Are We Being Led By The Village Idiot? (Day 28)

As I peacefully walk along on a narrow, windy path through the mountains, I hear an all too familiar sound. It’s the “tck, tck, tck” of someone’s walking pole hitting the rocky path except that it’s a lot more abrupt, impatient, in-a-hurry than usual. I glance behind and see a man in a fully-fitted black outfit, who looks prepared for anything (from running a marathon to robbing a bank). :-) I move over to the side to let him through and greet him with a big, “Hola” as accustomed to by now. He looks at me with a patronizing smile as he quickly passes by. Hunh! Wonder what that’s about.
A beautiful Spanish village on a hill 

A few hours later he passes me up again and looks over his shoulder exactly as he’s passing and yells, “another time” and lets out a big laugh. He’s gone before I could say anything. Throughout the day, he does it again twice, and smugly yells, “another time” as he passes me. At first I'm not sure what he's referring to, and after the second time when I realize he’s trying to say that he’s faster than me, I feel irritated. He’s being just plain rude and silly. Then I find myself laughing at the oddity of the situation. Part of me even thinks that perhaps he’s not all there. And part of me wants to stop him the next time I see him and tell him, “you’re not in a race, you’re on a pilgrimage and anyways if you keep passing the same person moving at a leisurely pace, you’re not really going all that fast, are you?”

The beauty of walking alone is that you notice all the infantile thoughts that cross your mind. Every time I think about the situation I find myself getting disconcerted by it. More than the randomness of this guy, why the heck would I care? Why would I even think twice about it? Yes, he’s rude and strange but it also feels like he’s pushing some deep-rooted buttons. Do I care what he thinks? No, not really. I don’t even have any respect for this guy and don’t even think he’s sane. But there’s a small reactive part of me that wants to walk faster just to get that smug look off his face. Fortunately, I don’t give into that and enjoy my walk at a nice pace.

And luckily I didn’t see him again and savor every step of my walk. The last I see of him was right after he passed me, he was being chased off by a dog in the village. I think the dog might’ve felt threatened by the sound of his walking poles. If he had slowed down, I could’ve helped him walk through the village since I’m pretty good with most dogs.

The whole incident makes me wonder about the influences in our lives. How much of them are based on giving uneven weight to the cynics that we come across. And not to mention the biggest naysayers we carry within each of us. More often than we’d like to admit to ourselves, are we being led by the village idiot?  

(From the Camino Journals May 27th)


Don't Fight the Moment (Day 26)

Once again, I am reminded of the fragility and constant change in each day. I was feeling great yesterday and today there’s a little bit of fever and strep throat that is threatening to develop into more. While walking (as in life) you can never feel like, now it should be all downhill from here. This is the moment where everything is going to be easier after this. I guess this is something that should be somewhat obvious by the mid-thirties. If it hasn’t happened by now, chances are it won’t so time to embrace the reality.

An old home in a village on the path
As a pilgrim, there are constant challenges that keep testing my spiritual and physical limits. So there is a steady effort to maintain the equilibrium. I’m trying to eat healthy and nurse myself back but as I told another woman who was sick and feeling really down about it, “You have to accept the moment. Don’t fight it!” This is the nature of life, always has been as far back as I can remember. This is how life just carries along. It’s only when we create internal conflict about the situation that it becomes a fight, a big obstruction in the mind and heart that brings it down further. In the simple words of a chirpy little fish from Finding Nemo, “Just keep swiminnnnn’ Just keep swiminnnn’.”

The Refugio at Cacabelas is nice and quite private. There are only two beds to each A-frame, chalet style room with common showers for everyone in the middle. The other woman assigned to my room only speaks German so it’s nice and quiet. It’s hard to believe that I’ve been on this walk for almost a month. It feels so natural to wake up early, pack my bag, and get on the road. Being a vagabond with a set destination is easy. There’s clarity of purpose each day. The route maybe different and the towns that I pass through are all unique but the focus remains on continuing on the path. And yet, it’s not about the end goal either. It’s all about the journey and living each day fully, being with the aches and pains and with all the beauty of nature around me all at the same time.

