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

 

“Happy Blogiversary” To The Unlikely Pilgrim!

I cannot believe it has been a full year that I have been jetting about exploring religions, cultures and making friends in the strangest of places. I have hit 18 countries and been to tiny little villages in India and Indonesia, super cities like Shanghai, Bangkok and London. I’ve frolicked in the waves of the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, among others. I’ve seen ancient sites and felt the history within them as if I was a time traveller. I’ve eaten anything and everything, dabbled in local dance, learnt languages, customs and got lost A LOT! So to mark this monumental occasion I’ve compiled my seven most remarkable memories from the last 12 months. Enjoy!


Spiritual Enlightenment

Given my love of God and the fact that this is The Unlikely Pilgrim, I’ve been privileged to experience some incredible festivals, monuments, places of worship and powerful moments. The one for me that stands out most has to be Jerusalem. Amongst the chattering of Japanese tourists and the chaos of Easter weekend crowds, I was in the Upper Room where it is written that Jesus hosted the Last Supper the day before he was crucified. I stood in awe of the location, a relatively bland room with hints from its Islamic, Jewish and Christian past. I listened to Hillsong tunes echo through my earpods. I was completely engulfed by the magnitude of the occasion and its importance in my faith and therefore my heart and soul. In that moment it was as if I was alone, reflective of what had gone down in this room. My commitment to Christ swelled inside me and reaffirmed my path: to celebrate God my way and love others, like Jesus had. Not with judgement, not with an agenda, but because we are all one. That was my Jerusalem moment.


 Underwater Paradise

The Caribbean is the clearest, bluest most incredible water I’ve witnessed to date. The turquoise shimmer of the sun is mesmerising and inviting. It was here on my 33rd birthday I went diving with one of my best friends Nea off the coast of Can Cun at Isla Mujeres. The MUSA underwater museum is home to thousands of colourful fish and massive turtles all swimming amongst hundreds of statues placed underwater, as an artificial reef. I’ve been diving all over the world and the ocean scenery is always captivating; but I think what made this special was the symbolism of unity that these statues represented. Combined with the stunning nature of the above water views as well, helped. It was a feast for the eyes and for the soul.


Drunken Debauchery

Did someone say Carnivale in Rio? Five days of bloco parties, samba, Brazilian music, fancy dress and the world’s most gorgeous people half naked, offering me beer. YES please! Combined with stunning beaches and glorious churches to explore whilst in recovery mode, made this a very hazy yet very enjoyable stop along the way. A weeklong party that EVERYONE gets involved in from the little ones to the grey army. I highly recommend getting yourself to Carnivale in Rio. It won’t disappoint.


Forever Friendship

Tough category! I am going to omit the Bali crowd from this one as they are already on that list. This one goes out to Maria. Maria is my proofreader and originally a friend of a friend. I have only met her in person twice, yet she has been with me all the way. Ensuring my blogs make sense, offering impartial yet valuable advice and helping my book come to life. Her views are often not aligned with mine and this is why I love her. She is a kindred spirit yet our differences are what makes that so. It’s funny how connected you can feel to someone with oceans and mountains between you. I’ve learnt that this year. I’ve learnt that true friendships don’t fade with distance, they evolve and they change, but true friends will be there in the end. Even when you are worlds apart. (She totes has to proofread this, haha!)

 WTF Moment

Back to Brazil! This was not the only “exorcism” I have witnessed this year but inside the walls of the Temple of Solomon in Sao Paolo, shit got real! Surrounded by 6000 evangelist Christians, on their feet all shouting “get out” in Portuguese to the apparent demon within the dishevelled woman on the stage seemed to be quite extreme, even to me. I certainly said my own prayers amongst the fanfare and hype of the moment. Not for the lady, but for me to make it out without donning the stage or being discovered as completely bewildered at the practice.

I Wish I Lived There

Bali! Bali! Bali! I loved every moment of my time on the paradise island, with its thunderous wet season, scorching dry months, ceremony overload and endless rice fields. I loved the lifestyle of yoga by day and beers with mates by night. I met some incredible people that are firmly in the forever friendship groups. I found myself and I conquered so many fears and demons in that place. Not to mention the beaches are beautiful, the people are so kind and friendly and life is just simple there. I’ll be back. I know it.


Time Traveller

 Lebanon – The history that laps the shores there is incredible for me. Phoenician ruins dating back 6000 years in Byblos and temples for Venus and Bacchus at Baalbek in the mountains. Cedar trees that are centuries old. I enjoyed the unity of the Islamic and Christian worlds colliding over time yet emerging united in what Pope Benedict XVI said is an example for the rest of the world. Islamic burial grounds annexed Christian cemeteries in Tyre. Towering Minarets overlooking Church bell towers in Beirut. Glimpses of the war years linger and yet the general vibe of the place is one of party, friendship and harmony.


 Three hundred and sixty-five days on the road. I feel blessed to have enjoyed the journey thus far and look forward to sharing what the next year has to offer.

 Yours in Faith,

The Unlikely Pilgrim

Not Hangry – Ramadan the Fast.

