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On January 14, 2008, just after sunset, Ramazan and Faruq are fitted with Afghan security uniforms, armed with AK-47s, hand grenades, and strapped with suicide vests, each consisting of nine kilograms of explosives embedded with ball-bearings. In a small plain green sedan, they are driven to the Serena Hotel.
At 18:08, about 30 minutes after my arrival, the Taliban pair storm the hotel, guns blazing, throwing grenades, killing and disabling the hotel guards. Faruq detonates his suicide vest, and Ramazan shoots his way through to the hotel gym where I am. Seven die and dozens are injured. I survive, escaping the onslaught of Ramazan’s gunfire, hidden behind the swimming pool.
After the incidents in Kabul, I searched for a “thing,” for a place where I could allow myself to be lost. Like a spider moulting, I needed to bust out from the inside, shed a layer of myself, and make space for those parts of me that were struggling to protrude. Just as the spider remains when it moults, I needed to do my own shedding without forgetting who I was.
On April 26, 104 days after the suicide attack, I was en route to Madrid from Montreal, via Paris, and onward to Logrono – a town of 150,000 people, southwest of Pamplona – where it had seemed best to start my four-week walk on the Camino de Santiago.
This was my “thing.”
The following day, I checked into Pension Rey Pastor for my first night on the Camino. And on April 28, I popped into a shop to buy a walking stick, got my Camino passport stamped, and started my first day. It was a brisk 13 kilometres through the city, parks, by the highway, and on by lakes and farms to the town of Navarrete, where the townspeople had gathered for a funeral. It was disorientating to walk out of Logrono. I had only previously arrived or left a city by road, rail, or air. Fidgeting as I looked for the scallop shells and yellow arrows that showed the way to Santiago de Compostela, I stumbled on the final exit, through an underpass covered in graffiti. Opening up to a wooded dirt path, the urban scene had given way to the countryside, where I saw two men fishing.
Rain started to pour. Good luck some would say.
So, here I was, with a 10-litre backpack, carrying a couple changes of clothes, my stick, a small camera, a guidebook and map, two pens, my weatherproof journal, a sleeping bag, and my good old travel-proof Nokia 1100 phone with its built-in flashlight. I, who did not enjoy backpacking, travelling alone, or hiking, was now on what seemed to be an impossible journey, with 600 kilometres to go. I could not explain why I had ventured beyond those limits that I thought defined me.
It was hope that I trailed. It was those god-like rays of sunlight that penetrate dark skies that I searched for. Would the noise, the aloneness, and the fog brought on by the darkness I encountered in Kabul ever dissipate? With every one of those one million steps I was determined to walk, I knew I could create new stems of hope. I could create so many that they would burst from the fog and mute the noise.
My first night with other peregrinos  was a cacophonic symphony. The medley of snoring sounded like the abrasion of the unhurried grinding of a freight train coming to a halt. It would be another few nights before the comforting fatigue of the day’s walk, the onset of acceptance, and the free flow of Rioja wine at the evening dinner would have me join the ranks of the maestro roncadores.  But that first night was a baptism by fire. On a top bunk, in a dormitory with a dozen or so caminoists who were for the most part in their 50s and 60s, I was a naïve child, at some form of a twisted slumber party, surrounded by a sect of people my parents’ age who were undisturbed by what was the loudest combination of snoring and deep breathing one could imagine.
Staring at the low hanging ceiling, I finally made my way to the communal kitchen. Hungover on Rioja and jetlag, I packed my sleeping bag and decided to go for a walk. At five a.m. or so, Navarrete, with its population of 3,000, was void of functioning streetlights. Trying to find my way, with the help of the light on my Nokia, I looked for a sign on the road to point me in the right direction. I ended up lost in a cemetery, most likely where the funeral procession of the previous day had culminated.
Following my baptism by fire, this was a second lesson on the Camino – do not look for the way, let it find you, become it. If in doubt, accept it, look to the horizon, and go forward. Walking to Navarrete, I knew where I had come from. And this pointed me in the direction I needed to continue walking. But I did not trust that. It would be days before that began to sink in. It is an ideal really, one which requires trust in one’s heart, acceptance of the occasional faux pas, and just plain old enthusiasm for what it is that may lie ahead.
Exhaustion quickly brought on the third lesson. Eight kilometres into the day’s hike, I had made it to the village of Ventosa but could not find an open café to fuel myself with a couple espressos. It was another 10 kilometres to the next town – Najera. On arrival, I collapsed. On a bench by the town’s main bus stop, I removed my shoes, peeled off my socks, unbuttoned my tan shirt, unzipped the grey fleece, and nestled with my backpack, enveloped by the soft shade of a low hanging tree. The morning’s fogginess had given way to blue skies, exposing the sun’s warmth. And here I was, sleeping on a bench, crumpled and in full view of those in transit, barefoot, and careless.
