The Camino Shell – a white badge of honor!

The rucksack, walking stick and shell dangling on our backs obviously attracts attention when we walk the Camino. Whether it be in France or Spain, town or country, we can be assured that we will attract some friendly attention from the local inhabitants. Often we are even walking a street or road that is called “The Camino de Santiago” or “Jacob’s road”/street/avenue. So wherever we go we are no stranger – they’ve seen our types before. It never ceases to amaze me, however, with  the sympathy with which we Camino pilgrims are received wherever and whenever we do our thing: walk the Camino.

I don’t think we can remember an unfriendly reception in any Albergue in Spain or Gite in France, no matter if they were public or private (and to some extent profit making.) Our needs were understood and met to the best of their abilities, and there was a general enthusiasm for our endeavor.

Grandparents on the street point us out to their grandchildren telling them to wish us “Buon Camino” school children giggle and point and their teachers explain what we are about …Truck drivers honk their horns at us, teenagers cheer us on and many a car slows down to wish us the best or chat with us, or, when necessary tell us if we are, in fact, lost: I remember when I walked the Camino in 2009, my companion and I were walking in a snow storm right after  O Cebreiro when a car stopped and asked us “Pilgrims on the way to Santiago”? “Yes” we answered. Whereupon he responded “Well you’re not going to get there walking this road!” (a real wise guy, but he did take us in his  car and brought us back to the right road  … snow had of course covered all the yellow arrows of which there were not that many in the “old days”).

Once Gitta and I were stopped by the police who paved the way ahead of us through a big general strike procession in Toulouse, and another time during the same strike we hitch-hiked (had to get to the train station in self-same Toulouse) and we were picked up a by a fast smart car. The driver drove as if he was a stunt man and constantly interrogated us as to our adventures … though young he emanated a feeling of competence and authority so we felt quite safe: as it turned out he was actually an officer with the French Sécurité (French FBI/CIA)

We had come to expect this special attention on the Camino. Yet we were still taken totally aback when in Paris we had a “day to kill” (in Paris, come on, that is never just killing time) and had to carry our rucksack, sticks and shell, we still got the same positive attention. Crossing a bridge on the Seine a jogger stopped and shouted “coming or going”, and then walked with us and told of us of her son who had been on the Camino 3 times … a Dutch man asked us on advice as he was going on the Camino next year … people smiled and pointed to our rucksacks and whispered to each other as they waved …In Notre Dame we of course got a stamp in our Credential … And even one of those snooty Parisian waiters in a cafe right off Notre Dame slowed down in his work to inquire of us “coming or going” and how many kilometers do we do a day and exclaimed “respect” when we told him we do app. 20 kma day (after 5 weeks on the Camino in France and Spain, we do start to look our age)


I write all this just to remind all of us pilgrims, that just as walking the Camino is intensely meaningful for us, the fact that we walk the Camino also means a lot in France and Spain, especially to the people who live along the Camino. I think that in their eyes we are seen to be on some form of quest, which even today, in our secular times, in these very Catholic countries still has religious connotations. This is respected. Moreover there is a feeling that if we make the effort to actually spend so much time walking and appreciating their country, we are in turn also paying them some respect. We are all of us pilgrims indebted to this warm welcome, and it behooves us to reciprocate … which we do best when we do our thing well: being good pilgrims.

Sir Walter Raleigh. 1552–1618
77. His Pilgrimage
GIVE me my scallop-shell of quiet,
  My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
  My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope’s true gage;          5
And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.
Blood must be my body’s balmer;
  No other balm will there be given:
Whilst my soul, like quiet palmer,
  Travelleth towards the land of heaven;   10
Over the silver mountains,
Where spring the nectar fountains;
        There will I kiss
        The bowl of bliss;
And drink mine everlasting fill   15
Upon every milken hill.
My soul will be a-dry before;
But, after, it will thirst no more.

