way back to the mid-70s, when publicist W.T.Rabe (known also as the father of LSSU's world stone-skipping tournament) decided it was time for people to slow down, smell the roses and take a long leisurely look at the world around them.

So get on down (but don't hurry!) to the boulevard, the boardwalk, the plaza, the esplanade... Banish all thoughts of destinations from your mind. And if you're on the Camino, don't race to that next refuge. Let it come to you.

To learn more about the history of World Sauntering Day, and the rules and principles of sauntering, listen here. Now I'm going out for a saunter. Hope to see you.

Friday, August 24, 2007

the templar trail

Well, it had to happen sometime. My gratitude to Bill Cornelius for being the first to respond to one of my blogs. For his account of the Polish-Canadian pilgrimage to Midland, scroll down to the August 11th entry. And we expect to be hearing more from Bill when he gets back in six weeks... from his walk to Rome on the Via Francigena pilgrimage road. Go, Bill!

Yes, it's a peregrinating world out there, as people keep beating new paths and fixing up old ones. It was just a few days ago I was talking about the Abraham Path from Turkey to Hebron, and now here comes Brandon Wilson with "the Templar Trail." Here's his message, sent last week to the Santiagobis Yahoo Group.

A trail that I walked last year runs from France to Jerusalem. It traces an early pilgrimage route that coincides with that of the Romans and Godfrey de Bouillon of the First Crusades. The Templar Trail traces the Donau radweg, a beautiful bicycle path through Germany, Austria to Budapest. Then you walk onward through Serbia, Bulgaria and Turkey. There is plenty of tradition along the way, as you pass through 11 countries and areas practicing three major religions. No problem generally finding good accommodation and I was able to walk it in 160 days (133 walking days) for about the same cost as the Camino. I've been talking to groups about it lately with the hope that it will someday become an international trail for peace (fitting irony there, given its role in the Crusades).

Ultreia, Brandon Wilson

This one's not for the faint of heart. 4200 k's and not another pilgrim soul... Or not yet, anyway. Brandon's book on the walk, including stages, distances, sights and practical details, will be out in January. To find out more about this intrepid pilgrim (whose journeys have also taken him to Tibet and Africa), check out

Thursday, August 23, 2007

botafumeiro back in service

They call it the botafumeiro - the smoke-dispenser - and there's nothing else like it in the world: 1.5 metres in height, weighing over 50 kg, requiring a seven-man team, first to set it swinging, then to subdue it when it's had its little run.

No one can say for sure why the censer of the cathedral of Santiago is so massive, though it is commonly believed that it once served as a giant air freshener (not a bad idea when you consider that until 1786 the cathedral was also a place where the unwashed pilgrim masses ate and slept). The mechanism that sends it hurtling like a pendulum from one end of the nave to the other, at top speeds of 65 kph, dates back to the 16th century. The current botafumeiro of silver-plated bronze dates back to 1851; it replaced the 1544 edition, which was stolen (and doubtless melted down) by Napoleon's gangsters in 1809.

And yes, in case you're wondering, twice in its history, the botafumeiro has cut loose and gone for a flight. On the first occasion, in 1499, Catherine of Aragon was present. In fact, it was her sending-off party before her marriage to the to-be Henry VIII. Maybe to show what it thought of the marriage, the botafumeiro snapped its rope and went soaring through the windows into the Praza das Praterias. No one was injured on that occasion, nor on the second, which occurred in 1622.

Since then, the botafumeiro has had a clean safety record, and to keep things that way,it was taken out of service for two months earlier this summer so the cords could be replaced. We'll see how well these ones hold out. Thousands of pilgrims were disappointed not to see the botafumeiro in action, but she's swinging again, as this broadcast from TV Galicia, July 11, shows. (I know, it's not exactly news, but it's great footage and a chance to listen to the soft gallego tongue.) (patience, it's slow to load)

NB: the above photo was taken by Michael Krier and comes from the Confraternity of Saint James (CSJ) photo library, a terrific (and growing) source of Camino images.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

new rules to govern compostela

According to La Voz de Galicia (, as of January 1, 2009, only those pilgrims holding credentials issued by the Cathedral of Santiago will be awarded the Compostela at the end of their journey. Currently, there are an estimated forty to fifty versions of the credential floating about, and the stated purpose of the reform is to combat abuses and clarify who is eligible for the certificate.

