Walking with Focused Awareness
By Nancy L. Frey
In a previous article I reviewed Thom Hartmann’s book Walking your Blues Away and outlined his technique for problem solving when walking. It’s a very useful technique and applies a type of focused thinking while walking which often helps to resolve questions you put forth to yourself and even past trauma. When stumped or blocked mentally, it’s often helpful to get up out of your chair, breathe deeply and go outside ‘to clear your mind’. Many times you return feeling refreshed, renewed and even sometimes with a problem solved or a new perspective.
Rather than practice ‘focused thinking’, I’d like to encourage you to try another type of mental activity while walking which I’ll call ‘focused awareness’. The idea gets back to the idea of ‘clearing your mind’, not to create blankness but to clear your mind of unwanted thoughts and focus on your present moment (your body, surroundings, sights, sounds, sensations). It is very common for people to be plagued with a non-stop internal dialogue of random thoughts about past issues or future business/worries to deal with. It’s so normal that you may not even be aware of it. I know this is true of me. When I’m out walking I will be surrounded by great natural beauty but my mind puts on mental blinders that buffer me from hearing, seeing and appreciating what is in my immediate present unless I make a conscious effort to focus on the present. I’ll find myself playing a rerun of a conversation with a teacher from my kid’s school, thinking about the things I have to get done later in the day, debate with myself about whether or not to do this or that, etc, etc, etc. It’s a lot of mental noise and when you’re paying attention to it, you’re not paying attention to the present and what’s happening in the moment. You’re there physically but mentally you are off in some other place. When you think about it, the mental tapes frequently play boring reruns of themes you’ve been over many times or push you to focus your thinking on future events thereby taking away from your enjoyment of the moment you are in. Typically these ‘problems’ don’t get resolved, they just follow you around like a bad odor.
I feel deeply connected to nature. It is something I am aware of feeling from my earliest memories: the power and beauty of the natural world. Consequently, at the same time when I’m walking and thinking, I also find myself pausing, breathing deeply and really focusing on something that captures my eye or fills me with wonder. It feels good. I look around, focus and appreciate. Then, another thought pops into my head and the mental noise brings me back inside of my mind and I lose that sense of the present as I float around somewhere between the past and future.
When I became aware that I was doing this (because most of the time we do not realize that we are doing this unless we stop to observe ourselves), I decided to consciously focus on being aware of the present and my surroundings rather than listen to the noise in my head. Essentially this is ‘walking meditation,’ an ancient practice with many contemporary practitioners. As the Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh explains: “When you walk, arrive with every step. That is walking meditation. There’s nothing else to it.” It sounds so simple and it is for a practiced Buddhist but if you have a typically over-active mind, trained to think and do constantly (like me), it is very, very hard. For me the missing piece to make sense of the simplicity of this concept was “awareness” - awareness of how my mind focuses on the past and future and keeps me from the present. You become aware of these thought patterns by observing yourself and how you think. When you start the internal dialogue, take a mental step backwards and observe your mind. I found Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now to be very insightful and helpful in this regard.
Getting back to the idea of ‘walking with focused awareness’, the point is to spend more time while walking focusing on the now and less time focusing on the internal, mental dialogue. Your mind will probably try to intrude on your awareness of the present periodically as you are walking. When you realize that you are thinking about picking up the dry cleaning or how irritated you are that so and so didn’t answer your email, bring yourself back to the present moment by focusing on what your senses perceive in your surroundings. You will find that when you focus on your present, you will feel more alive and more connected with what is around you. You will see your surroundings differently and perhaps make new, enriching observations because you are attuned to the present moment. You may also find that with practice the barrage of thoughts will recede as you walk and will leave you feeling more peaceful and relaxed by the time you are done.
How to do this? For example, the other day I took a walk while my kids were at music class through a village, down to the beach and along the shore. I decided to focus on as many different sensual experiences as possible. When I arrived in the village there was a funeral service taking place in the parish church. Bells continue to play an important role in Spanish villages and towns to call the faithful and to mark the hours. When there are funerals there is a special, very somber, deep two-beat bell tone that is played over and over during certain moments of the service. As I walked along the shore I heard the bells and decided to focus my attention on the sound of the tolling floating over the water and to listen to the entire length of each note as they faded away and then repeated over and over – strongly and then fading. In normal circumstances, my mind would have blotted out extraneous noise like the bells and I don’t think I would have even been aware of them. In giving my attention to the bells, I felt more connected to the ritual taking place in the village and the passing of that soul and the families involved. It also filled me with a sense of discovery: when the bell tolling went from being background noise to the center of my attention, I deepened my understanding and appreciation of them and their role in community life.
My mind wandered, many times, but I would bring it back and focus on something else – my breathing, the pattern of sound my feet were making on the different surfaces where I walked– sand, boardwalk, pavement, different randomly barking dogs from houses on the fringes of the area. As I walked back along the beach I started to focus on the sound of the tiny waves breaking on the shore and listen, like the bells, for the source, where they stopped, where they started, was the sound coming from the left or right? I lay down on the beach for a few minutes, closed my eyes and listened to the waves. I was aware of patterns I had not paid attention to before even though I’ve spent a lot of time at the shore over the years. It felt good, peaceful. The mental noise took a back seat to the vibrant and alive present rather than vice versa. I focused my awareness on the rocks, the colors of the kelp, the plastic on the beach. The latter set me off on a frustrating internal dialogue about pollution but I brought myself back to the patterns in the water, the gulls flying overhead, the color of the sky as the sun set behind the village….I breathed in deeply and felt the cool, salt air fill my lungs. Further on I wrinkled my noise at the smell of kelp rotting under the sand where I stepped deeply. All of these things helped me enjoy and feel more connected to that moment and made the walk an entirely different experience than if I had just let the tapes play as usual. The walk was about just being – not thinking, analyzing or doing – just enjoying it for what it was. I felt grateful for all the beauty both large and small surrounding me constantly. As I say, my mind would wander off frequently but that’s okay. As you become more aware of how your mind wanders, it becomes easier to sense sooner and then you can refocus to something in your immediate surroundings – the birds singing, the way the leaves rustle in the wind, how the breeze feels on your skin, the smell of the damp earth. Awareness in the present is liberating. You can’t change the past nor can you can make the future happen sooner but you can enjoy the gift of the now and this is an access point to it.
2018 in Review - 19 Years of On Foot in Spain
By Nancy L Frey, 5 November 2018
Sometimes people ask us if we get tired returning to the same places year after year. For me leading a group of people is not about revisiting the same places over and over but rediscovering them anew with people who are usually experiencing them for the first time. As Henry Miller wrote, “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” I typically tell people in our opening meeting that for me it is a privilege to journey with others because it gives me the opportunity to witness that process of discovery, wonder and enjoyment in others that is potentially a great part of the travel experience. Sometimes people are deeply moved by their travel experiences with us and share how they have been inspired, healed, uplifted or pleased way beyond their expectations. Being a part of that process is deeply rewarding and keeps our energy high and is what motivates us to continue packing our suitcases, farming out the kids to their grandparents and giving ourselves completely over to our groups during our time together. In essence, leading groups is often more about the people than the place – it’s about you!
Cuisine & Lodging on On Foot in Spain Tours
I just wanted to thank you again from the bottom of my heart for making the Camino come alive. I loved the lectures, I loved the food, the accommodations were great and I loved walking the Camino. Thank you for making this the experience of my life.
Annette, Pasadena, Calif, USA
Compostela, Camino de Santiago & Camino Portuguese
We take great pleasure in introducing our clients to Spain’s rich and delicious food and wine culture. We believe a fundamental part of travel is to take in the place where you through all of your sense including your palate. We also abide by the belief that food is much more than fuel! Food for us is a delightful experience of sharing, savoring, learning, and enjoyment.
The picnics were like a feast. Enjoyed the surprise of what was to come and loved the explanations. Margaret, Glen Iris, Australia, Compostela
One of our cherished moments of the day is the daily picnic. Jose sources local products and each day puts together a colorful array of delicious foods including his popular salads. We always give an explanation of the picnic with tidbits of food history, cultivation and/or Spanish food customs woven into the narrative. Here is an example of a picnic explanation at O Cebreiro in June 2018.
