In the summer of 2012, I stood at the foot of the Pyrenees, about to embark on a 500-mile Christian pilgrimage. Up until that moment, it would have been hard to convince me that the "I" in that sentence was actually referring to me, Masha. As a child in the USSR, where religion was practically outlawed and never discussed, I grew up with zero spiritual education, Christian or otherwise. I have never been someone you might call athletic, in either body or in spirit, and I always found the outdoors scary; I have a wild snake phobia that has often sent me shrieking at the sight of an extension cord in my own apartment. I’ve always liked light pollution and pavement, and up until I started the Camino de Santiago, I’d never carried a hiking pack for a minute, let alone for an entire month.
I have spent most of my adult life trying to satisfy an insatiable thirst for contentment. I looked at other people and wanted so badly to be like them, to feel at ease in the world, as they seemed to be. When I met people who oozed happiness—you know the types—I tried to be like them by being exactly like them. So when I met an admirable woman who loved 17th century English drama, I forced myself to swallow plays drier than torched steak, with a flavor I found just as palatable. After being introduced to an especially magnetic lover of Cubism, I went to Picasso exhibits and tried to feel anything other than sleepy. I became involved in everything from Japanese art films to SoulCycle, but the former just left me confused and the latter made me unable to walk normally for a full week.
Still, even though it was all my own making, my life didn’t quite feel like mine, and I suffered from depression and panic attacks. I felt guilty. I had everything—I lived in New York City! With a view of the Hudson River! What was wrong with me? Why did my life, a life that should feel like a luxurious cashmere wrap, feel like an itchy polyester sweater instead?
Five steps into the pilgrimage, I knew that I had stumbled onto the right path, literally.
I had always had this nagging feeling I was supposed to be somewhere else. I’d look out my window and feel that miles away, my real life was unfolding, with or without me. And then, through a series of perfectly synchronistic events that felt a little like divine intervention, I found myself on the Camino de Santiago, an ancient walking pilgrimage route in Spain. In the span of a few weeks, I’d met two people who had just walked the Camino and raved about the experience, my job was flexible enough that I could take a month’s leave, and I had just gotten paid for a project that had fallen into my lap after a chance encounter at a party. For the first time in my life, I had a chunk of money that didn’t need to go to rent. The trail in Spain was on my mind, igniting a longing for elsewhere that I had been pushing away for so long. Before I’d ever worn a pair of hiking boots, I booked a plane ticket.
Five steps into the pilgrimage, I knew that I had stumbled onto the right path, literally. My life felt enormous, expansive. I couldn’t get enough of watching the sun rise from behind smoky mountain silhouettes, and I loved the weight of my pack, grounding me and letting me feel my own strength. Positivity came pouring out of me. I fell in love with nature and didn’t even spend that much time looking out for snakes. By the time I reached the end point of the pilgrimage in Santiago de Compostela, I was certain I had found my cashmere sweater, even though it looked suspiciously like a pair of sweaty hiking pants.
Back in my Harlem apartment, I began scheming about more pilgrimages. To my husband’s horror, what I wanted more than anything was to carve out a year to just walk by myself. I found a Buddhist pilgrimage in Japan that was 1,000 miles long. And another trail that crossed all of Spain, over the Swiss Alps, and down into Rome. I wanted to climb Kilimanjaro, walk in Gandhi’s footsteps in India, and follow St. Paul’s lead in Turkey.
It took two years of planning, but finally, I left New York, my family, and my husband to reclaim the feeling of wholeness I had found on the Camino de Santiago.
For a year I lived out of a backpack, sleeping in a tent that I pitched in the countryside of at least three continents, in monasteries across Europe, ashrams in India, and even a graveyard in Japan.
I also had a few terrifying encounters with snakes and lost entire toenails. By the end of the year, my marriage collapsed, and I knew I would not be coming back. I cried through most of the two months I walked in Japan, as my husband and I spent most of our precious phone time screaming at each other. A few weeks later, while I was recuperating in Hawaii, I told my parents and friends I planned to move to Istanbul and faced the aftermath of that choice. A full 10 days of dysentery in India felt like a spa retreat compared to the pain of walking away from my life and the people I loved. Finally, while I was back walking the Camino de Santiago for a second time, my beloved cat died without me by her side. Still, I kept walking.
A full year has passed since I finished my year of pilgrimages. In this time, I’ve made good on my promise to move to Istanbul, I kidnapped a street cat and made it live with me, and I fell in love again, with a Syrian man who makes the world, even at its worst, feel like home. I don’t look into the distance longing for something else anymore.
Elizabeth Gilbert has said that when you’re thinking about what you want to do with your life, you need to ask yourself what flavor of sh*t sandwich you prefer, because no matter what path you choose, you are certain to face obstacles and suffering.
My current life, far from my parents, in a country that is unstable at best, with a partner whose future as a Syrian national is uncertain, sometimes feels like eating triple-deckers of crap. But the pain of living a life that didn’t feel right was much worse and all-consuming.
Back in 2012, I went to buy my first pair of hiking boots, the ones I would completely wear out on the Camino de Santiago. I had always worn a size 9, the measurement assigned to me by someone in a shoe store 15 years before. As it turns out, I’m a size 9 when I am sitting down, but my feet are a whopping size 10 when I am standing. I had spent half my life rushing to work, dancing, and even walking down the aisle in shoes that were a full size too small. I got used to the pain and discomfort and made my way through life just the same, but I can’t tell you how much better it is to move through life in a pair of shoes that fit.