Sunday, 30 March 2008

The Magical Alamo

The Alamo stands in the center of Calle Real, right on the Camino as you walk into town. It´s a landmark in Moratinos, though most people who live here don´t call it that. I hope the central figures in its dramatic story will not mind me retelling it here. It plays a central role in our Moratinos history, and its uncertain future continues to be part of our daily lives. It has a magnetic force, the Alamo. It draws outsiders into town.

We nicknamed our neighbors´ place The Alamo because its adobe face, when we first saw it, resembled the shot-up Texas mission church that´s now an American national monument. Any pilgrim who passed through here in the last two or three years probably noticed it. Many took its picture, as it is a storybook version of the rustic adobe house of the meseta, with dirt walls and bright blue doors and windows. These days the Alamo is almost habitable, with a new roof and second floor, windows, electricity, lights, and rudimentary plumbing.

It´s been a long road for James and Marianne, the charismatic 30-something couple who brought it this far.

James and Marianne are their own Camino Story: two wandering Britons (he´s from working-class London, she´s from a successful Irish family) met four years ago at the end of their respective Camino hikes, fell in love, and headed out together on a fundraising trek down the Via de la Plata. Fate/St. James/biology changed their plans within weeks, however, and little Poppy, their daughter, was born in Pamplona within the year. The new family decided to live on the camino, and host pilgrims in a little albergue they´d build up from scratch.

They bought a ruinous farming compound dead on the Camino in a meseta town with absolutely nothing to offer pilgrims. They set up a yurt tent out in the back, and brewed tea and coffee in the morning to offer the passing crowds. Sometimes a pilgrim or two would stay around for the day and help with stacking bricks or making up mud for the inside walls. James was a sort of merry Emcee, and many were the parties and barbecues he got up suddenly when the right mix of people were present.

Marianne smiled, and cared for the baby, and did all the driving, buying, and logistics. They rented an apartment in a village 20 kilometers distant, as raising families in yurts is a pursuit best left to Mongolians. Moratinos adored Poppy, (there are no children here, except for the summer people), and welcomed the “new blood” into town.

James is an avid internet user, and that´s how I found out about Moratinos. (I took no notice of the place when I walked my Camino in 2001.) But he and Marianne were doing what I´d dreamed of. They´d found a village with nothing, and were putting something there. The real estate was dirt cheap (as dirt often is), and the welcome warm. We ought to come visit, he said. And so we did.

It was July 2, 2006. Paddy and I were spending that summer volunteering at pilgrim hostels in towns we already knew had potential. We really liked Fuenterroble de Salvatierra, on the Via de la Plata, and the rural neighborhood around Miraz, up in Galicia on the Northern Camino. But both places were “España Profunda,” very remote and extremely Spanish…downright backward in many ways. Navarre and La Rioja were beautiful, but already overdeveloping and overpriced. We weren´t needed there.

But Moratinos? Wow. It was just as grubby and backward as rural Salamanca and Galicia had been, but it was on the French camino, traveled year-round by pilgrims. It was only 9 kilometers from Sahagun, a market town. And this couple was there already, English speakers, and friendly! If they were doing-up an albergue, we wouldn´t have to. We could just play back-up, help them out if they needed it, and enjoy our retirement the rest of the time. It was halfway down the Way, so I could easily get to any other pilgrim hostel that needed emergency help.

Strangely, though, when we arrived in Moratinos James and Marianne weren´t there. The villagers said they were off in Santiago de Compostela, having another baby.

I finally raised them on the telephone, and they told us to stay in the yurt as long as we liked, and do the tea service if we wanted. And so that´s what we did, for a week. Conditions were rather low-to-the-ground. We had no lights or running water or toilet or washing facility, and it was the hottest July in 40 years. The house was probably unsafe, alive with mice and spiders but dark and cool inside. Strangely and wonderfully, deep in its bowels hummed a 7-foot tall stainless steel refrigerator, a cutting-edge wonder we dubbed The Fridge From Space. (It was plugged into an extension cord that disappeared over the garden wall).

We stayed for a week, and had an enchanting time. There was a big wooden table on the street out front under a tiki umbrella, and in the morning we served exotic tea and supermarket muffins to all comers, in exchange for donations. The rest of the day we read books, or visited museums, or met a parade of curious neighbors. (There was not much we could do there in afternoons, as the heat fell like a hammer at about 12:30 and struck the world motionless for hours.)

We asked the neighbors if there was anyplace to rent in town, and they laughed. Four families owned everything, and no one ever let anything go unless if was about to fall down, they said. Like the Alamo.

They liked us, though. We joined them in the Plaza in the cool evenings, and they tried to show us how to play Mus, a Whist sort of card game. We toured the bodegas and went to Mass, and were invited to Sunday lunch with the Juli family. Everyone said we ought to come back in August for the Moratinos Fiesta. We thought that sounded like a nice idea, as we had the last two weeks of August free that year.

We left Moratinos when relief arrived: a young German couple James had met in Santiago and likewise told to “stay at the yurt as long as you like.” They were street musicians, a hurdy-gurdy and flute combo, driving a live-in delivery truck painted with Sacred Ohm symbols. We pressed them into a free community concert in the plaza, then left them to the yurt and a turn at Pilgrim service. We went off to a hospitalero-ing gig in Burgos.

Sure, it was tumbledown and hot, and there were no buildings of architectural charm or historic value in the town. There wasn´t even a shop or a bar there. Nevertheless, we put Moratinos on our list.


…. To be continued.

3 comments:

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I can't wait to read the rest of the story :-)))