Saturday, 31 July 2010

Pilgs of Distinction

It´s been a week of exceptional pilgrims, and exceptional numbers of people at the Peaceable.

I´ve told you before about the Wave phenomenon: We can live silently here for weeks at a time without hosting anyone, but once a single pilgrim crosses the doorstep, we can count on more showing up the following day, and the day after that, until the house fills up. We don´t know how or why this happens, but we´ve just come off a weeklong flood that included some outstanding pilgrim characters. 

We had a French lady whose house burned down. She lost everything she owned, so she figured she might as well walk to Santiago. It´s her way, she said, of saying Thanks to God for simplifying her life. Wow.
We had a guitarist from Uruguay who made us all laugh by confusing the words "lovely" and "lousy."

There were Andy and Eric, two lovely (not lousy!) young men from Potsdam, who found the place "ein
wunderschön, freundlich und hilfsbereit."  They were walking with Erzsébet, a 42-year-old woman
from Budapest who will likely die from cancer within the year. She has to stop frequently, use special
medical equipment to perform basic body functions. Her stomach is criss-crossed with surgical scars. She´s lost her hair and her beauty, but so long as she still has energy in the morning she´s up and walking down the trail to Santiago... doing the pilgrimage she´s dreamed-of for years. Andy and Eric slowed down their pace so she could walk with them. They make sure she has a place to sleep each night. They carry her extra water supply in their packs.

Erzsébet was turfed-out of a pilgrim hostel in Boadilla last week. She was giving herself one of her four daily injections, and someone told the hospitalero she was shooting-up drugs in the dormitory. She slept that night on the church porch. Andy and Eric slept out there with her, she said. They gave up their beds, too. "We couldn´t have her sleeping out there on her own," Eric said.  "We decide together that she needs help, we can help her. This is the right way to make a camino," Andy added.

"They are so lovely boys," Erzsébet said. "God sends me angels."

sunflower fields

On Sunday night in Fromista I attended another guitar concert, and ended up taking home Beth, an English girl whose heels were blistered, split, and infected. The doctor there had ordered her to stay off her feet for four days, so I told her she could spend them here if she wanted. Beth read, snapped beans, wrote letters, chopped onions, set the table, petted Tim, and read "New Yorker" magazines. Her feet were almost back to normal when her friends caught her up and swept her back onto the trail yesterday.

Beth got better. And she got to meet Amado.

Amado is from the Phillippines, he is a Catholic priest of the Redemptorist order, and he is walking the camino barefoot. Not for any fanatical penance, but because he loves the feel of the earth under his feet. It honors the sacredness of the Camino pathway, he said, and keeping an eye on the path ahead keeps his mind in the present moment. Besides, when he wears his sandals (in the afternoons when the pavement heats up), it makes his knees ache all night long. 

Wednesday we stayed up late and spoke Christian to one another. It was meat and bread for my soul. Often, when she lets herself, the minister is ministered-to.

A trip up to the Tumberon, a paleolithic tomb. Big Fun!

The following day brought Verena, my Austrian Zen master, who is on her way to be hospitalera in Salamanca. Every time I see her it is an hour of intense, deep, difficult truth. It´s good I had Amado here first!

Salted among all these folk were a handsome Basque called Iñigo, a pretty Canadian called Lee, a strapping Swede called Linda, Deirdre who just finished the Camino Portuguese, and Jacqueline. She´s a Dutch lady who lives way up in Ter Apel in the northern Netherlands, on the German border. She left home 18 weeks ago, and walked all the way here. Yesterday morning she rose with the sun and went out to our vegetable garden and gave it a good hoeing. She re-tied the tomato plants, watered, weeded. She dug up all the new potatoes, a job Paddy´s been putting off for a week. And then she thanked me for letting her do all that -- she misses her garden!

Tomorrow, Federico reappears on the scene with a duo of Mexican guitarists and a Paraguayan ambassador. The fun never ends. 

Here are some photos of our fields and landscapes... and maybe even a movie if I can make it load!

