Sunday, June 3, 2012

Camino de Santiago, Day 20: El Burgo Ranero to León

Saturday ended like the day before, with the loud noise of drunken Spaniards. At the heart of the day was an encounter with a quiet Spaniard, a grace for which I sacrificed my Camino virginity and allowed someone to drive me 1500 meters in a car.

As Mark Twain might have said, anyone looking for a pattern in these events will be shot. As for anyone accusing me of cultural stereotypes, you don't know what you're talking about. Believe me: Germans are the most efficient and self-absorbed pilgrims on the Camino, and Spaniards get loud when they drink. But no louder than Italians.

At the albergue Friday night in El Burgo Ranero, Jean-Paul and I shared a room for six with four Italian men, including three in their 60s and 70s. At supper in the common room downstairs, these Italians had shared homemade spaghetti and much red wine with some Spaniards, who now were "trying to get to sleep" in the next room, which wasn't a separate room at all, since the wallboard dividing us from them ended 10 feet above the floor and well short of the rafters, with no ceiling in either "room" to insulate us from their sound, or vice versa. It was mayhem. From 8:30 p.m. until after the 10 p.m. curfew, one of the Spaniards told a sequence of jokes and his roommates guffawed in sympathy while the Italians around me, doing their best to get to sleep while upholding national pride, launched volley after volley of what I can only assume were jokes and slurs about Spaniards. The French Jean-Paul and the American I could only raise our eyebrows at one another from across the room. Anything more would have risked an international incident.

After falling sleep about 10:30, I woke at 2:30 when the entire Italian delegation took a pee-pee break together. (Note the above reference to red wine.) The pee-pee place was out the door of our room, across a creaky floor, down a creakier flight of stairs—and reverse. Each of the Italians had a private flashlight. By the time the last of them was settled back into his squeaky bunk with grunts and invective, I knew there was no getting back to sleep for me. I packed and left, hitting the road at 3:05.

If you read my previous post, you know that this was an hour earlier than I had left Terradillos the morning before, but I do love walking alone through Spain in the dark. It proved to be the perfect time and way to plod west along one of the single most boring stretches of the Camino, straight straight straight through flat farmland along a dirt path beside a regional road. A railway runs parallel to both path and road, and every half hour or so a passenger train went by in the distance, its windows illuminated like the skeleton of a very long serpent moving with a purpose. Who was looking out into the night from those windows, and did they think of me alone in the dark?

I stopped and knelt at a monument topped by a cross, asking God to help me live for his glory, not my own. For the next 45 minutes, I entertained thoughts of a new business, or they entertained me—a business which, if done properly, would take some of my talents and put them to the service of faith. I saw a path to this business that was both simple and achievable. It occurred to me that this day, June 2, was the 87th anniversary of my father's birth. If he were still alive and walking by my side, I would have enjoyed discussing this business idea with my father, a businessman and observant Christian.

I paused after 12 km in Reliegos, where the café looks like something out of Haight Ashbury circa 1968, but it was closed, so I walked another 6 km to Mansilla de las Mulas for my first cup of coffee, a double. It was about 8 am when I arrived, and I had covered 12 miles. In the square before coffee, I stopped to admire a sculpture that my father, a sculptor, would have admired as well. Beneath a crucifix, two very realistic pilgrims, a man and a woman, had stopped in stone, figures of exhaustion huddled beside a backpack. Across my field of vision came a living pilgrim, a man of about 70 whom I thought I recognized. Was he the German from Pamplona? The Dutchman we had met on the road to Santo Domingo? He turned and called to a friend, André— And I knew at once that these were the two Belgians from the albergue in Navarette, and André was the exemplary Catholic pilgrim I had named Gimli, for the loyal, powerful dwarf in the Tolkien trilogy. We had a joyful reunion, and I snapped a picture of them beside the stone pilgrims before they went off down the way, and I went for my café doblé. br />
At my second rest stop along the continuing road to León, I was overtaken by Jean-Paul, my roommate of the night before, who had left at 4:30 and so had made far better time than I had. We walked together a while, but it soon became evident that, given my fatigue and limited abilities in French, we had exhausted our list of topics during the six-hour walk together into El Burgo Ranero the day before. So when I said I was going to stop in a park pour me reposer, peut-être dormir (maybe to sleep), he said he would walk on. We wished each other Buen Camino and I found a place under the road beside a bridge abutment, where I propped my head against my pack, covered myself with my rain jacket and sun hat, and promptly fell asleep.

