Day 1 and Life Thoughts on the Camino

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A Typical Yellow Camino Sign to Guide Pilgrims (My Map), Camino de Santiago, Spain, July 2017

That’s right – I am doing the Camino de Santiago! It became a tradition of mine over the years. I think I know what you may be thinking and the answer is ‘No’. It never gets too old or too boring because every time is like the first time if you love walking in nature – also I’ve never once taken the same route (and last but not least – I’ve evolved since I last walked the Camino so that changes everything including my outlook on life while walking). You can start from Spain, France, Portugal, Italy or even Palestine! This time I am doing the Camino del Norte in Spain and I am walking it solo. I would have loved to complete the whole route but my time in Europe is limited so I’ll be covering two stages out of four in 2 weeks. 300 plus kilometres. By foot and no cheating.

Camino del Norte

The Camino del Norte or the Northern Way is the Camino route of the Northern Coast of Spain from San Sebastián to Bilbao and on to Santiago de Compostela. It’s one of the most challenging routes on the Camino. It follows the coast line most of the way and as I have discovered today, you will pass through the most charming fishing villages, sandy beaches and green hills. Side tracking a bit but one of my favourite things about Northern Spain (besides its beautiful picturesque scenery) is the food! I’m obsessed with the Grilled Octopus dish which is basically Octopus and Potatoes drenched in olive oil and flavoured with paprika. It’s delicious! I normally have it daily (unfailingly) when I’m in Northern Spain. Back to Camino del Norte. Here’s a map so you can see the route I will be covering. My last destination is somewhere between Santander and Gijón. The village’s name is not shown on the map.

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Map of Camino del Norte, Spain

Today

Day 1 – I left my San Sebastián hotel and reached Getaria. I walked 27 kilometres for 6 hours and 30 minutes. My legs and feet killed me and are still killing me as I haven’t done long distance walking in a while. The route was quite hilly and had some steep slopes. If you have knee issues I wouldn’t recommend it.

Thoughts

Instead of describing how beautiful the scenery was, let me use this space to tell you what went through my head while walking alone for almost seven hours. I thought about water. I thought about my feet. I thought about how hot it was under the sun and about the cool breeze under the trees. I thought about my father. I thought about what martial arts move would be effective if some crazy person decides to bother me. I thought about my next snack-break, and the next, and the next. I thought about blisters and how to avoid them. I thought about the people I love in different places on earth. I thought about what it would be like to have thick skin. I thought about my mother worrying about me. I thought about a friend of mine in Egypt who’s going through hell but keeps going. I thought about how lucky I am to be able to do the things I love independently.  I thought about my sisters, about their thoughts, worries and courage. I thought about how thankful I am for my life. I thought about ‘courage’ and ‘confidence’ a lot.  I thought about ‘ways’ to overcome grief and whether time is truly my friend. I thought about how Spanish people know how to live life and enjoy the simple things we humans take for granted like good friends, a loving family and togetherness. I thought about what a nuisance this flu of mine is. I thought about my close friend’s 40th in Zanzibar and what special gift I should get or even create for him. I thought about the months I spent in Italy over the last two and half years and the wonderful people I met there and love. I thought about thinking and how to stop thinking and after sometime I actually stopped thinking. I was totally in the moment. Until my feet started acting up and then it was all about my feet and when am I going to reach Getaria.

Did I meet new people along the way? Yes. My favourite people though are the old Spanish people from these parts who stop pilgrims and ask them where they’re from and where they’re heading. I had that today and explained where I was from and where I was heading in broken Spanish mixed with Italian. One old Spanish woman hugged me when she found out I was walking it solo and told me I was very brave. She made my day because it cemented some of my ‘courage’ thoughts about leaving fear behind.  Somehow I always connect with the old irrespective of what country I am in. Old people remind me of my father. Their curiosity and innocence touch me.

Did I listen to music while walking? No.

Did I enjoy my aloneness? Yes.

Did I walk for hours with no one in sight? Yes.

Did I get scared at any point while walking? No. But I was a bit apprehensive when I took my first few steps into the woods.

Am I exhausted? Yes.

Am I happy? Yes, and fulfilled. Completing 27 kilometres on the first day is an accomplishment.

I’ll tell you more tomorrow but I promised in my previous post that I will tell you more about San Sebastián! So here goes.