Monday, 26 July 2010

Improved View

Footprints in the dust: prints from dogs, hiking boots, slippers, bare toes, storks, and ferrets.
The smell of cut grain changes depending on whether it´s rye or oats being cut (one smells more green, somehow. The other smells like raisins.)
The rotted old lintels in the rafters in the entryway of our little church are carved with triangles and dots. I´ve been in and out of that church at least a hundred times, and had not noticed before.
Our little plaza is not the most charming in Spain. It is uneven, and unevenly paved-over. But when the 6 p.m. sun hits it in late July, it´s spectacular.
The 6 p.m. sun makes standing grain glow like it´s phosphorescent. Viewed through a stand of trees it is positively eerie. A camera can´t catch it.
The market stalls in Sahagún´s Saturday market are getting positively in-your-face with their underwear. The shoppers and hawkers this weekend were shoulder-to-shoulder between the table-loads of socks, knock-off designer bags, jeans, jammies, cosmetics, toys, shoes, tools, and t-shirts. But most aggressive of all are the underpants sellers, who suspend their most tantalizing "tangas" (thongs), boxers, briefs, and panties from hangers just above head-level. They tap you on the shoulder as you sidle by. And if the family in front of you spots an oncoming long-lost relation, and traffic flow stalls out while their reunion unfolds, you stand politely by while they kiss and hug and halloo. You and a dozen others peer between the dangling assortment of sherbet-hued bikinis and bragas and bras for an exit route you know is not there.
The fruit stalls are beautiful. And on the sidewalk behind the walls of shapes and colors and textures are mountains of peels, leaves, stems, rinds, and seeds, thrown aside before the produce hits the scales. It´s a chicken´s version of the Big Rock Candy Mountain. People stare at me when I fill up a big shopping bag with this garbage. I´m foreign. I´m used to being stared-at. And my chickens love me for it.
Just outside our barn door a young tree is growing. We didn´t plant it. We don´t trim it, or fertilize it, but it´s grown up a good five feet since we came here. And on Thursday I really looked at it, and saw something wonderful. It´s a fruit tree, covered in what looks like yellow-red cherries!
A pilgrim told us these are not cherries. They´re a special kind of plum. They´re mild and sweet and firm, but small, cherry-sized. I don´t know what they are. But they make me happy, like a gift that just shows up in the post, or a visit from a friend from far away.    
Early this month we passed the one-year anniversary of Una Dog´s death sentence. While I was at the church to do our weekly stint, I stood in front of the image of San Roque and his little dog, and remembered the superstitious little promise I made back then, when the veterinarian said the cancer in her leg had most likely spread, that Una had maybe four months more to live. 
"Give her a year. Give her six months, even. If she´s alive and healthy by next year, I´ll walk the Camino again," I told Roque back then.
Una survived, at the cost of one back leg. I walked the Road in thanksgiving.
And there she was with me in the church entryway, chilling in the cool shade. I lit a candle and thanked God for taking time out to do me such a favor, then walked back out to sit down by the doors. And who comes walking through the portal, not two minutes later?
A little brown dog. I´d never seen him before, but Una greeted him happily, showed him where the water bowl is kept, took him out to show him around the plaza. Three pilgrims came in soon after. It wasn´t their dog, they said, but it had followed them down the camino for several kilometers.
Una was on her way home by then. The little dog followed along behind her.
"Good," Blandine the French pilgrim said. "We can´t take him all the way to Santiago. You can find his owner, yes?"
The trio filled their water bottles at the fountain and started on up the trail. The little dog, way up the street, saw them heading out.
He left Una. He turned round and ran back down Calle Ontanon and caught up to the last of them. He knew where he wanted to be.
Roque was a pilgrim saint, you know.

My eyes are very open these days.

I´m making a concerted effort to really see the world that´s moving around me, to train my mind to not spend all my time thinking about what happened yesterday or ten years ago or last week, or what I hope will or will not happen tomorrow or next month or when I´m 64.

All I have is now. And I want to live here.

