Wankers, Walkers and Pilgrimages

Wankers, Walkers and Pilgrimages

Drew sat back, raised his glass to the light and took a sip. “If it’s less than 13.5%,” he proclaimed, “it’s like kissing your sister.” A droplet of red wine clung to his moustache like my mind to that comment. Annie, his wife, vigorously nodded her approval.

“Absolutely.”

I took a sip and agreed, more out of politeness than any personal experience in incest. Apparently it’s a saying in New Mexico. I gave them the benefit of the doubt.

We were sat in Espinal, a small Spanish town at the foothills of the Pyrenees. I never once imagined I’d spend any portion of my life arguing about incest with an elderly American couple, but a significant chunk of the afternoon was indeed taken up by just that. They were adamant that “kissing your sister” translated to a weak wine. I argued that if anything, breaking taboos and societal norms and choosing to kiss your sister is an inherently strong move. Frowned upon, but ballsy nonetheless.

The conversation almost never happened. Not that that would be any great loss to the world. I had told myself that I wouldn’t drink, that this month, which was to be spent walking on the Camino trail across Spain, would be an opportunity to break the cycle of boozing I’d become accustomed to back in Melbourne. Then I discovered how cheap and delicious Spanish wine is. Plus I never managed to have interesting insights into incest while sober, so a healthy liquid diet became an essential and very enjoyable part of my days on the trail.

It was wishful thinking anyway, giving up the booze. The Camino is essentially a Contiki tour but by the end, instead of having taken a bus through 32 countries, you’ve just walked across one. Despite that minor logistical difference, at a core level everything else remains the same.

You travel with the same large group towards a common destination. You drink together, eat together, sleep together and get to know each other like a family, though in this scenario any familial relations do not count as incest. It’s a metaphorical family. And like any family you get on with some people better than others, but really, you learn to love almost everyone for their quirks and eccentricities.

Unless they’re a wanker. And I’m not saying you’re more likely to encounter a wanker on Contiki than on the Camino, but honestly, take the most recent review of a trip on Contiki’s website:

“Amazing trip manager, however she didn’t provide as much local cultural knowledge during the tour and didn’t play any culturally appropriate music as we came into the countries. Our day song could have been better, same goes for the wake up song. I only made 2 friends and the rest of them wanted money from me at the end of my tour because I threw up in a taxi and they so-called paid the cost which honestly made my last day on tour horrible as I was very hungover.”

Look, Rachel21 sounds like a bit of a wanker. But then again, there’s a thin line between a wanker and a walker. One letter, actually. Apparently I’ve been addicted to both. Not that I knew I was addicted to wanking. A sixty-year-old man pointed that one out to me a few years ago. He placed his pot of beer on the table as I walked past the local pub, looked me up and down and his eyes lit up – as much as the deadened eyes of a lifetime drinker can.

“Mum tryna stop ya masturbating again?” He asked, glancing sideways at his mate who nodded his approval back. Nailed it.

It upset me. Not so much the idea that my mother was attempting to control my masturbatory routine, but rather the insinuation that she’d tried to meddle with it before. Mum had raised me to be strong-minded and if I wanted to touch myself four, five, six times a day, I’m sure she’d approve.

I could’ve hit him, I suppose, or given him the finger. Or even clapped. But none of these were a possibility thanks to the two casts encasing my arms. My pushbike and I had fallen victim to Melbourne’s tram tracks, an event rendering me useless and unable to do really anything except, as it turns out, masturbate. So I guess the joke was on him. And Mum.

There’s only so much you can do with no arms. Some of the more exciting moments of the days that followed my accident and the resulting surgery included sitting, standing, reading (but not holding the book), watching the Lego Movie (seven times) and masturbating (not over the Lego Movie).

I took pride in the little things: being able to wipe my own arse, for example, affirmed my independence every day. I was also able to administer myself codeine and that’s how I’d pass the majority of the day, dosing up and hoping to sleep for the next three months and wake up fully recovered. But I was, by all definitions, a wanker. Moody and full of self-pity, I’d steer any conversation to be about me and just how shit my life was at that moment. Then I became a walker.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that at that point in my life I had been walking for around 23 years. I was good at it. A keen hiker, I enjoyed the outdoors and the physicality of carrying my life on my back rather than any crippling emotional baggage, but I was yet to appreciate the beauty of an aimless amble through the neighbourhood.

There was a park 10 minutes from our house. It took several weeks for me to be bothered with putting on a shirt, let alone finding shoes and leaving the house, but these little expeditions became the highlight of my day. I wouldn’t go far – just cut laps around the oval like an overbearing father at his kid’s footy match.

It was quickly apparent that there was a community of fierce walkers in the neighbourhood. Depending on the time, I’d see the same people visiting the park most days. Some would bring their dogs and make small talk, while others seemed content to quietly walk in circles. We wouldn’t speak for fear of discovering one of our fellow walkers was actually a wanker, but every day we’d acknowledge each other with a smile or nod. Maybe even a quick “Morning!” if we felt particularly outgoing.

Like a fish grown too big for its pond or a drunken uncle on a dance floor, eventually the park could not contain me. The walks became longer and the destination ceased to matter. Head east for an hour and turn around, then head 5km north for a beer before coming home.

What did matter, however, was the sense of freedom gained from rolling out the front door without knowing who or what I’d encounter that day.  It’s a feeling I was acutely aware of on the Camino. Before starting, I had been given some advice from a colleague’s sister.

“Smile at every passer-by and be present at every moment. We can bring a small slice of heaven to earth every day.” These words formed part of a note she had passed on to me. I was actually after advice on how many underpants to pack, so its gravitas was lost on me at the time, but I went back to it most days to remind myself that the smallest of gestures is enough to bridge the gap from wanker to, well, anything.

Maybe the difference between a wanker and a walker is purely alphabetical. Yes, they’re making the journey with different modes of transport, but they’re still two people in a pod – different fuel, different destinations, but both moving forward under their own steam. And that’s all anyone can really hope for. I would, however, extend an invitation to Rachel21 to hike 887 kilometres in my shoes – there are no taxis to vomit in while you’re walking, and you’ll almost certainly make more than two friends along the Camino.

Cover by Aaron Alvarado