Lesson 8: There is a story to everyone

In Panama, there are plenty of places with rich biodiversity. Entrepreneurs have set up businesses catering to the various needs of tourists and locals alike. In David, a coffee-producing region, you can get fantastic coffee where coffee beans are fresh, and the smell of coffee each day is alluring. There are many idyllic places along the coasts, with Bocas Del Toro being a particular favourite for many travellers. Then there are the mountains in Panama. Many entrepreneurs have set up hotels high up in the mountains – a sort of getaway from Panama’s cities and towns’ busyness and chaos. I stayed at one such establishment, where you hike up fifteen minutes, from the main road, to reach the hostel. I had booked a dormitory bed for two days but ended up staying for ten days. I was close to nature, and it felt terrific to be in the cool fresh air every day. Here, at the hostel, there was a young girl, Cindy (not her real name) working at the reception. Over the next few days, we got to know each other better.

Cindy hailed from the US but had settled in Central America. Her parents had given up the traditional American dream, packed their belongings and sailed along the American coast on their sailboat. Anna and her sister grew up on a boat. They lived in a place for a few months and then made their way to a new location while being homeschooled by their parents. They were exposed to new sights and sounds, as they made their way along the American coast.

I had met a nomad. It was exciting. She told me that she had grown around adults as there were not many children or families with the same lifestyle. From my perspective, it felt like a perfect life. She grew up in different places, met new people and immersed herself in new cultures. It was an ideal life.

And so it seemed.

Cindy confessed that she had difficulties connecting deeply with people. She had always been on the move, and thus she either expected to leave herself, or she expected others to go. As she worked at a hostel, she always met travellers who were on the move. Nothing felt permanent. Her struggles with forming and maintaining deeper connections meant she grappled with intimacy issues and at times loneliness. It was hard for her. You would never know she had these issues if you met her in passing. She was friendly, engaging, funny and warm. As a receptionist and host at the hostel, she ensured the guests enjoyed their stay. On the surface, her life and her upbringing looked great. At a deeper level, she struggled with similar problems that affect many in our society. It required me to spend some time with her to understand that part of her.

As you explore, you meet many people. Most times, you get to know fellow travellers at a superficial level, over a beer, a meal or a joke. After a few days or maybe a few hours, you move in different directions. It is quite exciting to meet fellow travellers, even if it is for a short time.

With a few more, you connect more and get to know them better. Cindy was one such person. I related to her struggles with relationships and intimacy. I too shared my mental health issues with her. I have struggled with deep depression, anxiety, intrusive thoughts, emotion dysfunctional and more. You connect more when you share your vulnerabilities.

It is quite difficult for me to connect with a lot of people. It has always been quite a handicap when I explored. I withdrew from conversations and gatherings as I battled my thoughts, cognitions and beliefs. Living in my head meant not living in the present. I went to bed early on group tours, with the excuse that I was exhausted. I couldn’t deal with my problems, and withdrawal seemed appropriate at that moment. Therefore I missed out on deeper friendships and relationships.

It was a constant theme across my journey. I made a few connections which I cherish today. But I missed out on many. The inability to make deeper connections weighed heavily on my mind, throughout my travels. It was the same when I started the Camino pilgrimage in August 2019.

It turned out to be quite different on the Camino. Even though I was working on my issues, I felt a lot more comfortable reaching out to people and got to know many fellow travellers in that process.

It takes time to know someone. It takes time to sift through the first impression. It takes time to go deeper. And when you do so, it is quite fulfilling. It could well be that the Camino made it easier for everyone to go deeper.

The Camino de Santiago is a pilgrimage to the city of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Every year thousands of pilgrims and hikers make the journey. Multiple routes lead to Santiago, and I chose to walk the French Way: seven hundred and eighty kilometres over thirty days. Though the Camino is a Catholic pilgrimage, the path is open to all. A friend, who had completed the Camino a few years back, recommended the walk to me. He found the journey quite calming and spiritual. My experiences confirmed the same.

The Camino is a journey where one gets exposed to a particular spirit of life: a community that thrives on togetherness and compassion. It was a mind-opening experience and those who have done the Camino experience the same.

Camino teaches you a lot. It taught me humility, honesty and humanity. What made the community special were the people you meet along the way. I met people from all over the world.

Each one had his motivation, and each one had her pace. And along the way, we shared our stories.

