It was a beautiful morning walk to Azofra in search of breakfast. Nothing was open in Najera but there was evidence of a forth-coming fiesta involving goats or rams skulls and medieval banners. I was a little worried that Azofra, which was 6km uphill, would be as dead as Najera and I could be destined to have a coffee-less day, but there was a little bar open where a group of about 8 deaf and mute Irish were already enjoying the terrace. Their group leader appeared to be a large bearded man who made everyone laugh, regularly, even those of us who couldn’t understand sign language. I suppose being able to arrange everything through bookings.com makes organisation far easier. As they left the village, each with an Irish flag pinned to their backpacks, you couldn’t have imagined a more merry band of pilgrims.
As I left Azofra I nearly missed the turning after being distracted by a very angry South Korean gentleman who was annoyed when his companion decided to get back onto their bus and not walk with him. This led to him hawking back and spitting incredibly loudly before galloping past me in disgust. The rest of the group followed in the wake of his onward dash and it was only when I was almost following them past a wall that I saw a faded yellow arrow to the left out of the corner of my eye.
There weren’t any other arrows for quite a while so I wasn’t at all sure I was on the right track for about a kilometer, but I could see other walkers behind me so I decided to carry on. I had seen many Koreans along the way but few of them in the albergues, so I just assumed that they were staying in a different one to me. Also I had been fantastically impressed at how small their packs were, I was convinced that they had the art of small packing, rather like making minute pieces for mobile phones etc. Now I knew that they had as much luggage as me, but it went by bus and, for much of the time, so did they.
As I limped along I wondered what they got out of it. I began to feel a little smug about how hard this Camino was, but that arrogance instantly dissolved with the first mind-flash of refugees in their thousands walking through Europe. The similarities are too obvious to miss, but so are the differences, namely one of choice and having a bed and a meal at the end of each day. Certainly none of the women fleeing with their children would be overly concerned by a duff ankle.
Just as I was getting out of that bit of musing, the mass of South Koreans began overtaking me again having discovered their mistake. After most of them had passed, a soft voice said: “are you OK? It looks as if you are in a lot of pain”
She was dressed in a bright orange top with a cap and sunglasses, and despite telling her I was fine, she didn’t steam onwards but began to walk beside me. Well, you can’t have someone walking beside you for a while and not make some kind of conversation, so I said the usual things.
Her name was Sook. It turned out that she was a nurse who had spent her career mainly nursing leukemia patients, until her mother became ill and didn’t like being in hospital, so Sook retired and converted her lounge into an equipped nursing environment for her mother. By the time her mother died her father was 96, so she nursed him until he died as well. Her sister was married with children, so the care package had fallen to Sook.
I asked her about the group she was with. They had begun from St Jean in France 3 days ago. Sook had done the 25km up the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles but then their coach had taken them to an hotel in Pamplona for the night. I gently questioned her about what she was getting out of the trip.
“I am getting everything I need. I came here to do long walks and think. I have many things I need to sort out in my head. I don’t believe I would sort them out better if I was in pain like you are, or if I couldn’t get a good night’s sleep because of all the snoring people in a dormitory.”
She definitely had a point. I certainly wasn’t gaining great flashes of enlightenment from either of those things!
Sook needed to decide how to alter her life in order to be happy when she was 60 or 70. “People say to me, you are totally free, you can do whatever you like, but sometimes that’s a problem in itself.” Although all her friends and family told her she had been an amazing daughter to care for her parents as she had, she felt guilty about days when she might not have been as tolerant or kind as she wanted to be. Although her country’s main religion is Budhism, all the group were devout Catholics. She felt her parents wanted her to be happy and that until she found what she needed to do to achieve that, they wouldn’t be at peace. “Do you know where you will always be happy?” She asked.
“At home, on Mallorca, with my family. But being on Camino has deepened that knowledge a hundred times over so I don’t regret a step of it.”
“I know I only want to live in South Korea, it’s all the other parts I’m confused about,” she said, which led on to conversations about North Korea and China.
She told me how much South Korea was doing to improve sustainability, how much governmental support there was for developing electric cars and renewable energy. When she had been young, she said, the skies over South Korea had been like those we were talking beneath today, but now their air was horribly polluted by China and although the Chinese were trying very hard to sort things out, it was too big a problem to solve quickly.
I told her about how shocked I had been when I went up in a hot air balloon a few years ago and saw the yellow blanket over Palma which extended about a kilometer out to sea.
“But they have so many wind turbines and solar panels here,” Sook said, “is that not the same throughout Spain?” From which we got onto corruption and governments, which was something she understood all too well seeing as their President is currently in prison and there’s a fresh election next week!
I would like to say that the miles sped by, because she was such a gentle kind person to walk with, but after 10 kilometers without a rest my ankle was killing. We said goodbye at the rest stop just outside of Ciruena as she was going all the way to Santo Domingo, she pressed her card into my hand and told me to come to South Korea; that’s unlikely, but she was a truly special person and I felt so grateful to have met her and heard her story.