Nadia was navigating the GPS route on her app while holding Michi, her 2-year old labrador on lead as they zigzagged their way through rush hour traffic in Oviedo, the capital of Asturias, the start of their Camino de Santiago. It had been quite a whirlwind year for her and she was just glad that she managed to get there safely, and with the pup in tow too. As her mind wandered off, she failed to spot the step on the broad pavement and her ankle gave in, twisted, and lunged her whole body and the 10kg backpack she was carrying forward.
“Aaaarghhh…” she shouted.
In that split second she realised she had to make a choice between pulling Michi back from running towards the busy round about, save herself by breaking the fall, or save her phone which had all the routes for her 2-week pilgrimage, all travel and accommodation info, her bank cards…
“Whoopst! Watch yourself out there, girl. You alright?” A pair of strong arms had grabbed her and helped her get back on her feet.
A tall young man with tortoise-shell glasses carrying an even larger backpack was standing in front of her now, another pilgrim. He seemed to appear out of nowhere, or maybe she just hadn’t been paying attention to her surroundings.
“I think I’m alright, thanks! I’m Nadia… another pilgrim too?” She gestured towards his backpack and hiking poles.
“Yeah, I’m Aidan, nice to meet you,” he offered a handshake.
As they walked together, Nadia discovered that they had lived quite similar lives albeit now they were at opposite ends of the spectrum. She was reaching the end of her training in Orthopaedics when her whole world collapsed. Complaints that were of personal vendetta in nature, a relationship breakdown, and sick family members in Indonesia who she couldn’t visit or help, altogether was too much for her to bear. ‘Burnout’ was too simplistic a way to even begin describing the jealousy and hatred that fuelled the eventual betrayals of those she considered close before. Aidan, on the other hand, was only too excited to tell her that he recently matched into Orthopaedics at one of the best places in the world. His biggest concern right now was to finish this pilgrimage on time so that he could go home to have his LASIK eye surgery, pack his belongings, and arrange a move from California to Seattle, Washington to begin his training the following month.
“I have this Swiss army knife that was a gift from my best friend. It came with me on the flight from the States. And then in Madrid, I went to the train station…”
“Ah, but they don’t let you carry a knife on the train from Madrid,” Nadia interrupted.
“YES! Precisely! How did you know that?” Aidan was amazed.
“Too much time on Camino forums. So… what happened then?”
“They told me I could go to a pawn shop outside the station and leave my knife there. I can pick it up when I return after the Camino,” Aidan replied, sounding a little despondent.
“You’ll get it back. I’ll remind you about it, I’ll make sure you don’t forget,” she smiled reassuringly.
“We should take the little detour here to see a Roman bath,” Nadia suggested.
“Or stop for cafe con leche?” she added, still trying to convince Aidan.
His eyes beamed when he heard her mention every pilgrim’s staple diet. Nadia had just finished tying Michi under the table and gave her a bowl of water when Aidan returned with a tray carrying 2 cups of cafe con leche, as well as 2 glasses of ice cubes.
“Cafe con leche… con hielo,” Aidan explained.
“I used to come visit my families here in the summer. It would be very hot and I didn’t want to blow my budget on fancy frappuccinos so I invented this drink. You would pay the same €1.20 for the coffee, and you ask for some ice, smart eh?”
“Is that why you like Ortho then, you like making new things?” she asked.
“I guess so. I like working with my hands, and I am also a very impatient man, so I like to see results straight away. I keep a notebook for my ideas. And you? Why are you travelling with a dog, I’m sure it can’t have been easy?”
Nadia sighed. She knew this question would crop up as she walked through Northern Spain with Michi. So far she hadn’t come up with a concise answer yet. She wasn’t sure how much insight into her life she would be willing to share willy-nilly at strangers she had just met. In truth, Michi wasn’t just a pet dog, she was family. She initially suffered from a rare form of colitis which had taken her weeks to recover. A year later, when Nadia was struggling at work, Michi was always there for her, comforting her. She made sure that Nadia had to go out of the house twice a day for exercise and she would keep fetching a stick or a tennis ball that she would forage for in the woods until Nadia’s arms were sore and her hands covered in mud. When she finally worked up the courage to resign from work and plan this pilgrimage in Spain, it was always going to be Michi and Nadia together. For weeks, Nadia scoured the internet for information about dog-friendly facilities and sent various DMs to other dog lovers who had completed the Camino with their dogs, or peRRegrinos, a pun on the Spanish word for pilgrims ‘peregrinos’ and dogs ‘perros’. She swore she would make sure Michi stayed in tip-top health and had devised a comprehensive pre-and post-hike treatment plans, for the pup.
“What’s that? Is that vaseline?” Aidan asked.
