Camino Series #3 – In God We Trust

Churches! Churches! Churches! The Spanish love the Lord! Every town has a church or two or 10! Even the tiny wee villages that have but a few houses and a lot of farm land, there in the centre of town is the house of God. Outside, a very similar style yet inside even the quaintest of churches has that energy that only God provides. You can feel the love of the caretakers or congregations, especially when they are up at dawn to stamp the passport of the passing pilgrims.

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At the beginning of the Camino you get a pilgrim’s passport so you can stamp your way through the villages, cities and towns to prove in Santiago that you have indeed walked and earned your Compostella. I thought 50 stamps would be sufficient but I must have passed over 500 churches in 21 days. The Leon Cathedral was a sight to behold! It was HUGE! Upon entry the vastness was filled with beautiful paintings, sacristy and the power of God and stunning architectural design. Empty pews during the day and packed out pilgrim masses at night. This was a common theme, empty pews.

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In a small town called Trabadelo the church was packed to the rafters when I arrived. Surprised, I enquired…funeral it seemed. Apparently, the village priest struggles with attendance on Sundays, although a handful of devout women attend week in, week out. Alas for a wedding, christening or funeral in this case, the townspeople gather in their hundreds.

I marvelled at the Gaudi masterpiece of the Episcopal Palace in Astorga and the cathedral which was equally impressive. Of course, the pièce de résistance of the Camino is the Cathedral Santiago. Set upon an infinite square where the last seashell lies, signalling the end of your pilgrimage. Unfortunately, the restoration works had it covered in scaffolding as I arrived, but it was festival time. So, as I lined up on the feast day for two hours just to enter at mass time, I’m thankful I had the patience to wait. Inside decadently grand and alluring you wonder why the Catholic Church doesn’t rapidly expand its congregations on sheer elegance alone.

img_9144A beautiful  creation and the sense of God still there; and with the grandeur of the ceremony it witnesses and the swinging of the Botafumeiro, which technically should only occur on a holy year. But it’s St James Day and they’re feeling festive.

With 50 stamps in my pilgrim’s passport I’ve but touched the sides. The house of God always astounds me. If history, architecture, nature, hiking or God is your thing, get yourself on the Camino. You won’t regret it.
Yours in Faith

The Unlikely Pilgrim

Camino Series #2 – Awakened to the Beauty in the Ordinary.

Everywhere I turn, there is another miracle. Endless fields of sunflowers, rolling hills littered with plant life, butterflies that flitter and look like tigers. Waterfalls, rivers and streams flowing: the giver of life to this region.

Welcome to Spain!


Nature is all around us and I have experienced so many different landscapes from deserts to jungles and everything in between. The Camino is an eclectic mix of environments that mould and flow into one another in a way that perhaps you can only witness by walking through it. Often in life we pass through fast; we are in a car or a train or a plane, looking through a window and not stopping to smell the roses. Or perhaps our eyes are just not open to the beauty that surrounds us. On the Camino, my eyes were WIDE open.

When deciding to take on this walk I was daunted by the distance and feared that my body wouldn’t cope. I was encouraged by the people I was sure to meet, the churches and the sense of achievement I would gain. I knew it would be pretty, but I underestimated the glory that surrounded me every day on the trail.

One chilly morning as I was strolling out of Villa de Mazarife, and I was on a deserted dirt track surrounded by corn fields. On a normal day I would drive past farming land such as this and vacantly stare past the beauty of these pastures. On this day the sun was rising behind me, glistening orange across the sky and allowing heat to penetrate the back of my neck. Somehow I was awakened. Awakened to the beauty in the ordinary.

As I trudged on, days four and five were full of canopied forests, light shimmering through the foliage as the streams trickled quietly in the background like a lullaby for the racing mind. I often sat in wonder at the colour of the leaves, so many shades of green. I think of the colour wheel in my photo editing suite, convinced only a glimpse is available as to what nature can offer.

The wildlife or even domestic animals litter the trail. I found a love for cows. Yes cows. Have you ever looked at a cow, really looked? They’re beautiful. Built strong and muscular. Firm and solid yet their faces are kind, gentle, unassuming and non-threatening. I begin to really appreciate the personalities in their faces. Goofy almost, adorable. Then there are the dogs that are trained so well to defend farm boundaries, loyal and true to their masters. Unfazed by the constant stream of strangers passing by, yet fierce as hell I’m sure, should you step over the invisible precipice in between, common space and THEIR land.