Dining on the Camino

Funny thing about the Camino: we all go on the Camino with the best of intentions to walk, to overcome adversity, to be a good and helpful pilgrim friend to other pilgrims and to the locals, and most importantly perhaps to achieve some form of spiritual benefit therefrom. Most of us that walk the Camino are in our daily lives also aware consumers, aware of what we eat and aware of how the things we consume have been produced, and also careful about how we rid ourselves of our waste. Yet on the Camino we all seem to eat almost any crap-food just to sate our ravishing appetite as immediately and conveniently and as cheaply as possible. And, as to getting rid of our waste … I think I’d better let that embarrassment pass … what most bugs me is the toilet paper that is constantly blowing in the wind all along the Camino we walk on.

Most of us get into our albergues in the afternoon, and then having inspected the kitchen we individually plan what and how we will prepare what we will eat, or do it together,  or eat one of those interminable pilgrim’s menu, whose only real attraction is the wine and the camaraderie of other pilgrims, otherwise it’s worse than any airline meal I’ve ever had (when you think about all those people who would not be caught dead eating an airline meal, now guzzling some indefinite Spanish pottage or thrown together salad which is guaranteed non-organic, followed by fried meat and factory French-fries, topped off by factory-made flan or fruit yoghurt – probably the only healthy part of the meal). Mostly our “home-made” evening meal will consist of some amalgam of tinned tomatoes, grated cheese, pasta and so forth washed down with cheap wine  …  lunch will consist of baguettes spread with salami/cheese/very very thinly sliced Serrano or some such. Some of us will also buy a fruit or two and perhaps some yoghurt.

This is all very far from the nutritious balanced diet based on organic food principles etc. most of us practice in our everyday life … and the result is that just when we most need healthy fodder for our unusually active bodies, we eat what we normally would’nt  touch and which in normal circumstances we would consider substandard food, and drink far too much wine.

I remember a few years ago in France meeting an elderly couple who were really great walkers:  they were retired very fit and walked hundreds of kilometers every year. The wife told me that the last time they returned home from one of their pèlerinages she had been so happy that her husband finally lost some weight … he was now quite handsome and very fit. A subsequent checkup revealed, however, that his cholesterol levels had gone through the roof  … the culprit was the pilgrim diet I described above, most especially the tons of grated cheese spread on the almost daily diner of pasta and tomato sauce, to make it palatable.




Oldies but goodies on the Camino

Let me her draw a sharp line here between the “youngies” who do the Camino with their own rambunctious energy and joie-de-vivre and the “oldies-but-goodies”, who with the same, perhaps quieter, gusto and joie-de-vivre  are increasingly to be seen on the Camino. (at 67, I definitely belong to this later group)

Though most modern Camino pilgrims have for a long time been single, urban, often educated, middle class young men ( and increasingly women, alone or in groups) with every intent to do the 750 km of the Camino in one go, a large number of more settled middle-age people do it in sections from start to finish when they can … a week or two every year, work and family permitting … They are thus neither youngies nor oldies-but-goodies, but, together with the oldies-but-goodies they are increasingly visible and their impact on the Camino is also increasingly visible.

A surprising number of pilgrims we’ve met walking on the Camino in Spain and France (the following however mostly about the Camino Frances) come from the over-middle-age, non-working segment of the European and world population… the oldies-but-goodies … Often they have grown-up children, grandchildren, and both house, car, and bank account at home. They come from many different countries, but the ones we most were in contact with came from the USA, France, England-Canada-the Antipodes. One common characteristic of the native English speakers is that they had almost  to a man-woman have seen the movie “The Way”, and in one way (unintended pun) or another this had been a catalytic factor in their doing the Camino. My favorite story is of the American couple who by chance saw the movie via Netflix, and as the concluding credits run down the screen the wife turns to her husband and says “Were going to do that, no ifs or buts”

As opposed to these oldies-but-goodies, the French “oldies” were less impressed with the film and anyway most of them were almost always, seasoned walkers, having done several sections of the Camino in France and Spain for many consecutive years.

