Copyright 2021 by Giles Ryan
Winner 2021 Travel Nonfiction Award
Photo by Max Kukurudziak on Unsplash
Once you've had a long and
deep immersion in another culture and language it will mark you, and
some things will abide long after, including attitudes and indeed
behaviors previously unknown, so that you become just slightly
someone else, and the effect may not always please you. I have
another proof of this on the Camino......
Late in the morning, after
an early start from Ruitelán and scant miles from the summit
of O Cebreiro. I see him off to the side of the path, sitting on a
large stone with one boot off, nursing his foot and clearly in
I have seen him once or
twice before, west of León but not east of there, so perhaps
that was his starting point. I recognize him because he is something
like my age and also walking alone. He is Asian, which on the Camino
means he is almost certainly from Korea. His face is tanned and
lined, his form lean and wiry and his hair is white, spilling over
his collar. Looking closely, I guess his age at well past seventy. I
have not spoken to him before and he has had no reason to speak to
me, for I look like most other pilgrims, presumably European, nothing
But here we meet again and
clearly he is in some distress so I stop to ask him how is he doing,
and does he need help? And he answers in halting uncertain English
that his foot is very painful, so he is resting awhile.
My first thought is that
it must be very difficult for a man of his age and from a very
different place to be traveling alone on the Camino, speaking little
English and very likely little or no Spanish and suffering from an
injury, so I decide to sit with him a moment.
He says he not only has a
blister - a common enough affliction - but also a very sharp pain in
the front tendon of his ankle. Both have gotten worse during the day
but he still hopes to make it to the albergue at
summit of O Cebreiro. I say he will certainly make it that far, it's
only a few more miles but he should stop frequently and have a good
rest at night.
Rummaging through my pack,
I find some blister bandaids which I give to him. He doesn't
recognize these so I explain they are a special kind and will heal
his blister, and then I give him some ibuprofen tablets, the
over-the-counter but potent Spanish 600 milligram dose, and I
emphasize he should take only one after eating. I use the simplest
words and he clearly understands.
I see that his water
bottle is almost empty so I fill it from mine, although he protests,
saying this is not necessary. But I insist he should drink as much
water as possible, and in the evening he must also try to find some
ice to put on his ankle.
Aside from this we also
exchange some of the usual conversation. He says he is from Seoul,
and I answer that I am American, and this is my second time on the
Camino but I mention nothing about having lived in his country.
Replying to his question, I say I plan to reach Fonfria by late in
the day, a far longer walk than his destination of O Cebreiro, which
I again assure him is not much farther. As we part I say he will
certainly feel much better in the morning and we will no doubt meet
again before Santiago.
Walking the path up to the
peak I tell myself, you could have done more for him, given him more
comfort, you could have spoken to him in his own language. So why
didn't you? You could have learned why, at his age, he was here
alone. You could have heard his story, and it may have been something
like your own. Why didn't you speak to him in his language?
And I know the answer:
because he is older than I. A conversation in Korean would have
quickly led to the question, how old are you?, and the answer would
have made me his subordinate. I recall the years when I lived in
Korea, where Confucian traditions mean that all relationships are
hierarchical, with everyone being either superior or subordinate, and
the first determinate is always age. But today I am in
circumstances, here in Spain on the Camino, and I really do not want
that kind of encounter, not in this country, not in this place and
not at this time in my life.
And yet I feel a strong
misgiving, very like regret. Passing the summit and coming down the
western slope in the afternoon, I recall the morning's
encounter and wish I had done better by the old man, I wish I had
been more helpful. I recall a Korean word, injŏng,
which a dictionary will translate as benevolence but which, because
of the way it's written in Chinese characters, I always think of as
human-heartedness. Yes, I wish I had acted in the spirit
And then, two days later
early the morning, life or the wheel of fortune or kismet or
fate - call it what you will - gives me a second chance.
Leaving Fonfria in the
predawn dimness, I reach Triacastela two hours later and, walking
through the town, I wonder, where are the three castles?... there's
not even one in sight. But I put aside this whimsical thought because
I see ahead a café and an albergue, and
the road is the same old Korean gentleman, together with a young man,
standing beside a car. Drawing closer, I see they are having, if not
a disagreement, then perhaps a misunderstanding, with the young man
speaking Spanish and neither with enough English to bridge the gap.
Seeing a chance to make up
for the day before, I address the old man in his language and with
the usual forms of respect, saying, "Uncle, is there a problem?
May I help you?"
He stares at me,
surprised, not quite believing and slow to react, so in my
rudimentary Spanish I ask the same question of the young man, Te
puedo ayudar? And so I learn that the driver has come here
because someone at the albergue called
for a taxi to
drive an old man to Sarria where he can get a train to Santiago. And
now, the driver tells me, el viejo doesn't
this is a taxi, or doesn't understand the fare.
Once I learn the nature of
the problem I understand the old man's distress. In his language I
repeat what I've learned: "Uncle, this really is a taxi. Here in
the countryside a taxi can be an informal thing without a sign saying
'taxi' and without a meter, but the fares are understood. It's eleven
euros to Sarria, which is very reasonable. And he'll take you
straight to the train station. You do want a taxi, yes?"
The uncertainty in his
expression slowly disappears, replaced by something like wonder, then
astonishment, and he answers in Korean, the words suddenly flooding
out , "Yes, yes! I asked for a taxi because of my foot. It's so
painful, I cannot walk any more. I must take a train to Santiago. But
how...? Where did you...?"
He wants to ask more —
much, much more — but I tell him there is no time, he really
must get in the car because the driver is waiting, eager to go. He
asks me to go with him, we can go together to Sarria, and I thank him
but insist I must walk all the way. It's the reason I'm here.
And so we part with hasty
farewells. He gets in the car with the driver, who is now impatient
to leave. The old man rolls down his window as they drive off and he
puts his head out the window and waves. The last I see of him is his
face with the expression of someone who has just seen something
strange and so far beyond all his experience, only to have it
As for me, I now walk down
the road with a lighter heart and the feeling that I've made up for
my failure in fellowship, my lapse in kindness, my lack of
And I wish life would let
me fix my faults more often.
...Sarria, May 21, 2015
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
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