The three-day walk from Barcelos in northern Portugal to Tuy on the Spanish border took us through the picturesque old town of Ponte de Lima, and across easily the most difficult terrain we had encountered on the Camino.
As we lay asleep in our hotel in Ponte de Lima, the quiet, antique streets and riverside park outside the hotel were transformed into a choppy sea of white awnings. At nine in the morning we stepped from the hotel straight into the town’s famous weekly market. There were stalls selling huge stacks of cured pork, fruit and vegetables, clothes, sausages in every possible shape and size, ridiculously cheap shoes, farm tools, rocky mountains of breads and pastries, home-made toys, intricate lace-work and beautifully embroidered linen, books, CDs …
The crowd was so dense that Emmy and I became separated. How could we have foreseen this? We had no contingency plan for finding each other in the alleys of a market that had unexpectedly materialised around us. It was almost half an hour before we managed to locate each other. We crossed the long medieval stone bridge – the “bridge of limes” that gives the town its name – and picked up the arrows of the Camino in the narrow cobbled streets on the northern bank.
For a time we walked through quiet, tree-shaded lanes. We came across a shepherd with a long stick keeping watch over (to my Australian eye) a mangy collection of about a dozen sheep. The villages, like most we passed through in Portugal, were deserted, the neat stone houses tightly shuttered with guard dogs barking in their front yards. Occasionally we encountered an elderly man or a black-clad woman and we exchanged greetings: “Bom dia”.
The path bent upwards and narrowed. We began a long, steep, physically demanding ascent into wooded hills. In places the Camino shrank to a stony rut in the hillside. For the first time we made heavy use of our walking poles. Repeatedly we stopped to drink and draw breath. We were utterly alone. As we approached the summit of the ridge we walked into a drenching mist – not wet enough to warrant unpacking our wet weather gear, but wet enough to cover us in a clammy film of water. Around us the trees stood silent and fingers of mist reached out to coil around the track’s way markers.
It was a long day, but we survived, and two days later we walked across the “international bridge” over the Minho River into Spain. From the beginning we had planned to take a two-day rest in Tuy, the halfway point between Porto and Santiago de Compostela. Since my fall in Barcelos I had been troubled by a sharp, sometimes excruciating, pain in the right side of my rib cage. It had been difficult to sleep and difficult to carry a backpack. I thought I might have cracked a rib, perhaps worse. For three days I had been living on Panadol. So the break in Tuy gave me a chance to do something about the injury.
The following morning I asked the hotel receptionist to recommend a good doctor who could speak English. He frowned, then frowned more deeply, then rubbed his brow and slowly shook his head.
“What about a hospital? Is there a hospital here in Tuy?”
The clouds lifted at once.
“Just around the corner. No more than two hundred metres away.”
We went around the corner but saw nothing that resembled a hospital. Across a small plaza I noticed an ambulance parked in a street side parking space beside a parking metre. Behind it stood a low, unmarked building with a small crowd of people milling around its corner entrance. There it was… the Tuy general hospital.
Inside I queued up with about a dozen other outpatients. After five minutes I made it to the counter and was greeted by a triage clerk who spoke halting but passable English. I explained to her what had happened and why I needed treatment. She entered my passport details and the gist of my story into her computer, but she kept shaking her head and pursing her lips. The signs were not good.
Then, trying to embellish my story, I mentioned that I was walking the Camino. Her demeanour cleared instantly.
“Do you have your pilgrim credencial, your pilgrim’s passport?”
I handed it over. She took it in both hand, propped it against the screen of her computer and copied its details. Then she disappeared into a back room. Though a window I could see her talking on the phone, waving her hands and nodding very fast.
When she came back she was smiling a beautiful smile.
“A doctor will see you,” she said speaking slowly and clearly in her very best English. “Please go upstairs to room twenty-three. Understand?”
She held up two fingers. “Two.”
Then three fingers “Three…. you understand? Twen-ty-three.”
I understood and sprinted perhaps a bit too hastily up the stairs. In front of Room 23 about a dozen people were sitting or standing in various stages of somnambulance. I saw at once that I could be in for a long wait.
But I was wrong. After about ten minutes the door flew open, a patient staggered out, and the doctor appeared. He looked over the queue, pointed at me and said “You!”
He was short, middle-aged, balding and very businesslike. He spoke no English.
Inside, I tried to mime what had happened to me. Exaggerating as best I could I walked around the room bent double under a 50 kilo backpack. I stumbled and crashed on to one of the chairs showing how the backpack had caused me to topple and had crushed my abdomen flat. I pointed at the right side of my rib cage and grimaced in anguish.
The doctor looked on astonished. Then suddenly, without waiting for my performance to finish, he grabbed my right arm and yanked it. I gasped in pain. He nodded then grabbed my left arm and yanked it in the same way. This didn’t hurt at all, so he nodded again. Then he pressed his stethoscope to the right side of my chest, presumably listening for crushed ribs grinding against one another. Again he nodded, this time with satisfaction.
“Credencial,” he commanded. I handed it over. He copied something from it then lifted the phone and unleashed a burst of Spanish.
“OK. Go.” He pushed me into a neighbouring room, shook my hand, and left me there with a nurse. She had huge shoulders, a huge bosom and a huge smile. She was also holding a huge syringe with a very long needle. She stood with legs apart like a medieval knight astride a horse about to lower his lance and charge into the jousting lists. With a very feminine wiggle of her bottom she suggested that I lower my pants.
I pointed at the syringe. “What is that?”
Amid the torrent of Spanish that followed I recognised the word “anti-inflammatorio”. This reassured me (though only a little). I uncovered a buttock and she plunged the needle in. Then she handed me a small stack of blister-packed paracetamol pills.
“Dos tabletas cada ocho oras!” and she pushed me towards the door.
I rubbed my thumb and forefinger together. “How much?”
She just laughed and shoved me out the door. My treatment was over.
In the waiting area I sat down for a moment to consider what had happened. Already the pain in my side was subsiding and I felt much better. I had received the very best possible medical care. It was quick, it was lo-tech, it was effective and it was free.
I thought back a few months. My GP in Canberra had referred me to a surgeon to have a tiny black mole removed from my left calf. The mole was not cancerous, its removal was simply a precaution. Over the years I have had some six or seven similar moles removed, usually by a local GP in his rooms.
But on this occasion, much to my surprise, I was formally admitted to Canberra Private Hospital. I was instructed to remove all my clothes and put on a backless surgical gown, paper underpants, a paper cap and paper slippers. I was then instructed – against my objections – to sit in a wheelchair to be pushed the 25 metres to the operating theatre. At the entrance to the theatre a nurse with a clipboard checked on my awareness of what was going on.
“Do you know why you’re here?”
Actually, I had not the slightest idea why I was sitting in a wheelchair in a surgical gown and paper underpants. But I knew this was not the moment to be smart-arsed.
Something has gone badly wrong with medical care in Australia. Why can’t we do it like they do in Spain? Quick, lo-tech, effective and free.
Sure, not all medical conditions can be treated in this way. But most problems are minor, like my benign mole, and can be treated in this way. Increasingly, fear of legal action, obsession with hi-tech solutions, and the transformation of medicine into a profit-generating industry is destroying simple, inexpensive care in Australia.
And now a rhetorical question. Can you imagine a doctor in Australia giving you priority because you hold a pilgrim’s credencial?