Friday, January 20, 2017


As a lot of you know, a few years back I walked about 500 miles of an old pilgrimage route across Spain called the Camino de Santiago. It's been over 5 years now since I started that long walk, but from time to time, I still find myself reminiscing about my time on the trail and rolling the lessons I learned around my mind and heart. Lately, I've been thinking about one particular part of the trail.

In my mind, the trail was broken up into 3 main segments. The first segment was new, exciting and beautiful, but my body was also adjusting to it's new normal of hiking 15-20 miles a day carrying all my possessions on my back. It was exhausting but fun.

The second segment is flat, strenuous and full of long, sometimes monotonous days. For most people it is the most difficult segment, mentally as much as physically. It was hard, but I was committed. In fact, by the time I finished the second segment, I felt like an old pro in many ways. I'd been waking up and walking west each day for weeks at that point. I could balance the weight of my pack without a problem. I had learned how to pace myself. I knew what I was doing, and I could see real progress on the map showing how far I had come. I'd walked over 300 miles at that point!

Yet, it was humbling to realize that, in a journey that long, even though I had already come 300 miles, I still had 200 miles to go. The newness had worn off, and...that's no walk around the block. Additionally, at this point in the trail, I started to enter a region of Spain that is beautifully, and gruelingly, mountainous.

At this point in my pilgrimage, I found myself having to recalibrate my resolve. I had to restructure my days and my pace some. I built even bigger muscles. Yet, what got me through this section and to my destination was simply continuing to do what I had already been doing for weeks: wake up and walk west. In the end, the beautiful mountaintop views and the feeling of accomplishment each climb brought made this one of my very favorite sections of the Camino.

The reason I have been reminiscing about this part of my pilgrimage lately is because I feel like I am in a similar place in my language learning. Almost every day for the last year or so I have woken up and dragged myself to language class. At times it was new and exciting. At times I grappled with balancing all the new sounds and words. Other times language study was a stretch of long and monotonous days. It most definitely was a mental struggle in ways that had nothing to do with the actual words and grammar we were learning but rather was about resolve and calling and stamina.

Lately though, I feel like I am in a part of the path where the landscape is changing. David and I are in our last "full-time" module of language at our school. Honestly, while we were always committed to two years of language and culture study, I thought I would be further along than where I am now. I've come so farIt's true! Cleaning out our desk I found some of my old class notes recently. My sentences seemed so simplistic. I was struggling with basic grammar. I didn't even know the alphabet then! I'm so much further on this journey than I used to be. For goodness sake, we showed up in Cambodia knowing only two words. We've come hundreds of miles and thousands of words already.

Yet, as we talk to people out and about who speak in slang or regional dialects, or as our conversations veer away from the confines of our's easy to look at my language destination and realize, yep, I've still got about 200 more miles to go.

Also like the third stage of my pilgrimage, we are really walking into a landscape of highs and lows. 

When we finish this module next month we will begin taking "electives" at our school (things like Christian studies, social issues and Buddhist studies), which we are very excited about. We'll also start some intense self-study and start looking for a private language tutor. We will have more flexibility in what and how we study, and there are lots of positives about these developments. Yet, it's also much harder to create and direct your own language studies (especially to learn a language without even a text book) than it is to just show up to school each day. Highs and lows. 

Achieving new levels of language is also tougher at this part of the journey. Learning new vocabulary is relatively straightforward, but getting better at understanding conversations and getting to the point of being able to express myself with easethose are steep mountains that require renewed resolve to climb. Yet, these days I am finally able to have some meaningful connections with people in Khmer. I'm able to piece together parts of the world around me that last year I was blind to. These are encouraging, mountaintop-view kinds of moments!

So, even though I feel like I have about 200 miles left to go, I'm continuing to get up and follow the path before me each morning, with my destination of fluency in mind. It's still out of sight in the distance, but it's getting closer by the day!

PS. If you'd like to see just how far I can can stretch a pilgrimage metaphor, you might be interested in checking out my book here or here. ; )