A DAY ON THE CAMINO DE SANTIAGO
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This morning, we make our way back down toward water through the steep, quiet town of A Guarda. We take a quick look at the map. We decide to strike our own path for the first couple of kilometers and meet back up with The Way after checking out the huge, blue art-covered wall that protects the town from what must, at times, be a raging sea. Once again, we hug the rugged edge instead of taking the shorter, inland route that the yellow arrows propose. We’ve grown attached to the sound and liveliness of the surf. By now, we allow ourselves every opportunity to stay snugged up against the coast. As we pass by a painting of the sun that takes up an entire building, I think, “100% chance of rain but still sunny.” The forecast is rain for days. We’re not sure what to expect because it seems unlikely that the rain here will be cold and weighted like the PNW rain we’re accustomed to.
The first thing that is different today, on stage six, is that the wind is as voracious as the surf. We walk along the craggy coast. The waves are bigger than any I’ve ever been this close to. There is something about the wind in this part of the world that swirls my insides and makes me feel like I’m going to be blown away. Quite literally, my heart races and I imagine being lifted off the ground and taken, like Dorothy, deeper into a high dream. Somehow, this existential threat of being swept away, makes me commit more fiercely than ever to the ground. I find myself chanting a mantra in my mind- “I belong to the world. I belong to the world. I belong to the world.” It is as if my mind is determined that my body not to be taken by the wind. But also, there is something about being so close to Nature’s most basic elements that makes me feel, uncharacteristically, that all is, for sure, as it should be. Nothing is out of place. No words have been left unspoken that were meant to be said. Loose ends are meant to stay free and unfinished. I belong to the world. This is whatI am to learn today.
The second thing that’s different about today is that my hips are no longer aching from the inside out. My pack feels like air and I feel like the length of my legs is all that holds me back.
Today we alternate between coast line and highway. The traffic on the road is as persistent and loud as the surf but oh, so much less inspiring. Appropriately, there is a wide, bright yellow strip along the side of the road that we cannot help comparing to the “yellow brick road”. I put music in my right ear so I can block the wet swoosh of traffic on my right and still hear the sound of the surf on my left. Fierce day. Rain and wind and traffic and the thrum of pavement jar my bones at every step. And yet I can hardly contain my energy. I let the wind sweep me into the music in my ear and continue my mantra… I belong to the world.
Pretty soon I am skipping. And then running for a few steps. I pass other Pilgrims. As I wish them “bon camino”, I let thoughts about what they might be thinking move through my mind and away. I belong to the world.
Meditation, in my experience, is conventionally viewed as quiet and still. Quiet your mind. Sit for twenty minutes. Notice your thoughts but let them move on. Keep returning to quiet. I think of meditation like training your mind to sit and stay, rather than letting it run around, unsupervised, chasing squirrels. I love this. I have long viewed meditation as important for my health and also something that is really freaking hard.
I begin to run for longer periods along the yellow brick road, then switch to skipping down along village lanes toward the sea, then back to running along the yellow brick road. I think back to a conversation I had a week before leaving for Portugal, with my friend, Jesse. I shared with her a story that has lived in my bones for many years- a little corner of shame- that has been holding me back in some indefinable way. Twenty some years ago, while I was a Peace Corps volunteer, I did a ten day silent meditation retreat in southern Thailand. I left that retreat with one important revelation that would shape the direction if my life but also with a burden that I am only now, on this yellow brick road, beginning to shed.
During the retreat, there was A LOT of sitting. I had been expecting this. I’d built a practice- sitting in meditation for minutes every day in my little village house- during the months leading up to the retreat. Despite this preparation, I felt a strong desire to move. Not from a need to get away, or distract or rebel against stillness. But I instinctively knew that, for me, movement was an avenue into the center of myself. Running had always given me access to presence in a way almost nothing else did.
During the retreat, I found a spire of steps in a far corner of the monastery. During the time a-lotted for movement meditation. I donned my running clothes and ran steps. My running shoes were quiet on stone and every time I went up and down, I felt a deeper sense of being centered and my mind became less and less active. I did this for three days before I was called into the the “inner sanctum” and admonished by the American couple who were leading the retreat. Running was not allowed. What was I running from? There had been a complaint. My running had disrupted someone else’s concentration. I took it all in. I was not doing meditation “right”. In Thai, there is a word that means “to have a hot heart”. I could feel my blood run high with shame as they criticized My Way. Somehow, my heart was too hot. I was not quiet enough. I was selfish. They sent me away having agreed that I would not run for the remaining seven days and that I would try harder. I would seek to understand what was making me want to “run away.” I internalized this idea that movement was not conducive to enlightenment; that I needed to meditate “in the right way” in order to “become enlightened”.
