The Camino is the community of people, total strangers, who come to look after and care for one another as they all move toward Santiago. One way this was manifest was the Camino grapevine. People talked about one another, never maliciously (in my experience), but out of concern and curiosity. Remarkable and funny stories about fellow travelers were traded like currency. To get someone’s story was a treasure.
The whole lot of us met up in Burgos – Marisela, Katrin, Muriel, Lies (leese), Meg, and me – mostly by happy coincidence. We shared a fun dinner in the plaza with a view of the huge cathedral as our backdrop. Wine and tapas and paella were passed around. We were honoring both Marisela and Lies who were both leaving the Camino for various reasons (both hoped to return). It felt like a warm sorority of women from all over the world and I adored being a part of it.
Not long after, I found myself observing the contrast of walking by myself. I didn’t dislike it, I just noticed the difference. Now alone, I found myself feeling physically quite miserable – sore throat, painful ears, a cough, and a deep need for sleep. After finding an albergue, I went to the farmacia for help. All of the products are kept in back, so you simply talk to the person at the desk and they recommend what you need. The kind woman who assisted me turned out to be a doctor (this is apparently quite common in Spain).
She patiently gave me a complete verbal check-up: Oidos? Garganta? Fievre? Un tos? Prodoctivo o no? I couldn’t believe I understood every word and replied coherently in Spanish. She made her assessment. “Truthfully,” she told me. “I’m very concerned about your ears. I think you have an infection.” I let this sink in. Me. An ear infection on the Camino. I was stunned.
“I’m going to give you some antibiotics to help with the ears and the fever. I also have some pastilles that have cough medicine in them. They are not candy,” she cautioned. She held up a huge bottle of cough syrup. “They have the same medicine as the liquid, but the pastilles are much lighter to carry.” I teared up. This lovely person knew the challenges of being a pilgrim. Weight is everything. What a Camino angel.
After giving me instructions on when to take the medicines, I headed off to the albergue for a rocky night’s sleep. I felt bad for keeping all the other pilgrims awake with my coughing, so I mostly laid awake trying to breathe evenly.
In the morning, I couldn’t decide what to do. I still felt rotten. Should I head off like the others? Should I stay put for a night and try to score a private room? I sat up and, almost robotically, found myself putting on my socks. One at a time. Then my bra and shirt. “Looks like I’m getting dressed to leave,” I thought. Pants went on and I stood up. “Let’s just take it a step at a time and see how I do.”
Still feeling feverish, I wobbled my way down the cobbled streets, following the yellow arrows.
A lot happened that day. A lovely walk. Beautiful weather. Stunning scenery. A brief but inspiring conversation with a woman in her late 70s on her second Camino. The terrain was hilly, but not challenging. I had filled my water bottle full, but walking with a fever made me drain it much more quickly than usual. The one fountain I encountered had a sign that read “no guarantee of sanitary.” I didn’t want to add vomiting to my list of ailments and passed it up.
So there I was, on a long stretch alone with a fever and no water. When I think back on it, I have to shake my head. You might wonder what I was thinking, but I really wasn’t. I was a pilgrim. My job was to walk. I was on automatic pilot.
And I know I was on automatic pilot, just short of a zombie-like state, when I saw a mirage.
Wait, no. “Is that a mirage,” I asked myself.
Just ahead of me on a high, flat plain was a cluster of tall trees in bud and beneath them a large brick building in disrepair. Near it, I could see large, bright scarves waving in the breeze.
“What is that?” I wondered as I walked closer. Was I hallucinating?
As I approached, I could see prayer flags draped from the tree limbs. People were hanging out in little wooden cubbies built on to the front of the building with scarves draped from them and colorful pillows scattered about. Closer still, I saw two women cavorting about in bikini tops and shorts near a very, very tan man in blue swim trunks.
Now I knew that I was seeing things.
Then I spied something that attracted all my attention. In front of it all there was a small white cart with a roof on it, with fresh fruits, bottled juices, and snacks. Like the kinds I buy at the health food store in my town. “Donativo” the sign read, with a tiny white box for donations. I could not have been more astonished.
The tan man flashed a huge smile in my direction. I was out of words. Finding a place like this (what was it?) in the middle of nowhere.
“Que es eso?” I asked, almost yelling.
Grinning, the man put his hands in the air and shouted grandly, “Es un MIRRRACULO!!!”
I laughed at the truth of his statement. Out of water and out of my mind, I was swept up in the goodness of this place. I drank organic juices. David found out I was American and told me enthusiastically, “We have peanut butter!”
Recovering, I sat snacking in one of the cubbies in the shade when a friendly Canadian woman struck up a conversation with me. When she learned of my health, she asked me, “What’s it like to walk with a fever?”
“Hot.” I replied.
She proceeded to serenade me with the song Fever (in the morning, fever all through the night) which made me smile. I was still really out of it, but was perking up with the juices and snacks.
As I sat, I observed how David greeted pilgrims as they walked saying things like, “What a beautiful smile you have! Your face lights up the whole day! Your heart is like the sun beams! Welcome to paradise!” He wasn’t yelling at them, he was exclaiming to each person individually. No one was missed. And their varying reactions were amusing. Some slunk by, hoping to escape unnoticed. Others hugged him on the spot. It was a kind of litmus test for trust.
Before I left, I put a large note in the donation box, thanked David with a hug and asked him to sign my pilgrim passport. Another Camino angel in spades. (I won’t reveal its location so you experience the surprise if you walk the Camino.) I made my way to the next town and treated myself to a 4-star hotel for two days. I got well again, in spirit as much as in body.
Here’s the funny part, to take us all the way back to the Camino grapevine.
A week later, I was having dinner with some new pilgrims and I overheard a story that sounded familiar. “I heard about a woman,” a friendly Australian told me. “She was walking the Camino with a fever – and she was out of water, poor thing! Can you imagine?”
Yes. Yes, I can. It’s not as bad as you think.