Bent in half, knee-deep in what I swore was snake-infested grass, I couldn’t stop throwing up a mélange of baguette, pâté, and cheese, the latter being the culprit behind what had just become the worst case of food poisoning I’d ever experienced. As another wave of nausea peaked and found its release I imagined that in a dusty Spanish village some five miles away two dogs were also violently ill and wondering what kind of a person, on a spiritual pilgrimage no less, poisons two hungry, nursing mutts. The same kind of person that buys dairy products from an unrefrigerated caravan on the French-Spanish border in the Pyrenees. I swear that in both cases I had the best of intentions.
It was only my second day on the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile pilgrimage that would take no less than thirty days to complete, walking East to West across Northern Spain and ending at the steps of the 12th century cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the rumored resting place of the remains of Sant Iago – the Apostle St. James. Although the Camino can be started in Madrid, Seville, Lisbon or even St. Petersburg, the traditional route, established more than a thousand years ago is called the Camino Frances and it starts in France, at the foot of the Pyrenees in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.
The day before, my cousin Anya and I woke up at dawn and with the inn keeper’s farewell blessing of “Buen Camino!” we walked down the cobblestone Rue de la Citadelle, our metal walking sticks giving a satisfying, rhythmic clank with each step. Other sleepy-eyed pilgrims emerged from doors of the albergues, or pilgrims’ hostels and one by one, we walked through the Port d’ Espagne—an ancient archway on the other side of which the Camino began. With that first step, I was hooked. Within a hundred more, I knew that my exit from the Way of St. James would not be a graceful one. I have never been one to know when to leave a party, and I had a hunch that what I was about to experience, would be better than all the parties I’d ever lingered at, combined. Anya was having a different reaction. With her first step, her feet began to hurt, within a hundred more she was ready to hurl her stick at me.
“This is impossible” she moaned with everystep that followed, occasionally breaking up the monotony with “How far do you think we’ve walked?” and other variations on the “Are We There Yet?” game.
In response I belted out things I’d normally despise people for, like “Can’t you feel the strength in your body? Let that guide you!” and “Mind over matter!” and a whole bunch of other aerobics instructor nonsense with exclamation points. And so the hours passed, her complaining, me rallying as we made our way surrounded by hazy, early-morning peaks and green valleys dotted with drowsy sheep.
When Anya and I first concocted our plan to walk the Camino months before over Skype, I had no idea that I would be the cheerleader on the journey. If anything, I expected that Anya, seven years my junior would be the one running up mountains. But I guess we were still strangers to each other in many ways, coloring in the gaps that can only be filled by shared experiences with what we imagined would be there. It had never been just the two of us before, let alone just the two of us crossing a mountain range, edging closer to a magnificent and terrifying unknown.
I left Russia for New York with my mom and dad about a year after Anya was born. Understandably, she has no memory of the year we spent together in a two-bedroom apartment along with both sets of our parents and our shared grandmother. Luckily, I do. I remember doing what I thought could pass for a cartwheel in the apartment the day Anya was born, just from pure joy of finally having a live doll to play with. I remember stroking her nose with my index finger to get her to fall asleep. When she was learning to walk, I remember accidentally (I swear!) getting her finger caught in the door and how she howled with the pain and I, with the guilt. I loved her before she could control her bowel movements. Her first memory of me is that of a relative from America who came to visit every summer.
We grew up, separately—for the most part. When I was an unruly and angry teenager visiting Russia, Anya was a lonely little girl who unsuccessfully, desperately tried to get my attention. Later, when she came to New York now a teenager herself, we were too shy, too guarded to really connect. Then her parents got divorced and she moved with her mom to Moscow, far enough away from the apartment we shared for that one year, so that I never really got to see her on my trips back home. In the years since the divorce, both her parents remarried and had children. My parents, having never fully recovered from their first foray into parenthood, had no more.
Now we were crossing the Pyrenees together, entering Spain and making a seemingly endless descent into Roncesvalles. We fell dead asleepin the monastery in a roomful of snoring strangers,
Our second day began much like our first—I, looking at every tree as if I’d just been given the gift of sight, Anya as if each tree hid a mortal enemy. We stopped to have breakfast in Burguete, one of several Spanish villages romanticized by Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises. We ordered egg bocadillos—Spanish hero sandwiches and added some pâté and the locally made sheep cheese that I had bought from a caravan the day before. The sandwiches were delicious.
For every one of my cheerful exclamations about the beauty of the morning light, the charm of a distant cowbell or the unexpected flash of red poppy in the fields, Anya had a complaint about the state of her exhausted body, the weight of her backpack, and the increasingly uphill direction of the path. We made a rest stop while passing through a tiny hamlet, empty, save for two very hungry dogs with distended nipples that spoke of motherhood. After spending the morning unsuccessfully trying to infect Anya with my positive outlook, I finally had had enough when she said she was feeling nauseous and suspected that she had food poisoning.
“How could you have food poisoning?! We ate exactly the same thing today, and I feel fine! “ I barked, as I fed what remained of the cheese to the two dogs. Anya bit her lip and we began to walk up the path. Karma moved with lightning speed here on the sacred road of St. James. Less than half an hour after I chastised Anya, nausea hit me like a ton of mold-ridden bricks of cheese. In another fifteen minutes, as Anya began to make a miraculous recovery, I couldn’t walk. I collapsed on the nearest log, fittingly enough, right next to the grave of a pilgrim who died on that spot some years ago. Hard as I tried, I could not help wondering about the role food played in his demise.
