Sunday, September 7, 2014

Camino Fourteen – An Angel at the Crossroads

I wake well on Sunday, pack and prepare everything and then go downstairs to invent on the hotel computer. I am highly resistant to google-world-domination and in case you feel the same resistance to its limitations (if someone or something isn’t google-bound, so I discovered, it will not appear in your searches) I pass on my favourite dog, Arfie.  I’m a cat woman myself, but Arfie, who is the sleuth hound of is the mastermind behind all search engines – and fetches things from places ungenerous google won’t.  I’ve been using him for twenty years, he never lets me down.  But, needs must, and though I can’t recall more than two email addresses I feel better for having a toehold back in cyber space, just in case.
 Alfonso V was the perfect two night pause, I am rejuvenated and ready to walk.  In her own good time the newly created Poppy Peregrina pops on her much lighter mochila, gathers up staff and hat and sallies forth down San Marcos.  Oh my! The divine café of the green apple and chestnut ice cream is open even though it is Sunday.  I go in for breakfast – té con limon and a mini hot-from-the-oven flan like a quiche the likes of which lightness of which I have never tasted before.  These people know how to make pastry.  I ask for another one for my journey but, in spite of how early, they’ve all gone.  Just as I was hearing this their baker walks in with another fresh tray full.  I resist, reluctantly, the green apple ice cream.  Buen Camino, they say as I leave with my picnic. 
I walk on down to the splendid parador San Marcos and go in to have my credencial stamped.  The sello isn’t as grand as some, but as I stand there I am set upon by the wealthy with splendid cameras – please can they photograph a real peregrina, they ask.  I obligingly smile for various Dutch and Australian tourists who wish me well and tell me how brave I am and an inspiration.  I agree with everything and an Australian woman of a similar age walks me to the bridge to wave me goodbye.  And so I take my leave of lovely León, and far on my way I pass a huddle of hobbit houses whose only evidence is a door in the side of the hill.  I think they might be bodegas. 

I walk on and on, to arrive at La Virgen del Camino where I ask the way as I seem to have lost a cockleshell or two during my directions.  I am pointed far down the street to a fast highway and road bridge.  I eventually reach it to find another possibility. 

 An Angel is at the crossroads reading a huge cardboard painted sign propped up against a tree.  The sign is as big as me.  Two divergent roads are marked in red and black.  Injunctions like: Go For Nature and Embark on the Adventure and Camino Alternativo Por La Naturaleza really give me no choice but to take the road less travelled once more.  Peering at the board the Angel turns and says, well this must be it.  We look at each other and turn left, heading for the adventure.  
I travel with Angel the whole day.  She is a delight, a very conscious and aware hip-hop gal from San Francisco who has been walking for nearly two months.  Her parents, a little younger than me, are ahead.  They wake earlier than Angel and as she is at the point of divorcing them they wisely decided the better part of valour is to keep 20 kms between each other.  She makes me smile with her wonderful observations and good humour.  She is thirty-one, works in an Outdoor Store.  Her parents have walked the Camino before, decide to do it again so they can take Angel too.  The three began their Camino in Porto, Portugal, reach Santiago, achieve their Compostelas, then stride on to Finisterre, Muxia and back to Santiago –and receive more Compostelas.

Angel thought she was going home then.  She had been walking over a month.  But no, her parents broke the news that all three were taking a train to Pamplona to walk back along the Camino Frances to – Santiago.  Angel felt justified in proposing a divorce. 