As I gathered my kit and prepared to soldier on, I noticed a man of middle years and strong build standing near a car and emptying his rubbish pails into one of the green communal garbage-gathering bins you see lined up in villages and cites throughout Spain. He looked at me and we both smiled. With body language, and perhaps to apologize for my vagabond nap in a public place, I expressed my stiffness and fatigue, and in adequate English he asked the obvious, Was I a pilgrim? Yes, I was. He asked a less obvious question: Why was I on the Camino? I laughed and said I had no idea. I am a Catholic, I volunteered, and this is a Catholic pilgrimage, and I have no idea. He laughed and said, That's the right answer! No one knows!

He then gestured to the large park area on the far side of the bridge and told me that if I wanted to rest I could rest there. The park was his, he said, although that sounded unlikely. Really, he said, it was his. Please! I told him that I had to walk on, that I was meeting my daughter in León. That's when he invited me for tea at his place. It was, he said, just there (pointing), on the way to León.

Well aware of parental advice both received and given about never ever getting into cars with strangers, I got into his car, throwing my pack and stick in the back and sitting shotgun alongside Nacho. That's what he said his name was, short for Ignacio. Like Loyola, I said. Exactly, he answered.

We pulled up onto the road and drove about a kilometer through a settled area which I called very beautiful, perhaps to be kind. He laughed and said, Beautiful?! It's anarchy! Like the Wild West! Like Texas! We pulled into a parking spot along the main road to León in an area with shops and apartment buildings. As we got out, he shouted across the street to his wife, Caroline, a native of Scotland, who was just putting two young children into a car to go shopping. As I later learned, this boy and girl were the youngest of Nacho's six children. All with the same woman? I asked indiscretely when we were seated upstairs in his kitchen and he was putting water on for tea. Yes, he smiled. Of course.

We spoke of many things in twenty minutes. Until recently, he had worked in renewable energy, but that's kaput, he said. In Spain, he added, everything's kaput. Now, he worked "organizing activities." This (Saturday) afternoon, he had about 100 people signed up for paintball in the park beside the garbage bins, "his" park! I understood that this was why he had offered the park to me. He would be there soon, playing paintball, and he knew it was reserved.

We spoke about mortality. I asked him if his father was still living, and he said yes. He and Caroline and their children were living in his father's "flat" now, and his parents had retired to a pueblo house, their country place. My father was my best friend, I said, and he died four years ago. I showed Nacho the entry in my journal for the day, which read, Camino Day 20 and Dad's 87th. I said that my father's death had been a big event in my life, and he indicated that he understood. Life is short, Nacho said. I am 46, and a friend of mine just died. I could die at any time. I was 60, I told him. Yes, he said.

Nacho said he and Caroline might be traveling to the States soon, to visit her sister in Houston. I told him to fly through Boston, that Katie and I would put them up and show them around. I'm not sure how clear he was that Boston and Houston are not quite neighbors. But he said he would surprise his wife with a visti to Boston and we exchanged addresses over tea and a homemade fruit smoothie, for which he apologized because the oranges "in this season" are quite dry.

Then Nacho made it clear that it was time for paintball, and we headed down to the street again. We waved good-bye several times as he made a U-turn and headed back to the park, and I walked on to León, the weight of my pack lightened by a refreshing encounter.

I stopped in a small village on my way into León, and as I swung back onto the Camino after 45 minutes, I noticed a threesome about 300 meters ahead of me. The one on the right had a familiar gait and as I got closer, I noticed that she was wearing red bandanas on her calves to protect them from the sun, and gloves on her hands for the same reason. When she turned in profile briefly, I recognized the bill of Marian's blue ballcap. Then I realized that the others were Fabian and Caro, a young man from Germany and woman from the USA whom I have met and like very much.

I would have let the kids go on without noticing me, I meant to do so, but they missed a turn and suddenly doubled back right in front of me. I couldn't hide! I apologized, assuring them I was not following them, but Marian greeted me with a reassuring hug and kiss, and we four walked into León together. Then we parted again, Marian and I agreeing to meet at the Sunday 6pm cathedral mass, as previously planned.

I checked into a converted Benedictine monastery on the Plaza de Santa Maria del Camino and collapsed for an hour's nap. Then I pulled myself together for the Saturday evening cathedral mass. When I stepped out of the cathedral afterwards, I ran into Marian and Caro again. Then I stopped for a 9 euro pilgrim meal (gazpacho, pasta, flan, and water) before collapsing again.

I slept for three hours until midnight, when I realized that the window on my balcony overlooking the square was shut and the air in the room was becoming close. I opened the window, and the sounds of partying poured in. A drunken man speaking Spanish shouted at the top of his lungs and a whole chorus of laughs rewarded him. He was not the only Spaniard in the large square beneath my window, nor the only loud one. But I left the window open for the air, and fell asleep to their music.

[NOTE: This series of posts on my Camino continues here.]

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