These oldies are truly goodies: they are very sociable, good if slow walkers and a great pleasure to be with. We have spent many a good evening together with other couples “of our age group” engaged in good stimulating and even spiritual conversation. The younger pilgrims are both solicitous and respectful of them … in more than one case the older pilgrims helped/advised their younger co-pilgrims, especially concerning gear, of which they of course had very best. Most surprisingly the younger pilgrims listened attentively to them, and accepted their counsel … the feeling that we are all on the same endeavor, so why not listen to someone with greater experience, was probably the factor that overcame the usual almost instinctive  reaction of youth against advice by one’s elders.

We cannot disregard that however well-integrated into the brotherhood of the Camino they, the older and middle-age pilgrims, are, their presence has directly and indirectly already made a most noticeable impact.

These oldies-but-goodies and their somewhat younger middle-age pilgrims are very unprepossessing and undemanding, but yet given the opportunity (and they are very very good at taking the opportunity – benefits of a long life out there in the trenches of real life) they will opt for a more upscale accommodation, lodgings, meals, road, what have you. I also suspect that given two walking routes they will – often out of self-preservation of feet and backs – mostly choose the more convenient if not easier one … behind it all they have the money to back their inclinations: they today probably bring more money to the Camino than any other sector of pilgrims.

The depiction of the rich American eye doctor on the Camino in the movie “The  Way” was not very of the mark … note also how Martin Sheen’s character  was able to make use his little platinum card when necessary, and so were the other, not that young, characters of their little cards.

Now, it could be that we have observed so many oldies-but-goodies because they as pensioners are only ones that have the time to walk in the spring. Yet when I look at the membership of the various Camino associations around the world I feel at home: my age segment dominates! Being a pensioner and not having to go to work is not just being “free at last”, as we learned from one Dutch pensioner. Children and especially grandchildren made so many demands on him now, that “he had the time”, that he needed to do the Camino in order be able to devote some time to himself, and here on the Camino he bloomed and felt “free at last” (but not without a bad conscience vis-à-vis his wife, children, and grandchildren) … I’m sure that many a pensioner will recognize his predicament.

I do think that the incursion of these older pilgrims (middle-age and oldies) has already led to a sort of “gentrification” of the Camino. Perhaps this demographic factor has even been a contributing factor towards the ubiquitous impetus on the Camino Frances for up-scaling of the roads (at least since 2009) … the Camino routed from Roncesvalles to Burgos is now almost all gravel, and except for a few inclines, it follows the straight but anything but narrow (they are broad enough so that several people can walk and talk together) … and I’m sure that in some years well see a pilgrim-highway going straight from Roncesvalle to Santiago de Compostella … Has this not also been the impetus to the up-scaling we observed (and enjoyed) of many of the private and even public albergues?

I do wonder, just as I did on my previous blog concerning electronic devises on the Camino, what the Camino will look like 10 years from now … Demographically this segment of the population is growing ever larger, and is ever more on the lookout for more “exotic” and active traveling adventures, and ever more in search for some sort of self-realization … the new, more comfortable, Camino,  is obviously the best solution for them, incorporating both yearnings, and giving them a deep feeling of communitas into the bargain. I am not saying that they won’t find the intense bonding between pilgrims, or meaningful spiritual experiences, earlier Camino pilgrims have had, I’m just saying that now that over 200,0000 people, many of whom are of this older segment of the population, go on the Camino, we must necessarily redefine the Camino experience … but then maybe we must also look at how and why the modern day Camino has come about: more in a later blog.

Finally, I must just interject that when the rain pours down, the wind blows up my poncho and the walk up the hill is tough and long, I am at my 20km fatigue point, and the albergue’ heating isn’t working, the tienda is closed, and, oh-no, the 5 Korean girls that get up together at 5 am have also arrived. .. well that is still enough of a Camino challenge for me … then only the promise of a few hours fellowship and good cheer, communitas, with my co-pilgrims (and especially if they also are oldies-but-goodies) consoles me.

