Thursday, 31 December 2015

Moving Right Along

December's gone on entirely too long. Time to put an end to it!

It's the time when people review the past months, but I live in small slices. Looking back over great sweeps of weeks and months makes me dizzy, makes me realize how fast time passes by, even as I live each little slice so intensely.

It's not like I am "practicing awareness," or "living in the moment." I do my fair share of reminiscing, as well as "what if," and "when this is done, then this." Problem is, when I look back over several months, what sticks out most in my mind are the hard times.

In 2015 my favorite cousin died in a terrible way. An American pilgrim died in a terrible way, right here on the oh-so-safe Camino de Santiago. I had a harrowing day of anesthesia-free surgery. In February all the albergues closed at the same time, and we were overrun with pilgrims: 78 people stayed here in 28 days! My son, all the year through, struggled to find work in the field he loves. My brilliant ideas for the new Moratinos Asociacion Cultural were not a big hit. My big sweet dog Bella turned mean and savaged Lulu Dog. The stitches, the horror, the loss of trust, and the final goodbye at a ditch dug out back...

No. Stop. Think of the good things.

In the bright spring I walked the Camino de Madrid, from Segovia to Valladolid, on my own. It was beautiful and healing.

The long summer evenings over at Terradillos, ringing the bells, seeing the pilgrims straggle in and sit up around the altar for a Mass in English. We served both bread and wine. The pilgrims were great, but it was the old ladies from the village who really struck me most. They came to the Mass, but sat down where they always do. We served them Communion there, like they'd never seen. They wept. It was small and sweet. It felt so important.

I re-wrote a fine new book by Pulitzer winner Mitch Weiss. In November I wrote the first draft of a new book of my own. This year I went two times to Paris, and for the first time I saw Italy: Florence and Venice. We had the front end of the house -- the old kitchen, storage room, and potting shed -- turned into its own smart little apartment.

I took the job of staffing the scruffy little Albergue Convento San Anton in Castrojeriz. Once I got people rounded-up, the place kinda ran itself, although I think I could've done a better job supervising. I am not a people person. I thought the volunteers -- almost all seasoned hosts -- ought to work out things for themselves, I didn't think they'd need to have rules. But they do. If I do not give them rules, they start making up their own, they start bossing one another around. Next year will be better.

This year, though, whilst getting ready to open up San Anton, I vacuumed the old mattresses. They started to unravel in my hands, they were mushy as old pumpkins, so I put out an appeal on email and FaceBook. The English-speaking pilgrim world rose up and opened its big, deep wallet. We bought new mattresses, and bedbug-proof covers for them, all in a twinkling. I was impressed. It made me start thinking... There's a lot of need out here, and generosity to meet it. We need to form a non-profit.

The guitarists came in the summer, and did their beautiful things all over Palencia.
Paddy slowed down. He made two of his weekend art-viewing trips to Madrid and Malaga, but a third, in November, proved too much for his weakening eyesight.

Paddy is 74 years old. His eyesight is going, and there is little the doctors can do now. He cannot hear so well, especially on his left side. He gets tired, he gets annoyed. He cannot drink they way he used to. I cannot expect him to jump up and run the way he's done since we met up.

Getting my head around that is a real challenge for me. I am selfish. I do not want to cut back on my junketing around Spain and Europe -- I want everything to stay in its comfortable rhythm!

Oliver, the German hospitalero who's been ghosting around Peaceable and Moratinos since May, has made this year possible. He helped Bruno early on, and was a real stand-by for me at San Anton all summer -- everyone who served with him left rave reviews. Ollie ran Bruno's place while Bruno walked the Camino this fall. He's staying with us this winter, he's with us now. He's a godsend.

He stayed here and walked dogs while Paddy and I attempted to walk from Samos to Santiago for Christmas. That trek was a disaster, but in the end we made it to the shrine city for the celebration. We walked together through the Door of Mercy.

Oliver is staying here through January, because I am off with the New Year to stay for a month on the mountain-top of O Cebreiro, house- and dog-sitting sitting for a friend.  I am doing this now, because I said I would, because I still can. I might need to stick close to home more in the coming year.

A month of solitude for re-writing the November book, and co-writing a short history in English of the Convento San Anton, for all the travelers who want to know about the place. I think I will publish it myself. I have ISBNs, after all.

I don't have to leave home to be a publisher!


