[I wrote this as a novel-length Facebook status to celebrate an anniversary, and thought I would share it here! <3]
A year ago I finished walking El Camino de Santiago, a spiritual walking path of 500 miles (I did only the final leg, 150 miles) across the north of Spain. I had the lightest backpack of anyone I met -- probably because I decided to do it very last-minute, and didn't spend months prepping like most people do. I did it solo, and I wasn't sunburned, abducted, or killed by boars. . . only bit by a few bedbugs. It was ten days of throwing myself entirely on the winds of faith, with a cellphone that didn't really work, without booking hostels ahead, and with some snacks in my bag and as much water as I could carry. Just believing in my own ability to follow yellow arrows painted on pavement or etched in rocks on mountaintops. Because I can't read maps.
The Camino wasn't in my plans at all. I went to Spain solely to live with a family for three months and help them learn English -- though coincidentally (or magically?) I was drawn to their advertisement because they mentioned their village was a cut-through for the Camino.
Now, I've flitted around to many different places in my twenties, and this one just happened to be a less-than-ideal situation. I was uncomfortable more than not, and we had very different mindsets and expectations, and I knew they weren't happy with me, either. It was an uncomfortable position to be in, to say the least: committed to three months in a foreign country where the family wasn't overjoyed at my presence. We tried several talks to address our differences, but the circumstance was stagnant.
My one refuge was going in the mornings to the Cafe del Reloj, a sandstone bar along the hot road, with tiny umbrellas outside. I would order "un cafe con leche" that came in a doll-sized white cup, and a single triangle of tortilla -- a delicious egg dish. Then I would read my book of Spanish-language instruction, and wait patiently for pilgrims to walk by. I strategically went there at breakfast time, knowing that these heavy-shouldered people, who had been walking since dawn, would stop to refresh themselves. Sometimes no one came at all and I felt lonely. But many times I "broke bread" with jolly people from Germany, Japan, and America -- flushed from the sun, lit up inside with their journey, beaten down by "ampollas" (blisters), and very quick to tell me what made them walk five hundred miles across hills in the first place. (Hundreds of miles loosens the tongue. Loosens everything.) They shrugged and said they were trying to redeem their marriage. Trying to lose weight. Others said their basements flooded, their stores of vineyard champagne were lost, their father died, their girlfriend left them, there was a hole in their living room wall. They were repaying a debt to Saint James who had cured their brother. They were re-orienting their lives, trying to live more from their gut. In these conversations, we shuffled broken English and Spanish and hand-language back and forth, like arranging a picture with push-brooms and pieces of colored glass. But as the Little Prince said, "On ne voit bien qu'avec le cœur." You can easily see with the heart.
And, slowly, as time went on, I felt like I wanted to walk the Camino, too.
The first person I tentatively said this to was a Russian man, with short-cropped blonde hair and a pink-burned face.
I said, "I don't know how it will work or how it will happen. It's just an idea right now that doesn't seem really possible. I legally only have three months in this country and I've promised to spend those three months with this family. They need me to watch their children."
The man had a white cloth tied around his head, turning red with dust. Then he said, in a strong accent, "You will walk it," with a strange combination of stern tenderness. "You will go. If you want it, then the Way will open up for you." I felt quickened as if with a prophecy.
He reached for his backpack to leave and I stood up with energy. "Farewell, comrade," I said and saluted, and then I said, "Wait, that was stupid; I shouldn't have said that," but he laughed and leaned close to me. I leaned in for a hug, forgetting social customs, because he went to kiss me like a Spaniard on the cheek -- and then he ended up kissing my neck! -- right under my ear, where my hair curled in its boyish cut.
The Russian said, "Oh," or something, and pulled away and turned even more bright pink, and I laughed, saying, "You went Spanish, but I went American. And we missed!"
"It is hard to be knowing what to do in another country," he said.
"Let's go the middle road and just shake hands," I said.
"Yes," he said, "this is much more Russian," and took my palm.
I struggled for a while with the morality of breaking a verbal contract. Eating peaches, the juice dribbling down my chin, I would Skype in secret with friends -- "You just need to leave," "Follow your instincts," they said -- even "Get out of there, in the middle of the night if you have to!" -- closing the laptop quickly whenever someone walked in. Besides my daily excursions to the Cafe del Reloj, I escaped by walking around the neighborhood, a tract of land set at the base of a crinkled mountain: the glacier folds blotting up the purple shadows of sunset, like ink on tissue paper. I walked and thought -- through pear orchards, and wheat fields warm with poppies. I sat daily on a granite basin, an irrigation system that ran through the fields, and systematically shredded long pieces of grass between my fingers: "Should I leave? How do I leave?" -- and battled with the shame of running away from a commitment.