The electronic Kool-Aid Camino albergue acid test

Today on the Camino, I invariably see (and participate in) the new 21st century ritual of entering an albergue and settling in. From the first moment Camino pilgrims walk enter the albergue, I can see their eyes scanning the reception area until they have found what they are looking for –  the notice on the bulletin board that this place has WI-FI – then I see their eyes squint as they look for the password, and first then, when the password is found, do the eyes relax and we all can get on with our business of settling in. But as we actually enter the dormitory the eyes again start to scan, not for the best bed or where the showers are – no, that is not our highest priority –  but rather, where is the outlet is which we need to load our smart phones, tablets, cameras, what have you?

Often enough albergues do have a  (pay)computer available for pilgrims, and I remember the clambering and jostling there was in 2009 in order to get to it … when it finally was your turn there was the stress of trying to find a coin to put in for your allotted 30 minutes of computer time… today these computers almost look forlorn as if they still waited for a friendly pilgrim to make use them, which rarely happens.

Once settled in a peaceful silence comes over us, only disturbed by the quiet tap-tapping of fingers on screens and keyboards. No, we are not meditating on what we have experienced during our pèlerinage, or planning our diners or such mundane things: no, we are communicating with the “outside” world and for a while we are not anymore a part of the here and now of the Camino world. Nor are we commune with our fellow pilgrims with whom we are about to share the next many  hours in the often very limited space of the dormitories and their showers, toilets, kitchens, even the air we breathe as we all sleep and snore together 30 to a room –  there are other communication priorities today.

A true example of one such afternoon in one albergue:

I was lucky, I immediately got on the Wi-Fi and quickly found the outlet right behind my lower-bunk’s headboard … I could hear the reassuring pings of my long overdue incoming mails … Well, as I was settling in together with Gitta, I noted that on the bunk beds across from us, that the American couple we had started to bond together with into our “Camino-family” were sitting on their lower bunk each with his ipad (as was their wont every afternoon) … he was downloading pictures from his camera, and she was preparing their daily blog to friends family and sundry … across from them on the top bunk an Englishman of some years  was tapping away on his Google Nexus,  and below him, on the lower bunk his wife was reading her Kindle (she was especially happy with her Kindle because it’s ability to present large fonts meant that she was able read in spite of her deteriorating eyesight).

We have these past years encountered many many over-middle age couples like us … is this a trend, or a coincidence, or is it because we do our walking in the Spring or Fall? … Warrants a blog!

All was peace and concentration and everyone was silently doing his or her own thing. That is, until we heard shouting from the younger Brazilian woman on the upper bunk behind ours … man was she shouting … we figured she was on the phone. If that was not enough soon we also heard a man shouting from her bunk… what the(?): She was video Skyping on her i-pad together with her boyfriend in Rio and when we went over to complain over the noise, she just turned her i-pad around so that we could wave together with her boyfriend … lots of laughs and we promised him that we older folks would take care of her.

So you see … though doing the Camino, walking on it, communicating, living and bonding with the other pilgrims inevitably, from the first step we make, draws us into a sort of magical place outside our normal time and space away from hearth and kin and the concerns of the life we left behind, it is still no further away today than a click or a tap on a smartphone, an ipad, iphone, a tablet bursts the bubble of our Camino isolation.

… I wonder wow this development will affect the Camino – not today or tomorrow but  10 years from today …

The Camino de Santiago Revisitied

Just came back from doing the Camino: 2 weeks on the last part of the French Le Puy route leading to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (started 3 years ago from Geneva, Switzerland together with Gitta: 1 month every year), and two weeks on the Camino Frances in Spain onto Burgos. Walking along hour after hour along graveled roads,  paths and muddy inclines in a downpour of rain, the baking sun, or even snow up over our ankles, my mind tends to wander ( the tougher the going the more it wanders).

