The lady said her name was Chelo. Her eyes were full of tears. “Oh no,” I thought – a Spanish drama-queen peregrina with a built-in audience, a couple of companions from home… probably relatives.
I was partly right. The two other ladies were her sister and cousin. They’d arrived first at San Anton, and they warned me that Chelo was on her way and “in a state.” Chelo’s boots had proved too tight for her feet. She’d borrowed her sister’s sandals to make it to San Anton, but enough was enough.
“If I do not find proper shoes today, my camino is over,” Chelo wept on arrival. “A lady told me there’s a sandal-maker in Castrojeriz. She is my final hope. Please, for the love of Christ, take me there,” she said.
“What a drama queen!” I repeated to myself. But it was the final night of the season at Albergue Monasterio de San Anton, and we only had five pilgrims to care for. What the heck. I had a car parked outside the gate, and Castrojeriz is only 3 kilometers down the road.
Chelo said she’d pay for gas, she’d pray for me for the rest of her life. Whatever, I said. We bundled into the car.
There was no shop on the plaza where the shoemaker was supposed to be. Chelo charged into the little grocery store nearby. The shoemaker is sick, Gloria the shopkeeper said. Closed up last Tuesday and took to her bed.
“You got any shoes here?” Chelo asked.
“Flip-flops,” Gloria told her. “I got all sizes. Some pilgrims walk in them, at least as far as the next shoe store.”
Chelo’s eyebrows met her hairline. Just below, her eyes started to brim again.
“Let me make a call,” Gloria said. “We got a network here.”
“Have faith,” I told Chelo, laying a hand on her shoulder. “We aren’t done tapping our resources yet.”
Gloria hung up the phone.
“Across from the pilgrim hostel, right out there. Ring the bell marked “Paco.” Maybe he can help you,” she said.
And so we went, and so the door swung open on an antique pharmacy, dark-painted Art Deco woodwork and etched glass, long abandoned and dust-covered. Inside was Paco, a guy I’ve met before, a little bearded man who’s lived on the camino for years. He runs the municipal Albergue San Esteban here in Castrojeriz.
“Gloria sent us,” Chelo told him in a trembling voice. “I am a desperate woman. I don’t want to give up my camino.”
“What size shoe do you wear?” Paco said, wiping some interrupted dinner from his chin. He led us past shelves of albergue supplies of jam, napkins, toilet paper and drain cleaner to the old front window. There were stacked the leavings of hundreds of pilgrims: t-shirts and socks, bicycles and underpants, umbrellas, knee-braces, Bibles, water bottles, and boots. Dozens of boots, and shoes, and sandals, in various stages of cleanliness and decay.
Chelo tried on some high-end Salomon sandals, but her toes, inside ratty yellow socks, hung over the front edge.
“No good,” Paco declared. “Look at these Tevas,” he said, pulling some chunky sandals down off a high shelf. "They’re kinda dirty, but they’ve got some miles left in them.” The Velcro opened with a crunch.
Chelo bent over and wiggled her feet into the shoes. She stood up and caught her breath and steadied herself against a cellulite-cream display. “Jesus and Mary,” she said softly. “These shoes. These are the shoes I have been waiting for. They are perfect. I walked 300 kilometers to here, just to find these.”
“Great,” Paco said. “Your feet are small. These have been here a while. Glad they’ve found a home at last. Most pilgrims got big old slabs for feet, you know?”
He wouldn’t take Chelo’s money. He ushered us back to the street, and we went to Gloria’s and bought expensive butter and a couple of tomatoes, just by way of thanks.
“I thought Castilians were supposed to be cold and selfish. But I see now that is a filthy lie,” Chelo declared.
“Only some of us are like that. You just fell upon a chain of generosity,” Gloria told her. “It’s your turn now. You gotta be good to someone now, to keep it going.”
And so Chelo pressed ten Euros into my hand. “For the gas to get here. For finding these people,” she whispered, crying yet again, this time for joy.
Back at San Anton, in the yellow after-dinner candle-light, Chelo and her relatives sang us La Rianxiera, a Gallego song about the Virgin de Guadelupe. They sang out loud as they washed up the dishes, and they hummed themselves to bed.
Chains of generosity, Ali Baba caves of pilgrim goods, drama queens singing of blessed virgins… it’s been a beautiful season at the pilgrim albergue. Despite the petty squabbles that come with managing people, I am blessed indeed to be part of this initiative.