I begin this picture story where it ended: Jerusalem. Alberto (from the sun-drenched lands of Andalucía, Spain) and I (a Canadian-born Lebanese woman) had just walked 5000 kilometers through 13 countries – for peace. Because we believe that peace in the world begins with peace within. It had taken us 13 grueling months, along a path more mystical than physical called the Way of the Soul, a path we are ultimately all walking. I invite you to join us. I will post new pictures and stories every few days.
The journey begins on the Path of St. James, also known as the Camino, in northern Spain. I had left the comforts of the known, and embarked on a search for self. My wanderings eventually brought me to the Camino. Here, along the arid plains of La Meseta, I would hear the words that would ignite my imagination: "The path to Jerusalem is called the Way of the Soul. It is on that journey that you hear whispered its deepest longing." I knew then that I would walk that path.
"Why did you start walking in Rome?" is a question I was often asked. Many assumed I was Catholic. I am not. I was baptized in the Greek Orthodox Church, but never practiced that religion. I do consider myself a spiritual person. I do believe in a Higher Power that many call God, Allah, the Universe, the Creator...there are many labels, but to me that power, above all else, is Love, and all paths spiritual ultimately lead to Love. On the Camino, I learned that the pilgrimage to Rome is called the Way of the Heart. It is the path of Love, but not human love; rather the grand unconditional Love of the Divine. I wanted to begin at the heart of that Love, at a sacred site that was imbued with the energy and devotion of other pilgrims before me. On November 21, 2001, I took my starting picture, and my first steps towards Jerusalem.
Those first days of walking alone were difficult. There were no yellow arrows (as on the Camino) to show me the way. I was on the open road, facing traffic, often with little or no shoulder to walk on. There was no one waiting for me at the end of the day or calling to make sure that I had arrived safely. If I disappeared, no one would know about it. More than once, I questioned the sanity of my decision. The people I met were polite, and curious to meet the woman they had passed in their cars. To my surprise, the Italians that I met only spoke their language. It was becoming clear that I needed to learn Italian – and fast! On the quieter side roads, the scenery helped me forget the loneliness of the way. This photo was taken on the way to Rieti, and exemplifies the many villages that dot the very scenic foothills of Monti Sabini.
I had met Alberto for one day in Finisterre, a town at the end of the Camino, whose name literally means the end of the world. It seems fitting that we would meet there as I was about to end one journey and begin another. He liked my idea of walking for peace, but didn't feel especially called to do it, and so we parted ways. Two months later, as I was making my way to Rome to begin my walk, our paths would unexpectedly cross again, in the home of a mutual friend. This time, he felt compelled to join me, citing "signs" and "omens" that were too powerful to ignore. I wasn't sure I wanted company for that length of time, or how we would communicate with my negligible Spanish and his high-school English. But I, too, felt similar signs tugging at me to acquiesce. I did, and left him to prepare, while I continued ahead to Rome. Ten days later, he would join me in Rieti. On December 5, 2001, we took our first steps together. This photo was taken on the road near Rieti leading to the Franciscan monastery of La Foresta.
Having a walking partner now meant having to compromise on what I imagined my walk for peace to look like. I was sleeping in hostels and pensions, but Alberto didn't have the economic means to do that, or to enjoy a hot meal at the end of our cold days of walking. Cheese and bread were his staples. He told me that, on the Camino, he met a pilgrim who walked without money. Every night, he called on the Church door for help and took whatever shelter they offered him, usually the floor of some hall they had. The pilgrim never asked for food, but was usually offered it. Alberto wanted to do the same, but encouraged me to continue sleeping in hostels and eating in restaurants. How could I, in all good conscience, leave him to sleep on some floor somewhere while I was in a warm, cozy bed? Or enjoy a hot bowl of soup while he was eating bread? So, I chose to join him, calling on monastery and church doors every evening, explaining that we were pilgrims walking for peace, silently praying each time that they would take us in. Every night, we had a roof over our heads. Some nights, we had heating and hot water. The occasional night, we were invited to a meal. In this photo, we are sleeping on the floor of the church hall, where the priest generously turned on the heaters on this brutally cold December night. With us is Biancospino, a pilgrim dog we met in a hermitage high atop a mountain, and who would accompany us to Assisi. Alberto is cutting out the letters that would eventually make up the signs we would carry on our backpacks.