I started thinking about the dissimilarities between the  French and Spanish Caminos, and because I had also walked the Camino Frances in 2009 in Spain, I could not but observe the dramatic changes that had occurred since I had last walked in Spain only some 4 years ago … many towns and roads and paths were almost unrecognizable, the albergues were changed and often modernized  and certainly greatly increased in number, and, moreover I (we) came to feel that the  whole tenor of the Camino had changed: I was now also observing what seemed to me to be a new kind of pilgrim in comparison with the ones I had shared the Camino with in 2009.

Gitta (who had not been back to the Camino in Spain since 2005) and I where to some extent even overwhelmed by these changes between then and now (as we were by the dissimilarities between walking in France and in Spain): many a kilometer was spent on long Camino discussions trying to formulate and understand them.

Well, anyway, my observations filtered through these discussions, and my anthropologist (retired) field glasses, often led to me writing blogs in my head as we walked … really… complete with titles, introductions and conclusions … I have become an inveterate blogger.

See the next installment!

Ps. Anyone out there that could tell of a Camino-love-story they had lived, experienced or heard about?

Quiet Bells

It often happens on the Camino de Santiago when I walk by a church, or even better a cathedral,  I hear the hour chime … I instinctively then look at my watch, and start to count the deep resonating gongs of the bells, now knowing  exactly the  number of gongs that I will hear ( 5 at five  o’clock … 8 at eight o’clock, and so forth)

Yet, anyhow,  as I hear ( and count off)  the last gong of the giant bell, knowing full well that that was last one, I am still primed, so to speak, to hear another gong …  of course it does not come, but still the subsequent silence sounds on, and  almost like a visual afterimage it hangs in the air …   just for an instance in time I stop up and wait expectantly for an event that I fully know will never take place … for a breath’s duration life seems almost to be on hold. Thereafter it’s all over and I can go on walking as before … before I became aware of the bells.

A most pregnant (and not unforgotten) moment, which seems to me to embody an important life-lesson, but damn though if I know what it is!

Triumph des Willens – A Pilgrim’s Credo


An inscription on the James Farley Post Office in New York city (see also the 1997 Kevin Costner film “The Postman”) reads:

– “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

Change one word, “couriers”, to “pilgrims”, and I do feel  (from personal experience) that the Postman’s Oath could just as sincerely become the Pilgrims Oath.

When I walked the Camino (and afterwards) I often asked my co-pilgrims why they went on the Camino, and what kept them going. I got many different personal stories concerning their motivations, but the common denominator seemed to be that what had originally attracted them was the actual physical challenge of it, and their determination to see their self-assigned mission through to the end – Santiago. Many said that they needed to prove to themselves that they could do it, often after having just gotten over some life threatening illness. I’ve met several women walking alone right after having gone into a remission of their breast cancer. I have also met many who have gone on the Camino at a time of their life when they were in transition with some very existential decisions waiting for them coming back from the Camino, in the hope that doing the Camino will help guide them in making those decisions.

Though today the meaning of the goal, in itself, in any religious sense, has been greatly attenuated, but just like the pilgrims of old, modern day pilgrims are still in search of some form of transformative experiences, that will somehow permanently change their lives, or at least the way they look at themselves or their place in society.

Moreover, for both the older type of pilgrims well as the modern pilgrim the significance of every stage and of every day’s walking on the Camino is still derived from the diminishing distance separating him/her from the pilgrimage’s goal. Though paradoxically the way in itself has no intrinsic value without the predetermined goal (and the determination to get there no-matter what), the emphasis has now shifted away from the religious significance and benefits of having “touched” the goal, to the “way”, being the means in and of itself – especially in overcoming its numerous trials and tribulations. Western morality seems to me to be predicated on the idea that only a bitter pill is effective (remember Mary Poppins’ song?), and that like for the body builder, “no pain no gain”. Thus rain, cold and heat, blisters, tendonitis, heat prostration diarrhea, cramps, hunger, and thirst are necessary ingredients in proving that you can do it, have done it, and is thereby worth of the (spiritual) transformation you are seeking – you have proven to yourself and your surroundings: Yes-high-five: Triumph des Willens.