The road to Fresno is pure Meseta; long, flat and red earthed.  Herbs perfume the way: thyme, marjoram, oregano.  Their oil is pungent as we brush past.  Clouds shelter the sun from burning us, and Angel gives me a dollop of sunscreen.  I am so glad to share her company.  We stop at Chozas de Abajo, a blink of a watering hole that sells excellent coffee at its one bar.  Many miles later we arrive at Villar de Mazarife, I am charmed by the welcoming appearance of the municipal albergue but equally gladly follow Angel to Tio Pepe where her parents have booked a room.  As it happens Tio Pepe is completo but for the top bunk in the room with Angel’s parents.  All is well.  They are delightful, they’d have to be wouldn’t they, to name their daughter Angel! 
The top bunk proves difficult.  The stool to step on is a metre short of purchase!  I need a ladder; I was tired; the ladder was not forth-coming and I was standing on very tired legs at the foot of the bunks while the other three rested.  Angel, being a good nine inches taller than me, was able to heave herself up.  I prevailed upon the albergue owner for steps.  Yes, she said, and did nothing.  After a deal of time I went back down to her, braced myself at the bar and said: Senora! I have walked over 400 kilometres from Pamplona, I am almost old, and I am very tired.  I need to lie down on my bed and I need a ladder NOW!  Suddenly she found a key, a shed, a step ladder.  Just like that. 
We four ate our pilgrim meal together, it was mediocre.  I took family photos for them with their camera by the statue, and Angel took one of me with mine.  

In the corner store I bought a large tube of rich rose hip moisturizer for a ridiculously low price (€1.99) to discover it was made from organic rose hips collected from the hedgerows.   It lasted me all the way home, and I used it liberally over all of me every day.  The storks high on the bell tower just beyond our window clacked and settled down for the night. 

Nancy and Vern left silently at 6 am, they will walk all the way to Astorga, I calculate that in kilometres, it must surely be thirty-five at least.  Angel and I have a coffee, hug warmly as we go forth and the day unfolds.  I walk on happily.  It seems a long way to Villavente where pilgrims are sitting outside a small café.  I recognise Sandy and Gene from Tampa, it was Sandy who photographed the Three Macabi’s in León.  

Mary and Eamon from Ireland are young and beautiful, very beautiful.  American Dan and Esther share stories – Dan grew so many veggies he went to offer the excess to the local women’s refuge for victims of domestic violence.  It was a very secretive transaction, for months he was met in the street and refused closer contact.  He was a man after all.  Eventually he became so trusted he was allowed to deliver the veggies to their door and ask the cook what she would like for the next day.  Esther is a GP and speaks Spanish. 

We reach Hospital de Órbigo with its spectacular mediaeval bridge, the longest mediaeval bridge in the world and still cobbled. Only a thousand people live in the village – I’d be happy to add me as a statistic, it is charming.  Half way across the bridge is a sign board with text and painting.  Esther began translating the positively endless shaggy dog story of the legend behind the Puente de Passo Honroso. Dan and I couldn’t bear it any longer and kept saying: But did he get his girl? And at the point where Esther said: No, he didn’t, we both groaned – and walked on.  Minutes later Esther, who read though to the last full stop, joined us smiling: yes he did get his girl, she said, years later after walking the Camino as a peregrino! 