Wednesday, 16 December 2015

A healer called Jato

Jesus Jato at Tui cathedral. Photo by Jose Maria Diaz Bernardez

Jesus Jato is a camino character, a wiry old wise man who back in the 1980s turned a burned-out greenhouse on the path into Villafranca de Bierzo into one of the first privately-owned, donation-paid pilgrim albergues.

I met Jato in the summer of 1993, at the same time I was meeting Spain herself. I was a travel journalist, guest of the Tourist Office of Spain, traveling in 4-star luxury along the “new” adventure-travel destination called the Camino de Santiago. We stopped at Ave Fenix, Jato’s ramshackle shelter, for a look at the lowdown places pilgrims often stayed, to meet the funky, freaky kinds of people who took care of them. My fellow journalists thought the place was grubby and outre. We were scheduled to meet the mayor over at the fancy Parador hotel, but I got to talking to Jato and the pilgrims in a dormitory cobbled-together from plywood and plastic sheeting. Jato’s little daughter showed me where they gathered the herbs used to treat swollen knees and broken blisters.

The journos left me behind. I missed meeting the mayor, but I got a helluva sidebar for the feature story that later sold all around the world.  

Anytime after that I stopped at Jato’s place, and sometimes found him there – he is a busy guy, he’s always hobnobbing with camino people at conferences and dinners. He later gained fame for his quemada, a theatrical lights-off rite that combines brutally strong liquor, open flames, and a chant about witches and bats. Brazilians love that sort of thing, and they apparently love Jato, too. Paulo Coelho, a Brazilian superstar novelist, was an early adopter of mystical camino tales. He invites Jato to his fabulous birthday bashes, and touts him as “the witch of Villafranca.” Coelho donated the first computer installed at Jato’s albergue. But Jato doesn’t seem to bask so much in the light of celebrity, even though he’s not adverse to having his picture in the paper.

I stopped by his place during a subsequent press trip. He and a gang of hippies were using local stone to build a new dining area. I put three lovely pink quartz rocks into the wall, one for me, one for each of my children. They still are there. Pilgrims bump them with their knees when they sit down to eat.

When I walked the Camino myself for the first time in 2001, Jato took me and another pilgrim for a midnight expedition in his Jeep. He supposedly was showing us an alternative path over the mountain to O Cebreiro, but I think he was just enjoying an escape from the rackety albergue. I do not recommend trail-finding after sundown All the landmarks were invisible, and I got carsick in the bouncing back of the vehicle. The following day the other pilgrim bailed-out on the idea, so I walked the alternative alone. (I continue in this foolishness, I’m afraid.) After many miles of trudging, the barely-marked trail vanished in a vale of blackberry thorns. I turned back. A dog bit me. I found my way down the mountain to a village, flagged-down a beer truck, and arrived in Cebreiro courtesy San Miguel brewery. And so I learned of the fallibility of the Mystical Jato, who’d told me the Dragonte Route was perfectly do-able.

I saw Jesus Jato many times in the years since. He is a perennial figure, known to all, beloved of most, one of a rapidly-thinning group of cranky Camino old-timers. When I was invited to join the new Fraternidad Internacional del Camino de Santiago (FICS) last year, I was pretty disenchanted with Spanish Camino groups. But when I saw who else was heading up this particular bunch, I thought different. Here were founders, activists, academics, and journalists, people who were not uniformly Spanish, and people who didn’t just want to hang out drinking and arguing, or sitting through endless rosaries. These guys do things. They achieve things, and their philosophy is in keeping with my own. They are people l respect, people like my friend George Greenia, from William and Mary. People like Jose de la Reira, a bagpiper who painted some of the first waymarks on the Camino, who helped to map-out the Camino Portuguese. People like Jesus Jato.

I saw Jato a year ago at the first big founding meeting of FICS, in Villafranca de Bierzo. He walked with sticks. He was very frail, pale, hollow-eyed. People thronged him, but I left him alone. He wouldn’t have any memory of me, just another peregrina from years ago.  I did not think I would see him again.  

But Jato didn’t die. Last weekend, at this year’s FICS meeting, Jato drove himself down from El Bierzo and strode right into the Tui Cathedral in time for our scheduled guided tour. He looked a bit peaked, he walked with a limp, but he proceeded to dress-down a couple of tourists who were snapping photos in violation of the big “No Photography” sign. In the choir stalls behind the altar, he sang out a Te Deum, told us he was a friar for a couple of years a long time ago. At the Renaissance bishop’s garden overlooking the River Mino, Jato helped himself to an orange from an overloaded tree.