The Compostela is given to those who have completed the Camino "con sentido cristiano, aunque solo sea en un actitud de busqueda" - "in a Christian sense (manner / direction), even if it be only in an attitude of searching." At present, according to a cathedral spokesman, it is being claimed on a regular basis by "mere hikers and budget tourists" who show up at the Pilgrim Office bearing any old stamp-bearing document issued by dodgy Camino organizations and unscrupulous tour operators.

The abuses alleged are real. There are certainly individuals and groups who use the Camino's albergues as rest-stops on cheap holidays, driving from one to the next, arriving early to claim beds that should go to pilgrims who have walked or biked. I have known a few of these characters, and let me assure you that every last one of them held official credentials. They're really not that hard to obtain. So it's hard to see how the announced "reform" is going to change anything, and not surprising that many pilgrims are looking for a hidden agenda behind this unilateral move by the Cathedral of Santiago.

Let's hope there is no need for concern, and assume that if there is we can count on the various Camino associations - the ones who actually restored the path, established the refuges, and instituted the credential system - to speak out loud and clear on the issues.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

more on the abraham path

"We go to conferences all the time with Muslims, Jews, and Christians, and then we agree on all kinds of things, but we never feel the results on the ground. It's as if I'm running my car engine, but I never take it out of the garage. So maybe it's better if I walk with my own feet."
Dr. Hamid Murad, Jordanian Muslim leader

When Dr. Murad talks about walking with his own feet, he's speaking quite literally about a burgeoning international, inter-faith initiative known as the Abraham Path, a pilgrimage-project that is meant to unite Christians, Muslims and Jews on the journey of their common ancestor: from Turkey down through Syria, Lebanon and Jordan to Israel and the West Bank. Sound ambitious? Then consider that future extensions of the pilgrimage into Iraq (Abraham's birthplace), Egypt (where he sojourned) and - why not? - Mecca are also on the table.

This is all, in the words of a fellow blogster, "either a really good idea, or a really bad one." Several of these countries are at war (declared, undeclared or civil), and travel between them by their own citizens is often forbidden or restricted. Even for foreign pilgrims who can get the necessary papers, safety is a huge concern. But William Ury, the Harvard University conflict-negotiation expert who conceived the project, isn't waiting for conflicts to be resolved on an inter-governmental level. The aim of his pilgrimage is to solve them on a one-to-one basis, as people get out and "walk with their own feet." Besides, says Ury, the infrastructure for the project is already largely in place: "We're not creating this path. This path already exits. In some ways, we're just dusting off the path so you can see the footsteps."

Those of us familiar with the Camino will readily understand what the Abraham Path is trying to achieve in setting people on a single road to a common destination - a road where they will walk and talk and share bathrooms and cooking facilities and morning coffee and listen to each other snore (snoring is the common language of every race and creed) and somehow put up with and maybe even get to like each other; where each of them will be reduced and exalted to the common denominator of pilgrimhood. It's a powerful idea if it can be put into practice. And putting it into practice is what's happening now, with the first leg of the Abraham Path through Jordan scheduled to be ready in spring 2008. (Cautiously) break out your walking shoes!

"There is an old saying that some conflicts are so difficult, only a story can heal them..."
Click here to see a 7-minute RealPlayer video presentation on the Abraham Path initiative.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

record crowds for the King and the Apostle

Last night's candlelit vigil for Elvis was the biggest ever according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal (great name for a newspaper). An estimated 50,000 mourners, pilgrims, fans were still making their way, one by one, past the King's grave at sunrise this morning. One died of heat stroke in the afternoon leading up to the vigil, as Memphis temperatures soared to 106F. Check out this article for an interview with Roy Smalley, a "tribute artist" (aka, "Elvis impersonator") who also serves with the County Rescue Squad. He speculates on the reaction of someone waking from a faint to find they are being revived by Elvis.