It´s easy. It´s fun. And it´s delicious.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

The Boggy Side of Paradise

Patrick already wrote about Avila -- you can see his take on the place on his blog, which is linked to this one right over here to the right. It was a lovely time-out.  Getting Patrick to leave behind his dogs and his Peaceable is getting more and more difficult, but once he´s arrived at the vacation place he almost always has a whale of a time. I gotta say I chose well. Avila´s got all the things we like best: history, art, architecture, bizarre religious relics, sunshine, walk-ability, a language we understand, good and reasonably-priced lodgings, and a couple of really good eateries. And it´s on the non-stop rail line to Sahagun. We were there in a couple of hours, and didn´t have to search out a parking spot.  

Even Adam and Eve had to get outta Eden at some point. Even a place people see as Paradise is just plain old "home" to the people who live there. We are often told that our house is a little paradise, an oasis, a slice-o-heaven. And to a pilgrim who´s been sleeping on manky mattresses among  the sweaty pilgrim masses, this would indeed appear to be any of the above. After 40 kilometers of trail, from your lawn chair in the flower-decked, canary-singing patio, with your cold beer in your hand and your blistered feet soaking in a warm tub of salt water, yeah. The place looks great!

Long as you´re not here when the bathtub drain leaks through the kitchen ceiling. Or the über-tech induction stovetop quits for the fourth time in five months. Or Una pushes open the back door and lets a cloud of Buick-sized horseflies into the house. Seriously. I opened the door to our utility room yesterday afternoon, and 844 monster flies were hanging there in the air like a slow fog, groaning like zombies. I had to spray poison through the crack, slam shut the door, and spend another quarter-hour sweeping up their creepy heaped carcasses.

Ah, summertime in Paradise! Flies are, apparently, a given in Castilla y Leon. Our neighbors seem to take little notice of the flies and other insects that hover round them at work, rest, play, and worship. Our attempts to swat and trap bugs are looked upon with smiles of pity. It´s hopeless, they say. It´s summertime. No one bothers putting screens in their windows. They sometimes hang curtains, or beads or plastic-strip draperies in their doorways, but these only work for a few weeks. Inevitably, one clever fly figures out how to get through, and somehow instantly telegraphs the big news to the next five generations.    

Wow, I did not set out to blog about Insect Plagues, really. But creepy crawlies are fascinating, you gotta admit. They´re the Other Side of Paradise. That, and the boggy smell that rises out of the drains of even the finest homes, hotels, and businesses... Spain hasn´t cottoned onto the concept of sewer-line chimney stacks. (Back when the plumbing went in, I asked our builder where our sewer vent was. He looked at me like I was insane. (he did that quite often.)  "You want to put a hole in the roof, and a chimney, for the drains? You´re not burning anything in there," he said. "The smells. The vapors," I told him. "They have to be vented somewhere, or they come up through the pipes." He snorted. "That´s why there´s always a WINDOW in the bathroom!" he said, in the tone you use on stupid children.)

So there you have it. In July, August, and September we have flies in the house most of the time -- usually a lot fewer than the Nine Plagues of Egypt level, but some. And sometimes it smells boggy in the bathrooms. But as long as Kim is here it´s all sparkly clean. As long as Paddy is cooking and the chickens are laying and the garden is producing, the food is pretty darn good. And as long as the guitarists keep rolling up, we´ll have spectacular live music out on the patio now and then.  

Me, I just mess around in the garden for a while, and I write. It is a slow, painstaking business. I am trying to be patient and kind to myself. And someday soon, pilgrims will have a guidebook on how to go home to their own Paradises once they´ve finished the Camino de Santiago, and fully appreciate what they´ve got there. And what their Camino´s given them. And how to mix them together into a rich, nutritious, delicious post-camino Life.


Monday, 12 July 2010

Great cheering sunflower mobs

It is SO July around here, perfectly July. The green fields in the picture above have turned gold, and most have been cut, threshed, and baled. A dun brown landscape will remain right through September, bringing us the least-green season of the entire year. I think that´s why for so long pilgrims thought the Meseta was a desert. They were traveling on their school breaks, and they were hallucinating in the summer heat, or maybe they just were not bright enough to distinguish between a stubble field and a sand dune.

