Thursday, 28 December 2017

The Long Tale of a Lucky Dog

She´s lucky I didn´t kill her myself, back when we first met.
A year or so ago, on a dark, snowy afternoon in the mountain village of O Cebreiro, I drove my car very slowly up the single cobbled street. I peered through the sleet, hoping for a decent parking spot. I hit the curve at the top with just enough momentum to avoid touching the gas. And there it was, sprawled out lengthwise on the snow-covered street -- a huge black hound dog.
I touched the brake and slid, just a little. I stopped in time. The dog didn´t move. It was dead, some idiot had already run it over and left its body there, I thought. Poor, unlucky beast. I pulled over to the side, turned on the emergency lights, got out of the car.
The dog rolled slowly over and got to its feet. It ambled over to me, wagging its shaggy tail. It was a filthy, yellow-eyed brute, a shaggy rag of a hound dog, lying in the street like all good Spanish dogs do. At least until some local hot-rod puts a permanent end to their restful lives.
I happened to have dog treats in my coat pocket. I gave them to the dog. He wolfed them down and ambled away. He´s not starving, I told myself. He´ll be alright.
I got on with my errands, got on with my life. I didn´t know that dirty old dog wasn´t done with me.
St. James works closely with St. Francis sometimes, where I am concerned.
My friend Laurie is Canadian, but she´s been part of the O Cebreiro community for decades. She noticed when the big black dog appeared along the edges of the town a year or so ago, scrounging for scraps, sniffing around the dumpsters, sidling up to pilgrims. Near enough to be obvious, but not close enough to touch. It was a female dog. People threw bits of bocadillo to her. The restaurant cooks left bones and trimmings by the back door, which vanished overnight.
Everyone agreed the dog must´ve been dumped by a hunter, or escaped from a local shepherd. No one came looking for her. Nobody wanted a big black dog. The dog was so shy, she didn´t seem to want to be anyone´s pet. She survived the first winter by holing up alongside a horreo on the edge of town, out of the wind.
She made friends with Carlos, a portly pet dog who lived with the Esperanzas, two ladies named "Hope," at a local bed and breakfast inn. The two dogs spent last summer working the tourist crowds, cadging treats from the delivery vans down along the LU-633, taking long naps in doorways, garages, and sometimes in the middle of the street.
Cinders in O Cebreiro, Summer 2017 (Rachel Thompson photo)
Around July, the black dog produced a litter of puppies. They tumbled around the streets for a little while, then suddenly vanished. No one can say where. No one much cared. No one wanted a puppy.
No one wanted a big black female dog.
Time went by. The tourist crowds thinned out. The days grew short.
Laurie named the hound dog Cinderella. The Esperanzas let the dog sleep in their garage, but they didn´t want to adopt her. They spend their winters in a little apartment in Lugo, they already had one too-big dog. Laurie spends large swaths of time in England and Canada, so she couldn´t take her on, either. Cinderella was facing another long, hungry winter on the mountaintop.
So Laurie called me.
I was due to visit O Cebreiro in November, so Laurie and the Esperanzas fixed things up.
I arrived with the rear hatch of the car all done-up for a scared dog, but I needn´t have worried... the Esperanzas had lured her into the entryway of their elegant stone house, and drugged her into oblivion. We four ladies dragged and lifted the dog into the back of the car.
The Esperanzas wept. Laurie grinned her great grin. And so Cinderella left her mountain home.
I won´t tell you what happened when I stopped at a service station halfway home to let the dog relieve herself. She did just that, but getting back up into the car was too much for her. She dropped to the ground and lay there, supine. I thought it was the drug.

