Saturday, August 30, 2014

Camino Six: Storks, Roses and Rosemary

  San Juan de Ortega 
During the evening meal, under the watchful gaze of Paulo Coelho, mine host, Acacio, tells me I should write a book on aging and women and walking the Camino.  He seems to think the research I did in preparation is impressive.  Celso, the Brazilian, looks at my mochila and pronounces it ‘military’ ... too heavy by half.  Jüergen has shin splints and walks slowly, limiting himself to 15 kms or so for now.

     In the morning warm goodbyes are said and we head off into the wind.  The rule at this albergue states no one is to rise before 7 am.  Very civilized.  My day’s walk is a joy.  I pass through Grañón, pause at the bakery of Jesus where hot bollitos are just being drawn from the oven and the fragrance of fresh bread fills the lonely street. 
  I talk to everything as I walk, tell everything how perfect it is – puddles, wind, flowers, grasses, birds, lizards, trees – they understand and I am flooded with love.  The Way walks me.  It’s as if I am awakening to a dual consciousness.  Yes, I can still rail at the snorers or whatever else irritates my human frailty, but there is another, deeper, reality which takes over the minute I step onto the true Way and am surrounded by nature.  I’m walking well, the land is singing.  I am overcome by a profound love for my dear feet and plump body, almost apologising to them for embarking on such a reckless adventure at their age.  I love the newness of feeling body-me respond to the superhuman, and seemingly impossible task, of walking 500 miles in my own body! I don’t always live there!
 My good humour returns apace and I smile at everything as I enter the marvellous town of Belorado, many kilometres further on, to stand staring in wonder at the extraordinary sight of storks nesting on every ledge of the church bell tower. 


     After admiring the church I continue on to the tiny hamlet of Villambistia where I am greeted by the singularly attractive woman hospitalera of San Roque. San Roque, so well loved in the south of France where he is particularly associated with Mary Magdalene for some reason that escapes me now, is perhaps the archetype of the wounded Fisher King and always accompanied by his dog.  A good place to stop.

 I choose my bunk, but the dorm fills up quickly with gargantuan snorers (no, I don’t snore, said the stupid unaware elderly man from somewhere south of Arlington when I asked him, so as I could be as far away as possible ... duh!).  Above me is Jüergen – we decide we like our company as bunkmates as we agree that each is such a quiet sleeper.  Jüergen is still suffering from his shin splints.  I go for a walk and find a deep cerise damask rose and some sprigs of rosemary.  I bring these back to the dorm where he is resting.  He is awake.  I give him the rose and the rosemary and say he must sleep with these on his pillow and breath in their fragrance visualizing it flow all the way down to his injuries and: it will heal the pain he grins, entering into the play I am inventing as the only way I can offer my sympathy.  He gets it, he really gets it!

The worst night of snoring, according to Jüergen, came from the American who said he didn’t snore.  He snored and rattled and belched and threw himself about the bed – sheer hell for us all.  There is always one.

  Few of us slept.  An Aboriginal woman from Sydney’s inner city muttered darkly but nothing short of pointing the bone would have penetrated that man’s blissful sleep.  None of us happened to have a spare metacarpal handy. It was still dark when we, the sleep ravaged, called it a night and left before murder.  Yet, there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in, and once again, the moment I was beyond the village and on the Camino, love flooded through me as the birds tuned up for their Dawn chorus, the clouds streaked pink and gold and the sky behind the village streamed light.  No one spoke as we each walked into the morning.

Up to the peaks through the fragrant pine forests I walked, not the dead pine forests we know but pine forests alive with siskins, red squirrels, crossbills and lizards and much more besides.  Over the Rio Cerrata, down into San Juan de Ortega and down down down into Agés.

I rested alone at San Juan, feeling suddenly shy and slightly ill at ease with the bonhomie of so many pilgrims.  Their chatter prevented much interaction with the world around them so when an emerald lizard froze as everyone passed it by I was enthralled when it relaxed and sat while I took some photos before vanishing into the bracken with a quick flick of his tail.

