The Gay Traveler: Santiago
By Vikram Kolmannskog
I am crossing what is a border in the view of some people: the Pyrenees. I gather the beauty of these mountains in my mantra; a mantra repeated every morning by my grandmother. She herself was a migrant, moving from India to marry my grandfather. When he died many years later, she was almost entirely paralyzed. But her fingers kept traveling along the rosary. Now, as I am crossing the Pyrenees, I have this mantra with me. I savour my surroundings: the rustling leaves, the swaying green trees, the birds singing and the vast blue sky. I harvest and mix some of this beauty with the mantra as if I were brewing a magic potion in a cauldron. There are hardly any other words now, only the exchanges of a buen camino with other pilgrims I meet.
As evening comes I walk behind an older couple leaning on walking sticks and each other. Were we not supposed to walk this road together as well, he and I? I feel a pain in the chest. My heart is broken. My lover did not die. We broke up, a different kind of death, also difficult. But perhaps I need to walk this stretch of life alone. Perhaps my heart had to be broken to be healed by God. Through the cracks the divine can enter and take possession of me. I arrive at a monastery and participate in the communion.
The next morning I continue repeating my mantra while walking. Soon there is a melody. I sing the sound. I almost dance along the path. I notice a small cave, and something tells me I should meditate there. I crawl in, settle down and close my eyes. When I open my eyes again, I notice something red in the cave. It is the Sacred Heart.
Along the way I find other hearts and the words Dios es amor drawn in pebbles. God is love.
A monastery offers pilgrims wine from a tap on the roadside. Later an old farmer invites me into his garden to pick some apples. I eat and drink and find satisfaction. I am filled with gratitude. I overflow. As I continue walking, I offer an apple to another pilgrim in the passing. I am grateful for every opportunity to do even the smallest good deed, to give without the left hand knowing what the right hand does. The more I give, the fuller I become.
One morning a thick fog comes upon us. I walk behind another pilgrim who has a flashlight. He is from Denmark, he tells me. Before long he starts complaining about the refugees in his country. I do not enter into discussion. I hope for dialogue. I start talking about the camino. Are we not also migrants of one sort or another? Carrying only a rucksack and a walking stick, we are also at the mercy and the good will of others on this road. It starts to rain, and I stop to change clothes. I say farewell to the man from Denmark, buen camino.
I climb the Hill of Forgiveness. Having arrived at the top, I rest in the cool shade of a generous tree, watching small insects dancing around each other, glinting like tiny lights in the sun. I ask even the smallest of insects for forgiveness. I also think of harsh words I have spoken and misdeeds I have done to my ex-lover. I ask forgiveness from him, from everyone and everything.
Late one night I reach the foot of another mountain. I will meet God on this mountain. I already know this. But tonight I sleep here, at the foot of the mountain, alone in the night and shadow of God. Again I feel this longing for my ex-lover. I forgive myself as well, and I enter into some kind of prayer. I have already received it: I see his face. I gently kiss his lips. We are on the way somewhere and have stopped at a train station. He says something funny, and I laugh. I laugh so much that I wake myself up. I smile to myself in the darkness. I have faith and fall asleep to the softest of God’s songs, the sound of light rain in the night.
Who are you? Someone has written in the sand. There are question marks, no certain exclamations, on the way up the mountain. The world is slowly coloured violet red. Everything, even the tiniest pebbles on the forest path, casts shadows and is present. I am in and with my surroundings. The path becomes increasingly steeper and harder to climb, so hard that I am only aware of my breath. And the body itself knows how to breathe. It is a giving birth kind of breathing.
I am on a higher level now. It is almost as if I can touch the clouds. For a moment I think that I have lost my way up here and panic. But then I notice that someone has laid out stones on the ground in a spiral. Someone has been here before me. I move slowly towards the centre. Various words and images have been deposited beneath the stones. I also sketch something on a small piece of paper and leave it here for others who will come after me. I expand the spiral, an ever-expanding spiral, with one more stone. Overwhelmed, I start to cry. I am at the highest point in the world. I rest my eyes on the clouds. They are angels that we have helped create through our mere existence, our tears, our sweat and our breath. I give thanks.
For several days I walk on the flat and yellow Castilian plateau. I am listening. Eventually I come across some ruins. The place feels eerie. But I also know that I am going to create a heart of great magnitude here. I fill my bottle from a well and drink some of the fresh water. Then I start collecting stones. It is not hard work. But suddenly there is a gust of wind, I hear something resembling a scream, and for an instant I am terrified. Repeating my mantra and remembering that God is love, I continue my work. Once I have created a heart among the ruins, I bless this place and take my leave. Arriving in the village where I will spend the night, I ask about the well and the ruins. The villagers tell me they are remnants of an old Jewish community abandoned during the Reconquista, when Jews and Muslims were persecuted and many fled the country.
There is a festival when I arrive in Leon. But first I go to the small, quiet park of Saint Francis of Assisi. Bird song and green plants surround his statue. Praised be the Lord for all his creatures! Later, in the city, I hear a scream again. As part of the festivities, an eagle has been tied to a pillar in the middle of the market place. For show. As a curiosity. Other than us. The eagle screams desperately, and my heart aches. I do not know what else to do but quietly ask for forgiveness.
I arrive in green and humid Galicia. I walk in the morning mist where all things seem to merge. On a sign someone has written todo se cumple. Everything will be fulfilled. I feel a sudden, warm touch on my back, and the mist lifts as if by magic. I turn, take in the first sunlight and say my mantra. The soft warm morning also embraces the oaks around me. I look at these beautiful, illuminated trees. A cool dewdrop full of light falls from one of the branches onto my forehead.
While refugees are washed ashore on the Spanish south coast, I arrive in Santiago de Compostela. Again I meet with other pilgrims, including the man from Denmark, and we share a meal. My mother has also come to join me here. After a visit to the church, we continue together towards Land’s End, the ultimate point of an even more ancient route.
We stop on a hilltop where we have the first view of the Atlantic Ocean. For what seems like an eternity, we search for white pebbles, my mother and I in childlike play. We create a white heart together here on the hilltop. We sense that it is of utmost importance. Having completed our mission, we continue walking towards the glimmering ocean in the horizon. The mantra is in each breath of air now, like a continuous prayer or meditation. I arrive in each step I take now, like my grandmother traveling along the rosary while sitting still on her bed. At Land’s End I undress and enter the ocean.
(Vikram Kolmannskog is a gay writer living in Oslo, Norway. He is of dual heritage and was raised by a Hindu mother and a Christian father. The Camino de Santiago, or the Way of Saint James, is an old pilgrimage route in Europe that has its end point in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, where the apostle Saint James – Santiago in Spanish – is said to have come to spread the Gospel.)
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