Category Archives: Spain

Lessons from the Camino, Part 2

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.

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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.

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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 

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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

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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.

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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.

Lessons from the Camino, Part 1

Paul

The victorious man before you is my friend Paul, who I met my first week on the Camino de Santiago. He was hard to miss in his kilt,  thick socks bunched up around his ankles,  bare-chested, with a Palestinian checkered keffiyeh wrapped around his head. In lieu of the metal walking sticks most of us were using, Paul leaned on a full-on wooden staff that “called to him.”  I triple dare you to find one person that walked the Camino last July that doesn’t have a photo of this man.

“I have a Master’s in witch-hunting,” Paul would say in his quiet Scotish brogue whenever anyone asked him what he did. What Paul has is a Master’s degree in the history of witch-hunting in Scotland but it was a great pleasure to watch strangers search their brains for the right thing to say to a university-certified insane person. They believed Paul for that first milisecond because Paul had already stepped outside of the box we call realistic. If  a man in his forties could walk 500 miles across northern Spain in what appeared to be a pleated wool skirt, why couldn’t he also have an MFA in the art of chasing  broomstick-riding women who dance naked in the Glasgow moonlight?

I think anyone who met Paul would agree that the Camino would not have been the same without him. And yet this was a man whose vital signs made him an improbable candidate for the pilgrimage. A heavy smoker and a drinker who suffers from dizzy spells,  Paul would get most people’s blessing to just stay home, at least until he became a kale juice-drinking, bicep-curling  health fanatic. Luckily, Paul couldn’t give a crap about most people’s opinions and his determination to walk to Santiago taught me two lessons.

1.  We Are Infinitely More Capable Than We Allow Ourselves To Be

I had some hesitations about my endurance when I started the pilgrimage but I discovered that not only could I walk the Camino with ease but the overwhelming joy I felt doing it meant I needed less sleep, less food and less maintenance work on my blistered feet. By the end I was eating a salad a day and sleeping for five hours a night and I had the strength and energy of a gladiator. Well, a gladiator before taking on a lion anyway. Paul walked slower than me,  he had a harder time with the heat and the upward climbs but he got as much out of the experience as I did. We both felt the same relief, the same bittersweet joy when we collapsed at the steps of the cathedral in Santiago  and judging from the photo above, when he got to the top of a mountain he felt like a gladiator too.

2. You Deserve Your Happy Now

How often do we put off doing the things we dream about because we don’t feel like we deserve them? “I’ll do it when I lose ten pounds, when I quit smoking, when I sort out my family drama, when I get a good job…” The truth is you may never do any of those things, life is like that. But you are perfect just as you are right now, with your extra weight and your extra toe and all the other extras that you’d like to shed. Keep trying, keep working but don’t punish yourself when you don’t succeed by putting off happiness. Paul may never quit smoking, but he got to do something that changed him, something that fulfilled him and made him a more complete person. We all should be doing those things because ultimately, once you treat yourself like a person who has the right to be happy, you’ll find the world agreeing with you.

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