Wednesday, 31 August 2011

What I Ate on my Summer Vacation

A week ago I was stretched out on a lounge chair under a cocoa-fiber umbrella, dozing in the heat of a Portuguese beach. The hiss and roar of the Atlantic muffled the children´s shouts and the tak-tak of the paddleball players, and the calls of the boliña vendors -- "Boliñas! SUCH boliñas I got!"

In the Algarve part of Portugal, beach food is not hotdogs or sno-kones. It´s boliñas, berliners -- big cream-filled doughnuts! I can´t imagine anything I´d like less after a hard day of sun-bathing, but apparently at Praia Altura there are people making their living that way. I did not yield to the temptation.
Filipe and Lobster Cataplana

I think it was the only culinary offering I turned down in my entire stay there. Filipe, like many Portuguese, is a superb cook, and Altura is home to a small local market with excellent fish stalls, vintners, and truck-garden vendors ... So. Imagine what we ate and drank each day and night, out on the rear terrace -- cataplana cookers loaded with sea creatures, veg, and green wine. And when I trimmed the lemon tree, we made a fragrant barbecue from the sticks, and roasted lamb chops and red peppers and marinated octopus over the coals. It was days of wonderful excess, with some of the finest company in the world. And best of all, a week ago tonight, I looked into the night sky to find Cassiopeia, and instead saw a shifting, silent V of pink flamingos.


I drove the car this time. It gave me the flexibility to pay a visit to Tracy, a camino friend, author, and hypnosis therapist who lives on the Spanish coast. We met up in the mountains, hiked a beautiful green arroyo in Grazalema, ate local trout in the dark, and drove a massively long and twisty mountain road down to Ronda and into the great coastal Babylon of Marbella. Tracy lives in a palatial villa there, in a palatial gated enclave surrounded by golf courses, swimming pools, and spas. She has a beautiful balcony garden, a massive collection of books that I want to read, two superb cats, and a soft rabbit. But Tracy would much rather live in a stone house in rainy, gray Galicia, taking care of pilgrims. (how bizarre!)  
sundown over Andalusian mountains, north of Ronda

It was very very hot there. I did not stay very long. I drove on east to Torremolinos, where part of Patrick´s family lives. It was hotter still there, humid, crowded. We ate Indian curry, talked about the past and the future, real estate, funeral arrangements. The heat drove us north, back into the mountains, where we spent an afternoon in a cool reservoir lake, playing with Sam the adorable and sassy step-grandson. I learned that Matt, Paddy´s second son, lived up there in his 20th summer. In a cave. (Matt made a great video of the event, which I hope to post here:

back in my own house!
I headed home on Monday morning. It was a long, long journey, punctuated at the end with a minor accident: a rock flew off the back of a passing truck and into my windshield. The safety glass held up, but I was sprayed with tiny shards, and an impact the size of a baseball was right there above where I needed to see out!  Insurance paid for the new windshield. I got home just fine (in spite of my Garmin Nüvi 225W SatNav, which was worse than useless). I was very glad to arrive, because...

After two weeks away, Murphy Cat came home! He is missing one of his toes, but it does not seem to bother him much. He is as demanding and luxuriant as ever. I was so happy to see him, and the rest of the howling horde, I almost cried.

I wondered, stretching myself out on my own bed in my own room in my own house, what could have possessed me to ever leave this place. 


Saturday, 20 August 2011

Pueblo de Poesía

Flor stood up at the podium where the Gospel is usually proclaimed. She laid her papers straight, cleared her throat, and launched into her reading full-speed.

The words flew from her mouth and over our heads. They winged out the church door and circled the tower. She read fast, and with well-rehearsed gestures and stresses in her voice.

What she read this evening, before her relatives and neighbors, was a poem she wrote herself, a poem about a nest of storks. She proclaimed it with pride as well as some nervousness. It was a very good poem, and it earned her a noisy round of applause.

And after her came Toni, her sister-in-law, with her poem about the dignity of Spanish womanhood. A striking young cousin emerged from the sacristy halfway through, decked in a red dotted Flamenco dress, fluttering a lacy fan – a living illustration.

José was up next. His poem was a free verse, a song of sad longing, of nights spent in a silent town wondering if this was what he will always do. He read with dignity of things many men would never speak of aloud.

