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California, New Zealand. Two passports, two homelands. And detours.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Camino de Santiago: Goodnight for Life

Three Friday nights ago I was rolling out a bedroll by the glow of a Coke vending machine and planning out how I could crawl into my sleeping bag, put on my freshly charged MP3 player and read more of the James Patterson novel I had found that morning in a public restroom, without having to get into some big, profound conversation about life and the universe with the guy who had already claimed the spot under the lights of a Fanta bottle.

If sleeping in the vending machine shelter sounds strange, that´s because it was. This wasn't a place I would usually wander around looking for somewhere to stay the night, especially on my own, in this open, square, doorless shack somewhere outside of Sarria, in a cluster of houses and barns, one Alburgue and no bar. As an apology maybe, this had been built to house about ten vending machines - Coke, Fanta, Milka bars, coffee, chips, first aid kits and batteries - and maybe now and then a couple of pilgrims who didn't get to the Alburgue before 23 Spanish cyclists.

Just to set the scene, if I was writing a stage play about big conversations about life and the universe and was trying to come up with a backdrop for two opposing characters where conflict and angst could unfold over one night, a vending machine shelter in Spain wasn't bad.

And as characters, again, almost too filmic. A 19-year-old art history student from Paris, drinks water out of a crushed plastic container for dinner, while watching a Californian carefully take out gold sandals, a makeup bag and three different dress options for a wedding in the south of Spain the next week, and laying them all folded on a metal table, before yes, finally finding what she was looking for, that leopard-print eye mask she had bought in the Barcelona train station for two Euros.

His name was Franz and he had this tall, polished wooden staff by his bedroll. Everyone seemed to buying or making one along the route. I refolded my dresses and put them back in a plastic bag in my pack. I know it was how original pilgrims travelled, and they were handy for protection 300 years ago, but now, to me, wooden staffs were stupid.

So we chose our corners, made it clear in body language that neither of us felt like talking, and went to sleep.

It was dark when I woke up to a sound. Across the room I heard Franz stir. I pulled up my Audrey Hepburn eye mask. In the reflection of the Coke machine I could see the half moon above the trees. I could hear the cows moving around in the barn next door. And then I heard what had woken me again.

I turned my head slowly, telling myself it was only a nightmare, just enough to see Franz and he was looking at me, eyes like wall clocks, as the low, velvet growl in the doorway grew in intensity. His hand moved to his side. He brought the staff up to his chest, the sound of it dragging across the cement floor and gripped it with both hands, warrior-style.

The dog was stunning, wolf-like. I couldn´t have sketched a more beautiful non-animated dog to battle over my life with; I watched him come fully into the reflection on the Coke machine, joining the moon and the trees. He was turned away from us. Across the courtyard a stray dog slinked away from the barn and the cows. The dog in the doorway watched him leave, his head low, showing teeth, the silver hair along his back still up like razors. Then he circled a spot in one direction, then the other, and then went back to sleep in our doorway where he had probably been for hours. In the morning he was gone.

I thought about this moment the next Monday, when I saw Franz again in a crowd, his staff leaning against a wall in the cathedral, and how I was all about pilgrim staffs now. In fact, get two; be double fisted on the Camino. We did a funny wave across the room - the kind of awkward movement you make when you've shared a moment in a vending machine recepticle with someone, and this moment will become one of many tales you will tell of this time of walking through Spain in search of something that is unique and real to each person and in need of finding.

Then Franz nodded and I nodded and we put our hands down and our eyes roamed over the pews of the cathedral in Santiago, searching for more people with whom we've shared something with in the last month.

I had sworn to myself that I wasn't going to start sobbing, or lie prostrate or do something weird and emotional when I got to the final destination, the noon mass at Santiago. But sitting on the cool tiles, my back against marble, and seeing people across the room, scattered everywhere, people I had had these strange moments with - moments where you take shelter from a hailstorm in a bar and go halves on a pitcher of sangria that leaves you breathless and laughing and declaring you could never be with a guy who was passionate about golf or Braveheart; hours when you walk together in silence along a highway, trucks blowing past you; or late afternoons when you lay stretched out in the sun, each of you with one earphone plugged into one ipod in the grass, eyes closed behind sunglasses, both of you nodding to the beat of a favourite song the other person has to hear because it is all about what you have spent the whole morning talking about - its hard not to feel something gathering up in your chest.

