Sunday, August 10, 2014

Camino Five: A Park Bench, Paulo Coelho, Karel and Our Lady of Finisterre

 Weather in Logroño was cold and nearly wet.  I found Barclays behind arches of roses next to a building with the prettiest decorative pargeting.  I swallowed my shock at the rate of exchange, although once I was home I discovered it to be pleasantly in my favour, which just proves how dysfunctional my brain cells.  Another sleepless night - but I was wising up on rucksacks and decided that when it came to lugging the world on one’s shoulders it seemed English insisted on cheap where Everyone Else insisted on quality no matter what cost.  I discreetly lifted my bunkmate’s backpack when she went for a shower – good grief, it was weightless.  I noted Gregory, Jade 35L.  Golite Jam 35L was another impressive discovery.  One of those weightless wonders had travelled all the way from Le Puy.  Osprey appealed to me no end ... all of these happened to be American and weren’t in my local Mountain Warehouse where all I was shown were made of heavy duty canvas.  Even at double or triple the price these super light tough nylon numbers were worth their lightweight in gold.

Slow walk to Ventosa, a pretty village, population 150.  The one albergue was owned by an Austrian who registered it as a charity so she didn’t pay any tax to poor Spain.  Cold as Charity it was too: no blankets, a centimetre of very watered down soap for use after going to the loo, cold showers because the sun, covered all day with thick dark cloud, hadn’t heated the solar panels and the woman wasn’t putting on electricity.   All this for €10 a night.  There were 60 beds.  She was making €600 a night and paying no tax.  Wow!  The Austrian told me she had lived in Spain long enough to be “more like the Spanish really” and I said, “oh, I don’t think you are like the Spanish at all” thinking of their kindness and generosity and patience.

Back in the Bar a young Italian could barely walk, his knees had given out, and a Danish woman has dreadful blisters.  I’m doing alright.  Then a middle-aged American couple walked in, took a table, and ate their own food without even buying a drink.  They left peel and plastic for the staff to clean away but worse, the man removed his boots, lifted up a foot, pulled off his socks and began picking at his blisters! At the table!  I was aghast, and on behalf of all the non-English speakers present and taking up cudgels on behalf of a bar owner struggling to survive in this miniscule hamlet, (the owner being Spanish would pay tax) I walked over and said: Would you behave like this in your own town?  Your own country? Well, would you? These tables are for people to eat food at.

The American looked at me blankly and grunted. And I confess to Almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters I wouldn’t have patience with pilgrims who leave their manners behind when they walk through another’s country!! I am enjoying giving full expression to the grumpy old woman who lives inside me and laugh at myself for having the nerve to say what others think.

I am relaxing now and walking well. I took a leaf out of ditzy Marilyn’s book and sent my mochila on to my next albergue by Jacotrans.  This is beautiful country; the hills up to Alto de San Anton are steep and the descent to Nájera fairly sheer.  The river is fast flowing, an abundance of roses fill every garden, the fragrance of old species like Damasks and Bourbons, Louise Odier in particular, was thrilling.  I so long for a garden of my own, all I can manage to grow in my estate of two square metres is a Cecile Brunner and a Ferdinand Pichard.  I went in to the Monasterio Santa Maria Real once I reached Nájera and found, in a deliberately darkened grotto, a fabulous Madonna.  I bought a postcard and discovered she was named Our Lady of the Rose.  I wandered the streets, found a bar offering a pilgrim meal and a single room for €15.  Bliss.  Tomorrow Santa Domingo de la Calzada.

The rain skirted my path all the way. Clouds dark, lowering, ominous, tipping down rain to my right and to my left over fields of green wheat and red poppies, a few hefty spots fell on me but the storm, which went on and on with the wildest of buffeting winds, stayed circling me.  I was so grateful and shouted thank you thank you into the wild wind as I walked.

Goodness I feel grubby!  That’s okay in the fields but once I reach human habitation even the men smell lovely as they pass me, Terre d'Hermès Eau de Toilette is apparently de rigueur!  I shower, my clothes are clean if a little dusty, but I am not my usual self.  I rely on flowers for fragrance.  Am now well and truly in Rioja with its soil so red and grapevines as far as the horizon.  I love my macabi skirt, can pee standing! Check the wind and air dry! I watch women struggle lifting huge backpacks off and on, bending and pulling down their trousers and knickers and what all and wonder what possesses women to cross dress.  I dispensed with knickers years ago convinced they were the vestigial remains of the chastity belt, a male invention.  Cry Freedom!