There is no hoping or wishing for anything to be different. One day it’s a beautiful path and an inspiring conversation the next day, aching fever. Life beckons with all its splendor and its frailty. The hero’s challenge then is to answer that call and respond with an open heart -- no matter who is at the door. 

(From the Camino Journals May 25th)


Meeting Friends On the Path to Nowhere (Day 18)

The Flat Mesetas of Spain are exactly that -- flat. Flat as a ruler. You keep on walking and walking and the scenery never changes. Twenty minutes later, two hours later, four hours later – same view. One straight-pebble-filled road with fields on each side, followed by -- nothing that your eyes can yet see. Your rational mind knows that there is something beyond the horizon, but you start to wonder. There are no markers on the road so you could’ve walked 10 kilometers or 15. And with a pain in your leg and a blister on your foot, there’s a big difference between 10 and 15. I try to calculate based on the time and how far I roughly walk in an hour, but the estimate is totally off since I’ve been limping all day. I remind myself to be in the moment. “You’ll arrive when you arrive.”

When I first heard about the Meseta, I was excited about walking on a flat road after crossing all the mountains. It would give the body much needed rest, and I really wasn’t worried about the mind. I know some pilgrims were worried about boredom, I actually looked forward to it so I can see what comes up to the surface from within. The inner voice gets a chance to speak up and a free license to roam the alleyways of the mind.

Walking along the path, I keep having this feeling that it is possible that I may be the only person that exists in the world. The irony of the situation since I'm walking alone to Finisterra, “the end of the world”. My mind knows that it's not true, yet after walking on the same inexhaustible path for hours, parts me of feel that it could be a possibility. Perhaps nothing exists, all the memories are just a dream that I am just waking up from.

Then it strikes me: on this open road there’s nothing to do, no one to be, no birth, no death, no separation from anything else in the world. I’m just a tiny little speck in the world trying to make sense of things much larger than me; Things that I already know deep inside (everyone does) and that don’t require words. I suddenly go from uncertainty and a sense of separation from the world to total oneness. The road and I are the same. The wind, the sun, eternity – they are all right here along on the path. The pain in my leg somehow vanishes, and I continue walking along to the beat of my own heart that is no longer my own. The sense of I disappears if only for a short while.

After a gazillion kilometers later my eyes finally spot the top of a roof in the distance. Could it be I wonder? As I get closer I realized there is a building. Civilization! I finally arrive at the only Café in a tiny village along the 27-kilometer stretch and find T and K chatting over a cup of coffee. They do exist – I thought for a second. I would’ve never thought that someone I know is walking only minutes ahead of me. K pulled up a chair, “take the load off” she smiled. And I did. It was nice to see friends on the path to nowhere. 

(From the Camino Journals May 17th)


Angels in Disguise (Day 17)

Monsterio Santa Clara Courtyard
I’m staying at the Monasterio Santa Clara tonight, a quiet monastery made of massive rocks with a large courtyard. The best part about it is that with just a couple dozen beds, it really is very quiet. As I bring my sore feet and aching body through the door, I’m greeted by a friendly smiling face with the purest blue eyes I have ever seen, “do you want a biscuit, you like some hot tea?” I first saw Reny when I was lying sick on a bench waiting for the Refugio to open along with others. A medium-built man walked in pulling a wagon. Everyone carries a backpack and I remember thinking to myself, “gosh he needs a lot of stuff,” as people cheered his arrival. Everybody seemed to know him. Twenty minutes later a large woman came in without a backpack who I later learned was his wife Bette, pronounced Bet-T unlike the American Betty White – Betty.

Meeting Reny and Bette
The first time I chatted with them was a few days later while I was sitting at a café across from a Refugio, trying to stay warm. A few others walked in like T who joined me. Seeing that there were no other tables available, Reny and Bette came over to our table. (It’s all a big family of pilgrims when you’re walking.) They claimed that their English wasn’t very good so I was lucky to be sitting with T who translated back and forth. T spoke German and that was a language Bette and Reny spoke well. Their story was one of the most touching of all the people I met on the Camino.