Some of these people have names, and get friended as soon as you get to a computer - like Eva who only knew me for hours before she marched into the bunkroom and dragged me out of my bed and into the bar at Rabonal del Camino (You can't lie here and READ, they are serving BAILEYS in the BIG GLASSES for TWO EUROS) - and others who you tell to go on, you'll catch up with them at the alburgue in the next town, and there end up being six alburgues in the next town, and all you know is their first name and that they had a baby when they were 15 and that they're not talking to their sister.

At some point I started taking pictures of signs that people had left for someone - Nadine Where are you? Send me your number and I'll call. Oliver. March 26, 2006 - and wondered if Nadine saw the sign, if she sent Oliver her number. Did Oliver call Nadine, or did he decide that maybe wasn't such a good idea after all.

That Monday at noon in the cathedral we all did different gestures of intimacy to each other - hand clasps, bear hugs, the cupping of faces and kisses on both cheeks - saying stupidly, over and over, congratulations. We left the cathedral in small packs of people, our little mishmashed cliches, and stood in the sun of the square. We took pictures of each other and ourselves, our arms outstretched, the cathedral behind us, making jokes about finally securing salvation. I didn't want it to end. We wandered back into the city, climbing the steps, past tourists who snapped pictures of us with our packs and dangling sea shells and worn out boots, past the accordian player with his drum and bass machine who seemed to be everywhere we were, past the woman in the same down vest I had in my closet at home, kneeling, her hands out before her with a bowl of change, head bowed. I felt like I was being dragged past all of this, stumbling, trying to inhale it. In four hours I was taking a night bus to Madrid to get to the wedding in Malaga, to put to use the dresses and scarves and gold sandals that I had unloaded every night for a month to get to my sleeping bag and blister kit at the bottom.

The will to keep saying goodbye to people - and say it like it was the last time, not like we might bump into each other in Leon or Samos sometime before next Tuesday - was emptying out of me. I saw a beautiful girl in sneakers, massive headphones on her tiny head, writing in a journal on the steps of the church and I stopped to take a picture while she was absorbed. When I looked up, my friends had disappeared into the crowds.

I realised that's what I had intended to happen, so easily and completely and without any emotional effort. I put my camera in my bag and took a breath. This was the right way. I will send out a group email explain I stopped to take a picture and lost them. But no, there was Eva on the steps, face flushed, a hand on her hip, really annoyed I had made her run back to find me. And suddenly I was really really happy she had. And I realised that I am almost 34 and I need to grow up and stop being such a brat about saying goodbye to people.

The thing is, I need a line.

Walking behind Eva, absorbed with my boots, I heard my name. I looked up and there was Antonio and Leah, a couple I met in a backpackers' kitchen the week before. Antonio was learning English and while we had been waiting in line to use the one pot and sieve available, he practiced on me. Everything he had on me was answers to phrasebook questions. I was 33. I was from Los Olivos, California. I had one brother, no children, unmarried. They grasped my hand and kissed my cheek. It was more congratulations and talking about what was waiting for us in our homes then Antonio asked if I wanted to join them for dinner.

'I wish I could,' I said, placing my hand over my heart, my new gesture I had pulled from some Spanish soap opera maybe, to indicate regret, sympathy or a deep feeling about something. My eyes darted up the street to where everyone was lingering.

He put is hands up like whataya do? then grasped my hand one more time.

'Goodnight'... he said, and he lifted his eyes up to the sky, searching for the correct wording in English that he needed... 'for life.'

I started laughing a little. Harsh.

But I said it back to him. Then we continued on in different directions, and I was walking and laughing still and thinking, I've got to get a pen to write that down, because I think I've found my line.

So Camino de Santiago - time of solitude, sangria, long afternoon naps, warm crossiants in the morning, crippling blisters, nights spent in vending machine shelters, and the companions who hang out with you as you sort yourself out... it's been grand.

Goodnight for life.

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