the end.

For thirty eight days, I walked.

Each morning I would wake up, try not to be a crabby bitch to my father who so graciously shared his time and patience and experiences with me for five weeks, pack my possessions into a blue Gregory backpack, lace up my torture devices best friends hiking boots, chug a cafe doble, and walk. Somewhere between the coffee hitting my lips and the end of the first kilometer, I like to think that I became a pleasant person to be around.

On our first day I felt like a kid on her first day of school, high on endorphins and giddy from sweeping views of God’s Green Earth. We climbed roughly a thousand vertical meters and then descended steeply, blisters and fatigue appearing like unexpected and unwanted houseguests. The next five days felt (physically) like torture, each step a reminder of the silver dollar-sized blisters on my heels, a clear result of my own stupidity. (Or, perhaps, the fact that I was wearing brand-new socks and carrying a 25 pound pack.) The only thing that helped was walking long enough that I forgot the pain, or conning my father into giving me lessons on subjects ranging from Shakespeare, to history, to our family’s past. The man can tell a good story.

Then, finally, walking became a comfort. It was what my body wanted to do. It was a relief. My heels were no longer raw and my calves had gotten bigger and my pack and my boots felt like a part of me rather than a burden. Each day, after the choreographed dance of packing and coffee and breakfast, those first few steps felt like a breath of fresh air. It felt so natural to get up and go each morning, to move my body, to keep on the path towards our final destination.

And then – once I was fully and completely in the groove and I felt like I could live like this forever – we reached Santiago. It was unreal. We celebrated, we saw friends I never thought I’d see again, and I lent my voice to a rousing rendition of The Proclaimers’ “500 miles” at an impromptu pilgrim party outside a nondescript bar. A random Spanish man joined in. (He didn’t know the words.) Some of us were friends, some strangers, but we all joined together to celebrate the miles we had walked, the blisters we had nursed, the certificates we had received to commemorate on paper all we had done on foot. We celebrated our shared identity before it faded, before we turned into pumpkins at midnight, before some boarded buses the next day and returned to work and their old routines.

After two nights of “celebration”, my body was ready to walk again.

So I walked towards the sea. At first alone, or sporadically with new acquaintances. On my third and final day, I was joined by friends. Friends that had recently been strangers, friends whose conversation occupied my mind for thirteen uninterrupted kilometers of walking in the early afternoon over endless hills. As we climbed each hill we hoped to find a view of the ocean at the top, but instead were consistently greeted with more green hills, more grey clouds. At last, we saw what might be the sea. Was it the ocean or another cloud? It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s the Atlantic. We jumped and hooted and hollered and hugged and I yelled “hey mom!” due west. I felt like I was seeing the ocean for the first time.

Our boots finally made it to sand. It was grey, and chilly, and the Atlantic didn’t look too inviting. But it looked like the Atlantic. It looked like home. So, along with two friends, I dropped my pack in a conveniently located beachside restaurant, stripped off my stinky hiking clothes and hid them under a dinghy to protect them from the sky’s drizzle, and ran in, screaming like a little girl. It was refreshing and it made me feel alive and I couldn’t have been happier to be in the water.

We recuperated in the restaurant with red wine and a few hours of conversation with the owner slash bartender slash adorable old Spanish man. The next morning, we walked to the lighthouse at the end of the earth, finishing what we had come to do and relishing one last opportunity to lace up our boots. That afternoon, my dad came and picked me up in a rental car, freshly rid of his Camino beard. He looked different. Being in a car was weird. It was so easy, so clean, so fresh smelling. We stayed another night in Finisterre. It felt like an in between place, where pilgrims turned into regular humans, or at least tourists, and we all traded in our legs for wheels. Again, like Cinderella at midnight.

