Tuesday, 22 September 2015

This Mud's for You

I troweled a big wad of trulla, chocolate brown and bristling with straw, onto the flat steel float. I laid the edge of the float alongside the lower edge of the adobe wall, squashed the mud flat against the vertical, and dragged the steel upward. The primitive plaster spread itself flat and true over the surface.

Six architects, a sociologist, a chemist, and a master adobero all stood silent, watching. My trowel made wide arcs over the wall, smooth as cocoa. I tucked the edges neatly in, and handed the tools over to the next student. "It's like decorating a cake," I said.

"Bien hecho!" the old adobe-man said.
"No fair!" said the architect with the fabulous hair. "You've done this before!"

They both were right to say so. I am really pretty good with mud plaster -- I've plastered many meters of adobe walls in the last few years, and I have my technique pretty well nailed-down. No one expects that from a foreigner. I stood up straight and smiled with delight. The teacher likes me! I did good!

I love plastering, and patching, and filling wide gaps with mortar made from quicklime and dirt and sand. I love sifting the dirt and mixing in the sand or mortar, gravel or chopped-up straw, turning it over with a shovel, adding water til it starts to bind, starts to bend and rise and almost inhale -- it is much like kneading bread, this earth. You even have to leave it then, overnight or over several months, depending on what kind of surface you're going to cover -- indoors or outdoors? Weight-bearing or decorative? Horizontal, vertical, smooth or rough, in a heated room or an animal shed?

Each option has its own proportion of ingredients, its own rising time, its own set of tools.
I love them. I want to learn everything about them. I want to be a master adobera, myself, and build beautiful little huts and donkey barns, chapels and bodegas, all of native dirt, straw, water, and sand. I want to put my hand against the wall and know my handprints are all inside there, know that color painted on is the color I chose, that smooth, glossy coat of wax is what I laid on last.
Adoberas. That's me on the left.

I'm taking a three-day master-class in Surface Rendering at SmartLocal Tierra, a natural building/architecture collective in rural Valladolid. Last September I spent three days there learning to repair and maintain old walls of adobe and rammed earth. Today I started Part 2. We spent the morning in a dingy classroom in the city hall at Cuenca de Campos, going over the chemistry and physics of cohesion, compression, plasticity, filosilicates and ionic bonds. We learned the science of the local dirt, and why it's so apt for building things. We learned about laying on three layers of vertical, and why some builders prefer barley straw over wheat, and why often the walls of old buildings are peppered with broken tiles, river rocks, animal bones and grapevines.
And then we hiked up to a building that 800 years ago was the Church of St. Peter. It was a house after that, and then a cattle shed, and finally a roofless ruin. Smart Tierra bought a couple of years ago for a demonstration site, put up a new roof and spectacular beams, and is now, over many teaching sessions, is building back the walls using old-school methods and highly-trained but mostly unskilled labor. This is an odd sort of hobby. I may be the only 50-something woman I know who is passionate about smearing mud onto walls, or tying sticks together to make a roof over a stack of straw bales. These skills have little practical application. Nobody builds any more with adobe -- manufactured bricks are much cheaper and durable and easy to work with, and way less labor-intensive and frustrating. Why make trullo and trowel it on when you can buy great sheets of plasterboard that's perfectly flat and smooth? I admit that "the Three Little Pigs" was my favorite childhood fairy tale. Maybe I should've become an architect. Paddy says 22 years as a newspaper journo seems like perfect training for a mud-slinger. But all mud aside, I know why I enjoyed this day so deeply. The last two weeks have been harrowing here on the Camino Frances. Spanish police finally located the body of an American pilgrim who went missing in April, and they arrested a man near Astorga who's admitted to killing her. I did not participate overly in the anguish that went on all summer while we waited for news. But now that we know, I am surprisingly sad. My illusion of a safe, sweet Camino haven where women can fearlessly walk has been busted to bits. I am helping on a memorial committee, with all the accompanying to-and-fro, egos and frictions. San Anton is still going on, up to the end of the month. There's a big wave of pilgrims moving through, and the albergues are packed-out. The Moratinos Cultural Association is in abeyance after a rather heated planning meeting. Paddy's having health issues. People keep wanting to come here. I am increasingly unable to say "yes" with a big smile on my face. I have been doing and doing for months, mostly for other people. The mud I do for me. Three days of smearing trullo on walls is not useful, or interesting, or helpful to others. It is not going to make any money. I do it because I like it. I do it just for me. Just because.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Old Man San Anton

from the fields to the south you see how big he really is

San Anton is famous and beloved and beautiful despite his many years. I live about 100 kilometers from his place outside Castrojeriz.  We only became acquainted a few months ago, when someone put me in charge of his daily caretakers. I cannot say I know him well.  