A picture speaks a thousand words! With our impossible-to-miss signs, we became magnets for people wanting to stop and ask about our walk. It was also an opportunity for us to reiterate our message that peace in the world begins with peace within, and that small acts of kindness weave the fabric of peace. On this day entering Cotignola, a journalist stopped us for the first of many more interviews to come in Italy. The article opened doors for even more people to engage with us. However, speaking with the media would create tension between Alberto and I. He wanted to speak openly about his inner journey, the spiritual pilgrimage that we were walking, while I saw every mention of the word "God" or "spirituality" alienating us and stamping us with a "religious" label that I longed to avoid. I saw our message as a universal one and not tied to any one religion...and I wanted to keep it that way. I also believed my spirituality to be a personal matter, whereas Alberto shared his openly. Having the courage to speak openly and authentically about my spiritual journey would become the hallmark of our long trek to Jerusalem.
It was Christmas Eve, and we were both missing our families. We had finally arrived in Coriano, after being lost in the mountains for several hours, and were longing to rest. As had become our custom, we asked the local priest for help, and accepted the church hall that he offered us. That day, however, as we were explaining our needs, a friendly-looking couple was listening in, and eagerly began speaking with the priest. It clearly pertained to us because they kept looking over at us, but I couldn't understand their rapid-fire Italian. The priest finally said, "benne, benne," before leading them into his office and closing the door. When they came out again, the couple said the words that would forever be etched in my memory: "Please, we would like you to stay in our home this Christmas Eve." Our hosts, Seraphino and Loretta, brought us back to their place, and made us feel a welcome and honored part of their family. Their love and generosity was beyond anything we could have imagined. We may have been far from our own families, but that night, we felt as if we had come home. Thank you, Seraphino and Loretta, our Christmas angels.
Padua, home of St. Anthony, the saint of providence. Providence would bring us to a most loving woman named Luciana and a hospitable youth community led by a wonderful priest, Father Sergio. Despite many magical moments and experiences, disagreements between Alberto and I regarding how to walk this path of peace, threatened our Walk to Jerusalem. More than once, we spoke of separating; but then how could we speak about creating peace in the world if we couldn't even create it between us? We resolved to work out our differences, and to continue together, with each one loyal to the call of their inner journey.
Venice, Italy. One of the standout moments of our walk, a moment filled with the kinds of coincidences and magic that are beyond words and that leave you awed. We had learned that, in ancient times, pilgrims used to depart for Jerusalem from the port in Venice. They would be blessed at a special pilgrim's mass at St. Mark's Cathedral before saying their farewells to their families and boarding their vessels. In a modern-day recreation of this ancient ceremony, we would walk in the footsteps of pilgrims before us, receive a most unexpected blessing and an unforgettable farewell from our new families: children who had just returned from Jerusalem as part of a peace project involving Israelis, Palestinian and Italian children. They were "coincidentally" in the plaza on a fieldtrip. In this photo, Alberto holds the booklet of their efforts called: "We give peace a boost with six hands".
Our first border crossing, from Italy into Slovenia, for what would be a very short transit to Croatia. It was hard to believe that we were leaving Italy. It had taken us nine weeks, and we had walked just over one thousand kilometers. I felt pangs of melancholy, as a child leaving home for the first time, knowing that great adventures awaited us, yet feeling sad to be leaving the comfort of the known. Italy had offered us many gifts, and I knew I would miss her: a language we grew to adore, lasting friendships, hospitality, and love. She wasn't always easy on us. She knocked us down often, and challenged us physically, emotionally and spiritually. From those ruins, however, a stronger foundation was emerging, one more firmly based on trust, confidence and love. As we looked ahead towards Slovenia, those were the qualities I knew I wanted to carry with me. On January 29, 2002, we entered Slovenia. Ciao Italia e Grazie! (Excerpt taken from our book "Walking for Peace, an inner journey").