Then came Sara, whose lively youth burbled out in a quick, sweet ode to something pretty.

The heavy artillery rolled out last. Modesto, the 80-something resident historian and poet, writes and recites poems for at all of Moratinos´great events. Tonight he shared no less than four Tributes in Rhyming Couplets, ranging in subjects from A Mother´s Love to The Useful Pig.

His sons sat smiling in the front row. At the end of the pork poem came a flurry of hands motioning in Modesto´s direction, fingers making slicing motions against necks, chopping motions against wrists. Modesto smiled pityingly at them and gathered up his sheaf of rhymes.

It was Moratinos´ First Poetry Reading, part of the annual Fiesta weekend. It lasted only 20 minutes, but it played to a packed house of appreciative listeners. All of the poems were written by the people who read them. And none of them was bad. Not at all.

We live, after all, in rural Castile, a place with a long history of poets and poetry. They teach it in school, and students that show promise are further fostered with lessons on how to read in public.

We have a pool of talent in our midst, apparently untapped. Until now. Here we have a housewife watching a leggy bird and her brood, seeing how the two of them, woman and stork, do the same sorts of chores each day.

Here´s a lonely farmer. A teenager blossoming, aware of her blossoming. A Spanish woman, a carpenter´s wife, celebrating herself and her sisters and her nation. And a patriarch, holding forth the way respectable old men in little rural towns are wont to do.

There were no prizes, because that would require judges, and judgements. At the end everyone filed out and patted one another on the back and bought each other beers at the bar. We stayed just a little while, watching the big card-playing tournament (the prizes there are hams and pork loins, cheeses and bottles of wine) then headed back toward home and dinner.

Up the street beyond the albergue, Julia sat chatting on the curb with Oliva and Justi and one of their grown-up daughters. Julia´s still mourning, she is taking a pass on all but the Mass for this year´s fiesta – but she still loves a good visit. I sat down and told them what they´d missed. And Oliva was inspired.
When she was small, she said, every Sunday in May she´d stand up before the Virgin statue and recite elaborate poems of praise. “Offerings,” she called them, taught to the children at school and at home. And now, 60 years later, Oliva still has them filed comfortably in her vast memory.

“O holy mother mine,
O flower of Judah, O star of the Sea,
When I am sad, I always call to thee,
And you are there to comfort me,” she reeled off.

“You dry the tears of every child
A mother to all who call to you,
Eternal mother, robed in majestic blue
O hear our songs of gratitude...”

She knows three long Offerings like these, and Julia joined in for one about a Mystic Rose. Their voices made a sing-song as Pilar´s troupe of pretty grandchildren toddled and wheeled past, on their way to the plaza to play boules. Justi stood by, watching the recital. He smiled as Oliva spoke, his craggy brown face full of tenderness.

We have always had plenty of poetry here, what with storks on the roof, and crickets singing in the fields, and thunder grumbling off to the west.

And we have poets here, too, listening and writing that poetry into words. And ladies perched on the curb, pulling forth poems they first recited when their voices were young and clear and sweet. 

Imagine, a little town full of poets, offering it up. Because we all are here, and because we all want to hear. 

Thursday, 18 August 2011


Calle Ontanon, just before the stars begin to fall

Dust and heat and electricity are settled on our little town. The sun smites us by day, and at night the stars are falling like crazy. People are moody – cheerful and chipper one day, low and blue the next. Me too.

Here is the big news of the week: the house on the way into town finally came down yesterday. It once was the finest house in Moratinos, we are told, but years of abandonment and neglect saw it falling further earthward every day. It was a dangerous eyesore, and a beautiful, broken old glory – if you were a pilgrim within the last two years or so you might remember how tempting was that sagging-open front door. You could just see inside the kitchen, where a pot still stood on the ancient iron stove. It invited exploring, even as it threatened sudden traumatic crushing injury.

The demolition guys worked two days over there, playing to an appreciative crowd.

There are lots of people in Moratinos just now. It is August, and all the Summer People are back, their houses unlocked and windows thown open, the dust shaken from their rugs out into the already-dusty plaza. Children loop up and down the streets on bikes and scooters, more children every day. A hundred swallows trace the same loops in the air above their little heads.

