Listening and talking are daily components of the Camino. The conversations may include lengthy life-stories, or the conversations may comprise only two sentences passing along information. The conversations may last only a minute or they may be extended over one or two weeks as individuals meet and re-meet each other along the Way.
I never learned the first name of the retired 66 year-old woman from Holland. Starting in St. Jean Pied de Port, she was hiking the Camino while her husband was “caravanning” from Holland and would eventually join her in Santiago de Compostela.
Her first marriage ended in divorce. Her first husband was a long-haul trucker who spent most of each month driving throughout Europe. When he did return to Holland, he frequented cafes as a “cafe-man,” which meant that he didn’t spend time with her or with their children. After actually seeing him with another woman, she said: “‘Enough of him!’ To the delight of my family and friends.”
Eventually, she lived with another man who during their first eleven years together asked every few months: “Can we get married?” Because of their loving relationship and his spending more time with her two children than their own biological father, she finally agreed to marriage. She exclaimed: “I love him. My sons adore him! I need to marry him.” During all these years, what was her vocation? For twenty-five years, she was a nurse caring for Alzheimer’s patients.
I met Jan, a tall Belgian in his 50’s, in Terradillos de los Templarlos and Sahagun. Jan has worked as a social worker for years as well as volunteering with Boy Scouts for 21 years. “I wanted to provide a good moral example for youth….teach them responsibility, challenge them in positive ways, create a sense of self-confidence.”
Although he didn’t complain, Jan had had a difficult life. When he was 33 and serving an NGO in Ghana, he had a severe back injury. The NGO made arrangements to fly him home as an economy class passenger. Fortunately, his sister who was a nurse intervened. She told him: “No way! You could be permanently disabled with your injury.” Despite the NGO’s insurance company protestations, his NGO and he insisted. Eventually, he flew back to Europe lying on a stretcher that replaced six economy seats.
Although he recovered from this back injury, other serious health problems hit him. In 2011, his feet began to swell and become extremely painful. His doctor said: “Just take some over-the-counter pain medication. That should help.” When the situation progressed to the point that he could only crawl to the bathroom, he knew that the pain pills weren’t enough and went to a hospital’s emergency room. Although he was given stronger medication, he continued to get worse. Eventually another doctor diagnosed his problem: he had a bacterial infection that needed immediate attention or it could spread to his heart and kill him. His two weeks in the hospital with the right antibiotics helped; however, a persistent pain has remained in his feet.
He is walking the Camino for the second time. His first status as a peregrino occurred two years ago. During this first Camino, he talked to his feet each morning: “We are going to walk 10 kilometers today. When we finish you can rest for as many hours as you want.” Some days his feet cooperated; other days his feet rebelled and he only did 4-5 kilometers. He quietly said: “I learned to trust myself again because of the Camino.” While I’ve heard of individuals talking to themselves, I’ve never heard of an individual talking to his feet But it helped him!
This year, he returned to the Camino to do even more. “The first week is always physical; the second week is always psychological. I hope this week will be spiritual.” He continued: “The government has slashed budgets so I’m without a job now. I am seeking insight for my life during this trip.”
Later, I talked with Iago and Gilbert, two other retired men from Belgium. For a week, I noticed them in different restaurants and albergues. Eventually, we talked. Two months earlier, they began their Camino. Honoring the Camino adage that “the Camino starts at your doorstep,” the two men left their small Belgian village. They were committed to walking 2500 kilometers from that village to Santiago de Compostela to raise money for their small village school. Family, friends, villagers, and even strangers contributed over 12,500 euros to their efforts. Besides this public purpose, Iago offered a more private purpose. “My daughter-in-law has a brain tumor. Along with my son and their two small children, I have a lot of praying to do.”
I also met and talked with Bish and Roco. Bish was a young man originally from Cyprus who worked in London; Roco is in his early 60’s from New York. I could tell by the way he proudly sang Sinatra’s “New York, New York!” that he was a jovial, fun-loving man. As the three of us walked, Bish sadly told us his story. “My grandfather died from a stroke two days before I began the Camino. While I was visiting him a couple of days earlier, he got out of his chair and fell. I tried to catch him, but I couldn’t. Since I had been planning this trip for a year, and since my grandfather’s burial was in Cyprus, my parents and family said to follow through walking the Camino. Here I am. This walking stick that I use was his walking stick.” Bish didn’t stop there, though. “I’ve felt guilty ever since the day he died. I wondered whether or not he would have died if I had caught him.”
Roco and I both listened. Roco spoke up. “Bish, there was nothing that you probably could have done. There are two types of strokes. Given what you’ve said, your grandfather probably had a bleeding stroke. The fatal damage had been done before he even fell.” As Bish looked at him, Roco continued. “I’m a surgeon who works at a large hospital. There was probably nothing you could have done.” Bish was visibly relieved. “That helps so much.”
The Camino is about meeting other individuals. Sometimes I heard their stories; often times I didn’t hear a person’s story but I knew that each person had one.