On the second-to-last day of our hike to Santiago, Christina and I weren’t exactly on the top of our game. While Christina’s physical health was wavering, my mental stability and patience with the trip fell more and more each minute. I was growing weary of the whole ordeal, which is not where you want to be at the end of a spiritual pilgrimage.
After failing to find a bed in the cozy private hostel nearby, we ran across the speedy highway to a small “village,” made up of one bar, the public hostel, and a gazebo with a Jesus-looking man selling books (if the historically inaccurate white Jesus from your American Catholic School textbook aged a few years and sold books on the side of a dirt road).
He waved with kind eyes and his yellow lab came out to greet us. This made me laugh a bit, as I had been making a “joke” in my head for about a week of wanting to find Jesus. Not in the sense that many Christians mean–though I deeply respect their beliefs, I do not share them. Instead, this Buddhist on a Catholic pilgrimage was slowly turning into a grouchy insomniac with a bruised bone on the top of her foot that just wanted to go home. And so, I had spent the past week desperately longing to rediscover the human connection millions had found in these little Camino villages, churches, and roads, but had somehow eluded me the closer we got to our destination.
We waved back and walked down the road to a bench outside the albergue (Camino word for hostel), as it did not open until 1. It was noon. As Christina tried to prop herself up and sleep a bit, her obvious fever growing, giant Mack trucks flew by us approximately every 10 seconds. Hoards of happy, energized pilgrims that had only just started their walk a week prior, bounced on to the next city, waving as they passed and looking with an air of “You alright?” each time.
I offered to go get us some food at the bar and passed Jesus and his dog on my way. We only shared a bit of Spanish, so I waved and he laughed and smiled, and went about playing his guitar. I ordered some cheese sandwiches and decided I would return for a beer later, even if it was to toast the end of our strange journey on my own. A sweet little four-year-old knelt on the bar stool next to her parents, playing with the pilgrim’s passport stamp, stamping everything she could find–the beer taps, the stools, her dad. I gave her a little wave and paid the bartender for my sandwiches.
Passing Jesus again, we laughed again (the universal language) and I sat with Christina as we tried to eat. Eventually, the albergue opened and Christina fell right to sleep–which is lucky as we seemed to be located in the universal hub for loud passing trucks.
Hours passed painfully slow, as I knew the end was just on the other side of one more half-night of snore-filled sleep. I wandered back and forth between the dining room and the kitchen to write or refill my water bottle. In the kitchen, however, was a panicking bee, desperately trying to find the exit. I opened up the big french windows as wide as they’d go, but with each passing truck, they’d slam shut again. I tried to shoo him out but had no luck, and I was afraid he’d start seeing me as his captor. I went back to the dining room to write.
I wrote for as long as I could stand it, occasionally visiting the bee who was getting more and more discouraged by his failure to escape. Damnit, how do I save you without getting stung? I thought. Again, frustrated, I left and went upstairs. I tried to nap, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the darn bee. In my obsession, I started to get more and more angry at my confusion with this strange hike. Where had my enthusiasm gone that I had on day one? I saw beautiful, inexplicable things on this trip, so why did I feel so lost and upset?
I got out of bed and went back down to the kitchen with my journal. Now, the bee was laying on the ground, barely moving. Crap, I missed my chance. But he wasn’t dead, he was just laying there like he’d tired himself out and was running out of ideas and motivation to save himself. Grabbing my journal, I ripped out a back page and opened the french windows one more time. At an arm’s length, I shuffled the bee onto the paper and delicately lifted him toward the sun. He didn’t put up a fight, he barely noticed me.
And then I moved him out the window, into the air, and to my extreme surprise, he stood up, walked ahead a few steps, and flew strongly into the sun with almost comical enthusiasm. Across the highway were endless fields and Galician mountains, and he zoomed right in their direction. Now I was ready for that beer.
I spent about an hour sitting with some new friends in our hostel: a father and his son from Mexico, two women from southern Spain, and another guy from Columbia. They were kind and I tried to keep up with their Spanish. Eventually, I went out front for my last nightly call with Ben before I reached Santiago.
The moment he picked up, I let loose. I was angry, I wasn’t having any lofty spiritual breakthroughs, figuring myself out, or feeling good about my slowly crumbling body. I felt alone, as if I was missing out on something that everyone else seemed to get. And most importantly, I still couldn’t answer everyone’s question, “Why did you come back?”
“I don’t know, stop asking me!” I yelled into the phone.
“I’m not the one asking you, honey,” poor Ben reminded me.
“I know, I’m sorry, I’m just worn out.”
In the distance, Jesus was packing up his van of books for the night. The sun was showing signs of setting, though it wouldn’t do so until about 10pm. Without shared language, I’m sure he still got the gist of my ranting phone call. With Ben still on the line, I started back toward the hostel, when Jesus held up his hand with one finger, signaling me to hold on a second. I wasn’t in the mood to have a chat about God, so I wiggled my phone to signal that I was on a call, but patted my heart and smiled to wish him well.
But his sweet yellow lab wouldn’t let me pass. The dog circled around my legs, trying to get me to pet him, which of course I did because I love dogs. Then, without any energy of malice, the man came toward me and held out his arms. With a quick, “Ben, hold on a second–” and a nod of approval from me, he gave me a hug with all his might. At first my brain said, Ummmm, this is odd and a little invasive. And yet, in Camino terms, it wasn’t. People hugged here. Little old ladies gave me kisses on the cheek as I passed their village. For whatever reason, nothing about it seemed odd, just kind, like your grandmother giving you an “everything will be okay” embrace after telling her that you’re low on hope.
Poor Ben, on the other hand, was still on the other line, now just hearing passing trucks. I managed to bring my arm back around to my ear and told him I’d call right back.
The moment I hugged him again, I burst into tears. Whaaaaat is happening. The dog circled us lovingly and I felt like it was a hug to end all hugs, I felt all my anger disappear. And finally, I was strangely relieved. We parted and I smiled at him with a mix of gratitude and confusion. He gave me a “you’ll be great” look, patted me on the shoulder like a football coach, and walked with his dog to the van.
I called Ben, now with happy, relieved tears, and explained the strange hug.
“I’m assuming that this is one of those things that would be weird at home but not on the Camino, right?” he asked.
“That’s exactly what this was,” I confirmed. Either way, I felt ready to go to sleep for the last time before the end.
I didn’t sleep a wink that night, it was the loudest room I’d experienced the whole trip. At one point, an older man even screamed something in Japanese at the top of his lungs. Half the room jolted awake. Trucks continued to fly by. And yet, for the first time in weeks, I didn’t feel angry. I thought of my chance to save a bee and of the man who somehow knew that I needed to be reminded of human kindness.
The guy in the bunk bed behind me shifted, kicking my pillow on his way. I chuckled. This is all pretty grand, isn’t it? I thought. The last of my anger subsided, and for the last two hours of the morning, I finally fell asleep.