To me, the Camino is a snapshot and metaphor for life. It has a beginning, an end, and a journey in between. The Camino journey provides opportunities to experience things with new eyes and it provides lessons to be applied to life. I’m stunned by the unexpected ‘lessons’ it gifts if you are open.
I didn’t expect to have the same experience this time in Spain as I did on my last two pilgrimages. I was facilitating a group of ladies, moving their backpacks forward, and preparing their lodging for the night of their arrival. I was not walking daily like they were, so I didn’t expect to be affected in the same way. Boy, was I wrong. I had a lesson that shook me to my core.
On the last day walking before our short adventure came to a close, I arrived into Granon (one of my favorite places ever, by the way). I had hauled the backpacks up the uneven stone steps into the large room where we would all spend the night next to each other on mats on the floor. I had paid the donation for the room and dinner, and gotten a schedule of events the albergue offered. There was only one thing left to do – find a bank. Every so often I had to refill my Euros as most places only accepted cash, and today was that day.
I walked across the street from the albergue to a tiny café to ask for directions to the bank. The place was packed with a line of pilgrims extending clear out the door. As I entered, I saw one lone young woman handling things. She was taking orders and ringing up sales, while another woman was in the room behind cooking and filling the food orders. What could have very easily been chaotic, was not. The young woman, who I later found out was named Irina, was smiling and completely relaxed. There was music playing that the pilgrims were either swaying back and forth to or singing along with. I had to laugh as I entered because the song “Hit the Road, Jack” was blaring. How appropriate, I thought.
I inched my way up to the left side of the counter, where Irina would come to drop off orders and call out, over the music, the person’s name. My plan was to catch her on her next trip over and quickly ask where the bank was. So, I waited.
As she came to drop off an order, she paused to pick up two dirty cups and saucers that were left there by pilgrims. I seized the opportunity and quickly blurted out one of the few phrases in Spanish I knew – “Perdon. Donde esta el banco?” (sorry, I don’t know how to put in the tilde, the little accent marks over the Spanish words, but you get the gist of it.).
She turned back around, as she had already moved to walk away, sat the cups and saucers down, and purposefully took my left hand and cupped it both of hers. She completely disregarded the long line of hungry pilgrims waiting to be served, and instead paused to look intently into my eyes. Irina then softly said to me, “Buenos dias”. If I could have disappeared, melted into my shoes, whatever, I would have. I felt so embarrassed.
In her kind loving way, she taught me a monumental lesson, ‘Don’t walk in here rudely blurting out your question. It doesn’t matter that I’m busy or that you’re busy. Stop. Look me in the eyes. Greet me first. Then ask.’
Because I was too flustered to muster up any weak form of Spanish, in English I replied, ‘I am so sorry. Buenos dias’. She just smiled, gave my hand a squeeze and replied, ‘Buenos dias’ and proceeded to tell me how to find the bank.
I humbly walked out and headed to the bank hoping I wouldn’t have to see Irina again. I didn’t want her to think, ‘There comes that rude American woman’.
As fate would have it, I DID have to see her again, several times. This was a tiny village and the only place to get anything to eat, and by now I was hungry. So, I checked my pride and walked back in. Of course, she recognized me as I entered. She looked up from her register and gave me a big smile. Over the crowd and from the back of the café, I playfully called out to her, ‘Buenos dias’. She greeted me back and we both laughed.
I’ve lovingly thought back several times since then about Irina and the precious lesson she taught me. I realized how many times I rush through life not even noticing the people I pass during my day. The opportunities I miss, and sometimes even avoid, to say hello or give a passing stranger a smile. What am I doing that’s so important? Where am I going that I don’t have five seconds to pause to acknowledge another human being?
I’ve returned home now and yesterday I was hiking our familiar Pinnacle Peak with my husband, Mike. He was ahead and I was going at my own pace as we always do. As I was coming back down, a young man approached me carrying his little boy (maybe a year old) on his backpack. Even though he was still a little way away, I could see this sweet little boy peeking around his daddy’s back waving like crazy at me. I smiled and waved back to him, and we high-fived as we passed.
Again, I was reminded what it means to be seen by another person. To be acknowledged and smiled at. I hope I remember that lesson for the rest of my life.
The familiar phrase is, “The Camino provides”. And, yes, it does. But if we’re open, those lessons can also come at home or hiking a mountain by your house.