O Camiño: Diario de un Peregrino sin Rumbo 5

Después de haber intentado el Camino el año anterior y de haber presenciado como mi vida se deshacía delante de mis propios ojos mientras se me caían mis piernas y brazos como ramas muertas, os puedo asegurar que nuestra ruta planificada para esta vez era mucho más alentadora.  El camino portugués empieza en Lisboa y va hacia el norte casi en línea recta hasta llegar a Santiago.  Sin embargo, para obtener los deseados 100kms y La Compostela (y de paso llevarte la indulgencia plenaria que te libra de todos esos pecados que llevas cometiendo a lo largo de tu vida) solo hace falta que partas desde Tuy en Galicia.  De hecho, la mayoría de la gente lo hace así.

           Esta última fase es más llevadera principalmente porque las etapas son más cortas y manejables.  Se puede realizar en cinco días (cuatro si eres un experto o quieres que te amputen tus piernas al llegar a Santiago), pero seis días son perfectos para aquellos que buscan un reto moderado sin ser reducido a las lágrimas por el esfuerzo.  Después de todo, éramos adultos y había que mantener el tipo delante de los demás.  La distancia y la dificultad eran factores importantes para nosotros, sobre todo para Andrés al que le sobraban unos cuantos kilos y un par de paquetes de tabaco al día.  Esto era un asunto serio, que  no os quepa duda.  Era mi verdadero deseo acompañarle hasta Santiago pero también sabía que era un riesgo alto.  Supongo que todas las expediciones conllevan sus peligros.

            El recorrido que pretendíamos sumaba 114 kilómetros en total, los cuales serían divididos en las siguientes etapas: 

          Etapa 1:  Tuy – O Porriño (16km)

          Etapa 2:  O Porriño – Redondela (14km)

          Etapa 3:  Redondela – Pontevedra (21km)

          Etapa 4:  Pontevedra – Caldas de Reis (21km)

          Etapa 5:  Caldas de Reis – Padrón (18km)

          Etapa 6:  Padrón – Santiago de Compostela (24km)

          Etapa 7:  Juerga Total

Estaba todo preparado.  Aitor lo había planeado con una precisión digna de las grandes estrategas bélicas.  Lo único que teníamos que hacer los demás era acudir a la cita, que en principio tendría que ser fácil, pero veo que sobreestimáis mis aptitudes como planificador. 

On the Road: Memories of a Pilgrim with No Direction 12

After a nearly two-hour setback just to get a creaky old bunk bed with a hairnet thin fitted sheet and pillow case as bed linen, we knew we needed a little cheering up and sought a restaurant to raise our spirits to where they should be.  We went to a basic place recommended by some locals and ate the Menú del Peregrino which satisfied but did little more.  Then we went for a little walk and returned to the albergue to shower up and stuff now that the majority of the pilgrims had already done so and the bathrooms weren’t so crowded. 

         It would have been a fine time to take a rest but I was feeling restless and decided to spend the rest of afternoon exploring the town.  Redondela had more to offer the visitor than O Porriño.  Its two most distinguishing features are its towering train track bridges which literally cross over the town.   One is still in use, the other has been abandoned, but is still erect.  This may not spur you to drop everything and race over to Spain to see them, but they do add character.  The old town is attractive with a church dedicated to Santiago, a nice park called an alameda, and a handful of cafés and bars to while away the day.   I even walked down to the coast where there was supposed to be a fantastic beach.  Fraulein had been kind enough to give me some directions buy I must have missed the turnoff because I ended up at the port which, though had a tiny beach of its own, was not exactly what they had been telling me all about.  I sat down at a small fisherman’s outdoor café and drank coffee while I tried to jot down a few essentials of the day, but didn’t get much further. 

         Aitor joined me a little while later and we planned out the evening. If there is one thing I can’t stand about public albergues it is that they close their doors at ten o’clock.  That’s right, they have a curfew.  This might be reasonable in the early spring or late fall months when the night comes early and there is little else to do, but in Galicia in the summer, when it doesn’t get dark until late, it seems outright ludicrous.  But rules are rules.  We asked Fraulein if we could stay up later in the common room downstairs if we made it home by ten and she gave us permission.  That was the second time I had spoken to her that day and her disposition was much friendlier.  I was beginning to get the feeling that she wasn’t that bad after all and that maybe she had just had a difficult morning.  Maybe being a pilgrim was making me softer or I was suffering from the Stockholm Syndrome.