And if the grave of the King is busy, how about the tomb of the Apostle? Not in centuries, maybe never, has Santiago de Compostela seen crowds like these. Last week, the Pilgrim Office in the Rua do Vilar handed out 7,209 compostelas, a single-week record (*the compostela is the certificate given to pilgrims who have walked one hundred kilometres or more and cyclists who have done two-hundred.*) On Saturday alone, 1500 accreditations were made, the first time the total has surpassed 1200 in a single day. Office hours were extended to make sure no one went home without their quaint Latin scroll, and though no figures are available, you can bet the little stationery shop across the road that sells cardboard tubes made an absolute killing.

Seems like we still need our kings and saints...

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

elvis - wanted alive

August 16th, 1976. The day that will always be remembered by, well by those who remember it that way, as the day the King died. (I never "got" the whole Elvis thing, but then I missed most of it.)

Tomorrow marks the thirtieth anniversary of Elvis Presley's passing, and tonight, for the twenty-sixth time, the event will be solemnized by a single-file, candle-lit procession through the grounds of Graceland to the King's tomb. Move over, Lourdes. Here are some details taken from the Candlelight Vigil Fact Sheet/FAQ.

When does the Candlelight Vigil begin? How does it work?
The opening ceremony takes place at 8:30 p.m. on August 15, near the front gates of the mansion property. Fans gather in the street and in Graceland Plaza to see this. There is a queue line in the street. At the end of the ceremony, torches lit from the eternal flame at Elvis’s grave are brought down to the gate. The queue line starts to move as fans walk through gates and light their candles on the torches and then walk single file up the driveway to the gravesite in the Meditation Garden and back down. To accommodate everyone who is in line, the procession lasts into the morning of August 16, the anniversary of Elvis’s passing.
Graceland staff members are positioned all along the way to offer assistance. Near the front gate, Elvis fan club leaders from all over the world work in shifts to offer further assistance.

Of course, the vigil is only the highlight of the annual Elvis Week. Other events include the Graceland Scavenger Hunt, the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest, Elvis Bingo, the Hunka Hunka Burnin Peppers Memphis Farmers' Market and tours of the Elvis Presley Memorial Trauma Center. (This is actually starting to sound interesting.) It's getting late to catch the action this year, but if you're ever in the mood for a rock n' roll pilgrimage, this is the one.

Monday, August 13, 2007

the melting god

At an altitude of 3800 metres, the cave of Amarnath, sacred to the Hindu god Shiva, must be among the highest pilgrimage destinations in the world. It is also one of the most dangerous, as pilgrims have increasingly become the targets of militants in war-torn Kashmir. 2005 saw the murder of 32 pilgrims; last year, 10. In 2007 to date, twelve have been killed, including nine yesterday in a grenade and machine-gun attack on a pilgrim camp by a lone militant. State officials have moved to suspend the pilgrimage which, despite its perils, has attracted an estimated 84,000 pilgrims since the one-month season began July 19th.

Even the pilgrims who have made it safely to Amarnath have found little to worship there, as once again the object of their veneration has melted. The sacred object of the Amarnath cave is a Shiva lingam (the phallic image of Shiva) in the form of a natural ice stalactite.
Normally the stalactite waxes in summer and wanes in winter, but last year the stalactite failed to form at all - prompting person or persons unknown to construct one. The shrine's attempts to pass off this man-made frosty-the-snowman as Lord Shiva fooled no one, and scandal erupted amid accusations that shrine authorities had attempted to deceive pilgrims.

