some people.

“Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Some stay for awhile and leave footprints on our hearts. And we are never, ever the same.”

This may be the cheesiest, douchiest quote I’ve ever heard. It’s the kind of thing I would have proudly added to my eighth grade yearbook page in anticipation of graduation. In Comic Sans, no less.

But it has been running through my mind periodically over the past few days, and I can’t shake the damn thing. It’s like a black-eyed peas song.

For the past four days, my father and I have been walking the Camino de Santiago (“The Way of St. James” for you english-speaking folk), a centuries-old pilgrimage across Spain to the city of Santiago de Compostela. We have roughly thirty days left. It’s exhausting, it’s humbling, and it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever experienced. The scenery is gorgeous and the ability to travel (relatively conflict-free!) with my Dad is a true blessing. But the biggest gifts, I’ve quickly learned, are often the people we meet along the way.

I’d like to respectfully disagree with the author of the above quote. I take issue with the implication that those people who briefly enter our lives, those people with whom we share something and then never see again, are unable to leave a meaningful impression on our souls, on our perspective on the world and its inhabitants. Over the past four and a half months I’ve made many friends — beautiful, fascinating, brilliant, exciting people — whom I may never see again. It’s hard, traveling: you make friends, fall in love (platonically) with these other humans, and then you must go your separate ways. It can be emotionally exhausting. But it doesn’t make those relationships any less meaningful, the memories of those friends any less inspiring. It doesn’t make their “footprints on your heart” invisible or insignificant.

Here on the camino, this idea is amplified in a constantly moving microcosm of human interaction. We are all going to the same place, all moving at our own pace. Like an endless game of leapfrog, we pilgrims are in a constant state of passing each other, bumping into people we met briefly three days ago, having an inspiring conversation with a new acquaintance we met on the road only to quickly say goodbye (maybe forever?) because a pee break is imperative. You never know if you’ll see someone again; last names are almost never exchanged. To pull a concept from yogic philosophy, it is truly an exercise in detachment.

But then something funny happens. People reappear at just the right moment, just when you need a pick-me-up (e.g. when you’re tired and dragging and they yell “bullshit” across a public park to get your attention), just when you wrote them off as another beautiful soul that you’ll simply never see again. It’s uncanny. It’s the type of thing that could turn the most cynical into devout believers.

I’ve learned that these people can still be my friends, can still be influential in my life. Many of them I consider angels. I don’t have to hastily jot down their email address and friend them on facebook just to ignore indefinitely. I don’t have to know everything about them, or their job, or even their hometown in order to share the most basic human things: food, water, conversation, a smile. And very often, I know — really know — that these interactions we share were meant to happen. These people, these connections, are truly a gift from God.

Let me tell you a quick story.

On day two, my dad began to veer from the trail to find a place to pee. I looked over my shoulder: “There’s someone behind us, Dad”. He veered back into place ahead of me as our fellow peregrino blazed past us with strong legs and a confident stride. From his pack hung a small, stuffed heart, complete with dangling arms and legs and – if my memory serves me right – a cheery smile. “I like your heart”, my dad said, never one to pass up a good conversation piece.

So began our hour spent walking with Ricardo, an oncologist and father from Brazil who has already walked the second half of the Camino and is now completing the first. He was full of wisdom regarding how to prevent blisters (oops too late), the importance of taking your time (this is not a race), and the intangible beauty of the Camino. We all stopped to rest together, then once his companions caught up with us, they all headed off to the next destination. I felt grateful for our interaction — such a beautiful surprise — but assumed we wouldn’t see him again.

Today, as we sat outside our albergue in the tiny town of Urtega, talking blisters and travel plans with our new friend Alex, a familiar man strode up the driveway confidently. Before I knew it, Ricardo and his big, exuberant, loving smile were greeting us, and he placed his stuffed heart down in front of my Dad. “Webster! This is for you — I give you my heart. You have to take it to Santiago for me.” Both of our jaws dropped, the edges of our mouths creeping up into awe-struck smiles. First, we never expected to see Ricardo again; I think we both assumed he had zoomed past us somewhere between Zubiri and Pamplona. And second, we both knew that the heart had been a gift from a friend who was unable to walk the Camino because her husband suffered a heart attack two weeks before she was scheduled to leave for France. Her bag was already packed; the plans had been made; everyone was devastated. And now Ricardo was asking my dad to bring her memento, her heart, all the way to the end, since he would be heading home in a few days. As I fought back tears, Ricardo echoed our disbelief at the our meeting today: “I was telling my friend this morning, I hope I see my friend Webster again! I prayed to God that I would see you, and now here you are.” He left just as he had arrived, full of joy with a brisk gait, but only after giving a few much-needed band-aids and some medical advice to Alex.

