El Viejo

Giles Ryan

© Copyright 2021 by Giles Ryan

Winner 2021 Travel Nonfiction Award

Photo by Max Kukurudziak on Unsplash
                    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 pain. 

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 remarkable.

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 the 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 different  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 of  injŏng

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 there in 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 believe 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 snatched away.

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 human-heartedness.

And I wish life would let me fix my faults more often.

...Sarria, May 21, 2015

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