Unwrapping the Days

There’s very little room for mental or physical lazy-ness. Lights are on at 6:00 in the morning. All of the forty bunk beds start stirring in hopes of getting to one of the two bathrooms in the Refugio, before there’s a long queue. Days are starting to set-in to a routine: I lay out the toiletries and clothes at the foot of my bed every night; In the morning I get my stiff body down from the top bunk (they always save the bottom bunks for older pilgrims), grab my stuff and head to the bathroom, pack my bag and be out on the road by 6:30am. Mornings are the best times for me to walk. In the afternoons, my pace becomes painfully slow.

Today, for half of the day the route goes through a quiet dirt path at a pace that allows time and awareness to expand. I’m enjoying the freedom of walking at a little bit more comfortable pace with a manageable amount of uphill and downhill.  By the afternoon, however, it’s contrasted by city sidewalks of Pamplona, a historical Spanish city of about population: 200,000. The largest city I’ve crossed so far. Clouds of pollution that hang in the air above are the biggest indication that you’re close to a city. Rolling meadows slowly turn into cement buildings where everyone is crammed together in unnaturally tight spaces.

Streets of Pamplona, Spain
As I enter the town, accustomed to greeting everyone I pass with a cheerful “Hola,” and getting an equally enthusiastic response in return, I’m surprised at the reactions I get. Most people just stare at me with a blank stare like I’ve broken some sort of a cardinal rule. While others are walking so fast that I don’t actually get see their reactions. I managed to get just a couple of smiles. Then I cross a group of guys, one of them yells out “Guapa,” which means pretty but it sounds so ugly coming from him because of the look in his eyes. I try to shake off that gross feeling and keep walking. The scene is the same as in any major city: streets filled with shops selling duplicates of everything from electronics to pastries, restaurants, and people chatting on cell phones, busily trying to get somewhere that they’re not. I’m ashamed to see a reflection of myself from my own life back home, and it scares me for a moment. Their eyes are either intensely looking for something or completely blank. It’s like they’ve all got the Stepford-wife syndrome. Most people seem to be sleepwalking, they’re moving, but there’s no one home. Everyone’s lost in the crowd. All of a sudden I feel like I can muscle out enough energy to walk over to the next town that is much smaller, instead of staying here as intended. The contrast between the pilgrim community against the regular city life seems too vast for the moment.

About five tiring kilometers later, there’s a small Refugio in the clean and beautiful Cizur Mejur. The town has two small mom and pop grocery stores that close for the afternoon siesta. They have more than enough for all my needs. A nice lady sells me some veggies to stir-fry at the kitchen in the Refugio, a baguette of bread, cheese, and some fruits for tomorrow. This is the most comfortable Refugio I’ve stayed at so far: A nice hot shower is my most favorite feature, so I can actually wash my hair; A small dryer so the thicker pants can be washed and dried tonight, and lots of friendly smiles – aching bodies, but friendly smiles. And eyes looking at you with such tenderness, and lips that ask how your blister is doing even though they don’t know your name, and may not ever see you again. These are the people who have come alive and are living their lives against all odds. They seem to remember that life can be a joy to live, not just a drudgery to go through each day but instead -- a gift to be unwrapped carefully and mindfully.


How I Learned the Meaning of 'Satyagraha'

A labyrinth created by pilgrims on the side of the road
When you are a woman walking alone, you attract all kinds of attention. Having consciously made the decision to be a little bit more reserved than usual as to not attract too many "talkers," it is still challenging to keep to myself.

In Roncesvalles, I arrive at one of the two restaurants that serve dinner for pilgrims. The waitress walks me over to a table of four pilgrims whose meal was already in progress. Just to be polite, I join the conversation. Spanish and Portuguese seem to be the common language in this group of an older Spanish man, a young Portuguese guy, and a Spanish lady. We actually have a very meaningful conversation on topics ranging from walking alone to vegetarianism (a major topic of discussion at each of my meals since this is not-at-all normal in Spain) to spirituality. Right after the meal, we walk over next door to the church that is having a special mass for the pilgrims, since many people actually start the Camino in Roncesvalles. Pilgrims are quietly gathered in the beautiful church, in anticipation of a start to a new journey.