This is the kind of thing that happens out here.

05.08.2012

Saw the Uffizzi this morning. Beautiful but exhausting. By the end of it, predictably, I was starving. So we beelined through the Michleangelo room, discussed the Visitation, walked through a maze of gift shops, and finally found our way out to street and sky.

We took a turn, walked about 50 meters, and passed a mob of people on our right. Or rather, a mob of people huddled around a tiny storefront – some sitting and eating panini on stools or the curb; some waiting in line to order; some standing at a tiny bar lined with miniature wine glasses and half-full (I’m an optimist, especially when it comes to vino) bottles of wine. It took about three seconds for me to stop in my tracks and redirect us back towards the crown and the wine and the sandwiches. If I’ve learned anything about finding food in a foreign place, it’s that a busy establishment is generally a good sign.

So, being the loving daughter that I am, I ordered mom to grab us two old wooden stools on the street (so perfect and Italian and dark and rustic, they were) and hand over the cash, prego. I finally figured out how to order for the two of us — almost seamless except for that one time that I used the word tomate and my new friend behind the counter explained that I could order in Italian OR English but that Spanish was a bit difficult. Pomodoro, right.

I grabbed our panini and two glasses of wine, and we sat. And we sipped. And we ate. Oh, the food was so good. Chewy and crusty foccaccia, strong and simple flavors, my daily dose of mozzarella, and a generous serving of vegetables. A cheap and delicious glass of chianti didn’t hurt either. Exactly what I wanted and the perfect environment in which to enjoy it. While the Uffizzi was amazing — a treat! — this is my favorite way to experience a city, I told my mom. It even made me think of the small shacks in Dharamsala where I’d grab chai and chapati to fuel my daily walks.

But of course we were in Italy, not India: the bread is leavened, the wine flows freely (and doesn’t taste like shit), and the bustling of the crowds is more exciting and vibrant than overwhelming and invasive. We sat and sipped, chatted and nibbled. I smiled at how perfect a way this was to enjoy our last day in Florence, my last day with my mother until we reunite in August. The perfect girly date, the perfect Italian food experience. How perfectly European to just pour jourself a glass of wine on the sidewalk, panino in hand, and people watch for an hour, all for the price of a drink at Starbucks.

After a morning spent worrying how to most efficiently and effectively visit one of the world’s gratest museums, it was a blessing and the perfect surprise to happen upon this little snippet of Italian culture, a respite from a day of sightseing, a stolen moment with my favorite woman in the world. And I even have room for gelato.

the transition.

Roughly one week ago, I stood in a pew at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and I cried. Full-out, snotty, pathetic sobs. It was a little embarrassing, a little funny (in retrospect), and a lot predictable.

Let’s back up for a second.

Roughly one week and one day ago, I said a dazed goodbye to my best friend in the Kuwait airport. I had told her previously that I wouldn’t cry when we parted; I rarely do at the right moments. So when her eyes welled up and my heart started to wrench and I thought about the past four months that we had spent together and the uncertain expanse of time ahead, I just squeezed her tight, told her I loved her, took an awkward selfie of us, and walked away. I hate goodbyes.

sorry i’m not sorry.

Twelve hours later a taxi dropped me off a stone’s throw away from the Roman coliseum and I looked above me and saw my parents staring down from a window in the most European and adorable fashion. There’s our daughter! I think my dad yelled. Or something. I didn’t exactly know where I was, but I felt home. I sort of collapsed into their arms and spent a few hours telling them stories that probably didn’t make sense in my jet lagged stupor. I think we ate some sort of Italian food that night. I was so exhausted that I willingly passed out on the couch. Do you know how much of a luxury it is to fall asleep on a couch?! But I digress. It was good to be in their care.

The next day was Vatican day. As in, the day I got to see where the Pope lives. As in, something I had been looking forward to for quite some time. The amount of Catholic art and history and churches in Italy is overwhelmingly beautiful and I was so excited to just swim around in it for a few days. I wanted to get drunk on churches. Instead, I got really, really hungry.

