Friday 9 October 2020

Kinda Like Old Times

Trees are turning yellow, but the sun still shines bright.  We counted 22 pilgrims on the Way this morning, most of them Italians, many without backpacks.   

It's a strange, strange year on the Camino. There's a bus carrying pilgrims past Leon, which is locked down for a couple of weeks.  There are a whole lot fewer pilgrims than before. It is nice. Like old times. 

We've had a few come here to stay with us. Nowadays, without exception, they are the ones who don't have money to stay with Bruno or at the Hostal. They all are very spiritual. Some of them, apparently, are not very functional adults. Like old times, back when there were hippies all along the Way. Free spirits,  broken doves, lost boys. 

The pilgrimage has gone quiet. Santiago 2020 is not an easy path for people with no money, as the only places open these days are privately owned. Most have cranked their prices up as far as the market will bear. The privileged sleep on beds with clean sheets. The poor sleep outdoors. 

Yeah, just like the good old days.

I love pilgrims, I continue to help them move along the Way in a safe and orderly manner. I do not so much miss having them here in my house. There are not many poor people on the camino, so we don't get many at our door.  When they come, we let them in, we let them stay. We follow the hygeine rules, but it's still risky. Doing the right thing is not always the safe option. 

So far, so good. I am healthy, tanned, and fit, working hard out in the weeds. Peaceable Projects is quiet, too. I expect that to suddenly change one of these days.   

I hope for better things, a brighter future. 

For now, we enjoy a rest, a Sabbath year. Covid-Tide.      

Tuesday 9 June 2020

Ireland and Kansas Join the Yarn Bomb Squad

Moratinos is known along the Camino for its “yarn-bombed” plaza trees. The local ladies love sitting on the plaza bench on summer afternoons, watching the pilgrims snap photos of their crocheted handiwork. The pilgrims enjoy the splash of color, the odd incongruity of a soft, hand-knitted surface superimposed onto a natural objects.  Which is to say, crocheted and knitted blankets wrapped around the trunks of trees. 

The first blankets went up three years ago, using handmade items donated by knitters from all over Spain and other parts of the world, too. As time, sunshine and weather took their tolls the crochet has been patched-up, replaced, nailed, stapled, stitched, and stuck-up every which way.  We all agreed last year that the installation was due for an overhaul. After the holidays. After winter…

Spain went into lockdown in March, so all the usual Spring maintenance was pushed back, too. The flags sagged. The banners went brown, their corners curled. The once colorful crochet faded and stretched along the seams.
Three weekends ago we were allowed out of our houses, so Flor and Marivalle, Sonia, Toni, and Luca, Ana and me, Segundino, Jorge, and Bruno headed for the plaza to do the needed deeds. We started with scissors and step-stools, but soon hauled out the ladders, hammers, and wire-cutters. Ants and mosquitos feasted on us. We freed the trees of their sweaters and un-strangled the trunks where we’d tied things on too tightly. We sent the grubby fabric through a gentle washing-machine cycle.

The following Saturday we gathered again in the ayuntamiento meeting room to survey what remained. (And to sample Flor's cheesecake, and Segundino's "champagne.")

It was messy. Some knitted pieces had turned ugly. Some we snipped apart and reassembled. Some had to be shored-up, their raveled edges repaired. Others we simply flipped over and sewed back onto the trees with the faded side facing inward. We re-strung some pennants, measured out triangles, tried to make the colors harmonize whenever we could.

I am not much use where knitting and crochet are concerned, but I do have some reach online. I put out an appeal. An Irish lady sent us some pennants and a charming shamrock shawl for the olive tree.  
An enormous box arrived from California. Inside was a full-size wool afghan of exceptional quality, with a note attached. It was made 40 years ago by Opal Catherine Holtom of Kansas City, Missouri, for her granddaughter, Janet Brovold. Who sent it to us in Moratinos.

A note inside tells all about Opal, and the blanket:

My grandma crocheted a blanket for me almost 40 years ago. To be honest, it was never my ‘style,” and I never used it on a bed. I kept it as a remembrance of all the love she had for me…For years it was stored in the cedar chest my grandpa gave her for Christmas, the day before their wedding. She was 15 years old. That was not unusual in Kansas in 1925…
Today, I am sending the blanket to Moratinos, Spain to reside as long as the threads will bear. Its main plaza… is a holy place, where pilgrims pass by on their spiritual journeys. My grandma was one of the most spiritual people I’ve known… This woman still lives in every fiber of my being, and has informed and guided the parts I like best about myself. So this morning I blessed her blanket with incense, wrapped it around me one last time, and sent it on its way. God willing, I will someday again be in Moratinos, and find it – and her – there in the plaza.

