Together We Are #PilgrimStronger

At the Memphis airport last December 3 as I arrived home from pilgrimage after 45 days. Little did we know at that moment we'd head back to the Camino together in 10 months.

At the Memphis airport last December 3 as I arrived home from pilgrimage after 45 days. Little did we know at that moment we’d head back to the Camino together in 10 months.

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.

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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.”

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“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 excitedScreen Shot 2016-07-27 at 6.29.04 AM 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.

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Post Camino: What Now???

Thursday Night at Memphis International Airport after 11 hours on a plane. My #1 fan and the woman I love.

Thursday Night at Memphis International Airport after 11 hours on two planes. My #1 fan and the woman I love. My Lord, I’m happy to be home with her.

 

Home (T +2 days). 3:30 a.m., and my body still thinks it’s 10:30 a.m. and time to stop for a papa tortilla and a cold San Miguel. Oh the humanity. Anyway … now what???

First, a final, yet sincere thank you to all who followed virtually on my pilgrimage. A special thanks to my family, my prayer team, and members of the American Pilgrims on Camino (APOC) forum. Many, many of you who aren’t already, became family. I’d love to name names, but there are just too many, and I think you know who you are anyway. Thank you for walking with me, and for your encouragement that meant so much on many hard days. From my heart … thank you.

For 99% of the pilgrim population, staying wired to the internet is a BAD idea. DON’T do it. Leave the clutter behind. These opportunities to unwire don’t come along often.

I decided to ignore my own advice early on for three reasons: (1) My livelihood is through story-telling and I wanted to reclaim that important part of my life. It would be more difficult for me NOT to tell the story. I’d have been miserable NOT telling it. It’s just who I am; (2) Documenting the story in real time was therapeutic for me. I carry my own baggage just like everyone else. Every time I shared a photo, video or thought … well, it was a part of my healing, and; (3) APOC is a hugely diverse focus group I wanted to utilize in testing ideas for the future, and as my pilgrimage continues. It was a planned part of my “what next?” from the beginning.

As have many of you on APOC, I’ve read a ton about the camino. I’ve read a few good things, and a lot of not so quality things. I’ve seen video documentaries that touched my soul … others that were, eh … pretty meh.

So I felt from the beginning as though there were room in the marketplace for a new, well-written piece. And subsequently just a few weeks before leaving for Spain, my wife convinced me I was capable of gathering good material for a nice documentary. In October I came to believe those things just might possibly align for a new chapter in my career as a missions-focused journalist. Post-camino, I believe it even more.

There were preconceived notions about the focus of my future book and documentary. The weighty topic of “truth,” and how people across the world view truth was my original mission. As many of you understand, and might expect, the camino has a way of altering, even radically simplifying your perspective on so many things. It did so to my preconceived notions about my post-camino journalism.

Throughout my 40-day walk two simple thoughts recurred in my mind again and again.

(1) This is really hard. (it’s okay if you want to nominate that for understatement of the year.)

(2) What a pleasure it is to be in a place where so very few people cry, complain or make excuses while undertaking something so ridiculously hard. The absence of whining was a breath of fresh air to my soul, honestly. As one man suggested in a post early on, the complainers do exist, but they are pushed to the margins quickly by the majority of pilgrims who will have no part of it.

Life is tough. You know that, and so do I. Yet we walk on, don’t we? We just keep walking. We’re not quitters, you and I. We won’t lay down to defeat. We’re made of something special. There’s a certain “toughness” to us, and yet it’s not something we wear proudly, or with hubris. We’re genuinely thankful for the gift. And we ideally use it to the glory of the one who bestowed it upon us.

Early on in my posts, I began using the hashtag #pilgrimstrong and didn’t think so much about it. It just seemed appropriate as I walked through endless rains, bone-chilling cold and an all-day snowstorm. Some of those days just weren’t for crybabies. I remember walking the first two hours through that snowstorm from Ocebreiro until we came to the first small, open bar with heat and food at Hospital. I bet 30 soaking wet, numb pilgrims were gathered in that small space to dry out, warm up and replenish. And we all knew there was at least another five hours to walk through it to reach Triacastela in the haven of the lower elevations.

It was a situation tailor-made for despair, but do you know what the prevailing mood was in that bar at that moment? Pure joy. Not a complainer in the house. NOT ONE. It was #pilgrimstrong if I’ve ever seen it. At that moment, I was proud to be part of something so special. It really was special.

