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Some say that the most important piece of a journey is the first step. My first step is into thick, saturated fog. At other times, this fog would create a sense of isolation, but here, it is a being which has enveloped thousands of sojourners before me.
With the ticket in my hand I book a flight to the Biarritz airport in Anglet, France. From here I catch a taxi to St. Jean Pied de Port, a town in the southwest corner of France, exactly five miles from the Spanish border. This town, populated by about 1,500 people, is the beginning of El Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Saint James in northwestern Spain. Tradition holds that the saint’s remains are buried in this Cathedral. St. Jean Pied de Port, located on the river Nive, sets the initial tone for the expedition by introducing the overcast fog. I can only see as far as each step in front of me. Travel brochures encourage the newbies not to worry, as the fog only persists to the Pyrenees, and until then you have no need to see far ahead because the way is flat and the travelers are plenty. Initially, I fail to heed this reassurance as I do not yet know the travelers; instead, I rely solely on my own squinted eyes pointed at my feet.
I clumsily attempt to exercise my high school-level Spanish skills as I greet a young, college-aged girl traveling next to me, “Hola, me llamo Graciella. Qué te trae aquí?” (Hi, my name is Grace. What brings you here?) As she responds, I pick up enough of her words to understand that El Camino is a cultural tradition in which she has known that she would participate since she was a young girl. When she asks “y tú?” (and you?) I laugh and shrug my shoulders, suggesting that she ask me again at the end of El Camino, when I have fine tuned my Spanish skills and am able to fully articulate my motives. For now, I flex my arm and tell her: “porque quiero músculos” (because I want muscles). She laughs. What I do not attempt to express to her is that I am not walking El Camino because I am Catholic or because I hope to “find myself,” much like the stereotypical Camino traveler, but because the idea of merging my cultural thirst with the workout of a lifetime is something that a pleasurable jaunt will never offer.
I enter El Camino with a checklist of things I hope to know at the end: my favorite tapas dish, my favorite spanish dance, and a handsome spaniard. I also sincerely hope to engage in other travelers’ processes of physical, emotional and spiritual growth so that by the end, I fully know their stories. However, I believe that fully knowing another traveler requires more from me than just my listening ears. If I expect them to be honest and vulnerable with me, I must do the same. At first thought of this, I cringe. I am rarely willing to open up to people that are close to me, let alone to strangers. Throughout El Camino I hope to grow in this weakness, and I believe that companionship will be a key factor in allowing me to do so. Tasked with walking approximately 800 kilometers in a month, travelers and I experience many tears, those from laughter and those from pain. When these tears are shed as companions, then they turn into personal conversations about sources of joy and stories of suffering. The initial fog gradually becomes irrelevant. Despite my faint vision, I stride the route confidently because I trust in the congregation of companions embarking on them with me.
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