I quit this walk a hundred times a day. Really. Every single day.
I have conversations in my head all the time about how much I hate what we are doing, how I want my Barcelona life back, how I was happier then.
More often than I should, I count off all the reasons I want to stop, and all the things that make me tired.
I’m tired of smelling bad.
I’m tired of sweat dripping into my eyes and down my butt crack.
I’m tired of feeling like I am in a sauna when I crawl into our tent.
I’m tired of these stupid shoes and the blisters and callouses they cause.
I’m tired of looking like an idiot with this sun-hat and my flip-up sunglasses.
I’m tired of selfies, and eating truck dust, and walking like a Frankenstein turtle.
I’m tired of working like a donkey carrying this insane amount of weight.
I’m tired of worrying about water.
I’m tired of answering unimportant questions about where I’m from and if I have kids.
I’m tired of wondering if everything I eat will make me run to the toilet.
I’m tired of figuring how to squat over a hole in the ground when my legs feel like rubber bands.
I’m tired of not understanding what people say to me.
I’m tired of repeating the 10-15 words of every language I learn 20 times a day.
I’m tired of not knowing where we will sleep every night.
I’m tired of following our invented route, and being an overworked ant moving from Point A to Point B.
I’m tired of being tired all the time.
I’m tired of being this version of me.
I cannot beat my small mind. It has more power than I ever realized.
In Iran, I melt. Often. I lose my backbone and wilt on the side of the road.
I feel like a beetle laying on its back, flailing its legs trying to flip itself back to life. This upside death trap looks like an evolutionary mistake. The beetle had no choice in his nature. He will die in the flaming sun because he can’t move. I wonder if I will, too, will die in the sun. I turn the beetle over with a stick. I walk on, a choice that also may be an evoltionary flaw. Humans are not as a rational as we would like to think. I’m a case in point. Lluís is another one.
I started this walk strong, certain and determined. Now, I am feeling wilted, weathered and weak. I don’t recognize my face the few times a month when we look in a mirror.
I can’t go on. I don’t want to go on. I won’t go on. I torture myself with this string of negativity for hours.
The thoughts pop out of my head, and threaten everything Lluís and I have built together. I love him with all my heart, but this 24×7 togetherness for a long distance, multi-year walk tests our relationship… every minute. Like this dreaded one.
I quit, for real. It’s not a threat. It’s my most sincere intention. Seriously. Done. Finished. Like when Forest Gump felt like he ran enough and just stopped running.
In a tunnel, under a boiling two-lane road, I tell Lluís he needs to continue the route, and that I need to find a different way to move ahead. Alone. As in not together any more. As in, I will find another way to Barcelona, and I hope we meet there again, some day.
He doesn’t believe me at first. He thinks I’m just hungry or tired. That I need chocolate or sugar or a hug. Things that worked on other miserable days.
Then, he sees it. The kicked-in-the-gut defeat that have my eyes begging to give up. He doesn’t know this feeling personally. He never wants to give up on a dream. It never even crosses his mind.
He is made of something I’m not. He presses on, kilometer after dusty kilometer, determined to reach his goal. Our goal.
Our goal? I’m not sure what the end goal is anymore. I don’t know why I walk or why I should keep walking. Isn’t +8,000 kilometers enough?
I regret that we bookended our journey with these faraway cities of Bangkok and Barcelona. I didn’t think he would take the suggestion so literally, being a slave to the invented line marking our trek.
I loathe the number of hours we spend outside every day aiming to complete what Lluís calls “a reasonable distance” of 27 kilometers, and what I call “inflexible expectations.” I’m happy walking from 5 a.m. to noon, and stopping wherever we are, at what kilometer that happens to be. I want to walk only the pretty parts, in cool weather.
I don’t wake up joyfully wondering what good things will happen to us today. I wake up hoping today is the day we can stop walking, or, at least, walk less.
My latest rounds of self-sabotaging attacks come, ironically, at the same time we are being smothered with kindness.
I can’t keep up with our busy Iranian social calendar. We find ourselves in the company of strangers every day, strangers with good eyes and people we want to spend time with. People who are worth knowing and remembering.