We pick the figs and plums and courgettes, chop and blanch and bag and freeze them all. We write, or at least I write – I have finished the Vadiniense guide, but have not gotten ´round to sending it off to London for editing. We´ve had guests, from Wales and from Astorga, but we still have not got around to putting the house back together after their visits. We are sun-struck, lazy.

And leery. Much as I like a party, bad things have happened here the last couple of fiestas. A pilgrim fell and broke his foot on our front stairs. Our dog went missing. Last year a traveler lost her life on the road outside town.

Now Murphy is gone missing. Three days now, and no yowls from the back yard.
Peter, the archguitarist, is playing the fiesta Mass on Saturday. I had other, more elaborate liturgical plans laid out, but they suddenly came to naught. (I think I am the only one who´s noticed!)

Juli was here for the last fiesta, cuddling the new babies, hanging out on the church steps, making sure everyone had second helpings of chorizo and bread and wine. (I miss her keenly, she was such a part of my last five summers, and what a gift she would be to the English class!).

During last year´s party Una dog hid from the fireworks in the downstairs shower. Nabi spent the fiesta barking from the safety of the barn.

They all are gone now.

The fiesta will have the place heaving all weekend. We will play cards under the trees, and dance after sundown, go two times to Mass and march the saint around the town. There´s a poetry recital planned, and some folk dancers, and The Big Feast. And on Monday everyone will pack up and vanish for another year.

I will lose half my students at the English lessons. And maybe the English lessons, too, will end when the plowing starts up again.
Big fun learning English

Because we are part of a big rhythm here. Things sprout and flower and fruit, and then they die away and vanish for a while. Houses are built and lived-in and loved until the people move away or die or forget, and then they slowly crumble. Friends, like pilgrims, come into our lives and go out again, sometimes way too soon. We have to let them go.

It is only natural. It´s living.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Two Angels & a Trinity

Kathy charms the youth of Cistierna´s industrial wasteland
I spent the whole last week writing the new Vadiniense guide, and now I am sick of it.
Not the trail. The guide. The writing about the trail. This is hard work!

the Roman road near Cremenes
BOILED DOWN: From where I left off in the last blog post, that trail loses altitude steadily for two more days, passing over a huge dam and along ten unforgettable cliffside kilometers of often-pristine Roman road. It continues into coal country, where I was reminded of my youthful wanderings over similar mountains of mine-tailings. (In Armstrong County Pennsylvania, however, the mines are called "Rosebud" or "Tintown" or "Lenora Lee." Here in Spain we passed the mouth of one called "Imponderable"!) I enjoyed poking round the skeleton of a massive and abandoned mine complex on the riverbank. All the heavy metals in the world could not crush the joy of a little herd of semi-wild horses that whinnied and grazed among the ruins. 
The following two days were green fields full of storks,  an 11th century convent still home to chanting nuns, a haunted monastery on a hilltop, cliff-dwellings carved into hillsides by hermit monks... and miles of broiling black asphalt. I am writing all about it. I will give you all the link when and if it sees the light of day.  

Meantime, I am involved in a bit of folly. It started at the Vermut last Sunday after Mass. Somehow we got to talking about how many more people are around here in August, and how quiet it is in the fields, seeing as the harvest is in and the big plowing hasn´t started yet. And we started talking about languages, and the English words "harvest" and "plowing" and "seeding," and somehow it morphed into a Project.

So, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday evenings at 8 p.m., an assortment of Moratinenses gathered in the ayuntamiento to Learn English.

Before I moved to Spain I took a certification course in teaching English as a foreign language, so I ought to know what I am doing. But I do not. With each lesson I am confronted by my own vast ignorance of grammar and usage. And that´s just the Spanish part! I need a curriculum to follow, something very basic and engaging and just-for-fun. Because that is what this is, really. Fun. We are having fun in there, at least most of us are... and each meeting brought more participants to the table. Angel, the teenage son of Segundino the Carpenter, is a keen student at school -- he has a decent English vocabulary and he keeps my Spanish spelling in order. Paddy offers commentary and clarity, most of the time. Milagros and Angeles, Eduardo and José, Antonio and Toni all take copious notes and ask all kinds of questions and keep things light and bouncy. The time flies by.