Jose’s picnics are so popular that over years we have been frequently asked, When are you going to make a cookbook? In 2015 we self-published a book of Jose’s salad recipes that includes lots of images of the picnics, food history and the beauty that you find on tour. Here’s a link to our book and how to acquire it On Foot in Spain Picnic Salads.
On most days, the evening meals are included. We select local dishes or have you choose one or two of the courses from a selection of items regional to the area. Regional wines accompany our meals. The nights when meals are not included are opportunities for you to explore on your own – a fun night in the local tapas (or pinchos as they are called in northern Spain) quarter or a relaxed meal in local restaurant.
In Spain the largest meal of the day is at midday (usually between 2-3) and consists of a first and second course (usually a vegetable then a meat dish) served with wine, dessert and then coffee. Dinners are late; not usually beginning before 10pm in most households. On our tours we make an effort to create a compromise between Spanish and non-Spanish customs with rich, wholesome but not heavy lunches and dinners arranged well before the Spanish hour.
After the day’s walk and the evening meal slumber will happily come in the accommodations we’ve selected for each of our stops.
Depending on the tour, you’ll stay in either out of the way monasteries, charming rural guest houses (often restored stone farmhouses), luxurious paradors and/or hotels located in the heart of the city center. We make an effort to offer you an interesting variety of accommodations.
The hotels generally vary in scale from 3-5 stars depending on the tour and availability of accommodation in each locale. All hotel rooms have en-suite (bathroom in room) facilities. There is a single supplement fee varying depending on the tour for those requesting single accommodation.
Keeping your Head out of the Cloud:
Tips for Being Mentally and Physically Present When Walking the Camino
By Nancy L. Frey, PhD
23 March 2018
In my article on pilgrimage in the Internet Age, I describe the changes I’ve witnessed in the Camino over the last 25 years. For me the most significant change is the rise of the Internet and the development of mobile technologies that have dramatically changed the mental experience of the 21st person, in general, and the Camino de Santiago pilgrim, in particular. The Camino is an ever-changing phenomenon (and has been since its birth in the 9th C) reflecting the salient issues of larger society in each period. I have had the great fortune of living through and researching the unfolding of these changes. For the most part, people are largely unaware that their digital habits potentially have a great impact on the pilgrimage experience due to the increased mental distraction the use of digital devices typically entails. How one uses a digital device greatly affects how one engages with the Camino, with oneself, nature, home, the world and the Camino community. While 21st C pilgrims are still physically present on the Camino in body, mentally they are “off the Camino” to a degree never before seen in the history of pilgrimage.
The point of this article is try to help people reflect on ways they can keep themselves “on the road” mentally rather than engage their minds with their mobile technology to the detriment of being present on the Camino. Unchecked tech usage limits your capacity to connect deeply with the Camino and yourself. In reflecting on my 15 tips below, I hope you will be able to engage more deeply and fully with the Camino, yourself and others. ***
Short Version. If you don’t want to read the long version, please go to the end for the 15 tips in a nutshell:
1) Pre-Camino reflection
Before starting the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, you might want to reflect on a few questions, such as: “Why do I want to go on the Camino?” What do “Camino” and “pilgrimage” mean to me? Am I looking for a profound inner journey? Do I want to walk and share my experiences with friends and family to have a shared, open Camino? Or, do I desire to “get away from it all” with some quiet, personal time away from the worries of the world? Is this a ‘bucket-list’ experience, or a religious or spiritual journey? Maybe you don’t know. That’s okay, too. People sometimes just feel drawn to the Camino without really knowing why. Nonetheless, reflecting on why you are going, may help you to make choices regarding the use of mobile tech that will make it easier to achieve your goals.
2) Motives often evolve on the Camino
Be aware that your initial reason for going on the Camino may evolve over the course of the journey. New spaces and places, experiencing new sensations and different ideas from others, as well as facing challenges can leave their mark. Consequently, the meaning of the journey can grow and develop as you go due to the reflections you make or changes you may experience from the beginning to the end (and then in the return) of the journey. Be open to these changes and allow yourself to adapt to the circumstances. Try to let go of the need to control all aspects of the journey and take them as they come. If adversity arises (which is normal), take a deep breath and try to deal on your own.
3) Self-Monitor tech usage levels before the Camino
Studies show that people regularly self-assess their tech usage levels very poorly and generally underestimate their real time usage, number of daily pick-ups, and checking of devices. How and when do you use your tech? In what contexts do you find yourself using your tech? Self-analyze and reflect on when and how you use your tech – habit, need, boredom, work, discomfort, to communicate, check on others, etc. If you use your tech, for example, when you’re bored at home, you’ll probably use it on the Camino when you’re bored, too. Ask yourself – why do I always keep my mind distracted? Studies also show that distracted minds typically don’t feel as fully, don’t reflect, don’t focus as well and don’t discover what’s underneath the surface. What would happen, for example, if you allowed yourself to be bored and just be in that moment without having to “do something”? What might you discover? Is our tech usage a great way to distract ourselves from ourselves? If the thought is scary, causes anger or instant rejection that means it’s probably a good idea to try and explore it.
Finally, ask yourself: Do I want to have a different relationship with mobile tech on the Camino than I do at home? Do I want to tell my boss/friends/family that I will not be taking calls, answering messages and being “on call” for what happens “back home/work”? If I do want to have a different relationship with tech on the Camino, what changes do I need to make to do so?
4) Camino Preparation
The explosion of information available on any topic in the Digital Age is astounding! While this has many positives, there are also plenty of negatives, ie, Information Overload which often confuses pilgrims and potentially increases pre-Camino anxiety. Walking the Camino is not like preparing for an Everest summit hike but many people would have you believe this to be true! One surprising observation I make in my research is how the perception of how difficult the Camino is to plan and do has increased inversely proportional with the increase in services and information available making it infinitely easier now in 2017 than it was in 1985 when the first guidebook to the Camino was published and there was no internet, very limited pilgrim accommodation and information available. In that 1985 guidebook there was one page of preparation information. By 2011 a new guidebook genre was born: how to prepare for the Camino. I ask in my 2017 article on Pilgrimage in the Internet Age: “Do you objectively need more help to do the Camino in 2016 than you did in the 1990s or have we made it more complicated than it is?”
What do I recommend in terms of preparation? Prepare but don’t over-prepare! It is important to prepare mentally and physically for the Camino but it is also essential to draw a line on the amount of preparation, especially mental preparation. The hazard today is to OVERPREPARE mentally. It’s essentially a control issue. Fear of the unknown is real, of course. Therefore, to try and diminish potential anxiety levels, preparing helps you to make the unknown a bit less unknown. The problem in the Internet Age is that you can know way too much about the unknown, so much that it takes away from your experience once you are there. DISCOVERY, SURPRISE and WONDER are an essential part of a journey and a pilgrimage is then a step into the unknown intentionally because, as a rite of passage, a pilgrimage entails some kind of personal trial, adversity, discovery, challenge to grow, and to learn and develop something new inside of oneself.
For example, if you plan to go see a movie and before you go you watch the trailer, read reviews about the movie (often with spoilers) and comment on the movie in a forum even before you see it, how does that impact your first time viewing? Probably very significantly. It’s the same with the Camino. If you spend hundreds of hours online (as people do) looking at every corner of the Camino, connecting through groups with other people, hearing about issues on the Camino ahead of you, posting on forums, what does that do to your experience of discovering it for yourself? Take it as it comes. People have always had pre-Camino jitters. The difference between pre-Internet and now is that pre-Internet you eventually had to let go as you did not have a device that allowed you to cling. Now we have devices (mental crutches) that allow us to fret and cling and consequently we don’t choose to let go and allow ourselves to trust what might be, let experiences simply happen and discover many things about ourselves in the process.