I do find this a bit over the top though, and cannot get over that there are still books being published relating how young strong grown men and women brag of having “survived” the Camino claiming that it was their “extreme” experience which had led to their spiritual transformation. Yes the Camino had traditionally been tough going, but today with almost two hundred thousand people walking the Camino every year and a bar and a hostel every few kilometers or so, special Camino police, I-phones with Google map, fantastic clothes, boots and other paraphernalia – come on!

Determination and extreme goal orientation have always been the salient defining characteristics of what a pilgrim is or does: a pilgrim is one who is determined to go from A to B in order to get a spiritual experience thereby, and achieve some form of transcendence or succor from having arrived at B. He/she is determined that nothing short of crippling disease or death will stop his/her journey to B.  There is however one great difference between the religious pilgrim of yesterday and the Camino pilgrim of today. Both are goal oriented but “in the old days” yesterday the goal was all, and the way, the Camino, only a means to get there – thus you then chose the fastest, best way. Today this has been reversed and transcendence is expected from the day to day physical act of going on the way, which thus has to be slightly adventuresome, picturesque and all the time free range, and not from arriving at the destination – Santiago. Today arrival is often experienced as a bit of a letdown – a “post-partum blues”. The “triumph of the will” is today much more emphasized than any significance attached to the goal and actual arrival.

I think that to understand the attraction of the Camino, why having done it has become so important to so many people, and why so many people time after time return to the Camino, we have to get a little understanding about how being on the Camino, being a pilgrim and doing a pilgrimage, differs from living in the everyday world. By this I do not mean, for example, that everyday life is filled with tasks and duties and responsibilities, while being on the Camino is a vacation from all that, quite the contrary – doing the Camino is tough physically and makes a lot of emotional and interpersonal demands on Camino pilgrims.

Undeniably, though, being on the Camino is different from almost any other undertaking you may have carried out in your normal mode of life (except in some sense having been a member of some armed forces). Doing the Camino is a kind of “rite of passage” (an event or process which both marked and actually created transitions between places, ages, social states and roles: from child to adult, unmarried to married, living person to dead ancestor, and so on). Traditionally pilgrimage had certain similarities with such rites in the way it encouraged people to move (literally and metaphorically) from their normal, everyday lives and enter, however temporarily, different social and spiritual worlds. On the pilgrimage then and now, the pilgrim on the Camino inevitably encounters other pilgrims and experiences a feeling of communitas with them. After such an experience, as in a rite of passage, a person often returns renewed, perhaps even transformed. This feeling of communitas also lasts long after the pilgrimage, in that it is easily extended to include anyone that has ever been on the Camino – we, that have been on the Camino, present as well as former Camino pilgrims, are all “a band of brothers and sisters”.

Though pilgrimage is still a bona fide spirit-renewing ritual, this by no means implies some form of religious revival. Contemporary pilgrimage is in many ways a turning away from traditional institutional religious experience towards a personalized, and often individually designed spiritual-devotional-transformational-transcendental patchwork every pilgrim constructs through being confronted with the actual physical and emotional demands made within the unique otherworldly (in the sense of not being of the world of everyday life) experience of his or her individual Camino. Significance is thus generated for the individual pilgrim when his/her needs and expectations and abilities are personally confronted with the experience of walking on the Camino. Thus, whereas the meaning of pilgrimage previously was almost exclusively given by its goal and the religious way stations on the way to the goal, i.e. churches, today each Camino pilgrim must create his/her own meaning as he /she does the Camino. This often leads to a very deep, even upsetting and at the same time uplifting (transcendental?) experience. Unfortunately, however, having had to create its meaning for oneself also means that the individual pilgrim often lacks any common language with those who have not gone through this process.  Previously, when religion guided and formed the pilgrim’s way, and the meaning derived therefrom, the pilgrim could come home and share his/her experience with everyone else who had not gone on the pilgrimage by ways of the iconography, symbolism, and metaphors of Catholicism- here was thus a kind of linguae franca between the returning pilgrim and his homebody family and friends, which is sorely lacking today, where the experience of pilgrimage is so intensely personal. My coming home felt so me somewhat like what I had read about how war veterans, policemen and fireman and hospital personnel feel that they cannot talk to their families and friends about their experiences. For them the only people who truly understand what they are saying are their present or former “brothers in arms”.

