Monday, September 15, 2014

Camino Sixteen – The Last of the Wild, Wheelchairs and an Unlikely Banana!


Rabanal is a minute hamlet.  I buy food at Miriams, come back to the albergue and make a healthy bowl of provisions, am not allowed a dribble of olive oil, but given a bottle of cooking oil by one of the two male hospitaleros.  I sat at the al fresco table where the two male hospitaleros and the real olive oil sat and dressed my salad with it when the men were pre-occupied with young peregrinas; just because.  
Then I learn of cold showers – the plumbers have been working all day. Regardless, I wash Everything and me, hang my clothes on the long lines in the hot sun.  I love being here on English grass with bare feet and clover and patches of wild flowers under the silver birches.  The garden is a blessed sanctuary. 
 Susanna is a delight – the two men ... ah well.   At lunch I had tried to lead the table talk but it fell away in trifles and though I may have missed the currant cake I couldn’t help but notice the undercurrents.  The Australian is a far cry from enlightenment!  He disparages Dane, whom he hasn’t met, Dane is staying at a different albergue, his cello, and the entire canon of classical music.   Dane’s fame travels before him, he is playing in the old 11th century church tonight. The Australian was equally disparaging of the kindness of Marion of the CSJ too – she doesn’t make the rules, she’s not a hospitalero, it’s nothing to do with her, he grates in response to learning of my original email to her.  I just may pass that on.

A little back-story:
When I was panic-planning my walk at 4.00 o’clock in the mornings BC, Before Camino, I had emailed the Confraternity over their inflexible ruling that no pilgrim will be permitted refuge who has not walked and carried his or her pack up that 20 km hill.  Now, my feet have a history and so I wrote to the CSJ that the rule was fine for a twenty year old male, but not for a nearly-seventy-year-old woman who had been in a wheelchair and told she would not walk again. The one size rule really doesn’t fit all.

Some years back, when I lived in S.E. Queensland, I had tripped on the bottom stair of my verandah – and both feet had crumbled.  Just like that.  The verdict of the Australian medical fraternity who viewed the collapse of both my feet from such severe osteoporosis was rank dismissal – it was wheelchair for me.  No physio was offered, no options except wheelchair – forever.  Up till that moment osteoporosis had not been detected – although, at around the same time, I had a tooth removed and a piece of honeycombed jawbone came with it.  It puzzled me, but the negligent dentist of the day didn’t actually enlighten me as to why half a honeycombed jawbone would have come out attached to the tooth, a tooth which showed no signs of decay.
But back to my foot story:  a chance reading of a local newspaper during my months of bed confinement drew my attention to the arrival of a Chinese physiotherapist who set up practice at the bottom of my street.  Australia is a Very Large Continent.  The bottom of my street isn’t mentioned on the maps.  Yet Homer Lam came to the bottom of my street. Mark this for a miracle.

Something demanded I make an appointment to see him.  There is nothing so sad as lying listening to the silent sound of bones crumbling.  I was wheeled down to see him.  Four months had passed since I had been dismissed by the worthy members of the AMA.  When Homer opened the door he took one look at my feet, the left one was now an unpretty mottled blue to the ankle, and said gaily: oh, you have Sudeck’s Atrophy, I think I can help you.  And so he did.  How he did is a long story of three times weekly visits for nearly a year.  What he did is yet another story, and not for here.
It took nearly four years for me to be able to walk without thinking how to place my foot over, say, a sand ripple or a tussock of grass, anything that required the foot to bend itself. I had to retrain my cellular memory, the cells of my feet, in how to walk by thinking for them.  I can walk more or less without thinking over any terrain nowadays, but I am still cautious over uneven and serious rockiness underfoot, thinking each footfall in that nanosecond before making it.
The miracle of Homer coming to the bottom of my street is amplified when I tell you that this young man, he was 32 at the time, had a clinic in Hong Kong specializing in Atrophy. Why? you might ask.  And I confess I didn’t ask.  However, logic and a little historical fact suggests to me that with their centuries long history of foot binding and shattering bones to do so, Chinese women of older generations were/are still susceptible to osteoporosis in their ancestrally weak foot bones. Foot bones are fragile and thin at the best of times.  It would be generations après footbinding before the inherent and intentional weakness would have bred itself out.
Homer had applied to three universities for post doctoral studies: one in America, one in Canada and one in Australia – St Lucia, in Brisbane.  St Lucia answered him first, offering what he wanted.  Brisbane is at least 40 kms from where I lived in Silkstone, probably more. 