With increased utilization and incorporation of mobile tech in daily life, there’s an increased lack of trust in the self to deal with circumstances/adversity/life situations as they may arise. Rather the trend is to prepare for every single possible thing that might “go wrong”. Simply scroll through popular threads on Camino community groups and the minutiae that people worry about gets progressively more detailed: poncho vs raincoat, toilet etiquette, 30 tips for newbies, how to make friends, pilgrim tattoos? There are just some things that you learn as you go and you don’t need to fret about it ahead of time! It’s part of being a pilgrim! Facing adversity is part of the growing process. Everyone starts green and must learn as they go!
5) How will I communicate with HOME: family, friends and work?
Before you go, discuss expectations and establish norms with friends, family and work about how to handle communications (in both directions) while you are away. Pre-Internet, home and the pilgrim accepted that contact would be limited. Separation from a loved one was rationalized by the adage: No news is good news. Nowadays, no news for a couple of hours sends some people into a panic. On the Camino our digital world allows instant connectivity between home and pilgrim in a way that never existed pre-Internet. Is this what you want? Do you want to have physical AND mental time away or do you want to be mentally at home and on the Camino simultaneously? Keeping up with family and friends through emails, photos, social media can be very time consuming and emotionally exhausting. Do you want to spend your time on the Camino that way? Also, do you want to be aware of everything going on at home (the cat in the tree, the failed math exam, the unpaid bill, etc), stuff you can do nothing about when you are physically away? Pre-Internet no one had to ask themselves these questions because home and the traveler/pilgrim had a clear break and separation that lasted for an extended period of time (except for occasional letters or phone calls in the 20th C).
Another old adage was “Distance makes the heart grow fonder.” Having real mental distance and physical time away, allows you to look at your relationships more clearly and to feel more powerfully emotions of longing and love or perhaps relief and joy at being separated. The mental and physical distance helps you get necessary perspective on your life. If you’re always mentally connected on the Camino with loved ones through texting, emails, photos, updates, etc, you make it very difficult for yourself to get the necessary mental distance to reflect on the deeper meaning of your relationships.
Would potentially limiting your communications with family be difficult? Probably, yes, but we return to the idea that some mental distance and adversity on a pilgrimage/journey is good and necessary. Pilgrimage is typically tough both mentally and physically. It’s a powerful rite of passage where the self is often tested. Mobile tech allows us to reduce the mental trials inherent in rites of passage that have characterized the human experience since time immemorial. There is nothing wrong with feeling lonely, bored, sad and/or doubtful AND it is a completely normal part of the process! Many people find themselves emotional, confused or crying on the Camino and they don’t know why. That’s okay. It is a typical part of a pilgrimage process (rite of passage) when you are outside of your comfort zone, away from your normal life and are in the process of challenging cherished held ideas, or pushing yourself in new ways or questioning who you are and what you are doing on the Road. When you give yourself a chance to feel these things and reflect on why it can become a great opportunity and a growing process of the self. Being tightly and safely connected to your mobile device will keep you away from the opportunity of having these remarkable, tough and profound human experiences in such an incredibly, safe and fabulous place that is the Camino de Santiago.
6) Desire to be tech connected can evolve over the course of the journey.
Typically, pre-Camino anxiety, the fear of being ‘out of touch’ as well as the excitement of sharing the journey with friends and family, keeps people tech connected early on in the Camino. When people start walking and experience the joy of being in nature and a community of open pilgrims, one’s sense of time and place changes. There is a growing sense of enjoyment and fulfillment in being in the now, with your thoughts, with yourself, with others around you, in nature and the need/desire to connect to the Internet often diminishes.
Be prepared for the possibility that you will feel less desire to connect to the outside world and trust that natural response which urges you to connect to the present simply be where you are. Writing to friends and family (or your public blog, etc) on a daily basis may come to seem like a chore as it can be very time consuming. Trust that feeling and allow yourself to be on the Camino and not tied to your device and the mental connectivity and distraction of things going on someplace else.
If you are concerned about family members, warn them ahead of time that your communication frequency may vary as you go or agree to send out a group “I’m okay” message from time to time.
7) What relationship with tech do I want to have on the Camino?
Everyone needs to make their own choices regarding tech usage on the Camino, just try to make sure they are conscious choices. Everyone’s circumstances are different.
Consider making some tech usage rules for yourself pre-Camino. Suggestion #2 encourages you to self-assess your usage patterns at home. Do you want to maintain the same mental relationship with the internet that you have at home on the Camino? If you don’t, then think about this ahead of time. Free WiFi is more and more available on the Camino and it will be progressively easier and easier to connect 24/7. Do you want to be available 24/7 when you are on your pilgrimage? Would you like to use the Camino as an opportunity to limit your connectivity to certain types of social media such as Facebook, Reddit or Instagram or the like?
Other ways that people manage tech on the Camino is to establish norms for themselves. For example,
- “Go dark” during the Camino. Inform people that you will be disconnected and not responding during x amount of time
- Establish a “switch-off zone” where you turn off your phone while walking or other segments of the day.
- Turn off certain features of your phone while on the Camino – notifications, certain apps, incoming calls, etc.
- Before bed or early morning limit yourself to a check-in message with family/friends
Typically people have no personal tech rules and every single time they take a photo or stop at a bar or café en route they take out their phone and check whatever. Others use their devices for entertainment (music, books, movies, etc) at the end of the day. Some people connect to on-line dating sites, sports groups, world news and stock reports and there seems to be little distinction between being on and off the Camino.
The more connected you are mentally to the world via the Internet on the Camino the less you are in the Camino living, breathing and experiencing it fully in body and mind. You are depriving yourself of the opportunity of receiving one of the Camino’s most precious gifts: freed up mental space. When people have this opportunity of freed mental space, 21st C pilgrims typically try to instantly fill it with noise from the net, home or the world. Why do we discard so readily what the Camino offers? Many people want a “time out”. Why not give yourself one?
You might ask: Why would someone want freed up mental space? If you want me to answer that question, let me know.
8) Physical/Bodily reaction to disconnection
If you decide to limit your tech connectivity on the Camino, be prepared for the possibility of withdrawal symptoms. A well-known, documented phenomenon among habitual mobile tech users is called “phantom ringing” or “phantom vibration” which occurs when a habitual user stops using their devices for a period of time and will hear or feel the phone even if it is turned off. I interviewed a Swedish woman who decided to do a “digital detox” on the Camino leaving behind her phone. She experienced this phantom ringing phenomenon and told me it took her at least 10 days for her to feel that her over-stimulated mind start to calm down and that she could enjoy the Camino more fully. It is normal to have tech withdrawal symptoms or anxiety for habitual tech mobile users when they stop using them. Once you get past that stage you will feel more alert mentally, begin to perceive more with all of your senses, focus better, decrease your inner need to connect to the web and feel the present more strongly. You will feel more alive and engaged with your body, surroundings and others and less inclined to look to your phone for solutions.
9) Self-Monitoring on the Camino is another Mental Distraction
The tech industry has developed a whole series of wonderful apps that allow us to self-monitor all of our bodily functions – steps walked, heart rate, water consumption, distance covered, speed, hours slept, night movement, and so on and so on. These apps are very interesting and can serve an important function but in the context of the pilgrimage, I would encourage you to ask yourself, “Is it really necessary to monitor my body in this way?” It ends up being distracting and another example of too much information. By focusing on the minutiae it can lead to greater stress, something to be worried about or distract you. Just give your mind a break! One of the gifts of the Camino is learning to listen to your body and knowing when you are hungry - to eat, when you are tired - to stop and rest, when your feet have pain - to stop and tend to them. When we ask these monitoring devices to listen for us, we diminish our ability to hear our body’s signs and listen to them ourselves. We end up giving these devices a tremendous amount of power over us as we begin to trust them more than our own instincts. Remember that these tech products are designed intentionally to be addictive and to erode your confidence in yourself so that you will consume more of them.
10) Using Camino Apps vs Guidebooks
People often claim that using a Camino app is the same as using a guidebook. Or, that writing in a diary by hand is the same as writing an online blog. On the surface they may appear similar but they are very different how they affect you mentally. In both cases, the guidebook and the handwritten diary, anchor you to the present and help keep you in a bracketed period away without external influences and feedback. Reading about the next day’s stage in a guidebook has a limited frame of reference and consumption of time. The tendency when reading a stage on an app is to spend a significantly greater amount of time due to the many distracting elements which encourage you to seek further information about many different aspects of the journey – lodging, where to eat, comments someone made about this or that, what to do or not to do. Before you know it, you have been sucked into a series of articles or posts and spent much more time than if you had simply had the fixed, sufficient info offered in the guidebook.
