The photo above shows a sign I keep on the pantry door of our little Casa Azul in Puerto Cayo, Ecuador. It has a purpose. Probably not the one you think.
On the exterior, I can be just about whatever you need at the moment. Extrovert? It’s not my natural style, but I can play it well enough just about any time if that’s what you need. I made a good part of my livelihood as an adjusted-style extrovert. Curmudgeonly hermit-like introvert? Yes, it comes quite naturally, thank you. Business guy in suit and Johnson and Murphys? Sure, no problem. Country farmer with dirt underneath his fingernails. Even easier.
But my comfort zone is being my own boss making enough money to pay bills and travel a couple of times a year, and focusing on whatever my limited attention span is interested in for the next few months. I don’t mean that in an egotistical or sarcastic way. In fact, up until not so long ago my proclivity to boredom was the think I disliked most about myself. But during the last year it’s a simple truth truth I’ve accepted – even embraced – and knowing who I truly am, supercedes most, but not quite all, things these days.
I’m no longer caught up in things like image, public opinion, social status, or chamber of commerce award banquets. I just kind of like to be my own guy. Is that so wrong?
It’s easier some places than others. If nothing else, Ecuador has taught how to chill every expectation.
There’s a radical and immediate shift in time somewhere between Arkansas and Ecuador. I’m a high-strung traveler, anxious on airplanes, exhaustively pro-active in heading off unwanted potential surprises, hyper conscious of where everything is all the time. Travel Mode begins the night before a trip and doesn’t end until wheels down at whatever destination. It took me a while to learn that wheels down in Ecuador means time moves sideways into a different dimension.
High-strung doesn’t work here. And you’d better lose the attitude fast if you don’t want to drive yourself and everyone around you nuts.
I recall the time a carpenter finally showed up at the house a week after the initial appointment. He came in, surveyed the work, and immediately left because he didn’t bring his hammer. “Back in an hour,” he said. It’s always, “back in a hour, or tomorrow, maybe.”
The time three guys made an emergency call to save us from raw sewage overflowing a septic tank onto our back yard? You don’t even wanna know.
We have a water shortage here. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to get it through a municipal line. Other times, you call a tanker to fill your cistern. Need a shower desperately? The tanker guy will be there when he gets there.
Sometimes I’ll hear people talk with a wistful romanticism about their travels to exotic locations such as Cancun, Fiji, Madrid or maybe Puerto Vallarta. “Time stands still,” they say, dreamily imagining a life with so many umbrella drinks.
Maybe so, but in Ecuador, time gets turned upside down and “beach time” isn’t always the most romantic thing in the world. The key word in the sign on my pantry is “Relax.”
It isn’t perfect, but life is good in Ecuador.
Managing my propensity to occasional depression has pretty much been the same for more than 40 years. I’m just more aware of the management process now, and have become more proactive than reactive about it. Today it’s no longer a subconscious coping tool, but a need of which I’m aware that’s become as much a part of my life as opening the pool for the season, or the annual termite inspection.
The best prescription I’ve found is pursuing something difficult that requires long, disciplined preparation – something intense enough that it brings a focused distraction to the hopelessness many of us privately know in depression. I’m one of the lucky ones who’s found a way to turn sadness into gladness.
I wasn’t a natural athlete as a kid, but found myself working obsessively harder than average to become a decent high school ball player. Spent most of my 20s laying the career groundwork for landing my political communication dream job at 32. Just a few years later invested 36 months completely dedicated to marathon training and made the distance three times. The cycle never ends, and reflecting on those efforts is exhausting. Not to have pursued them might have been deadly.
Early in our marriage and as the recession wrecked our livelihood I experienced a depression that took me so far into myself that I wasn’t sure I’d come back. Dana may have wondered the same. Part of the healing process involved watching late night adventure shows about far-away places. They were shows that kept us dreaming. However you do it, and wherever you must search, depression requires that you cling to hope. My hope has always been in Christ Jesus, but depression will sometimes trick and rob you of that hope. Another topic, another time. One night, a part of my worldly hope was found in a movie called The Way.
