Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Me, God and Blisters on the Camino de Santiago

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cnd-0306-el-camino5. Signs in Spanish villages and towns along the Camino point the way for pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela, the cathedral site at the end of the trail. With story by Andrew Renton for CanWest Travel Package. (Photo by Andrew Renton/Special to Edmonton Journal)

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cnd-0306-el-camino5. Signs in Spanish villages and towns along the Camino point the way for pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela, the cathedral site at the end of the trail. With story by Andrew Renton for CanWest Travel Package. (Photo by Andrew Renton/Special to Edmonton Journal)

The guidebook advertises three albergues in this village, but as I walk past one, and then another, locked door, my heart drops. One more chance and it's more than 16 kilometres to the next town. Three's the charm as the door opens on the third refuge.

I find myself in a dark, cold room with a bare wooden table and a bench for me to sit as I wait. Eventually an old Spaniard arrives. He speaks no English, of course, but he smiles a wide and toothless grin.

"Cuånto cuesta?" I ask. "Diez." Ten euros is the cost for a bed, and that includes dinner. Even if I could converse with this man, I have no further questions to ask. We both know I am staying here, no matter what. I pay, and he stamps my passport -- proof that I walked this way today. He shows me to a room with 30 beds, but so far I am the only one.

I am a Peregrina, on an ancient pilgrimage in northern Spain. I am walking some 800 kilometres, from St. Jean Pied de Port, France, through the Pyrennees, the Meseta and the Galician mountains, to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. I am alone; it is March and winter in this part of Spain. There are others walking this pilgrimage, people from all corners of the world, but tonight I have taken yet another opcion (alternative route) and am alone. I am more than 500 kilometres into my journey, most of those on painfully blistered feet.

I've come here for something, to find myself, maybe to find God. Tonight, though, I am only interested in finding a place to stop for the night, a meal and a bed.

Like those of a true Gypsy, my stops are unique but familiar. I pull off my boots and leave them at the door with my hiking poles. Even the filthiest stops do not allow boots inside. I hobble like an old woman to a bunk bed, picking the one closest to the door -- easier to make an early escape in the morning should others arrive, although I'm not expecting anyone. I extract my valuables and washing supplies from my pack and immediately go looking for the shower.

Seven p.m. and I'm still alone. Looks like another quiet, peaceful evening. I'm clean and warm, sitting by a wood stove in a cosy kitchen with my iPod, texting Ray back home before he goes to work. It's morning in Canada. The Wi-Fi is excellent -- modern meeting ancient. Toothless man pours me a glass of wine and leaves.

I am explaining to Ray that I am in a creepy ghost town, alone with an old man who is plying me with wine, when suddenly he comes back with a syringe. I know immediately what he wants to do. "Love you, Ray," I text, "but toothless man has a syringe and I'm pretty sure he's about to do some surgery on me. Adios, amigo and I'll send you an email after dinner."

Sure enough, he gestures to the puss-filled, golf ball-sized blister on my left heel which makes it near to impossible to put my boot on every morning and makes my eyes tear with agony for the first and last hour of the walk each day. He is going to drain it. Why didn't I think of this? It seems like SUCH a good idea!

I voluntarily give up my foot to this stranger and he sucks the puss out for me. One, two three -- I lost count of how many syringes full of vile fluid he pulls out. I am not exaggerating the size of my wound. When he is finally done, I feel so optimistic. Tomorrow will be a sweet day. There is nothing but a pile of useless skin hanging from that cause of so much pain now.

"Infecciòn," he says and I understand immediately. "Si, si," I nod. It is important to prevent infection now that he has opened up the skin. I am prepared. I have antibiotic cream with me. I purchased it at the farmacia in Pamplona, just as the blisters were beginning to form. We smile at each other, both comfortable now.

Suddenly there is a burst of blinding pain. My entire leg is on fire. I am holding back the screams but I can't hold back the tears. Crying uncontrollably, I realize we did, in fact, not understand each other at all. He has injected my open sore with iodine.

"Perigrina, Lo siento," he murmurs and this strange, old man begins to massage my leg. He has some sort of cream and he is murmuring and massaging, and I am crying and letting him, and wondering what else he has in store for me in this lonely outpost.

I don't know how long we two sat there in front of the wood stove, me weeping and him murmuring and massaging, but eventually the pain subsided. The man got up and prepared dinner, chicken paella. We sat in silence together and ate and drank a bottle of wine and smiled at each other. When we were done he gave me an electric heater -- the first heater I'd seen on this journey. I carried it to my dorm room, still all mine, and plugged it in. I pulled three blankets off the neighbouring beds and climbed into my own sleeping bag. Within minutes I was asleep and oblivious.

The next morning, as I pulled my boot on without pain I couldn't help but smile and think, now this is going to make for a good story one day.

Maybe I've come here to find courage, or maybe joy. Last night was the courage, but today's walk is joyous without the pain. Hours later I stopped at a local bar for my café con leche and pastry and connected to the Wi-Fi they offered. There were the frantic emails from Ray. Sorry, baby, forgot all about you last night.

This is the first of five winning entries in the 2013 Winnipeg Free Press/Writers' Collective Non-Fiction Contest. It can also be found at winnipegfreepress.com.

 

TOMORROW: GREY

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 26, 2013 A13

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