It took a good hour before there was nothing left for me to expel, save my spleen. All the time smiling pilgrims would walk by and with a cheerful wave of their hand wish us a “Buen Camino!” As politely as possible, Anya shooed them away, knowing exactly how it felt to be miserable in the face of such enthusiasm. She also gave me what remained of her water after I’d depleted my own supply, and let me lean on her as we began to walk again. Every ten feet I would crumble to the ground and sit there, completely helpless and hopeless. Then Anya would pick me up and we’d take a few steps until, as if my bones were liquefied, I’d be a sweating pile of mush on the ground once more. So it went, until we reached a road that cut through the pathway of the Camino.
We had two choices. We could spend the next few hours walking that last couple of miles, following the route of the pilgrimage in a painfully slow tempo or we could catch a car and be there in ten minutes.
“What do you want to do?” Anya asked.
“I can’t take a car, not on the second day, please can we try to walk it there?”
Anya had every excuse to flag down a car—my inability to walk without her help and my probably needing a doctor, for starters.
But then Anya cast some light on a part of her I didn’t know yet, the part that instinctively knew when she needed to be on my side, no matter how much my side needed to have her head examined.
“Right. I’ll carry as much as I can but we have to throw out some of this stuff,” she said, opening up my backpack.
“Come on! Two pairs of jeans? Where are you planning to wear these? One has to go—choose. ”
“Keep the red ones. I’m planning to fit into them by Santiago.”
“You’re carrying jeans you can’t wear?”
After some bargaining, we settled on leaving a pair of jeans, shoes, a sweater, and some lotions behind. The majority of what was left in my bag Anya stuffed into her own, leaving mine about about the weight of a kitten. And then we walked.
That night we said yes to the first albergue we saw in Zubiri and splurged on a private room right next to a bathroom, just in case. Once I began to feel better, bursts of laughter and snorts shot out from our open window into the back garden as we tried to outdo each other with disgusting jokes about my bodily malfunctions of the day. I couldn’t stop thanking her for standing by me but she kept dismissing my gratitude with a wave of her hand, scrunching up her nose, saying she knew I’d do the same for her.
In Russian, you call your cousin your “sister once removed.” Most people don’t bother saying the whole thing and just refer to their cousins, as sisters. So that is what we told everyone on the Camino we were, omitting the “once removed” bit. We don’t share a set of parents and we grew up on different continents, but we do have the same hair and to our shared disappointment the same muscular, peasant-stock legs. To the shared disappointment of the other pilgrims, we knew all the words to the same Russian lullabies and squeaked out the higher notes of Queen as we walked through the city streets of Leon and Burgos, the vineyards of Rioja, and the endless shimmering, bleached wheat fields of the Meseta plateau. And just like I imagine real sisters do, we had moments when we would stare at each other, a look of disbelief on our faces that said “I didn’t realize it was possible to be this much of an asshole but you have proven me wrong.” We even spent a day walking separately, though never really losing sight of each other.
Along the way, we began to figure out why with the ocean between us, the age gap, the miniscule amount of time we’d spent together, we were still so insistently trying to burrow into each other’s hearts. One afternoon Anya confided in me that with both of her parents now busy with new families she didn’t know where she fit in. “I don’t have a bed anywhere. Either house I go to, I feel like I’m intruding”.
“I know the feeling,” I said. Leaving Russia at age eight had left some gaping holes in my own understanding of family. Even in New York, the house where I lived with my parents for a decade was traded in for a lovely apartment once I moved out as an adult. The truth is, our family had been splintered for generations. Our grandparents got divorced years before either of us had been born and our grandfather moved to a city a twenty-four hour train ride away. We’ve all ended up so far apart, like pieces of a board game that get misplaced over time. What Anya and I realized, was that we were still trying to play the game, wanting so badly to know what it’s like with a full set.
When we started our journey, we had been warned that the third day of the Camino would be the hardest. The adrenaline of the first two days leaves your body; you realize you’ve overexerted yourself and the reality of the hardships ahead sink in. Some pilgrims even head home. For Anya and I, the third day was a breeze. The cheese incident had not only tested our resilience, but it gave us the something that all but guaranteed our success. Every person’s pilgrimage is different but what made it possible for each of us to face our individual trials, both physical and emotional was the certainty that there would always be someone there, who without judgment, without hesitation was ready to shoulder all burdens equally.
As I had predicted that first day, my exit from the Camino was not a graceful one. After three days of shameless, uncomfortable to watch crying in Santiago, as we said goodbye to friend after friend, and the realization that this was the end of our time together hit us, Anya and I took a photo as we boarded a plane for Barcelona, where we would catch separate flights to our respective realities. I, in my red jeans, with a new tattoo of a scalloped shell that symbolizes the Camino swollen on my ankle, our lips and teeth stained with wine, puffy-eyed, with our hair caught in the wind, we look less like two pilgrims at the end of a spiritual journey and more like two escaped in-patients pausing on the tarmac before being wrestled to the ground by burly nurses. But mostly, we look happy. We look like two people who wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in that moment, like two people who found the home they’d both so desperately been missing, 3000 miles from the place where they were born.