“It’s fallen on the ground. The bishop doesn’t want it, and I had no breakfast,” Jato said. He handed me an orange, too. “Here. Stolen fruit. The Bible says it tastes better.” He beamed. “Take it, please. I don’t want to go to hell alone.”

 Tui is not an easy town to walk around. The streets are steep and the cobbles are uneven, and Jato had knee surgery not too long ago. He fell behind the rest of the group. I dropped back, asked him if he needed a walking stick. He’d left his in the car, he said. I offered an elbow. Eventually he accepted.

After dinner he laid his healing hands on the head of a lady undergoing cancer treatment. The room was wide and high and tiled, the noise of many voices bounced and echoed, Christmas parties arrived, people sang and swilled. Jato stood behind the lady’s chair and closed his eyes, and the lady sat with her eyes closed, too. No one stared. It’s Christmas, after all. And this is one of the things Jato does.
Eventually he came back over to our end of the table and sat down again. He was exhausted, looking gray. I poured him some tinto. His hand shook a little.

“She’s suffering,” he said. “Not a lot I can do.”

“But you. You’re suffering,” I said to him. “Who lays hands on you? Who heals the healer?”

He looked at me then. “Nobody,” he said. “Never.”

“Jesus, let me,” I said to him, quietly. I felt very presumptuous. I felt frightened, really.

“Please do,” he said. He turned toward me, and took a sip of his wine.

I rubbed my palms together, like I do before I give a pilgrim my “juju treatment,” and I felt the little warm spark that happens most of the time. I put both my hands on Jato’s knee, and closed my eyes, and felt the warmth pass over my palms, I felt it in my elbows and shoulders, I felt my throat and ears, eyes and heart go warm, the way they do when things are working.

I shifted my hands to his calf, and one to his twisted ankle, and stayed there til I felt that warmth again. And I realized Jato was sitting with his palms open, his eyes closed. He was whispering something, breathing alongside my breathing. My fingertips tingled.

Eventually I laid my hands into his hands. I held the curve of his fingers in my fingers. I breathed alongside him for a moment. I opened my eyes. He opened his eyes.

Jato was weeping.

“Go and wash your hands, hija. Don’t touch your face,” he said quietly.

So I did.
Other people gathered round him afterward, the party broke apart. I walked back to my room, I was ready for sleep, even though the clubs were still just opening. The night was sharply cold and bright.  
My heart pounded. I felt a little giddy.   

I marveled at my pretension, but I knew I’d done the right thing. It couldn’t be true – no one can do all the curing that Jato does in a day and not get some kind of care himself. He must’ve just been humoring me, I thought.

But what the hell. We work on the side of the angels. We all are witch-doctors out here, some way or another, doing our juju magic. Sometimes it actually works.

Who is the healer, and who is healed, is anybody’s guess. 

