A Stroll Through Middle Earth: A Conversation on the Camino.
I was two months and one thousand kilometres into my hike across France and Spain along the Camino de Santiago.
To be honest, walking was getting a little old but I was yet to reach enlightenment so on I must go!
I was procrastinating in a bar one morning, taking multiple cafe cortados to delay commencing my days walk, when I began chatting to an Italian philosopher. He was one of those people who had walked the Camino back and forth for eight years living only off people’s donations. I started to worry that one Camino wasn’t going to be enough to answer the existential questions I had after leaving my legal career and life in Australia. God help me, I thought, I cannot walk this thing again!
The philosopher now ran a donativo albergue in the ruins of an old convent. He was giving back.
I had passed it unknowingly on my way into town but it was closed for the season while the philosopher pursued a meditation project. I had heard that his albergue had no lighting and no electricity just a fire for cooking and mattresses on the floor.
It was a shame to miss out on such an experience. Most of the albergues I had stayed in in Spain had been soulless commercial dormitories of thirty plus beds or local council Xuntas. The Xuntas I had been told, are tendered and granted to the lowest bidder. There is no requirement that the bidders have walked even a day of the Camino and hence no guarantee they have an understanding of, or any interest in spreading the Camino spirit. Some of them were pretty good at spreading bed bugs though.
I was particularly keen to procrastinate that day because I was about to walk into the Meseta or ‘Fucking Mordor’ as my sister liked to call it. The Meseta is a two hundred kilometre long, shadeless, mono-farmed plain in the middle of Spain. According to my sister it is reminiscent of middle earth. Pergatory if you will.
While my guidebook described it as something along the lines of ‘strikingly beautiful’ my sister had prepared me for hell. She described the Meseta as a hopeless wasteland; an impoverished part of Spain with run down buildings, filthy accommodation, terrible frozen food and oppressing heat.
“The landscape is entirely uniform, miles of dead stalks of harvested wheat, unobstructed sunlight and dry and unrelenting heat.”
She recounted how one day she and her companions got lost and wandered round and round in circles for hours looking for the path because, ‘it all looks the fucking same!’ Eventually they ran out of water and collapsed under the relentless Spanish sun waiting to die. She did live to tell the tale (rather dramatically I thought). Still I was nervous.
Hoping for a more reassuring view I broached the subject of the Meseta with the philosopher. It soon became apparent that he was not minded to calm my nerves, ‘In the Meseta you face yourself. Most people don’t want to do that so they take a bus.’ He was referring to the common custom of ‘touregrinos’ (tourist pilgrims) skipping this unappealing part of the way.
I wondered who I was about to face.
As easy as it would be to dismiss the philosopher’s comments as Italian histrionics I suspected there was something to them. The Meseta has not a tree, not an undulation. The landscape is entirely uniform, miles of dead stalks of harvested wheat, unobstructed sunlight and dry and unrelenting heat. The endless flat makes it difficult to assess time and space. With nothing to distract the eye, the nose or the ear it is near impossible for the mind to wander, to muse, to create.
There you are, just you. Can you sit with yourself in the stifling heat amongst nothing?
I wasn’t sure I could (or wanted to) so on the way out of the bar I asked another pilgrim if he would like to walk with me.
These sinister images were circling in my head as we reached the top of a rise and looked down on to the endless plain below.
There we were, two complete strangers, about to descend into hell together. We would have to spend the next six hours in each other’s company in total sensory deprivation. Naturally being uncomfortable with the silence, and this being one aspect we had control over, we got to talking.
We started, politely, with the three questions:
Where are you from?
What do you do for a living?
Why are you walking the Camino?
Australian (Irish passport).
Used to be a lawyer.
Don’t want to be a lawyer anymore.
American (but living in Estonia).
Feeling embarrassed that our conversation had got so personal so quick I apologised, ‘Sorry I don’t know why I asked that. I fucking hate the three questions.’
He laughed, a little bitterly. ‘Me too’.
To stem the awkwardness I continued with the ubiquitous Camino questions, ‘How far are you intending to walk today?’ (question four).
‘Well according to the guidebook, there aren’t many towns out here so there is really only one place to stop today.’
‘Which guidebook, [name of ubiquitous guidebook]?’
‘Yeah, or the fucking guidebook as I like to call it. It’s so pompous.’
‘Don’t you mean so ‘spiritual’?’ I quipped sarcastically.
He laughed again. Encouraged I went on. ‘God I hate that word. ‘Spiritual’. Everyone’s using it out here but what does it even mean?’
