“We must never stop dreaming. Dreams provide nourishment for the soul, just as a meal does for the body.” “We always have a tendency to see those things that do not exist and to be blind to the great lessons that are right there before our eyes.” Paolo Coelho
Six years ago when I started leading a 16 day bus tour across Northern Spain and Portugal I was reintroduced to a deep part of my being. It wasn’t that I hadn’t revisited the Camino since my own pilgrimages, because I had. Actually, many times to different places and in different situations. I had even walked portions of it with other groups in the past 20 years. But, this time it was different for me. We were not walking the pilgrimage and nor was it the name or theme of the trip. We would talk about the history of the Camino de Santiago, stay in the Paradores, Hostal dos Reis Católicos and San Marcos, visit the Cathedrals and see pilgrims all along the route. Being a two time pilgrim and greatly affected by both experiences I wanted to share the other side of the pilgrimage. So, on that very first tour I began to develop a bus chat that what I named “a day in the life of pilgrim.” I wasn’t quite sure how it would be received or even where it would lead to on that first trip. Surprisingly, my personal story rolled off my lips naturally as I shared the accounts of my two pilgrimages in detail; why I decided to walk 500 miles across Spain alone, what daily life is like on a pilgrimage, the miracles that happen along the way, important words and legends, the food I ate and people who I met and who touched me. I share the original books I had used for both walks and my pilgrim passports, a bit worn from their age. My voice cracks a few times as I share this piece of myself and when I look up from the microphone I can see tears in some of my guest’s eyes. The questions and comments are profound and true gifts for me. I’ve had some guests come to me with bits of my talk written down for me to “use when I write my book”. There were 10 years difference between my first and second Camino and 10 years from the second Camino until that first bus tour. A lot has changed in almost 30 years, especially myself.
There are many different words pilgrims use when walking the Camino de Santiago. One that I learned and experienced on my first walk was “Hermano Peregrino” or Brother/Sister Pilgrim. People do a pilgrimage for many different reasons. And these also provide different relationships. For religious people it can be shared between themselves and their God and religion. Other people are seeking to find themselves or have lived some type of trauma or need to make some personal decision. But, there is a third and very important relationship on a pilgrimage that is between yourself and those who walk beside you even if they do so in silence. They will become your Hermano/a Peregrino. An Hermano/a peregrino can also be someone who you meet later on in life that has also done the pilgrimage. You are somehow connected because of this shared experience.
On my first pilgrimage I met so many different people. I was alone for most of the walk so people were constantly adopting and taking care of me. A young North American woman walking alone nowadays is quite common but on my first pilgrimage I was a rare bird or a green cat as a dear friend in Granada would have said. I still remember the people who I shared meals with, walked with for a few days and those that helped me with my blisters. OUCH! My Spanish Grandpas adopted me and fed me in many places along the road and we enjoyed a great meal in Santiago de Compostela with their wives who had met them there. However, at the end of the Camino I had two great Hermanos, Juan and Ismael. I had met both of them at the very beginning of the pilgrimage. Juan, 62 was from Madrid and retired. It was his 10th pilgrimage. He would wake me up every morning, “Margarita, son las 5:10”, and he taught me how to be a good pilgrim. He knew all the plants along the way, the monasteries we needed to visit and what to eat and where. Ismael was just 21, and living in Barcelona. He had started the pilgrimage with a friend who had to leave due to an emergency. His laughter was contagious and we probably had too much fun every once in a while. Like having to leave the massive refuge in a monastery at 1 am because we couldn’t stop laughing. Or sneaking into the refuge in the monastery in Santiago after our late night out, terrified we would be caught by the keepers. I remember having meals at the Parador of Santiago, the Hostal dos Reis Católicos because Juan taught us that the first 10 pilgrims who arrive each day could dine there for 3 days in a row. We ate in the Pilgrim’s dining room and were served with smiles and bottles of local wine. Little did I know that many years later this Parador would become like a second home to me and the people who work here would become dear friends.
Ismael and Juan became more than Hermanos Peregrinos for me. They were my protectors, my sun in a rainy day and two people who marked me for a lifetime. A relationship that develops after days together, sharing pain and laughter, each one on their own pilgrimage alone yet together is deep and remains forever.
Juan and I visited each other many times. A noble and dedicated family man who found and gifted to me a passion for the Camino de Santiago. He has since passed away. Ismael and I lost contact for a few years until one day he came to Granada and asked every person he could find near the plaza by my house if they knew Margaret, the American. That was Ismael Izquierdo. No social media back then and he had lost my address. He was dedicated to find his Hermana Peregrina. We went out for tapas and he took me to this hard rock bar in Granada. He was a fan of rock music and eventually opened a bar where he was living near Gibraltar. We lost touch again for a few years and on my very first 16 day tour six years ago right after I told our story to my group, I received a friend request from him on Facebook. We remained close ever since. There is a connection between us that no distance or time could tarnish. Except for one. For my heart at least.
Last week I received news that left me speechless and tore into my heart in a way that I cannot explain. My dear friend Ismael Izquierdo passed away at the age of 45, leaving two young sons behind. Another Hermano Peregrino has left this world. I’m sure he is laughing wherever he is and smiling down upon us. I will do the Camino again for you dear friend. That you can be sure of, Ismael.
“You don’t choose a life, Dad. You live one.” Emilio Estevez, The Way.