Earlier this year I was travelling alone in Europe when I randomly ran into a woman in Cinque Terre whom I’d met briefly at a travel writers’ conference in New York. Masha from An Unlikely Pilgrim is spending a year doing pilgrimages around the world, and when we caught up for wine she was part way into a three month walk along the Via Francigena, from Canterbury all the way to Rome. (Yes, she’s seriously badass.)
We were a few glasses into a bottle of wine when she said, “Hey, why don’t you come walk with me for a few days?”
It seemed like a crazy idea to head into the wilderness with an almost-stranger, especially given that I had no hiking gear with me and nowhere to store my rolling suitcase. But it was odd—serendipitous, even—because during the months prior to meeting up with her, I had this peculiar idea in the back of my mind that I’d end up doing a long walk somewhere in Europe. Every day in Paris, I hiked to the top of Sacré-Cœur to get fit. In Spain I walked everywhere instead of taking public transport. My muscles were growing strong, but what for? I didn’t know.
And then Masha arrived into my life just as my calendar cleared and I was questioning what to do with my last three weeks in Europe.
So of course I said “Yes” to two days hiking with Masha.
I packed a small backpack, left everything else at the Milan train station, and set off into the Italian countryside with her.
Two days became three.
Three days became five.
I wanted to hike and hike and not stop, but on the fifth day I became crippled with tendonitis due to walking for five days in flimsy street shoes.
We stopped in a stunning town called Piacenza and I spent five days resting. Masha fetched me food and frozen peas, and stalled her pilgrimage to look after me. I bought sturdy shoes and a bunch of hiking gear, and I put all of my energy into getting better. But the foot was not healing as fast as I wanted it to. Masha was on a deadline to get to Rome and she had to move on.
I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to stop walking. So I bought a bike and rolled alongside her…
Three days later my foot was okay to walk on, and I abandoned the bike at the bottom of a steep hill in Tuscany. We went on for another ten days.
Two days with a stranger became three weeks with a soul mate.
There are a lot more stories in that journey which I don’t have time to tell you now, but I have some exciting news…
I’ve joined her again for another pilgrimage, but this time in India!
We’re going to follow in the footsteps of Gandhi on his Salt March—a non violent protest he carried out with 78 others in 1930. We set out tomorrow from Ahmedabad for twenty five days of walking, beginning from Gandhi’s ashram, and we’re both so terrified and so excited that I can’t even begin to explain the roller coaster of emotions we’re currently riding on. We really have no idea what to expect, but this is India after all.
On our first day outside of the hotel to the Taj Mahal, we were ripped off, leered at, pushed and shoved and kissed and pinched, and a ten year old boy caressed me on the bottom with both his hands. We saw monkeys making love, an elephant carrying cargo on a highway, painted livestock, a guy getting beaten on the side of the freeway, and several instances of non-ironic bellbottom business slacks paired with connoisseur moustaches.
Our rickshaw almost crashed when a hatchback swooped across thick traffic to make a cheeky turn, I was hit in the leg by a car pulling out of a parking spot, and our taxi driver started nodding off at 120km an hour when we still had three hours of driving ahead. At the end of the day, our nails and noses were encrusted with black and my lungs feel like they’ve been chain smoking. Beauty and filth, exhilaration and horror, all in the course of a day. It was thrilling.
I have no idea what the next twenty five days of walking are going to be like, but I know it won’t be boring. It’s surely going to be an adventure of a lifetime.