San Sebastián 

Or Donostia to the Basques. San Sebastián  is located on Spain’s north coast in the Basque Country.  It is well known for its excellent cuisine and is home to countless Michelin-starred restaurants.  It is known for Playa de la Concha and Playa de Ondarreta – beautiful beaches with bayfront promenades. I am amazed at how the Spanish (like the Italians) love the sun! San Sebastián is also known for hosting events such as the San Sebastián International Film Festival. If you’re a museum lover, you would love it. If you’re a foodie, you would definitely love it. If you’re a beach lover, you would love it. If you’re into history and culture, you would love it. If you love holidaying in a place with lots of people, music and life, you would love it. If you love cobbled streets and historic buildings, you would love it. If you generally love enjoying life and aren’t bothered about crunching numbers 24/7 and getting cross-eyed, you would love it!

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Playa de la Concha, San Sebastián, Spain, July 2017
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San Sebastián, Spain, July 2017

Mañana Awaits 

San Sebastián Sunset, July 2017

If I begin to tell you how my day has been in detail my story would just never find an appropriate ending. So I’ll try to keep it short and to the point – plus I’m exhausted and I need to get enough sleep in preparation for tomorrow!

Left the South Ken flat at 4.30am with an encroaching flu (which is an official one now) and a very soar throat and headed to London Heathrow to catch my flight to San Sebastián (Spain) via Madrid. Made it to Madrid but missed my flight to San Sebastián – the first flight I’ve ever missed in my entire traveling life. 

In Madrid, I had an argument with a very rude Iberia representative who accused me of purposely missing my flight and wanted to charge me for the new ticket which won’t actually take me to San Sebastián! (Let me give you some advice – if you ever travel via Madrid do not trust Expedia with one-hour connecting flights). It took me an hour and a half to get to my gate after going through passport control and security check all over again. There’s no concept of ‘Express’ track for connecting flights in Madrid. The ‘Express’ voucher wasn’t an express one at all. I waited a good 30 minutes in line and it took me another 45 minutes to reach the terminal after security check and a tram ride and another 15 minutes to get to the actual gate. Was huffing and puffing by the time I reached the gate. 

Anyway, as you know I missed my flight to San Sebastián and got a ticket to Bilbao instead. My Bilbao flight was scheduled for 15.45. That didn’t happen. There was a mechanical problem with the plane and after a long delay we were redirected to the other end of the terminal to catch another plane. Finally made it to the new and ‘functioning’ plane. I’m generally a nervous flier and the uneasy turbulent flight made me more nervous. Reached Bilbao. Took the bus from Bilbao to San Sebastián city centre. One and a half hour bus ride. When I reached San Sebastián I took a taxi from San Sebastián station to San Sebastián airport. Another half an hour. Why the airport? Because my suitcase took the initial flight to San Sebastián – the flight I missed. Reached San Sebastián airport at 8pm. No one in sight. The airport was deserted and baggage claim was closed. The only human movement was found at the Hertz Car company kiosk. I needed my bag. I had to find my bag. Went to the security office then back to Hertz then back to security. Knocked on doors. Found Iberia security eventually after panicking and telling myself not to panic because nothing really bad has happened. Worst things can happen I told myself. The security person was a woman. She unlocked some door and there was my bag! I hugged the poor woman! Couldn’t contain my excitement and relief. Took a taxi back to San Sebastián city centre and checked into my hotel at 9pm. A matchbox awaited me with no windows.

A room without a view, San Sebastián, July 2017

But I’m happy. Why? Because along the way I met two lovely American women who joined my fight against Iberia. I met another sweet Spanish woman who advised me on the best route to San Sebastián. She was beyond helpful. I met a guy from Costa Rica who told me about the ‘Express’ voucher. The guy sitting next to me on the flight to Bilbao was a nervous flier just like me yet helped me inhale and exhale away my fear! The security woman at San Sebastián made my day (she had my precious suitcase)! God is everywhere. He really is. 

Atari Tapas Bar, San Sebastián, July 2017

Now you might be wondering why I even bothered taking a super early flight to San Sebastián? I could have avoided all of that, right? So I can enjoy more of the city and experience one of its many Michelin star restaurants before tomorrow happens. Naturally, I missed that. Instead, I had lovely tapas at one of its many tapas bars. And what about my obsession with my suitcase and why am I here in the first place and what’s with ‘tomorrow’? I am here to do my fourth Camino de Santiago trek and everything to do with that is inside my suitcase! That starts tomorrow! But more on that tomorrow! And more on beautiful San Sebastián manãna! For now, goodnight everyone! I’m dead tired. Tomorrow will come, and will be told. 