In terms of a diary vs a blog, a diary is private, of the moment and may or may not be shared with anyone in the future – usually not. Writing a blog almost always implies an audience which can be very small (family and a couple friends) to a very large, unknown audience. The tendency when writing for an audience is to create a version of events for that audience. Depending on how the blog is set-up, the pilgrim may or may not receive instant feedback.
Whatever you choose, be aware of the hazards that an app or a blog will have on increasing your mind’s distraction, time spent on line and less time spent physically and mentally where you are.
11) Dealing with the new 21st C Pilgrim Ritual: Post-Walk Tech Time
Habitual mobile tech usage has created new needs and new neediness in 21st C pilgrims. One of these new needs is the daily internet fix, ie, “tech time.” Tech time consists of a window, usually after checking in for the night and doing a few basic chores, to settling down for a period of time to do a series of internet activities that may include: checking and answering messages, catching up with the world, processing and sending photos, blog writing, social media posts and updates, planning the next day, entertaining oneself, etc, ie, disconnecting mentally from your immediate reality and sharing in some way the day’s events via the internet with a larger audience. People often sit in common rooms, where the band width of the WiFi is best, and connect to their devices and disconnect or tune out of the world around them.
Due to the rise of the Internet, a new concept of “being away” and “doing the Camino” has evolved in the 21st C Camino experience: the Camino is when I walk and then I have “free time” to do other stuff. Before the Internet Age, the Camino existed outside of “normal time” and was a complete, bracketed experience of time away in a very different space and place. Our devices now allow us to rupture constantly our sense of being away in a new place, space and time. It’s much harder to listen and flow into the cyclical sense of the Camino and perceive the “out of time” feeling that once was normal. The current trend is to constantly break up the day into mental engagement and disengagement rather than give oneself a long, extended period of mental disengagement over days and weeks. Rather than a mentally freeing space, the Camino potentially becomes a very busy place mentally where people feel stressed about all the “stuff” they need to do during their “tech time” to keep up, the family informed, and the audience happy. People also start to complain about the poor WiFi that doesn’t allow them do what they want so they can have more free time on the Camino. For some, this adds a layer of stress never before witnessed in pilgrimage as an experience! 21st C pilgrims choose to keep themselves busy, distracted and mentally burdened to a much greater degree than ever before. Why?
What did people do before Tech Time existed? What would you do with “freed up mental space?” “Tech time” replaces what pre-Internet was valuable downtime, socializing time, exploring time, rest time, reflection time. 21st C tech pilgrims need to be doing something all the time because that keeps the mind busy and engaged. What did you used to do? You hung out. You walked out the albergue/refuge and maybe interacted with a local or people-watched in the park. You observed. You got bored. You played cards, read a book, wrote in a diary, sketched a drawing, longed for something, thought of a loved one, thought of another pilgrim, reflected on the day, walked around the village, wandered over to the church, ran into someone you hadn’t seen in a few days as you wandered, wondered if you would make it or what you were doing there, made a communal dinner, shopped in town, made some stupid mistake and felt embarrassed about it. Since you were often feeling lots of different things on the Camino, you may even have felt more sexual and decided to go talk to someone you thought attractive. You looked up at the sky. You sang, wrote letters, sent postcards, and learned some new phrases in another language. There was no way out of the moment. You lived and you learned. Now we insulate ourselves from experiencing what is around us in favor of what is out there in the CLOUD as if that were more important than what we have in the present. As Master Oogway says in the Disney movie Kung Fu Panda:
“There is a saying: yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the "present.”
Extended Tech Time takes us away from the present that is the Camino as a whole and we lose the possibility of living it fully. Try keeping your head out of the Cloud!
12) Other Pilgrims’ Tech Usage
A great part of the Camino pilgrimage experience is the Camino community and developing a feeling of belonging. On the Camino you will encounter many different tech mobile usage patterns among pilgrims that mirror what you will find in daily life. You may be eating at a table with other pilgrims who will multi-task your conversation by using their phone while chatting with you. Or, you may encounter people who entertain themselves before going to bed with iPads, reading with bright lights and the pinging of notifications coming in. You may find yourself alone during “tech time” if you don’t connect with your device. If you choose to go less tech connected than others, you may end up feeling more isolated from some of your companions. These can be opportunities for reflection, conversation, or compromise. It is now part of the 21st C journey and reality. Reflect on how your actions, and those of others using their tech, potentially impact the community.
13) Trip Advisor Camino
The tendency in the Internet Age is to try and do everything “right” and have the perfect Camino with no glitches, no worries and no problems. There is no perfect Camino. Whatever you do, is your Camino. People frequently ask is it “cheating” if I do this or that. There is no official Camino “rule book. “ There are a lot of unstated, and often conflicting, norms among pilgrims that is part of the “Camino culture” of the late 20th C and early 21st C experience. The seeming ease to have the “real”, “authentic” or “right” Camino is heightened in the Internet Age with the rapid transmission of constantly updated information by an infinite number of experts. Platforms, such as TripAdvisor, are used by pilgrims to rate albergues, monuments and experiences that generate opinion on what is the “best” among pilgrims. We bubble wrap our experiences by always following the Trip Advisor recommendations to make sure “nothing goes wrong”. Pilgrims often read and trust these recommendations on line rather than simply explore on their own. By following all of the “recommendations” to have the “perfect Camino”, you limit your choices, your own criteria and miss opportunities to experience something for yourself. You let other people choose for you and, in the process, lose the diversity of the experience. The problem is if you don’t check stuff out yourself from time to time, you limit your opportunities to learn or grow and you decrease your face-to-face encounters. There’s nothing wrong with things “going wrong” from time to time – it converts your travel experience into a journey, into an adventure and these “bad experiences” often make the best stories in retrospect.
14) Try to deal first on your own before turning instantly to your tech to resolve a moment of adversity.
Reflect on how and when you use your tech on the Camino. As people become more and more dependent on their mobile devices, when adversity arises, the trend is to more and more quickly turn to the mobile device for the solution rather than try to work it out for oneself. People believe they are more independent but, mentally, they actually become more fragile and dependent on their devices to resolves situations when the “going gets tough”. What do I mean by the going getting tough on the Camino? I dedicated a chapter in my 1998 book Pilgrim Stories to the “Landscapes of Discovery” in which I describe how the obstacles that people overcome typically become pathways to growth, confidence and self-empowerment. One common “trial” that people face is “getting lost”. Someone will be walking along, lost in their thoughts and then realize that they don’t see any more yellow arrows marking the way. In the Internet Age it is easy to simply take out your phone, connect the map/gps function and follow its directions back to the Camino. Of course there is nothing “wrong” with doing that. What I am suggesting is that you try to first figure out where you went wrong, ask someone who might help and/or work it out for yourself. We atrophy these “dealing” skills when we delegate them entirely to our devices. The number of moving stories I have of people feeling lost and then “found” by another pilgrim, a villager or circumstances is large. These became part of the pilgrim’s journey - lessons in humility, trust or fortitude. Self-reliance is a wonderful skill to develop and sharpen in the safe space that is the Camino. When we lose that self-reliance, we look to our phone and then others to get us out of a tough situation because we don’t realize that often we, ourselves, have the power to resolve our own problems. People end up abusing expensive emergency services because they instantly panic and expect that someone else will resolve their problem for them.
15) Memory and Sharing. You don’t have to remember and share everything!
In our world of instant share and constant photos, people express concern about that they won’t remember if they don’t record everything. Recording, photographing and sharing becomes another layer of work and stress on the Camino. Remember, it is okay not to remember everything that happens or to share everything. When we parcel out experiences through constant sharing as they happen, they potentially lose their deeper power in our total experience. It’s okay to keep things for yourself.