I think…we think.. the walk is about this… about the people we meet along the way, about the people we never would have met if we took a bus or a bicycle.
But I can’t stay up until midnight interacting with fabulous people and then get up at 4:30 a.m. and walk the distance we have to cover in 8, 9, 10 hours in the scorching heat.
We are living every moment intensely. But the intensity is not sustainable. Something has to give.
“I am not an ant. I will never be an ant,” I yell out of desperation in the tunnel. I keep watching these tenacious creatures scramble over stones along the dirt service road we walk. I skip footsteps and trip over myself trying not to step on them.
“I am a butterfly. Obviously, I am a butterfly… so much so that I tattooed one to my body! I will always be a butterfly. I don’t move in linear ways. I don’t know how to keep following a straight line or a road that has a clear destination.” I scream. “I can’t spend nearly every night with people, sleep only a fraction of what my body needs and keep trudging onwards like a freaking donkey. I need time to walk the way that suits me. This way of walking doesn’t make me happy, and neither of us are happy with the compromises we keep making.”
“You are a hard-working ant, dedicated to walking from Point A to Point B. You can never be a butterfly and walk the way I want to walk, and I can’t be an ant, walking the way you walk. I can only be what I am.” I know this as my truth, but there is no enthusiasm in my voice. “I need time to be in my cocoon –alone– so I can create the beauty I will share with the world.”
We are stuck in moments of sadness, disillusionment and heartbreak. There are harsh words, long hugs, tears and uncertainty. There is a sense of ending, but no clear way to part.
This walk was not supposed to break us. Our love was supposed to be bigger than this thing we chose to do.
But, our togetherness is based on a contract we renew daily. Today, I don’t want to renew the contract that keeps us bound to the road. He doesn’t know how to let go. I tell him he must.
“I’m not quitting us. I’m quitting this way of walking,” I plead.
I rationalize my choice.
Why am I walking? To find goodness in the world? We did that. We have been recipients and initiators of goodness before we walked and during this walk. Goodness is everywhere, and will continue to be there if we don’t walk. We met and know good people. We are good people. And, good usually attracts good, with or without 25 kilos on my back.
Am I walking to know myself better, to be stronger? I live my dreams and, every day I try to live my best life. I know I’m strong. I am one of the toughest people I know. What other idiot would put themselves through what we have lived for 18 months? I know who I am. I have a inner compass that always points me in the direction I need to go. I don’t need to keep walking to discover that.
Am I walking to get to know people better, to see the world in a new way? Yes, but…I can walk slower. I can take longer rest breaks ad walk shorter periods of time. I can walk what is comfortable every day. I can walk in nature and not next to traffic. And, if I don’t reach the border before my visa runs out, I can go with wheels. I can stop doing permanent damage to my hurting body. Every step doesn’t have to be so hard.
“If this is what you want, I can’t stop you,” Lluís sighs, disappointed and hurt. “I don’t want to argue anymore.” He kicks a stone and walks away, hiding his kicked-in-the-gut pain.
We walk out of the tunnel silent, holding hands, not sure how much longer we’ll walk the same path.
Follow the coins
We go about 500 meters, and there in the middle of nothingness, the universe throws us a bone.
The forces that be must sense the loss of our empty footsteps. As they do a hundred times a day, our spirit guides, the beings of light I want to believe in, throw us breadcrumbs, things I take as signals that we should push on.
Today’s first sign comes in the form of ice cream.
In the middle of nowhere with no towns in sight, under full sun, two men delivering ice cream stop their truck in the shoulder a few meters ahead of us. They open the freezer door and give us each two popsicles, a berry-flavored one and chocolate-coated vanilla one.
We are overwhelmed with gratitude, and have to eat them both at the same time before the heat gets the best of them. We laugh as we race to lick every drop of sweetness. Ice cream makes everything better for a little while.
But, there is still a heaviness between us. We plod on, side by side, quiet and lost in thought of go-at-it-alone scenarios.
That’s when the coins start showing up again.
We began finding coins in Thailand. Lluís found bahts almost every day, and I found a few now and again, usually on days when I had my biggest doubts about this walk. Since then, I like to think that they are good luck tokens from his grandmother and my mother, their angel eyes watching over us and cheering us onwards.
