|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.