            We decided we would have a light dinner in since we had pigged out so much in the previous days.  We look for something healthy and decided we would get some empanadas (beef pies stuffed with different fillings), red wine (good for your cardiovascular system) and fruit (undeniable reconstitute).  It just so happened that Galicia specialized in empanadas and that the bakery just down the street had some award-winning recipes.  The Lord was on our side.  There were numerous fillings to choose from.  Redondela is famous for its chocos (baby squid in its ink), so we bought a large hunk of that and, since we were members of a gastronomic club and felt it was our duty to compare and contrast, ordered a hunk of the other four types too: Tuna fish, scallops, beef and octopus.   10 pounds in all. 

        Then we went to mass.  On the way we encountered three pilgrims on horses clopping up the stone streets.  “Wow! Some people really do ride to Santiago.”

         Afterwards it was back to the shelter before we turned into pumpkins and dinner time.  We shared copious amounts of empanada generously with some of our new friends from the Camino.  And then we hung out for a little while.  Most people were upstairs either asleep or trying to get there.  The scouts sat around and had a group chat and we talked to the guys from A Coruña. 

            At eleven o’clock I decided to hit the sack and hope for the best.  Aitor and Andrés hung out a little longer…

         …One reason I went to bed so early was because I knew better.  In albergues you don’t always get much sleep, and in the summer even less.  Despite their purpose they are really no place for resting.  They can be active all night as people come and go and sleepers toss and turn on crickety springs.  Pilgrims fall asleep late and get up early too, so the actual “window” of rest was really something fleeting in duration.  If  I crashed at eleven I had a fighting chance of getting some shuteye before the whole room rose the next day.  Andrés and Aitor did not heed this rule and paid a price.

         From the very beginning I could tell it was going to be real test because the man in the upper bunk to my left was roaring away a snore from minute one.  It was one of the scout leaders. Conscious of what Andrés had told me, I hoped he wouldn’t get me going too, but even if he did, I seriously doubted I would ever be able to match the volume he was producing.  He eventually stopped but that was at four-thirty in the morning when he woke up to get the troops up and moving.  Thanks for nothing. 

        Somehow I managed to get a few hours in and from what I gathered fared better than my co-expeditioners who hardly got a wink in.  Aitor was particularly affected by this setback, as he ended up in the lounge downstairs unable to cope with sleeping at such heights.  He warned very early in the morning, “I’m in a grumpy mood this morning and can’t be held accountable for my actions.”  Andrés added politely but tersely, “I’m flexible, but I don’t think we should be doing this again.”

            Figuring we were not going to have a continental breakfast with freshly brewed coffee waiting for us down at the lobby, I took out a piece of fruit and started the day with that.  And 600gms of Ibuprofen, of course.  We left Redondela in the dark, buying a loaf of fresh bread on the way… 

On the Road: Memories of a Pilgrim with No Direction 11

Pilgrims often rise early because by doing so they can get a head start on the day itself and avoid those tortuous last miles of walking under a severe and merciless summer sun.  This is especially advisable when the stages surpass 30 kilometers but recommendable for any distance.  Galician climate is perhaps slightly cooler than the oven-like midday temperatures of, say, Castile, but it is also generally much more humid there and thus prone to muggy weather.  That can make even late morning hiking strenuous and uncomfortable, so it makes perfect sense to want to reach your destination as quickly as possible. 

            But that’s not the only reason.   

            Departing well before even a rooster crows also increases your chances of making it to the next major town in time to ensure a bed for the night in the public shelter or albergue.  At 5€ a night, I can assure you it’s a coveted prize for the frugal.   This also explains why I had some issues with doing the Camino during a Holy Year in the first place.  I don’t mind doing albergues, in fact I like the human interaction they encourage, but I couldn’t see this as a good year.  In addition to the 250,000 co-pilgrims sharing this quiet walk together with, I refused to turn this into a competition.  “That’s not what the Camino is all about,” I argued.  “At least in my book.”  

         Aitor, the ever-optimist when it came to these things, tried to persuade me cajolingly.  “Come on!  It’ll be fun.”

            “No it won’t.  It’ll suck.”  I think I was pretty clear on this point.

            “Where’s your spirit of adventure?”

            “At home, under my socks somewhere.”

            “Come on.  Trust me.”