Jacotrans took care of my mochila again today so I will walk 15 or so miles, 21 kms actually, with my day pack, water, camera and journals.  And I do.  Santo Domingo is gorgeous, just gorgeous.  I meet a lovely Frenchwoman and we share an alcove in a spartan and none too clean convent – and oh, our alcove ricochet’s with the snores of twenty snorers in the main room.  Christine tells me she has walked from Le Puy, she is walking to resolve her grief at the sudden death of her beloved husband to whom she was married for forty years.  They walked the world together.  Such sorrow fills me as she speaks.  She says she knows I can feel her sadness and that I am the first person she has spoken of it since she began her walk six weeks before.  We sit silently on a bench in a patch of sun for a long time before going inside.  She also says the only way to salvage sleep to restore one’s sanity is to alternate albergue’s with pensions.

We exchange emails in the morning.  She is driven to walk on and I, having had another sleepless night, make the momentous decision to walk thirty metres to the albergue across the road and sleep.  Christine laughs hugely and hugs me warmly.  It was a wise decision.  

The five star municipal albergue is something else, complete with hairdryers in the spotless and superbly equipped ladies shower room.  The hospitalero also laughs hugely as I enter at 0800 hours but he takes pity on my appearance and lets me in (they don’t actually re-open until noon to allow for cleaning) tells me to take a top bunk in the furthest dorm, sleep while I am alone.   Should have listened to Christine though, it was here the little Asian gentleman practised calisthenics (I prayed he would commit hara kiri and let me sleep) shaking the bunk above me all night while his mate next to me snored for Korea, or Japan, or even the whole of China.  The wretched little Asians bounced off their bunks at 5 am ... so I left too.  I wondered if there was a message here for me ... something about Just Use Jeff’s Gift and Get a Life! 
Heavenly walk in mist and rain, the dawn chorus amplified.  Recalled that John Brierley called this particular stretch of road “soulless”.  As a man is so he sees.  It is shimmeringly alive with winged singers – birds, dearest souls.  Ah well, as the Sufi says: in a room full of saints a thief will only see pockets.  John Brierley sees soulless – says much of him.  A friend gave me JB’s guide when I first decided to walk, so glad I read it and abandoned it.

I reflect on things as I walk.  Leaving early I NOK’d and sock’d my feet, put a small pull of M’s gift of Blue Leicester fleece between my little toes and rubbed L’s gift of Thai balm into my thighs to warm the muscles.  I thank them all.  A beautiful walk, wild and windy and sleeting rain all around me again.  I carried Caroline’s poncho and fought ferocious elements to engulf myself in it with help from Nadine and André from Pas de Calais who have walked from Le Puy.  I pass Belgian Denis on his return from Santiago – he has notched up 5240 kms, obviously via Montenegro ...

Double rainbows arch over El Camino as I walk spritely into the first town for coffee and brioche.  Only as far as Viloria de Rioja today.  Leaving at 5 am meant I arrived hours too early for the albergue to open so I sit freezing on the stone step.  The pitfall of sending the mochila ahead is that I can’t retrieve it from behind the very locked doors to continue walking. Big Mistake.  My knocking on the door has no response, indeed there is a sign saying: do not knock before 13.30.  I sit on the freezing stone step watching the storm circle me.  The village has no bar, no café, no shelter.  It is Sunday and I foolishly have no provisions to get me through the noonday blood sugar crunch.

My mood drops and darkens as storm clouds close in around me like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  I move to the wooden park bench up on the main street thinking it warmer than the stone step and wonder how I will get through the next hours.  A Dutch couple are about to pass when the man asks why I am sitting here and I manage to grumble through the dark clouds of my mind: I’m waiting for a miracle.  I need food.
"Food? he replies, you need food?  I have food", and he sits down beside me and produces biscuits and cheese and the woman sits on the other side of me and produces a knife and bread and chorizo and chocolate and as I eat the dark clouds lift and I am back to normal!  Even the Four Horsemen hover without menace.  A van pulls up and out jumps a local man with bottles of water to give us because we are peregrinos.  Oh people are so kind.  The Dutchman bids the Dutchwoman walk on, they are not a couple, as he says he wants to tell me his story.
Rewind: Glastonbury 
12th May 2014