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Things Left Behind

In the middle of the action you notice. You see the one who drops back and clears up the little crumbs, the one who takes the least-desired center seat in the back, the one who waits until everyone else takes a pastry. He takes the last one.  
I think it’s because I am a woman, for several days the only woman (the woman in charge) on the camino cleanup project, I notice which of the men in the group acts the most like I was taught to act. The one who waits til everyone else is OK before he takes care of himself. The one most ladylike.
But that would be an insult, wouldn’t it? Likening the best man to a woman?  
Because we’ve spent many days in focused labor -- driving distances, refilling supplies, reading maps, soothing ruffled feathers – it is easy to lose the individuals in the group, easy to just see us as a unit. But once the work is done and the racket dies down, the pre-dawn runs to the railway station are done, once the beds are stripped and the sheets laundered and the dogs settled back into their comfortable rhythms… once I have had a couple of naps! Once all that is done, then I can look back over the week-long project and see it for what it was.
It’s really a feather in the wind, cleaning up a hiking trail. We’ll have to go back and do it all over again. It’s really more of a low-cost feel-good social-service holiday for a few of us who live near airports where low-cost airlines operate, a little “fix” for the fit, forty- or fifty-something Camino addicts with not a lot to do in early winter.
Jacques and me, doing what's gotta be done
It’s surprisingly physical work. It leaves us groaning in the evenings, as couch-bound as a gang of pot-smokers. In the mornings we wince as our joints warm. But after that first half-mile of ducking and diving, digging and tossing up and over, scanning and shouting “stop the car!” and sliding open the doors and leaping out into the frosty fog – after that we can jump about all day, laughing as we go.
Not many groups get along so well, but this one is short-lived, well-fed, and sharply focused. This year we were an energetic French Swiss called Jacques, and Bas, a wily Englishman of Tinker stock. We were big, sweet James from Sheffield, UK, who’d fit right in as a Pittsburgh boy if he wanted to; and Keith, my standby guy from up-Yorkshire-but-Scotland-born. Kathy came in last, Kathy my best friend from San Francisco, who livened up the mix with her pizza dough, multivitamin Packs and off-the-wall observations. 
And me driving. And Paddy at home, playing backup. (Paddy was an original Ditch-Pig trash-picker, but he stopped when the volume of trash started making him hate pilgrims. And when all the ducking and climbing made him dizzy.)
The company are all gone now, back to their lives. About 140 kilometers of camino are many tons lighter, relieved of years of plastic, paper, aluminum, glass, rubber, steel, and styrofoam.
Here at the Peaceable, we think now of the people who moved all that trash. When they left the Peaceable, they left some things behind.
We have here a charging cord for an IPad, in a cool shade of turquoise. Very California.
We have duty-free shopping bags under the sink. In them are an unopened bottle of Glenrothes, scotch whisky of distinction. Alongside is a somewhat battle-weary bottle of Jameson’s Irish. Paddy and I are not big whiskey drinkers, and the Bible says “a worker is worthy of his wages,” and “never muzzle the ox that tramples out the grain.” Go for it, guys.  
And so the grain it is, with this group. And the grape. We started last weekend with a case of Ribera del Duero, and the lads on Tuesday bought a 22-euro, 15-liter bag-in-box of Rioja Crianza at the feed store in Carrion de los Condes. It’s surprisingly good, and not surprisingly rather depleted.
They did not eat the pate I laid on, nor did they touch the heavy cow-milk cheese brought in from Point Reyes in California. But we now need lentils, rice, beans, bacon, bread, and milk.
Keith brought 200 teabags with him – strong Yorkshire tea. (One of the summertime vicars said “a mouse can run over the surface of this stuff,” but I sure like it.) James brewed great pots of it, and seeing as so many of our group was English, the tea got drunk down. We did in a quantity of coffee, too.    
They left behind a much-needed plumber’s snake. Keith brought that from England, by special request, so we have another option next time the drains back up, before we have to phone Fontanero Hugo.
Atop the fridge are boxes of assorted chocolates and rawhide dog chewies, survivors of the ravages of a week. Inside the freezer are bars of Organic Sea Salt Dark Chocolate, as well as UK and US brands of allergy medicine. Down in the bottom of the fridge are wedges of cheddar cheese, stacks of real Mexican tortillas, two bottles of Worcestershire sauce and a quantity of Marmite. In the cupboard under the stairs is a ten-kilo bag of basmati rice. The volunteers brought them here, and left them for us.
Ditch Pigs, with Franco the Italian pilgrim we kinda picked up in Itero
These are good people, generous men, givers. These are not just “hostess gifts.” These are the little frills that make a hard day sweet for immigrants living in a foreign land. These guys did not just buy their own plane and train tickets, give up their holidays and family time. They did some truly filthy work, over long, cold days, for no pay at all. And they brought presents!  
They saw some corners of Spain no tourist will ever go to. We peeked inside a long-shuttered Carmelite convent in Grajal, and a melting-down ghost town called Villacreces. We ate blood sausage and fish with heads and tails on, as well as suckling lamb and sheep’s-milk pudding and tripes. We hobnobbed with the after-Mass grandees in a pastry shop in Medina de Rioseco, after we’d loaded junk of doubtful legality in their many Dumpsters. (We figure it’s their trash, after all. We just shifted its location.)  
We passed through forgotten pueblos down to their last few residents, on paths seldom trod. We had coffees in low-down bars where the old men huddled around an upright coal stove and the bright sun through the glass lit up the dust like flakes of gold. The ceilings were low and black, but outside were castles, Romanesque churches, Italianate palaces.
Near Carrion de los Condes we saw a coal-black weasel dancing in the road.
No one got hurt, (except for a hot-tea burn, the first day). No one got mad, at least not that I learned of. I am not sure how I got so tired, but here I am. Grateful to all those lads, and to my dear bestie Kathy. My fridge is full, my heart is replete, our beloved camino is spotless.
And so to bed with me.