Wow!  Sixteen hours without food or water of any kind, in 30 plus heat all whilst trying to explore, learn and teach. What was I thinking? Day one and it just so happens I’m in the Sahara (not joking). I feel like I’m in a movie where the damsel in distress is walking fatigued and dying of thirst across the endless sand dunes hallucinating about a mirage that evaporates before her eyes as she approaches. Okay not that extreme, but by the last hour when I am literally on the back of a camel crossing the sand dunes. I am secretly praying for an oasis and my head is pounding.
Day two is a little easier, with the long journey back to Marrakech ahead I am ushered off for a nap in the lounge with all the drivers in quite an elite little club of the Fasting Locals whilst the tourists I’m with have lunch. Said locals are always so pleasantly surprised of my fast and show their appreciation and encouragement fervently.

After this initial hurdle, it’s practically easy. Honestly. I am normally a very hangry bird when I’ve not eaten and my patience amazes even me. I don’t know if it’s because subconsciously I know it’s for God or if it is something the body just adjusts to quite quickly.

Most days I feel the fatigue from the broken sleep more than anything else and with the feast that occurs at Iftar. It’s worth the wait. Suhoor is a funny time of day. In Marrakech, my host family cook a massive meal, tagine, soups, yogurt, bread and there is always melon. It’s weird for me to eat such a stodgy meal at such an early hour. I go from being asleep at 2:55am to eating a full dinner at 3:05am. What the? In Casablanca, my hosts are more of a jam and bread kind of crew and I find this much easier to adjust to.

At day 19 I’m feeling like I’ve conquered it and then it hits… Fes has 43 degree heat, endless mazes of narrow lanes to explore and I feel like the extra seven minutes until Iftar is a lifetime. I am a grumpy bitch all weekend. Honestly. The endless, rip off approaches from the street vendors and impromptu and unsolicited guides, the haggle for a taxi that really is unnecessary combined with the heat – NOT COOL! I enjoy parts of the trip and learn a thing or two but I feel the fast in Fes and decide not to travel again until after Eid, for my sanity and that of those around me (sorry Emily). The silver lining of course is that the remaining days in Casablanca pass with ease because I am so thankful to be in the comfort of 28 degrees and for the ocean breeze.

Thirty days have been and gone and I survived! I didn’t falter, I didn’t cheat and even when I was technical excused from fasting (when you travel and when you are sick) I soldiered on and I’m glad I did. I’ve lost 3 kgs, I feel motivated to get back into the gym having not had the energy to do so for the last month and I have a new-found appreciation to this holy month and one part of what it stands for.

 

You don’t have to be religious to fast and you don’t have to be Muslim. If you fancy it try it next Ramadan and have a go, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
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
 

No you can’t go there it’s not safe!

Dargah – A burial place for a Muslim, and in this case, Sarkar Sabir Pak, a prominent Sufi saint, and his right-hand men.

Strongly advised not to go alone by my hosts, I rolled my eyes. I’m constantly being warned about the dangers of this place or that city, and I do heed most warnings. I’m realising that the warnings normally come from well-meaning people who might not have frequented those locations. The hearsay and reputation can become a bit of a mountain out of a mole hill.  (I’m writing this from a refugee camp in Palestine).


So, off we went to Dargah, albeit I had three men to accompany me, two Hindus and a Muslim. Headscarf on, I wandered about like I belonged and very quickly was invited by the drummer to sit and chat and get a happy snap with him as he played. Dervish Drummers were the traditional way to announce the call to prayer before speaker systems were invented. Whilst I am partial to a melodic call to prayer in the distance, I quite liked this approach too.


Obligatory flowers were purchased on the way in and scattered across the tomb. Singled out (not like that was hard) I was blessed and prayed for by the Imam on duty and we ate the petals of the roses as an act of sharing the blessings. On to the main Dargah, I am told that before an Indian or Pakistani Muslim completes the Hajj they must first come here. I’ve questioned my Middle Eastern Muslim mates on Sarkar Sabir Pak and they’ve never heard of him, another example of regional interpretation of ceremony, religion and law.


Here there are many women possessed by Jinn (a bad spirit, not to be confused with GIN – a very good spirit!). This place is famous for being able to cure people of this demonization. Around me women are throwing themselves about in an uncontrollable fit. All without a headscarf I notice, which to me is odd, but I guess the demon is not bothered about the rules. Other Muslims (mainly men) stand around in a circle and utter blessings, issuing commands to the demon to leave the women. (Why is it always us ladies who get possessed? *eye roll*). I can’t ask too much because to stare would invite said Jinn into my soul and we can’t have that. Much less of the fanfare of the Brazilian exorcism I witnessed. I’m either getting used to this sort of thing or the more subdued and private approach to exorcizing demons in Islam is more appealing to me. Did I just write that sentence?


Following all the cues and rituals of our Muslim chaperone, we escape unscathed. Of course. I’m beginning to see that this fear of people’s differences is a worldwide phenomenon and yes, the area was not the most desirable of location (I’ve seen worse). And apparently, it’s the red-light district by night. I’m left feeling somewhat smug that I continue to challenge the advice of my hosts, drivers and others. Honestly some of the most interesting experiences I have had  have been on the back of a warning. The Favela’s in Rio, the Souk in Tyre, the red-light district in Manila and now the Dargah in India.


Moral of the story: take advice, proceed with caution and witness amazing things because extraordinary is just outside your comfort zone.

 

Yours in Faith,

The Unlikely Pilgrim