Once the priest starts the prayers, we stand up a few times and bow as the mass continues. You can practically hear the soreness in the muscles every time the entire crowd gets to their feet. My stubborn muscles refuse to move another inch for the day, so I place my hands on the bench in front of me to help me stand each time. Just then, I notice something odd. The Portuguese guy is doing the same thing and his hand happens to touch mine ... not once or twice but three times, even though there's enough space in front of him. Strange, I thought. I didn't even know him, prior to the dinner. He then turns around and asks (in the middle of mass) what kind of perfume I’m wearing. As my doubts of his intentions quickly get confirmed, I head to the door as soon as the mass finishes. He follows and asks what time I’m starting tomorrow and that we should walk together. Wanting to put an end to whatever his intentions were right away, I explain to him very clearly and compassionately that I plan on walking the Camino alone.

Surprisingly, by the next day, I had a stalker situation on my hands. This is the last thing I would expect to deal with on the pilgrimage. Another evening, at the Refugio, the Portuguese guy ends up getting a bunk-bed right next to mine. That's more-than-a-bit odd when there are over a hundred beds spread across about a dozen rooms. Still, there’s not much that I can do. There’s really nowhere to run to. Not just in this town, but even in subsequent towns, he always makes the effort to locate me and happens to be walking at my identical pace. It continues for a week.

My first response is agitation at the sight of this person and a tendency to change plans if he's anywhere around me. But I know that constantly thinking of avoiding someone is not the mental space that I want to be in during a pilgrimage. My second response, though, is to tune in for a subtle lesson that I need to learn from this remarkably awkward situation.

I meditate and soon realize that there are three things I need to do (incidentally, these three things are useful in facing any conflict). One -- maintain internal balance; accept that this is the issue I currently need to address and as, with everything in life, it will also change. Two -- generate compassion for the offending party; And to do that, there has to be total non-violence in the mind. You can oppose a certain action or issue, but hatred and anger towards any particular person simply blinds us. Three -- be steadfast; whatever clear action is taken, remain unwavering in that position.

I’ve frequently thought of Gandhi’s Satyagraha (meaning "holding firmly to Truth") movement as a remarkable tool for India's Independence. But there's actually a deep spiritual basis which can help address any conflict, however big or small. In trying to hold onto what is true for you, the struggle always has to be along the lines of strict non-violence (in body and mind). I’ve heard this word -- Satyagraha -- many times but with every round of practice, I'm starting to understand its depth and strength.

Even with this situation, as soon as I make a firm resolve to practice 'Satyagraha', my experience of the situation changes. I'm making myself very clear at the level of words and actions, but I am no longer reacting to the external circumstances. I'm surprised to see that once I make that mental shift, it really doesn't take up much of my mental energy anymore.

Ironically, after a week of this situation, a random event changed my circumstances and I never run into the Portuguese guy for the rest of my walk. Satyagraha works. :)


Why I Walk

A snail on the side of the highway (of all the places)
Why do you walk? Why do you wake up early every morning and walk twenty-five kilometers to the next village, and get up the next morning and do it all over again for the next five weeks in a row? Even when it’s windy, when it rains, when you’re sick – why do this? Why put yourself through this? 

Every person has their own unique reasons for walking: to cultivate deeper, to pray, to spend time in nature, to challenge themselves, or to simply just walk. Underneath all these responses, though, there is perhaps one single thread that connects them all. A walking pilgrimage is to stop life in its tracks and ask that one fundamental question -- why? Or as Ramana Maharishi might frame it -- who am I?

You leave the comforts of your home and work and people you love, and you put aside the responsibilities of your daily chores and the day-to-day undertakings, simply to answer the primordial call -- why all this? A pilgrimage is about giving full priority to that inquiry. It is about having the courage to stop your world from spinning if only for a bit, so you can look directly in the eyes of life and try to understand its message. Certainly, we've had bursts of joy, glimpses of truth, and whispers of wisdom but those are no longer enough.  A deeper call beckons.