This year, once more, the lingam failed to linger. The secular-minded are pointing to global warming as the cuprit, the faithful left wondering why the Lord Shiva has withdrawn his favour.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

polish-canadian pilgrimage to midland

For centuries, pilgrims have set out from every part of Poland in the month of August, converging on the shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa for the Feast of the Assumption, August 15th. From the way it was described to me a couple of weeks ago by Wanda Sawicki, the event is in the vein of a romeria, a mobile summer picnic and festival involving whole families and communities.
Since Pope John Paul II's 1984 visit to Canada, the tradition has been transplanted to Southern Ontario, as Polish-Canadians put on their hiking shoes and hit the road for Canadian Martyrs Shrine in Midland. According to the shrine's website, 8000 to 9000 pilgrims are expected this weekend. Does anyone out there have a personal account of the journey, or details about the logistics? (how many miles do you cover in a day? what happens along the way? where do you sleep and eat?) If so drop us a line. It would be great to know more about this local pilgrimage.

Friday, August 10, 2007

peregrina the pilgrim dog

On this day in history....

Yes, August 10th was the day I reached the end of my first Camino. And it was a Holy Year, 1999, so the madness was comprehensive, embracing. Fashion designer Paco Rabanne had called for the-world-as-we-know-it to end on the 11th, coinciding with the solar eclipse, so there was no time to lose. I started out from Arca early early on a sunny morning (there had been record rainfalls in Galicia that summer, which is saying much) with five Spanish companions and an old honey-coloured dog whom people called Peregrina (the Spanish word for a woman pilgrim).

No one was sure where Peregrina had started her pilgrimage, though some said as far back as Leon - more than ten days' journey. It was hard to imagine what ever motivated her to start walking. She must have sat and watched the pilgrims pass her farm for years. Then one day she got up and joined them. She slept at the refuges, where pilgrims fed her scraps from their meals. In the daytime she loped along at an easy pace, walking with one group of pilgrims or another. This morning, she had chosen us.

It was noon when we reached the Monte de Gozo, just before Santiago. After the fashion of pilgrims of old, I rushed ahead of my friends to be first to the top. Somehow I ended up losing them. I found out what had happened when I ran into them the next day (August 11th, when the world did not end). It seems Ana had twisted an ankle on the way up the hill. But I never saw or heard of Peregrina again. There are very few pilgrims who walk back from Santiago, so it's hard to imagine her turning around and finding her way back. I like to think that after Santiago, that good-natured, shaggy old pilgrim kept walking till she found a new home on a farm out on the road to Finisterre.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

women's day in south africa

We concern ouselves here with all things pilgrimage, so let's not overlook the August 9th celebration of Women's Day in South Africa. The day commemorates the 1956 march of 20,000 women on the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest the apartheid pass laws. Now a march isn't the same as a pilgrimage, but it's another demonstration of the power, symbolic and actual, of a mass of people walking together with a common goal. Last year, to mark the 50th anniversary, the walk was restaged (aha! ritual, holy days - this is starting to sound like a pilgrimage).

The main observation this year is in Kimberley, where President Mbeki is speaking, and today's online edition of the Mail and Guardian reports that thousands of women have gathered at the stadium there, "some bussed in from as far as Pampierstad." Bussed in? They didn't walk? Well so much for symbolism. Or maybe it's just a way of saying these women have earned their seat on the bus.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

santiago de compostela, july 25th

We've just passed Saint James' Day, July 25th. While most of us celebrate our birthday, for a martyr it's the day of his death that counts. Of course, from the standpoint of the faithful, the point of the rejoicing is not the saint's old life ending (decapitation, James' fate, is a hard thing to be merry about), but his new life beginning.

Here are some views of "los fuegos del apostol," the fireworks in the plaza of the Cathedral of Santiago ignited in honour of Saint James and his martyrdom. There's no denying the cathedral looks magnificent, though I'd be a little concerned about all the moss that festoons it bursting into picturesque flame.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

chove en santiago

Some beautiful music today, and a bewitching singer. If you hit the link, YouTube will transport you to the Atlantic shores of Galicia where you will hear/see a song/video about the rain (chove) in Santiago. The group is Luar na Lubre, which means roughly, "moonlight in the enchanted forest," and that soft language that doesn't sound quite like Spanish, isn't; it's Gallego. As for that instrument that sounds like a bagpipe, it is; or at least it's a Spanish bagpipe, the gaita, which you'll hear a lot of in the Celt-influenced music of northern Spain. The lyric is by Federico Lorca, from his Seis Poemas Gallegos. The singer, Rosa Cedron, has since left the band (alas) to pursue "other projects." Turn down the lights and let it wash over you.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

the abraham path: a middle eastern pilgrimage road

Those who have walked the Camino often find themselves scouting around for new horizons: the Via Francigena to Rome, Norway's St. Olaf pilgrimage and the Buddhist pilgrimage around the Japanese island of Shikoku, to name a few.

