“Perfect” Strangers

When I wake up from the nap, the fever is still there. Looking around, I notice that in between the time when I passed out and now, all the ninety bunk beds in the room have filled up. People are quietly going about their business, reading, writing, washing clothes, and resting their tired muscles. I don’t recognize anyone. Most of the familiar faces seem to have moved on. 

Bedroom for close to a 100 people
I try to reach over and grab my water bottle from the foot of my bed when a faintly familiar man passes by. He tries to find out what’s wrong but doesn’t understand what I’m saying. He leaves and comes back with a big Hungarian man who speaks fluent English; very quickly, the Hungarian man -- Istvan -- is convinced that I have what he had and strongly advises me to go to the doctor.  It turns out that he got caught up in the cold weather without proper winter gear and got a really bad fever and chills and almost died. On hearing his story, I gather enough strength to eat so I can take medicine. Istvan kindly hands me some medicine along with a quarter of a baguette from my bag on the floor.  A German lady offers me her banana.  Just moments ago, I felt like I didn’t know anyone and a bit lost in a crowd of ninety people -- but here I am.  If I didn’t get up to grab my water at the exact same time that the familiar man was passing by – I wonder if anyone would’ve even noticed that I was really sick. I eat and quickly slide back into my sleeping bag on the top bunk, covered from head to toe.  Because the high fever didn't subside, I wake up once again to take a Tylenol and then sleep through the rest of the night.

On Istvan’s suggestion, I was planning on asking the Refugio if I can spend an extra day. But to my surprise, I woke up at six in the morning feeling rejuvenated, ready to hit the road and have things go back to “normal”. Taking a peak outside at the rain, I knew I would need to wear a pancho; And I promised myself that I would walk slowly without overexerting myself. It was a beautiful walk. When I stopped to take a break at a café, I ran into Istavan again.  Almost flabbergasted to see me walking, he greeted me with a big smile. “We would’ve left you for dead,” he joked.  Every time I took a break, I was greeted with friendly smiles from people I’d never met.  "It’s a Camino miracle," someone said.

That same evening, when I couldn’t stop coughing, I got an impromptu physical from a man sitting across from me at dinner -- who happened to be a doctor. His final diagnosis was that I would live and prescribed me, “Vegetable Juice”. Rather serendipitously, I got back to my bed after dinner to find that another pilgrim had left a bottle of vegetable juice on my bed!  It took me two days to figure out who it was from. I felt like the whole universe was conspiring to help me. The kindness was coming in from all sides. It was almost too much to take in and I couldn’t wait to get better so I could start paying forward the kindness of strangers. 

The Camino has many lessons to teach: we are never given more than what we can handle. If it appears that we can’t handle something at first, it only means that we need to sharpen the tools that are already at our disposal. And indeed miracles do happen every day -- we just need to have the eyes to see them. 


What Part of Us Suffers?

My plan was to walk about twenty-five kilometers today but when I stop in Najera for a cup coffee, I have my doubts. After setting my pack down, it’s obvious that I’m feeling more than the usual soreness and my knees aren’t the only thing hurting today. The whole body is starting to ache and the fever is rising quickly. The older Spanish men sitting on bar stools watch as I struggle to go up the three stairs and out the Café. Once I’m back on the street, it’s obvious even to me that I simply won't be able to walk the thirteen kilometers to Santo Domingo, where there’s a place to stay. It’s time to surrender to this moment. Painstakingly, I walk about a kilometer to the Refugio in Najera, feeling fortunate that there’s a place to stay nearby. All I want to do is to find a bed and slip into my warm sleeping bag. 

At the door of the Refugio, however, there’s a schedule that shows that it opens at 3pm, and it is now 10:30am. My options for the next four and a half hours seem pretty grim. I can lie on the bench outside, but it’s really cold outside.  Or I can walk thirteen kilometers to the next Refugio and keep the body warm.  Given that my body can barely move, I decide on the only thing I’m capable of doing -- stay. There are two others in a similar predicament waiting for the doors to open: a man with a cast on his foot who only speaks Spanish and a lady with bad blisters from the last Refugio who only speaks German. She recognizes me and we exchange sympathetic glances. Feeling the chills, I slowly walk over to a bench. Using my backpack as a pillow, I lie down and try to rest my eyes.

People come and go as I lay there, almost motionless. My body is completely drained, but the mind is surprisingly more alert than ever. There’s something about suffering that jolts us into the present moment. What part of me is suffering?  I wonder. The high fever is warming the entire body, the aching pains are mostly in my back but when I try to watch it – it’s all just a physical sensation. The body is hurting, but there’s no suffering in the mind.  For a change, there’s no story, no narrative for my mind to grab onto. Ego is subdued, creating total acceptance of the moment. Mental noise is replaced with clarity. 

Physically unable to smile or say hello to the people passing by, my mind wanders to a metal Cross I saw this morning in a field. It was different than all other Crosses I’ve ever seen. Perhaps it was my own physical circumstances that made me relate to it more. What state of mind must Jesus Christ have been in to wish forgiveness for those that were physically hurting him? You have to be drowning in compassion for others. I’m not a religious person per se but every time I think of that cross, I get all choked up. When I’m not feeling well, I just want to find a bed, much less think about blessing those who are creating suffering for me. How far am I from having even a pinch of that compassion for the world?  It's a humbling thought, as my heart overflows with gratitude for all the people in the world that have served humanity so selflessly.

As I lie bundled up in a scarf, gloves, and a hat, it starts to drizzle. Not exactly the best timing for my situation but I accept the water drops without cursing it. Most of the last two weeks have been very cloudy.  Across the park, birds fly in circles across the clear blue sky. As soon as it starts to rain, though, I look up and the Sun comes out and warms my body. It happens several times and I get a strong feeling that nature is keeping a close eye on me. Ultimately, Nature is constantly eavesdropping on all of us -- and if we tune into it, perhaps we can co-create the reality in far greater capacities than we might've imagined. Without a doubt, I feel the connection with Nature. In this moment, when my body is in deep pain, I feel a lot of joy and beauty.

What part of me suffers?  I wonder again.  The part that suffers is the part that is disconnected from life.  When we are connected, the body is merely an instrument to compassionately express Nature's interconnected-ness.