Life repeats itself.

Ten years ago, I was Madrid, Spain, waiting for a train to Alicante, my life at its lowest. My mom just died, my husband just left me in China, and my life was condensed down to one hundred pounds and a carry-on. I was in Spain to visit my nephew to make sure he was actually studying there, and not just carousing the nude beaches on the Mediterranean, a pitstop on my way back to America, to figure out where I’d live, what I’d do, and how to rewrite the rest of my life.

Ironically, ten years later, I’m back in Spain. I’ll be starting the El Camino Santiago Compostela pilgrimage one that is famous for life transformation.

If you are not familiar with the El Camino Santiago Compostela, folks have journeyed the various routes through Portugal, France or Spain to the cathedral where the bones of Saint James rest. Some dare this venture for spiritual growth, others take part of the pilgrimage just to unplug. Even the atheist who wears out his hiking boots looking for direction ends up changed in some way.

As I flew from Lima to Madrid, I pulled out my journal from ten years ago, thinking of how much I’ve outgrown my hiking boots since then…or, grown into new them.

Below are some of my scribblings from ten years ago that I read on the plane, as airlines no longer offer free magazines.

千山万水 A long and arduous journey June 2014

If you ever want to waste an entire Saturday, try finding a flight from Kunming, China, to Detroit Michigan via Madrid, Spain. One that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. One that doesn’t take longer than a week. One in a plane that isn’t held together by duct tape. That’s what I had to do, literally having multiple browser windows open, each featuring a different travel site, checking to see if prices were best and which would change depending on if I had my VPN on or off, or if the currency was calculated in RMB or USD or if I booked a flight on Tuesday Central Standard Time instead of Tuesday Beijing time.

 My fingers trembled as I finally pushed the button. The flight is a Greyhound with wings, making multiple stops before the final destination, each stop with its own language and toilet etiquette. With fifty hours’ worth of flying time and connections, I can almost afford the ticket. The finally itinerary revels the size of a novel.

Kunming to Beijing to Brussels to Madrid, then onto Moscow New York before finally touching down in Detroit.

But in the middle, I would stop in Spain, to the small seaside town where my nephew was studying, or more likely, visiting topless beaches.

As long as the flight was, I never wanted to get off. The flight attendant checked my seat belt as she wobbled down the aisle in her heels. I reached for the Chinese version of the air-mall magazine. I wondered who had one thousand dollars to drop on a Monte Blanc fountain pen. I wondered what I’d do when it would finally dawn on me that it was just me. The first leg of the centipede-like journey was just three and a half hours, but the next leg would be longer. The plane was almost empty, allowing me to stretch out and sleep on a row of seats from Beijing to Brussels. Soon it was time for the plastic wrapped muffin chased with a paper cup of tipid coffee. Then a bumpy landing as most landings are. We took a shuttle to border control, the blend of BO nauseating. Another stamp in my fat passport. Then a dash to the ladies’ room. I didn’t dare glancing at a clock or a mirror, fearing both would mess me up.

The European airport was culture shock, as announcements were in both German and French. My eyes gravitated to a sign featuring a frothy cappuccino. It brings me non-stop to the TEFL brochure I saw four years earlier, the one that sparked the to teach English abroad with my husband. If we had landed jobs in Italy or in a quaint French village instead of in the middle of nowhere China, would I be here, right now and alone? 

I had still more suitcases than limbs as I rolled my life forward. I made my way from Madrid’s airport to the train station. I didn’t want to go inside, my mind flashing to pictures of when it was bombed a decade earlier. I didn’t want to make a mad dash to the Picasso museum.

I didn’t want to …anything.

But I had to reinvent me. To start this mid-life make-over, which I would launch in a hole-in-the-wall bistro featuring tapas and beer. I would recharge myself while nibbling something sinful while I recharged my computer.

“Desea ordenar?”

I ordered something fattening and fried, the gooey cheese burning the roof of my mouth which I soothed with a cold splash of beer. I glanced at my watch. I’d sat and wrote as I waited for my train, the cavernous like atmosphere coaxing out stubborn thoughts.

I put down my pen and stared at my camera. My camera stared back.

I had never bothered snapping a selfie before, always having a husband to snap the photo of me or us. But now it was the new me, the new “my-husband-left-me-in-China-without-the-key-to-the-storage-unit-or-reason-to-take-pictures-anymore me”.

I hold my camera in my right hand, not sure exactly where to aim, getting a French poster behind me and of me biting my bottom lip.


Welcome to being single again, I say.

Well, at least for a bit.

I still have the picture of me biting my lip with in my silly green hat and sad eyes, it not being the most flattering, but the most raw. “I’m a human Humpty Dumpty” is written all over my face, a brokenness, with over-sized sad eyes like you see on velvet paintings. But the photo doesn’t capture how I smell–that wonderful mixture of jet fuel and recycled air. Or how I also reek of fear.

Ten years later? I’m back in Spain. But this time, things are different, and not just my hair. I’m wearing my blue hat that I found on the streets of Kunming instead of a green one. I live in Peru and have discovered being single after midlife can be a big adventure. I didn’t scorch my mouth on tapas but wolfed down a bowl of olives with my oldest sister. My biggest problems this time were a dead phone, and that I booked my hotel for the wrong night in Madrid and didn’t have any credit cards to book a new one. Then I lost my favorite pen. And I forgot to pack enough underwear.

Oh well.

So much easier than ten years ago, when I had to explain to Michigan Secretary of State lady why my social security number isn’t on my Chinese paystubs.

I’m still reinventing me, like that goop in a lava lamp. Always moving, always changing, always in need of a good hairbrush.

1 thought on “Transformation

  1. I’m glad this trip in many ways is easier than your first trip to Spain. Although the picture of you feeling raw 10 years ago is also a beautiful picture of you, it is great to see your blue hat and smiling face on this trip! Enjoy your time there, Ginger!

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