Pre-internet most people did not have cameras on the Camino. If you did have a camera, the photos were never available until after you returned home. Experiences became internalized, mulled over, reflected upon over the course of the whole journey, of the entire bracketed period away. In the Internet Age, the tendency is to capture moments for immediate, rather than simply savor them in the moment. There’s a sense of an obligation to others (virtually connected to your Camino) and to oneself to record as much as possible that exerts pressure on 21st C pilgrims.
I have observed repeatedly with some 21st C tech pilgrims is the “I came, I took the photo, I left” phenomenon where a pilgrim arrives at a monument that he/she has probably heard is worth seeing, gets out the phone, takes two or three pictures and then moves on without pausing to observe, go inside, read about it, etc. You can almost hear the inner dialogue: I’ve got the photo that means I’ve “done it”. What’s the point of taking a photo except to remind yourself that you were actually there at some point? It’s like having a Camino photo album but with no experiences behind the photos – Camino of photos but not a Camino of emotions.
The Camino de Santiago pilgrimage offers the ideal environment to disconnect from the worries of the world and connect to a generous community of fellow travelers. The opportunity to take time out and enjoy the simple gifts that the Camino offers, including potentially freedom from mental distraction at least for a limited amount of time, is precious. It’s up to each person to choose whether or not they want to experience that gift or not. Buen Camino!
Short Version. Here are the 15 tips in a nutshell:
1) Reflect before going. Why am I doing this? What is the Camino? What is pilgrimage?
2) Be cognizant of the fact that motives often evolve. Be open to change.
3) Self-monitor your tech usage before going and ask yourself if you want your usage to be the same on the Camino at home/work life.
4) Prepare mentally and physically for the Camino but watch out for Information Overload. Draw a line and resist over-preparing. More information is not necessarily better.
5) Talk before going with family, friends and work about communication expectations on both sides. Do you want real mental distance or do you want to be always intermittently connected?
6) Like motives, your desire to be tech connected often evolves on the Camino.
7) There are many ways to be more or less tech connected on the Camino. Reflect ahead of time about how you might want to manage your connectivity.
8) Sustained disconnection from your mobile tech in habitual users can cause withdrawal symptoms. Be aware of this phenomenon.
9) Question gadgets and apps that encourage mental distraction such as “self-monitoring devices”. Ask yourself, do I really need these on my pilgrimage?
10) Consider using a guidebook vs an app. A guidebook anchors you to the moment, an app (usually) encourages your mind flit around endlessly.
11) A brand new phenomenon of the 21st C pilgrimage is post-walk “tech time”. Reflect on how engaging in this practice undermines your bracketed time away, quickly fills up your freed up mental space and ends up distracting you from being where you are – on the Camino.
12) A great part of the Camino pilgrimage experience is the community and a feeling of belonging. How other people manage their tech also impacts greatly the on-the-ground pilgrim community. Reflect on how your actions and those of others using their tech potentially impact the community.
13) TripAdvisor can be a great tool but in the case of the Camino allows you to bubble wrap your experiences without taking any risks, trusting instincts, exploring on your own, making mistakes – all the stuff that turns a trip into a journey. There is no perfect Camino except your own.
14) When something “goes wrong” try to figure it out first before instantly turning to your phone for the answer. Self-reliance is a fabulous skill to develop and sharpen on the Camino.
15) You don’t have to remember or share everything! Trust being in the moment, rather than always capturing the moment. Savor special sights and moments for yourself from time to time.
*** CAVEAT: This article is not “anti-tech” nor a nostalgic look to the past. I am very aware that our tech industry-driven society now requires us to have mobile phones for many tasks and there are many features that are very convenient and useful. I am not saying that “tech is bad!” I am suggesting that you probably need a lot less tech in your pilgrimage experience than you might imagine! In fact, engaging less with your tech will give you more real life, face-to-face human experience! Also, I am not judging people who use technology or saying that using tech on the Camino will ruin your experience or that having a phone or checking with your family is “wrong”. I am speaking from 25 years’ of experience on the Camino doing anthropological research both before the Internet existed on the Camino and now that it is in full-swing. It is possible to see very clearly how tech usage impacts your mental experience on the Camino and there is a huge difference between these two periods. My point is to help you make real choices. Of course, tech offers many wonderful things to make our journeys easier and are very efficient for all sorts of tasks but that’s not necessarily the stuff a pilgrimage is made of.
Furthermore, I am not talking about have a more REAL OR AUTHENTIC experience. Each person needs to find and create their own authenticity and there is no magic formula that will do this. What I am trying to do is to help people engage more profoundly with the Camino, to get below the surface and discover themselves more intimately. I am not saying this is the right way, the authentic way or the best way.
Over the years Nancy has written a series of articles for different audiences - travel magazines and websites as well as her clients and anyone else who might be interested. Please find them by clicking on the Learning Tab on the top horizontal menu. These articles are organized under different categories of interest:
Cuisine – these include recipes and food history
History – historical points of interest about the Camino
Inspiration – reflections and insights from tours
Movie/Book Reviews – commentaries on relevant media
Our Story – this is a four-part series on the history of On Foot in Spain and our family
Travel – articles on travel in Galicia
Nancy’s Research – Nancy investigates the impact of internet technologies on the Camino and on what it means to be a pilgrim
If you have any questions or comments for Nancy on her articles or research, please write to her at: .
On Foot in Spain Family (1999-2018), Part IV
By: Nancy L. Frey
Part I of our story covers the early years of On Foot in Spain’s family story.
Part II gets into the logistics of how we made it happen and what the kids do on trips.
Part III explores some of the special experiences, stories and even Camino miracles we’ve had over the years.
Part IV gives thanks to all of those different people who have made On Foot in Spain possible.
Support Team: The Family Behind the Family
Bringing one of the kids has been fabulous but it almost meant that two were left behind. Thankfully we are blessed with a great support system in Jose’s parents and his sister and her husband. The kids are the only grandchildren and nieces and nephews for our Spanish family giving our kids remarkable and close relationships with their extended family. Having their support over the years has made it possible to leave the kids and run On Foot in Spain knowing they couldn’t be in better hands. Needless to say it is always hard leaving the others but this has been our curious family experience. We could never have done it without the extended family support and we are very grateful! The photo below is of the On Foot Family and the Support Team in 2016!
I also cannot forget to mention the bus drivers who have shared all of these journeys with us over the years. Some of the drivers took a very special interest in the kids and enjoyed their free time with them. We were grateful on numerous occasions for their care, understanding and assistance helping us in a busy moment when our four hands were occupied and a little one needed a hold. Thank you especially Luís, Jose Manuel, and José who all took numerous trips with the kids from when they were babies. In the photo below Jose Manuel talks to Sam who is sitting in the cargo bay of the bus.
The Family Across the Seas
I grew up in California. When I chose to make my life in Spain it meant that I would be very far from my family. That has been the biggest challenge of living abroad for me. Fortunately I have intrepid parents who have joined On Foot in Spain – my Dad and Mom once in the Picos de Europa and my Mom on a total of five trips. My Dad instilled a love of hiking and the outdoors in me at an early age taking us on annual summer trips to Yosemite and always encouraged fitness, a love of history and the power of engaging deeply with nature. My Mom has always been my unconditional rock and support and sharing with her this country and people I love has been a very special experience. I am very proud of her trips and strength as she strode along in her 70s along the Camino with great verve and energy. What an inspiration! She joined us in 2004 in Portugal with Marina on board. Here are the three generations.
Our Extended On Foot Family
Something that makes our company unique is that Jose and I decided from the beginning that we would lead all of our tours. Consequently, we personally know all of clients from the first email to the final goodbye. There were many points along the way when we thought about expanding in various directions, hiring guides, increasing tours, and turning On Foot in Spain into a larger enterprise. We would hem and haw (mostly me) and finally come back to the same decision that coincided with our own philosophy – we wanted to keep On Foot in Spain very personal, ensure high quality and guarantee that an experience with us would be more like traveling with friends and family than with an impersonal company.
(Photos: Left – I have man photos of Jose sleeping with the kids on the bus. This is my view from the front seat looking back. Here, Jose and Marina are snoozing as we drive along. Right – A picnic at Cirueña on the Camino de Santiago tour where the clients are stretching, elevating and Sam is doing his own thing with balloons around a fountain he spent many joyful moments playing around).