“Similar. It’s paw balm. It’s meant to keep her paws supple, so they don’t crack on a hot day, and should help her glide over sharp rocky surfaces,” she grinned and continued explaining.
“I put it on twice a day, in the morning before we start walking, and in the afternoon after our walk. It’s a good time to check for injuries too. And while I’m at it, I give her a pat down massage, like us stretching basically, that’s what the physio recommended…”
“Physio? For the dog?”
“Yeap. And so I thought… hmm good idea. Maybe I should do the same? I mean, the stretching,” she added.
“We’ve just been walking for one day and I have pain in places I didn’t know exist! And I can’t help thinking… is it from the anterior compartment? Or posterior?”
“I don’t know, but I do know that you should do something about the hot spot that’s starting to appear over there, and tie your laces a bit tighter at the front tomorrow,” Nadia pointed at the pink area near the base of Aidan’s big toe.
“Well, at least we are resting in such a beautiful place while doing a bit of TLC to our battered bodies, eh?” Aidan looked all around him.
They were staying at an albergue, a special dormitory accommodation for pilgrims, housed in a beautiful Los Indianos style building frequently found in this region. It was a magnificent exotic looking period house, built by locals who had emigrated to the Caribbean in the 19th century, made their success there before returning to their homeland and built colourful houses in colonial style, complete with intricate ornamental facades and palm trees.
Sitting at the outdoor terrace with a bottle of Asturian cider to share, their group quickly expanded to include pilgrims from other countries. They had to keep adding tables to join their ever enlarging group, and many more bottles of cider were shared.
“This feels nice,” Nadia thought to herself. It had been a while since she was last hanging out in such a large group without any resentment, cynicism, or passive aggressiveness.
* * *
“But I might need that second fleece jacket when it gets cold in the mountains!” Aidan protested.
“You have your FIRST fleece jacket for that, the only one you need,” Nadia insisted.
“And you don’t need 2 guidebooks, you already have your app. Take pictures of what you need from the guidebooks that aren’t already on the app. I let you keep your notebook, it’s personal.” She added, unmoved by Aidan’s plight.
Aidan had purchased a box from the post office and they were filling it up with items he didn’t need during this hike, to be sent to the post office branch in Santiago de Compostela, their destination. They would keep his box there for up to 30 days.
“Okay guys, I did something really good today, I sent to myself some stuffs that I wasn’t using, and now my bag is 2.5kg lighter, and I’m feeling supper better now! Big hugs to everyone, how are you, where are you all?” Aidan sent a voice message to the WhatsApp group he had created.
Aidan continued walking with a spring on his step. The scale at the post office read 2.5kg but he felt a much heavier weight had been lifted off his shoulders. He had always been a worrier. As the eldest child, he would naturally look after his siblings. As a scout leader, he would bring extra kit and rations for his team. Prior Preparations Prevent Piss Poor Performance, the 6Ps that had been drilled into his head since he was a young boy. But now he was learning to let go. He had even stopped shaving, although that was inevitable as Nadia threw his electric shaver into the box.
Aidan had learnt that the Weather app had about a 15% accuracy when predicting 100% chance of rain in the next 24 hours. He was now a follower of the Keith’s weather forecasting shell methodology - this referred to the scallop shell that many pilgrims carried on their backpack and can also be found on direction markers along the Camino.
“If the shell is wet, it’s raining. If the shell is dry, it’s not raining. If the shell is swinging, it’s windy. If you can’t see the shell of the pilgrim in front of you, it’s foggy,” Keith explained his analogy.
“Or maybe he’s fallen off the cliff,” Aidan interjected.
“Or that,” Keith nodded.
Keith was a 54-year old woodworker from Oregon who walked so fast he rolled the bottom of his trousers up a few inches so he wouldn’t step on them, or perhaps it was a fashion statement. He had been covering double the distance of the standard route and started to feel some pain and swelling on his left foot a few days ago. Nadia had advised him to slow down, use his hiking poles to ease some of the weight off the feet, and to do her now infamous Camino stretch workout before and after his daily walk. She gave him some hydration tablets to help replace the electrolytes lost through sweat. Other pilgrims had also suggested a backpack transfer service. But he had carried on regardless. He had leapfrogged Nadia who had stopped to resupply food for Michi, and was now catching up with Aidan. But now he told him that he couldn’t lift his left foot.
“This looks pretty bad,” Aidan commented as he grabbed his notebook from his bag.
“But I might have something for you, I’ve been wanting to try this.”
“You mean, I’m your guinea pig?” Keith asked.
“Well, I had done something similar to myself but for a different muscle problem.”
Aidan grabbed a bungee rope from his backpack, glad that he refused to put that in the box a week ago, and extended that with a lanyard from a medical conference he attended last year. Finally, he hooked the end of the bungee to the laces on Keith’s trail runners.
