Why did I walk across the breadth of Spain at the age of 49?
An 800 kms solo hike in 34 days. The pristine beauty of the Spanish countryside. The reality created by a regressive society that prompted this cathartic walk. This is my story of having walked El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, or what is known as The French Way.
Let me begin by telling you about a tribal village in Maharashtra, India where storytellers uphold the tradition of oral history. They wander from one tribal village to another in a pair: the one called “Kahankarak” is the narrator or the storyteller. The other is “Ahankarak” or the listener / the “one who affirms the narrative”. All he does is say “Aho” after every sentence that the storyteller utters. “Aho” means “I hear you”. This artform is of particular interest to me because I feel invisible in the Indian society. A society that is still unable to shake the social construct of the “family” defined in a very conservative manner – two parents, heterosexual, the woman is the home-maker while the man is the bread-earner. They have two children, of which one is necessarily a boy. Now contrast this to the socially deviant position I have come to occupy, when I chose to get divorced and lived with my daughter as a single parent.
After I came back from my journey, there was no one in my community who wanted to hear the story. No audience for my incredible story of adventure, grit and healing! In my culture, I have come to understand that the role of “Ahankarak” is lost and that makes me a storyteller who is voiceless. Perhaps more apt would be to say that I am a storyteller whose audience is deaf. To have a voice and to be heard is a life-affirming experience and living in a culture that tries to hush me, tries to ignore what I want to express, makes it difficult to find self confidence. Nay, self-expression. I have lived with self-doubt for a long time but this walk affirmed my experience in a way such that I don’t feel voiceless anymore. Even if the community around me is not willing to hear the story, the internet allows me to share this story with a larger audience that affirms my narrative.
When I first thought of writing this memoir for the urban Indian audience, I came across objections from my friends who didn’t want to know about this “pilgrimage” because they felt that it did not resonate with them. These objections are valid in the sense that I was describing a lifestyle that was minimalist, austere and this was an inner journey as much as one across the Pyrenees in Spain. I carried everything I needed in my backpack. I did not making reservations for a room. I arrived in a village and then asked if there was any bed available to sleep for the night. And most importantly, I was always mindful of this idea that whatever I might be offered is being given to me because someone believes that I deserve it. That it was fair to give me the bed if there was one available.
At first, I started to write just to consolidate the learnings that I had inadvertently stumbled upon while walking – the realisation that we are more alike than we are different, that we all had the same concerns at the end of the day: will I get a bed for the night, will I get to rest my feet from the long walk, will there be a hot shower to relax my aching muscles? “A tourist demands, a pilgrim is grateful” was a line I came across at many albergues I stayed in.
So what is this story about? It is about making sense of heartbreak. It is about healing. Finding how insignificant my problems are. It is about renewal. And about acceptance. How did a hike in the Pyrenees accomplish all this is what I attempt to document here.
Let me first recount a few incidents that have occurred in my neighbourhood, to give you an idea about how Indian culture corrodes my identity.
A decade or so ago, I was separated and had filed for divorce and I was living in a gated community where neighbours would inquire about me. Isabela was one such lady who wanted to know how I was and why is it that she hadn’t seen my husband recently? I told her that we were getting divorced and so he didn’t live here anymore. She ignored my response completely and changed the topic of conversation! At the time, I had not yet learned about what it means to live in a space that ignores and denies my experience of single motherhood. Today, 14 years later, I meet her again (because I have moved back into my home in the old neighbourhood) and I visit her to say hello. I am not surprised that she asks me the very same question: how are you and how is your husband? This time I tell her that he has remarried – and this is a “culturally understandable” idea that she will not ignore. The reason is this: now she can slot me as a victim.
I had moved into a neighbourhood in a big city. The community was still small because it was in the suburbs. A lady next door and I were getting to know each other. She would often be happy to serve coffee and chat about common interests. A friendship was blossoming. A few days into the friendship, I was unwell and was prescribed some medicines, I requested this new-friend and neighbour to check with her husband (who worked in town) if he could pick up medicine that I was unable to find in our neighbourhood. She not only refused but told me that her husband is a very busy man and cannot run errands like this for me! This “insecurity” of having the husband interact in anyway with an “attractive single mother” is a pattern I have encountered innumerable times in India. The women who have grown up in this culture seem to be deeply insecure about their relationship with their spouses. And a single mother status seems to stoke that insecurity at a level that is not easy to understand. (As I write this, I almost dismiss these incidents by minimising them, by rationalizing that perhaps these are just a few random incidents that are not statistically reliable as a measure of how Indian culture is treating single mothers. But, that is precisely the role of an “Ahankarak” – to affirm an experience. Not evaluate it but just hear it out so that the speaker’s narrative is deemed valid).
My bicycle and scooter have been vandalised, tampered with and these experiences do not happen to those in “culturally approved” / “respectable” homes. Those who live with their husbands or fathers or brothers. Their bicycles are left out without any worry. Their vehicles are not touched. As a socially deviant member of the society, however, my safety and security is at risk. Most people I meet (friends, well wishers, acquaintances who know India) tell me not to share with anyone the fact that I live by myself (i.e. without a man in the house) because they worry about a culture that looks at “women like me” as misfits. They worry about the audacity of the “middle class Indian” who upholds values of this misogynistic culture.
