Everyone who walked the Camino de Santiago before told me:
“You’ll meet so many great people along the way!”
Even if they hadn’t walked it themselves, invariably they knew someone who had (a friend, a cousin, a neighbour, or a friend’s cousin’s neighbour….!) who said the same thing.
I did meet many great people on my Camino journey. Quite literally, I met some of the most generous, interesting, and inspiring people along the way – the kind of people I just wouldn’t have met if I’d stayed at my desk job and been sensible 🙂
Thinking back to the night I spent in the small village of Azofra, I’m reminded of one particular lady…
She and I met on the road out of Navarette days earlier (remember, when I couldn’t find the yellow arrows and I backtracked several times before a group of Koreans kindly pointed me in the right direction?)
Back then, this lady and I walked beside each other in the early morning darkness, with the tap-tap-tap of our walking poles on the gravel trail. She spoke softly and apologised for her poor English every few minutes, but the woman was the very epitome of goodness and grace on that cold morning.
Through her, I learned that some 20% of the population in South Korea are Catholic. I was equally surprised to find her spoken English was so good that we had plenty of things to chat (and giggle) about. Jokes are a real test of fluency in any language and she was delightful company.
She recognised very little of the food presented to her each day, given that Camino cuisine is rather Spanish-centric. She wasn’t used to eating so much baguette, and had never encountered chorizo and Iberian ham before, but surprised me by saying she enjoyed the food along the way. Rice cakes could be found in occasional supermarkets and eggs, it seems, are the same everywhere 🙂
She was in her mid-40s and worked as a housekeeper. Her husband was a small-scale farmer who grew rice and vegetables, and also worked for an NGO organisation to ensure fair conditions for other farmers. She explained they had a very modest income and together, they had two sons who were in high school. No doubt, but those two boys were their pride and joy. Quite simply, she beamed when she spoke about them. In the early morning light, surrounded by farmland and trees, she oozed softness and love when she spoke about her sons. She hoped they’d have great lives of opportunity and prosperity. She hoped they’d never have to struggle in the way she and her husband had.
Listening to her made me choke up a little.
And then she told me about how she came to be standing there that morning…
Some years earlier, she saw a TV programme about the Camino (apparently there was a very famous one that most South Koreans quote as their inspiration for walking). She hadn’t heard of this old pilgrimage route before but after watching the TV show she just knew:
I want to walk that.
But, she and her husband had a modest income and two sons to raise – they didn’t have the money for such an extravagant trip. Travelling from South Korea to Europe is expensive and that was only the start of the bill: there were weeks’ worth of living expenses to finance, too. Her family could see that the Camino tugged at her heart-strings but the sons were still in school. It would be several more years, if ever, before she and her husband would have spare cash for such a journey.
The Camino could wait.
But just as she wished a life of goodness for her sons, they wished that her life, too, would be filled with dreams-come-true.
The two young men took up part-time jobs and without her ever knowing it, joined her husband in secretly saving for her trip.
Quietly, steadily, they saved the money to give this woman a once-in-a-lifetime gift.
They surprised her and in the loveliest way possible, they sent her packing!
They wanted her to know that although they were thousands of miles away, they loved her with all their hearts. They prioritised her dream, knowing that she never would. They wanted for her dream to come true.
She had travelled alone to Spain without knowing a word of Spanish, and had since met other Korean pilgrims with whom she walked. The morning she and I met, we kept pace with each other and swapped stories about our lives, our generous husbands, and what we hoped to get out of our time walking the Camino. We both choked up when she spoke about her gratitude to her family. It was hard not to.
She married a good man and was raising two more. Together, they had seen to it that this good woman had a chance to make her dream come true.
Their generosity and selflessness buoyed her all the way to Spain, and every day she walked Camino. For her, it didn’t matter how sore she got, how tired she got, how little of the food or language she understood – she felt blessed to be there at all. Everything was a bonus. She soaked up every micro second for the gift that it was.
Pretty special, eh?