I’m in awe of the butterflies, caterpillars and other insects around me. The colours, the erratic movement which I’m sure makes perfect sense to them. Bright blues, deep oranges and vibrant and electric green; going about existence in the only way they know how. Survival, freedom, life.  

I think about our creator, the God I believe in. What his palette must look like. Did he create the leopard and then think ooh I’ll make a butterfly in the same hues that would be cool? Or was the butterfly first? 

The waterway: an essential part of life for all creatures. What made him decide on small streams, rapid rivers, still lakes and raging oceans? Was it to show us the diversity and power of nature that has been given to us to enjoy living by? To remind us we are all different but also the same? The Spanish love their waterways. They don’t pollute them, they care for them and they embrace them in daily life. Building ladders into the river banks so the locals can frolic and enjoy the cool of the stream. Now that’s my idea of heaven.  

There are many reasons to journey the Camino and if you are a nature lover, this is certainly a trip for you.

 

Yours in Faith,

 

The Unlikely Pilgrim

 

Camino #1 – Lost and Lonely on The Camino

The Camino taught me many things. Lessons that would be uncovered as I traipsed across Spain with my backpack on and trepidation on my sleeve hidden by the sense of adventure that has always consumed and motivated me. The first of life’s little lessons would be the difference between being solo and being alone, the magnificent difference between loneliness and solitude. By day 3 I was 50 kms into my trek, and the scenery, if I’m honest, was not that great. My blisters had developed and although I enjoyed the quiet still of the track (after battling with the snoring and rustling of people in the dorm), by sun up and an hour into my walk I was lonely, bored and feeling overwhelmed by my solitude.

 The fields on the way to Astorga seemed endless. The heat was sticky and relentless as it threatened rain, which never did come to cool us down. I’d left with some other pilgrims but was soon alone having either overtaken them or fallen behind.

 Lonely: Feeling sad because one has no friends or company

The Camino is a journey people take for different reasons, to find themselves, to find God, to recover from a personal situation or to switch off and some only for the physical challenge… the list is endless. I had taken it on purely for research, to interview pilgrims, to hear their stories, to enjoy the countryside and a spot of vino; that was it. Nothing deep, not soul searching, just a pleasant stroll through the north of Spain, I might even get fit. Well the Camino had other ideas.

Sadness is something I can cope with, I’m a good crier, and I often embrace my feelings and bounce back quickly from sorrow or grief. But loneliness is not one I have battled with in my life. I come from a big family and I love to be around people. I’m often in a couple and even travelling solo across the globe I have stayed with families, met new friends and seldom have been truly alone.

On the Camino, I felt lonely, I felt isolated and felt lost within my own journey of life. The sense of purpose of The Unlikely Pilgrim evaporated on this trail and I questioned what it was all about. Why see all these amazing sights on your own? Why try and discover the faiths of the many and lose yourself? Why, just why, was I on this hot dirt track on the outskirts of Leon when I could be in a hundred other places surrounded by people, friends or beaches?

Solitude: The state or situation of being alone

Midway through my walk I had gotten into the swing of the Camino routine. Up early and on the trail before it gets hot…really hot. Four to six hours of solitary ME time to think and ponder and dream of what next? I came to understand that being alone doesn’t necessarily have to translate into being lonely.

 Every day there were people to meet at the juice stops and Albergues, conversations to be had and stories to discover. These intermittent meetings fuelled my human desire to be part of a tribe and gave me the energy to keep going it alone. The diversity of pilgrims on the route from big organised tour groups to energetic nomads, young, old, fit and not so fit. I met a man in Hospital de Orbigo who was battling the Camino in his wheelchair! Having been crippled by the cruelness that is MS he had always wanted to complete the Camino and he was going to give it everything he had. I bet he wished he could be alone, I bet he missed the solitude that good health provides. Half way – I’ve got this!

 Solo: A thing you do unaccompanied

 Rather than feeling lonely I started to feel empowered. People often praised me for doing it alone and I didn’t really see why. I met lots of solo travellers walking it and I certainly wasn’t the only one. I came to understand that time on your own is nice. Nice to have the time to sift through your thoughts, dissect them and bin what is not serving you. I understood that quiet feeds the soul and what I thought I knew about “switching off” was merely just touching the surface on practicing solitude. The loneliness had dispersed and had been replaced by gratitude. Gratitude to have the opportunity to switch off and explore this great land of ours and see the spectacular scenes, the quaint churches and be with God.