Last Saturday I did an on-the-fly translation of the note for the plaza work group while we continued basted and overcast, sent indoors by a thunderstorm.  We all agreed we cannot cut up Opal's blanket. There was a rush of ideas, some measuring, some arithmetic...

When the job is done, I’ll let you know what it’s become. Grandma Opal’s going to be a Spanish yarn bomber! 

Saturday 6 June 2020

Waking Up

Like magi on their way to Bethlehem, angels are waking us up and telling us to get on widdit.
The sun is out again, the lockdown is slowly easing.  We in Castilla y Leon are still in "phase one," life is is still pretty strict -- we're not supposed to cross the county line. Still, people are outside, smiling.  A few of us are freshening-up the yarn-bombing project in the plaza mayor, planting and trimming trees, installing a handrail up to the top of the bodega hill. The wildflowers this year are stupendous. The trail around the bodegas is overgrown, there are no pilgrims stomping it flat, no one picking the flowers to make crowns and necklaces. 

No one in Moratinos was infected, far as we know. Glory be. We spend our winters sealed indoors in this little town. When it comes to quarantine, we know our stuff.  Winter just stretched into spring this year, without bars to hang out in, without Holy Week or San Isidro celebrations to mark the movement of time.

The people who run the albergue and the hostel came back. Both are staffed now, all sanitized and ready to greet pilgrims, once the number of infections meets zero and border restrictions ease. We still cannot sit down for a G&T or a glass of wine on a bar terrace in our town. It might be legal for them to open, but it's not worth the extra expense and work, they say. Not yet. 

So we walk over to Casa Barrunta in San Nicolas, where they open up for people they know.  Still only drinks. No chipirones in their ink, no paella. Not yet.

Lots of people think the Camino, and Spanish communities, are "suffering terribly" from the Corona virus outcomes. I am not sure how to feel about that. I see lots of communities all over the world suffering terribly. Are people opening their hearts and wallets to support them? 

Clear back at the start of this pandemic, supporters of Peaceable Projects contacted me with concerns and donations, hoping to uphold the camino they know and love.  I will admit to answering, for the first few weeks, with a "charity begins at home" argument. "Keep your money," I said. "You might need it yourself, in your own neighborhood, before this is all over."

I still feel kinda that way, even though PPI has given grants or in-kind donations to several camino non-profits since the virus shut down the trails:  We:
>  Sent a load of groceries and dog chow up to the locked-down hospi at Manjarin;
>  Bought ten wool army blankets for the albergue at El Acebo, when theirs fell to pieces in the wash;
>Supported a GoFundMes for the Albergue Emaus in Burgos, Egeria House in Santiago, and Albergue Acacio y Orietta; 
> Made a couple of grocery buys for the Marist Fathers in Sahagun, whose income vanished when the Albergue Santa Cruz shut down. The fathers stepped in to run the local food bank and clothing closet for Caritas Catholic Charities... but they don't get paid for that work. They still gotta eat.
> We sent two donations to Albergue Paroquial de Tosantos, where the floors need to be replaced;
>  Coordinated transfer of a scruffy old car from a Palencia non-profit to a hospitalero stranded in the  mountains of Leon;
> Sent a month's worth of support to Albergue Izarra on the Camino del Norte. Santi, the hospi there, sold his car to pay his April bills. Wow.     

We did not send money to everyone who asked. I am glad of that. At least two of those appeals were questionable; if you hear someone complaining about PPI, it may be one of those guys who didn't check out.

We still have lots of money in reserve. I expect to use it up soon, as Reality dawns on the albergues and the Camino opens to Spaniards first, Europe later, and finally people from outside. 

I do NOT recommend anyone walk the Caminos anytime soon, not until the wrinkles are ironed-out.  Not even if you've waited for years, not even if this might be your last chance, not even you.  You will likely be inconvenienced, disappointed, hungry, dirty, and unhappy with the experience.  Don't say you were not warned.

There are tons more things to say, but I will get back to those. People dislike long blog entries, so I won't burden you with more.
Until tomorrow, maybe.

Tuesday 21 April 2020

A Change is Gonna Come

old-school pilgrim hospitality

The cries reach the heavens: We've had enough. Time to get back to life! I wanna walk my camino!

