I’ve been thinking about this blog post- the one I’m about to write- for weeks. It started to form in my mind as I was doing all of my post-Camino processing: thinking about the things I experienced, the people I met, the lessons I learned. Some of what kept coming back to me were the things people said to me while I was on the Camino, things they said at the end. And things that I told myself on the Camino, things I told myself at the end.
This could be a long post.
I was called, several times, three different things on the Camino: tough, pretty, and lucky. Someone called me the prettiest. Someone called me the luckiest. No one called me the toughest but sometimes it was implied that I was one of the toughest.
And I was a bit uncomfortable each time I heard these words.
And I often denied it. “No no,” I’d protest. “I’m not that tough. Really. I’m not sure why I’m handling this walk so well, but it’s not because I’m tough.” I didn’t even know what to say about being called pretty. And lucky? Well, maybe I agreed with that one a bit. But it was always about more than just luck.
You’ve probably gathered, through reading my posts while on the Camino, that I didn’t struggle with this walk in the physical sense. I had some aches and pains, but they were minor. I sailed through the majority of the walking, not feeling the pain in my body like the majority of pilgrims do. I was always, from day one, a fast walker. I must have sometimes been an amusing sight- this somewhat petite, compact girl swooshing up the hills, her socks swinging wildly on the back of her pack. I would often get into a rhythm and just go, my mind far off, zoned out, in some sort of semi-flow state. It became a bit of a joke by the end that I somehow always missed stuff. At the end of the day people would talk about the things they’d seen on the day’s walk, and I had no idea what they were talking about. Sometimes it was just about a grove of trees, or things growing in a garden, but later it was the bigger stuff. Did you see that cathedral? they’d ask. What cathedral? I’d say. Somehow I missed the official 100 kilometer marker- I have a photo with a 100 kilometer marker but it’s not the “real” one, as I later found out. I missed the ‘Santiago de Compostela’ sign as I entered into the city (don’t ask me how, I walked right past it). I missed the first glimpse of the ocean as I walked to Finisterre.
People- myself included- thought this was hilarious. It’s not like I wasn’t taking in the space that I was walking through, because I was. In a big way. But sometimes I would just get into a zone and I could only see right in front of me. Or I could only see what was far beyond. In any case, when I got in these zones I was a walking machine. I could plow through kilometer after kilometer and even at the end of the day, I’d felt like I could just keep going and going. I loved the walking.
But does that make me tough? I think some people thought so. The Korean boys all joked that it was impossible to catch me, and sometimes they tried. I walked the Dragonte route- three big mountains- and every time someone heard that I did this they had a big reaction. “Wow, you’re tough,” they’d say. Is it because I’m a woman? Is it because I’m not that big? Is it because I was out there alone? Is it because I never fully attached myself to anyone, and insisted on doing this by myself?
And isn’t this tough, in some ways? Shouldn’t I be able to say that traveling alone to a foreign place to walk 500 miles across the country is tough? That, at least in some part, it requires a bit of toughness?
Because it does. It does for everyone that completed this walk, everyone who attempted this walk, everyone who walked even just one little portion of this walk. It takes some toughness.
But I’m not the toughest. People were battling out there. You can’t call me tougher than that 75 year old Frenchwoman I met. Or tougher than the mothers and fathers out there with their children. Or, for that matter, tougher than the children. In fact, I think I could probably go through just about every single person I met on the Camino and find a reason that they were tougher than I was.
And yet, that’s not what this is about. I wasn’t the toughest person on the Camino, but the truth is, I was tough to do that. I’m tough. It’s a hard thing for me to say, but there it is: I’m tough.
And here’s the next one: I’m pretty. This one is also so hard for me to say. Always- growing up, in my regular life, on the Camino- I see so much beauty in people. So many pretty girls and women all around me. Women who have it all together: the hair and the makeup and the clothing and the demeanor. All of it.
I’ve never had that. I make sure that I’m at least satisfied with my appearance, that I can appear in public and not be embarrassed (although, quite frankly, there have been a few close calls), but that’s about it. I don’t often try to make myself look very pretty, and I prefer to just blend into the background. Not to be noticed.
But on the Camino, people noticed. I was walking- fast- down a rocky hill one day and came upon two Frenchmen. The older one turned around when he heard me approaching and called out to his friend: “Attention! La jolie fille nous passe.” The pretty girl is passing us. It made me smile (and I think I startled them by responding with, “Ah, merci beaucoup!”), but it also caught me by surprise. I was just referred to as ‘the pretty girl’? Really?
The day after I arrived in Santiago I ran into two people I’d seen time and time again on the Camino, a Spanish girl and her brother. They were probably both around my age, and neither spoke much English. On the Camino I always gave them a big wave and a bright smile, and they always smiled back. That was the extent of our interactions, until we saw each other in Santiago. On that day, in Santiago, I spoke for a few minutes with the girl- saying hello, saying goodbye. I was about to walk away when she said to me, “There is one thing I must tell you. We think,” and here she pointed to her brother, “that you are the prettiest girl on the whole Camino.”
I had no idea what to say, and I think I just stared at her, mutely shaking my head. “Yes,” she continued, “you are! Even my brother thinks so, so it is true.” Her brother was staring off into space, probably not understanding a word of the conversation but most likely would have been mortified if he knew what we were saying. “We refer to you as the pretty American, with the pretty smile and the pretty eyes.”
I still didn’t know what to say, and probably just protested for awhile and then said goodbye. But this, too, surprised me. The prettiest? Not by a long shot. There were some very, very pretty girls on the Camino.
But this was another Camino lesson for me, just like needing to be able to admit to being tough. I am pretty. I’m not the prettiest, just like I’m not the toughest. But I am pretty. On the Camino, my hair wasn’t always clean, I had an extremely uneven tan, I wore the same dirty clothing every day… but I was pretty. I almost always wore a smile, my face was usually bright and shining. And I think there was probably some beauty in that.
I’ve already written about being lucky, maybe the luckiest. I don’t know. Once, on the Dragonte route where it had been raining off and on, I said aloud that I just wished the sun would appear. Less than a minute later there was a small break in the clouds and warm sunshine poured down on us. Vicool turned around, gave me a look and said, “Angel asks for sunshine, Angel gets sunshine.”
Luck? Coincidence? Maybe. But I think it goes a bit beyond luck. I already talked about the Camino providing and I still believe that’s true, but it’s also more than that. I prayed to God while I was on the Camino, and as I moved closer to Santiago I had more and more conversations. I was provided with what I needed- by the Camino, by God, by a few guardian angels I suspect I have working for me. I was lucky, and I’ve asked myself time and time again why, but really it doesn’t matter. I tried to never take my luck or my walk or each day or any of the trip for granted. I tried to appreciate as many moments as I could while I was on the Camino, I tried to practice gratitude. And maybe that’s why I sailed through the kilometers, or had a shining, happy face. Maybe that’s why I felt like so much good was coming to me. Maybe.
So, the toughest, the prettiest, the luckiest? No, not really. But I am tough, and I am pretty. And I was so, so lucky.