Oh, well. Pilgrims are a romantic lot. A trek through the desert makes a more exciting story than a 10-day walk across some harvested agriculture. Both are brown, and dusty, and damn boring after a couple of days. Both are known to induce visions, too.

There is a bright spot among the brownness, however -- thousands of them, matter of fact. The sunflowers are bursting into bloom! I don´t know what induces a farmer to sow acres of sunflowers, but they are in popular rotation around here. A field-full of sunflowers is like a sold-out stadium with a thousand fans cheering in bright yellow and green uniforms.

For the past three years the sunflowers have stood up and cheered at exactly this week of summer, in different fields and along different roads, but the same cheery blooms at the exact same time. I know, because I think they come out to applaud our wedding anniversary. This year they´re yelling SEVEN YEARS! HOW´D YA DO THAT?

It is indeed a great mystery.

So tomorrow,13 July, Paddy and I are taking the train down to Avila to celebrate for a couple of days, to visit the hometown of Spain´s Other Patron Saint (that´s Teresa of Avila to all you heathens) and contemplate the mysteries of Luv. And probably to eat tostón, aka roast suckling pig.

We are staying in a little hotel that once was the town´s synagogue. Apparently there were once multiple Jews in Avila, but they were thrown out or forced to convert to Catholic Christianity hundreds of years ago. One of those "conversos" apparently was Saint Teresa´s grandfather, but that fact is not widely advertised. Spain has mixed feelings about Jews, even after all these years. They don´t mind boasting that the 500-year-old building you´re staying at was once a place of worship. Remodeled mikvahs and Jewish Quarters and synagogues (and Christian monasteries, too) are all over the place, turned into lucrative historic sites, restaurants, hotels, and tourist attractions. There´s a restaurant near here called "Three Cultures," built in what once was a mosque, saluting Spain´s "Golden Age" when Jews, Muslims, and Christians managed to live happily together. The specialty is roast suckling pig, and jamon.

Jews are cool, and Arabs, too -- long as you don´t have too many in your family. And long as they don´t want their old synagogues or mosques back.

I am wading into deep water here, so I will shut up.

Lots of writing being done these days. I decided not to go to Santiago de Compostela to be invested into the Archiconfradia of the divine Apostle. I am already a member, for one thing -- the ceremony is just a ritual. And the other is the colorful descriptions I am reading lately of the crowds expected there for the Biggest Day of the Big Holy Year, which may re-invent the word "massive." My inner Hermit whispers in my ear: RUN, Reb. RUN AWAY.

And I never argue with a hermit.

So instead of going west to join the heaving throng in Santiago de Compostela, I will go south, with just one man, for a couple of days of quiet tourist-ing among the convents and palaces and tostónes of Avila... all the way passing fields, of silently cheering sunflowers. That´s my kind of mob, holy day, and feast.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Garlic + Grapes + Almonds = YUM

Okay, kids, here´s the next installment in the Cold Soup for Hot Days category: Ajo Blanco.

I first tasted this stuff in Extremadura, at the dining room of the Parador Nacional de Merida -- a swank place indeed, a fine hotel built in a 18th century convent, smack in the middle of the greatest collection of Roman ruins in all of western Europe. (this was back in my travel writer days, when I was eating on someone else´s tab!) When you find food made with almonds that far south in Spain, it´s a safe bet the recipe came down from the Arabs, who occupied the area for a good 700 years or so and brought almonds with them from northern Africa.

When Ajo Blanco is good it´s very, very rich, thick with flavors of nuts and vinegar. When it´s bad it´s insipid. Much depends on the quality and freshness of your ingredients, of course, but this time of year it should not be too hard to get the good stuff.

Make sure you grind everything up very well, and stir it before serving. I think you´re gonna love this!