I do think that this disjointedness vis-à-vis their “civilian” lives that pilgrims experience while walking on the Camino (and afterwards) might give us an inkling as to the attraction of the Camino. Maybe thereby we can get an understanding of the phenomena of the almost two hundred thousand persons that do the Camino every year and the spate of books written by returning pilgrims, and the many associations devoted to the Camino. Some of it can obviously be explained by the above, I thin however, that there are some basic, cultural and structural factors at play here having to do with how we fit into the world and how we find our place in it.

According to Zygmunt Bauman, we have moved from a period where we understood ourselves as “pilgrims” in search of deeper meaning to one where we act as “tourists” in search of multiple but fleeting social experiences.  A more apt comparison is also mentioned by him: the world as a ubiquitous shopping mall and life as a shopping experience: you take only what you like from each shelf and dump them into your mental-social-spiritual shopping cart as you please.

When our lives where dominated by the metaphor of pilgrimage, our lives were guided and formed by the idea of a goal for success and happiness and fulfillment, and therefore we were ever ready to defer todays pleasure for the greater pleasures of the future. Our lives were guided by plans and actions that always were related to our future development as individuals, a sort of constant career path that in the final analysis led to our fulfillment as individuals and also in terms of the spirit.

In such a world where every action from schooling, marriage, work, family and who you know and associate with, acquires its meaning from some future, the world must necessarily be stable, unambiguous and manageable, otherwise how can we plan for the future, if the future cannot be counted upon to be the future we planned for? The 20th century strived for and achieved this goal – a sort of predictability – and that is also what lies at core of the upward mobility of the middle classes all over the world.

That is not the case anymore. Today all is flux, change and ambivalence and nothing stays the same and the world of today is no help in assessing the world of tomorrow. Yes the world has become a more richer, les physically threatening world for most of us, but because of this we are free to be more self-determined and individualized in our life path: whereas previously you had (or were given or had forced upon you) a strategy for how your life would develop, today you are expected to be a master of tactics and go with the flow and grab the opportunities that present themselves. Because of this the individual must constantly asses the cost/benefit and opportunity costs of any and all of his daily actions as to the contribution they can make to his /her gratification as an individual here and now and in the future.

The individual is alone in this – no-one can choose for you  – and there are no traditional time-tested cultural or social guidelines. Whatever you choose you must face the consequences, and no excuses accepted. If you’re fat or thin poor or rich popular or lonely that’s you decision you might be “worth it”, but it’s your very own responsibility to get “it”. Also those, which involve interpersonal relationships – who knows anyhow how long they will last, and are they worth investing my time, emotion and effort into? Personal achievement and transcendence even spiritual are not something that will take place in the future, but just like teenagers walking through a mall window-shopping, gratification and self-realization is something you look for and choose from a variety of outlets.

This world is both lonely and stressful and yes there is almost total freedom, but with total freedom and the loss of the stability that comes with traditions and conventions, comes total responsibility for one’s own destiny.

Many people try to ameliorate this situation through joining informal associations of likeminded others in more or less the same situation, creating groups and sub-groups and ghettos of rich and poor, young and old etc. Another tactic is to attach oneself to some belief system, but in that there are so many to choose from amongst all the religions ideologies, and doctrines and theories available, just in case so as to not have chosen wrong, it’s best not to put all ones eggs in one basket, and instead pluck out what one sees as most desirable or useful here and now from each of them. Everyone thus creates his or her amalgam of belief, philosophy, or lifestyle.