Reny on the road
Reny and Betty have two daughters, one of who got into a major car crash and is now bound to a wheelchair. Both of the daughters have been trying to have children for some time and neither has been successful. They’re walking for the health of one of their daughters and praying that they both get pregnant soon. They know a couple whose daughter couldn't have children and after they walked the Camino, she got pregnant and eventually had four kids. Reny joked that they probably needed to do the Camino again to make them stop having kids. Unlike most of the pilgrims, they started from their home in Holland two and a half months ago and have already walked more than two thousand kilometers. Reny explains that they have had no problems so far, except for the first wagon breaking down and needing a replacement. Both of them had so much love in their eyes when talking about their daughters, who don’t even know that they’re doing this for them.

Reny with another pilgrim
After the Café I’d often see them walking, Reny upfront with the wagon and Bette a little while behind. Every day that it rained, I would wonder how Reny was doing with his wagon. And one day as I was struggling through miles and miles of sticky mud I saw him pulling up behind me wheeling his wagon in the mud. “Doing OK, how is the blisters” he called with a big smile and thumbs up sign. I asked him how he was doing, “SUPPPPER,” he yelled flashing his pearly whites again. “Want to put your pack on the wagon”. I declined realizing that that man’s heart and strength had no limits. I could never figure out how he was carrying all that weight with a big smile for such a small guy. He was always going around helping everyone. I later learned that he even has a metal knee because of past knee issues.

Bette was no less of a sweetheart than he. One day, at the end of a long walk I was sitting on the rooftop of a Refugio trying to drain a blister the size of Montana. Betty who happens to be a nurse gently explained the easiest way of doing it. She gave me a triangular metal piece that nurses sometimes use to draw blood. It’s painless and takes a minute (as opposed to using a needle as most people do which always required a lot of time and patience). She said the best thing after draining it is to leave it alone, keep it clean, don’t put anything on it (except hand sanitizer) – and that advice helped me throughout the trip.

Bette on the rooftop
Those two made an amazing couple, you could always find them laughing and talking. The only time I saw them a little worried is when Bette got sick. I happened to be at the same Refugio. The owner of the small (and only) Refugio in town didn’t allow her to spend a second day. She was so sick that there was no way she could walk. Their friends suggested taking a cab to the Refugio 25km away. Bette was so disheartened because she wanted to walk every step, all the way for her daughters. Everyone convinced her to take a cab and rest at the next place while Reny walked and continue from there tomorrow. He still took both of their backpacks on his little wagon.

I was deeply touched by both of them, to be doing this at this age and their over-the-top generosity to everyone around them and their love for their children. As I walked that day I silently prayed to Bette’s God that today I was walking on her behalf, her walk should not be any less because she couldn’t walk today – because of all that she has done and all that she is. This was the only way to try to keep her circle of giving alive. They’ll never know how much they bring to the people around them.

Even as I think back to them today, I think when I grow up I want to be like Reny and Betty. They’re the toughest most compassionate fifty-something-years-old-couple I have ever met. They totally kick butt and I get the feeling that they’re just getting started.

(From the Camino Journals May 16th)


Arguing with Reality (Day 15)

In Castrojeriz, I have an early pilgrim’s dinner at a restaurant with T, who is a really sweet nurse from Germany. We met on our first night on the walk in St. Jean Pied De Port and then coincidently ended up on the beds next to each other on the second night (much to our relief). It was a room filled with 120 beds squished a-little-too-close-together for comfort. And somehow we didn’t run into each other again until today, almost two weeks later.

It seems like she’s been having some issues. Over dinner, she tells me about an early morning when she was walking alone in an isolated area. It was still dark, and she ran into a strange man. He was staring at her from his car, and as she came close (there was only one path) he started doing donuts around her. Naturally, she got pretty freaked out. He drove away when he saw other pilgrims coming up from behind her and she walked with them until she felt safe. She got pretty shaken up at the time but seems to be admirably strong and committed to completing her journey right now. It’s unfortunate that a couple of folks can ruin it for everyone. We talk about being alert and using practical sense but not letting the fear get the best of us.