One strange yet kind of awesome side effect that I experience when I am jetlagged is insane hunger levels. I don’t really understand it but I also try not to complain because it means I get to eat a lot. But sometimes it hits me like a freight train, out of the blue (bleu), unmerciless. As we stood in St. Peter’s during a regular old weekday Latin mass, I became ravenous. Tired and hungry and all of the sudden hit with the emotions of everything that had transpired over the previous 72 hours. I had joked to friends that I was expecting to just walk into St. Peter’s and cry from its sheer beauty and significance. This, unfortunately, was a little less poetic.

I held it together until mass ended and then broke down to my mom. I’m so sorry. I’m so hungry. I need to leave and sit down and eat something. I’m so sorry. I just sort of surrendered to my own pathetic state.

Katie and Webster, of course, went into mommy and daddy mode. An apple was put in my hand (just now realizing the dumb but amusing symbolism here) and I was gently ushered out of the Basilica by those who know me (and therefore my tantrums) best. They found me food. In fact, they found me an entire pizza and roughly half a loaf of bread. They soothed me and made everything better just like parents are supposed to do. I finally mustered up enough strength to make it to the Vatican Museum, through which I shuffled with a mix of interest and reverence and exhaustion. By the time we reached the Sistene Chapel, I felt like I had run a marathon: I had anticipated the moment for so long, but all I wanted was a bed and maybe a few orange slices.

RECOVERED.

I had a similar breakdown a few days later in a Florentine church: the beautiful Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. Put simply, I was at mass and I started crying because I missed Mariel. I missed her and I missed the places we had been and I didn’t really know what to do about it. So I cried, and my mom hugged me, and she took me to a restaurant with good food and a cute waiter, and everything was better.

I had wanted to visit Italy for years. The history is so rich, the culture so vibrant, the food so delicious. I wanted to experience the country fully, to learn an see and taste and understand. But my jet lag and emotional backlash meant that a good amount of my time in Italy was simply spent adjusting, dealing, feeling. Oh, and I got to cook again. That was, to put it lightly, nice.

So I just sort of resigned to seeing Italy on my own terms. Or rather, the terms of my fatigue and my emotions and the schedules of tourist attractions. I saw the coliseum from the outside, the David up close, and the Duomo at least five times. I missed countless must-sees, and I just stopped caring. That’s really the nature of travel, I’ve learned: there’s never enough time, and the universe will always have other plans.

Finally, though, yesterday my dad and I found ourselves in St Jean Pied de Port, the beginning of a 500 mile pilgrimage and the gateway we’ve both been anticipating for over seven months. I’ve experienced a wide range of emotions over the past few days–from nerves to excitement to complete and utter fear. But we arrived in beautiful St Jean, received our compostelas (pilgrim passports), and let it all sink in. It felt right. The puzzle pieces had fallen into place. I often have moments where I can’t believe where I am in the world, but yesterday, that feeling was countered by the feeling that we were right where we were supposed to be. All the adjustment from Asia to Europe, the transition from traveling with my best friend to traveling with my Dad, the seven trains that got us from Italy to the French Pyrenees: it was all for this.

So tomorrow morning, we set off. The first 25 kilometers of the 800k between us and Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. The first day is the steepest, and by many considered the hardest. But more than anything, I’m excited. And I know we’re ready.

With that, I’m off to pray, buy an extra pair of socks, and use the concept of carbo-loading as an excuse to eat large quantities of freshly baked artisan bread. Au Revoir, Hasta Luego, and Buen Camino, y’all.

right now.

I just got off a boat that took me away from the most beautiful, happy place I’ve ever been. I’ll be getting on a bus soon, then a plane, then another plane. then I get on public transportation in Rome (this part scares me the most) and then I see my parents.

I’ve been so sad all morning. leaving our little home and our friends was so hard. I felt like someone had died. I’m sitting here looking out over the ocean and I don’t want to leave it. I’m scared of Europe. I’m afraid that I’ll lose those precious personal things that I’ve gained over the past four months.

I say goodbye to Mariel tonight, or rather tomorrow morning. In the Kuwait airport. I dont know how I’m going to do this. She’s been my ally and my best friend and challenged me and served as my boyfriend, mother, medic, and confidante. I don’t know how to travel without her.

But I get to see my parents. My mom and dad. Katie and Webster. I don’t know how I’m going to get through the next 40 hours, but part of me knows that once I’m in their arms everything will be at least marginally better.

This trip has been a blessing so far. The past week was a blessing and a half. I feel happy and I want to hold on to it. I want to smile at people on the street and be fearless and walk around barefoot.

I have to leave this place, but there are so many things that I can take with me.

And now my bus is here and my rant is over. Let’s do this thing.