We finally drove away, covering mileage in a few hours that would have taken us weeks to walk. The coast disappeared in the distance and I said goodbye to the Camino: at least for now, at least physically. These sorts of experiences are impossible to hold onto the way we want to, like children refusing to give up a security blanket or a favorite toy. It’s denial, really. I didn’t want it to end, didn’t want to be in that car, didn’t want to wake up the next morning and not walk to the next town. But I’ve got to trust that the Camino has changed me, that I have absorbed certain lessons that I can hold onto without such a tight or fearful grip. Things that will stay with me regardless of where I go or how I get there. Because at some point, I have to go home. At some point, I’ll drive my own car again, and I’ll get a job (hopefully?) and I’ll regain some level of normalcy. I just hope that my own personal version of normal has changed since the last time I got in my own car, ordered a coffee in English, or slept in my own bed. All we can ask for, I guess, is that these experiences change us in lasting and positive ways, and that we can not only benefit from them, but share our lessons with others.

a special day.

This trip all started with some fatherly advice. I was sitting in my car at the auto shop in Charlotte, thinking out loud about what would come next after I inevitably quit my job.

Don’t just go back to school for no reason, Marian. Travel if you need to. Take six months. Take a year.

Uhh….okay.

So I left Charlotte, and I got on a plane to India, and four months later I met my parents in Rome, and soon enough my Dad and I began walking across Spain. Thank God I’ve started to actually listen to his good advice.

Transitioning between traveling with my best friend and traveling with the man who gave me half of my DNA was certainly a change. Mariel and my father are slightly different: different habits, different views on the world, different ways of interacting. When I explained that I would be traveling with my dad for six weeks, many young people I met in Southeast Asia looked at me with a combination of confusion and shock. You’re what? Why? It’s cool, I would respond, we have a great relationship. We’re close.

Except for the fact that, as my dad pointed out before this little walk we’ve been partaking in, we didn’t really know each other all that well. I moved away from home at 14. We’ve never spent more than a few weeks together since then. I soon realized he was right.

But, for better or for worse, we did this thing. At first I was impressed — shocked? — at how well things were going. Our days together were smooth and enjoyable and we communicated well. And the camino brought us — forced us — even closer. I’d call it a crash course for marriage: your decisions about eating, sleeping, and even moving each day are dependent on another person. We shared a room, we shopped for groceries together, and often met new people as a unit. It’s kind of an intense thing to do with your dad.

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But after 817 kilometers, 35 days, and countless caf├ęs con leche, I now have this friend named Webster whom I understand and respect on a completely different level. He is and always will be my dad: he makes sure I never lose my water bottle, he’s patient when I’m cranky, and once in a while he’ll treat me to a piece of cake (if I’ve done all my chores). But he also treats me like an adult, and gives me my space, and supports me and challenges me to be a better person. He listens to my crazy ideas and responds gently, smartly, and lovingly. Some of my favorite memories from this adventure are those mornings and afternoons we spent talking, singing, laughing, and respectfully disagreeing. Just me and my dad, walking across Spain. He’s been my sounding board, my Shakespeare professor, and my favorite storyteller. His advice is still sound, and I’m still learning to listen. And I FINALLY know his favorite color.

Traveling with your dad is not always easy (I like to make obvious statements and congratulate myself for them), but it’s one of the best spontaneous decisions I’ve ever made. We both remember the day last year that I picked up the phone to call him and ask him if he would walk the camino last year. It’s one of his favorite stories to tell new friends along the way. I remember telling him that I felt like I had just asked him to the prom. And he’s been the best date ever.

And now, nine months later, we are in Santiago de Compostela together on father’s day. Two pilgrims, two friends, two Bulls. Soon he’ll go home to my mom and I’ll go off to do other random stuff in Europe. But on this day we get to celebrate the amazing journey that we have completed together. I’m the luckiest girl in the world to call this crazy bearded dude my dad, and I will be forever grateful for these weeks we spent together, for better or worse.

Happy Father’s day, Dad. I admire you and I love you and I’ll always be grateful for this pilgrimage that we shared. Go forth and set the world on fire.