Women in Love

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Me facing Monte Amaro’s Clouds, Maiella (a massif in the Central Apennines), Abruzzo, Italy, 2015

I’ve been thinking about the women I know in my life. There are some who seem to know exactly what they want and others who are at the edge of a cliff somewhere, contemplating their next move – fearful of the gaping abyss which they call ‘my life’. I made a point of seeing some of these women. So I did. I sat with them and listened intently to their stories, with the best part of my heart as company. That’s when it dawned on me how truly incredible these women are, yet how little they know that about themselves.

They are incredible in the way they endure difficulties. The way they approach impossible situations and dare to confront them. There is never flight, only fight. And the fighting they do is almost always in the name of love. They wait faithfully for the unknown, and they wait not knowing if the end of the ‘unknown’ is worth waiting for – yet they wait patiently and make hope their ally. These patient women remind me of the main character Florentino in Gabriel Márquez’s ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’. He waits and waits for Fermina (the love of his life) and endures numerous rejections, and survives the bitterness of distance and heartache. Not once does he lose hope, because what’s in his heart is love and love is never without hope. Most women are like the loyal Florentino. When love is in their hearts, anything is possible. If you see a woman forsaking that ‘anything’ – then know that love was never in her heart, or that love for whatever reason had transformed into something not resembling love.

A woman gives with her heart when she loves – and she has so much of it to give that her deep well of love never dries up. She is strong enough to hold back when pride is threatened, but lets go willingly when love is returned. She tries very hard when something means something to her, and she never tries less even when ‘less’ is safer. There is insanity in the way she loves. Most of the tears she sheds are tears related to love. She cries when she loves with passion and cannot contain its eruptive force; and she cries when love is questioned and cannot control its downfall. Crying is the most beautiful expression of her soul. Her love’s purity is revealed when she cries.

Think about some of the women you know. The hopelessly in love. The ones who love with all their being even when love isn’t reciprocated or when love is there but has reached a dead-end. Don’t judge them. I for one admittedly regret the way my less-knowing younger self judged these women. I thought they were weak and that their paralysis was their doing. And I used to think it with a deep and serious disappointment in womanhood (as if I was immune to the frivolity of a woman in love – which I certainly wasn’t). I thought they were weak because I equated strength with pride and being realistic (the anti-dweller type: tomorrow is another day), and anything outside of that realm I considered weakness. How wrong I was to judge. How insensitive of me. And how much I’ve learnt since then.

So did Fermina.

At the end, Fermina recognises the rarity of Florentino’s strong feelings towards her. She acknowledges his wisdom, and appreciates his patience and persevering hope. So much so that their love is finally able to blossom freely during their old age. Love happens because Fermina finds love in her heart again and frees it. She allows love to guide her.

A woman might be at the edge of a cliff somewhere, contemplating her next move and dreading what lies ahead- but if love is in her heart, love will guide her. She will survive. She will figure it out. And her incredibleness will shine through.

I know you all have love in your hearts. Love will guide you. You will survive. You will figure it out. And your incredibleness will shine through.

Where I Found Fernando

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Here’s Portugal’s main man! The one who once wrote ‘What is merges with what, I sleep and am. And I’m, Not feeling; sad I’m not. But a sad thing I am.’ From I’m Scanning Things I Can’t see, Portugal, 1933

My most cherished buy and souvenir of Lisbon was my Fernando Pessoa ‘Selected Poems’. Not only because I love buying and collecting books; not only because it is great Pessoa and my strange connection to his work; and not only because English translations are hard to find. It’s all of the above plus this important fact: I bought this poetry book from Bertrand Chiado!

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My FP Book – Stamped by Bertrand Chiado Bookstore, Lisbon, May, 2017

Bertrand is the oldest bookstore in the world. The one which has been in operation since 1732. The one which is beautiful with all its antiqued bookshelves and arches. The one which smells of old books, tradition and history. The one which made me think of intellectuals and friendly ghosts lurking in corners. The one which reaffirmed my need and passion for books and reading. The one which made me think what a dream it would be to work in a bookstore like this one in a city like Lisbon and be surrounded (on a daily basis) by endless greatness and giants stacked on old wooden shelves. Anything which has history has a right to be romanticised – a simplistic view leaning on idealism but worth every thinking cell in me!

All the more reason for falling in love with Lisbon. Lisbon – the city of FP. The one which screams history in every corner; Fado music echoing in little streets; romantic benches; purple trees; sunny sun; cotton-candy clouds; and hidden treasures if you look closely and if you just make a point of searching for these treasures with an open heart, renewed eyes and a pinch of human curiosity!