Although in this photo, the visibility is quite good, a constant thick fog accompanied us those first days in Croatia. From what we could see, the Croatian coastline was spectacular, but not easy to walk, with rocky mountains rising to our left, and the deep blue waters of the Adriatic Sea accompanying us on the right. With the help of the only person we had met who spoke some English, we were able to translate "Walking to Jerusalem for Peace" into Croatian. We couldn't properly pronounce the words, but hoped our intentions would be understood. I was nervous entering a country recovering from civil war, and worried about how we, and our message, would be received. Adding to my tension were Alberto's latest dreams involving schools of magic and beings from other worlds, which were putting me on edge and, in the thick fog that surrounded us, made everything feel more eerie. Some of his dreams even seemed premonitory, hinting at the possibility of us separating. In this new land of unknowns, I hoped that dream would never become a reality.
A big part of our journey involved us following signs or synchronicities that we felt were guiding us in a certain direction. We allowed the Way to lead us, rather than over-planning each day and rushing to arrive. But when Alberto told me that he had been receiving signs for him to continue alone, I felt nervous. I was suffering with terrible blisters and could not walk at the speed that required us to arrive to Medugorje (in Bosnia and Herzegovina), purported site of the apparition of the Mary of Peace, for the 25th of the month, when she would deliver her monthly message of peace. I knew I couldn't make it; so we agreed to separate, thinking it would only be for a few days. I never would have imagined that we would be apart for forty days. In the article above, Alberto is caught off-guard by a journalist wanting to interview him along the side of the road, while I, a few days later, gave another interview during my stay at the Capuchin monastery in Karlobag. Its Superior, Fra Anta Logara, would become my angel not only in Croatia but for the duration of our walk to Jerusalem.
During my stay at the Capuchin monastery in Karlobag recovering from blisters and challenging walking conditions (rain, mountains, no rest stops), I thought of Alberto often and wondered how he was doing walking alone. I knew that he had little money, and that a man knocking on a door seeking help was perhaps less likely to receive it than a woman doing so, or even a couple. I was worried for him. Alberto had stopped at Karlobag and had told them about me, and so they were expecting me. I was treated with love and kindness beyond compare. I had my own room with a bed, bed sheets and a hot shower! And of course, warm meals in abundance. For a pilgrim, it was pure luxury! Fra Ante Logara, the monastery's Superior, had given Alberto the names of people he knew along the way who would help, and sent him with his blessings. He did the same for me, and added a most precious gift: a letter of introduction explaining who I was and my walk for peace. I was overwhelmed with gratitude. This letter would become my pilgrim credential, and I would collect the stamps of all the monasteries and places where I would stop along the way. I would use it all the way to Greece. Huala, Fra Ante, thank you!
It started as a simple rash under my arms, but it grew into protrusions the size of golf balls. I battled two nights of fever and chills, popping ibuprofen like candy. The receptionist at the hostel where I was staying recognized me from the newspaper article and, more importantly, spoke English. She arranged for me to see a physician, who also miraculously spoke English. She explained that my lymph nodes were inflamed, and that it was a serious infection that most likely needed surgery to drain. She prescribed antibiotics, telling me she didn't think they would work. In my despair, I thought of returning to Canada for the surgery. Until Fra Ante called to check in on me. Simply hearing his voice made me weep and, through my tears, I tried to explain what was happening. "Not to worry," he assured me. "I will take care of it." Within an hour, I received a phone call from a woman who spoke English informing me that her doctor son would see me the next day; and that a priest, Fra Drago Ljevar, living near my hostel, would pick me up to take me to the hospital. I couldn't stop sobbing for the gratitude that I felt at that moment. Fra Drago not only took me to see the doctor, and also a surgeon, but opened his home to me as if I were a member of his family. One of the nuns (pictured in the middle), Sister Dolores, kept repeating "moja draga Monika", words that I finally understood to mean "my dear Mony". She made me cookies and reminded me to take my medicine. Sister Eloisia (on the left) helped me with whatever else I needed. I felt as if I had come home.
It was a time of great transformation for both of us. Aside from my unexpected illness, I felt compelled to return to Lebanon to visit a dying family member. I had no way of reaching Alberto to let him know of my decision, and prayed that he would wait for me in Medugorje, Bosnia and Herzegovina, where we had planned to meet. He had called me once, upon his arrival there, but the phone number he gave me always went unanswered. Needing to follow my own signs, I allowed a magical web of synchronicities to lead me to Lebanon, and then later, to bring me back to my walk. Every day, I desperately called that phone number; finally, on the eve of my arrival in Medugorje, a woman answered. Alberto was still there. Our reunion was joyous, and filled with our many tales of adventure. I spoke of the many human angels who had helped me, while he shared the many experiences that could only be described as miraculous and magical. This photo was taken in the main plaza of Medugorje, just as I was about to see him for the first time since our forty-day separation.
