Melanie, Anya and I looked like flustered chickens at the start of a chaotic mid-afternoon feeding time as we simultaneously tried to mop up the spilled Rioja from the plastic picnic table with our napkins, dab at the burgundy stains setting in on Melanie’s tan hiking shorts and pick glass shards out of a plate of potato tortilla, gradually turning pink as it floated in a puddle of wine. The broken glass and the wine it held but seconds ago were mine. The stained shorts and soppy tortilla— Melanie’s. The cause of these developments was, as it usually is a perfectly timed and executed leg jerk from me. None of this would have been so bad had Melanie not introduced herself to us just moments before and asked, her rosy face beaming with the promise of friendship, if she could join my cousin Anya and I for lunch.
Anya and I were five days into the Camino de Santiago and Melanie was one of the hundreds of pilgrims that we would eventually cross paths with at the pilgrims’ hostels, over shared dinners in dark taverns and at our ritual morning coffee breaks when the sun’s lazy, sleepy rays were still cool and soft. There was nothing odd about Melanie asking if she could join us for lunch. All of us shared both our destination and the path we were taking to get there which made us a traveling community, a human caravan of sorts. We were spiritual gypsies who shouted out cures for blistered feet across cafés and shared our anxieties about what came next on roads lined with silent sunflowers, indifferent to our worries. We talked to people we would never see again as if they were family and sincerely wished them a safe journey before we caught their name.
The Camino served as a great equalizer— in dusty hiking pants and floppy hats, our faces exhausted and sweaty, without makeup, hairdos, tie-dyed shirts or three-piece suits it was impossible to tell what rung of the social ladder we belonged to and difficult to judge someone as friend or foe, as we sometimes do when we project our stereotypes on unsuspecting strangers. “What do you?” is a question that starts many conversations in New York, but here on the Camino that question seemed absurd since in that moment all any of us were “doing” was trying to get to Santiago in one piece and hopefully find a little redemption and clarity for our troubles. Most conversations began with what brought us here in the first place. What sense of loss, desire for attonement, curiousity or chain of inexplicalbe coincidences made us take the leap? The more pilgrims I met, the more I understood the following two things:
For Better or Worse, We Are All in This Together
It doesn’t take much to view the Camino as a perfect metaphor for the road of life that we are all on. Just like pilgrims walking to Santiago, we all end up in the same place and we have our fears about what that place might look like. On the way there, we come up against the same obstacles, are haunted by the same worries and asking the same questions. No matter our political stance, spiritual inclination or sexual orientation our bodies feel the same joy when we embrace the person we love and we ache the same way when that person is lost. We succumb to age and disease, and if we are lucky, we will live to see wrinkles form around our eyes and fear in the faces of children on the beach when they see our bikinis and speedos. We have so much in common, including that not one of us knows exactly how to to do this life thing. We’re all improvising. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could remember that as we make our way, wishing each other a pleasant trip and offering support instead of judgement when one of us take a wrong turn? Wouldn’t be wonderful to be able to turn to the person next to you on the train or in the post office and say “I’m having a really crappy day” and hear back “just hang in there.”
We All Want the Same Things
I can’t speak for the members of our species that become sociopaths, sadists, dictators or form a dislike for kittens but the rest of us really do want the same things— to be loved, acknowledged, understood, to express ourselves and to feel safe. Any bravado, ego or judgement that we see in each other is either an expression of a lack of those things or a skewed perception of lack. If you can remember that the next time someone takes out their inadequicies on you, try to find some sympathy for them or even give them a hug or my favorite tactic, just smile and say “you know it will all be okay, right?” It will disarm them and I promise you, the more you can see past their hostility, the more clearly they will be able to see themselves.
In case you’re wondering, Melanie was quick to forgive me and my out-of-control limbs. She not only took a risk and let me buy her lunch once the Rioja situation was addressed, she spent most of the pilgrimage walking by my side. She was one of the last people I embraced in the plaza in front of the Cathedral de Santiago. Months later, I hugged her again in a hotel room in Kassel, Germany and this time both of our faces were beaming because the promise of friendship had been kept.