This spring I learned of the most ambitious pilgrimage project yet. The Abraham Path is a proposed walking (cycling, driving) route that will follow the steps of the Biblical patriarch from Harran, Turkey, where Abraham first heard God's call, through Syria, Jordan and Israel to his tomb in Hebron on the West Bank. It's a bold initiative to bring the three faiths together on a single road, and while there is political resistance to overcome, the ambition for Fall 2010 is to have more than half of the 1100 km route mapped, waymarked, and pilgrim-trodden.

Sound too good to be true? Find out more:

Friday, August 3, 2007

spice pilgrim located

I thought I'd put up this picture of myself that I received today from the University of Toronto homecoming weekend booksale just to show how civilized I look when not walking across Spain with that grizzly "Outback Bob" beard.
I took home most of the books you see here at the end of the day (everyone in Toronto had somewhere else to go that weekend), but it was fun to meet and talk to other authors, including a face from the past, my former high school librarian. You never know who's going to publish a book next.
And speaking of faces from the past, I broke down the other night and joined Facebook, just to see if there are any Camino networks out there. There are several, most of them based in Britain, but including one small Canadian group.
I didn't get too deeply into them, however, because it occurred to me that some of my long-lost Camino companions might be Facebookers. I started punching in names and, sure enough, I had soon found Spice Pilgrim Kara, whom I haven't been in touch with for three years. I whipped off a quick message, threw it into cyberspace like a paper airplane... and she opened it a few hours later in an Internet cafe in India.
Her Camino took her from Barcelona (where she worked for two years) all the way to India and Nepal, where she's been hanging out for six months. Ah, the traveller's life. She and Nuala parted somewhere along the way, but it's not permanent. I'm sure they'll be back together someday for Further Adventures.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

lourdes colour photos and mp3s

My web designer extraordinaire, Denise de la Cruz (, was burning the midnight oil last night pasting fourteen new colour shots of Lourdes into the Virgin Trails I photo album. These are pictures from my first visit when, for reasons lost in the murk of time, I shot only slides. The upshot, of course, is that I've hardly seen any of these pictures myself, except for the two or three times I've hauled out my slide projector (or rather, my friend Mark's slide projector) and cast them up on a white curtain (all kinds of funny ripples on the face of the basilica). The thing that struck me about them is how powerful the sunlight is. It was almost always misty and often raining in Lourdes in the morning. Then at mid-afternoon, just in time for the Eucharist Procession, the sun would come blazing through and everyone would say, "Ah, c'est un miracle!" The picture above shows pilgrims at the taps outside the Grotto, filling up their bottles with genuine Lourdes water.

My first two mp3s, with excerpts from Virgin Trails, are also up. They are very experimental, my first time in a studio staring at a mike and trying to imagine an audience. It's tough! And a lot of what I came up with didn't sound right to me, but I thought these tracks were all right. Next month I'll have some lively new stories from All the Good Pilgrims. You can listen to them in the car, or the shower, while vacuuming, or to help you sleep, or even while you're reading, if you like to hear the author's voice in stereo. Big big thanks to Helena Werren for getting me set up, telling me over and over I was doing fine, and then staying after work to edit out those little dry-mouth pops and heaves of breath before the beginning of sentences.

Monday, July 30, 2007

saint james day in bayfield

Saturday, Michiko and I went to Bayfield, on the shores of Lake Huron, for a little celebration in honour of Saint James Day (July 25th) in the company of the London, Ontario Camino circle. It was a perfect day for a mini-Camino through the woods (and spectacular gardens) of the area, followed by a potluck lunch at the cottage/estate of John and Ana Thompson.