This decision meant that we kept things small because to provide a very personalized service, maintain an enriching and fulfilling home life as well as getting the necessary rest in between trips, it was necessary to limit the amount of travel time during the year. It seems to have worked. Over the last 18 seasons Jose and I have led 1501 people on 159 tours. Now in 2018, as I write this, 90% of our clients are either return walkers or friends of friends. Every year we have walkers repeat with us and who we now count as our friends. Our On Foot Family is truly our international extended family!
Nancy and Jose possess this wonderful talent of bringing people together in their trademark and subtle and gentle way. Meeting and getting to know this fantastic group of people was one of the many highlights of the walk. I am convinced that the group’s collective experience was enriched by the expert facilitation of Nancy, Jose and Sam. Thank you for making this such a fantastic experience …and for your skill and thoughtfulness.
(Photo: Left – Jose prepares the picnic while Sam explains what he’s doing to his friend Anne. Right – Nancy and Sam with our stones at the Iron Cross in September 2007)
We would like to thank all of you for accepting and embracing our family in our business and sharing with us experiences that have become a lifetime of memories. You have become part of our family and our shared memories are now part of our family and the On Foot in Spain story. On Foot in Spain has always been more than just a “business” for us, it is a life project and a philosophy. Thank you.
Marina and the Group joining hands in 2012.
On Foot in Spain Family (1999-2018), Part III
By: Nancy L. Frey
Part I of our story covers the early years of On Foot in Spain’s family story.
Part II gets into the logistics of how we made it happen and what the kids do on trips.
Part III explores some of the special experiences, stories and even Camino miracles we’ve had over the years.
We like to think that some of the good vibe of the Camino and the joy of having family aboard have inspired at least two and maybe three Camino miracles over the years. When Marina went on her first trip as a dear 5mth old baby, we were joined by a lovely, young couple who shared with me that they wanted to have children but had given up hope after trying for years. Imagine our surprise when they wrote to us several months later to say that they were expecting a baby and they thought the Camino had worked some magic and cute Marina had been an inspiration. Three years later when Sam was 6mths old, he joined us on one of his first trips. In attendance was a couple from Singapore on their honeymoon. Sure enough 9mths later, we received an announcement in the mail that they had had a baby boy and put Samuel as his middle name!
In the photo on the left, Marina, Jose and Nancy take a break at the bar in Gonzar along the Camino in July 2012 during the Compostela tour. On the right, Nancy picks up Sam to give him a big kiss after finishing the stage with the group and arriving for the picnic that Sam and Jose have prepared. For those of you who remember that picnic, Jose is taking out of the bag the octopus (Pulpo a la Féria) that I have just bought in Melide for us all to enjoy warm and savory.
Your relationship with each other and your love for Marina were important parts of the whole experience for me. Your individual personalities and the quality of your interactions added a dimension to the tour. I cannot explain it very well, but in a sense you, and how you interacted, reinforced the spiritual part of the Camino for me. –Bill
Entertaining themselves Can Lead to Entertaining Others
Inevitably on tours, our kids spend a lot of time entertaining themselves. In the bus, we would have a box that contained our child’s collection of books, pens and crayons, sketch pads, dolls, cars and whatever else suited their fancy. As word spread that one of our children would be on tour, the kids would occasionally receive a little gift from a client including a number of books over the years that have become family favorites including the delightful Where is the Green Sheep?, the very inspiring family travel story Are We There Yet? or, specifically for Sam (I am) the funny Seuss story Green Eggs and Ham. Our kids became experts in Australian animals with wonderful books about all those curious marsupials and birds with funny names. A couple of Canadian beavers made an appearance to Marina’s delight and she proceeded to incorporate them into her imaginative play. Here she shows the beavers (left) to a woman (who had me in stitches much of the trip) and Sam with his drawing book on the bus (right).
On some occasions people can’t walk or don’t want to walk for one reason or another and then end up spending time in the bus. If one of our children is on the trip, sometimes they do a bit of bonding and this can become an unanticipated dimension to the trip. Sam loves to sketch. He would often sit in his chair and sketch dinosaurs, mermaids, people – whatever he was thinking about. Sometimes a sketch would make its way up the bus from a passenger in the back and then a story or further drawings evolve from there. In these two photos below, Sam is leaving his mark at the powerful Cruz de Ferro/Iron Cross, the Camino’s literal highpoint (1504m) in June 2013. People often bring stones or other mementos from home to deposit at the foot of the cross.
On the final dinner in Santiago, we invite the child who has been with us to attend with the group. Typically, Sam would draw a mermaid or portrait of each person to give them as a going away gift. I’ve had repeat clients tell me they still have their drawing in a book or marking a page. Here we are at the final dinner at the Parador in Santiago de Compostela in May 2011 (my how time flies!).
Not all a bed of roses!
There have been challenges on the road with the kids. It would be a lie if I said it wasn’t at times exhausting managing all the roles and trying not to let it show. On occasion a lost dummy/pacifier would signify a minor crisis or a sick little one who would have a restless night meaning we might not get all the sleep we might have wanted. One funny moment was when Marina sent her shoe out the window, to her great delight, of a hotel into a stream and she watched it float away never to be seen again. What are the odds of that?
One event I still cringe about came at the end of the walk down a long lovely mountain into Molinaseca. The group was sitting down in a circle having drinks in an idyllic spot next to a cool river. Marina was about two years old and just walking. She climbed up into an empty chair and was smiling and looking at the clients who thought she was pretty cute. I was standing behind her making sure the chair wouldn’t tip over and then something happened and she was falling through the air and fell flat on her face. I was devastated (and the clients horrified). Everything has a silver lining though and it turned out that were three pediatricians on the tour and they leapt to their feet take a look at her. She couldn’t have been in better hands and fortunately was soon better.
n the photo on the left, I get a hand from a young man traveling with his family along the Camino. They were a wonderful group of three siblings who made an effort to get all of the cousins together and take a family adventure. We were very fortunate to share the Camino with them. On the right, Sam and Jose look down the drain hoping to find some lost object. I hope it wasn’t too important (I don’t remember so it must not have been too traumatic)!
On occasion rainy weather provided challenges for keeping little ones dry and entertaining beyond the bus or the van. The bus is equipped with a video player and sometimes when the clients are walking, Jose might slip in a favorite movie on a rainy day. Some of the favorites included Mamma Mia, Nemo, Duma and Kung Fu Panda. One rainy afternoon Sam was watching Kung Fu Panda and the walkers arrived. It was nearing the end and I went to turn it off. Some of the people in the group spoke up and said – “No, keep it running.” It turns out the Disney’s Kung Fu Panda has a lot of Buddhist philosophy woven in and encourages focusing on the here and the now, a message that people often find resonates with how they feel on the Camino. At one point the character Master Oogway says,
There is a saying: yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the "present.”
In the end Sam’s movie ended up reinforcing what some people were already experiencing, the gift of the Road, the laughter, the spontaneity, the joy of the group, the time away, the power of the present. We all laughed about it and how this silly Disney movie could somehow have enhanced and reinforced the Camino experience.
"We loved seeing your beautiful family interact and think you are so fortunate to have and enjoy each other. And we are fortunate to have met you!” Margarita and Diego
In this photo, I have just been reunited with Sam or Marina at the final picnic on Monte Pedroso outside of Santiago de Compostela on our 11-day Camino de Santiago tour. Often on the last day, at the last picnic, we would get a surprise visit of one of the other children. Despite the challenges involved with bringing the children, it has always been worth it. We have been able to have special one-on-one time with each child and, despite being away and working, we were able to share very meaningful time with each one while on tour. Jose also knows every single outdoor play park in northern Spain!
Making Connections and Corrupting influences!
