The heat brings out the worst in me.
The sweat, the discomfort and the constant unquenchable thirst break my walking stamina, the little I have left at this point. My bad mood is made worse with sudden menopause-related hot flashes that make my head burn even hotter in the baking sun.
Sleeping in the tent is like spending six hours in a sauna. I can feel the nutrients I digest before sleeping leaving my body during long periods of profuse sweating. I’m up all night toweling off the wetness swallowing me, and making me stick to my sleeping bag.
Days, and more days, of walking mostly tree-less roads in 35,37, 39, 42, 44, 45 degree Celisuis heat crush me…again…like in Iran, like in Uzebekistan, like in Burma, like in Thailand. The heat haunts me.
“This is too fucking much! What is the joy in this?” I can’t contain my frustration. “People say we are living the dream. But, what dream are we living? This is not fun. This doesn’t bring me joy and happiness. This is self-inflicted hell.”
Lluís doesn’t have any more patience for my frequent rants and threats of quitting. “I don’t want to argue any more. Decide what you want to do, and do it.”
That’s the problem. I can’t decide how to do what I really want to do. I want to be free, and I want to be with Lluís. I’m only 50-50 about whether I really want to continue to walk–with him or without him.
“My backpack and passport used to make me feel free. They gave me wings to go anywhere I wanted in the world. Now, I hate them. I look at them and they feel like a ball and chain.” I’m crying, exhausted by this repetitive stupidity called Bangkok Barcelona On Foot. “I can’t keep doing this walk this way. Walking for walking’s sake, doing kilometer after kilometer on the same kind of road. All these roads look the same — UGLY. Ugly asphalt, ugly gravel, ugly traffic. I’m tired of the sound of my life being cars and trucks passing me.”
My tongue runs on without a filter.
“What an idiot I am. I keep walking with the guy who never gives up. Ok. I get it. Keep going. Reach the goal. But we are educated people. Why do we keep doing stupid things? We can be smart about the way we keep going. There is nothing smart about walking in this heat.
“And, look at the dumb things I do, all by myself. I put all my hope in these coins we find. I’m begging, ‘Oh please give us a coin today so I know I’m on the right road.’ My happiness is reduced to finding pennies. If that’s not pathetic, I don’t know what is.”
Lluís tries to show me the silver lining. He’s an optimist in every situation.
“What about these wonderful people we are meeting?” Lluís reminds me, all the time. “What about all these experiences we are having? Don’t they give you joy? Don’t they make you happy?”
“Those are brief moments of oxygen, and I carry them with me and replay them in my head all day long. But most hours, I can’t breathe.” I don’t want to hear any more justifications. “We each keep trying to adapt, to find a middle ground, so we can keep walking together. But the middle ground isn’t working. There is no joy in this for me.”
We walk in silence, like we usually do. Not on purpose. It’s just what we do. It takes too much energy to talk during many hours of the day. We are comfortable being in silence, a sound we crave every day and almost never don’t hear.
The space between us widens, and our steps naturally fall out of sync as we follow our own rhythms.
I say hello to everyone selling grapes along the road. They say hello back. It’s nice to smile, even if mine is sometimes fake.
It’s harvest time. I love harvest time, when fruits and vegetables look their best.
I remember my other life. Most years back home, we spend a late August weekend in wine country helping a friend and the migrant workers he hires to clear the fields. Voluntarily, we work the vineyard lines, clipping bunches of grapes, gently placing them in buckets and basking in a place where the sun and earth create sweetness.
The tears come again. I have to stop them. I can’t lose salt and water because a romantic sense of nostalgia sweeps over me. Be smart, not sentimental, I tell myself.
A 4×4 stops on the other side of the road. A man sporting a hipster beard jumps out and dashes to the run-down fruit stall a couple meters in front of me.
“Hi. What are you doing here? Wait, I’ll buy you grapes,” he says to me in what I peg as an Australian accent. “Which color do you want– black or white?”
“Thanks, but I can buy the grapes. ” Both the red and green bunches look tasty. “We are walking Azerbaijan.”
“No, you are our guest. Which ones do you want?” he asks again, talking to the grape seller in Azeri, a Turkish-rooted language that makes me think of the words I heard in Kyrgyzstan last year. “You’re walking Azerbaijan? Why are you doing that? Where are you going next?”
“Ok, thank you. The white grapes look good.” I say, grateful for the treat. “Yeah, it’s a pretty crazy thing to do, especially in heat like today. We are on a multi-year walking journey from Thailand to Catalonia. We finished Iran, and are heading towards Georgia. Where are you from? You have an Aussie accent.”
“Wow, that’s amazing. Your trip sounds incredible,” he hands me a plastic bag with a kilo of green grapes, and holds another one with red grapes. “I’m from Baku, but I travel a lot.” He waves to his wife, who is in the driver’s seat, and his wife and son hop out and join us in the shoulder.
“You have to hear this,” he says to his wife, who shakes my hand and then kisses each of my cheeks, Azerbaijani style. I tell them more about our trip. They tell me about the mountains we won’t have time to visit. He gives me a card, she writes down their phone numbers, and I give them our website. Finally, we introduce ourselves.
“I’m Vusal, and this is my son Mehdi,” he says, also shaking my hand.
“I’m Sevinj. But you can call me Joy. Sevinj means joy in English,” she says cheerfully.
And, there it is. Joy just walked into my life. She is standing right in front me.
“It is so nice to meet you,” I say, not hiding my surprise, soaking in the irony. Joy is always standing there in front of me. I don’t always see it.
(Coincidentally, when I look up Vusal online a few days later, I chuckle when I read that his name means “meeting, joining.” Out of curiosity, I Iook up Medhi, too. His name means “guided one” or “guide enlightened by God” in Arabic. So maybe it was, literally, a guided joining of joy? I really like to think so!)
I hug Joy goodbye, and wave to the guys. I blow them a kiss as they drive off, and take a few grapes from the bag. I let a few tears of sudden happiness slip. They roll into my mouth, and salt cuts the taste of the sweet grapes.
I catch up to Lluís, who is sitting on a rickety chair in the shade of another run-down grape stand.
“Guess what? I just met a woman named Joy. Joy… as in what I was just talking about, as in how I was missing joy. How ironic is it that her name is Joy?!? They bought us grapes. Here, have a few.” I so want this to be a good sign. “Of all the names she could have had, of all the names that exist on the planet, hers is Sevinj, Joy! Really… Joy…That’s just too strange.”
“Yes, that is strange. Do you feel better now?” Lluís asks, putting a few grapes in his mouth.
I don’t know how to answer him. I’m happy this moment. But is that enough to keep going?
“Look!” He points to the ground.
It’s a coin.
Of course, it’s coin. Joy wasn’t enough. There had to be a coin. I wonder if the universe is cheering us on or laughing at us.
Lluís leans over to pick up the 20 qəpik. He shines it up, shows it to me and puts it in his pocket.
It’s the cosmic breadcrumb I asked for today, and the pennies that make me believe this is all worthwhile.