 Buddha found enlightenment, alone, in a field underneath the Bodhi Tree. The same spot is now swarming with monks, pilgrims and tourists alike. No amount of meditation in that space today would reach the higher plain. Yet on the Camino, the sound of nature whistles around you and your thoughts swirl in and out of your head. I think calm can be achieved, focus can be found and loneliness is merely a stepping stone along the way that helps you get there in the end.

After all, we are born alone and we die alone.  

Yours in Faith,

The Unlikely Pilgrim

 

Kuli Kuli – Life with a Moroccan Family

They say home is where the heart is and I am a family girl. But I’m beginning to think my family is increasing by the day. I have signed up with IVHQ  to volunteer both in Marrakech and Casablanca during Ramadan. I am hosted by families in both towns and almost immediately I feel like I am one of them, Moroccans are famous for their hospitality, but this is above and beyond. The family in Marrakech host myself and Kelly, the bubbly blond law student from California, and I adore them right off the bat.

We sit and chat with the help of Google Translate and the daughters who speak fluent English translate and giggle along with my very broken Arabic. Bushra and Abdeljalil facetime with my man and to hear them chatting in Darija (Moroccan dialect) makes me smile and it is like he is here. I am woken gently at 3:00am for Suhoor and I’m constantly in a fit of giggles with the amount of food Bushra puts before me at this ungodly hour. Kuli, kuli (eat, eat) she is always saying.

A sentence I have learned early on is “my husband is Moroccan”. Okay, so he is not my husband per se, but long distance boyfriend is just too hard to explain. Knowing this increases the love I get from the locals. This family includes me in everything! I mean everything. On day two my host sisters take me to the Hammam, it’s a local one, not the blue tile spa masterpiece you see on tele, this is something else. Women who are normally covered practically from head to toe are naked as the day they were born and completely not bothered. I’m not so shy but when Salma takes my loofah and starts exfoliating my back I do crack a smirk and think, well when in Rome I guess.

Omar and Yassir are absolute legends too. I speak at length until the wee hours about Islam and areas I’m not so sure on. Omar takes it all in his stride and the feminist and Christian in me shines, as does the male dominated societal upbringing and devotion to his faith arises in him. Abdeljalil just watches on ensuring we don’t get into an argument. Which we don’t and thoroughly enjoy the debate on both sides. He goes to bed with a list of things he needs to answer for me.

I love this family and I think that maybe I should have just committed the whole time to Marrakech so I could be with them longer. Alas it’s time to move on…

Casablanca. This is a big city and I am in a very rough and tough neighbourhood. I’m introduced to Fatima my host and she links my arm and walks me home. I feel like she is marking her territory, perhaps telling the neighbourhood, “see this blondie, she’s with me so don’t mess with her!”

We arrive at the apartment which is colourful and bigger than that of the one in Marrakech and I soon find out why – five kids: my magic number. Four gorgeous girls are 24, 19, 17 and little Miriam, six who is to become my shadow. Ahmed is the man of the house and there is a son who is in Spain. It’s Ramadan and they are all very impressed that I am fasting and are proud to feed me up at Iftar time. Kuli, kuli there’s that familiar cry. I’m eating, I’m eating!

Over the three weeks I am with this family they open their home and heart to me, invite me to all events and I return the favour by cooking a feast once a week. Also, I’m giving them a laugh with my developing but still amateur Arabic. This family is immersed in the centre that I teach at and at all hours working on projects, sewing clothes, making food for Iftar and just generally getting involved.

I’m invited to a local ceremony, they insist I stay on for Eid celebrations and watch over me like I am one of their own. Now I know this sounds like just any friendly household, but it’s the little things that warm your heart. It’s the beaming smile on Ahmed’s face when he sees me bleary eyed at suhoor amused at my dedication to his faith, or the kisses that come from Miriam as soon as I walk in. Or the genuine love from Fatima as she brings me in for a cuddle as I sit and read just because that’s what mums do.

I’ll cherish my time in Morocco, not for the sights and not just for the journey through Islam, but the open hearts of the families who have hosted me and truly made me like I was one of them.

Yours in Faith,

The Unlikely Pilgrim

 

 

 

Indoctrination or Devotion – A Christian woman immersed in Islam 

It’s Ramadan and I’m committed to all things Islam for  30 days, I’ve got my Hijab. My Jellaba, English translation Quran and my host family are teaching me the salat.
 

Salat is the Islamic prayerWith a schedule of five times’ daily dependant on the moon with a timeframe that changes daily, it’s a little hard to keep up at first. But thanks to my new qibla app, the call to prayer now sounds from my iPhone and the inner compass helps me find Mecca (this is the direction that Muslims must face whilst performing the salat). 

