On the trail: The kindness of strangers

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As we walked the Camino de Santiago, acts of kindness encouraged us everywhere, from directions readily offered to the occasional treat of food and drink.

One particularly tough morning, after three of the five of us sharing a room had gotten violently ill, we came upon “The Secret Garden” in a shady glade. It was the project of an Englishman and an Irish girl who had walked the Camino, met at its end, fell in love and married. Every day they put out a big cart with coffee, tea, juice, milk, fruit, pastries and granola bars for pilgrims. No charge, just a donation.

They were what is known as “Angels of the Camino.” And we met several others.

Like the “Blister Lady,” a chiropodist who visited the Roncal albergue in the village of Cizur Menor daily, offering a wealth of information on shoes, socks and foot care. While working smoothly and tirelessly to repair damaged soles and toes, she would ask her patients “to pray for me in Santiago.” She would accept no money.

Others included the older woman who went far out of her way to lead a tired and lost companion to our rendezvous hostel in Leon, and the innkeeper who drove one of our sick group members, Garry, from an isolated village to the train station in Sahagún so he could get to Leon to recuperate for a day or two. And the man on the street in Estella, who, when asked for directions to an optician’s shop, took two hikers not only to the shop but to his home for a glass a wine. He, too, had once walked the Camino.

The stories were legion, but my favorite involved a 20-something Iranian girl named Aamina. I first met her in the albergue in the town of Belorado. Her bunk was perpendicular to mine, and for hours she barely moved. When she finally got up, she surprised me by saying “excuse me” in English as she limped past. I asked what was wrong, and she explained that her foot was painfully infected. She was clearly distressed and had regretfully decided to take a bus to Burgos to find a doctor. Just watching her move was distressing. Yet the next morning I saw her limping her way to Burgos and thought, “There’s a tough kid.”

A couple of days later, while exploring the old section in Burgos, I saw Aamina waiting in line at the city albergue. She told how she had walked to Villafranca and finally took a bus to Burgos. There, crying in pain—she had huge blisters and had lost a nail on an infected toe—she limped into the main plaza, where she stood tearful and baffled. Unexpectedly someone touched her elbow and asked if she was a pilgrim. After hearing Aamina’s story the woman said, “I have a daughter about your age. You be my daughter today.”

This woman took Aamina to lunch, then to the hospital to get her feet treated. She found her a hotel room and paid for it, telling Aamina she would be back at 7 to take her to dinner. When Aamina came out of the room to meet her, she found a new pair of good walking shoes outside the door. The desk clerk said the women dropped the shoes off and left, not wanting Aamina to make a fuss. All she learned about this angel of the Camino was that she taught French in a university. The shoes fit well.

The day after my arrival in Santiago, my wife, Sue, and I ran into Aamina. We greeted her with a hug. She was aglow, and when I asked how her feet were, she gracefully swirled, hair and skirt awhirl. Hours later, after dinner, she once again greeted us on a narrow, crowded street—twirling, smiling Aamina, the happiest of pilgrims.

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