              “Just let me think about it.”  Aitor had promised to get rooms in towns where he thought we would have difficulty getting into the albergue, like the first and last legs and cities like Pontevedra, but on the other days, the sleeping arrangement was open.  Redondela was one of those places.

              Albergues do not open their doors until 1:00p.m.  I really feel it’s their way of getting us pilgrims out of the way for a few hours so they can clean up and fumigate, but I also like to think they do so that they can give everyone an even chance to sleep there at night.  In a sense this is good because it means the young, strong and swift can’t just jumped to their feet at 5 a.m. and bolt down the trail to grab all the beds before the old, flabby and slow like us have a chance to show up.   And that may be an intentional measure…but that doesn’t mean people can’t line up.  So in the end, instead of having people stream (or straggle) in little by little and sign in, once they arrive they have to spend the rest of the morning stuck next to the albergue so as not to lose their place in line.

                When we arrived in Redondela at 12:20 that day, already a sizable number of walkers had managed to reached the door before us.  Aitor flipped out his guide and informed us that the shelter had something in the neighborhood of 55 beds for weary pilgrims (another pilgrim heard over 60), and a quick scan told us we arrived well within that limit.

            The shelter in Redondela is a restored historic building, I think it once served as the town jail, and it is attractive.  At one o’clock on the dot, it opened and we began to file in.  The crowd up to that point had been reasonable in size, but not so surprisingly, those people in line had friends with them who happened to appear just in time to go in.  The situation looked a little bleak.  On top of that, it turned out that the guides had grossly overestimated the available space.  There were only 42 beds.  This got the crowd restless and nervous about whether or not everyone would be able to claim a spot to sleep that night.  Murmuring grew into grumbling and even some well-voiced complaining surged.  “Jesus!”  I thought.  “The sticks are going to be flying any second now.”  When it came to a cheap bed, no one was your friend.

          The woman in charge was a pretty and small-framed woman with a clear-minded attitude on how she felt pilgrims should be treated, which was not dissimilar to cattle.  She possessed impressive organizational aptitudes and had she wanted to she would have made a great prison warden.  Her oral skills were commanding as well.  In fact, I think her first word was something like “Achtung!” From there she reeled off several minutes of rules and procedures with such efficiency it blew my mind away.  What had once been nearly a mob scene, had suddenly turned into a fairly well formed line of docile obedient pilgrims. 

         She reminded us of the order of priorities 1) handicapped (not us yet) 2) walkers (I guess that was us) 3) horse riders (not horses) 4) cyclists (not a prayer at this time of year) and capped  off her discourse with, “And of course, anyone using a support car should not be allowed.  Come on, I know you know each other by now, so we can all be honest.”  These were the scourge of the Camino.  The cheaters.  Jesus!  The woman was actually asking us to fess up.  I suddenly recalled the incident from the day before with my car and noticed that the Belgian girls were ahead us in line, which curled the room in such a way that they were within a face slap’s distance.  I took one quick glance at them who stared in our direction with an expression of (how can I describe it?) hate.  We looked away casually the way you do when a hypnotizer asks for a volunteer and you don’t want to pretend to be a hen laying an egg in front of a thousand people.  At any second I was expecting the girls to scream “Them!  Them!  Fraulein, they have a support car!”  But they kept mum and thank God, because we weren’t using one in the first place, and it would have been entirely unfair.  But just imagine trying to explain it all those tired and irate pilgrims.

            Considering all those rules that fraulein spewed out, what I couldn’t get quite understand was how the group of Italian scouts who were ahead of us managed to be admitted.  There must have been 15 of them.  I’m sure there must be a limit on that, like getting tickets to a Springsteen concert.  No more than six or something like that.  But nothing was said or done.  That in my opinion seemed unfair. Why hadn’t fraulein said anything about them? 

Anyway, of the 42 spots, we came in 38, 39 and 40, which meant we had to wait nearly another hour for our beds to be assigned.  In that time, we had a chance to become better acquainted with some of the other pilgrims sharing the Camino with us.  In addition to the Belgian girls who had not narked on us (but were not talking to us because apparently we cheated) and the Italian scouts, we met wonderful people like two very nice brothers from Huelva, a mellow and kind couple from Spain (he was from Valencia and she was Argentine), and just behind us to wrap up the line were two young men from A Coruña in Galicia.  They had just done the first two stages (Tuy-Redondela) that very morning (30kms) and were suffering the consequences.  One showed us a blister the size of my elbow.  Aching and hurting, they were a good laugh.  This, my friends, is the invaluable advantage to going to these shelters.  By doing that, you get to know your fellow pilgrims better, and it makes the whole experience that much more enriching.

