It’s a walk of faith, I tell myself. I would walk 800-km from France to Spain to find faith. A walk to dispel my inner cynicism and believe in the essential goodness of humanity. That walk is the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrim trail that starts in different places in Europe, culminating in the Santiago Cathedral, where apparently the remains of St. James, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, lies buried. To walk that distance, it should take about 31 days or so. Long enough to test the limits of your endurance and faith.
On Day 1, I start my walk from Saint Jean Pied de Port in France, moving through meandering villages and rolling hills to reach Roncesvalles, a small town in Spain. On Day 1, I stumble into a jet-lagged, dream-filled sleep at the albergue. I wake up early the next morning to a nightmare. My daypack is missing. In it is my passport and all the money I am carrying for the trip – 900 euros in all.
For a moment, I am bewildered. This.Can’t.Be.Happening. Not on the first day. Not ever.
Faith. Whither thou?
Then, panic sets in. No passport. No wallet. The police are civil but seem just as bewildered as I. Friends back in India frantically ask me how they can help. The kind people at the hostel offer me tea. I am stunned. Lost.
It’s already 7 am, and I should have begun today’s walk already. Other Camino walkers are slowly trickling out of the hostel. And then, a tall guy with a salt and pepper beard comes over to the reception desk. He has my daypack, having found it in the bathroom. In it is my passport, intact. My wallet with all the cards, intact. But the 900 euros? Missing. Gone forever.
I want to cry. I want to rave and rant. I do neither. Strangers walk up to me and ask me if I need any money. I shake my head. One woman insists and presses a 10 euro note in my hand before leaving. Another stranger comes over to hug me. I blink away the tears unformed.
Is this faith? This is faith, then, is it not? There’s nothing I can do but walk on.
“Where’s the next ATM?” I ask the police. And just like that, I resume walking.
I walk. 25 km on some days. 30 km on other days. The Camino passes through northern Spain. On most days, despite it being June, the weather is freezing. I walk wearing socks as gloves. I shiver in the shorts I am wearing thinking it was ‘summer.’ My backpack is too heavy, and my mind heavier still. I curse the uphill stretches and hate the jarring impact of the downhill stretches.
I hate that I can’t find vegetarian food. How many cheese sandwiches can a human being have? I glug more wine and beer than I should because it’s cheaper than water. And cheap is what I seek after all the loss of that money. I complain. I feel cheated. This is not what I signed up for, Universe, I cried.
And then, I sit down on a bench in a village, listening to the church bells ring in the evening. It’s still bright out even though it’s past 7 PM. I hear the distant shouts of laughter from my fellow pilgrims. But in front of me is a flock of sparrows. A biscuit is fluttering in the wind on the ground. Each of the sparrows tries to pick up the biscuit. But it’s too heavy for their little frame. I watch, fascinated. This is The Battle of the Biscuit. The Game of Sparrows. But after a few pitiful attempts, all the sparrows give up. The biscuit lies alone and forlorn. Is this it? I think. But no. Another sparrow swoops in.
He tries to lift the biscuit with his tiny beak. Fails. He flutters away. Comes back again. Fails. When will he give up? He doesn’t. On the fifth attempt, he swoops, wavers in the air, but doesn’t let go of the biscuit. Flailing in the wind, he somehow makes it to the rooftop where he presumably will enjoy his hard-won dinner. I cry then. And just like that, I know that I can’t give up on life too.
I go back and take out half the things in my backpack. And almost symbolically I lighten up with that. I learn to walk lighter. I start to hear the birds. I laugh and walk along with Suzanne from the US on one day; Raphael from Brazil another day; and chuckle listening to John’s British humor. I walk past crumbling churches and majestic cathedrals.
I see Jesus in a skirt. Jesus in the arms of Mary. Jesus surrounded by angels. By apostles. By fluttering wings of human faith. I walk past villages where no ever seems to awake and past vineyards, dappling green in the sun and past an endless stretch of wheat and cereal. And when I finally walk into the Santiago Cathedral, I think not of my life’s long journey. Not even of the last 800 km. All I can think of is that there was one little sparrow that didn’t give up.
Perhaps, that’s faith. Just one sparrow.