The push is on to re-open our economies, to get the tourism ball rolling again, even as the Covid-19 virus death toll continues to add up all over Spain. All the noise about the Camino de Santiago being the heart and soul of the local economy is being put to the test. It's been a mild winter and a good, rainy spring, and gas is cheap, so the farmers are happy at least. But the bakers, the launderette, the shoe-repair shop, the bars, the hostels?  No one can say. No one is allowed outside to talk about it. All the bars and beauty shops -- the places where these things are hashed-out and decided-upon -- are closed up tight.

The trail is fast asleep. Quails walk down the median stripe of the N120 on the way to Sahagun. I go to town once a week for vegetables, dog food, the sight of other humans.  On Tuesday I saw Father Dani from the Padres Maristas. All work has ceased at their Albergue Santa Cruz, but it's not so stressful now that work has ceased everywhere else, too. In the little diocesan apartment house next to the supermercado, Daniel is an enclosed monastic now, with three of his fellow Marists and a couple of local priests. They have a Mass there every afternoon. No one but monks and nuns have seen a Mass since the edict came down a month ago. The churches are shut down.

It makes us ache, the rest of us. 

We ache, we wait. Grace is sufficient, we tell ourselves. It will not always be like this.

After all this time we are talking to one another, we Camino people, mostly online, on WhatsApp, on Zoom and Skype and Messenger. What will it be like in June? Should we close down everything, call off all the volunteers, just let this year go? If the borders are closed through September, this stubby Camino season will be a Spanish-only affair. Fifty percent of the usual crowd, and only if the virus is overcome enough to ensure safety. 

Albergues will need to spread people out, keep them from breathing the same air. That will cut down capacity. Spanish pilgrims are often an ornery bunch... would they cooperate with the rules? And how can we keep our volunteers safe? How will we staff the albergue, as 60 percent of our volunteers are from other nations? Our strength has become a weakness. It's not looking so good for Albergue Villa de Grado this year, my friends. Nothing official has been decided, but it's not looking good.

Even as we look into the future, we see the lights going out in flagship albergues that have been around for 30 years or more. Donativo places, bunkhouses, scruffy old schools... their day is past, some say. Pilgrims want more. Last week on the online Camino Forum, a wannabe albergue owner asked everyone to pitch in What They Want in A Great Albergue.  The answers were individual bunks out of the view of everyone else, with their own electrical supply, lights, and linens. They want spotless showers, strong wifi signals, and rock-bottom prices. Oh, and jolly shared meals, served by smiling hosts who speak proper English. 

The picture quickly came clear. Pilgrims don't want albergues any more. They want pilgrim-only hotels. 

It looks like new health regulations want hotels, too -- places where people occupy discrete spaces.  The old bunkhouses, crowded dining rooms and kitchens, shower stalls and shared dormitories may soon be legislated away. Prices will go up. The poor will be shut out again.

Alfredo at the Siervas de Maria albergue in Astorga this week posted photos of the place, sparkling clean, mowed, weeded, polished, and completely empty. I have never seen it without dozens of people moving into and out of its many rooms. It is spooky.   

Our beloved non-profit business model may be doomed. When the familiar infrastructure is deemed unworthy, what will become of the volunteers, the shared meals, the hospitality that grew up with them, that made the Camino de Santiago trail unique in the world? 

Change is inevitable. We have to evolve, or we will die. 

When we are gone, will the pilgrims miss us? Or will the Camino die with us?   

How do we continue to offer traditional hospitality on this new Way of St. James?

We ache, we wait. Grace is sufficient, we tell ourselves.

We will know in time.

Tuesday 24 March 2020

Saints on Lockdown

So much changed in such a short amount of time.
Things were falling into place. I had the abdominal surgery, finally. Ollie left. I booked a camino, a ferry to England for a family wedding, house- and dog-sitters for the holidays.

Then St. James and all the apostles came down with a virus, and the world and the Camino de Santiago closed down until further notice.

Spain is on its second week of lockdown, but daily life in Moratinos is not very far off its normal rhythm. We are accustomed to living hermetically, using what's in the cupboard, making something new out of yesterday's leftovers, not going any farther from home than our feet will take us. It's not unusual for us to not see anyone else for several days. We rather like it that way.