We were coming to the end of our Croatian experience, and I felt pangs of sadness at the thought of leaving. Croatia, like Italy, had become comfortable. I had become accustomed to the people and the land. They had embraced us and our message, and thus woven a web of protection that accompanied us wherever we went. I was now reluctant to leave that security, and once again walk in the unknown. Despite my intention not to be influenced by the judgments of others, I found myself doing exactly that. Stories of the atrocities committed by Serbians against their Croatian neighbours kept replaying themselves in my mind, making me less than enthusiastic about walking there. In the picture above, we are leaving Dubrovnik, accompanied by a group of women (and one man!) who had heard about our walk and wanted to support our efforts. They had also surprised us with a generous donation that they raised in their local church. Although the day was damp, our enthusiasm was not. Their beautiful voices rang out is prayer, sending shivers down my spine and, at the same time, calming my anxious heart – reassurance from the heavens that all would be well. On April 11, 2002, we entered the country of Serbia and Montenegro, about to experience for ourselves whether all we had heard was indeed true.
Our time in Serbia and Montenegro was brief, with surprisingly little contact with the people, the highlight being an unforgettable conversation with a Serbian sailor who would remind me not to paint all Serbians with the same brush. My fears would be unwarranted here, but put to the test in neighbouring Albania.
From Italy to Serbia, we were warned about the dangers of walking in Albania. With the fall of communism, violence and corruption were rampant, and poverty was high. Walking through there, I felt as if I had been transported to a third-world country, with refuse littering the fields and children running barefoot in it, accompanied by scrawny-looking dogs. Young and old alike begged us for money. Compared to them, we must have appeared the wealthy tourists. On more than one occasion, we were offered lifts, but they couldn't understand why we insisted on walking since, to them, only the poorest of the poor walked. We saw opulent wealth standing in shocking contrast to the pervasive poverty. I felt more confused and off-balance than ever, while Alberto, appeared to be at his best, more confident in himself than I had ever seen him, all of which served to deflate, rather than lift, me. Every little thing bothered me; I felt assaulted on every level, and found myself responding in irritation, even anger, and retreating further inwards.
Despite some wonderful experiences, with people dedicated to helping this impoverished country, Albania was my personal low-point, the place where I allowed my fears to define my experience. I felt that I had failed my walk for peace, and the message I was carrying. Still, as I crossed the border into Macedonia, I couldn't help but take one last glance and say "falemenderit", thank you.
Amigos, amici, priateli, fíloi, miqtë... these were the many ways in which we learned to say the word "friends". From the very beginning, no one would believe that Alberto and I were merely friends, and so we found ourselves having to explain our relationship more often than we would have liked. I saw him as my walking companion – an annoying one sometimes – and like a brother. I am certain that he saw me as his annoying sister. We had our disagreements and arguments, all of which we committed to resolving because, after all, we were walking for peace. After an especially hurtful argument in Macedonia, the veil of appearances finally lifted, and each could see the other as they truly were. Perhaps it was Greece in springtime, but the feelings between us would deepen, and evolve into a more intimate, romantic relationship, five months from the start of our journey together.
This picture was taken in Greece, where we were assured that people could understand English.
Our beginnings in Turkey augured well, with our sublime romance continuing to blossom in ways unexpected. In this photo, we are forced to make a short ferry crossing; and if you look closely at our hands, you will see two silver objects, purchased from a silversmith in an open-air Turkish bazaar, that would symbolize the union that, with each passing day, appeared to be more permanent.
Our first decision in Turkey was to walk along the coastline, rather than cut through the centre of the country, as we learned that this more tourist-oriented area would offer greater possibilities for shelter. The July heat was making air conditioning a necessity. We were now waking at 4:00am to begin a day's walk that would hopefully end before 10:00am, when the heat would become unbearable. Skin rashes caused by sweat, and repeated bouts of diarrhea plagued us and slowed us down at a time when we should have been making faster progress. These challenging walking conditions were made more so by nagging arguments that now erupted between Alberto and I. I witnessed my once-confident partner become all too-human, as insecurities I never would have suspected in him, surfaced. They depleted us emotionally, while the heat depleted us physically. The Walk took a back seat to the struggles of two ordinary individuals trying to hold on to their integrity on all levels.