Imagine 40 kms as a radius point from Brisbane.  Now swing your mental compass in a huge circumferential arc and you will have a vast area of urban possibilities in which to set up, particularly as he lived in another suburb of Brisbane a long way from his clinic. Enough said.  That he specializes in the very thing that confounded the AMA medics and rendered them incapable of helping me is simply jaw-dropping don’t you think?  I call all the imponderables that make up my meeting him, a miracle. 

I emailed him BC to ask if he thought I could walk 500 miles with my feet.  Of course you can, he emailed back, only you, your feet will do well.  I suspect when my feet reach Santiago, having carried overweight me and overweight mochila, they will be stronger than they have ever been in their whole life.
Back to my email of now:
Thus, I emailed Marion to suggest that rules of one size do not fit all.  I had nightmares of struggling to reach ‘home’ and mother-tongue and soft green grass and tea on the lawn and being turned away because I may have resorted to Jacotrans.  Marion responded by emailing the hospitaleros to alert them to my coming and asking to let me stay.  Susanna welcomed me, to my delight and her congratulations, I had indeed carried my mochila all the 20 kms.  But, and now I return to the present, this rabid little Australian would have had no compunction in turning me away from my mother-community had I not fitted his rule book and arrived sans mochila on my back ...
I mull over his ungraciousness for three minutes before ditching the thought; the garden and the roses and the old stones in all their loveliness redeem all.
Tea on the lawn at 4.30 but no cucumber sandwiches – ah! English standards are slipping. I’ve been to vespers.  The remarkable Frenchman in the wheelchair is there, his hands black from the rubber wheels and blue with bruising.  What courage and determination ...  

A steep climb tomorrow, 1500 metres – 4500 plus feet – to Cruz de Ferro.  I can hardly believe I am here.  I can lay down Joe’s rock at last.  He walked the Camino last year, and asked me to bring a rock from his garden to place with the millions of others at the Cruz de Ferro, with prayers for his family and prayers for England.  I have carried it all the way!
Acebo: 12th June 2014:
Very hard walk on shale, protruding vertical bedrock, many climbs, very high, on and on and on. It was quite hard.  Really.  And the second hot day, high twenties. I arrive at Acebo at five minutes to two, am the first to stop at the lovely restored albergue of San Apostal Santiago, by the abandoned church on the way out of the hamlet.
Pedro lets me in. I choose a bunk next to a window, boots and mochilas must be left downstairs. 