Finally we reached the counter and were admitted, but the problem at that point was that we would have little choice about getting a sleeping arrangement that suited us.  This proved especially delicate because Aitor had to take an upper bunk, and if there was something Aitor could not do was sleep in an upper bunk bed because he had fallen out of one when he was a child and never fully recovered.  That’s what he told me.

            “What do you mean never fully recovered?” I asked. “Does that mean you forget how to use pronouns in your sentences, or freak out from time to time?”

            “No, I just have a fear of falling out of beds, that’s all.”   

            “That’s too bad.  But I think it’s time you got us into this thing.  That’s life.  That’s the Camino.”

            Meanwhile I looked over on the other side of the hall and saw what I thought was the only remaining empty bed, an upper bunk joined entirely to another where a young blonde German woman in her twenties was lying on her back with her shirt rolled up, exposing her belly for all to enjoy.  I think she was reading too, but to be honest, the initial image made it difficult for me to focus on detail.  Just as I was looking up at the ceiling with my hands raised and was preparing to give thanks to God for his generosity, a larger older blonde woman, I am assuming it was her mother, shoved me aside and dumped her things on the bed.  Oops!  Oh, crap!  Mine was the next one over. Excuse me.  The Camino could be so fickle.

On the Road: Memories of a Pilgrim with No Direction 8

The brief stage from Tuy to O Porriño is described as being one of the least attractive of the final legs leading up to Santiago de Compostela and I have to admit that, in many ways, it lived up to its billing.  That’s why I was grateful to get it out of the way the first day.  Not all of it was horrendous by any stretch of the imagination.  The first half was actually quite pleasant, with plenty of small villages to weave through, an occasional lichen-clad chapel to admire, a local or two to greet, and a few patches of woods and grassy fields to cross.  This was a good time to get our blood pumping, our bones and joints greased and our muscles back into to shape so that we wouldn’t kill each other by the end of the week.  Aitor carried on a lively conversation about how much the Camino meant to him and what a great week we had ahead of us while Andrés took each kilometer with a degree of circumspection as he tried to get a feel for what this journey was all about and just how it was going to affect him. 

         The historical highlight of this section was a small medieval bridge, known forebodingly as the Bridge of Fevers, where San Telmo (Saint Elmo – yes, the one you might associate with glowing boats and planes or even Rob Lowe) became seriously ill during his pilgrimage to Santiago in 1251.  The holy man was subsequently returned to Tuy where he would eventually die.  A brief chronicle of the events is engraved in stone at the site and it is a moving tribute to his faith, but at the same time a discouraging message to the faithful because it said “pilgrims die on the Camino and have been doing it for a long time”.  Not the type of thing you want to see when you are 110 km away from the finishing line.  The water beneath the crossover was fairly stagnant and produced a warm, acrid summer stench.  I wondered if that had anything to do with the old man’s demise.  Either that or someone from the nearby town of O Porriño was making their own special contribution to the local water supply.  All the same, it was the only worthy landmark in the first stage, so we had a couple of pilgrims who spoke French take a picture of us.

         Other than that, there was little remarkable about the trail that morning, which that was all right by us because the purpose that day was to get ourselves into that pilgrimage mood.  A little over halfway through the stage we came to a naked rest area with a cafeteria and shaded picnic tables which were oddly but strategically stationed on a lookout above our destination O Porriño.  Aitor produced a hunk of cheese and some bread.  The man was a pure magician when it came to supplying us with the necessary nourishment in times of need.  We munched away, washed it down with water, and handed a local begging cat a few well-appreciated crumbs.  Andrés showed some initial signs of weariness, but all in all he was looking good. 

         We then descended a small hill and turned down a 3-kilometer straightaway of endless warehouses, an undeniable sign that we were entering O Porriño.  This industrial district happens to be one of the features that best characterize the town, which should give you an idea of its esthetic value.  It also makes up what is quite possibly the most unsightly stretch of the Camino in all of Galicia.  But you can’t completely blame the town.  Modern times have had another fate for its inhabitants who have come to thrive on its ample supply of excellent granite and marble.  As a result the Camino doesn’t seem to get the attention it might otherwise deserve in another community of lesser economic prosperity.  As modest as it was in terms of beauty, I accepted it as just another face of this journey, because the Camino can be like that.   

