Five days out from the pass through the Pyrenees, less than 100 miles from the French border, I was close to lowering my pack gently to the warm, dry earth and waiting for a bus. Just a fifth of the way through an adventure I’d been thinking about for nine years, I came uncomfortably close to giving up, and that moment of compounded doubt has been weighing on me over the past couple of months. With some time for reflection, my frustration and despondency was largely around what I felt was a lack of ‘community’.
For years now, my travels and experiences have been about engaging with new groups. I can bus and bike and walk between places, but it is the ‘dwelling within’ that I need. I love that feeling you get working, eating, drinking and dancing as part of something, a trailer park, a village, a castle estate. I like to feel as if I belong, even if for just a few weeks. I can see the roots of this in my teenage years. At around fourteen I moved from one class to another, away from all my mates, which began a period of angst tinged adjustment. I concentrated on my studies, and exam results were great, but I missed banter, camaraderie, teasing, and hearing that a girl might fancy me. So that summer I held a party, and made new friends. Once school restarted I spent study time remodelling the school’s furniture, learning a dozen ways to make imitation marijuana scents to frustrate teachers, and slipping out with Darren to go on a booze buying mission for his next party. My grades slipped a little, but the social rewards were worth it. I remember the slight disappointment as I saw what my compromise had done to my exam results, but I knew I had good friends, a long Summer (and Guns ‘n’ Roses ‘Appetite for Destruction’) to pull me through.
As I’ve continued to push, pull and swing myself through life, I have done whatever I could to ensure I was part of some sort of group, even if it meant occasional new compromises. I hung out with goths in the graveyard, moved from one country to another, changed jobs, grew my hair, cut my hair, dressed as an Orc at nights, moved into an artists squat, took up chainsaw sculpting, all so that I might be able to share my days and nights with good people. I draw so much energy from having others with whom I can laugh, apologise, confess my sins, indulge in new ones, and recite classic stories with over pints and chips. So it is very difficult for me to imagine how people manage without that sense of belonging.
On my fifth evening in Paris, several people attacked concert-goers, drinkers and diners, in a choreographed symphony of destruction. As I lay propped up against the wall in Montmartre, listening to helicopters and sirens, I kept circling back to ‘why’? What state of mind do you have to be in, in order to be drawn into a group that is willing to unleash such fury? And all I could think of was those people pushed to the edges of a society, those without that sense of belonging I find so essential. If I had grown up marginalised, harassed, even despised, if I didn’t have the support of family, friends, peers, what path might I have chosen? If the Hells Angels, or Jahovahs Witnesses, or local ISIS recruiters offered me a chance to belong to something, could I really be blamed for reaching up an arm and letting myself be drawn from the pit?
Of course I then rally against the idea of what I’d have to do, how I’d have to change my thinking in order to even get through some of the initiations for these groups. Paying money to advance to the next level of scientology, learning to refer to my workmates as ‘people capital’, beating a defenceless person with a crowbar. But then I remember all the small (or large) compromises I’ve made myself, in order to belong to something. And I think of the despicable ways I’ve seen some people behave within corporations, as if being part of a business excuses you from having to be human. When did that person’s need to feel like part of the management executive team eclipse their need to be kind, considerate and reasonable? How much time without positive human contact would it take, before I decided I was prepared to compromise my morality, my rationality, in order to get to share wear a uniform, secret handshake and ammo collection with a bunch of people who were just as lost and misplaced as I was?
The morning after that day of doubt on the Camino, the sun shone. I had discussed my difficulties into the evening, and I had decided to alter my approach to the journey. I realised that in order to find community I had to offer it. I took the time to talk with people who sat alone, and I offered my own stories freely, without expectation of reciprocation. And as seven days became sixteen, and one hundred miles became two, we all underwent testing times, physically and emotionally, and there in the cracks, that was where community grew. Because as our vulnerabilities were exposed, as we became part of each other’s solutions, and as our stories began to entwine, bonds were formed. And we all began to have faith that the next time we struggled to shoulder our pack and stand, that we would find someone standing above us, offering a hand up, and a smile of understanding.
Whether we want to admit it or not, we are all our sister’s and brother’s keepers. It is no good ignoring people that are struggling, or alone, or broken. Because it is when we feel that we no longer have anything to lose, that we are at our most vulnerable and susceptible to the will of others. We need to remember that people want the same things, no matter what language they speak, or what name they have for god. They want to feel important, included, valued. If you have friends, family, workmates, support, then maybe consider asking one more person to join the football team next winter, or come to your place for New Years Eve, or to the beach for a swim and ice cream. Because surely it is harder to grasp for the unthinkable, if you have friends holding both your hands.
I am back in New Zealand, back in my small community, where I have ready access to people, smiles, and ice cream. But over the past three months I was on the other side of the world, and most of the time I felt like I belonged, whether I was in London, Burgos, or even Zubiri. Thank you to everyone I met and walked with on the Camino Frances, I was honoured to be part of your journeys, your triumphs, your disappointments. And thanks to everyone I met afterwards, old friends and new, you welcomed me into your homes, your families and your Hip Hop album releases. Mucho gracias.