I just ran into Han in Sansol. He doesn’t speak much English but I speak no Korean. I’ve booked into an auberge here tonight. “What’s it like?” he asks. “Not like last night,” I respond despondently. We both have a moment. “Ahhhh last night” he says eventually. A little hostel off the beaten track. Five of us. The best food we’ve had all trail. La Perla Negra.
Elena in Azqueta has thrown her house open to pilgrims, and in the process she’s met Pete. He’s Californian, and he’s helping her run the hostel as an act of service. He is a “care full” human. I like him but part of me is shouting at him. With his arms folded, he’s worrying out loud if there’s enough milk or if the food is hot enough, or are we comfortable or do we need more or can we reach the hummus or have we had enough? His help means she can paint again, and he is totally activating and vitalising her business. But he puts no value in himself, frames his past as failure and won’t take up his space. It detracts from his magnetism.
He vanishes into reverie after Han misreads their relationship. “I have no wife. No children. No wife. No children…” On repeat out loud to himself, lost in it. “But HEY you make a mean cup of coffee,” I interject eventually and he leaps as if stung, and spits my words back into the world like a mouthful of ants. He would lose nothing by taking up more space, this good man, by having more pride in who he is now. By leaving the past in the past. I take careful notes. I remember my mum had boyfriends like that. They never interested her as much as the fuckers, even if objectively they made her existence much better.
The road to Sansol has been long, exposed and straight.
There has been plenty of time for reflection. I’ve been thinking about the capacity in me to mirror Pete. To take up less than my allocated space. To devalue my contribution. I left before dawn today. Han said “But it’s still dark!” Pete said “He doesn’t care. He’s an adventurer.” I smiled as I left. Yes motherfuckers. I’m an adventurer. I don’t care.
I adventure up the predawn hill, breaking all the spiderwebs across the path with my face. I hit the top and there is sunrise laid out behind me in glorious technicolour. The Sun Also Rises. It really does around here, Ernest.
Han is one of many South Koreans on this trail. Catholicism is a minority religion in Korea, so the Korean Catholics are devout and careful. They care about the teachings of their faith, and try to live a life that reflects them. They walk this trail for their soul and their improvement. Some of them find it very odd seeing me with my gong and my beads by the path in the morning. Buddhism is the unthought ascendant faith in their country. I haven’t seen anyone else yet round here who practices – not that we wear a flashing helmet. I’ve seen evidence of one or two Hindus. No Muslims. We are in Catholic country here. But the South Koreans are doing Catholicism so well. It’s a lesson. As soon as a religion is primary in a country it loses some of its meaning and potency. It is the thing that has always been. The establishment thing. I’m sure I was drawn to Nichiren Buddhism because it wasn’t rammed down my throat when I was a kid. It was new to me when I came across it as an adult. I kept it because it works for me, but that was the draw. Like Han with his sexy new Catholicism. It works for him. In the end faith is and has to be about what works for you. Otherwise immediately it’s someone trying to sell an idea. On which subject there are two guys talking about Billy Graham on the next table. They don’t know I’m English yet…