One day, I went to the cafe, and Roza, the barista, a round girl with sweaty black curls, said, "Ah! Sarah! Tengo algo para ti. Algo para ti... Espera un momento." She dove down beneath the bar, and then surfaced again with something tiny and brown in her hand. She went up to me, her palm out, with the most expansive smile, and said, "Mira. Esto es para ti. Es un regalo. Un peregrino me lo dio." I didn't understand, even as she shoved it towards my hand, insisting, "Para ti. Un regalo." It was a small, carved, wooden shell. She finally had to pull out the translator on her phone because I didn't know even the rudimentary word "gift". Painstakingly I pieced this together: a Brazilian pilgrim had carved a piece of teak into the shape of a scallop, and strung it on a red ribbon, printed with Portuguese words. I held it in my palm.
The scallop is the official signum of the Camino. Every yellow arrow that points to the path is accompanied by a shell of yellow rays. It is linked to the days when converts were baptized with scoops of water from a scallop, and is the symbol of a spiritual voyager and fresh beginnings. Roza told me the Brazilian had entrusted her with the carving after ordering his coffee, and said, "Keep it for a while, and then give it someone else. You're going to know to whom, when you see her."
"And I've kept it for weeks," she told me.
That same week, I was wandering in the Camponoraya village. I sat on the steps of the church, to write a postcard to a friend back in Massachusetts. I described the scene before me: there was a man in a straw hat asleep. . .a woman in an apron on a donkey cart. . .and pots of geraniums on the cracked steps. It was almost unbelievably pictorial, and the air smelled like flowers. Then I stood up to stretch and explore the church.
On a table set up before the front door was an open book, where pilgrims sign their names as they pass. As I was reading through the names, the priest suddenly came out of the door, his arms full of folded altar cloths. He smiled when he saw me, and gestured with his full arms.
"Please," he said in Spanish, "sign your name in the book."
I stepped back. "Oh, no," I said, thinking he misunderstood. "I'm not a pilgrim," and I explained my situation, my reason for being in Spain and in his parish district. "I want to be a pilgrim, though."
"It does not matter if you're not a pilgrim right now." The priest nodded towards the pen. "Please sign."
And so, underneath the names of all the other wanderers, I wrote "Sarah Bethany".
That evening, sitting on the irrigation well (the piece of straw bent in thirty golden glints in my hands), I decided I was going to do it.
I bought a sturdy pair of hiking shoes, and a backpack. I couldn't accomplish this in secret because I needed to be driven to the mall by my hostess. In the car, I took a deep breath and aired my feelings, telling her that I knew I had promised to stay for one more month, but I had grown to deeply desire to walk the Camino, and maybe she would find more tranquility not having an extra person in her house anyway. To my utter relief, she agreed and said she was happy to send her children to summer camp and was very gracious about it. We both expressed we had taken the contract as far as we wanted it to go.
Surprisingly, we had the nicest last two weeks together. I gave her a flowering orange tree in a small clay pot, and toys for her children. She gave me magenta sneakers and used diamond earrings and a sleeping bag for the Camino. When she left me at the bus station, she cried into my neck and said, "I tried to do the things, I tried to do my best, and when you are with someone this long, it is like family." She had guava-pink lipstick, and I'm embarrassed to say, I attempted to force real tears into my own eyes, but I couldn't do it successfully. I'm not good at crying on command, even if it's to make someone else feel good. She did try so hard: she was only a few years older than I was.
Anyway, I won't tell you about all my adventures on the Camino, only that I'm reflecting today on the way life is perplexedly strung together and how ravishing experiences sometimes come out of seemingly "bad" situations. I never would have walked the Camino de Santiago if I hadn't gone to Spain to live with that family. Planning would have felt like too much -- too much organization for too little desire. Like I said, walkers often prepare for weeks for such a journey, if not months. I had a passing interest, but no fiery hoguera in my heart -- at least not when I Googled the Wikipedia description in the comfort of my air-conditioned room. I had to actually see the Way in a tangible form. I had to see the old man who lived next to the Cafe del Reloj, his face dark as coffee beans, who weeded his marigolds every morning and sang out, "Buen camino!" with stained teeth, at every pilgrim that passed by his house, sometimes holding up the weeds with drizzly roots. "Buen camino" granted them blessings and luck -- and he would do this every single time, even if several pilgrims came by in one minute. His hands were dirty and his kindness was spicy and real.
As I sat drinking my hot drink, I wanted to be one of those pilgrims who got smiled at like that. Who was going on a journey. Who even got blisters and had to walk with their feet smeared in Vaseline. I wanted feel dusty, and to go to bed tired as a bewildered but happy Bilbo. I wanted to see the Milky Way and experience the risk and feel firsthand the way pilgrims share their cheese, wine, sunscreen, and stories with each other. I wanted to see how good the world was, people were, the universe, God was -- whatever forces are responsive to those who put their hands out, cupped like shells.