We have enjoyed the client interactions with our kids immensely. It’s something we try not to push onto our clients (as again, we don’t want our kids to be the center of attention) but sometimes our children and clients simply connect. We love how relationships can develop that cross age, nationality or sex which is also what happens on the Camino when people can meet one another wherever they are. We’ve had offers of babysitting on a free night, lots of requests to hold and feed the babies, and spontaneous story-telling sessions. The kids are all bilingual and speak English, American-English, of course because of my influence. I’ve had a number of non-Americans get on the bus and hear one of our kids speak and say “They have an American accent!” Well, of course, they aren’t going to speak Australian!
In the photo on the left Marina, on the Camino Portuguese tour, learns how to cut her thumb off without blood in 2010 and Sam (right) introduces clients to the joys of foot elevation and resting after the picnic in Uterga in 2015.
The kids have also been introduced to other local customs by clients who’ve enjoyed their company post-walk. In this funny photo, six-month old Sam (2007), on one of his debut trips, is on the lap of an Australian man getting ready to initiate Sam into one of his country’s customs! He looks a little overwhelmed.
Sometimes these connections have continued post-tour and Sam has become pen pals with several clients over the years. In fact, right now he is writing a story, chapter by chapter, back and forth through the mail with a special woman who has traveled with us five times.
To read the final chapter of the On Foot Family story, go to On Foot Family Part IV.
On Foot in Spain Family (1999-2018), Part II
By: Nancy L. Frey
Part I of our story covers the early years of On Foot in Spain’s family story and Part II gets into the logistics of how we made it happen and what the kids do on trips.
The backpack, the stroller and the bicycle
Often people ask – “Do they walk the whole thing?” Typically, in our division of labor, Jose organizes everything behind the scenes making sure things runs smoothly and I walk with the clients on the trail and explain the sites as we go. When one of our children joins us they typically become Jose’s helper and “right hand man/woman”. Consequently, normally our child will be with Jose organizing and I’ll be walking though as they got older they would also walk on their own with me and/or the clients. In the two photos below, you can see Marina walking with a client in 2012 and Sam taking a photo along the Camino with another client as they walked along (thank you, France, for this nice shot!).
On some of the tours there are sections that allow Jose to walk and if we are with one of the children they have been able to come with us when they were little in a backpack, when a bit bigger in a stroller, walking on their own or even on bicycle from time to time on the Meseta. We believe that Jose lost 3 or 4cm of height due to carrying the children over the years many, many kilometers in the backpack! Here is Jose carrying Marina on the left in 2004 and carrying Sam in 2007 (right).
The stroller was worth its weight in gold, now long retired, and enjoyed many trips down the Camino with each of the kids. Often we would come up with funny ways to keep the hot sun off the kids with clothes pins, light blankets and, when those failed, small branches with large leaves. On the left you can barely make out Marina under the ferns in the stroller along the Camino in 2005. On the right, someone took this nice photo of Jose and me walking into San Juan de Ortega pushing the stroller in 2008.
It makes me smile thinking of Sam sailing down the hill on his little bike on the Meseta outside of Hornillos del Camino. Here are a couple of photos of him on the Camino in 2013.
What the kids do on a tour
Depending on their ages and interests the kids normally spend a lot of time on tour helping Jose organize, prepare picnics, shop and/or interact with clients. Since the days are long, the children typically do not attend dinner and instead have some kind of culinary adventure with Jose as the clients and I head off to a restaurant meal. Each day we pass out maps to the clients and review the section to be walked. When one of our children is on tour they take over the role of passing out maps, helping clients stamp their Pilgrim’s Credentials, find the yellow arrows and sometimes pass out chocolate or fruit to happy and tired walkers. On the left Jacob stamps the credential for one of our pilgrims in 2005 and Sam passes out dark chocolate with almonds on the bus in 2013.
A very important role the children take on during our tours along the Camino de Santiago is to give a scallop shell to each client as they begin their journey along the Camino. Somehow receiving your scallop shell from a little hand takes on special meaning; especially knowing that that same hand may have picked up that shell back home in Galicia months before. The scallop shell is a beautiful symbol of rebirth, regeneration and fundamental to the Santiago pilgrimage experience. One of our vital On Foot activities, that does not take place on tour, is collecting scallop shells for our journeys along the Camino. Beachcombing for scallop shells that will be become part of our tours is a cherished family activity. Please follow this link (https://www.onfootinspain.com/tours/learning/articles/beachcombing-scallop-shells) to read about our beachcombing for scallops on the Galicia coast. On the left Marina passes out shells in 2008 at Roncesvalles and Sam does the same in 2013.
Sometimes Jose walks backwards from the meeting point to meet clients. He is always a welcome site, especially when joined by one of the kids whose energy usually inspires the walking the last few hundred meters. When we are on the Meseta one of the memorable sights are the huge stacks of rectangular hay bales that lay off to the side of the Camino. Normally, pilgrims don’t climb these but it’s one of Jose’s favorite things to do when he is accompanied by one of the children. Seeing Jose and Sam, Marina or Jacob waving down from the high haystacks greeting pilgrims is a memory that often sticks in our clients’ minds. On the left, Jose and Sam are visible atop a huge stack of bales on the Meseta in 2013 and 10 years earlier (2003) you can see Jacob and Jose pushing a huge bale across the wheat stubble.
As the kids mature they generally want to walk with the clients, chat and interact. It’s been lovely to observe the unexpected bonds that have developed sometimes between clients and one of our children that neither part expects. Sam has a particular fondness for older women (‘grandmas’) and from a very early age would be very attentive – buttoning a forgotten button, rolling up or down a sleeve, holding hands or remembering forgotten walking sticks. He has been called on occasion an ‘old soul’. He has also learned how to converse with adults quite adeptly. He normally puts them through a series of questions – asking questions that he was often asked first by adults – favorite color, animal or book. Consequently, he would often ask his walking companions: “How old are you?” a typical question he was asked. As age can be a sensitive subject, I would overhear conversations and start to cringe thinking – ut oh, where is this going? With some trepidation, I might here an answer such as “72”, “58” or “75” and Sam, the sharp fellow that he is, would immediately respond, “ Oh, that’s not old. 90 is old!” The laugh, relief and gratitude of the client was quick and spontaneous. Sam was never coached. He just somehow knows how to be with people and make them feel good. Here is Sam helping explain the picnic to Ann in 2014.
Marina has enjoyed meeting people from around the world and practicing her English like she did with Allison along the Camino in July 2012 (left). Sam and Annette have become pen pals after coinciding on several trips together. Here they are on the Camino Portuguese together in 2016 (right).
In 2017 we had a client with us who had traveled with Sam on the same trip along the Camino in 2014. Due to school obligations, Sam was unable to go on this trip and the client conveyed to me how special his presence had been (something I hadn’t known previously). On the tour we reached a small chapel in the middle of nowhere and the client stopped and looked at me with a smile and said, “I remember this place.” He described how Sam joyfully appeared, did the splits on the open-air altar and then helped pass out melon as I began to tell the story of the site. When I was going through the thousands of photos that I have collected over the years, I was tickled to find a photo of Sam doing the same splits on the altar the client was referring to in the anecdote above (June 2014).
On the right, the group has stopped to see a slow worm that Sam has found as they hike up to Cebreiro in 2012. By the way, a slow worm is neither slow nor a worm. It’s actually a totally inoffensive legless lizard that slithers along like a snake and sometimes has vestigial forelegs.
As our children have matured their roles have also evolved. Jacob has accompanied Jose on a number of private trips, accompanying the groups, explaining sites, helping him prepare all parts of the trip behind the scenes and been a great companion. When Jacob was 15 he joined Jose to help him with a private, youth group that was walking the last 100Km to Compostela. Afterwards the organizer wrote (who had also traveled with Marina when she was a baby):
“I just have to tell you what a special young man Jacob is (although I am sure that you already know that). He worked really hard to be a good guide and he was, but he also became one of us as the week went on and we all fell in love with him. Our guys thought the world of him and consider him now a friend and he holds a very special place in my husband’s heart.” Sarah
As a mother, being able to combine work and family means the world to me. I like this photo of me and Jacob (2005) and the rapport that we have as we connect and share some thought or idea while enjoying Jose’s picnic. Jacob always had a skill of conversing with adults on a wide range of topics (history, politics, science) from an early age. In the photo on the right, he chats with the group below the Cabo Vilano lighthouse on the Galicia hiking tour in 2005.