But knowing I cannot go home if my mother or my children need me? Having policemen ask where I am going, asking to see the receipts for the groceries in the back, to prove my trip to town is necessary? Having to take turns walking the dogs in the morning? Seeing the news channels full of horrors, reading emails from fellow camino workers undergoing Intensive Care in hospitals...
The light is changed. The birdsong has shifted pitch.
No church on Sunday.
No vermouth after in the bar.
No bar. No cars on the road.
No pilgrims. Only birds returning from Africa, snow geese honking overhead on their way to Finland, moving north, not west.
Last weekend, I helped FICS and a few other agencies clear all the pilgrims off the Camino. Lots of phone calls, tears, drama, trauma, logistics, wrangling. Many good people disappointed. A few entitled jerks in complete denial. Languages, embassies. A nice break from the ordinary, doing something useful. They are all gone now, at least all the foreigners are -- they're either holed-up in a town along the Way, or gone back home to plan for another day. 
No one's allowed to run around loose any more.
We haven't walked on the Camino since then. We go over to the Promised Land in the morning, our dogs are now our passport to exercise. We have not seen any law enforcement anywhere. We haven't seen anyone at all. There is no one out there to infect. 
Until yesterday evening, when a Moral Dilemma came to the door and rang the bell.  I pulled my scarf up over my nose and opened it.
His name was Jonay, from Gran Canaria, heading for France. He had ID, but no pilgrim credential. "The Camino is closed," he said. "It's just a road now, and it goes the way I am going. I need to sleep. Can I sleep here? You have a barn, a shed? I'm perfectly healthy. I have my own food. I will stay well away."
Paddy appeared behind me. I looked at Paddy. He is 79 years old, immunocompromised. He shrugged, turned around, and headed back to the main house.
This man was illegal. This man might be infected, he might infect us. His virus might survive on surfaces for up to six days.
This man has no home, no money, no place to sleep. He was clearly exhausted. The sun was going down. A cold breeze passed through my sweater and into my bones.
"You can stay in this little apartment here, apart from the house," I said. "Just tonight. My husband is at risk, see. And what you are doing, walking out here, it's against the law. I am an immigrant. I can't take chances with the law."
"I know," he said. "The Guardia know I am here. I meet new ones all the time. So far, so good."
He put his things inside. I went back to the main house and put on the teakettle.
Two Guardia Civil patrol cars came roaring up the driveway, sending the dogs into a frenzy. I opened the door again. Four masked men alighted. "A man is here," one of them said.
"Yes," I said.
The man came out.
"Come out here. Keep away from the lady," the policeman said. "Madam, cover your nose." I covered my nose again with my scarf, and leaned against the doorway. 
The policemen barked at the man, but kept well away from him. They checked his ID. They asked where he'd been, where he was headed, why he was out there, didn't he know?
He told them. His camino geography was off. The cops jumped on that, they gave him a hard time, told him he's subject to a 1,200 euro fine.
"Fine me all you like, I have no job, no money. There's nothing you can take from me," Jonay said, clearly frustrated. "I was a firefighter, but now I'm out of work. I am not a criminal. I've done nothing but walk."
The police finally left him here, but warned him to keep a distance, and clear out in the morning.
Jonay apparently slept deeply all night, and in the morning he cleaned up after himself and swept the patio. Then he went on his way east.
I am glad he stayed. It was the right thing to do.   
I donned my gloves, glasses, and mask, and disinfected the little apartment. I contemplated the Jonay Dilemma.
Maybe he is a bad man, a fool, a scofflaw vagrant. Maybe he put us at risk. Maybe I was foolish to let him stay.
Maybe he brought us the germ. Maybe I will get sick now. If Paddy gets Corona Virus, he will die. But what the hell, he says ... if doing the right thing is going to kill me,  maybe it's time to die.
It occured to me that maybe Jonay was St. James, the original Santiago, patron saint of this pilgrim path. Legends say he pops up in times like these. There may not be pilgrims out there, but this is the Camino, after all.