About halfway into the Camino, I met a group of pilgrims. We ended up walking at the same pace and stayed in the same town every night. Among these folks was a young man from the Philippines, Ronaldo. He had studied in the United States and was heading back to the Philippines and wanted to do the Camino before settling back in his home country. On the last day when we reached Santiago, we attended the pilgrim’s mass. Ronaldo was running late that day. The rest of us waited for the mass to begin. The mass started with prayers from the Bible, and after about twenty minutes, the main priest opened the mass to priests from different parts of the World – Germany, Africa, and Asia.

The priest from Asia addressed the gathered pilgrims. The voice was familiar. It was Ronaldo. Here was a Catholic priest among us, who was one of us, yet who had chosen a very different path in his youth. We had no idea till the final moment. It was quite an emotional moment for many who had got to know Ronaldo.

I had also met Alica (not her real name), a middle-aged woman from Germany. She had lost her sister and was on her way to Finesterria to spread her sister’s last remains in the Atlantic Ocean. She planned to finish the journey, light a candle in memory of her sister and then call her parents to bid farewell together.

Many on the Camino struggled with mental health. Some were grieving for loses in their lives. Others wanted to connect to something deeper religiously or spiritually.

During the Camino, Alicia and I spoke at length about human tragedies, adversities, and growth. We shared ideas and perspectives on the meaning of life. We agreed on the need for common humanity and compassion.

Three days before she reached Santiago, her mother died. It devastated her. She had suffered a personal loss with the death of her sister. Yet again, she suffered another loss. It felt unfair that she lost an intimate family moment planned for at Finesterria. We had a final meeting at Santiago. She had decided to continue her journey to Finesterria in memory of her sister and now her mother.

There are many stories that I have picked up during my explorations. You can’t have the same level of depth with everyone you meet. Superficial encounters have their place. Sometimes you want something quite fleeting and lacking in substance. At other times, it is better to take the time to understand someone.

We live in a divided society, where we are firmly opinionated, impatient with each other and very judgemental. Brexit, the issue of Syrian migrants, the rise of the populism, and the election of Donald Trump are a few of the events that have fractured our society. I remember a conversation in Mexico, where one of the travellers was livid with Donald Trump’s election. She was furious (and rightly so) that a man who does not respect women was the President. She was angry that Americans elected a person who spews racist language towards Hispanics, minorities and the United States’ international allies to the highest office. She brushed the entire voter base that supported Donald Trump as uneducated, racist and stupid. It was the same sentiment expressed by the camps in the Brexit debate. I try to reason with her on the multiple factors voters use to decide on a candidate or a policy. In the UK, I knew of many, including friends married to Europeans, who voted to leave the European Union. They worked in hedge funds, large corporations or had their businesses. They were not racist, nor were they stupid. They saw the economic benefit of leaving the EU. While we can debate, we can also agree that people have a right to have that perspective.

I was in the camp of ‘Staying in the EU’. I did not buy the economic argument, nor did I buy the political views of ‘Freedom’ and ‘Independence’, but it did not mean I treat the ‘leaver’ with disrespect and disdain. It was déjà vu with the conversation on Trump. I tried to explain that many Trump voters were not racist – they could have been misguided on the economic prospects or genuinely believed in Trump’s financial, tax and trade policies. Many women ignored the sexual predator nature of Trump and voted for him. They decided that other factors mattered more. Many Hispanics voted for him, though he labelled Mexicans as rapists. What drove them to ignore a blatantly racist remark? It did not matter what I said. She was resolute in her beliefs and refused to empathise with the other party, thereby laying a tiny crack between communities. Over time, these cracks added up, led to further lack of understanding, escalated to deep fractures, and eventually divided the country and the world.

Of course, it hasn’t helped those world leaders such as Donald Trump don’t help with their rhetoric. It has often required inclusive leaders such as Barack Obama to step in to help bridge the gap. Every other day, there is some news item about this camp versus that camp. The underlying issue is not as essential as the division that exists. What matters most is the vitriolic hate between the two sides. No wonder, every day, leaders and public personalities remind us to be kind and compassionate.

There is a reason why a Cuban voted for Trump. What is his story?

There is a reason why a black voter does not like Trump? What is her background?

There is an emotional instinct why a white woman in Middle America supported Trump. What is her fear?

There is an emotional instinct why a Native American supports Obama. What is the history behind that support?

There was a belief that got my friend to vote to ‘Leave’ in the Brexit referendum. What is that belief?

There was a need for a young British student to vote to ‘Stay’ in the European Union. What is her long term perspective? When you get to learn and understand someone’s story, instincts and drive, you get to be closer to that person, even if you don’t agree or share common ground, because you bind together in the spirit of humanity, and that bond is priceless. When you find common ground, you get closer in your shared vulnerabilities. The reward of being close to each other is priceless. It starts with knowing that there is indeed a story to everyone.

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