Sunday, August 10, 2014

Camino Four: Los Arcos, Torres del Rio and Fast Forward to Logroño.

I ache, oh I ache.  I ache in every fibre of my body, I ache from walking, I ache from carrying the world on my back (even with the absence of eyeliner) and I ache from exhaustion and sleep deprivation.  If I could kill every snorer I would.  Most cheerfully.  There they lie, sleeping the sleep of the unjust, shaking the bunks, the floors, the very walls of the dormitories; their snoring would make piglings in a pigsty sound like Palestrina.  And then they wake up – they dare to wake up fresh as daisies, bright eyed and bushy tailed, wondering why the rest of us lay like limp rags, scowling loudly in their direction.  I’ll wager all these lone men are lone because their wives are desperately trying to catch up on years and years of sleep deprivation.  Their wives have probably begged them to take a Walk, a Long Walk ...   Yet I will soon confess – there are women snorers who are unfit for communal living too.  I was about to meet three in a room for four. 

Walk, eat, sleep.  That’s the mantra. Hot shower on arrival to ease away the worst of the aches, dress in tomorrow’s top and skirt, same petticoat, rest the feet by putting on sandals, applying the German herbal cream of different mints and rosemary; wash whatever might need washing and then go and forage for food. With my wavering blood sugar ups and downs the menu del dia at lunch suits me well.  It’s always a substantial three course meal with a bottle of wine, which I swap for water, although that is often included, dessert, coffee.  Sightseeing or meandering takes care of the afternoon, or journal writing.  I keep awake and moving in an effort to make myself so exhausted I’ll sleep through gunfire.  It hasn’t worked so far.  

Surrounded by so many different energies in a dormitory wreaks havoc with a sensitive nervous system – there are other explanations of course, but here is not the platform for launching into more esoteric doctrines. I have Jeff’s gift yet I am hesitant to dip into it to take a single room in a hotel to catch up on sleep for good reasons – I don’t know how long the walk will take me and I haven’t yet had the inner green light for permission to abandon vestigial Camino Calvinism.  Thou, Pilgrim, Shalt Suffer.  My paternal forbears are Swiss from Geneva and Lausanne, one French one German, but the French, with all its joy and sensuality and Catholicism and love of pleasure and beauty and adornment was thoroughly crushed by the German who carried Luther and Calvin in his psychology.  It’s taken me decades to bring together the French margins; clothes and an innate sense of colour coordination redeemed the yawning possibility of severe guilt destroying the charm of frivolity that dances in the corners of my soul and wardrobe.

I can barely remember my walk to Los Arcos.  It was pretty and rural. Birds sang; poppies, ox-eye daisies, honeysuckle and wild roses lined the path; wheat fields young and green patchwork the distances as far the horizon; haystacks the size of apartment blocks astonish credulity.  The fountains are there just as my water bottle needs refilling, so are the wayside stones with their cheerful scallop shells and yellow arrows.  I have my slender Michelin guide with its contour profiles and A for albergues at the relevant villages or towns, but one could walk without even that.  I smile at the Americans and Australians with their head in the John Brierley guide, a dreadful book, and disturbingly inaccurate at times, so heavily biased is it to JB’s view of what is wholesome and good.  Those who add to his considerable bank balance are walking his Camino, not their own:  And did you feel the Force? See the Sign? Watch the geese flying backwards?  Feel the guilt when you thought an uncharitable thought?  Oh spare me the guru gabble I say to them, uncharitably and guiltlessly.  Sleep deprivation does nothing for my health and temper.

And at Los Arcos a snaggle toothed Austrian half my age decides I need a doctor before she’ll let me in to her horrid albergue to rest.  She takes my mochila from my back, turns me round, whistles for the Hound of the Baskervilles to rise from its mephitic blanket and off we march. My feeble protest: I’m only tired, all I need is sleep falls on fallow ground as I register the street direction, the baker, the square, the gorgeous church and the disdain of the locals as Baskerville runs riot and pees on flower pots, doors, café table legs, the fountain ... I wish I was invisible.  At the doctors’ my prayers are answered – first, my EHIC is back in my mochila and second, the doctor is off for lunch.  Snaggle and Baskerville abandon me.  Just like that.