Inside of Bertrand Chiado – the oldest bookstore in the world, Lisbon, May, 2017

 

 

Love and Loss

Selfless Love, My Father and Me, 2017

I wrote a book review on ‘The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’ by Sogyal Rinpoche at the beginning of 2017. To be exact – I wrote it days before I experienced the greatest loss of my existence. It helped me at the time – the book I mean. And I still think it is somewhat helpful in dealing with loss and the aftermath of loss, in understanding yourself better under the stinging slap of tragedy. But now – after some time had passed – I sadly realise there is no actual formula or remedy or step or even multiple steps one can consciously take to lessen grief. The moment loss knocks on your door, whatever enlightenment you’ve attained before – disappears in an instant.

Grief is very personal and grief comes in different stages, forms and extremes. Some laugh through grief. Some smile away their sadness. Some cry away their tears. Some cry choking tears from inside – burning away their energy and leaving them drained and emotionally paralysed. Some get angry and bitter and lash out their pain in a desperate attempt to make sense of it – to find answers that cannot possibly be found. How can the unknown ever be known? Some help others before helping themselves so they can stay distracted – in order to delay confronting their own unbearable pain or maybe to find solace in other people’s pain. Pain shared is sometimes pain consoled. Some make impulsive decisions, hoping change would act as their painkiller. Some procrastinate because their comfort zone is their only safety net, the only stability they can have amidst the instability of loss. Some become compulsive and lean on their vices and drink through their pain or do physically destructive things to try and numb the pain. But the pain is only heightened. Some lose their spark – so much so that their eyes don’t shine anymore. Have you every looked at a person who recently lost someone they love? Look at them, and notice their eyes. You will know what I mean. Their eyes are their faces, not their actual faces or deceiving expressions.

Some get delayed reactions. Some run as fast as they can. Some hide. Some give in and accept and live with subdued sadness that follows them wherever they go. Some may even forget for a while that it ever happened and just go on doing what they’ve always done: they get up, go to work, meet friends, eat, and sleep – like a record on loop. They never forget (it is there festering in their subconscious) but they live like they have because sometimes denial brings momentarily relief. Some lean on faith, and some even lose faith. We all do it differently, and there isn’t a form of grief that is better than the other; or more appropriately timed; or less destructive; or more constructive; or more socially accepted (that’s the least of your worry). No one really understands the extent of the pain you feel inside until they go through it themselves. And I say this with absolute confidence.

Loss felt in death is not like breaking up with a partner, or failing at your job, or losing this or that opportunity. Loss – true loss – is when you lose someone you love more than yourself (truly love them more than yourself – a selfless love) and you lose them to death – knowing you can never see them again, or laugh with them, or hold their hand, or depend on them for your happiness, security and sanity. Because that’s the kind of loss that you don’t have a choice in. You cannot try again, you cannot call him or her up – it’s just gone. It’s one love and one loss and nothing after that. You might ask – but who do I love more than myself (other than my children)? Besides loving the person who shares your blood or who has all the basic traits of a lovable person – you love the person who lets you in on their secrets, on their quirky habits and imperfections – the secrets, habits and imperfections that only you know and no one else knows because you’re the special one. When you remember that person you don’t remember big bang moments you had together – instead – you remember those secrets, habits and imperfections you shared. What I call the triggers of your grief.

My childhood friend – someone I respect – put it so eloquently when she said: ‘Such a big painful loss which the pain of will never fully subside, but you will just learn to live with it and eventually pull positives from it’. And here I am, still learning. We all are.

Book Review (written on February 22, 2017): On the ‘Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’