San Anton is stony and brooding and powerful; his figure is skeletal. He stands along the road where thousands pass. People stop to snap his photo, but only some of them follow the arrows round to the open gate. Inside they find the ravaged ruin of a monastery hospital and church, now reduced to a rustic rest-stop. The visitors stand and stare up at Anton’s roofless apse. If they’re aware of such things, they feel the power of the place.   

There’s a little pilgrim shelter built in there, with bunks for 12 people to sleep. A peevish old man next door controls the water supply. There’s no electricity to speak of, and very little water. There is no hot water at all, unless you warm it up on the gas cooker. But what seems to scare most people away is its total lack of wifi.
in through the back gates

San Anton is emblematic of the scruffy, minimalist shelters that pilgrims settled-for for centuries, in the years when the Santiago pilgrimage dropped out of public popularity. He runs on goodwill and donations. The people who keep him going are volunteers, like in many other pilgrim albergues.
But the volunteers at San Anton, like San Anton himself, are exceptional.

Most hospitaleros have a lot of advance time to plan for their term of service. My guys came out of the woodwork at the last minute -- I learned in early April that I was in charge, and the doors would open May 1. I had a month to find 20 volunteers.

I did not think I could do that. I resigned myself to spending much of my own summer at San Anton. 
“Let Things Come to You,” a wise meme told me then. I grabbed onto that, and chose to believe it. I put out the word on the internet: Come and serve at San Anton!  
father/daughter hospi team from USA

And so they came – hospitaleros from Scotland, Ireland, England, Belgium, South Africa, Austria, USA, Germany, Spain, and Poland. More than enough; I had to turn away some who’d never walked The Way, who’d never spent time outdoors, who needed special medical care, who just wanted a free place to live on the camino. Some canceled out, others were called away, but always another one, a new one, emerged just in time. I lost a volunteer to stomach flu, and another whose girlfriend decided after three days that he just couldn’t take it. 

All but two hospis have turned out to be excellent, so far. And the not-so-excellent ones were not bad hospitaleros. They’d have done fine in a more civilized albergue. They weren’t a good fit. They didn’t “get” what San Anton is about. 

He is not about crowd control, orderliness, or hygiene. Anton is a ruin. There will be dust and mud. There will be spiders and flies. There will be busloads of tourists demanding to use the toilet (which is reserved for pilgrims staying overnight); there will be long, dull afternoons with nobody there at all. Anton is not about hospitaleros. He just tolerates them, I think. San Anton is exactly what you see when you come in the gate.   

He is not about money. There’s a tendency for hospis to put the donation box next to the credential stamp, especially when the bus tourists show up. There’s a moment when the pilgrim asks “how much?” and the hospi has to say, “whatever amount you can give. We’re donativo…” And trust the traveler to put in at least enough Euro to cover his own costs.
German/Austrian hospis

San Anton is poor, old, and skinny, but he is proud. He needs to be maintained, but he does not need to be improved. Hot water, bowers of flowers, washing machines, swimming pools, lights at night… San Anton never had those things, and he shows you real quick just how little you can live on, too.

Anton says pilgrims don’t need wifi.  They don’t need a hot showers – they can survive on cold showers, or no showers at all! They might be used to three-course spreads at dinnertime, but a simple salad and spaghetti will do just as well. Twenty-first century pilgrims can go to bed at sundown, like people did there for centuries.  But if they stay up a while, there are ghost stories around the campfire. The strip of sky seen through Anton’s broken ribs at night puts on a spectacular show of stars. Pilgrims who stay awake long enough will hear the owls shriek.    

(For pilgrims who sleep, I went ahead and asked for money to buy new mattresses, and now I’m buying bedbug-proof covers for those. Anton may be scruffy, but that doesn’t mean he’s got to be tawdry, or infested. We gotta keep his dignity, really.)

I have never spent a night inside the gates of San Anton. I have never served there myself as a hospitalera. But the old guy's got something going on when it comes to keeping himself looked-after. He’s attracted just the right kind of folks, from all over the world. 
People as wiry, tough, and beautiful as he is. 

Think about becoming a hospitalero at Monasterio San Anton for two weeks in 2016. If you have made the Camino de Santiago, are in good health, can withstand "camping-out" conditions, and have some training in hospitality, get in touch. I need 19 committed people willing to serve two-week slots from May through September.