We have found coins in every country, but the rhythm slowed in India, and surprisingly, for three weeks in Iran, we have been coinless.
After the surprise ice cream treats, we find a record 10 coins, one after the other in quick succession, each of us finding our fair share.
“Damn. I can’t quit now. Look at all the coins we found,” I mumble weakly, trying to convince myself that I am not a quitter.
In the days that follow, several coins, worth a few cents, appear on the road’s shoulder. Some of them are new and shiny, others are tarnished and chipped on the edges where trucks, motorcycles and sheep ran over them. They lighten our load, and make me think that I must continue, even if I think I can’t. They make me believe there is still a higher purpose to this walking insanity.
I put on my happy face as more wonderful people invite us into their homes and lives. They mend my wings with home cooked meals, fresh fruit and a safe place to sleep.
We pass more tiny towns and pretend the conversation in the tunnel didn’t happen.
But, it’s temporary. The negativity sneaks up on me again. It seizes my heart, and makes me spit fire.
Walking under the green shade of Golestan National Park, anger rages with every coin we find. I feel like the universe is laughing at me, giving me three coins in a 15-minute stretch.
I don’t want these coins. I don’t want to walk, not a single step more. I have the right to quit, don’t I? I kick the dirt. I’m throwing a temper tantrum.
Seriously, though. I don’t want to continue, and I don’t know why the choice of quitting is so hard. I don’t know how to stop wavering between walking and not walking.
“What we are doing is extraordinary, and I am not cut out for extraordinary.” This is my resignation. I give Lluís my pink slip, and tell him I will get to the next big town and then go my own way.
“We’re going through this again? We had a few good days, and we’re back to this point again?” Lluís can’t hide his frustration.
“Yes. We’re back here again. I don’t want to continue. And it’s for the same reasons I have been telling you since the GR 92 and since Thailand. I don’t want to and I cannot keep walking kilometers just for the sake of checking off kilometers. This is so pointless to me. This trip is not about the kilometers we must do every day. It’s about how we enjoy what happens in between the kilometers we walk.”
He hugs me, and tries to soothe me. He is my biggest fan, but he is getting weary of convincing me we are doing something worthwhile. He believes walking a reasonable distance every day is the only way he knows how to reach the wonderful in-between parts, the extraordinary parts.
“We are doing something extraordinary. And you can do this. Look at how much we have done already. Look at all the amazing people we have met. Look at where right now. We walked here. That’s extraordinary. When will you bury your doubts? Can you bury them here?”
“I don’t think so,” I say. I don’t have doubts. I’m certain this way of walking–this long-distance, multi-year journey– is not for me. I believe there are many other ways to walk to Barcelona. I– we– just haven’t invented the path yet.
We pick up our bags and keep walking with birds whistling to us and trees giving us shade.
More coins show up. It’s another 10-coin record day. I find the bulk of them.
A few days later, I find the first coin of the day, at sunrise, our quiet time when we appreciate our lives and commit again to making it our best day. I pick up the coin and throw it as far as I can.
“Mom, I don’t want these coins. Stop giving them to me. I’m not picking them up any more. When I get to the next big town, I’m done and going on in a different way. I don’t care how many coins you put in front of me.”
The coins stop coming. We hit the next big town, and we walk through it together.
Reality sets in.
How exactly am I going to stop walking? What am I going to do instead? Do I want to tackle this alone? Do I really want Lluís to continue alone? Wasn’t the whole thing about doing this together? Don’t I want to see if can make it back to Barcelona? Isn’t our love stronger than this dumb thing we do?
These questions are too hard right now. Instead, I start counting the things that keep me going.
A hundred times day, I count my blessings. I replay scenes in my head that give me sparks of happiness.
I think of how glad I am to have Lluís in my life, and his willingness to do a trip like this. I draw strength from his strength.
I think of all the people who have helped us get this far—our families, our friends, the strangers we will always remember. I rattle off as many names as I can before I have to tune back in to the traffic around me.
I mull over the notes we get on Instagram, in emails and on messaging apps urging us not to be tired and to keep walking.