         Up to that point, the day had been little more than a leisurely stroll, and it would have stayed that way had I not had been in such a hurry.  So, I pressed on and on, crossed over to another straightaway and trekked down another endless stream of asphalt.  All this time, I kept thinking we were but a few hundred yards from the town center, but nothing came up.   We finally had to ask someone how much was left and they said we still had to get to Porriño. 

         “But wait,” I wondered.  “I thought this was supposed to be Porriño already.  What the heck?” 

         Yeah, right.  That’s just the nature of the Camino.  You can be there and not there, and then no where, at the same time.   And just when you think you are there again, you almost never are.  It can take forever and it requires patience, which was precisely what I lacked at that very moment. Out of frustration and fear of running late, I kicked it into high gear.  The final spurt of energy got me to where I wanted to be but it took a lot out of Andrés who arrived a few minutes behind us looking like he had been slapped in the face a dozen times by a German Oktoberfest waitress. 

         Andrés likes to be discreet in his observations and politely observed amid gasps, “Was it me or did you guys go a little fast there?”

         Once at the shelter, we went straight for the car and dumped our things in the trunk.  Just then the French-speaking girls who had taken our picture at the bridge walked by from a distance and shook their fingers at us in a disapprovingly. 

        “What?” I gestured. 

         Then I realized we made a big mistake.  Pilgrims don’t like cars and the minute they see you with one, they grimace and make all sorts of assumptions about your using a support car.  Clearly this wasn’t our case at all, and I hated giving the wrong impression.  I felt like yelling, “It’s not what you think, eh?  So, you can knock off the finger wagging thing.”   

         But I don’t know how to say that in French, and I am sure most people don’t either.  Oh, well, who cared?  We knew the truth and it was our Camino not theirs.  

O Camiño. Diario de un Peregrino sin rumbo 4

Estoy preparando mis cosas para el viaje.  Lo primero que compruebo es mi credencial, el documento que necesito para conseguir mi tarjeta “Salir del Purgatorio Gratis”.  Además de eso, el credencial te garantiza por lo menos la posibilidad de alojarte en un albergue público, siempre que una división de los 250.000 no te lo impida.  Para conseguirla, hay que pasar por el Arzobispado y entrevistarte con un cura.  La única vez que lo hice, me atendió un sacerdote tan mayor, pero amable, que seguro que conocía a Santiago personalmente.  Yo le iba a preguntar por cómo era el apóstal de niño, pero el religioso aún poseía mi credencial en la mano y no quería arriesgarme.  Te hablan de los aspectos espirituales del Camino, lo cual me parece correcto, total es su Camino.  Lo inventaron ellos.

     Esta vez no fui yo a recogerlo.  Mis amigos han tenido la gran amabilidad de conseguirlo  mediante no sé qué mentira que hayan contado al cura que las despacha.  Creo que han dicho algo así como estaba ayudando a huérfanos en Ghana, cuando en realidad estaba en Connecticut asesinando bogavantes vivos en agua hervida y bebiendo cervezas.   ¡Vaya manera de limpiar el alma!   Como nos pille una tormenta yo me voy a alejar lo más posible de ellos porque sé perfectamente donde van a ir los relámpagos.

     Fuera como fuese el modo de hacerme con ella, lo que importaba ahora era mis pertinencias para el viaje.   La regla es la siguiente:  todo es imprescindible.  Mientras preparo el macuto, me esfuerzo por consultar a nadie, porque en cuanto lo hagas resulta que todo el mundo es un puto experto sobre el tema y todo lo que piensas llevar es un error. 

      Quizás el factor que más pesa es el peso.  No es que uno no sea capaz de llevar objetos de grandes masas y densidades.  Es que tiene que ser capaz de hacerlo durante más de 100 kilómetros.  Lo bueno es que es verano y que en principio las cosas pueden ser menos voluminosas.  Expongo la lista consciente de que algún listillo vaya a comentar sobre la insensatez de mis decisiones.  Que les den.  Son:

1. Un pantalón/pantalón cortos tipo Coronel Tapioca para senderismo light.

2. Dos calzoncillos (para algunos tipos duros, me sobra uno.  Para los más duros, me sobran dos)

3. Dos pares de calcetines

4. dos camisetas

5. una sudadera (hace frío por la noche)