Sunday Best.

Sunday morning’s walk was short, difficult, and beautiful. We set off at 7:30 from Vega de Valcarce, where we had stayed at a casa rural run by an old woman named Emilia. Emilia is most likely an angel and quickly became my best friend after learning that 1) I can speak Spanish and 2) I had been to Lourdes. Making friends around here really isn’t that hard, especially in towns that seem to be inhabited exclusively by adorable grandmothers. I bounded out of town, high on life (and caffeine) and grateful for a laundry list of blessings that I rattled off to my dad as I bopped along the side of the highway. This high carried me 11 kilometers through rocks and mud, climbing over 600 vertical meters, stopping at every possible bar along the way for a hot drink and shelter from the endless rain and chilly winds. It was, as Webster would say, a SLOG.

The climb was worth it, though. The terrain over the past few days has been my favorite of the whole camino: lush green and looming mountains and trails lined with yellow flowers. I huffed and puffed along, filling my mind with Beyonce lyrics and thoughts about the future. It was mucky, and wet, and perfect. And once we got to the top, the clouds parted, and we were able to see the entire valley. We pointed through the varying shades of green towards the bottom of the mountain, guessing at where we had started and watching pilgrims make their way up the path, the ponchos covering their packs making them look like a parade of hunchbacks.

Dad and I finally made it — together — to O Cebreiro, just in time for noon mass at the Iglesia de Santa Maria. Soaking wet from rain and sweat, we dropped our packs against the wall and found a pew, taking a few minutes to pray and take in the scene. The small church was filled with both pilgrims and locals (according to our guide book, just 50 people live here year round), gathering for worship without any sense of segregation. Elderly couples wore their Sunday best, tailored jackets and slacks and shoes that shine in spite of hunched backs or canes. The old people in this country are just so damn classy, so unrelenting in their will to go on with life. And here we were, sitting next to them: smelly pilgrims in strange, damp clothing, reciting prayers in our native languages and squeaking into the church in our muddy hiking boots. But I felt just as welcome as I do in my church at home.

As pilgrims, we live by a somewhat altered set of rules: Sitting at a cafe without ordering anything is acceptable. So is taking off your shoes (but keep your blisters to yourself). And strangers greet us with warmth and enthusiasm as we pass through each small town on our path, pointing us in the right direction with a “buen camino!” and a smile.

Sitting in church, transfixed by the 11th century sculpture of the Virgin Mary and shivering in my thin purple raincoat, I was struck by how normal this all was. For hundreds of years, strangers have been passing through this town en route to Santiago, stopping in their church and eating at their restaurants and sleeping where they could find a bed. I didn’t get any odd looks from the locals, but rather smiles and enthusiastic signs of peace and then there was that one woman who walked over to me after mass to light my candle with hers before I placed it as an offering at Mary’s feet.

I’m still trying to figure out what this thing I’m doing right now means. Yes, it has religious significance. Sure, it’s giving me time to consider the ever-present question of what’s next for me. But I still don’t fully know why I’m here, or what it means to be a pilgrim, except for the fact that I’m searching for something and I’m always hungry. I do know, however, that there is nowhere I’d rather be, and nothing I’d rather be doing. There is value in the life of a pilgrim. There is immeasurable beauty in this journey (and in this country). I’m just not sure I can articulate it yet.

So I must say this to anyone who cares to listen: be a pilgrim. Walk to Santiago if you can. And if not, never ignore the voice inside you that urges you to seek the things you value most. Sacrifice normalcy to go somewhere meaningful. Spend time living without luxury or a regular schedule or your own bed in order. Rely on the kindness of strangers. Don’t be afraid to put everything else on hold. Don’t be held back by your inability to define the things you want. Go find them. And if you already know what you want, and you’re already where you want to be, become a pilgrim as a gesture of thanksgiving. I promise you won’t regret it.


WHAT’S UP, MARY.

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.