Tuesday 21 January 2020

Hunkered In

The sky keeps changing colors, the wind roars all night and morning. Sometime overnight it pulled the chicken-hut door off its hinges and smashed it to kindling.
We are down to one aged hen. The orange cats sit with her on the woodpile, keeping her company.   
Moratinos hunkers down. The water in the furrows turns to ice, the dogs delight the sudden slide underfoot. I have to take them out each morning, even when the wind is knocking me sideways, tearing aluminum strips off the highway bridge and flinging them down the autopista. There are almost no cars or trucks on the autopista. It’s dangerous to drive, wind here, snow to the north, the passes over the mountains are closed.  A man was killed up there yesterday, putting on his tire-chains at Pajares. A car slid on the ice and into him, hit his head, knocked him dead.  
The roaring goes on
for hours and days, it shoves smoke back down the chimney, it takes down the rotten trees along the road to San Martin. Our house is drafty. The furnace goes and goes, but the halls are chilly. We keep the doors closed. Breezes blow under the sills and around the edges, through the little holes in the electrical outlets. The chimneys moan. 
Boris the canary sings on. We play Chopin nocturnes.
We spend our days apart. Paddy sleeps. Ollie is down at the hostal bar, there is noplace else to go in Moratinos in January. The cats and I sit on the sofa near the pellet stove, hidden behind two lines of drying laundry. Last night’s pilgrim was shocked that we hang laundry in our living room. “My wife would never permit that,” the Slovakian man said.  
“We are not bourgeois,” I told him. “We don’t have a dryer. The laundry dries in here where the stove is.”  
The laundry smells clean.  
It’s started to snow.  It won’t last.  The sun shines bright, but the sky is grey as gunmetal.
The chimney thunders. Another pilg is on his way, a Swede, or maybe a Finn, or a Dane. 

Thursday 26 December 2019

God's on Calle Ontanon

The pilgrim's name was Carly, or some approximation thereof. She was from China, from Hangzhou, a city south of Shanghai. She is a corporate recruiter, traveling the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail alone, in December, with no Spanish language skills and little English. She’d dropped her mobile phone in a puddle. Every day she was cut off a little more from everything she knew.   
Carly stayed at our house Christmas eve.  
She walked from Carrion de los Condes, arrived at dusk, washed and napped and had some tea, and went with us at 8 p.m. to the neighbors’ house for roast lamb. (Our neighbors have the hospitality gene. And who’s going to turn away a stranger on Christmas eve?)
Carly sat quietly among the merry group, politely tried a taste of everything we offered, occasionally touched my arm to ask is this cucumber, or squash?  She was tired. I thought she was having trouble tracking the Spanish conversation, so I translated parts of it. None of us knew any of the Chinese languages. Nary a word.
Then someone asked Carly the inevitable pilgrim question:  Why are you walking the Camino? And why alone, in December? 
Carly answered in halting, unsure English. She warmed to the language as she went on. We sat, rapt, as she told us why.  (Ollie and I translated to Spanish for our hosts.)
“December is when I can escape my job. And December is when nobody else is on the trail. I want to walk alone. I tried to find a Chinese person to walk with me, but no one had heard of this place or this walk.”  
“In China it is all study, study, study when you are young, and work, work, work when you’re adult. There is no time for forming yourself. There’s never any attention for why you are doing all of this, what it means. There is nothing to make you know you mean something in this world. There is no teaching about God.”   
“So I am walking to find what I am. I want to find God. I understand this is a religious pilgrimage, so I come here to find him. Or her. To find about religion.”
Everyone looked at each other.
“But China is home to some of the most ancient and elegant religions of the world,” I said. “Confucius. The Tao. The Buddha?”  Carly shook her head. It was like she’d never heard of them.
“We have a family religion,” she said. “Ancestors. And there are Christians in China, in my city. Two kinds of churches, one with Jesus, and one with Mary. I don’t know the difference.”
“So… are you Christian?” someone asked.
“I love Jesus,” she said plainly. “But I don’t know about him, or the church. That is why I came.”  
Everyone sat quietly for a moment.
“He is here,” she said. “God is here.”  
"God is everywhere," Maria Valle said. 
Carly and I left the party soon after that. We talked on the way home about camino churches and Mary and Jesus. Clearly religious buzzwords like “salvation” and “righteousness” and “savior” were of no use to her. Scripture was meaningless. She was context-free, a tabula rasa, a hungry soul that had, somehow, found an anchor in the wide sea of secular China.
The churches along the Way are locked up in this off-season December. There’s no Chinese Bible within 100 miles of here. I didn’t know what to tell Carly, how to help her grow in her simple faith. I wasn’t sure if I should. She was doing pretty well on her own.  
“I don’t need books and buildings and priests. I am finding him. He is here.” She waved her hands in the dark, to pull Calle Ontanon, Palencia, the highway and the starry sky into the equation. “In the quiet. God is everywhere.”    
“And here,” I said, touching her shoulder. “In you. The reason we are smiling. The reason you came here to walk. You have the spirit of the Christ.”  
The walk from MariValle’s house is not very long. Carly was exhausted. She went straight to bed when we got home.
She left in the morning before I woke.
If you pray, please put in a word for her.