 

I’m fine with learning the wudu – my host sister takes me through the ritual which is easy enough to remember.

https://www.google.com.au/amp/m.wikihow.com/Perform-Wudu%3Famp%3D1 

Then it’s time to pray. It’s 3:00am and we are lined up in the front room facing the Kaaba. I recite after my host the words of the surah and follow the actions like a religious round of Simon Says. We are done in about five minutes and we end with the customary greeting Salaam Alikom (Peace be upon you). I just love that.


I try on my own three times the following day and then again with the family at 3:00am. My pronunciation is not great and I’m thankful for the patience my host mum is exercising with me. The next day – day three of Ramadan I’m up to the part of my “Salat Guide Made Simple” book that explains the salat word for word in English. This is when it gets a bit awkward. I learn that I have been parsing  Mohammed periodically throughout the salat and announce him as the one true messenger of God (gasp!).



 Immediately I feel odd. Then looking outside myself, I feel odd for feeling odd. Years of praising Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour and reading quotes of the bible that condemns praising other people.  I feel icky. I can’t explain it, I just do. 

 

Ramadan Soul Search #1 – Is praising Mohammed a betrayal to Jesus? I freeze in my own conviction and stop the salat. I ponder and confide in my Christian mentor network for a good week before I can go on. It’s this strong reaction to words that shows me how powerful faith and/or indoctrination can be. My whole life I have been told and have believed in Jesus Christ as Lord and this seemingly innocent act of learning to pray another way (of which I have done many times before) feels like an unwanted taste in my mouth. 


 So, is my faith and love for Jesus Christ so strong and true that this doesn’t sit well or is it literally just foreign to me because of what I’ve been taught for so long? Am I a product of a Christian household, secular society and Catholic schooling or am I a devotee of the holy trinity? I guess I have the rest this pilgrimage to find out. 

Yours in Faith,

 The Unlikely Pilgrim
 

Holy Trinity or Idolatry? – A tale of two cities

Let me start by saying that being in Jerusalem was a dream come true for me. From walking the path that Jesus followed down from the Mount of Olives on Palm Sunday, to being in the upper room where it is said that the last supper was held. I certainly had my moment in there, an overwhelming connection to Christ and a sorrow for what he must have been feeling on that fateful night. To walk the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday and be at the foot of Calvary where my Lord was crucified was an experience I will be forever grateful for and hold very dear in my heart.

 
I was impressed by the diversity of faces among the faithful believers: Africans, Australians, Europeans, South East Asians, Indians, Sri Lankans and Americans too. Christianity is a faith that has spread through the ages to all corners of the earth. This is a place where pilgrims come together on this holy land to pay homage to Christ their Lord and commemorate the holiness of Easter. It was certainly worth the trip.


On the other hand, I was surprised by the sheer number of churches that were in this seemingly small town. For example, wherever there is even a hint of Jesus-related history a church has been erected. Nearly every Station of the Cross is marked by a chapel or church. The tomb of Jesus is surrounded by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in which five denominations hold services in their sections. Fun fact: these five denominations, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox (both Syrian and Ethiopians), and the Egyptian Coptic Christians cannot agree on anything to the point where for centuries two Muslim families have held the responsibility of the keys that are for opening and locking up. It is a tradition that is viewed as an incredible honour for the people of these two families. I bet the Anti-Islamist Christians don’t know that one.


Even in Bethlehem, the place where Jesus was born is marked and so is the manger which was five feet to the left. What I found at these sites were faithfuls throwing themselves at the ground, kissing the stone of Calvary, kissing the stone where the manger lay, kissing the stone where Jesus was prepared for burial etc. etc. Now I’m all for paying respect and I was moved and in rapture by my faith whilst in Jerusalem. However, I couldn’t shake the thought of idolatry.


Idolatry, and the fact that the places and symbols of Jesus and his life seem to be worshipped with such vigour, I found unnecessary. I love Jesus but I did not feel compelled to kiss the ground where it is said he was born, or where he was condemned by Pontius Pilot. I ponder; it is a fine line between worship in memorial and idolatry of the symbolism of Christ. The crucifix hangs around my neck, yet if it were not there I would still have the love of Christ in my heart. St Christopher is in my passport wallet but I do not worship him. The foundation stone lay beneath the walls of a mosque but it does not remove its importance to me and my faith.