The day before I left Glastonbury for my Camino a Dutch friend came to see me and to give me a gift for my pilgrimage.  Johanna knew about walking.  She had walked from Le Hague to Jerusalem, 5000 kms, 3500 miles.  She went through all the countries on a straight line on the map from Holland to Israel – that’s a lot of countries – carrying her rucksack, a tent, her flute and her eyeliner.  She said I ought to go to Finisterre after reaching Santiago, and this gift was to be a reminder. She held out to me a beautiful medallion of Our Lady of Finisterre.  I accepted it and wore it, it being rather too large to wear round my neck, pinned with a gold safety pin on the inside of one of the deep pockets of my skirt.  I left home to walk the Camino on 13th May 2014.
Karel began his story: On 12th May 2010 my daughter Linda and my son in law Jeffrey died on their honeymoon in an air crash.  No one survived the crash.   On 13th May 2014 I left home to walk the Camino.  The day before was the Memorial Day of the disaster.  On that day the closest girlfriend of my daughter gave me a small stone heart and said she had put one like it on the grave of Linda and Jeffrey.  “Take this heart with you and Linda’s and your heart will be connected on your journey.”

I am looking for a miracle, said Karel, tears filling his eyes, my daughter and I had a very close relationship.  The year before the air disaster she wrote a poem of our special father daughter relationship which gave us so much joy.  She said she wanted to share the joy with the world so she put her poem into a bottle and we went to the pier at Scheveningen where she threw the bottle into the sea.  I am going to walk to Finisterre because I am looking for a miracle.  My prayer to my heavenly Father is that the bottle with the message that my daughter threw into the sea the year before she died will be washed ashore in Finisterre when I am sitting on the beach at the end of my Camino.
As Karel unfolded his heartaching story I could barely contain such sorrow.  I knew what I must do. Karel, my voice slow with the weight of sadness, God always gives us miracles but, my voice slowed even more, sometimes the miracles are not the way we hope for.  On 12th May a Dutch friend who lives in my town came to say goodbye and to give me a gift.  She had walked from Le Hague to Jerusalem and her book is published in Holland.  She said I must walk to Finisterre and she gave to me a medallion which would protect me on my Way.
I was fiddling in my pocket, unpinning Our Lady of Finisterre.  I brought it out, holding it in the palm of my hand:  I believe this is meant for you to have; your daughter is always with you.

Sometimes a mystery is too overpowering and one can sense the Presence of the Unseen worlds.  The Silence then surrounding us stilled the attention of the whole natural world – the wind had stopped, no pilgrims passed by us, the birds had ceased to sing – and in this holy moment Linda was intimately close.  Karel accepted the gift.  We each recognised all the guiding synchronicities of our journeys that led to our meeting now              

We hugged. Karel took a ‘selfie’ of us as he went on his way, waving and singing a song he had learned for the Camino. 


I went down to the albergue which was about to open.  My day of Moments hadn’t ended.  Acacio, the owner, told me he was fully booked yesterday and tomorrow, but tonight there was one bed available.   He let me use his personal computer and because it was a personal computer and not a public one microsoft allowed me access to my emails.  It would be the last time I could.  An email from Olivia in America began: 

Dearest Zoé

I am walking the Camino with you in spirit as I read Paulo Coelho’s The Pilgrimage ....

I look up at the wall above me.  There is a life sized photo of Paul Coelho.  Acacio, I ask, why is there a portrait of Paulo Coelho looking at me?  And I am beyond being astonished when I hear something along the lines of: I am from Brazil, I know Paulo Coelho and he is the Patron, the Godfather, of this albergue...

Dearest Olivia

You won’t believe me but I am replying to your email as I sit under a portrait of Paulo Coelho who happens to be Patron of this albergue ...

Here in this tiny albergue of nine beds I meet Ela and Christina from Canada, Jüergen from Austria, Celso a cyclist from Brazil and Simone from Belgium.  Simone and I roast our socks over the fire to dry.  It is cold here.  I learn that Simone is 81 and has feet so deformed by bunions she can only walk in socks and sandals.  She will walk the whole Camino; I will meet her again tomorrow ...

To be continued ...

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