Twenty years later: the city

I stroll through the big city like I have strolled through so many other big cities in this world, and I see the same scenes: a man walking and talking on his cell phone, a boy running to catch the bus, a mother pushing a pram, a young couple kissing in a park, kids playing football in a vacant lot, churches, traffic lights, billboards. I stand waiting with a group of people to cross the street, glance at the monuments that always show great men deep in thought, bearing the world on their shoulders.

I stroll through the big city where I do not speak the language, but what difference does that make? In big cities, nobody talks to anybody – everybody is so immersed in their problems, always in a hurry. And if they are sitting in the square, or waiting for the bus, anyone who approaches is seen as a threat. Strangers are suspect, we are taught that since we are children, and we remember that for the rest of our lives. No matter how miserable or lonely they are, however much they need to share the joy of a victory or some suffocating sadness, it is better and safer to remain silent.

Even so, I go up to someone: we do not speak a common language. I try a second person, then a third, until a man – in a hurry, like all the others – answers the question I want to ask, the answer to which I can almost always guess:

“Who is this street named after?”

“I haven’t the least idea. Are you lost?”

I explain that I know where my hotel is and thank him. In most of the streets in my home town I would give the same answer: I do not know the person to whom the homage is paid. The glory of the world is transitory, as Paul said in one of his epistles.

I stroll through the city, which is more than ten thousand kilometers from my apartment, but whose only difference is the view of the sea. In everything else, both cities resemble one another, and I wonder what I have been doing for nearly two months away from home. I decided to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela with a 90-day trip, traveling in whatever direction the wind carried me, accepting some professional engagements because that would protect me from the temptation that at this very moment seizes me with tremendous power: to go home. Have I made the wrong decision, have I been too radical? I make my way back to the hotel, once more I will pack my bags, say goodbye again to my friends, go through all the security controls at the airport, and move on to another big city where practically the same things await me.

I go into my room, turn on the computer and visit the blog that I created for this trip. My readers send their comments, and one of them seems to have guessed what I have been feeling today, because he tells the following story:

“Once upon a time there was a poor but very brave man called Ali. He worked for Ammar, a rich old merchant. One winter’s night Ammar said: “nobody can spend a night like this on top of the mountain without a blanket or food. But you need money, and if you can manage to do that you will receive a great reward. If you don’t, you will work for thirty days without pay”. Ali answered: “tomorrow I shall do this test”. But when he left the shop, he saw that a really icy wind was blowing and became scared, so he decided to ask his best friend, Aydi, if it was crazy of him to accept that bet. After reflecting a while, Aydi answered: “I shall help you. Tomorrow, when you are at the top of the mountain, look ahead. I will be on the top of the mountain next to yours, where I will spend the whole night with a bonfire lit for you. You look at the fire and think about our friendship – that will keep you warm. You will manage, and later on I shall ask you something in return.” Ali won the test, got the money, and went to his friend’s house: “You told me you wanted some payment.” Aydi grabbed him by the shoulders: “Yes, but it isn’t money. Promise that if at any time a cold wind passes through my life, you will light the fire of friendship for me.”

The reader ends his comment on the blog: “wherever you may be at this moment, thanks for having paid us a visit. When you decide to come back to our country, the fire of friendship will always be lit for you”.

And although the loneliness of the journey is still here in my soul, now I understand better what I am doing here.

The next text will be posted on the 15th of May.

P.S: Dear reader,

During this journey, that is filling my soul with very interesting experiences, one of the most magical moments comes every night when I read the comments posted on this blog. Even though I can’t answer all of you, I want you to know that it’s very important to me to know that I’m not alone on this path. Thank you so much for your support and for the words and ideas that are now engraved on my heart.

Paulo Coelho