A pilgrimage is a call to pay attention, to look beneath the surface, to listen to the subtle voices from depths of yourself that you never knew.  It is to trust that summoning and allow it to reveal the treasures that were always there. This is why I walk.


Effortless Effort (Day One)

Early morning, I walk out onto the old cobble-stone street in a small French town of St. Jean Pied de Port. A little drizzle in the air would soon become the least of my worries. As I am huffing and puffing up the mountain, 50-something-year-olds pass me by and I wonder if should've prepared for the the physical challenge of this pilgrimage. I thought I was in decent shape -- intense yoga retreat in Central America, climbing an active volcano in Guatemala, underwater caving in Belize. Plus, I had trekked the rough terrains of Himalayas, so why would the French Pyrenees be any harder?  Well, it is. Maybe it is that I'm ten years older now, or it is the wonderful desserts in Paris last week.  :)

It’s steep and foggy. The uphill climb is exhausting my lungs, my calves are turning into jello, and I can barely walk fifteen minutes without needing more oxygen. Under the heavy pack, my back and shoulders also add to my woes. Just about everything hurts. There's nothing along the way -- no food or shelter. And it is cold. There is one small refugio that I already know is full, so my next stop is after 28 kilometers of a rigorous uphill climb. I am not prepared for this.

Despite the doubts about my physical capability, I am mentally excited to step-it-up in the spirit of cultivation. I know that if I get through this day, I will make it to the end. Still, a big If. :)

The fog starting to lift around two o'clock 

As I continue my struggles up the mountain, I notice an old Japanese man walking on the left side of the path ahead. With a pole in each hand, he’s moving slowly up the hill. He has to be hurting more than me but his steps are slow, deliberate, persistent. Just seeing him, I have an epiphany: I am using the brute-force technique.  There is no grace; it is about an accomplishment to get somewhere. This old man, though, walks with a stillness that allows him to find an alignment with his natural rhythm.  

Like the Japanese man, I start walking as slowly as I can and synchronize my breathing with each footstep.  Gradually, my pace picks up but there’s no more pushing or pulling in my mind. There is no conflict, no worry, no anxiety. It’s just one foot in front of the other. The same mountain that felt like my enemy in the last hour is now my ally, supporting my feet and my spirit. Instead of push-stop-push-stop cycle, I start to find my dynamic balance. A task of climbing a mountain has turned into a beautiful meditation.

When I pass the Japanese man, I send out my heartfelt gratitude to him for teaching me this lesson. For the rest of the 20 kilometers, I walk with effortlessness -- stopping only once to eat my sandwich.

Finding the “right” amount of effort is key. I tend to oscillate between pushing too hard or not trying hard enough, but it’s really about finding the effortlessness in between. By the time I reach the Refugio, my body is sore but my mind is fully at ease. I'm ready for the remaining 872 kilometers.

From the Camino Journals April 30

Notes From The Camino

I finished walking the Camino on June 5th and two days later I was on a flight to India to meet up with Nipun and spend time with some of my favorite people in the world. The following weeks were filled with friends (old and new), family, celebrations, service opportunities, a retreat, good food, big bear hugs, and lots of blessings. In the words of my friend Birju, it was simply a “Love-Fest”. No other words to explain it. Needless to say I dived right into it and enjoyed every second of it.  

Now that I’m back home, and trying to take the time to reflect on some of the experiences from my 4-month-hiatus -- one thing that has been a bit of sand-in-my-shoe is that I didn’t update my blog during the Camino as I had intended to. That was definitely the part of the journey that I would’ve loved to share with friends and family, but the Internet access was pretty grim. And once I got to India, life took on a shape of its own. As I go back and read my journal -- yes, the good ol' pen and paper journal I had kept for myself -- I’ll post up some of the entries retroactively.  It was a unique experience and I’ve grown a lot from it, so will be nice to reflect and share simultaneously.