This was one of the hardest days for me on the Camino. It rained consistently for about four hours of our walking. Though it wasn’t freezing, it was cold enough. My fingers felt frostbitten as they held the trekking poles. (I didn’t use gloves until later because I thought they would be soaked.) We walked about 11 miles before we had our “coffee stop.” That helped immensely and the rain seemed to subside after that break. Visions of bus rides and taxis were playing in my head.
Though I have rain gear, I was wishing I bought that high-tech rip-stop poncho that I saw in the store in León the day before. Maybe I will buy it in Astorga. Today was the first true test of our rain gear. Lena has a waterproof jacket covered by a plastic poncho. It seemed to work well for her. I have a waterproof shell and a backpack rain cover. We both wore our hats. Both of our pairs of shoes got a bit soaked, but are now drying in the boot rack, stuffed with newspaper. We made it – but had the rain continued and the wind kept up, it would have been an even harder day.
All this makes me think about hardship. I have not had too much of it in my life. Certainly people I love have gone through crises and friends and family have died—I don’t ever want to minimize any of that. Yet, life for me has been quite fortunate. I hesitate to say “blessed,” not because I don’t recognize that all I have received in life is a gift, but because saying “blessed” might imply that I receive good things from God and while others do not. I am so grateful for everything that has come in my life.
I also don’t live life under regular daily hardships. I have never had to struggle to find food. I have a warm bed to sleep in. I am deeply loved by many people. So a walk like today is a tiny hint that life is not always easy. I feel almost embarrassed saying this because I am well aware of the hardships that many face. The journey/the Camino is not always easy. I suspect it is not meant to be so. But I have no idea why it is easy for some and hard for others.
Today we met a woman named Annika, who shared a little bit with us about her life and the hardships she has seen. Her story is complicated one but I will try to give a hint of the reality. Annika is in her late 20s, a British citizen, born and raised in Birmingham. Her ancestry is Pakistani and she tells us her immediate family includes 21 people, including six siblings and their children.
She is walking part of the Camino on a bet, her winnings being a Papa John’s pizza. Really. (I know, I know,—the Camino is the source of many strange habits.) She wore a dress and boots and carried an umbrella. She currently lives in Warsaw, Poland with her boyfriend who is Polish. Her occupation is selling Pakistani street food, and she tells us she does well just to break even.
Prior to all of this, she spent time working with refugees. (In fact, that is how she met her boyfriend.) She started, almost on a whim, traveling to Greece, getting bored with partying there, and being invited to work with refugees in one of the larger camps in Greece. I believe she worked with both Afghani and Syrian refugees. Later she worked in refugee camps in Serbia, where evidently they have been taking a good number of refugees. (The United Nations has offered the government there some support in doing this.) She worked particularly with the Afghan refugees. She told us of stories of how Afghan young men were offered tales of the wealth and safety available to them in Europe, and how they would utilize all their resources to pay smugglers to get them to some part of Europe. Once arriving and realizing how hard it was, these young men would not consider returning home because of the shame they would experience after their families had given up so much to get them to Europe. So they perpetuate the myth and live through the poverty, the cold, and the abuse by smugglers.
She related that in Hungary the treatment of refugees was even worse. She shared a saying that at least one Syrian refugee had painted on the outside of his tent. “Better to die in a war in Syria than live in a refugee camp in Europe.” In her work she offered what care she could to those who came, she negotiated with smugglers (she said they would listen to her because of her “maternal” approach), she even thought about trying to mount a media effort to communicate the truth of the refugee situation to the people of Afghanistan. But her own work with refugees ended relatively quickly. After a bit more than a year she had to give it up, suffering what she called a kind of PTSD.
Annika’s story was captivating to us. A story of hope. A story of pain. A story of real hardship in our world.