We all know the old saying that goes something like ‘I was sad because I had no shoes. Until I met a man who had no feet.’ Yesterday was that day for me.
I walked into Najera. A beautiful little town on a river, bookended by red sandstone cliffs. It was a short day by Camino standards but I wanted to stay in this town. It had been a long, solitary walk from Navarette. Punctuated with only one other pilgrim. A Buddhist monk. I’m not kidding. We sort of circled each other, never speaking. He walked faster than I but he would stop often to sit calmly and I would pass him. Then he would catch up to me, whizzing by, only to stop again. I always greeted him with a wave as he sat there. He just smiled at me each time with a big open hearted grin. As if we knew each other. But before today I have never seen this man before in my life. Such is my very unusual Camino this time.
We made it to Najera at the same time. He must be staying somewhere here. When we arrived at the center of town, I saw him walk across the stone bridge, then divert from the Camino, heading in the opposite direction from the arrows directing us to turn right. I watched him walk down to the other side of the river, then he vanished. And if I hadn’t been observing him I would never have seen the group of Pilgrims gathered over there. I was hungry and thirsty and they were standing in front of the only place serving food at that time of day.
Walking up, I introduced myself. ‘Did you guys see that Buddhist monk that just walked by here?’ But none of them had. A few Americans in the group from California. But there was another man there. Traveling alone. The group dispersed and I found myself alone with him, eating and enjoying a coffee. We exchanged some pleasantries about the walk. Some of our challenges. And then he told me why he was really walking.
Most of you know I had a rough go with Covid. And a hard time for more than a year afterward. But as this man told me his story I quickly realized that what I have been through pales in comparison. And this man is a real hero. A veteran of wars against an invisible enemy.
He is a person that saved countless lives during the pandemic in his country. One who put people, the sickest people, on lung and heart bypass machines when it was their last hope, and he never slept. For months. Every day, all day, he worked. And the patients kept coming. There was no end in sight. The volume of death was too much.
One day he awoke and he could no longer move his legs. He had lost his hearing and couldn’t see. His body had shut down after being pushed beyond exhaustion. And his mind, too. Protecting him from the horrors that he was witnessing on an hourly basis. PTSD in the extreme. He could no longer function, not just in his job but in his life. And then his partner informed him he could not handle his boyfriend’s collapse. And my new friend found himself alone. His house was sold as they had purchased it together, and in the midst of this crisis he was forced to move somewhere else. This person, who had saved so many in the midst of the darkest days of the pandemic was totally alone, and totally broken.
I was moved to tears hearing his story. Mine sounds so quaint and unworthy by comparison. I didn’t bother to even share it.
His Camino is about coming back from his experience. Its about finding himself again. He showed me his hearing aids he must now wear at the age of 40. And the physical challenges he still deals with. But he is getting stronger each day on this walk. Convinced it is his miracle. And he might just be right. I hope so.
After our chat he persuaded me to stay in the same Albergue. And what an amazing place of community it turned out to be. Filled with positive energy and run by a joyful French host. The Pilgrims were the chillest, coolest so far. And I had a safe private room.
You might think it’s weird to say, but somehow I think that Buddhist monk had something to do with leading me to my new friend, and that Albergue. He’s nowhere to be seen, of course, but I have this odd feeling that maybe this is what that big smile on the trail was all about.