‘It means different things to different people.’ He smiled for the first time. His sarcasm was refreshing after all the earnest conversations I’d been forced to endure along the way.
‘It means nothing. It means I don’t believe in a God but I’m not comfortable with the idea of my existence being soulless. You know I started this thing thinking maybe it will make me turn back to religion. One week in I was a confirmed atheist. But even before that, when I was unsure, I never claimed to be ‘spiritual’.
I relented a little ‘Maybe I don’t understand because I’m not spiritual’. In fact this was an insecurity articulated and thereby dispensed with.
‘You know what word I HATE? ‘Passion’!
‘Me too! But you’re a musician?’
‘Exactly that’s why I hate it, it’s a term that is always bandied about by musicians’.
I cut him off eager to vent some more ‘I just a had an eighteen-year old musician grilling me at dinner the other night about what my passion is and why I’m not living it. I was all like ‘nothing’. There is no one thing that drives me like that.
Well of course he didn’t accept that answer! He was asking, ‘what do you really want to do?’ I said ‘I don’t know, have some balance, work to live a good life.’ And then he was all like ‘I don’t want to work for money. What is money? Money is just paper’. So then this finance guy who was also at our table disagreed and said ‘you should think of it more like energy, it’s energy that you can channel into the things you are passionate about’. It was such a classic Camino Conversation.’
‘Maybe we should write our own guidebook and that can be one of the ‘thought of the day’s, ‘is money paper or is it energy?’
‘Lols! But to be honest that that eighteen-year old hit on my biggest insecurity. What is my passion? Maybe I don’t have one? Does that mean there’s something wrong with me? Why don’t I have a passion? Now I’m all like, maybe I’m walking the Camino to figure out what my passion is.’
‘Passion is bullshit, it’s a term corporations use to get you to work ridiculous hours. If you don’t love your job, if you’re not so passionate about it that your willing to work like a slave then there’s something wrong with you. This is what we are sold now this, if you love what your do you will never work a day in your life’ and people believe it.’
‘Haha that’s so cynical but it’s so true! I feel so inadequate for not living my passion and worse for not knowing what it is. But really I know I’m just not that type of person. Anything I enjoy, if I have to do it everyday I’m not going to love it anymore…
But you’re a musician, why do you hate the word passion? I feel as though music and art are the only things a person can be passionate about. Everything else is just an interest. Because music is creative and innate perhaps?
‘Ah you don’t want that innate type of passion, it’s almost painful. I’m not sure I want to pursue music as a career anymore. It takes too much.’
‘That’s kind of how I feel about the law. It stimulated me, intellectually and morally, it was very rewarding but I feel it took too much. I never had any mental energy for anything else. It defined my whole existence being a lawyer. Some people are okay with that, but I’m not. I’m not passionate enough about it, I guess, like some people are. I want other things in my life. I want balance.’
We walked on in silence tossing over this problematic term.
The discomfort got to me.
‘You know what other term I hate! ‘Professional’.
‘How do you mean?’
‘You know when people say ‘Lets be professional about this, let’s keep this professional.’ They’ve misappropriated the term. But what they are really saying is; you are not allowed to have a personality, an opinion, feelings, humanity. It’s a way of shutting down any human behaviour in the workplace that is undesired to your employer because it does not involve you working with the efficiency and monotony and unquestioning work ethic of a machine.
But people are not machines!
I can’t work long term in that type of environment I find it too draining hiding who I am.’
We continued on, continuing our casual usage of the socially unacceptable term HATE with reckless abandon. We thrashed out our repressed anger from a lifetime of having to observe niceties, expectations and rules. We had felt so much repression on the Camino, a traditionally Catholic pilgrimage, until that point. As atheist pilgrims we were also seeking something (though I wouldn’t label it ‘spirituality’), but we had felt obliged to tread carefully. We had felt like trespassers on a Catholic owned path, though it had been trod by the pagans before.
We ranted into the abyss and we left all that shit behind. We were two mad men, exiled to middle earth, but together we faced off with the abyss and stared it down.
At the end of the day, my fellow hater and I parted ways. I continued into the Meseta, alone, for the remaining hundreds and sixty kilometres.
I was no longer a ‘professional’ and a dispassionate nonprofessional at that (actually I later realised I do have a passion, I’m just not comfortable with using absolute terms like that, no doubt a hangover from my legal training). I no longer had a career to define myself or my life.
The philosopher was right, I did face myself in the Meseta, and I was comfortable with who I saw.