(This is the beginning of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago.)

In 1991, I was working as a personal assistant for a horrible man who owned the Malibu Gym. Every day I’d travel from my home in Marina del Rey along the Pacific Coast Highway past all the houses where the other half lived and wonder exactly where my life was going. One afternoon as I was flying home unconsciously at about 75 mph, I was pulled over by the CHP for speeding.

Sometimes, however, there’s a silver lining.

Instead of paying the ticket, I opted to go to traffic school where, ironically, I met one of those men who lived in one of those houses overlooking the Pacific. As a member of the “other half,” he happened to have a house on a tiny island in the Mediterranean off the coast of Barcelona, and for some reason, he offered to let me stay in it for a month, rent-free. I’d never been out of the country before, and I decided it was time to go. I saved some money, quit my job and planned a backpacking trip through Europe using that house in Majorca as a respite. It’s what every 25-year-old should do.

Just before leaving on my trip, George Bush the elder, decided to bomb Iraq in what would become the first Gulf War. My plan hadn’t included there being a Gulf War but since there was, the American government highly recommended not leaving the country. If travel was necessary, they advised Americans to not fly into London. If that wasn’t possible, we were urged to avoid Heathrow Airport. My ticket to Heathrow in hand, I didn’t flinch because I had something the American government didn’t know about: an elephant pendant a friend had given me, which she assured me was some kind of Jewish good-luck-for-travel charm. I figured that pendant and a few earnest prayers were enough to keep me safe.

My father had given me a printout of travel suggestions before I left.

Do not tell people I’m American. Do not wear Nike shoes or Levi jeans or other obvious American labels. Do not give out too many details about myself. Be guarded. Trust no one.

My passport, credit card, traveler’s cheques and emergency phone numbers of U.S. embassies all over Europe were literally strapped to me in a wallet on a belt. Xeroxed copies of everything were sealed, ziplocked and tucked into the side pocket of my bag.

During the first few weeks of my trip, I charted handpicked territories up one side of Great Britain and down the other. I read abandoned English newspapers in train stalls and cafés, and I watched broadcasts of the BBC from the common rooms of youth hostels whenever there was a television. All eyes had turned toward my homeland. I became aware for the first time ever that I’d been born into something considered to be a Superpower. Mine was a nation that was leading a war. We were in the ultimate competition, and like the Olympics, we were waving our flags and rooting for victory.
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