So perhaps in this Holiest of Holy land we need to separate ourselves from the history and idolatry of the locations and remember that the love of Christ or the teachings of Mohammed or the Torah is what is important. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that the stone where Jesus lay or where Mohammed ascended or the Wall of Temple of Solomon is part of this land’s history. 

The legacy is not the bricks and mortar; it is in the hearts and minds of the billions of followers who continue the great work of Abraham as his great nation.


That is the promise of God. Not let’s all fight over a geographical location despite the united origin of our people. Or not let’s all fight over who has responsibility for the bloody keys.
Yours in Faith,

The Unlikely Pilgrim

Home – in a Palestinian Refugee Camp

Wow! I was so nervous about heading to the other side of the green line, thanks to all the fear mongering from the media and people I had met. Boy, were they wrong. The people of Palestine were amongst the warmest I have ever met. I stayed with Ibrahim and his wife Aya in the Dheisheh Refugee Camp. Gotta love Airbnb, they really do give you the local experience. This couple bent over backwards for me and ensured my every need was met.


Ibrahim was also a driver and he took me exploring to Jericho, the Dead Sea and St George Monastery. He also wandered the streets of Bethlehem with me for hours to show me the other camps, the wall and some other key places that highlight the history and struggle of this region. Upon arriving, Ibrahim met me at the checkpoint where the other taxi drivers had rustled me up a seat in the shade while I waited – far from the harassment promised by the naysayers.


Aya had gone out so I was dropped to her at her mum Afaf’s house, where the whole family greeted me. Shisha, tea and cake, it was Abdallah’s (Aya’s brother) birthday and I slotted in like I always belonged there. No sign of feeling like an outsider, no awkward stares or questions on why I wasn’t wearing a head scarf. Just warm Palestinian hospitality from a wonderful woman and her tribe.


I asked probing questions on the occupation and their thoughts behind that. Speaking freely Ibrahim and his family (he is one of 14!) told me of the struggle of their family after his mother died when he and his siblings were still little and how the Christian brothers and sisters had taken a few of them in to school them and shelter them too. They told me about their land and villages that have since been occupied by illegal Jewish settlements and how they wish to return Insha’Allah (God Willing) and that that day will come.


The Dheisheh Refugee Camp came into existence 70 years ago when the UN leased the land for the displaced Palestinians and hosts 13,000 people today. Ibrahim advised that the UN holds a 99-year lease to this place so they feel secure for now. “But what happens after that?” I ask. “No one knows,” is his reply, with a distant hint of defeat. Aws and Ayham, his beautiful boys, greeted me daily with kisses and cuddles and loved to sit with me as I wrote in my room in the mornings.


There was a family get together nearly every night, one evening Ibrahim parked the car and ushered me in. I waltzed in to the house of his brother whom I had not yet met, I did meet about 30 members the day before at dinner but not this one. As I entered, a band of men looked up at me (the blonde stranger). I uttered a confident Salam Alaikom and one of the women from the day before came out to greet me with a joyous and enthusiastic smile. I felt like I could read the minds of the men (who is this chick, oh well she’s here now… tea?).
We sat in the back room (the second lounge, and as in all Arab households) and the food just kept coming and the giggling and chatter of the women competed with the stories and laughter of the men in the other room. Not segregated on purpose or for tradition, more like when you’re at a barbeque and the men stand by the fire with their beers and the women chatter by the salads. Same thing here, men and women float between the two rooms casually. I’m happy to be in my section, because we’ve got the kids and they are so adorable.


I was so impressed with the openness of this family and the no-nonsense approach to their lives. They are not in the best situation; they are treated as second class citizens in their own land. Aya is not permitted to enter Israel. No explanation, just not permitted, and Afaf explained to me the heartache of losing her husband due to the restriction on his identity card which resulted in him succumbing to his heart attack at the checkpoint whilst the soldiers held back his ambulance. It’s a total breach of human rights here yet no one can enforce the law which has many infringements here. Despite all that, they laugh, play and crack on the best they can and I admire that greatly.


A Muslim family who hold their belief in Allah and the teachings of Mohammed proudly whilst not being dogmatic followers, they discussed religion openly with me and took me to meet a Christian Brother, Joe a founding member of the Bethlehem University among others for my Faith Chat collection for YouTube. Nothing was a bother and I still chat to them every week.


If you want to go to Palestine, my advice is: don’t hesitate. Go. It’s safe, it’s beautiful, the people are amazing and the food is to die for.

Yours in Faith,

The Unlikely Pilgrim