Ajo Blanco de Almendras y Piñones

1/3 cup blanched almonds
1/3 cup pine nuts (toasting the nuts slightly adds another layer of flavor!)
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 teaspoon salt
4 slices good-quality white bread, de-crusted
6 tablespoons virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
4 cups of ice water
5 handfuls of seedless green grapes OR 5 little cubes of honeydew melon
Extra grapes and melon for garnish

Soak the bread in water, then squeeze out the water.
Put almonds, pine nuts, garlic and salt in food processor and grind fine. Add and puree grapes or melon. Add the bread bits and process one at a time, then drizzle in the oil, vinegars, and water. Strain into a bowl. Adjust the vinegar - salt balance. Chill well, and taste again before putting into individual bowls and serving with extra grapes and/or melon balls. 

Makes enough for 6 servings. I always double the recipe.

I think I adapted this recipe from one by Penelope Casas, a wonderful cook and writer who specializes in Spain. But I remember buttonholing the cook at the Parador, too, and he gave up a couple of super recipes... so this might be his. 
Let me know how this turns out for you. It´s a big favorite around here.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Coming Soon to a Table Near You!

One interesting note that´s struck over and over in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and the Antipodes, is "Spanish food is real spicy, isn´t it?"

Well, no. That´s Mexican food you´re thinking of. Spanish food is another animal entirely. And that animal is probably a pig. Any Spanish eatery worth its salt has at least one great pig´s leg hanging from the rafters or posed hoof-up on the bar. These aren´t the big wet pink slabs we serve up on Sundays. No, these are dry-cured black-foot jamon hams. You eat jamon by the gram, in thin, glistening shavings. It´s barely sweet and not at all piggy or salty. It melts in your mouth, creating more of a sense of touch and texture than a taste... ah, but what a flavor! I understand jamon is now legally imported to the United States, and foodies are taking it to heart. Probably literally. The stuff is Cholesterol City. But what a way to go...

But I did not come here to sing the praises of pork. No! Today after church we spent a good 20 minutes wading through a pile of perfectly ripe vegetables: peeling, slicing, dicing, and grinding up what could be a fine salad into a superb soup. A soup so excellent and unique it has become a national obsession in Spain: Gazpacho.

Gazpacho is HUGE down in the south of Spain, where every fridge has a big jug of the stuff standing by on the top shelf, should tragedy, stress, hunger, or unexpected company strike. Gazpacho is comfort food, a summertime staple: delicious, nutritious, filling, and easy to make and serve. Every mother and grandmother has her own recipe for "Authentic" gazpacho, and claiming that yours is the best is a great way to start a loud discussion.

That said, here is the recipe I use, more or less, to make

The best Expat Gazpacho in Spain

4-inch length of bread cut from a long loaf, de-crusted and set in a bowl of water to soak.
2 pounds very ripe red tomatoes, deseeded and chopped
2 or 3 green peppers, deseeded and chopped (how many depends on how big they are)
1 4-inch cucumber or a couple of pickle-size cukes, peeled and chopped
1 medium sweet onion (Spanish or Vidalia) chopped
3 or 4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped.

Squeeze the water out of the bread. Put the bread together with all the vegetables in a food processor and liquefy the lot. The kitchen will smell divine. (if you remember, reserve a bit of chopped pepper, tomato, and onion for garnish later on.)

1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar (MUST-HAVE ingredient, hard to find but worth the search!)
1 cup mild virgin olive oil (drizzle this in slowly at the end to mix well)

Process until smooth, it may require two batches.  Stir in 1 cup of cold water. Test for vinegar/salt/sugar balance, then pour it into a big pitcher and refrigerate for several hours. Stir well and check seasoning again before serving in chilled glasses or bowls, with chopped veg on the side as garnish. You can add another cup of water if you prefer yours thinner.

This makes a good half-gallon of soup. Keep it cold.

No matter what your mama told you, Gazpacho does NOT have tomato juice, hot pepper flakes or Tobasco sauce in it. You (and your mama) are thinking of a Bloody Mary. Which is not a bad idea, if you made your cocktail before you added the extra water... hmmm!

If you like this, you´re going to love Ajo Blanco, a really hard-core Spanish cold soup derived from the Arabs... It´s full of almonds, pine nuts, garlic, and green grapes! I´ll give you that recipe too, but only if you ask me to.  

Buen aproveche!

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."