Sanjiva Wijesinha -writer and physician

Short stories, Travel and Health Information

Camino Stories: Catholic or Moslem?

It happened in Ventosa.

At the Albergue San Saturnino in Ventosa

Having had our usual Spanish breakfast (desayuno) of orange juice, napolitanas and coffee, at the local bar in Navarette we set off on our journey.

My son Shivantha’s foot however was giving him a lot of pain, and by the time we were approaching the small village of Ventosa he was limping badly. Although it was just 11.30 and we had only walked some 8 km today, we decided that we would stop here for the night to give him a chance to rest. Unfortunately, the Albergue San Saturnino – from the outside it looked a very peaceful and well maintained small pilgrim hostel – did not open until 2 pm, so we had no alternative but to sit outside on their doorstep to patiently wait.

While we were waiting, I decided to look for a shop to buy some food – at least some milk and bread and ham, as we were quite hungry having had only coffee and napolitanas for breakfast. I walked along the narrow streets of this tiny village, up to and beyond the village square, for about half an hour, but there were very few people about and everything appeared closed. The village square was deserted and the one shop I could find firmly closed and shuttered.

As I was returning empty-handed back to the albergue I came across an old lady standing outside her house. I told her in my limited Spanish that I was a pilgrim (un peregrino) and asked her whether there was a shop in the village where I could buy some food. She listened patiently – and then asked me in Spanish “Are you a Catholic?”.

I had to answer her truthfully that I was not – whereupon she then asked me “Are you a Mussulman (Moslem)”?

Again I answered her, as truthfully, in the negative.

This puzzled her. I could see that she could make no sense of my answers! After all, in her little world, people fitted into one of only two boxes, Catholics or Moslems – and to find this strange brown foreign man who did not fit into either of the standard classifications was a major conundrum for her!

Then she shrugged her shoulders and said “Come with me”. She not only walked with me to the house of the local chorizo-seller located off a tiny side street where I purchased some delicious locally made chorizo, but (because there were apparently no shops in Ventosa that sold processed milk) she walked with me to the coffee bar further on and bought a litre of milk which she then gave to me, refusing any money.

I later discovered from Shivantha that while I was gone on my futile exploration of Ventosa she had seen him seated at the albergue entrance and brought him a baguette of bread, again refusing any payment.

We were touched by her generosity. Irrespective of whether we fitted into her pre-conceived classifications of Catholic or Moslem (she probably did not know that there were other religions besides these two!) shecame across us, just a couple of fellow human beings in need of help – and so she went out of her way to help us.

The chorizo, bread and milk relieved our hunger until hospitalera opened the albergue around two. We were the first in and settled into the place. After a shower I gave Shivantha a foot massage with Tiger Balm and placed a heat pack on his painful foot. Leaving him to rest in bed with his injured foot elevated on his pack, I walked back to the bar for a bite. Here I sat with three pilgrims from Madrid ‒ Julio, Carlos and Kaki. Carlos had been walking from Catalonia; he had already done 400 km and was continuing from here to Santiago de Compostela along the Via Primitiva, the route that goes northwards and then parallel to the coast through Bilbao, Santander and Oviedo. His eyesight, he told me, was failing – possibly due to hypertensive retinopathy or glaucoma – and he was walking now because “in five years I may not see well enough to walk.” Julio was a telecommunications engineer who was made redundant in his job last year, and was using this opportunity to “do what I have always wanted to do but did not have the time for.”

Talking with them in that peculiar combination of English, Spanish and hand gestures that is typical of our communications with fellow pilgrims along the Camino, I realised that being diagnosed with a terminal or debilitating illness, losing one’s job, experiencing a crisis in one’s life – all these can be devastating; but once one comes to terms with the initial shock, they can be taken as opportunities that open up gateways to new and fruitful paths.

Here was *Camino Lesson Number Five: When disaster strikes, instead of looking at what you can no longer do, look instead at what you now have the opportunity to try. Change your perspective -– and the limitations that have been imposed on you become an incentive to seize new opportunities.

Our journey along this road was giving me the opportunity to learn so much. This knowledge comes not as a dramatic revelation such as St Paul had on the road to Damascus nor even in the form of sudden enlightenment as the Buddha achieved under the pipul (bo) tree in Bodhgaya. I daresay that wisdom will not strike me as I walk through the cathedral doors in Santiago at the end of this journey (even if I butt my head against the statue of Maestro Mateo at the cathedral entrance in the pilgrim’s age-old ritual of Santo d’os Croques – touching one’s forehead to that of the saint to receive some of his genius!) I am gradually realising that after this journey I will be wiser and more attuned to living well as a result of meeting – and listening to – so many others along the Camino.

For me, who has spent most of his life trying to instruct others – telling patients what to do, giving soldiers orders and lecturing to students and (as my children have often pointed out using the very same approach that I use for patients, soldiers and students in dealing with my children!) – this journey is teaching me for a change to Be Still – and Listen.

And I am sure the change is doing me good.

Early the next morning I decided that I should go and find the kind lady who on the previous day had helped us – the strange dark pilgrims from Sri Lanka.

Ventosa being a small place, it was not difficult for the hospitalera to tell me, from my description of the lady, where she lived. I walked to her place and rang the bell. When she came downstairs, I gave her a picture postcard on which I had written in Spanish: ‘Thank you for your kindness to us. From the two pilgrims, the father and son, from Sri Lanka’ together with a big hug. It was the least I could do to express our gratitude and acknowledge the kindness she had shown to us, two complete strangers, when we were in need. I could see that she was touched by the gesture and appreciated my coming back to say “Thank You”.

And thus it is on the Camino. If only we are open enough to look at other people as fellow human beings instead of trying to fit them into our pre-conceived classifictions before we decide whether we should interact with them or not, would not the world be a much better place?

The Albergue in Ventosa

*More about my Twelve Camino Lessons may be found in a post coming next month on my webpage.


2 comments on “Camino Stories: Catholic or Moslem?

  1. trecile
    August 12, 2020

    What a lovely story depicting the essence of the Camino spirit.


  2. Kshamalee Wirekoon
    August 12, 2020

    Hello Sanjiwa, what a lovely story this was…with a sweet moral about lending a hand – as we learn from Brownies!
    Wishing you well.


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This entry was posted on August 12, 2020 by in camino de santiago, Pilgrimage, spirituality, Travel Topics and tagged , , .

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