The Camino, just two days in, had begun to transform me into that child I longed for, perhaps that I had never been – uninhibited and projected into spontaneity.
That transformation was the first ray of sunlight.
A few days into the walk, a fourth lesson led me to every alternativo  I came across. The regular route was at times busy, and often zigzagging along major roads. While an alternativo was usually a few kilometres longer, these offered more pleasant walks, usually through farmland and forests. And, these offered solitude, not the aloneness I feared, but moments to learn to be with myself, to talk to myself out loud, to speak to the clouds, to my clouds.
When the alternativo reconnected with the main route, I would often bump into some of the same people I had connected with earlier. I had never experienced such openness with strangers. Regardless of the reasons why each individual walked, the kinship that was felt was deep.
Five days into the journey, and approaching the 100 kilometre mark, the pain of walking began to settle in. It dawned on me that I was part of a generation of humans who had never walked out of necessity. Humans, for millennia, had walked great distances, and still did, to gather wood for fuel, source clean water, or forage for food. But my “privileged” generation no longer needed to walk. Our transport was automated or had been rendered unnecessary. I certainly knew how to walk, but my life had never depended on it. Coming to terms with the fact that I, as a healthy 29-year-old, struggled to put one foot in front of the other for a few consecutive hours per day was indeed humbling.
Reaching Burgos was a major milestone in the journey. The first big city on my route, two hundred thousand of my one million steps taken. In those steps, I had undergone some form of accelerated trip from innocence to experience – I think. The fog had just begun to dissipate. My footsteps had become meditative. Ruminations had begun to lose their hold on my thoughts. It was with curiosity and anticipation that I asked myself, “What will I think of today?” I began to deliberately focus on my childhood memories. In my earliest, it was my mom I saw, and I, age two or so, fresh out of the bath, sitting on a towel on our old mustard-coloured washing machine, being lathered in baby oil. I saw it like a spectator watching a movie, as though my soul was the onlooker, hovering behind my mom between the sink and the tub. And I felt it, the warmth of the bath, the lather cocooning me.
This fifth lesson revolved around the idea of taking it in, genuinely giving myself the time, allowing the required energy to internalise what it was that I needed to absorb. The symbolism of seeing how I was cared for by my mom was healing. I had similar memories of my dad, gently stroking my cheek as I fell asleep on his lap. Observing those, not as a child, but from deep within my soul, coming to terms with those currents of love, brought me to tears. As I continued to walk, I began to see life displaying its wonder all around me: the wind brushing the blooming wheat fields; a lonesome majestic tree proudly towering over green pastures; the perfect symmetry of vineyards and orchids. The Camino’s path, seen from a hilltop, threading itself through the seams of the terrain, with the full pallet of reds and yellows on the hilly sunsetting horizon, is forever tattooed in my mind.
But arriving in Burgos with a swollen right ankle, cramped foot, and stiff hips, brought me back to this physical reality. I was lost in the zigzags and avenues of a provincial capital, unable to find my hostel. I asked a few uninterested Spaniards for directions. An hour or so later, just as I was ready to give up and crash on another park bench, I spotted the name of my hostel, written in tiny letters on the buzzers of a building, just by where I had stopped to gather myself. In that instant, I reconnected with the magnetism of life, the magic of letting go.
Leaving Burgos brought on the sixth lesson, which had to do with breaking from the pack. Building on lesson four – scenic routes – I would be shifting my itinerary to start and end my days in the smallest possible villages. Most peregrinos followed a similar circuit, which would have them ending their day in the same village or town as all the others, usually from biggest to biggest. Some would even rush to secure a bed in a council-run refugio. I had realised that I needed to take action to find my own way, my own Camino. I had to slow down. I had to stop obsessing over the destination.
In any case, if I would be incapable of making it on time to Santiago, I could just take a bus.
In the days that followed, I began to recognise and trust the deep-rooted feeling of symbiosis. My journey was not necessarily about the places I would walk through. It was not a linear stream of experiences. It was a moment. It was a turning point. It became the turning point.
One day above all captured the totality of ups and downs one could face on a 650-kilometre walk through Spain. Leaving the village of Calzadillas de los Hermanillos and its population of 150 behind, I hopped on the Camino. It was 6:30 a.m., and following my morning stretch and foot care ritual, I fuelled up on espresso and breakfast. A few minutes into the walk, I spotted an alternativo sign, and lesson four propelled me in its direction.
