You can have a Camino experience, even when you’re not walking The Way. Sometimes, when you’ve injured your knee as I have, for example, it just makes more sense to take a bus. You can ride all the way from Belorado to Burgos for just €3.80 – and this is what my husband Kevin and I do. We have no idea of what lies ahead.
As the bus is about to leave, a man – looking very unwell, clutching his side and panting – throws himself in the seat next to us. He looks like a drug addict to me, but we bond over the sharing of my meagre food supply: eucalyptus cough drops. I learn that our travelling companion is a 42-year old Spaniard called Javier who has terminal leukaemia. He’s walking the Camino against the express wishes of his family who want him to spend his remaining few months at home with them. They feel so strongly about this that they have cut him off financially, in the hope of forcing him to return.
Javier is in great pain, having forgotten to take his morning dose of morphine. He is also in great distress: the theft of his mobile means that he can no longer receive calls from his five-year old daughter who lives with his alcoholic ex- wife. He’s already overcome this obstacle once by buying a five euro phone from a street trader, but has left that phone charging in the cab of the truck driver who gave him a lift yesterday.
My incredulity grows as Javier continues talking. Not only is the truck driver’s charger compatible with Javier’s street phone, but the truck driver also goes out of his way to help. When Javier calls his number from a borrowed phone, the driver promises to give Javier’s phone to a Burgos-bound pilgrim so that he can arrange to retrieve it in the city.
Javier tells me that he has spent 11 years in prison for murder and is seeking forgiveness through the Camino. He regards his illness as divine punishment for the life he has led and wants to reach Santiago before he dies. I reassure him that he can find forgiveness at any point along The Way of Saint James, but he seems convinced that God is irredeemably angry with him.
As the bus reaches the outskirts of Burgos, my scepticism is complete. But Javier is frantic, especially as the only public phone box in sight is broken. I dial the number of his phone for him – just in case someone answers. Someone does: it’s the nun to whom the truck driver has given Javier’s phone. She’s willing to meet him at the bus station. His whole demeanour changes: enlivened by the thought of speaking to his daughter again. I tell him that this is a sign. He smiles, crosses himself and disappears.
Even though Kevin and I have our own concerns, not least the urgent need to find a bed for the night, we are still in awe of this story. Even if some of the details are fabrication, the power of the Camino to provide for pilgrims most assuredly isn’t.
Adapted from Reflections on the Way where you can read more of Joanne and Kevin McNally’s Camino adventures.