A notice says: First! Have a shower! And so I do.  Hot water, with separate facilities for women and men – bliss.
The day had unfolded with its share of magic.  Breakfast at Gaucelmo with very good coffee, jam and bread.  I had a yoghurt bought yesterday from the shop.  Susanna and Michael, the other English hospitalero, ask after my feet and Susanna will email Marion to tell her my progress.
I load up and step out into a heavenly morning on a path of wild flowers and dog roses that rapidly turn to heathers and furze as I climbed up through pines and broom higher than me.  Dane, Angel, Nancy and Vern are ahead, dappled by light and shade as they climb higher and higher.  They did not stay at Gaucelmo; its queues and rules are not comfortable for everyone.
Last night in the dorm Peter Paul told me his sad story.  He decided to begin his walk from his front door in Holland on 17th March.  He was beginning to feel very much as if he couldn’t go on, his legs were in a lot of pain.  Ah, I said, now beneficiary to Camino wisdom,you need potassium and magnesium.  He was not taking it.  I gave him one of my fizz in a glass tablets to take now and one for the morning; made him promise to take care of himself, to buy some at the next pharmacy.
In the pilgrim box at Gaucelmo was a tube of French miracle NOK!  I snaffled it at once. What a gift.
I haven’t looked at my map for days, have just been walking until I have had enough, usually fifteen or twenty kilometres, so to come upon the infamous Foncebadón was a delightful surprise.  Foncebadón held horrors for Shirley MacLaine, she conjured up the legendary wild dogs to terrify her.  True to the urban myth there is a wild dog vast and somnolent in the long grass verge of Foncebadón.  It is the size of a small bear and sighs in sheer boredom when I go to take the photo of the Last of the Wild.  Foncebadón is also the last sello of my first credencial.
Next – the Cruz de Ferro, rising to 1504 metres at the Cruz, down to Manjarin and up the Collado de las Antenas to 1515 metres.  On and on and up and up, Mercedes ahead of me tripping along and singing to herself.  Such a pretty girl she is.  I come to a junction with the main road and I hear a loud whooshing sound increasing in volume.  I stop, and just as well, suddenly in front of me whooshes Didier in his wheelchair laughing ecstatically as he free-wheels downhill, phone set to video.  It is such a joyful moment to witness.  Walking over the hill comes Peter Paul and a fellow pilgrim, Didier’s temporary helpers.  Didier stops in a natural halt in the hollow, spins round and replays his video to P.P. and F.P. to the sound of much laughter.  Peter Paul appears a changed man, life is with him.

I cross the road to the white dusty path and continue to climb.  
On and on, higher and hotter.  The mountains loom, snow capped, the valleys deep and green and dappled with chestnut coloured cattle wearing deep toned cow bells; goldfinches and heathers of all kinds.
Suddenly, Cruz de Ferro – and a battalion of one hundred bikies on serious bikes.  They spend an hour posing manfully, muscles flexing and tight bike pants bulging, on the mound of rocks at the foot of the Cross.  Prayer is not one of their poses.  I chuckle to myself. There, by contrast, across the way sits Seamus doing ten decades of the Rosary!
I sit on the opposite bank and have a small picnic in the shade, Joe’s rock at the ready. Eventually there is quiet at the Cross and I cross the road, climb up and place Joe’s rock, adding my own prayers too.  

I spent a reflective hour there; Angel takes a photo when Nancy fails to click my Nikon – a strange frisson of irritation from Nancy when I remark that there are no photos.  I offer it back to her, I would really like a photo to show to Joe; Angel grabs it from her mother and says, it’s a Nikon mom, it’s this easy, and takes one, two, three, photos just like that.
I walk on. Mercedes is with me as we round the path to the sound of a violin.  Didier is concentratedly videoing a white robed young man wearing a tall felt Adept hat sitting on a park bench and playing a violin.  The sight is so intimate M. and I stop, step off the noisy gravel path and listen to the magic.

On and on to Manjarin which for years boasted a population of one.  I think there are three now.  Refreshments, flags of all nations, signposts to everywhere, a dog, a shrine all jostle for attention.  Angel sits at a table and feeds a cat.

On the highest plateau, on top of this beautiful world I am walking through, amongst heathers of every shade, lies the most perfect – banana!

It seems so deliberately placed, so perfectly ripe, I laugh and accept it as a gift.  I am quite alone, the panorama of 360 degrees confirms my solitude.  I climb on and on, my heart is singing at the sheer beauty around me.  The path now sparkles with quartz crystal, giving a high energy charge to my feet and to my walking.  It is a land of heart-stopping beauty.  In the heather further on sits Sue and her friend, sharing their picnic.  She celebrates her seventieth birthday.  Or is it seventy-one.  She is very fit!  The path is one of the most difficult, uneven, narrow, ascents and descents seem endless.  Hours pass.  Then, down in a valley – El Acebo!
and the tale continues ...


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