doing the Ghandi drop, November 2017
That turned out to be her default response to any stressful situation: Drop down and lay flat.
This is a huge dog, 35 kilos, 77 pounds. A smart dog. Wily. Unmoveable.
She did that when a Ditch Pig accidently let her out the front gate, and I caught her by the collar.
She did that whenever Ruby and Harry Dogs came to sniff her over and check her out.
She did that on our walks, when we were turning left and she wanted to keep going straight.
Slowly, eventually, she warmed up. We took away her collar and put a harness on her, and she stayed on her feet. She began nosing up to us when we petted the other dogs, asking for her share of love.
Finally, out in the Promised Land one morning, I let her off the lead when the other two ran free. She ran after them, in a big wide-stride lollop.
And when they came back, Judy Dog came, too.
The veterinarian said she´s young and healthy. He gave her rabies shots and worming tablets and a microchip with my name on it. We called her Judy, because she seemed to like it.
I booked her into another vet who does spay-neuter operations on dogs -- not an overly common procedure in Spain. We waited until after Christmas, til after the vet got over a cold.
Late yesterday morning I took Judy into Sahagun for the operation.   
In the afternoon the veterinarian phoned just after lunch, her voice anxious. She´d opened up the dog, she said, and found a terrible surprise. Judy had an acute pyometra. Her uterus and ovaries were a massive infection. The operation was going to take a lot longer, and be a good bit riskier, and cost a lot more money, she said -- or I could opt to just euthanize her, there and then. Without the full operation she would not survive more than a day or two.
I told her to go ahead with the surgery.
Five hours later I took Ollie and David to help collect her. The vet was exhausted, Judy was drugged-out. In the sink of the dispensary was Judy´s uterus. The normally pencil-size organ was a great, 3.5 kilo loaf of eeugh. (The vets here always show you the spare parts.) 
"This is the luckiest dog I´ve ever met, and I´ve met plenty," the vet enthused. "I can´t believe she could be walking around with this inside her, and not have at least a fever. I can´t believe she could stand up, even, and there she was this morning, prancing in here with her tail wagging. I can´t believe she´s here for something routine, something scheduled, and wow. And a couple more days and she´d have been dead, and you´d probably never have known she was sick. Exceptional. Extraordinary. Lucky." 
"It´s St. James," Ollie said.
"St. Francis, maybe," David said.
"Lucky dog," the vet said. 
A survivor. A black dog made of old car tires, rubber bands, shoe leather. Tough as nails. Lucky as hell.
I might start calling her that. Lucky.
Lucky Dog.
Post-surgery, wearing my nightgown 


Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Great Expectations

My mind shouts: Gotta write something! Gotta get that Peaceable Projects website out there, gotta fill in all the gaps in the design while the website-builder is here!  
But it was Christmas day, and Daft Punk was playing on the radio, and the sun came out for a while, and the early-arrival pilg was shaking his booty around the kitchen as the turkey came out of the oven. So I danced a little, too. ´Cause I´m happy. (And nobody laughs too hard at a person wielding a carving knife.)
I had a load of things to do. Not only feeding three friends, two neighbors, a husband, and four pilgrims a full-on holiday feast, but opening up the church for the 1 p.m. Mass, ringing the bells at 12.30 and lighting all the stoves and candles. After that, back at home, vermouth and cava, nuts and boqueron fillets, jazz from French public radio. Clear out the aperitivos, wash the forks, and bring on the turkey, stuffing, beans, carrots, apple pie and English Christmas pudding, whipped out of the microwave at the last minute by another helpful elf.
And a second round of the same stuff when the last three pilgrims straggled in, accompanied by
David on the guitar, singing hits from Prince, the Drifters, Beatles, Bing Crosby, Oasis. I thought about that website copy, thought about how this website is past due, how people are looking for it and not finding it, felt my old aversion to busted deadlines…
So I finally sat down to write this thing, but only after everyone finished singing and dancing and clowning around. Because keeping company with wonderful people is more important than just about anything. And because I was a little afraid.    
Once I write this, and it´s plugged-in to the design and sent out onto the Interwebz, Peaceable Projects Inc. is Really Real, and I am Responsible.  
This is scary. I don´t know anything about maintaining websites, or running a non-profit organization, keeping track of all this paperwork... I am not sure I do enough to keep a website interesting and fresh. Most of what´s done here, day to day, is dull as Ditch-Pigging.  
But I´m throwing myself in.
It´s time to step out into this. Peaceable isn´t just a house along the Camino de Santiago any more. It´s grown into the home-base for several projects, almost all of them aimed squarely at the Camino de Santiago and the pilgrims who walk there. It´s developed a base of supporters, fans, and followers, people who are shockingly generous and surprisingly interested in every kind of local development.   
I´m finding more needs and knotty problems among the non-profit Camino community, and I am getting good at matching them up with solutions, often from faraway lands.
We´ve developed a memorial grove, to remember pilgrims who die along the Way. We´re helping to fund an archaeological dig where a medieval pilgrim shelter once stood. I am  bringing sustainable architectural design to re-invent a shelter at a rustic albergue within a ruined monastery. Cool stuff!
And day by day, Peaceable Kingdom in Moratinos remains open to pilgrims, travellers, hobos and CEOs, the people of the Way. 
It´s about time we got organized. Within the next day or two, HONEST, we´re launching this rocket of a website, a place where you´ll easily see what all we´re doing, and how we hope to achieve it all. And if you like, join in the fun. Right this minute, send me your email address (at rebrites (at)  and we´ll add you to our subscribers list – you´ll be the first to know if-when things happen!

