How bread bought two lost souls together on the Camino Frances
In 2016 I walked the Camino De Santiago which is an 800km trek across Spain. The walk is a pilgrimage that Christians would undertake and the Frances route (which is considered to be the most traditional route) starts just over the Pyrenees in France and winds its way to the Cathedral in Santiago.
I undertook this walk as part of a two year trip around the world that I did to celebrate my 50th birthday. I did most of the trip on my own, however my sister joined me for the Camino. Pilgrims do the walk for different reasons, a large portion still walk as a religious pilgrimage, some walk for a more spiritual purpose, however I just thought it would be a great way to see Spain. I love walking and my sister also enjoys a stroll so off we went.
While I knew of the reasons behind the walk for a lot of participants, what I didn’t expect was the exposure we had to what was (most of the time) the very best of human nature. I’d like to share a story from our walk in the hope that I can impress upon anyone who reads this that there are amazing people out there and that most of the time, you will, if you take the time to look, see how incredible we can be as a race.
Our Stay In Releigos
Our day had been a long one this particular evening. We were supposed to be walking 24km today and somehow the maps had it all wrong and by the time the village finally appeared we had cracked almost 35 k’s. We had booked this Albergue online (Albergue Vive Tu Camino) as we knew it was a very small town and the next one was another 7km which would have been WAY too far.
We checked in to find a beautifully clean dorm room, (I can't recommend this Alburgue enough!), a very friendly Spanish couple as hosts and also to the news that dinner was available in the Albergue for €13. Perfect. We showered, went down to the local bar for a wine and were back in the Albergue ready for dinner by 6pm. There were only 6 of us. Myself and my sister Sue, a Kiwi couple and two gentlemen who were also walking, but not together. So we were an Italian – Rosario, an Canadian – Bruce, two Kiwi’s and two Aussies.
Chatting over dinner was easy and we were regaled with both hiking and life stories, everyone laughing and drinking their wine. We had gotten to the main course (which is pretty much always pasta on the Camino) and my sister mentioned how much she was loving the bread in Spain. Rosario said that yes he too was loving it, but the best bread you would ever find was in Afghanistan. He was impressing on us how good the flatbread was and how much he missed it and was even telling us a story about how he’d tried to make it at home with zero success. You could almost hear Bruce’s ears prick. He immediately sat up straighter in his chair and asked Rosario how he had come to be in Afghanistan. Now in this part of the story if I have military terms wrong, I apologize. I am crap with remembering weird specifics but I think I have it mostly correct.
Rosario told us that he had been in the Italian Special Forces (or whatever that is called) and spent time in the middle east, then after an injury kept him out of that he went back to Afghanistan as a coordinator of a medical team. Bruce who is a nurse then told us that he was in Afghanistan with the National Guard also in a medical situation. They then started comparing notes about where and when they had been there. Amazingly they had spent time in exactly the same locations at exactly the same times.
What are the chances?
Literally, what are the chances that two men, end up in the same albergue on the same night, both electing to eat dinner in, and the entire conversation started about bread. As I type this I still can’t believe this actually happened.
They were chatting and we were listening when Rosario mentioned that he was having some serious challenges settling into the non military life. He’d been back in Italy for some time but was really struggling with everything being so “normal” as he phrased it. Everything seemed so slow and after years of living in “flight or fight” mode he couldn’t adjust to the even keel of everyday life. That was the reason he was on the Camino, however even here he hadn’t been able to slow down and was averaging 40km every day!
Bruce went on to admit that he was also struggling with things he had seen in Afghanistan and said his wife had the idea that walking the pilgrimage may help him to break down some of the walls he had built to block out the memories that had plagued him. He admitted that he’d never told anyone this at all. He had when asked why he was walking, said it seemed a great accomplishment and had never mentioned any of his history to anyone along the way. He said he was happy to chat with people in the evening, but during the day, he was just walking with his god.
At this point I have tears rolling down my face, I turn and Sue is the same. The Kiwi couple are staring into their empty bowls and also looking stunned at the turn in conversation. It was one of those moments where you know you have to become involved, no matter how much it seems like you are on the outer.
I asked Bruce how he was going with tearing down the walls. He replied that he didn’t think he’d had much success so far. Without thinking I told him that I thought he had just kicked a giant brick out of the bottom of a massive load bearing wall. I went on to say that while we were all strangers he hadn’t let that stop him telling us why he was on the Camino. That seemed like such a huge achievement to me and when I explained that, he got a little glassy eyed himself.
We excused ourselves and went to bed leaving them to it. I got up at 1am to use the bathroom and they were still sitting downstairs talking. How very fortuitous that two ex soldiers were there to help each other in a tiny village in Spain, a thousand miles from Afghanistan but a single step from each other.
The Camino Provides
I’m not religious at all, I’m not even spiritual but I was so very glad to have been there the night that these two special souls got to talk out some deep and destructive memories. We never saw either of them again but I think of them so often and this memory always helps me to maintain my faith in humankind.
There is a saying: “The Camino Provides”. I never saw a better example of that and have now adopted that saying in my everyday activities. I’ve changed it a little but I truly do believe that “Life Provides” . You just have to put yourself out there and trust it will happen.
Camino De Santiago Walking Guides
Once we were on the Camino we used mostly apps to see where we were and where the next Alburgue might be, however during the researching phase and if you are a planner (unlike me) any of the guides or apps will help you a great deal.
The only thing I will say though – is that the John Brierley one is used as a bible by a LOT of the Camino hikers so if you would like a quieter more unique Camino experience, try to avoid the stops he suggests. People follow that thing like it's the only way they can do it and after the first few days, we avoided those stops like the plague and didn't regret it. It is a great handbook for sure, but I had absolutely no desire to see the same people every day so we mixed it up a lot.
Your Camino Stories
If you have some similar “Soothe Your Soul” stories I would love to hear them. I'm planning a feature on my website with incredible stories from around the globe.
- You must have been involved. It can't be something you've heard or someone told you. I want stories that you were there first hand for.
- You must be prepared to tell it warts and all. Often the bad enforces the good.
- I'd love to hear why this particular story resonated so strongly with you.
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