Going on the Camino is the perfect choice fulfilling all needs, allaying all uncertainties, and providing direction – the Camino is the perfect modern coach. In fact it is as if everyone today has all the necessary aptitudes for doing the Camino: The interpersonal, decision making skills and proclivities (inconstancy and adaptability etc.) the post-modern person has developed, turn out to be eminently suited to going on the Camino – the post-modern personality type fits right into the Camino pilgrim way of life: both during and after having done it. Moreover doing the Camino somehow re-enacts what today can easily appear to have been a golden age when pilgrimage was the metaphor for life when every action was attuned to and measured by some final goal or outcome, and when there was confidence in the permanency of the way stations that must be passed thereto.

Let me enumerate:


There is the physical-emotional challenge of having done the Camino in this age when control over the body is most sought after: such control is one of the primary markers that one is control over one’s life and destiny. Thus overcoming a hardship or two is a necessary ingredient: in the immortal words of Nietzsche that introduces the Schwarzenegger movie “Conan the Barbarian”: “What does not kill us, makes us stronger”.


Each day on the Camino is a new day unencumbered by the history of what the pilgrim has done or experienced the previous day – total freedom – yet at the same time each day is part of a planned progression towards a goal- thus the pilgrim now has the best of both worlds “traditional” stability and total post-modern flux.


Whereas interpersonal relationships are difficult to maintain, perhaps bothersome, and always attuned to the opportunity costs of maintaining them – is it worth it staying in a relationship to so and so – on the Camino they are very intense, there is that sense of communitas mentioned above, which is so difficult to maintain “at home”. Yet, at the same time as our relations to our fellow pilgrims are very deep, full of empathy, even altruism, they are at the same time flighty – you can always (literally) walk away from them and form new ones at the next albergue.

Moreover, just by having done the Camino you can ever after gain new friends and form a new communitas of ex-Camino pilgrims. Moreover these “friends” are special in that they and their communitas is totally divorced from all your other networks and the demands made upon you there.


A pilgrim has a strategy- to get to Santiago – and every step on the Camino entails the tactics of achieving this strategy.  In real life, where all is flux and potentially ambivalent, strategies must often give way to the tactics of survival – of establishing and maintaining ones own identity. Thus the Camino reintroduces the primacy of strategy that obtained when pilgrimage was the guiding metaphor for life. For pilgrims on the Camino, the world of the Camino as opposed to real life, will remain stable and un-ambivalent – each stage is mapped out and the map, surprise-surprise, actually corresponds to the reality. This relaxation of the need to configure and attend to the immediate tactics, frees the mind and gives a feeling that this is why I’m doing the Caminos, and that is why at the end the modern pilgrim feels that his experience has been so meaningful in comparison to all other extra- Camino experiences.


The modern pilgrim by going on the Camino exposing him/her-self to its rigors, to the beauty of its natural environment, to the communitas of sharing with other pilgrims, re-enacts in some way the lost innocence of the school-yard, the scouts, the school sports team.


In our “civilian life” forming our own spiritual worldview, having a feeling of the sacred and transcendental has turned out to be hard work and quite a bit complicated, now that we cannot any more fall back on traditional institutions such as the church or the holy books. Here on the Camino just by walking, experiencing the newness of being in nature, divorced from all our other speculations and concerns we can almost gratuitously achieve a little bit of nirvana.

Pilgrimage on the Camino enables each of us to experience the immediacy of the here and now, so lauded by mystics and searched after by the devotees of eastern gurus and (in the old hippie days) users of LSD.

Each of us is in some way or another a seeker that longs to have direct contact with the sacred – defined as that which gives life meaning, and perhaps even that which might put us in touch with the transcendental in the here and now: pilgrims – whoever, wherever, whenever  – are people who do something practical about it.

(Zygmunt Bauman and Turner and Turner have been my guidelines and inspiration in writing the above –  Zygmunt Bauman: “From Pilgrim to Tourist – or a Short History of Identity” &  Zygmunt Bauman: “Liquid Modernity” — Victor and Edith Turner’s: “Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture”)