Thursday, 1 July 2010

Five Days is Plenty, Thanks

Villamayor de Monjardin is a Spanish Camino town straight out a picture postcard. She´s a medieval princess, her head crowned with a crumbling castle, her apron of vineyards unfolding for hectares round about, with a pristine 12th century church in her breast. The 150 people who live there are vintners, farmers, retired executives -- all of them apparently well-heeled and smartly dressed, proud to be part of such a pretty scene. Their streets are newly cobbled with multicolor bricks. Litter is picked-up, flowers are well-tended, Masses frequent and crowded. Music leaking out of the ancient stone house next door was not BeeGees Greatest Hits, but Navarran folk waltzes, with with an old-lady voice singing along in Euskara.

I spent the last five days tending to the parish-owned pilgrim albergue in Villamayor, filling in a gap in the Federation schedules for volunteer hospitaleros. I enjoyed the town, the church, and the locals who decided to hang out with me: Angel the know-it-all sacristan; Prudencio, an 81-year-old polyglot traveler who strolls a good 6 km. each afternoon into town to see what´s new; and Carmelo, a handsome young vintner who´s written a fine book on the history of the town. They kept me fully immersed in their version of Castellano, and they weren´t shy about correcting my bad grammar. They kept the albergue supplied with  cherries, chapata loaves, green wine, and stories of local affairs.

The pilgrims, likewise, were a fine lot for the most part. "Mine" is one of two albergues in town -- the other being a better-known, better-maintained place up on the Plaza Mayor run by a Dutch Evangelical group. Pilgrims come into town after a long uphill climb, see the Parrochial there on the right, and stagger into the cool kitchen. The hospitalera (me) gives them water and a sello (a stamp on their credential that proves they´ve passed through town). Then they peer around the place and see if it is to their taste.

The Parroquial in Villamayor is, shall we say, rustic. It´s a classic pilgrim albergue in several aspects: It once was a tractor garage. It was turned into a pilgrim shelter a good while back, using cheap materials and volunteer carpenters and electricians and roofers. It´s been heavily used for eight years, and the wear is showing. Up above the ceiling is sagging, its paint bubbly with damp. Down below the mattresses are gray and the concrete floor scuffed and stained. When the kitchen light goes on, so do all the lights in the dormitory. The blankets are frayed and could use a wash. Bathroom drains are slow. Laundry facilities are two basins, a lump of Castile soap, and the clotheslines stretched from tree to tree in the adjacent churchyard.

There´s no kind of soundproofing, no privacy, no fridge for pilgs, no stovetop for cooking, no internet access, and very few power points for re-charging phones and batteries. It´s very, very basic, and there is no set price for staying there. Villamayor de Monjardin is one of the dying breed of albergues on the Camino that is still Donativo.

So the pilgrims with money and fastidious tastes usually go "uptown" to the Dutch place. The tired, the poor, the huddled masses stay with us, where they don´t have to pay if they can´t or won´t. They put up with the inconveniences for the sake of price. Or maybe they just like the scruffy ambience, or they fear the predations of any group that calls itself Evangelical. (though the Monjarin evangelicals have a fine attitude and a sterling reputation.) I dunno. I only know that some few people checked in, showered, went up to the bar for a drink, had a look at the other option, came back, gathered up their things and left.

Oh well. This option worked to my advantage a couple of times, when pilgrims registering to stay began to bridle at our lack of hair-dryers, pillow-cases, and "proper hygiene measures." I was able, with a smile, to tell them where to go.

 (the Villamayor de Manjardin artwork above is from the camino journal of Melissa West, a printmaker and artist from Santa Cruz, California. We have some of her work here at The Peaceable. Yes, she´s good!)

I realized how near this place is to the pilgrims´ usual starting point, only three or four days´ walk back. These pilgrims were still in shakedown mode, some of them still blasting forward at full speed in their shiny new gear. Others were hitting the wall, discovering their limits, stripping off any extras they had in their packs. Knee problems were surfacing, and blisters. They´re all stressed-out, still finding their pilgrim groove.

A monumental thunderstorm passed through on Tuesday night and the roof started to leak pretty badly. I told the pilgrims in the dorm they were welcome to seek other accommodation if they liked -- no one should have to sleep in a room with a cascade in one cornera, a river on the floor, and buckets all ´round their beds. The pilgrims told me not to worry. Some of them had walked from Puente la Reina, or biked from Pamplona. They were too tired to give a damn.

