Privilege on the Camino.

shutterstock_107735720Yesterday I spent four hours reading the Sunday paper. Something I look forward to every week not only because it gives me a chance to relax, I also get flex my critical thinking muscles. Especially when writers use their platform to complain about first world problems, something which seems to occur with ever-growing frequency these days. I roll my eyes at the pseudo issues which fill the arts and leisure sections like kudzu. I try not to judge, truly. I’m just as privileged and curmudgeonly as most of these writers if not more. But seriously, some of these so-called difficulties give me eyestrain especially considering the real issues confronting our world. Some of them make me sigh heavily. Some of them make me tweet snark which I’m not proud of. And some provide ideas for blog posts.

Such was the case this week. In the article, “For Vegan Travelers Provisions Are Paramount” in the Washington Post travel section Melanie D.G. Kaplan talks about her friend Jeanette who walked the Camino de Santiago. The Camino is a pilgrim’s trail which winds its way through northern Spain starting in the French Alps, coursing through rural villages and over mountains for almost 600 miles before ending at Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela on the west coast. People have walked this path for thousands of years in search of spiritual meaning. Many do it in honor of someone deceased, or for health reasons, or just for the adventure. It’s a sacred walk fraught with challenges. Many fail because of the rough roads, high mountains, bad weather, scalding temperatures and miles without water. Not to mention blisters. People who finish report feeling profoundly changed. Some see visions. Some make new friends while others have deep if fleeting personal experiences and conversations with the strangers walking with them.

The author doesn’t elaborate on why Jeanette walked. She does, however, speak at length about how as a vegan Jeanette had difficulty finding food when her packed supplies ran out. She finally gave up and ate an egg bocadillo, the tasty Spanish sandwich found in almost every corner store along the Camino route. She went further and stated from then on she’d limit her travel to countries that were vegan friendly. To say I eyerolled would be an understatement. My eyes resembled rolling marbles. I sighed, put down the paper, and shut them completely because my head hurt. Sighed again. Deeply. Read the article a second time. This time I felt no judgment or disdain. Only sadness. Then decided this topic was worth way more than just a tweet.

I’ve read eight memoirs of people who walked the Camino. I’ve read three books on what to pack. I’ve taken a Rosetta Stone course to learn the language and studied multiple references on the culture, food, and people around the region of Spain where the Camino is located. I’ve seen The Way three times. It’s my dream to walk The Camino de Santiago. Someday. As a white woman living in the United States it is privilege to even contemplate such a dream. And I’m reading about a woman fortunate enough to have had the money, time, support, health, and resources to walk in the footsteps where hundreds of thousands of others have walked, some with not nearly the means she has, and she wasn’t able to see past the dwindling contents of her own backpack. Her biggest concern was all the stores were closed between 1 and 4pm for siesta.

Now sure there are probably some vegan options in large cities like Madrid or Barcelona. But stores close country-wide in the afternoon. As an American it’s presumptuous if not downright rude to expect other cultures to conform to your demands. If she’d done her homework she might’ve also discovered this region of Spain is rural and not wealthy by any means. They don’t have the food distribution systems present in larger cities. There, as in many parts of the world, fresh produce and meat are luxuries. In fact many stores and cafés along the route subsist solely from the needs of pilgrims and their dollars. They’re just trying to get by. Not trying to please the rigid dietary restrictions of a few. By demanding such, you’re just reinforcing the ugly American tourist stereotype.

Now I understand everyone in this life has their own journey. I don’t know anything about Jeanette or her life experiences. I admire her discipline. Her resolve. Maybe part of her journey was to have the experience of culture clash and how she would react to it. Who knows? Only she can walk in her shoes. But I do know one thing. If you return from one of the most spiritual pilgrimages on the planet and the only thing you take away is the lack of vegan options? You’re missing out. You can’t see past your own privilege.

In comedian Marc Maron’s standup special, “More Later” he talks at length about two ways of eating kale. The reluctant way (“I know I’ve got to eat this kale even if I don’t like it.”) and the righteous way (“Look at me! I’m better than you because I’m eating kale!”). I’m not saying Jeanette was acting righteously, but her rigidity in the face of circumstances on The Camino reminded me of that Maron’s bit. A lot.

By acting as a zealot, she sacrificed life experiences in favor of her rigid dietary restrictions. Why not do like Mark Bittman instead? Eat vegan until 6pm then enjoy a nice dinner to fuel up for the morning? Or be as vegan as you can while knowing on your return you’ll eat vegan 100%. By being flexible you’ll not only experience everything Spain has to offer, you might just find some flexibility in other areas of your life. It makes me profoundly sad Jeanette didn’t immerse herself in the full experience of the Camino, the camaraderie, the vistas, the chances for solitude, reflection, and maybe even a vision or two. By being so focused on provisions, she missed out on fields of sunflowers, churches, historic monuments.

Who knows? She may have even beat herself up emotionally at the end, considering herself a failure for not walking the Camino entirely vegan. Even though the pilgrimage is a test by itself, Jeanette may have felt by giving up and eating an egg sandwich that she “failed”, canceling out any benefits the journey may have had. Which is a damn shame.

In reality, The Camino exists to dispel such notions. To show us that we’re all different, we all have our own journeys, and that’s okay. We’re not failures, we’re okay as we are. Right now in this moment. No one is standing behind us with a clipboard to mark a big red “X” because we broke down and ate eggs out of necessity. We all have our own life path, our own lessons to learn. I wish Jeanette peace in her journey and hope she got something out of her walk. When I walk my own Camino someday who knows what I’ll learn? I do know I’ll think of her. Probably every time I bite into a bocadillo.

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  • Janice Murphy

    Reply

    I am not a vegan, but two of my children are. I admire them. They actually implement their values, instead of just talking about them. They do less harm to the environment (documented more by research every day) and cause less pain to animals. These values are important to them, but they don’t judge other people or lecture them, ever. But they take it on the chin all the time by people who openly disdain and ridicule their choices. For the life of me, I don’t understand why.

    • Jenée Libby

      Reply

      Thank you so much for reading. I’m sorry if you felt I was ridiculing Jeanette with disdain, that was certainly not my intention. Nor was I speaking about your daughters. You are proud of them and rightly so. I admire your girls and their dietary choices because I could never have the discipline to follow a vegan lifestyle.

      My post was about Jeanette, a vegan frustrated with the lack of food choices in Spain. My purpose was to express an opinion and maybe to educate. We live in a country of privilege and too often people assume folks in other countries do as well. If only that were the case. Rural villages along the Camino are grateful for any food much less things like fresh produce. Organic? That’s a concept they cannot even dream of. As a result if you travel to a less privileged country and expect them to cater to your needs you can expect to be disappointed. Jeanette learned that the hard way. Secondly, by focusing so much on her dietary lifestyle she surely missed out on all the wonderful experiences the Camino has to offer. Which is sad.

      I left judgment behind a long time ago. I’m too old and have seen too much. I understand everyone has their own journey. I’m a Buddhist and believe in The Middle Path, the path of least resistance. I never suggested Jeanette stop being vegan. My suggestion was one of The Middle Path. Work WITH the country you find yourself in rather than AGAINST it. Resume 100% veganism when you return to the US. That certainly would’ve made her trip more enjoyable instead of the disaster she judged it to be.

      Traveling to another country and judging them because they cannot fulfill your dietary requirements is just as insulting as people who disparage vegans on a daily basis.

      Thank you again for reading and I wish you well.

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