Thursday, October 14, 2010

With a Little Help

When I started walking the Camino, I was thinking about myself. It all depended on me. Was I strong enough to walk with my pack and all my possessions on my back? Could I walk that far, for that long? Would my feet hold up under the strain? And what about my back? Could I find my way in another country and another language? More than once I thought I'd have to quit.

On the meseta, I thought it sounded like a good idea to walk on part of the old Camino - the Roman road. So much history, and I'd seen some portion of intact Roman road earlier on. The romance of it lured me. Turns out it was about 25 kilometers of walking with only one village en route, early on. And, instead of large flat stones leading off towards the horizon, it was dirt, with fist-sized round boulders unevenly distributed across its surface. My ankles and knees twisted constantly, barely keeping me walking upright. By the time I'd gone about 16 kilometers I was tired. By the time I went another 3 I was exhausted. I could barely walk and I was checking out the farmers' fields to see if I could put my sleeping bag down in them for the night. I really wasn't sure I could make it. It was hot and dry and I hadn't seen anyone else for quite a while. There weren't many others to begin with. Apparently most of the other pilgrims were smarter than I am and had taken the new route.

I sat by the side of the trail in the dirt (there was nowhere else) and cried. Then I pulled myself together and walked a bit further. My feet burned in my boots, chafing, despite the greasing I'd given them that morning. I stopped again and tried rubbing them with my anti-blister stick, planning how I'd book the next flight home. I was in intense pain and it was just too much.

A man came by and said something in a language I didn't recognize. Then he asked, in English, if I was alright. I lied and said I was. I should mention here that I am very bad at asking for help. And besides, he couldn't carry both our packs, so what point was there in telling the truth?

I am also apparently a very bad liar. Unconvinced, he stuck around, asking if I had enough sunscreen, then enough water. When he finally started walking again, I followed, though I couldn't keep up to his pace. He seemed to stop ahead frequently, to adjust his poles, his pack, or to take a picture. And he kept looking back to see if I was there. All the way to the next town and the alburgue, he watched over me from a distance. When I thanked him later, he said it was, "no problem".

Another time, only a few days from the finish, I hurried to the next big town where there was an ATM. I had about one day's worth of cash left and most of the small towns along the way don't have banks and don't take credit cards. Neither of my bank cards worked due, it later turned out, to some system-wide technical issues my bank was having. At the time though, it was the middle of the night back home and I had no idea why I couldn't get at my money. Alone and broke in Spain was not good. Panicked, I stood by the church, wondering what to do.

Some Spanish people I'd walked with a few times came by and invited me to join them. I told them I thought I'd have to stay and explained what had happened. I was afraid I'd have to stop walking the Camino, at least temporarily. My friends immediately insisted on lending me 50 euros, with more if I needed it. I walked with them and they bought me dinner, helped me contact my bank and send a message home from a town which consisted of only a bar and the alburgue. They got me a bed and breakfast and calmed my fears. All this after having only spent a few days walking with me and chatting. I was so touched at their trust and kindness and was very happy when I could repay them.

But my 'Camino angels' are not so unusual here. Everyone on this pilgrimage helps each other, relative strangers from dozens of countries who are unlikely to ever see each other again once the walk is over. I've watched people bathe and bandage someone's badly blistered feet, bind a stranger's sore knee using their own tensor bandage, share their food, provide a shoulder to cry on, loan out their phone, and give each other clothes.

The Camino reminds me that we all depend on one another and that you don't have to go through difficulties alone. A good lesson, I think, as I walked to raise funds for cancer patients who are at a time in their lives when they can definitely use a friend.

If you can, please donate to my Camino Against Cancer @

Note: I finished my walk and arrived in Santiago de Compostela today!

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