I have had to travel surreptitiously. I cannot inform my family about my travel plans or the dates of travel! The reason? I would hear about how I am being foolhardy or “adventurous” or “asking for trouble” if I were to share my itinerary! And this is not just their own fears, it is a collective fear of “how can a woman travel to a strange land without the support of a man”. Oh, of course this is true not only of India, it is true of the West and possibly true of the rest of the world. But I write about this to express how this affects me as a human being – irrespective of gender. I don’t want to hear people tell me what a woman is capable of doing and what she is not. This is yet another way in which I feel minimised as a person.
Lastly, I started to walk because I wanted to “walk it off”. I was in intense emotional pain of heartbreak. A man I had loved had just asked me a question to which I had no answer – “what, after all do you bring to the table?” he had asked and then continued, “I bring my sense of humour, financial stability, my passion for Native plants. What do you bring?” In a lame attempt to answer, I had replied, “I hopefully bring some joy and happiness into your life.” And he had laughed at that and said, “I can do that for myself!” In order to get over the shame and humiliation I felt and to understand why I see myself as a “victim” when I encounter failure in a relationship, I booked my ticket to Paris.
I landed in Paris, intimidated by the language barrier, aware of the budget travel that I was undertaking and how it would keep some people from seeing me as little more than an “Indian tourist”; someone who will probably not tip well, someone whose culture is ‘incomprehensible’ and someone who probably knows nothing about pairing the right wine with the right meat. I was also fearful of what dangers I might encounter, but excited by the thought of attempting what in my mind was impossible – to cross the Pyrenees and walk across the breadth of a country!! I had never before walked or hiked in the mountains, let alone do it with a backpack. I had never in my life imagined that I was capable of undertaking a journey like the one I had heard about, solo.
Now, the best part, to relive memories of the most beautiful people, places and legends that I came across:
I must start with my memory of Immaculada, who is a hospitalero at the Municipal Albergue at Villambistia, Spain. This tall Amazon woman, nearly 60 years of age, was a toughie on the outside and mush on the inside. She was also the bartender of the bar, above which was the albergue.
Oline (pronounced Olina, the name of the beautiful Swedish girl I met and walked with for a couple of days) and I had been walking for about 20kms that day and arrived at Villambistia, tired and hoping that there would be a bed for us at the only Municipal Albergue in the small town. We arrived at the bar on the ground floor and waited for the person running the place to show up. We waited 10 – 15 minutes when a woman popped her head out of the kitchen door and said that she would take time. We would have to wait. By this time, because I knew nothing of Spanish (except a couple of important phrases – café con leche, gracias and buen camino), I had learned to compartmentalize language from tone of voice. My job was to focus on the language so that I could understand what a person speaking a language I did not know was trying to say. The rest, tone of voice, attitude, facial expression was not something worth focussing on because I learned, people behave badly when they are stressed. And that was their problem… not mine. So, Oline and I waited. We conversed. After walking in the sun for such a long time, being in an air-conditioned room was a pleasure. We enjoyed the cool air conditioned room. In the meantime, a group of 3 came in, they waited too. No one showed up behind the bar. They asked us if there were beds available. We said we didn’t know. The lady from behind the kitchen door popped her head out and called out… wait! The group decided to wait. But at some point, they started feeling impatient. They had not yet learned how to look beyond words, how to see the person, separate from language. They announced loudly, do we need to wait for 15 minutes just to know whether or not she has beds for us? This is ridiculous! We will find another albergue.
Oline and I were willing to wait for as long as it took for Immaculada to tell us if she had beds that evening.
What we received in return was not only a bed for the night, but the MOST amazing meal I have had during the 34 days I walked, plus Immaculada’s hospitality that surpassed anything I could have imagined! She noticed that I had a throat infection and she made me a concoction with wild honey, lemon and herbs, which cured me of the sore throat before I left the next day!
This is the collective intent I cherish and it is what made this walk different from any other trail anywhere else in the world.
Next, Villafranca del Bierzo. It is one of the most beautiful towns I stayed in. The old area of Villafranca del Bierzo has been declared a ‘Historic-Artistic Monument Site’. In the town is what is known as The Door to Forgiveness (Puerta del Perdon): a doorway for pilgrims who were too sick to continue to Santiago* could walk through the door in lieu of completing the pilgrimage and receive the same indulgences.
The most intriguing part was my stay at Ave Fenix, run by Jesus Jato. He is now in his 80s but back in the day, he would perform what is called the Cerimonia da Queimada or the ritual that had the power to heal those who drank the concoction prepared.
Now, the beautiful legend of a bridge : the Honourable Pass or the El Paso Honroso in the town, Hospital de Orbigo. There is a beautiful Gothic bridge over the Rio Obrigo which is the site of a legendary medieval jousting competition. Don Suero de Quinones, a wealthy Leonese knight, was rejected by the woman he loved. In his heartbreak, he locked his neck in an iron collar and swore he would not take it off until he had defeated 300 knights in jousting. In 1434, knights from all over the kingdom came to fight. Quinones succeeded in his quest, freeing himself from the torment of love. He took off the collar and made a pilgrimage to Santiago where he left a bejeweled bracelet (which can still be seen in the cathedral museum). The bridge became known as El Paso Honroso.
None of these are reasons to walk 800 kms in a foreign land, solo. I hope that urban Indian women will undertake journeys like this, to test the limitations that a patriarchal culture imposes on us. To push the envelope. To see if it is true that they cannot endure a long journey by themselves and to meet themselves along the way. The beauty and the healing that comes with such an encounter is just the bonus.
And I would be lying if I was to say that I am not tormented by heartbreak anymore, just like Don Suero de Quinones was. Or that my feet do not feel the pain of blisters from such a long walk. What this walk has accorded me is a realisation that I am walking the path not only for myself but for those who will come after me.