I make my way to the square where a sturdy Australian woman is drinking a large glass of red something with ice cubes and slices of orange.  I ask her what it is.  Sangria, she says, and appraises my pilgrim lurch, rightly assessing my aches: three of these and you’ll be right, she grins. She’s right.  I knock back one, and savour a second.  It’s nectar, pure nectar.  Sitting in the square in the sunshine all’s well with the world and I beam welcomes to pilgrims’ as they arrive – Canadians Gary and Tina in her macabi and pink headband – she has her stitches out tomorrow – Australians Vanessa and John, Austrian Ilse, Texan Colin, and three English septuagenarians who have remained in touch since school days.  They live in different countries and decided to celebrate their friendship by meeting in Spain to walk the Camino.

I explore the Church.  It has now opened and I am enchanted by its beauty and its Madonna. I gaze long at this Madonna, Santa Maria de los Arcos, she is lovely and steps from her twelfth century Trône de Sagesse to greet me today.  I love the turn of her smile.  I never confuse these images with the archetypes they represent; I gaze on them to be reminded always of things eternal.  I gaze on the Blessed Virgin to be reminded of Her parthenogenesis, a fact ignored or unknown by all but Catholics.  She, too was immaculately conceived, an Immaculate Conception; Catholic ‘patriarchy’ didn’t get it ‘wrong’ but every other offshoot of Christianity did.  Having obliterated this mysterious continuum of the Goddess the hollow men of the Reformation dispensed with Mary and all the ancient mythos she enshrines. Today’s feminists might be wiser for that knowing.  My beloved Virgins in Majesty, all older than the printing press, tell me an older, richer story.

I return to Austria.  It was hell on all counts. We were four women crowded in a tiny room of two, two-tiered bunks and in a room of two doors which became a thoroughfare for door-slammers to reach a larger dormitory with umpteen bunks equally as crowded.  The other three women were large and each snored deafeningly.  My bunk trembled.  The American above me, young, pretty, very large, very privileged – her father was a consultant medical something or other and money grew on trees – was the least pleasant. She railed at all the bread she had eaten along her Camino, as if it was the only fare to be had in Spain, and when I returned from the loo in the morning I found my bag of peaches and cherries and yogurt bought for my breakfast walk had gone walkabout.  So had she.  It was a grim and sleepless night and almost, but not quite, the worst albergue experience I would have.

Ragged and tired and hungry the following morning I walked eight kilometres to Torres del Rio and came to a halt at the church wall upon which I sat, completely dysfunctional.  I didn’t even know where I was headed for.  A woman, two women in fact, approached me and although we hadn’t a word of each other’s language I knew they knew my pilgrim condition.  One pointed me to a café; surely I understood coffee, car, Logroño ...?  I limped over to the café and sat sipping my café con leche suddenly feeling extraordinarily protected.  Like Jenny-any-dots I would simply – sit, though I took a moment to record the nightmares of the previous night in my journal as worse than being in a Hieronymus Bosch painting.  I watched pilgrims pass, reflected on the row of Templar flags adorning the terrace and didn’t care if I died right then. 

Fifteen minutes passed, twenty, more.  The angel in the green and gold shawl from our encounter by the church wall appeared, picked up my mochila and told me to follow her all the way to her car, she opened the doors, put my mochila in the back, closed the doors once I was in and off we went.  I didn’t care where we were going and sat back to enjoy the godsend, though I had the clearest sense of it being a goddess-send.
Fields sped by, trails of pilgrims heading in the same direction as my angel driver seemed a good sign.  I acknowledged with gratitude the blessing of a walk free day wherever it was I might end up.  Lanes became roads became a freeway with switchbacks with large roundabouts and ... Logroño.  My goodness, here I was.  Pilar dropped me at an albergue in the cobbled side street of the mediaeval centre of the town, I ran round to hug her and thank her with all my heart as an hospitalero came to pick up my mochila, invite me in and stamp my credencial.  I felt blessed for now and when I organised myself, my bunk and my sang-froid, set off to explore the Cathedral, indulge in a cup of pure chocolate velvet and fall about laughing as I peered in a bookshop window to see, centre stage, a coffee-table book of – Hieronymus Bosch!

To be continued ...


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