  I walk twenty one kilometres happily, and reach Agés by 2 o’clock.  The first albergue is San Rafael; I so enjoy the company of saints and I stop right there.  A wildly eccentric hospitalero (who refused to be photographed) wagged his finger at me for not booking beforehand but leads me upstairs to a charming room of two by two bunks with pretty blue and white floral duvets, thick pillows, white sheets, a huge built in wardrobe, ensuite shower and loo and views over the fields.  Was it 8€ or 10€?  Whatever, it was worth it!  A woman later came in, asked where I was from. 

 Glastonbury! she exclaimed – I must phone my husband, he is there now, passionate about King Arthur!  Before she phones I hold up my Glastonbury Spring water bottle for her to photograph the label of the Tor which she texts him too!  It is a giggle.  Amalia is an architect from Venezuala.  I go downstairs to eat and when I return to my room on the pillow of the bunk above me there is a cerise rose and two sprigs of rosemary!  Jüergen!  He comes in grinning, I knew it was you he says, I see your hat and your red and white polka dot ribbon!  We are in for a quiet night with just the three of us.  Wonderful.

  Amalia has left at first light, silently, and I silently leave next.  Jüergen is sleeping with the rose on his pillow.  He will walk fast today – miraculously his shin splints have healed; he continues to carry the rose and rosemary attached to the top of his rucksack.  I am rather touched but know that he will now travel far ahead of me.  Encounters like this, short and meaningful, will make up my amalgam of memories.

 Today it rains.  And rains.  I stop for breakfast in Atapueca, a village famous for unearthing stoneaged hominids dating back 400,000 years, the oldest in Western Europe.  (Wikipedia is worth looking at).  Matagrande looms ahead, nearly 1200 metres and another vertical climb.  Only this time it is really difficult, the rain has made the rocky ascent glacially slippery, we pilgrims pick our way footfall by tenuous footfall.  Dry, it may be alright, but wet is hazardous.  We trail like ants, slowly, separately, the sense of deep concentration palpable.  I don’t know how I reach the top, but I do, just as another lone pilgrim is passing the huge cross in the mist.  I stop momentarily, take a photo in the rain, aware of the yellow shrub in this dark and haunting place.


 Thankful I am to leave it.  The descent is not so vertical, ahead of me I see one pilgrim walking slowly - it is Simone.  We greet and part, her poor ill-formed feet are saturated in their sandals.  I am headed for Burgos 20 kms to go and still many hours walk.  The rain is relentless.

 Exhausted, I find the tiny albergue that John Brierley found so appealing.  Big Mistake.  He is such hypocrite – he stays at paradors, paradors I ask you, at no less than 200€ a night – and recommends this pitiful place. 

 It is parochial; perhaps he thinks it ‘spiritual’.  The place is rich with intention but horribly poor with what wet tired pilgrims need.  One shower and one functional loo for sixteen people.  The hot water has gone, the loo is occupied. I am offered a top bunk which I cannot climb up to.  A young male athlete has the last lower one.  I insist on swapping. In my tiredness the noise and proximity of people flips me over to a more than mild insanity and I stand in confusion lost under the armpits of six huge male Californian sophomores on a holiday jaunt to Santiago.

  I vaguely register that these privileged (or they wouldn’t be attending university) young men are here because it is donativo, 5€.  In the same instant I am aware that Simone has also staggered up the three flights of stairs and has been told there is no bed.  Not one, not one of the healthy young things offered their bed to this crippled, wet, 81 year woman.  So far below their armpits stood she that they didn’t even see her. 

 In a nanosecond I reached over and said there is a bed, take mine.  The hospitalero looked at me with such grace, but Simone, removing her dripping poncho, put her arms round me to say in halting English: God has sent you to me, thank you, I can walk no more.  Meanwhile the armpits and elbows above us tried to shuffle about to give an inch of floor space for Simone’s mochila.  I wearily pick up mine and head down the flights of narrow stairs and out into the wet streets, chilled to the bone, soaking wet and lost, to look for somewhere to lay my own head.

To be continued ...



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