Day 8 – A Real Pilgrim.
A few days earlier as I was climbing that soul-sucking hill into Navarrete, a pilgrim carrying a heavy load passed me. I can’t tell you what this does to my male ego when a 71 year old woman carrying a heavy load passes. All afternoon we had been passing each other, then resting, and finally when we both stopped, she offered me half of a fresh apricot she had carried all day.
When I eat with The Marys at the Pilgrim’s Meal that night, MaryAnna said “I think she is a real pilgrim.” A raised eyebrow and questioning look (because I very much felt like a real pilgrim), she continued. “I think she is on Camino with something very heavy,” and I’m thinking about her ill-fitting backpack, laptop bag slung over her shoulder, and plastic bag full of stuff. Bag lady. “No, I’m serious, I think she is walking The Way to seek penance, or receive healing, or absolution. She is walking the way to right something with God.” MaryAnna is very wise, and sees things I miss.
Yesterday I started early and alone but before the first town, The Marys caught up, and MaryAnna peals off to walk with Tzika, who walks slower. When we all stop for lunch and Tzika continues her steady plod. MaryAnna can hardly contain herself, “She is a real pilgrim!” Tzika is Bulgarian, and has limited English language skills. For the last several days we have been playing pilgrim hopscotch with hand signals and smiles. But MaryAnna and her share German, and she tells us that Tzika’s 33 year old daughter died, and she is in deep grief, and wonders if she will be able to make it to Santiago.
They explore the possibilities, MaryAnna suggesting a bus to bypass the hard, or lonely places, but Tzika says, “That would not be the way.” Her journey has as much to do with where she is going as the work God is doing in her as she gets there.
Part of what worries us is her backpack, and her bags of stuff she carries. The Marys and I begin to hatch a plan about getting her a proper backpack to replace her daypack, wondering if she would allow us. If we can find one large enough maybe she could put everything inside and stop having to carry all those bags. But town after village we pass and look for a store but the search comes to nothing. I worry at some point we’ll get separated, so to do this, there is an urgency.
The Camino is like a scavenger hunt crossed with a road rally. There is a route, and it is sparsely well marked, and one of the life lessons I hope I’ve learned is when I’m not sure of the way, to stop and look for the yellow arrow, or Camino sign, or those who have gone before me.
The Camino knows the way.
But I have to watch for the sign and not sacrifice forward progress for uncertainty. There is a way…and it is well marked, even if I can’t see it.
Much of this morning I walk with Tzika and through proximity, feel the grief radiating from her. I get into my own grief for my late mother-in-law, Nelda, who died a few days before this last presidential election. Though I’ve helped organize her two funerals. I’m not sure I have finished my grief. Getting entangled in Tzika’s and her slower pace allows me time and the memories flood over me.
As we approach Santa Domingo, I feel myself losing it. I don’t know if it’s the slower pace, or the work of grief, but I’m wondering how much more I have in me today. “Lord, I pray, “if you’ll just provide a store with a backpack for Tzika, I promise I’ll make it happen.” The town looks small, too small to have much hope of finding what I’ve prayed for, but 20 minutes later I’ve fallen well behind Tzika and I walk past a “Keen Footware” store and inside they have quality backpacks. I run ahead and find Tzika stopped for a coffee, and I try to explain in hand motions, what I need to do. She is willing to come, but reluctant.
An hour later she has a new backpack, and I watch her pack it. As we set out together I notice she has not packed the laptop bag, or plastic bag though I know there was room inside. I tell the story to the Marys who surprisingly have stayed in this town too, though it was only 13km (8mi) from last night. Neither of us make the progress we expected today.
MaryAnna says “There are some burdens we can’t help others with,” and I guess that is Tzika’s story. These burdens though physical, represent something. I expect we will continue to play pilgrim hopscotch over the next 500km(300 miles), and so I’ll be watching those bags.
I check into a convent, or the old convent building, the nuns have a nice new building, and we stay in the historic building. As I’m going to vespers I see a person with dark skin. I’ve been counting them since coming to Spain and she is number five. I smile a big smile, happy to see her face.
“Hey, I know you,” I hear in a soft Texas accent. I’m shocked, not expecting to hear a voice from home. “Where you from?” she says, crossing the street to stop me.
“I, I, I live in Ghana…” I stammer.
“No, no, before that…you’re from Austin…you’re Steve Buchele!” OK, this is getting weird. I still can’t place her face, I’m searching my Ghana database, and coming up dry. Wrong database.
“I’m J.S.” I remember her from Seminary, she was one of our class’ rising stars. Everybody knew her and she went on to do great things. We catch up and share our reasons for Camino, and then part ways, and I promise to pray for her, and not share her journey.
After vespers, and a delicious Pilgrim Meal in the new convent, I head back to a restful night, not knowing that in the morning, I’ll have to break out via the fire escape as the sisters have locked us in for the night. For only 13km, it has been a busy day.