I’ve purchased the domain pilgrimstrong.com. Don’t bother looking as nothing’s there yet, but it’s the title for both a book and documentary I intend to publish next year, God willing.

The working title is actually, “Pilgrim Strong: Unfiltered Reality on the Camino de Santiago.”

My current thinking is to write this as a complimentary guide to the traditional guidebooks, yet one with less technical and geographic information … just an account of what this experience is really like … absent all the false images.

What I think I discovered though my social media posts on APOC is that in a world that’s so completely driven in our pursuit to create a false image of who, and what we are, simple transparency, mixed with a bit of humor, a willingness to laugh at yourself, and a pinch of occasional sarcasm, works well.

I hope you’ll enjoy the eventual book with some of its working chapter titles including:

The Day I Stopped Being a Pilgrim and Started Being Myself

I Thought I was Supposed to Cry a Lot?

The Pyrenees: That ‘What Have I Done Moment’

40 Nights. 40 Beds.

I Could’ve Just Walked to Pensacola

Know Your Municipal Albergue Tolerance Level (MATL)

I Walked Until My Legs Bled. Really.

Body Management and the One Thing Nobody Talks About

Cold and Damp. Damp and Cold.

Vegan Tom: Little Man, Huge Superiority Complex

I’m Not Changed. I’m Much More of Who I Was.

Naomi & Aida: My Camino  Sisters

Coming Home. Nobody Really Cares

Snowstorm at 4,000 Feet

The Three Phases of Buen Camino

Leaving Cleanliness Behind

Just Keep Walking…

That’s just a working sample of title chapters.

I’ll continue to test, not all, but a lot of this writing here on the blog, and hope to publish in late summer or early fall.

Thanks again to everyone who came on this journey with me. We took quite a ride didn’t we?

Vaya con Dios for now.

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House Hunters International in Puerto Cayo, Ecuador: The Inside Info

Remember the pop-up videos on VH1?

I enjoyed those little factoids and tidbits because they revealed things you’d never know, even if you watched a hundred times. I’ve always enjoyed knowing the story behind the story. It gives you a whole new appreciation and perspective on what everyone else just wants you to see.

If you enjoy House Hunters International, and tune in to our show tonight, here are a few things you’d never know without reading this post.

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A final fun shot with our crew in Ecuador. That's a wrap!

A final fun shot with our crew in Ecuador. That’s a wrap!

*The entirety our show was filmed in chronological reverse. We filmed in Ecuador for three days, came home to the U.S., and filmed the “back story” 10 days later. Furthermore, the first scene we filmed in Ecuador was the “reveal” scene at our home, one of the last things you’ll see on the show. It went backwards from there.

*Two days before we began filming in Ecuador I walked outside to our backyard and smelled a terrible stench. It was as if something had died very nearby, times 10. Further investigation proved that our three-month old septic tank had backed up and was overflowing into the yard and toward the house. Panic ensued. We were unable to flush our toilets for about 36 hours, and some very unfortunate Ecuadorian workers had the job of pumping barrels of raw sewage from our septic tank 12 hours before the HGTV crew arrived. I felt so bad for them. Such is life in Ecuador.

*The “realtor” on our show is an American named Joel Lewis. With his red hair, fair skin and freckles, Joel is a gringo personified. He spends most of his time as an English teacher in nearby Jipijapa. We met only a few days before filming, became good friends, and have stayed in touch.

*One of the opening scenes where we “meet” Joel to provide our wish list was

Saying goodbye to Roberto and Jaha at Sanctuary Lodge on the day we returned to the U.S.

Saying goodbye to Roberto and Jaha at Sanctuary Lodge on the day we returned to the U.S.

filmed at Sanctuary Lodge, the very nicest hotel in Puerto Cayo. Sanctuary is owned by our friends Roberto Cristi and Jahaida Delgado, and their daughter Isabella. If you ever visit this part of the world, it’s highly recommended lodging.

*We had the same director, but two different film crews in Ecuador and the U.S. Our Memphis crew had experience filming “Great Balls of Fire,” and worked on several of the John Grisham films made in there.

*One of the homes we filmed in Ecuador was rented by an Australian couple and their three children who spent much of their time on mission for the Jehova’s Witness Church. They are lovely folks, and were actually in the house the whole time we filmed. As we moved from one room to another, so did they, just out of camera sight.