Şanli Urfa, City of Prophets. "From our hotel room, we had an unobstructed view of Halil-ul-Ruhman, the city's holiest site and destination of all pilgrims. It was a lush oasis of gardens and ponds, accentuated by two beautiful mosques; one venerating the cave where the prophet Abraham was allegedly born, the other the stuff of legend. It was told that the ruling pagan King Nemrud ordered Abraham to renounce his God, but when he wouldn't, the King commanded that Abraham be catapulted into a raging fire at the bottom of a tall cliff. In the spot where Abraham landed, the fire was transformed into water, and the firewood into fish. A mosque was built on that site. The fish are considered sacred, and the waters holy. It is here that pilgrims come to be renewed, and where we intended to join them." (Excerpt taken from our book "Walking for Peace, an inner journey".)
With my faith in everything that I believed in shaken, this holy place far off our path to Jerusalem, would help me find the courage to speak my heart's truth.
Our footsteps were now clearly directed south, as we glimpsed Jerusalem in the distance - a mere 700 kilometres away. We had already walked over 4,000 kilometres, and to us, it felt as if we were in the home stretch. We walked with purpose, closing the gap to our destination. In those last days in Turkey, away from the tourist areas, we experienced the magnificent heart and generosity of the Turkish people. I was glad to be leaving on that note, after what was an arduous and emotionally draining four-month trek through the country. My trepidation in entering Syria, however, surprised me. I was after all in the Arab world, in a culture and language that I knew well; but the terrible stories that I had heard growing up about the hard-handedness of the regime now haunted my memories. It also didn't help getting persistent warnings the closer that we got to the Syrian border.
The Syrian hospitality, however, was beyond compare, and took us by surprise, with daily invitations to meals and places to stay from people who didn't even ask why we were walking but who wanted to welcome the two strangers in their land. Our transit through Syria was brief, but most memorable. In this collage, you see our signs in Turkish and Arabic, and us enjoying the typical Arab "meze" foods and the traditional "argileh" or water pipe.
We entered Lebanon, country of my origins, about to celebrate one year of walking. We stayed in the home of my family, where it was tempting to give in to their pleas to stay longer and celebrate the upcoming Christmas holidays with them. But we continued, following the beautiful Lebanese coastline, passing historically-drenched cities such as Byblos (home of the original alphabet) and infamous ones such as Beirut, rising as a cosmopolitan phoenix after being ravaged by 25 years of civil war. The further south we traveled, however, the more anxious we began to feel, passing ever-increasing numbers of posters from Hezbollah calling for armed struggle. The angry, mistrustful looks we received as we walked past only added to our tension, making me question even more strongly this message of peace I had been carrying and if it was - in this centuries-old land of conflict and bloodshed - truly naïve. How could I possibly reconcile their outer reality with our message of inner peace?
We were relieved to finally arrive at the Lebanese-Israeli border, and what would be our last crossing; but it was not to be. The border was physically closed with landmines and barbed wire. The officials at the border were extremely helpful, giving us the names of individuals working at the UN and our home embassies who could help us receive the permission we needed to cross. They even provided us with a lift back to the nearest city, and asked us to pray for them in Jerusalem, a place most will never see. Our efforts in the end were in vain, and after fifteen days of frustrating attempts, we had to make a difficult decision: find other ways of walking into Israel and delay by possible months our arrival in Jerusalem; or simply take a plane, an option which made us feel as if we were betraying the Way of Peace.
On a rainy December 24, 2002, we arrived at the old city walls of Jerusalem, bringing to an end our unforgettable 5000-kilometre walk for peace. As with all great journeys, it was never about the destination but the way there; and that way was marvelous, revealing many truths and wisdoms, and leaving us with profound questions to ponder. On that magical night, we would learn that the blockade on Bethlehem was lifted, and so we joined the multitudes of pilgrims from around the world celebrating Christmas there. We visited all the holy sites of that ancient land, but the truly sacred was, and always will be, within: a place of tremendous light, peace, love and joy. May we all celebrate this light on this special day, and all days.