It´s dark out there. We´re working hard to keep a light burning on the Holy Way. Come join the fun! 

Monday, 11 December 2017

An Embarrassment of Pilgrims

jolly winter pilgrims
There didn´t used to be any pilgrims on the road in December or January or February. Only the hardiest souls venture out onto the Meseta when the wind picks up and the temperature drops.

Hostels and albergues can´t make money out of pilgrims in winter. It costs a fortune to heat up a dormitory for just four or five people… people with a well-earned reputation for not spending money.
At the end of October, most people who run albergues close the doors and head out of town for a well-earned vacation. They return just in time to clear out the drains and slap on a coat of paint before Holy Week brings in the big crowds again.

Very few pilgrim albergues remain open through the winter, and many of those close their doors at random moments. Winter pilgrims were often left, literally, out in the cold with no place to go.

Lourdes Lluch, the original donativo hospitalera of this incarnation of the Camino de Santiago, a couple of years ago had a brain-wave. She started Acogida deInvierno, a website that lists every pilgrim albergue on the Camino Frances that stays open from November through February. It is updated daily, so pilgrims can check their smartphone or computer to see how far they´ll have to go to find a bed and a meal.

Peaceable is on that list. We have three beds on a given day: two singles and a double. We can push that up by three, but that requires people sleep at floor-level, or bunk in a room without heat… so we top out at six. Now that Bodega-Restaurante El Castillo de Moratinos is closed for winter, we get to feed and water them, too. 

Pilgrims love the Peaceable. This is a home, not a bunkhouse. The place is relatively warm, there´s a clothesline, cats to pet, wifi, decent food. And we´re donativo. We let them choose what to pay. Which means they can get it all for free if they´re shameless freeloaders… or judging by the latest donations in the box, they get it all for whatever change is rattling in their pockets. Since December began, I´ve made change for two people with 50-Euro bills, and one with a 100-euro bill… but we´re averaging 4 Euro per person in donativos. Which means we are not just supporting these “pilgrims” in their journey, we are subsidizing them.

Paddy is not happy, but he´s bearing up better today than yesterday. 

I know I´ve whined in the past about people taking advantage, so I won´t do that again. Truth is, these pilgrims don´t have many options. Our house is the only place they have to stay in Moratinos, one of only two places that are open this winter in the 40-kilometer stretch between Carrion de los Condes and Sahagun.  (La Morena, a big private albergue in Ledigos, is taking the weight.)

Today Lourdes told me something even more hair-raising: On Christmas and New Year´s Eves, La Morena is closing, too.

We will be the only place in 40 kilometers for pilgrims to go. So they all, however many wandering souls are out there on a holiday, will end up here.

I contacted Bruno. I have the keys to his albergue, and he´ll disarm the alarm if I want to open  his dormitory room and put people in there to sleep. There´s no heat or water, but it´s a place out of the rain. How we´d feed an overflow crowd is another puzzler.  We cannot afford to do that, not at 4 euro per person. 

This has all the makings of a feel-good, no-room-at-the-inn sitcom. Or maybe a public health crisis. A helluva holiday, for sure!