This is the book recommended to me by a woman I briefly met during my Camino de Santiago journey in 2015. It caught my attention as I was intrigued by the title, and I am not sure what attracted me to the non-artistic cover but something of magnets did. I took a photo of the book (amnesia is my second name) and told myself I will read it when I am back home. Fast-forward in time amid the chaos of our bella vita, I had forgotten all about it. This is until two months ago when Buddhism found its way back to me. It has been a trying time – it still is, and I guess I found solace in Buddhism. Thoughts of dying and death; living well; living in the ‘now’; living more; living with little; living with awareness; living happily; purpose/art of living; and all the ‘living’ stuff we all read about created a revolution in my mind. A mind that has been in shambles because of a situation. I was never one to be inspired (and fooled) by all these self-help books about living and happiness. I always found them to be quite superficial – for who made these people such experts when they’re just as humanly confused, weak (precisely because they are human) and clueless as all of us? Anyway. The book somehow made a reappearance in my mind despite my amnesiac state. So I read it. And what a book! Light and heavy. Inspiring and depressing. Far from superficial. Sogyal Rinpoche is an absolute genius! This Tibetan, highly educated, wise, traditional and worldly man has managed to masterfully convey his message on how to live well so you can die well. Knowing the nature of your mind and mastering it is the golden key to contentment. All of that is explained in the book so I will stop here. However, let me say this: If you are going through a tough time; if you’re grieving; if you have questions about death; if you’re terminally ill; or you are dealing with a loved one’s terminal illness and need some fresh perspective to give you hope – this is the book for you. I will leave you with this powerful yet simple quote of a dying person: ‘The point is trust, which is faith. The point is devotion, which is surrender.’ Let’s just be with what is happening. By accepting.

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, by Sogyal Rinpoche

The Hug

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Inspired by my stay at the Sha Wellness Clinic, Spain. A new page was turned that year. Alicante,  2014

I repeat, it was not lust,

nor a tragic futility of love

it was not an aftermath of despair

nor a fleeting love affair

it was what it was.

 

It was shyness of the unknown

of silently screaming feelings

of trembling hands and vulnerabilities shown

of language barriers, paralysis and fences

of echoing caves and sacred hidings

I repeat, it was not lust,

nor a drunken state of momentarily love

it was not a frivolous consequence of ecstasy

nor uncalculated courage and misguided trust

it was nothing resembling the above

it was what it was.

 

Confined inside of me

he marked his territory

a stranger even to himself

in this darkness and absurdity

fragmented awakenings I foresaw

of roses, redness and flamenco

and all that belonged to yesterday

was on death row

I repeat, it was not lust,

nor my soul’s solitude if you must

it was not a prize to take pride in

nor loneliness in me festering like dust

nor profound nights in high mountains

it was what it was.

 

Perhaps I cannot dwell

on the complexity that drew him to me

an enchantress casting her spell?

no one can tell

it was what it was.

 

Stranger I said:

procrastinate here with me

envelop me

burden all my senses

and if I may

let my cheek rest on your shoulder

let me let go

of all my defenses

I repeat, it was not lust,

it was what it was.

 

By Razan Abdul Majeed, 2017      

Uruguay’s Big Man

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M.B. 

This image is of a Uruguayan man who – in the non-Spanish speaking world is not very well known or not as well-known as he should be but who – in the Spanish-speaking world – is considered one of Latin America’s important writers.

Uruguay is the smallest Spanish-speaking country in South America, but it has always been well-populated with poets and the poetry scene there has always been hyperactive (my idea of paradise). I didn’t know that until I stumbled upon this man’s poetry years ago and dug deeper – only to find out (to my dismay), the availability of English translations for Uruguayan poetry is quite limited.

Who is this kind-looking man?

His name is Mario Benedetti. He was born in 1920. In his 88 years, he lived as fully as many of us now could only dream of living. He had an eventful life, an important one. One of art; travel; politics; and exile. He was a journalist, novelist and a poet. In the 1960s, Uruguay saw itself as the cradle of revolution in Latin America. Che Guevara was welcomed there as a hero during a brief visit and that was the period many writers in Uruguay were writing in magazines and providing theories to back up revolutionary practice. Mario Benedetti was the poet of that moment! He became famous throughout the continent for the direct style in his verses of anger, resistance and love.

Mario Benedetti published 80 books and won international awards. Some of you may even know ‘La Tregua’ which inspired the movie The Truce in the 1970s. He was married for 66 years to the same woman and his death followed hers 3 years later. I found his last poem before dying to be quite melancholic. The first line goes like this: ‘my life has been like a fraud’.

Mario Benedetti wrote beautiful poems. Many about love. I personally like ‘Little stones at my window’. But what made me enter his world was another one. It was this one: Táctica y estrategia. For the Romantics, here it is.

My tactic is
to look at you
to learn how you are
to love you as you are
my tactic is
to talk to you
and to listen to you
to build with words
an indestructible bridge
my tactic is
to remain in your memories
I don’t know how
nor
with what pretext
but to remain with you
my tactic is
to be frank
and to know that you’re frank
and not to sell to ourselves
simulations
so that between us
there is no curtain
nor abyss
my strategy is
in contrast
deeper and
more simple
my strategy is
that one of these days
I don’t know how
nor
with what pretext
you finally
need me.