Doron Schlair of New York, takes time to let an Ecuadorian child look through his camera lens on our first day of filming. Doron is a real artist behind the camera.

Doron Schlair of New York, takes time to let an Ecuadorian child look through his camera lens on our first day of filming. Doron is a real artist behind the camera.

*I’ve always admired talented people who work behind the camera, and our chief videographer in Ecuador, Doron Schlair, is immensely talented. He’s filmed documentaries on Billy Joel, Arnold Schwarzenegger and climbed to the top of Mt. Ararat in search of Noah’s Ark. I sat down for a long conversation with Doron one night and we were discussing his work – the intricacies and interplay between light and dark. In his work all across the world, Doron told me at sunset, it gets darker in Ecuador faster than anywhere he’s been. I’d noticed the same thing, but never thought about it until he mentioned it. I suppose it’s because we’re on the equator and the earth’s bulge at the horizon is more prominent than other parts of the world. But that’s just a guess.

*You’ll see some scenes of us riding our blue scooter on the beach. During the filming I made a turn on some rocks, and Dana and I shifted our weight in different directions. The result was a pretty good tumble with the scooter landing on both of us. It caused quite the scene on the beach. I know the director thought we were going to sue for damages. We were just really embarrassed.

*You’ll see lots of Ecuadorian people in background shots. Every person you see signed a release for the show. The director was very strict about that.

*There’s a scene at the Agua Blanca mud bath where Dana and I jumped in the water for an impromptu swim race. As we jumped in I accidentally swallowed some of the water (which tastes just like sulfur) and nearly choked. I tried not to let the camera see it because we had to get the shot in one take.

*Speaking of takes, it’s interesting that our entire show was filmed with one camera. But each and every scene is filmed from three different angles. This obviously means each scene is filmed three times, and that’s why it takes 40 hours to film 22 minutes of television.

*In the hours before the crew arrived for Ecuador filming, we were working feverishly to clean the house. As we finished cleaning, and just as I was about to take my shower, on cue, the electricity went out, and stayed out. I filmed the entire first day without the benefit of a shower.

*To make the show interesting, the director always wants a little conflict going on between husband and wife. So for us, it was Dana’s focus on a beach house, versus my interest in staying on budget and living close to the locals.

I can hardly wait to watch the show and see which one we choose!

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House Hunters International in Ecuador: Answers to the Questions

(Blogger’s Note: The House Hunters International episode featuring our home buying experience in Ecuador will air this Thursday night at 9:30 Central on HGTV.)

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Setting up living quarters in another country isn’t something you do every day. Dana and I always dreamed about it, but until about 18 months ago never knew if things would come together in such a way that we could actually pull it off. So because written communication is what I do, and is actually the way I process things mentally, we decided from Day 1 to take the unique experience and chronicle much of it on my blog so family and friends could take part, too.

The whole ordeal has made for some interesting conversation, and we get lots of questions almost every day about all sorts of things. People want to know what it was like to do what we did, and what it was like to be on the show.

house hunters international in ecuador

Our “realtor,” Joel Lewis, getting wired for sound in one of the three homes we toured on the show. The mother and daughter in the left background are from Australia, and are the actual residents of this home.

These are some of the questions we’re often asked, and the answers we give:

Q: Is House Hunters International real? I’ve read it’s fake.

A: The short answer is this: It’s television. HHI is a reality show, and in my opinion, an entertaining and educational one. The television medium has lots of restrictions. It’s not easy to convey a couple’s home buying experience on another continent in 22 minutes. So for the sake of television, concessions are made. No one in their right mind flies into a new country, looks at three houses in a day and decides to buy one at the end of the day. Our actual experience in deciding to build a home in Ecuador was a 10-day process, and I would never recommend anyone move as fast as we did because that’s very fast. Still, the producers worked very hard to replicate our experience as best they could, and I think the show will be an accurate reflection of what it’s like to buy a home in Puerto Cayo. It glosses over a lot of the hard stuff, and our experience in building a home and acclimating to a new culture posed some real challenges, but that’s not what the show’s about. Is House Hunters International real? It’s more real than most of the television you probably watch.

Q: What did you enjoy most about being on the show?