For the night, both of us stay at a place run by a colorful character named Resti, the coldest Refugio that I’ve stayed at thus far. There’s no heater, no hot water, no insulation. The damp walls feel cooler inside than the chilly air outside. At the fear of getting sick, for the first time on the walk I decide to forego showering and make do with washing my face with the freezing water. At night, I slip into bed with my sweatshirt and scarf on, along with the extra blanket from the Refugio, in addition to my own sleeping bag.

As I lay awake all bundled up listening to snores from across the room, it occurs to me that I haven’t had any “negative” thoughts for a while. Not that I'm complaining, but I try to recall the last time I felt stressed by something and it was about five days ago. I’m usually pretty cognizant of my thoughts and I don’t remember having a long continuous period where nothing bothered me, even (or especially) during silent retreats. When T was telling me about that guy, there was a part of me that almost wanted to be more upset but I just couldn't. (I still think it was a horrible thing and as a result we all have to be more careful now but I’m feeling unwaveringly calm about it.)

Thinking back to the times that I’ve had thoughts filled with impatience, frustration, anxiety – it all seems a little ridiculous now. Almost like a play. There's a feeling of "why would I have done that," as if I was an entirely different person. Whenever my body reacts with the slightest signs of stress, I know that I was really trying to argue with the reality of "what is." There was so much trying to control and have things happen in a certain way, that there was very little room left for emergence. (Not to be confused with passive, which is very different from acceptance and being genuinely open to the moment.) This week I feel like I’ve seen a glimpse of what’s possible when you're not constantly waging war on reality or trying to defend yourself from it. There IS another way of being. Perhaps this is the biggest lesson I came to learn. 

(From the Camino Journals, May 14th)


Hermits in Spain (Day 11)

(I finally got around to transcribing some of my pilgrimage journals. Will be posting them over the next few weeks in case anyone out there is still reading them. Hopefully, it'll give me that closure and I can go on to writing other things. :)

There’s a small, quite 22-bed Refugio in Belorado. It’s run by a Swiss couple that once walked the Camino, and now they spend their days providing a sanctuary for others. The Refugio is completely trust-driven. People pay what they wish at the end of their stay and that has sustained the place for years. They have a large kitchen that anyone can use as long you leave it as you find it. And the large dining area downstairs where everyone hangs out is really their living room. Such generous souls.

Along with this off-the-beaten track gem, I heard that there are ancient caves in this town. This was the last thing I was expecting to find on a walk in Europe. When I think caves, I generally think the Himalayas but there are many around all over this region. I’m elated to learn that the ones in this town are actually right behind the Refugio, practically in its backyard.

I decide to hike up the hill behind the place with two others, one Japanese girl who looked like she might like some company, and a 20-year-old Canadian boy walking with his dad. As we make our way up the steep hill, the sun is starting to set and the birds are making their way home. The Canadian boy doesn’t really understand why someone would choose to live in a cave. He’s just coming along to see the storks since there’s a huge nest up on a church bell tower that you can see from the top. I try telling him about the hermits that once lived in these caves. “You mean outcasts from society,” he inquires. “No, no, they voluntarily sought for secluded places; they’re seekers of the ultimate Truth.” I can see that it could be a lot for an average teenager to grasp.

The limestone from the cave glitters in the sunset and practically comes off in your hand when you touch it. Completely deserted today, it’s hard to believe that a lineage of hermits practiced here hundreds of years ago. It’s reassuring to see that there are mystics in every society in the world, people who would go to great lengths to find the ultimate answers to life.

View from the top is amazing. The sunset covers the town in a rose-colored tint, which matches the peaceful energy of this entire town. I can see how the Swiss couple ended up here. One can easily spend a lifetime in a place like this. The energy is more tranquil than anywhere else I’ve been – even the Himalayas.  

(From the Camino Journals May 10)