To read about some Camino Miracles, go to On Foot Family, Part III.
Jacob (1999), Sam (2006) and Mariña (2003)
On Foot in Spain Family (1999-2018)
By: Nancy L. Frey
Combining family and work life is inevitably a juggling act. Jose and I have been fortunate to be able to bring both together and over the last 19 years by frequently incorporating one of our three children into our tour experiences. Growing up with the business has proven to be extremely rewarding with many unexpected and happy outcomes for us, our kids and our travelers. Looking back over the years I marvel to think of walking through two pregnancies, bringing the babies and watching the little ones grow up picking up sticks or dropping leaves down streams as they walk along the Camino or meeting hundreds of people from all over the world. It’s been quite an adventure and we’d like to share with you some of these On Foot Family memories and show you how our family has grown over the years.
As one client shared with us:
“We are so grateful you are in the business of building memories and relationships. Your family approach to life and work transforms thinking and inspires us.
Ever grateful, Connie & Bill”
Children offer spontaneity, openness and a unique vision of the world which is less inhibited than that of an adult. Seeing experiences through their eyes can be very renewing and enlightening. Anyone who has children (or doesn’t!) knows that it’s a risky activity letting a potential loose cannon, such as a child, free in your business. The kids always understood what we expected behavior-wise when we’re on a trip and they learned to be good hosts from an early age rather than the ‘center of attention’. Consequently, it has worked very well over the years and generated an incredibly positive reaction from those who travel with us. In the photos below are Jose, Marina and “Pepito” in 2005 (left) and Sam with plums in 2014 (right).
How did we do it?
We launched On Foot in Spain on the internet in 1999 the same year our eldest, Jacob, was born. I should mention that Jose and I walked the Camino in June 1998 leading a group of university students when I was three months pregnant with Jacob and that is how he got his name. Jacob is another way of saying Santiago as is James, Jacques or Jaime. We ran our first tour in 2000 when Jacob was about 1 year old. We decided it was best if we got into the swing of things first before adding in extra, unpredictable elements. He made his debut in 2001 at the end of a long Camino tour and it was a delight to see him and have the clients meet him. We thought maybe in the next year we could incorporate him into a tour. In 2002 he joined a youth group from New York City we led along the Camino, picking up new lingo from them and then started to come regularly on tours. In the photo on the left, Jacob is handing out a chocolate to a member of a wonderful women’s hiking club that has joined us on two trips (2003) and on the right Jacob is helping Jose prepare a picnic atop Monte Pindo on our Galicia hiking tour (2005).
Having the kids on board through two pregnancies, babyhood, as toddlers, as growing children and now even as teenagers has been a great adventure. I was very fortunate that my pregnancies were uncomplicated. I’m one of the lucky women that never experienced nausea or morning sickness of any kind during my three pregnancies. Leading walking tours was also a great way to stay fit while pregnant and I was able to walk up to the seventh month with both Marina and Sam. In the photo on the left, taken in Sept 2003 at the Sierra del Perdón along the Camino de Santiago, I’m 6 months pregnant with Marina. On the right, Marina helps me explain the picnic on a Portugal tour in 2006 when I was 4 months pregnant with Sam.
Marina and Sam were also “planned pregnancies” in the sense that we knew we had a window of opportunity to make family-life and work compatible and this is why they both are born within a few days of each other – Marina December 5th and Sam on November 27th. You see they both needed to be travel-ready babies by the time the tour season started in April or May. Sure enough both Marina and Sam made their debut on the Camino, outside of the womb, when they were 4.5 to 5 months old. Below on the left, Marina and I take a break at the picnic in 2004 while an attentive Cynthia keeps us company. On the right precocious Sam began driving the bus in 2007.
I breast fed both of them for about 8 months so needless to say that provided additional challenges (and somewhat comical in retrospect) in tour leading. As my role is typically to walk with the group and Jose handles everything behind the scenes organization-wise, how was I able to maintain breast feeding, walking and leading all at the same time? Jose has this knack of always appearing when you most want or need him. Sure enough, at just the right time, Jose would show up in the van with Sam or Marina and we would have a peaceful moment of rest and nourishment. Sometimes I look back and think, how did we do it?
Some of my favorite photos from this period are the ones clients have sent of me explaining Jose’s great picnics with Sam or Marina tucked under my arm looking very interested and curious about what is on the table. Marina helps me explain the picnic on the left in 2004 and Sam on the right in 2007.
Babies are delightful and very unusual to have on a tour. Somehow the babies were all ‘good’ and simply brought joy to the groups – gentle cooing, singing to themselves and open-eyed curiosity. As one client wrote about Sam when he was 6mths old:
Dear Sam, Thank you for being the bright light that shone on us as we made our way along the Camino. You made our journey a very special one. Hugs and kisses, The Group
These are two photos of dear Sam taken in 2007. On the left, that’s how he looked greeting people when he got on the bus (note the dear Australian koala by his side!) and on the right hanging out with the girls during free time.
Or about Mariña:
“Mariña made my Camino most unforgettable. I wish I had more time to hold her.” Paul
On the left in May 2004, Paul holds Marina and, on the right, Sarah in June 2004.
To keep reading about how the On Foot Family evolved, continue here On Foot Family, Part II.
Beachcombing for Scallop Shells with On Foot in Spain
A version of this article was posted on On Foot in Spain’s Facebook page 21 Dec 2014
By Nancy L Frey, February 2018
On our Camino de Santiago tours we gift our walkers scallop shells, the primary symbol of the Santiago pilgrim. We gather these shells ourselves from the Ría de Arousa in Galicia, the very same estuary in which the Apostle James’s stone boat sailed looking for safe harbor before eventually being buried in what came to be known as Santiago de Compostela. This image of St James/Santiago (note he’s standing in a boat dressed as a pilgrim) comes from the town of Ribeira on the Ría de Arousa.
In winter we like to go with our kids to a favorite set of beaches to find shells, beachcomb and enjoy this magical, remote spit of land in the sea. Beachcombing is a marvelous, relaxing activity that we enjoy together as a family and individually as we discover the wonders to be found on these magnificent beaches. Here Sam sits in the distance floating atop a sea of shells.
You have to go at low tide to cross over to the string of shell beaches where we find the scallops (and lots of other shells!)
We've reached the first set of beaches. The beaches lie at the mouth of the estuary where the open ocean batters the coast. Striking deep mustard-yellow lichen adorn the granite boulders.
Scallop shells start to appear - buried beneath other shells, wedged between rocks, in the water. Some shells are whole, others are broken, weathered or worn.
Scallops come in many color variations and sizes. They are all unique like each pilgrim and his or her journey.
Reaching the next set of beaches, we continue our trek out along this rocky spit that reaches out into the open ocean. It looks like we might be able to walk all the way to Sálvora Island but no chance. The urge to see how far you can go is strong.
Scallop within a scallop - one of the many gifts from the sea.
We each search for shells and anything that captures our fancy - sometimes together, sometimes alone.
Along with the scallops, we find razor clams, limpets, many types of snails, mussels, oysters, cockles, clams...
At high tide the water will cover this beach completely. We always keep one eye on the water to make sure we don’t get caught. Being out here is mesmerizing.
When you get down on your hands and knees you realize that what looks like sand from the distance is actually an infinite mass of shells in various crushed states. As far down as you dig, all you can find are shells.
The sea birds like to hang out here including many yellow-footed gulls, sandpipers and cormorants. The cormorants like to warm and dry their sleek black wings in the sunshine perched on the rocks.
You can spend hours slowly combing the beach finding special treasures.
Marina holds up a very large yellow-toned scallop.
Jose and Jacob showing some of their finds and Jose holds a stunning pink-tinged scallop.
With an eye on the rising tide, we reluctantly make our way back across the rocks to the mainland sorry that they treasure hunt is over. At the end we pull out our collection of shells and select the ones we can use to gift to our walkers. Inevitably our pockets are filled with sand, polished beach glass and other eye-catching bits and pieces of beach.
Now back home for cleaning, drilling and red cords to be attached for our walkers (to be continued…).