From here I planned to go on to Villares de Órbigo to a new and recommended albergue but couldn’t pass the wondrous parochial albergue here in Hospital with its blue shutters and courtyard of delights, tiled fuente and Maltese Cross in the cobbles.  The Knights of Malta founded the hospital here, legacy of their role as Knights Hospitallers; they who founded the first hospital on Rhodes and along whose battlements I would walk during the years of my Greek Tragedy.  Oh joy, I ask for a single room, they have such a wonder, and, up crooked stairs and past warrens of rooms markedprivado, I am led to an alcove of two rooms each with a double bed.  I am thrilled, €15 and sleeping alone. 
Now I am in the best restaurant, still accompanied by Angels, Los Ángeles.  I order trout soup, the waiter approves of my choice, tipica Hospital de Órbiga, he smiles, and delicately peels and bones the trout for me.   I lower my head and smile broadly to myself as I recall a Kurd gallant in Urfa shaking his head in quiet amusement over my smoked patlican kebab – he came to my rescue too, delicately peeling away the smoke toughened skin.  Duh - can’t trust a foreigner to know these refinements!  The crème caramel drew the waiter’s approval too, casa speciality
 I return to the Knights of Malta to find a tired young lad from Fowey – he is skateboarding to Santiago.  How did you manage to climb Alto del Perdón?  Negotiate down those rocky paths to Uterga? I ask, aghast.  Difficult, he said.  Difficult! But not Impossible? I gasp, astonished.  Gabriella, the multi-linguistic Hungarian hospitalero of the moment laughs hugely and translates to all and sundry, causing much merriment.  I reflect on Francois and his donkey; the charioteer family way back in Santo Domingo; the littlest pilgrim, right here in his carrier; Yves and his wheelie pulley; Simone and her socks and sandals; the beautiful flaxen plaited NZ woman with her eight children; the young Italian girl and her dog – and other pilgrims with burdens of the heart, Christine, Karel, Peter-Paul... the Camino brings us all together.  The woman in the shop where I bought fruit tells me her son is in Canterbury, teaching basketball.  Really this Camino gets curiouser and curiouser.  I love this adventure!  
I pick an Annunciation lily struggling to find light in the tangle of roses in the churchyard and put her by my bed in the toothbrush glass.  I even have my own sink – though I now discover sink an apt word for the mattress which has collapsed under the weight of a thousand Knights - in full armour.  Resourceful as ever I see that out in the corridor between my blue shutters and the outer wall with windows to fresh air stands a MDF bed sized board amongst a load of discarded stuff.  With stealth and innovative thinking I devise a strategy to manoeuvre this hefty piece through the blue shutters into my room.  I balance it by inches, run between the corridor and bedroom via the bathroom and back again a few times to edge it through, miraculously it fits through the window, it lands on one edge with a thump and I position another edge against the side jamb.  Then I run back round to the bedroom to upend the sunken mattress – very tricky, it almost folds up on itself it is so devoid of support and won’t remain on its side.  More juggling, and the board plops on to the sunken springs, I drop the mattress, and voila! a bed! 
Well satisfied I go into the wild garden, greet two cats and sit by the old bush of fragrant noisette roses by the stream. Roses and poppies will ever remain for me symbolic of the Camino.  The house, however, is little short of a hovel but is so charming, so full of character, that each unstable floorboard is in truth singing a song of pilgrim feet. 
Pipiéna is the magnificent coloured Frenchwoman in the room next to mine and is walking the Camino in stages.  I can hardly believe I am over half way, have walked nearly 500 kms.  I must have bi-located.  
Left early.  Pipiéna gives me a huge hug and kiss and bon chemin.  I take the road less travelled, aided by a group of super fit Germans who called me back from heading off on neither of the right roads at all.  The path runs along a canal and a heady tang of ox-eye and michaelmas daisies, cut hay and wild lavender add to the sensual sound of water, the sight of red earth, fields and asphodel, far hills and oh! snow caps!  A few more steps and beyond the spurs of golden furze unfolds a whole panorama of mountains.  I am headed for those – the thought is exhilarating, not because I particularly love mountains or snow but because I have walked through every terrain along 500 kilometres!  I have walked! The thought is breathtaking and tears of astonishment prickle my eyes. 

I stop at a café in Santibáñez de Valdeiglesias, the signpost is larger than the hamlet.  The café is sparkling and I am pleased my intuition led me away from the dreary TV pounding bar in Villares.  The coffee is strong and rich.  Two weary women sit at the table next to me.  I am perky from a good night’s sleep and I ask where they have walked from.  I suspect I have a little smugness lurking behind the question, but pride comes before a complete collapse as my jaw hits the deck at their answer!  Luxembourg, they say, we are a little tired today, we have walked 2340 kms, we begin on March 20th with two rest days only.  Three months and albergues all the way, though in France they are different. 
It is the 10th of June.  I am humbled by these women, who may be their late thirties, but could be any age really.  I look a hundred and seventy these days.  Mariette carries a pack and Marianne wheels a dogcart like Yves.  As if to downplay their own astonishing achievement they open the newspaper on the counter to show me the photo of a French pilgrim in a wheelchair passing through León.  He pushes only with his hands.  I am brought to dust, my wheelchair and almost seventy story stops right here.  I never mention either again.  My Camino is a walk in the park by comparison.
 I walk on and on, up hills and down dales, alone with all the nature I love.  Up the last hill and there in front of me is a long low red mud brick structure of three sides and little else.  By the path is a blue cart covered by a cheery canvas tarp and a young man who calls: Welcome to Paradise!
 To be continued ...

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