A: Dana and I became fans of HHI during a formative time in our marriage. In 2009, the economy and a few bad decisions forced the closure of my publishing business and a career that I loved. For the first time in my life, I was uninspired, very uncertain about the future and pretty depressed. There were many nights when we’d watch the show, and for 30 minutes I’d be rescued from that depression. HHI actually inspired me to dream again, and ultimately took our life, and our marriage, in a direction I never imagined. The day we learned we’d been chosen for the show, it felt like a victory over something that had been a very hard fight. So being on the show was very much a celebration of that victory.

One of my best Ecuadorian friends named Duver, was a huge help to me when he helped get our yard in shape just before the HHI crew arrived.

One of my best Ecuadorian friends named Duver, was a huge help to me when he helped get our yard in shape just before the HHI crew arrived.

Q: Have you seen the show yet?

A: No. We will see if for the first time when it airs.

Q: What is life like in Ecuador?

A: That’s a lot like asking what life is like in the United States. It depends on where you live. The coastal region where we built our home is not a tourist or expat destination as you might imagine. Ecuador is a wonderfully diverse country and life can be radically different depending on your locale. The Ecuadorian coast is actually very rural, and has a relatively poor economy. Locals make their living fishing, farming or making crafts. The infrastructure (roads, utilities and other basic services) is in its infancy. We’ve driven lots of gravel roads, and became accustomed to very sporadic electric service. I think many times people believed we were sipping pina coladas by a pool every day, and nothing could be further from the truth. Latin America is not for everyone.

Q: So why would you want a home thousands of miles away in a place like that?

A: Many reasons. First of all, because it is the education of a lifetime. Learning to live a new way, and making friends in a different culture is riskiest, and most educational thing I’ve ever done. Dana and I are never more alive than when we are pushing our comfort zones in Ecuador. Secondly, it gives me an entirely different perspective on my writing, and our lives in general. And finally, even though the economy is still very much emerging and developing, we are going to see unbelievable opportunity on the Ecuadorian coast over the next 15 years. I want to see that, and be part of it.

Q: What do you do when you’re there?

A: Mostly, I write a lot and take a lot of photos. Travel and major changes of environment really inspire my writing. But when we’re there, the culture forces us to slow down a lot, and that’s another reason we enjoy it. We spend a lot of time visiting with local friends, sharing new experiences and we learn something new almost every day.

Q: How did you find a realtor?

A: We didn’t. There are some people who call themselves realtors in Ecuador, but most have no formal training or licensing credentials, and a good number of them are fairly corrupt. Not all, just most. Dana and I conducted our search on our own which made the learning curve even higher.

One thing we learned in South America, was not to freak out over creatures like this monster I found on our front porch. Those clampers could take a finger off.

One thing we learned in South America, was not to freak out over creatures like this monster I found on our front porch. Those clampers could take a finger off.

Q: Is it safe in Ecuador?

A: In the US, I think we unfortunately stereotype Latin America to be unsafe. I’ve never been fearful in Ecuador, but I also always use a lot of common sense, and am very respectful of the culture. Any international traveler I’ve ever visited with said the media almost always paints a darker picture than that which really exists, and that’s true all over the world. Ecuador is quite safe.

Q: Biggest challenges?

A: (1) Driving in the big cities is madness. Crazy madness. If you don’t have nerves of steel, avoid it. (2) Always remembering that even though I’m a property owner there, I’m still a guest. This very much requires us to forget everything we think we know about right and wrong, take one day at a time, lose our judgmental nature, and laugh a lot. (3) Knowing that when someone in Ecuador says that something conforms to US standards, it will never be true. Only two or three people in Ecuador even know what US standards (especially in construction) mean. That’s partly joke, mostly truth.

Q: Biggest perk?

A: Gas prices regulated by the government at $1.48 per gallon. No contest.

Q: Do you have any regrets?

A: I think anyone who builds a home from the ground up knows what it is to have hindsight. We definitely made some mistakes. But do I regret even the most difficult experiences we had? No way. And I’m eager to see what future adventures are in store.

Q: What advice to you have for other people who are even remotely considering doing what you did?

A: (1) Do a lot of research, but understand that no amount of research can substitute an exploratory trip to wherever you may be considering. (2) It’s very easy to get into a mindset that you could never do something like this. Lose that mindset. Barriers are easier to overcome than you think. (3) If you are close to buying a new house in a foreign country, never, never, never close the deal until you personally witness how the property reacts to a heavy rain. Oh, the humanity.

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