“This type of injury is quite common after long uphill stretches. So now you can pull on the lanyard to help you lift your left foot while walking. This may give you a few days walking, but if the pain is too much then you really must stop and rest. It may take up to several weeks for the swelling to go down completely.” Aidan was demonstrating how his concoction worked.
“Did you know that your names are palindromes? Aidan… Nadia…” Keith emphasised the 2 words slowly.
“And the 2 of you are like alpha and omega. You’re starting your Ortho career, and she just left hers. You’re also a bit like fire and water. You make friends very quickly and you’d like to know everybody. She’s a bit more reserved, just her and the pup, but she does talk to people too and she has some very interesting things to say…” He elaborated.
“Wow, I never thought of it that way. Palindromes, hmm… Nadia’s like a big sister to me now. You’re right, she doesn’t like to open up to new people immediately, but she’s friendly once she knows you. I guess she’s met a lot of circumspect characters in her life and she’s just being a little bit cautious?” Aidan replied.
* * *
It was still dark when Nadia and Michi set off for their final stage. They were now in Galicia, the capital of rain in Spain, and it had been raining constantly over the last 2 days and today was to be no different. The last few stages of the Camino always attracted a lot more pilgrims, so Nadia wanted to make a head start, but her main intention was to arrive in Santiago de Compostela before her Australian friend Katie had to leave by bus. She had calculated that she had to cover 26km in under 6 hours including rest stops to allow enough time in Santiago to celebrate over a very cold pint of Estrella Galicia with Katie, before she had to go. It would be good to also catch up with some other friends she had met on this Camino.
She wondered whether Aidan would still be there as he had whizzed through and arrived 2 days earlier. She had heard about Keith, and although he could walk slowly with Aidan’s invention, he could not walk the Camino anymore and had taken a bus to Santiago to catch up with all his friends.
When she started this Camino, she was unsure of herself. She had given up her high flying job, one that had been her passion for many years. Being a doctor was more than just a job, it was her identity. What would she do now with her life? There had been days back home when this lack of purpose had kept her in bed for much of the day, if not for Michi. Yes! That pup, she had been nothing but stellar. She brightened up everyone’s day with her adorable eyes and tail-wagging. In truth, she just wanted more food. She wondered why she had to carry so much dog food in her backpack, when Michi was more than capable of scavenging tortilla, chorizo, and bread from peregrinos and shopkeepers alike.
Nadia now realised that much of the problems she encountered at work were stemmed out of jealousy and culminated as personal attacks against her. That management would spin any little piece of criticism into a major cause of grievance. One of the main themes was her alleged lack of focus and ability to make plans under duress. She chuckled at that statement as she looked into Michi’s eyes. Their journey together here had been nothing short of planning down to the minute details. Spreadsheet, google map lists, heck she even had a friendly Spanish vet over in Gran Canaria on her contact list should there be concerns over Michi’s health. Not only did she make an excellent Plan A, she also had her Plans B, C, D… for various eventualities, which, luckily were not needed, so far. This was a major breakthrough for her. To come to the realisation, that she was indeed good at her job. And more importantly, that she still loved helping people. Maybe on a different platform now.
As she approached the main Cathedral square, the Praza do Obradoiro, she was welcomed by the shrill wailing sound of the bagpipe, the vibrating reeds releasing that characteristic tune she had seen plenty of times before on YouTube. Overwhelmed, Nadia bent down on her knees and cupped Michi between her hands and kissed her forehead. When she looked up, she was greeted by a loud scream and a big hug from Katie who had waited for her at the square, and she also saw Keith smiling from the corner of her eyes.
“What the hell is that?” Nadia pointed at the loop of lanyard around Keith’s finger.
“Oh, it’s one of Aidan’s…”
After much celebration during the afternoon, Nadia and Aidan were standing outside the Cathedral doors, waiting for the evening pilgrim’s mass.
“Have you noticed that sign in between the arches of the 2 doors?” Nadia asked.
“The big xP sign in a circle? Yea, what about it?”
“Yes, but within that circle, can you see there is an Omega sign and an Alpha sign? And that they’re not in the usual order, Omega-Alpha, and not Alpha-Omega?”
“Yes, I see that now,” Aidan now stared at Nadia, waiting for her to explain.
“Well, they say that it’s because… the ending of your Camino de Santiago is only the beginning of the real Camino… the Camino de la Vida, the Camino of Life…”
Aidan took a moment to take this in.
“Or that the end of life is actually the beginning, an eternal life…” He replied as they started making their way inside the Cathedral.
“And also… don’t forget to pick up your knife tomorrow, in Madrid,” she winked.
* * *
 The Way of St James, an ancient pilgrimage path to the tomb of St James the Apostle in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Northwestern Spain.
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