In October 2015, I set out for a 500-mile walk across Spain on the ancient pilgrimage of the Camino de Santiago as both preventive depression therapy, and a celebration for overcoming that hard time years earlier. I would’ve never made it through that time, or to the Camino, without Dana. Though 5,000 miles across an ocean, she was with me every step. A man can find no adequate measurement for the value of a supportive, committed, loving wife. There is no standard to which I can point. I value it above all things, save my identity in Christ.
It took four days and about 60 miles of walking last year to realize one of the most valuable lessons I’d learn on the Camino. Pilgrimage was best experienced and more profoundly understood when I approached it as a story. When I became free to experience the Camino in such a familiar way, everything changed. I’d found “my Camino.”
Unconventionally, and to the dismay of pilgrimage purists, I conveyed the stories in real time, up and over the Pyrenees, through the Meseta, eight hours through a Galician blizzard, and to the end of the world. Mostly through meeting new friends along the way there were stories about relationships, hardship, loss, determination, and hope. I found the stories refreshingly rich and real, and the experience of telling them helped me reclaim things I didn’t even know I’d lost. I hate the cliché, but yes, the Camino provided exactly what I needed.
I came home, wrote a book about it, and wondered what would come next, because I knew the story wasn’t finished. A wise French companion once told me “a pilgrim never stops walking the path.”
“An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life.” ~ Proverbs 31:10-12
When the unexpected opportunity presented itself last week for Dana and I both to return to the Camino this fall, we booked the tickets without much thought to all the things one should think about when it comes to getting off the grid for a month. I’ve lost enough friends during the last two years to know that when you’re 70 percent sure about something that may seem far-fetched at the moment, you try your best to say “yes,” and figure the rest out as you go. After a flurried exchange of text messages about the chance to go as a couple, we said “yes.”
Not only am I excited to walk again, meet new friends, and see new places, I’m excited to tell a new story. And I think I’m as eager as anything to watch the experience unfold for Dana. That’s the story I want to tell you. This time I want to share the experience through her eyes.
For 31 days I’ll be Dana’s walking documentary journalist, sharing a few of my perspectives about her pilgrimage, but mostly telling it as she sees things through photos, text and video.
This wasn’t her idea. She’s not even comfortable with it yet.
But the world needs more stories about good people. Not the ones who pretend to be good, or those who shout from the mountaintops that they’re good, but rather the ones who are good.
I’ve never known a better, more selfless, more compassionate, humble person than my wife. I thank God that I get to walk with her every single day.
Dana made me #PilgrimStrong.
But together we are #PilgrimStronger.
I can’t wait to tell you her story.
PS: We’re going to need a trail name for her. If you have ideas, please leave a comment.
“Some journeys can only be traveled alone.” ~ Ken Poirot
Every traveler has a subconscious switch that flips when it’s time to go home. It’s the least enjoyable part of any journey. My switch now flipped, I was in the zone and homeward bound.
As we re-entered Santiago the bus driver was kind enough to drop me near the train station where he said I’d find plenty of overnight accommodations. I wanted to be within walking distance of tomorrow’s early-morning train back to Madrid. Now running low on money and wanting to keep things flexible, I’d play it by ear in Madrid, even if it meant rolling out a sleeping back on the airport floor the night before departure. If there’s one quality you acquire on camino, it’s flexibility.
Essentially a fast-forward camino in reverse, the train trip to Madrid was nostalgic as I’d catch the occasional glimpse of places where I’d passed through on foot weeks ago. It already seemed surreal that I’d actually done it.
Even if meant there’d be no rest, I was determined to make the logistics simple and minimize any likelihood of missing an 11 a.m., flight departing Madrid on Thursday morning. The best way to facilitate the plan was to wake up at the airport that day rather dealing with big-city transportation issues from a hotel early in the morning. My spirit was oddly anxious about any possibility of missing that plane and I’d dialed up travel mode to intense.