It was a barren flat landscape, void of people, animals, and cultivation. It had no trees or natural formations. Mountains flanked far away on the southern horizon and electric pylons towered over the muddy dirt path. Soon, drizzle turned to downpour, wind to gusts. No shelter in sight, I soldiered on. Two hours into the walk, completely soaked, I paused and chomped on a few mouthfuls of my sandwich, squatting over the mud to rest. The break was cut short by the pinch of pelting rain. Tucking away what was left of my sandwich, I continued to walk. Exposed to the elements, I looked around, hoping someone or something would appear. An hour or so later, hungry, muddy and in serious doubt over this life lesson I had been raving about, I delved into my emergency nut rations and began chewing as I walked. A few steps later, I felt a dry tickle in my throat. I started to cough. My throat swelled. I could feel my face heat up and turn red. Emptying the remaining nuts from my pocket, as one would scrape crawling insects from their body, I began to gargle and guzzle down the bit of water I was carrying, hoping it would flush away the swelling. At the same time, I forced myself to cough, hoping to expel bits of hazelnuts pinching my throat.
Beaten by the rain, wind, and cold, I paced forward, drank, and coughed at once. Just a few months prior, I had survived live rounds, grenades, and bombs; I would not let this newly discovered allergy to hazelnuts get the better of me. My improvised hacking and watering technique seemed to have a positive effect as the swelling began to diminish. With the fear of choking gone, I picked up my pace. It would be another hour, with occasional preventative coughing spells, before I would finally spot a sign.
Four hours into my day’s hike, I was at a fork in the road. I should look to the horizon and trust the Camino I thought. That was what lesson two had taught me, and which had served me well those previous 12 days. But the improvised hand-painted sign displayed a word which had no meaning to me. Below the word, an arrow pointed left, towards another muddy dirt path which seemed to be going nowhere. I was unsure if that sign pointed to danger to be avoided, or to some form of oasis awaiting those duped into walking the worst alternativo route on the Camino.
Looking ahead, my perspective allowed me to see to the horizon. Looking left, the distance my eyes could decipher seemed shorter. But the mystery was too great to resist, and my desire for salvation too great to ignore. I had one last unrewarding 360º look, stared at the sign for another few seconds, and took a firm step left.
Lesson seven: Trust your gut, even if it goes against other life lessons.
It would be another few kilometres on another grubby track before I would allow myself to feel hope for a haven from the frigid terrain. Almost five hours into the day’s hike, I had finally reached a little village. But it seemed abandoned. Walking on a paved road, hope grew as I heard music coming from the village square. One small building glowed in the rainy fog. With a heavy stride and quickened pace, I walked towards it, hoping for an open door and soothing coffee.
I nudged the door. I opened it. It was a pub, packed to the brim, Elvis tunes blasting, and the bartender dancing on the counter. This was a scene straight out of a beer commercial. Thirsty, hungry, and wet peregrinos filled the place. Boots and socks congregated by wall heaters, some danced barefoot, finding space between piles of backpacks. Beer, wine, and tapas littered the scattered metallic tables. Exposed mud brick, a granite bar countertop, a wooden beamed ceiling, beer-branded plastic chairs came together in a hodgepodge. The bartender, who must have been the owner, would suddenly crank up the volume when his favourite Elvis track played. Frozen at the entrance, smiling at this garden of Eden, I was waved in and offered a chair by a group of four, from Canada, Hungary, Ireland, and New Zealand.
I indulged in the flow of wine and tapas, removing the muddy boots and socks, the wet backpack, jacket and hat, the sunglasses which had shielded my eyes from the rain. The quartet, Noemi, Jessica, Aidan, and the Kiwi lady whose name is lost to me, inquired as to my reason for walking the Camino. I told them of the incidents. Looking into their eyes, and for the first time speaking of the incidents with some form of detachment. I was validated by the connection I experienced, the love filling this sanctuary for peregrinos. My Camino journal of these moments reads: “I love life and randomness.” These are the only words I underlined during my four-week walk.
Lesson eight: When your heart glows, share with strangers even more than you would with your closest loved ones.
I was now at the halfway mark on my journey, and only a few short kilometres from the next provincial capital, Leon. On May 12, I made my way to the capital’s airport to welcome Susanne, my fiancée, who was flying in from Sweden.
To be continued.
 Spanish for pilgrims, or those walking the Camino
 Scenic route
 A pilgrim hostel usually with mixed dormitory-type rooms