And this evening, when I took the trash to the tip, I heard a voice call out from across the huertas. Maybe it was Edu, or maybe Angel or Segun -- "Got eebening, Rebekah!" it called out from the gloaming. I smiled.
But I digress.
There are a couple of things I want to add here that will not go into the Vadiniense guide. Taking a page from the camino blog of my friend Johnnie Walker, I will tell you about an angel we met out there. And the angel who finally rescued us. 
Trini de Carbajal
Sunday July 24 was a scorcher, and Kathy and I walked down a narrow blacktop road that connects the six villages between Cistierna and Gradefes. It was shady, and water babbled in the irrigation channels alongside us. Heavy horses, raised for meat, snorted at us from under the trees. Someone had told us that halfway down the trail, in a town called Carbajal, there´s a bar. And as the day went on, and the temperature rose, we spoke more often of that bar, that beer... (Kathy is, wisely, a proponent of a cold brews on hot days.) And finally, just when our water bottles were running short and lukewarm, we rolled into town. A lady came out into the street and waved and smiled.
We greeted her, asked her if there is indeed a bar there, or someplace to buy a beer.
And she said yes, maybe, but it is full of MEN. It would be better for everyone if we came inside her porch and sat down and let her give us beer. And so we did.
We sat in her cool patio and sipped, and met her husband. We heard about the crops, the neighbor´s fistula, the Virgin Peregrina statue in the local church, and how to feed jasmine vines. We had cheese and olives. Refreshed, our bottles refilled, we went to leave.
"Pray for me," she said. "My name is Trini. Trinidad." Trinity. Cool.  
She asked us to pray, and so we did.

Monday 25 July was hotter still, and there were no trees to shade us on our way. The pavement-walking was taking its toll -- my right pinky toe had a terrific blister that would not heal. We decided to take the bus to Mansilla de las Mulas, another to Leon, and the train back home. We could come back in the car and cover this last 25 kilometers that way... there are some cool old monasteries we didn´t want to miss.

BUT... July 25 is the Feast Day of St. James, a national holiday.
No buses. No jolly builders or coffee salesmen making their rounds, picking up hitch-hiking foreigners. I recalled a similar situation not long ago, out on the plains of Toro. I was stuck. I was gonna have to transcend my toe and get on with it. And so we strapped on our packs and walked. It was pretty and pastoral and breezy, but slow. Heat radiated off the blacktop.

I phoned Paddy with the news. It only made him frustrated. He cannot drive. We´d hoped to see each other that evening, and neither of us could do anything to save the situation. 

Kathy and I arrived at the monumentally simple monastery of San Miguel de Escalada. It was closed, of course. The Belgian tourists there were not interested in giving a ride to two scruffy backpackers. (I still think I could´ve talked them into it if I hadn´t been sectioning an orange as I spoke. I sliced open my thumb. I oozed charm, but the simultaneous blood-flow kinda killed my appeal.) The Belgians unearthed a bandage and staunched the blood and got the hell outta there. We were left alone on the hilltop with the road spooling out across the plain below.

"Damn," Kathy said. "It´s angel time, Santiago. Show us what you got."

hermitage with great reception
"I will leave you my stick, as a token of our good will," I said.

I walked this camino (and the last one too) using a walking stick abandoned at the Peaceable by Dennis the Scottish Frenchman, a pilgrim/motorcyclist who turns up periodically at our house. It was not a great sacrifice, seeing as one of my hands was rendered un-wieldable. I thanked Dennis again for the use of the stick, and we walked off southward again into the afternoon.

We found a bar and ate a massive tortilla. The place filled up with people, but none was driving south.
We walked some more, past the hermit caves on the cliffs above, with mobile phone towers topping them off.  It felt like hours. The toe burned. I felt light-headed. A song played over and over in my head: the Beach Boys, "Barbara Ann." Madness. From somewhere along the road behind me I could hear Kathy making mad noises, too. Krishna Dass, I think. Crazy. 

And then I heard another kind of music. My mobile phone was ringing. It was Paddy. He was in the car, on his way to collect us. No! he said, he was not driving. Dennis was. Out of the blue, just moments before, Dennis the French Scotsman had pulled up to our house. Where were we, anyway?

I whooped and hollered out in the field, and scared a cloud of doves into the bright sky. Me and Kathy collapsed under the first tree in the next town we got to, and in a flash our Rescue Rangers came. Our angels. They scraped us up and took us home, our butts well and truly kicked.
We wanted to do the Ruta Vadiniense. And it ended up doing us.    

Pilgrim´s Friend