Along the way we stopped at Bayfield's precious little nineteenth-century Church of the Trinity, where I read a few stories from All the Good Pilgrims. The acoustics of the church were incredible, and it was just a cozy fit for the thirty to thirty-five of us. It was a terrific experience for me, not just because I was able to read from the lectern of a church without lightning striking me down, but because it was my first public reading from the book (except for a couple of three-minute cameos at other events). It takes a few trials to figure out which stories are best adapted to reading aloud, and to get the timing of those stories down, and then there's the voices of the characters... I was lucky to have a sympathetic audience.

The atmosphere of the gathering was casual and friendly. On our walk, we naturally found our own pace, and then discovered walking and talking companions who suited our pace. It was very Camino. Thanks to everyone, especially John and Ana, John O'Henly, Roberta, the sweet kids who poured us lemonade at our garden stop, Wanda, and the glorious day, which rained nothing on us but sunshine.

Monday, July 23, 2007

photos and memories

I hope you have time while you're visiting the site to browse through the photo albums (I feel like I'm showing a house when I say things like that: "Did you notice the floors? Cedar. We sanded them all down and refinished them...") I have four albums, two each for Virgin Trails and All the Good Pilgrims. If you haven't read the books, they'll give you a teaser of what to expect. If you have, you'll find out what some of the people and places in the books actually look like.

Is this a good thing? You'll have to decide for yourself. I'm sure you've had the experience of seeing a movie based on a book you've read and thinking, "These actors are all wrong. They're not how I pictured them at all." You might find something similar with the photo albums - "That's not Karl. That's not Montse." - though in this case it's reality that isn't living up to your imagination. So if you want to keep your images pure and personal, approach the photo albums with caution.

You won't find pictures of everybody who appears in the books, however. (And maybe that's just as well: if there were pictures of everybody, nothing would be left to the imagination.) Not that this was a conscious ploy on my part. I dearly wish I had pictures of - just to toss out some names - Inacio and the Weird Sisters and Linda and that weirdly beautiful South African woman who told me I was part of her deja vu. If I don't have pictures of them, it's simply because I found it hard on the Camino to think in terms of posterity. We were all there together in that moment and we were going to be together for a while and no one was thinking of a time when we wouldn't be.

I noticed that a lot of pictures got taken in Santiago, when it sank in that we weren't going to be seeing each other again, maybe ever. But by that stage there were so many pilgrims you had lost track of, never to see again. And it's only when you get home and have time to go through your pictures that you realize, "I don't have a picture of Pepe? How could I not have a picture of Pepe?" But maybe that's just as well too, because when people live only in your memory, unanchored to any image, they sometimes become more fully who they are to you.

Check out the Virgin Trails album in a week or so and you'll find some bright additions. My best pictures of Lourdes are all on slides and I'm having a dozen or so converted to digital. They'll replace some of the duplicated images in the Virgin Trails album and give you a living-colour image of a fascinating place. If you want one, that is....

Sunday, July 22, 2007


Well, here we are at the beginning of a new adventure. My first blog. Not quite the same as starting out on the Camino, but daunting in its own way, like having a mike stuck in your face and being asked to say something. I guess the place to start is with a big welcome to you, whoever you may be (at this point, there's a very good chance you're a friend or member of my immediate family - but if not, Hey! come in and join the party), and a thank you for stopping by and looking around. I hope you enjoy your visit and come back often.

I'm going to try to keep this blog buzzing with information about the Camino and other pilgrimages, post bits and scraps of my writing new and old, spice things up with photos and links, and occasionally just yammer on about travelling and living and this strange business of writing. If you have any questions, topics to discuss, bones to chew, thoughts to pitch on the bonfire... Well, I look forward to hearing from you. You'll make my work here both easier and more interesting.

There will be more to come in this space soon. Meantime, I suggest you break out your Latin dictionaries and read the post from July 20th entitled lorem ipsum. I wonder if old Cicero would be pleased or miffed to know his writings on ethical theory are still alive two thousand years on - as "dummy text." That's literary immortality for you. (For more on lorem impsum,

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Lorem ipsum

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