Masha Vapnitchnaia: Poisoned in the PyreneesBent in half, knee-deep in what I swore was snake-infested grass, I couldn’t stop throwing up a mélange of baguette, pâté and cheese, the latter being the culprit behind what had just become the worst case of food poisoning I’d ever experienced. As another wave of nausea peaked and found its release, I imagined that in a dusty Spanish village some five miles away, two dogs were also violently ill and wondering what kind of a person – on a spiritual pilgrimage no less – poisons two hungry, nursing mutts.  The same kind of person that buys dairy products from an unrefrigerated caravan on the French-Spanish border in the Pyrenees.  I swear that in both cases I had the best of intentions.

It was only my second day on the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile pilgrimage that would take a month to complete, walking across Northern Spain and ending at the steps of the 12th century cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The day before, my cousin Anya and I woke up at dawn and walked down the streets of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port at the foot of the French Pyrenees, our metal walking sticks giving a satisfying, rhythmic clank on the cobblestone. With those first steps, I was hooked; but Anya was having a different reaction.

“For every one of my cheerful exclamations … Anya had a complaint about the weight of her backpack and the increasingly uphill direction of the path.”

“This is impossible!“ she moaned as we made our way surrounded by hazy peaks and green valleys dotted with drowsy sheep.  In response, I belted out the kind of aerobic instructor-nonsense I’d normally punch people for: “Can’t you feel the strength in your body? Let that guide you!” She was just about ready to hurl her stick at me.

When we first concocted our plan to walk the Camino, I had no idea that I would be the cheerleader. If anything, I expected that Anya, seven years my junior, would be the one running up mountains. But I guess we were still strangers to each other in many ways, coloring in the gaps that can only be filled by shared experiences.

I had left Russia and moved to New York with my parents just after Anya learned to walk and though I visited every summer, our age difference made it hard to connect. Later, when she came to New York as a teenager herself, we were both too shy, too guarded to really connect. Then her parents divorced and she moved back to Moscow with her mom, far enough away from the apartment we were born in so that I rarely got to see her on my trips back home.

Camino de Santiago

After spending the night in a monastery in Roncesvalles, we began our second day much like our first. For every one of my cheerful exclamations about the charm of a distant cowbell or the unexpected flash of red poppy in the fields, Anya had a complaint about the weight of her backpack and the increasingly uphill direction of the path.  In the village of Burguete, we stopped for egg bocadillos – hero sandwiches – adding some pâté and the locally made sheep cheese that I had bought from a caravan the day before. The sandwiches were delicious.

A few hours into the day, we stopped to rest in a tiny hamlet. There, Anya became convinced that she had food poisoning. I had finally had enough. “How could you have food poisoning?! We ate exactly the same thing and I feel fine!” I barked, as I fed what remained of the cheese to two very hungry dogs with distended nipples that spoke of motherhood. Anya bit her lip and we began to walk up the path.

Karma moved with lightning speed. Less than half an hour after I chastised Anya, nausea hit me like a ton of mold-ridden bricks of cheese. As Anya began to make a miraculous recovery, I couldn’t walk and collapsed on the nearest log – fittingly enough, right next to the grave of a pilgrim who died on that spot some years ago.  Hard as I tried, I could not help wondering about the role food played in his demise.

Camino de Santiago

It took a good hour before there was nothing left for me to expel, save my internal organs. All the time smiling pilgrims would walk by and with a cheerful wave of their hand wish us a “Buen Camino!” Anya shooed them away, knowing exactly how it felt to be miserable in the face of such enthusiasm. She let me lean on her as we began to walk again but every ten feet I would crumble to the ground. Then we’d have to start again. And so it went, until we reached a road that cut through the pathway of the Camino.

“I couldn’t stop thanking her for standing by me, but she kept dismissing my gratitude with a wave of her hand, saying she knew I’d do the same for her.”

We had two choices: we could spend the next few hours walking that last couple of miles, following the route of the pilgrimage in a painfully slow tempo or we could catch a car and be there in ten minutes.

“What do you want to do?” Anya asked.

“I can’t take a car, not on the second day, please can we try to walk it there?”

Anya had every reason to flag down a car – my inability to walk without her help was a good one, for starters. But then Anya cast some light on a part of her I didn’t know yet, the part that instinctively knew when she needed to be on my side. “Right. I’ll carry as much as I can but we have to throw out some of this stuff,” she said as she opened up my backpack.

After some bargaining, we settled on leaving a pair of jeans, shoes and a sweater behind. The majority of what was left in my bag Anya stuffed into her own, leaving mine about as heavy as a kitten.  And then we walked.

Camino de Santiago

That night we said yes to the first pilgrim’s hostel we saw in Zubiri.  Once I began to recover, bursts of laughter shot out from our open window as we tried to outdo each other with jokes about my bodily malfunctions of the day.  I couldn’t stop thanking her for standing by me, but she kept dismissing my gratitude with a wave of her hand, saying she knew I’d do the same for her.

In Russian, you call your cousin your “sister once removed.” Most people don’t bother saying the whole thing and just refer to their cousins as sisters.  So that is what we told people as we walked through the city streets of Leon and Burgos, the vineyards of Rioja, and the endless shimmering, bleached wheat fields of the Meseta plateau. From then on, we always, intentionally, omitted the once-removed bit.


Words and photos: Masha Vapnitchnaia