I chuckle at the good wishes Iranians tell us when we shuffle by, “More power to your elbow,” a bad translation from Farsi meaning stay strong.
I try to remember every person since Thailand who has done something good for us. I linger on the mental pictures I took when they handed us warm soy milk, a cold soda, slices of watermelon, cups of tea, bottles of ice water, yogurt, bread, pastries, cookies and invited us for lunch or dinner.
I smile when someone jumps out of their car and welcomes us to their country.
I list the places we slept and the people who gave us shelter and kept us safe.
I recall other countries we each have visited, individually, together and on this walk. I pick out the best and worst things about each place.
I think of how hard other parts of this walk were, how I managed through that and how easy this section is in comparison.
I send love to family and friends who have endured and are still going through a variety of health, financial and relationship hardships. I walk for them, so their load may be lighter.
I thank the people who have donated money to us, and recall the commitment I made to share their goodness with others who need it. I consider how our small drops of collective kindness helped someone else get through their day.
I wrap the two of us in light, asking for a magical formula to keep us in balance. I’m not a religious woman, but I pray to the forces that be to guide us onwards, to make our walk easier so we can meet the people we are meant to met further down the road.
But, even if this gets me through the day, it doesn’t solve the bigger issue that’s chipping at us.
For a year and a half, we have tried to find compromises to our stalemate. They hold for a little while, but fundamentally, we see this walk differently.
Lluís is determined to walk a mostly straight line called Bangkok to Barcelona, no matter how challenging it is, and he likes to have a set number of kilometers to walk each day. I never agreed, not from the first day, to stick to such a rigid regiment. I want to take it easy and enjoy life, walking whatever is comfortable each day, walking when I want and how far I want. We both value meeting and interacting people, but we wrestle with how much time and energy we give to that, and how and when we can temporarily close the door on the world and refuel in our own space by ourselves.
And, just when we think we can find a middle ground to our differences, we’re given a new obstacle that again tests our physical and emotional limits. Who would’ve thought, for instance, that the overwhelming kindness of strangers would make us question our purpose and ideals?
That is what Iran is doing. People’s hospitality simultaneously invigorates us and weakens us. They joyfully prepare and feed us three-course meals of meat, vegetables and fruits for free (there is no way to give them money for their kindness), but they also unintentionally steal our much-needed sleep by keeping us awake until 11 p.m. or midnight.
Seeing this as the pattern and realizing that we will reach the Iran-Azerbaijan border with plenty of time to spare and enough days to visit other important parts of Iran, we try again to set a course that works for both of us.
We agree to adopt the mantra, “Take it easy.” It’s easier for me to slip into this mode than Lluís, but I appreciate his effort to slow down our place and go more with the flow of the day.
We accept more invitations for tea and say yes when families ask us to join them in the mountains for a picnic. We take extra rest days, and some days only walk half the distance we thought we would.
The burden lessens. I start to like walking again. I have renewed hope that we will work through this challenge. I feel less like an overworked ant carrying a heavy load and moving only in one direction, and more like a butterfly flitting between opportunities and choosing how we move through the day each day.
But, I miss the coins. During the silent morning hours when we own the road and few other people are awake, I make another deal with my mom.
“Mom, I’m back in the walk, for now at least. Can you send the coins again? How about only one a day for each us, something we can buy bread with.” I usually safeguard the coins we find, hiding them in my backpack, but we have found so many in Iran, the weight of them is starting to rip our pockets. I decide I will save a few coins for memory’s sake, but will use the rest for fresh-baked noon (bread) and ice cream.
An hour later, I see the coin Lluís stepped over. It’s a 5,000 rial coin, a shiny one, enough for bread. He’ll find a 2,000 rial coin later in the afternoon, and for the rest of our walk in Iran, we’ll find two, three or four coins a day. They are each appreciated.
“Thanks, Mom. I’ll do the best I can today.” I kiss the coin and hold it up to the sky.
I don’t know if I will walk the whole distance we intend to. I don’t when, if and how I will make to Barcelona by foot. Maybe I will quit some day. I have a hundred reasons why I should.
Right now, though, I have a lucky coin, and I can already taste the warm bread waiting for me in the next town.
Those are good enough reasons to keep walking today.