It was a relief just arriving at the airport. However uncomfortable the night ahead might be, I’d make tomorrow’s plane and head for home. Assurance trumps discomfort in my personal travel guide most days.
Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas Airport is huge, and geographically the largest travel facility in Europe. With five terminals spread across 3,050 square hectares, Madrid-Barajas is as big as a city and accommodates 50 million travelers a year. Manevering the airport expanse is a challenge in itself.
Though I’d heard about a hotel somewhere on the airport grounds, no one in my departure Terminal 2 seemed to know about it. I dismissed the idea as bad travel information and after a stale 10 euro sandwich and a soft drink made my way to an area outside all the foot traffic and tried out the floor using my backpack as a pillow. It was so uncomfortable I laughed out loud. The thought of alternating positions between the concrete floor and a plastic chair for the next 15 hours was less than ideal. It was there where a janitor with a mop bucket became my savior.
As he mopped the floor nearby, I could tell he felt sorry for me. He kept looking my way, and so I walked over in hopes that he might have advice about a better plan.
“Usted tiene camas en el aeropuerto? I asked.
“Si, si, terminal de cinco en autobús,” he said, so happy to help. I thanked the kind man, and with the new promise of a good night’s sleep made my way outside to find the airport bus. It was hard not to think about the prospect for a final blessing of camino magic.
It’s almost a 20-minute bus ride from Terminal 2 to Terminal 5, and I used the time for making mental notes about getting back early the next morning. I was surprised how uptight I remained about making that plane.
Air Rooms Madrid is tucked away deep in the basement bowels of Terminal 5. It features simple, no-frills rooms with clean beds and hot, private showers for a $135 credit card slide. Underground, absent a single window and with close proximity to multiple bus stops and the airport train station, the dark, noisy environment never varies. Inside the basement hotel it’s virtually impossible to know whether it’s day or night.
I was thrilled with the simple accommodations, knowing I’d step onto tomorrow’s 10-hour flight home clean and rested. My plan for not making plans came together in a way that seemed almost too good to be true. After a long, hot shower, I climbed into bed, turned on the television and passed out around 6 p.m. The next hours indulged a sleep so hard that I lost track of every sensibility – including time.
The simple recollection of what happened next makes my heart race all over again.
Groggy and momentarily unaware of the environment, a passing train roused my attention and I instinctively reached for the phone to note the time. My bleary eyes saw the numbers 10:17. It’s surpising how something as simple as the absence of a window can completely throw your sense of time. I thought I’d slept the clock around and immediately envisioned fellow passengers boarding the flight home. I was a logistical hour away from being anywhere close to that plane, and went from zombie-like sleep to full-blown panic in less than 10 seconds. Heart attacks are the products of more subtle transitions.
With heart pounding, I almost couldn’t breathe, and surely couldn’t think. But instinct had me throwing clothes on my body and into my backpack even though I knew making the plane was hopeless. Then it occurred to me. Maybe it was p.m. rather than a.m. In this dungeon without a view there was no way to know. The only thought I could fathom was the need to look outside.
The desk manager must have thought I was a lunatic. With sagging unbelted shorts, an unbuttoned shirt and bare feet I ran past her to the door looking for sunshine. Looking out to the lower-level driving tunnel toward the train stop offered still no indication. We were underground.
I turned back toward the manager. “Is it day or night?” I asked.
“I’m sorry, sir?” she replied.
“Is it day time or night time? I think I slept through and missed my plane.”
“It’s evening, sir. You’ve only been here a few hours. Would you like to receive a wakeup call in the morning?” she asked, never breaking professional stride.
“Yes. Yes, I would please for 6 a.m. Thank you.”
Clutching my shorts, now three inches too big, I returned to the room and fell on the bed waiting for the heart palpitations to cease. It was the most negative rush of adrenaline I’ve experienced, and it took hours for a return to any normal feeling.
A wake up call. Why hadn’t I thought of that?
(Blogger’s Note: The final steps of my pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago.)