On the Camino there is an ethic. Everyone does their own Camino. You carry everything in your pack or you have your luggage ported. You wander slowly or you move along. You pray or you don’t. You leave things along The Way or you pick them up. You socialize and you gather friends or you stay with your own self. There is an unspoken regard among pilgrims for this. I feel nothing but love from other Pilgrims as I run by, my pack and heart beating. I belong to the world. I feel more present than ever as the details of traffic and rain and my own beating heart slip away along with that years-old burden. I’d told Jesse that this journey, for me, would be about letting movement set my soul free. And today is the day. Fierce and free.
Auspicious: A sign pointing toward a happy outcome. Applies to something taken as a sign or an omen, promising success. A “drop in from the universe, reminding us we are on the right path.”
Running along with my pack, I look up to see a young gelding looking at me from over a stone wall. It is time to pause. I have lost track of time and distance. It would probably be smart to accept his invitation and recalibrate where I am along The Way. I take off my pack and jump lightly up to sit next to him on the stone wall. Horses have always been my access to family wherever I have traveled. During college in a strange town, when teaching around the US, while living as an expat in Asia and trekking in the Himalayas- horses have been home wherever I am in the world. This guy snugs up against me as I turn on my data and look at the map. Almost to the guest house. I sit friendly with him a while. Emily comes along and we check in before each moving on again in our own rhythm.
Numbers have been lighting up along our journey and throughout our friendship. I am not a superstitious person and not necessarily guided by numbers but having been born on 8-8, the number eight has always held special meaning for me. Emily’s daughter, Julia, was born on 8-8. Mike’s birthday is 8-4 as is Emily’s youngest daughter, Alia’s. My sister was born in August. I turned eighteen on 8-8-88. The number eight is the sign for infinity. Emily and I share this affinity for the number eight. Eights have shown up for us all along The Way. As we look at our watches, as we check our mileage, as we pass houses in villages and addresses in town. As I wind up around the final turn to our guest house, after having run right by it, distracted by the next horse in a stone paddock, I walk carefully around a big beautiful number eight. It is drawn in concrete around two manhole lids. I take a picture and send it to Emily.
This is an incredible village. Sleepy, misty- built into the side a Spanish hill- worn by the sea and elevated by a scape of sky and several towering steeples. Like nowhere I have ever been. Fittingly, it is still raining as I step off Raina Road up to the front desk of Hotel Raina. The guy at the desk hands me our room key card. The little sticker on it says, ROOM 208. The same room we’d had the night before. No Way. I feel my heart still for a second as I drop in. How cool is that? The same room number containing the number eight twice in a row. I feel a little excited about how auspicious this seems. Just as I step into the elevator and am getting ready to take a picture of the key to text Emily, the front desk guy comes running and says, (in Spanish but I got the gist) “You need a different room. This one is not ready.” No way. He ushers me back to the front desk. “It’s OK.”, I say. “I can go walk around and come back. This room is good!” I feel a moment of desperation. I really want to hang on to ROOM 208. “No, no this room is not ready.” He fishes around in the key box and pulls out a card with the number 204 on it. I feel deflated. Like something meant to be was not going to come to fruition the way it was supposed to. I try one more time to talk him into ROOM 208 but he is determined. I take a breath- physically and psychologically, disappointed that I will not get to send Emily that happy text about our auspicious number showing up again.
Up in the room. I stash my stuff and go immediately to the window. As I spread the curtains, I suck in a breath. Before me is the most expansive and soaring view I have ever seen from the comfort of a building. The endless rocky shore stretches wide before me and the surf howls out to the horizon. I let my mind rest on the lesson. I absorb the view for a few minutes. Then I sneak over to check out ROOM 208. The door is open and cleaning stuff is piled up against the wall. No one seems to be around so I tiptoe into the room and peek through the curtains. Parking lot.
That evening, Emily overhears a Pilgrim using Google Translate to tell the guy at the front desk that there is a bad smell in her room. “What is your room?”, he asked. “208”, she says. Emily recounts this and we giggle for a sweet second as we look from our beds out over the heavenly view from room 204.