Three weeks in Sicily taught me some fundamental Italian skills. I could make pasta al dente in ten minutes. I could brew coffee over a gas stove rather than a plug-in machine. I could even navigate the rule-free roads as a biker and pedestrian.

There were a few complications too though... My first pasta was a bit too al dente and one of my failed attempts at coffee came close to explosion. There was also a minor motorcycle to car collision as a result of an abrupt stop I made while biking…

However, these challenges were nothing compared to the toughest one of all—living in Italy without speaking the language.

I hoped the combination of advanced French and basic Spanish was all the study I needed. I even let myself be fooled by the vague sense of familiarity in the Italian sounds; like “festa”; resembling the French “fĂȘte” or Spanish “Fiesta”.

When combined with the generous Italian gestures, these clues helped me fake my way through understanding. My best attempts at conversation were just bad Spanish cloaked in a French accent. Besides this, my Italian was nonexistent.

I felt ashamed but I think sometimes the Italians felt worse. Often they would apologize to me for not speaking English better.

“Yes but we are in Italy!” I would respond. “It is up to me to learn Italian not for you to learn English.”

“Well, I should know English to succeed in life. Even in my city. I must learn.” one Italian replied.

Sadly, there is truth in that statement.

After Italy I came to Thailand, where I face the same reality. This time, there is no faking my way through the language. This time I accept the tough truth that traveling without speaking the language only makes the problem worse.


After my month-long trek across the north of Spain, I was ready for a break. More than physically I was seeking a mental refresh to help transition back into ‘the real world.’

A 10-day silent meditation retreat seemed like the perfect remedy. My goals were to:

1. give the legs that took me 900km some rest,
2. strengthen my concentration from a world constantly in motion; and
3. reflect on my experiences in Spain and France.

 
I was familiar with the 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. timetable from my first course. That is, essentially ten some-odd hours of meditation each day and not much else. No writing, no communication and only two light meals per day for the repeat students like me.

My first course was intense but I thought this time sitting for 10 days would be easier after walking for 30. I couldn’t be more wrong.

My back and knees ached on the first day and continued until the last.

Then there was the trouble of concentrating my mind. My thoughts bounced from one thing to the next like pop-up ads. This happened sometimes during the walk too but at least I could revert my focus to the trail, a city, or even a conversation.

At the retreat there were virtually no distractions and by day three I felt like I was going insane. When I walked The Way of St. James I grew accustomed to seeing new places each day. Now I followed a rhythm of sleeping, meditating, and walking the same loop around the center.

Seating can get creative at the retreats.
Thankfully, by day six I made some progress. I could finally sit in the same position for an entire hour, without adjusting. 

It never came easy though. The last few minutes were always excruciating and at one point I screamed so loud internally I wondered if it was audible.

Walking 30 km per day never brought this kind of relentless pain. Although, I think I needed both experiences to prepare me for life back in ‘the real world.’

This time I travel to the Italian island of Sicily. Ready or not, 'real world' here I come.

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If you are brave enough to try one of these 10-day silent meditation retreats, check out www.dhamma.org. The courses are free (food and lodging included) and held all over the world.




I walked to the end of the earth and then a little more, following the way marked with yellow arrows and seashells. It guided me from southern France, through the Pyrenees, along the north of Spain, and ultimately to the Atlantic coast.

Though I set out alone I felt surprisingly well equipped. I packed according to checklists online with gear including hiking boots, a poncho for rain, and an emergency blanket.

At the end of the first day I ditched the boots. Later the poncho faced the same fate, and even though I hung onto the emergency blanket, it remained unused 31 days later.

As I took to the trail each day I discovered one of the most valuable things was never mentioned on the checklists—the people walking the same way.

Including them is weightless but you do need to leave space. Like myself, many walkers see The Way as a moment of purposeful solitude or a time to meditate over something…alone.
Photo credit: Stephen Milling
Ironically, this crowd of soloists fits perfectly together. I immediately formed a community of Italians, Canadians, a Latvian, a Slovakian, Portuguese, Brazilians, Spanish, Germans, an Argentinian, a Russian, and even my fellow Americans.

Sometimes they just passed long enough to point me back on the path when I went astray. Other times they offered water on a long stretch without fountains. Mostly, they kept me company kilometer after kilometer.

Not all of us began at the same point and sometimes we had different end points. Yet we found ourselves together, walking the same way. Going 900 kilometers alongside them filled more than just the memory card on my camera. They filled my heart.

Thank you for joining me on the way.

Below are some members of my community along the way. More photos from the journey can be accessed here.




 









I don't know many Chinese proverbs but this popular one is simple: "The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step" —Lao Tzu.

As simple as it may be, taking the first step is not always easy. Moving forward inevitably means choosing to leave things behind.

I faced the risks last year when I went to Hawaii on a one-way ticket. Fortunately, I left four weeks later with the impression I could one day call it my home.



My next journey has no defined end date. I will be traveling to at least three different continents and have yet to look for my return ticket home.

I leave my job, possessions, and even familiar languages behind. Everything I bring fits in just one backpack less than 10 kgs.

The journey starts on the French-Spanish border for the 500-mile pilgrimage route called the The Way of St. James.

True, it falls short of 1,000 miles but I just took my first steps.