One not-so-great thing about The Peaceable is its isolation. Most of the passing pilgs simply do not know we are here, and in most cases that´s a good thing. But I spent the past week at the only pilgrim albergue in the city of Ponferrada, right out in the middle of the great river of pilgrims, and I met some real characters among those 180+ pilgs per night... Most of whom had passed unnoticed through Moratinos a couple of weeks before. (There is much to say about meeting people on neutral ground. I am not sure I´d want to have all these people in my house!)
First you should know about Jose and Pablo, two men I met Thursday afternoon.
In America, my country of origin, these two would be pegged as "Biker Dudes," or "Harley Hogs." But this is Spain, and the Camino de Santiago, so here they are known as Templar Knights, or simply "los chicos de Manjarin."
A little back story for them: Manjarin is about 20 km. east of Ponferrada, an abandoned village on the topside of a mountain. About 15 years ago a businessman named Tomas did the pilgrimage to Santiago, and had a spiritual experience up there in the ruins. He found himself called to be a Knight Templar. (Even more back story: Templars were an order of Christian crusaders that flourished through the middle ages, but became so rich and influential they were all hunted down and torched to death in the 14th century. Now they´re subjects of dozens of conspiracy theories and DaVinci Codes and Hollywood movies. And as the Camino is studded with real Templar remains, plenty of self-made mystics and New Age "Templars" find themselves here. It´s all part of the vibe, but it takes some getting used to.)
Anyway, Tomas de Manjarin is a big man who dropped out of the rat race, discovered his "sacred sword ritual," and founded a pilgrim shelter up there on the mountain when the pilgrimage just began to hit it big. Someone else would´ve turned it all into a brand by now, put up a 4-star hotel and restaurant and medieval-themed Adventure Tourism Destination, then sold out for millions. But not Tomas. He still lives up there in an "albergue" made of packing cases and stones salvaged from the surrounding ruins. The electricity is sporadic, the water supply forever in question, the sewer system and hygiene downright medieval... and he´s got more volunteer help than he can schedule.
(he was a great help and inspiration four years ago to my son Philip, who while a pilgrim spent some time up in Manjarin. Philip was a great fan of Dungeons & Dragons and hobbits and such. Tomas did his sword ceremony, and killed a chicken for dinner, and was in every way the ideal medieval knight. He made a big impression on Philip, who was 17 years old. I´ll always be grateful.)
Anyway, Jose and Pablo, Tomas´ volunteer helpers, rolled up Thursday about noon, in a rattly old Citroën. They´d come into Ponferrada for groceries, they said -- they brought along a credential left behind in Manjarin by a pilgrim who´d likely show up in Ponferrada that evening, and Lisa, the biggest dog I´ve ever seen, who was apparently in search of canine romance. Seeing as Pablo is from Ciudad Real, and Bartolo (one of our volunteers) is from Cordoba, they were fraternally obliged to have a "cervecita" at the nearest bar in the short time that remained before we opened our gates to the pilgrim throngs heaving outside.
Me and Bart and Rocio (the Basque girl who came Weds night) and Juan in his black Templar do-rag walked over to Bar Peña, with Pablo driving along behind in the car with Lisa. Three raggedy neighborhood dogs followed along behind the car, snapping and snarling at one another. When we arrived Juan let Lisa go. The little curs danced with delight and sang out their love and devotion. Lisa looked down at them as if they were so many tomcats. We went inside.
There I heard tales of the hard life on the mountainside, the daily grind of an armored-car driver in Ciudad Real turned rustic Templar host, what had happened to Juan´s front teeth (an unfortunate collision with a mule´s right rear hoof), where one can buy a Manjarin do-rag, and how generally similar the Bar Peña in Ponferrada is to the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 13 in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. (they both have fund-raiser "strip ticket" drawings, wherein everyone is shaken down for 50 cents for a ticket, and one of the people present wins a prize. This time I won. A ticket for this year´s national Navidad drawing, aka "El Gordo," worth 20 Euro!) So I can hope one stroke of good luck leads to another, eh? Jose celebrated by giving me a monster bear hug, which I must admit was very nice.
Anyway, the point of the whole story is just how wonderful these two men were. They have one full set of teeth between them. One is fat, one is skinny. They wear bandanas on their heads and prison tattoos on their arms and smiles on their unshaven faces, and love in their hearts for all mankind, (except for turistas). They spend their vacations on a waterless mountainside performing specious rituals with a wacky old man and bemused European adventure tourists. And they´re tough as nails. I love them.
We knocked down sweet Bierzo Mencia from last year, and then we had to get back to the refuge. We paid up and stepped out. Lisa apparently had selected a suitor -- a smiling wire-haired rat-catcher. Jose opened the car door and both dogs jumped into the back seat.
"We´re just going over to the supermarket. This boy can find his way home from there," he said. And with that they drove away up the street.
I will maybe someday write more about the supposed Norwich University linguist who informed me I speak English in "a skillfully acquired American-television accent," but that an expert can tell I am "not a native speaker of American English!" I was rendered speechless, which isn´t much like me at all. It made me think Existential thoughts about language, accents, nationality, Truth, and all kinds of other nonsense. It´s gotta be one of the most non-sequitur moments of my life. I wish I´d told him he was a bullshitter par excellance, but I didn´t have the presence of mind... I think I´d been speaking and translating too many languages by then to be so pointed and fluent, even in in my native tongue. (Which is, truly, English of the American TV variety!)
Anyway, I also met a fellow University of Pittsburgh graduate from Scranton, PA., and a lady from Bowling Green, Ohio, and the man who bred Golden Missile, a race horse who won me a wad of cash back when I used to bet horses.
I will sometime work up the guts to write about what a broken ankle feels like under my hands...I´d only expected to feel hot tendons. It was one of the most wrong things I have ever felt with my hands. The owner of the ankle had just walked about 12 km. on it. Amazing what humans can do, innit? It made me feel nauseated, really.
I learned five new guitar chords, and how to sing a cool song called "Satan is my Motor," and I learned how to make Patatas a la Riojana and a three-layer tortilla, and I gave my fellow workers their first taste of Turkish and Tex-Mex cuisines. I slept like a rock at night, but still came home very tired.
It was non-stop from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. I was glad I only had to do it a week, seeing as I am considered a member of the "Equipo Sapo." In Spanish that means "Team Toad." I objected when I learned this, but was told it´s not a bad thing: sapos blend into whatever environment they land in. "They can be toads, or frogs, or water lilies. They do it all, wherever you put them," Evanisto told me.
Yeah? Well, toads are nasty looking, and when you pick them up they pee. And being a Sapo is good? No me digas, hombre, sin do-rag Templario!