They slept better than I did. The church bells rang every half-hour, day and night. The plywood wall between my storage-room bunkbed and the pilgrim dormitory did little to shield me from my guests´ night noises -- I might as well have been sleeping in there with them. The bathrooms were no better, sound-wise. I enjoyed the silence, when it was silent. But when anyone stepped into the toilet stalls I regretted not bringing along a portable stereo. And some CDs. (Handel´s "Water Music" comes to mind. Or Dire Straits, who did "Let´s Go Down to the Waterline." And "Water Of Love."...)

...And then there were the spiders. Feeling like your hands are on fire is not a good way to wake up at 2 a.m. Happily for the pilgrims, these fellows seem to limit themselves to my bed.  

And so, even though I was enjoying the company very much, and the sunshiny days and long walks up the mountain and through the vineyards, and a meatless diet (amazing what the lack of a cooker can do for your eating habits), I was ready to go home yesterday, when Jose Antonio came from Madrid to take my place at the albergue.

I was packed up and ready to roll by afternoon, and the pilgrims flowed in from the smiting sunlight. One stood waiting for his sello, weaving a bit, sweating hard, his eyes glassy, a young, wiry man whose name was Miguel and whose accent said Andalucia. Jose Antonio gave him some water and sat him down at the table. Miguel put his head in his hands and wept.

He didn´t know it was going to be so hard, he said. We put his elbows in a bowl of cold water, and put wet towels on his neck and forehead, and pumped him full of more water, salted. He smelled like a feverish kid. Heat exhaustion. Dangerous. His pulse raced, his face flushed. We kept up the first aid, and eventually his skin felt cooler and his color went back to brown. He dried his tears and thanked us, blessed us even. He pulled out his wallet and showed us damp photos of his patron Virgin Mary, and of his little son Miguelito.

Jose Antonio made up a salad of fat tomatoes and salt and olive oil, and handed it over with a great hunk of bread. Miguel ate.

He´d been too ambitious. He´d walked all the way from Pamplona to Estella the day before, and  arrived too late for a bed in the albergue. He bedded down under a bridge, on a nice soft lawn with flower beds... But the landscaping sprinklers switched on at 3 a.m. All his things were soaked. (He smiled, though, when he told the tale.) And when he started out walking again he felt stiff and weak. And then the sun came out, for hours and hours.

And then, 11 kms. later, he came to us, he said, and we´d saved his camino. Maybe his life, even.  

I had to leave. I told him to stay an extra day and rest up, and drink water, water, water. I walked three or four baking-hot kilometers to the next town, to catch the bus to Logroño.

On the way I thought of how important that man might be to the world someday. Or at least to the little boy in the photo in his wallet. And I thought of how he´d made it worthwhile for me to stay in that rather nasty place for several days, even if I only met him for a little while. After days of trying to make pilgrims a bit more comfortable, I had an opportunity to help someone who really needed it.

So I passed on to him a gift I was given by the American Red Cross: how to treat heat exhaustion. And he gave to me the gift of receiving graciously what I offered.

Now I am home, back in Moratinos, with clean laundry, smiling dogs, and hair dryers. Out here, the pilgrims are not racing anywhere. Pace is slow and steady. Knee problems give way to tendinitis. Blisters and heat exhaustion are still daily risks for pilgrims. As one wag said of English boarding schools: "conditions are Spartan, but the fatality rate is surprisingly low."


ksam said...

So many times I know I question why the H**L am I here? and don't always get much of an answer (At least that I know of.) Then come these moments, as with your young pilgrim and Bam, there it is. Thanks for the reminder! Bless you for being there and for being willing to share.

Kimlin said...

lovely vignette Rebekah- and great seeing Melissa's sketchbook in there.

CaroleH said...

Do you know Reb, I am sitting down here in Oz, tears in my eyes after reading this, tears of thankfulness for the experience of camino, for that young pilgrim, for what you do and what I'd love to do, and for the reminder of what the camino, and maybe life, is all about. Well done you. Thankyou.

eileen said...

In the fall of 2006 I, too, came to Montjardin ready to give up. I, too, had started to quickly, in less than good shape, and pushed too hard. I ached in every old joint. I was greeted by an old man at a bench infront of the door, offered cafe con leche and told to rest. It was just after noon, and he made me and another stray pilgrim an incredible stew for lunch, not letting us pay, and so we agreed to stay the night. It was the best sleep I had that trip, even with Beethoven's Fifth blasting us awake before dawn the next morning... kindness and care make up for the plumbing and so on!

claire said...

We have stayed at the Evangelical place in 2005 and had a grand old time.
Last time we were there, we stopped at the Parochial albergue and had a grand time as well. Maybe it was 2007, I am not sure anymore. The hospitalero was really nice. The set up really folkloric.
Welcome back home, Reb :-)