I saw her red hat on the horizon before I could make out the rest of her through the wet fog.
She stopped, turned and smiled as she heard footsteps. We exchanged greetings, chatted about the next albergue (hostel for pilgrims) and set off once again at our own paces. The weather that day on the Asturian coast in Northern Spain didn’t encourage long rest stops.
I can’t remember where I first met Margaret Rollings. Though we always walked at different speeds and often stayed in different towns, we seemed to run into one another an awful lot. On a coastal trail in Asturia, an albergue in Buelna, at a restaurant in Comillas, a cafe in Ribadeseo, on the street in Santiago de Compostela, in the Santiago airport, on the plane to London. (It was always a pleasure to cross paths, but by the time we boarded our plane to London and found ourselves sitting side by side, the coincidence no longer surprised us.)
We were both pilgrims on the Camino del Norte, one of several long-distance trails that cross Spain and end in the Galician city of Santiago.
It was my first Camino. Margaret was a veteran peregrina (pilgrim). At 71 years old, a breast cancer survivor and often in a better mood than me, despite rain, cold, and sore feet, she put me to shame—and inspired me. Always smiling, engaged, curious about locals and fellow pilgrims alike, and open to forming friendships with the people around her, Margaret, in my opinion, embodied the “pilgrim way” more than anyone else.
I learned belatedly that unlike me, Margaret wasn’t simply walking to Santiago; she was walking for a cause. As her fundraising page states:
“I am inspired not only by my own personal battle with breast cancer, but also by the women of Timor-Leste [a small South-East Asian nation] who face the same battle with great courage. This is what motivates me to walk 827.5 kilometers in 32 days, averaging 26.5 kilometers per day, as a means of raising funds for a small women’s cancer support group in Timor-Leste called HALIKU meaning, “I choose to get better.” Its aim is to raise awareness in the community of the symptoms and treatment options for women’s cancers, including breast cancer… The challenges are enormous given the fledgling nature of cancer treatment services inside Timor-Leste and also traditional beliefs surrounding the diagnosis and treatment of life-threatening illnesses.
Existing funds for HALIKU enable them to conduct training and awareness raising of breast cancer in five villages in Timor-Leste. However, the budget does not include a planned traineeship for two young health workers from Timor-Leste to travel to an indigenous community in Australia to see how cancer care and education is done in a similar developing world setting. With your support, we can help cover these costs and support the health workers to fulfill vital training.”
The more I discovered about Margaret’s life story—studying Indonesian languages, teaching in China, volunteering, walking the Camino more than once, just to scratch the surface—the more certain I was that I had met a remarkable (and remarkably humble) human being. It would be selfish to keep so much inspiration to myself.
It was a joy and a privilege to share some of my Camino journey with Margaret, and I am honored to share her story with you. I hope her kind, adventurous, fearless spirit will touch you as it has touched me.
May it be of benefit.
Learn more about Margaret’s campaign to support the women of Timor-Leste here.
Author: Toby Israel
Editor: Sara Kärpänen