6. una toalla

7. mi bandana (para parecer más jóven y guay)

8. mis zapatillas de deporte (no llueve así que paso de las putas botas de senderismo que no valen para andar)

9. unas chanclas para dejar airear mis pies al final de la jornada y para evitar llevarme otros disgustos en los baños de los albergues que comparto con los 250.000

10. Un saco de dormir

11. Necesér con unas cuantas cosas innecesarias.

13. Una caja con 40 pastillas de ibuprofeno de 600grs.  Totalmente imprescidible. 

14. Un cuaderno, dos bolígrafos y un libro, si me apetece.  Voy a ver si puedo hacer twitting, aunque nunca lo he hecho, lo cual lo mismo tendré que twitear a lo antiguo.  Suena ilegal y algo que el cura te decía te dejaría ciego si lo hacías con demasiada frecuencia, pero qué remedio.

Creo que tengo todo.  Salgo esta noche para Tuy para poder hacer la primera etapa y volver a Lalín…os lo explicaré mejor más adelante, que si no, me cierran el albergue!   ¡Ciao!


O Camiño: Diario de un peregrino sin rumbo 3

Ya estamos en plena organización.  Parecemos una panda de ladrones de poca monta a punto de asaltar un banco.  Aitor y Andrés vienen hoy en coche desde Madrid hasta nuestro lugar de partida en Tuy, aunque lo mismo paran en un pueblo en Orense para reunirse con Javier (el tercer compañero) para analizar los beneficios de una buena fiesta gastronómica anunciada para esta tarde.  Me parece muy bien.  Hay que estar siempre atento a lo imprevisible.  Yo, mientras tanto, recojo datos e información sobre la situación en Galicia para los próximos días.  Sigue haciendo buen tiempo.  Las horas de más calor no llegan hasta cuando se supone que tenemos que estar en nuestro destino.  Tampoco dan lluvia, lo cual siempre me gusta pues así no tendré que llevar mis botas de caminata que me sirven para todo menos para caminar.

         Estoy especialmente interesado en (ejém, acojonado por) la situación de los 250.000 que se prevén para este año y hago todo lo posible para averiguar por donde andan.  Ojalá todos los peregrinos pudieran poseer un GPS para que yo pudiera tenerles controlados.  Pero parece que no va a ser posible.  Tengo que fiarme de las pocas noticias que me llegan.

         Lo que realmente me preocupan son los jóvenes.  Soy profesor de primaria y disfruto de estar con ellos, pero en verano tengo como costumbre tenerles lo menos cerca posible, sobre todo si se trata de un grupo de más de seis, que para mí constituye una clase.  En los dos últimos días, he presenciado tanto en la tele como en directo manadas enteras de chicos, todos con el mismo color de camiseta, chillando y riéndose y cantando.  ¡Qué asco!  ¿Qué derecho tienen de estar aquí?  ¿Por qué no se van a la playa con sus papis?  Esto es un asunto serio.  Lo peor fue cuando vi en un reportaje sobre el camino estos días (lo llaman la temporada alta del año santo – a mis amigos les voy a matar) un largo tren de humanidad por un sendero que parecía una fila sinfín de refugiados en pleno éxodo.  El reportero paró a un monitor para hablar de la experiencia pero no tengo ni idea de lo que decía porque solo me fijé en su camiseta que ponía una insignia grande con “El Camino Portugués” estampada sobre el pecho. ¡Horror!  ¿Tengo que soportar a estos? 

         He evitado trasmitir mis temores a mis compañeros hasta informarme bien sobre la situación.  Parece tratarse de un macro-encuentro de jóvenes cristianos  que se va a celebrar pronto.  Calculo que las masas descenderán sobre Santiago en algún momento este fin de semana, lo cual sería bueno ya que no pensamos partir hasta el domingo.  Por lo menos, eso es mi esperanza.   

Bienvenida Mrs. Obama!

It’s been over fifty years since the release of the Spanish comedy classic “Bienvenido Mr. Marshall” depicting a small modest Spanish town’s desire to turn itself into a flashy Andalusian village in order to impress the impending arrival of American dignitaries.  Director José Luis Berlanga ridiculed then Spain’s unabashed childish behavior whenever someone famous from abroad made their presence, and now half a century later, the attitude seems to still survive.  

      Michelle Obama and daughter Sasha have decided to spend a few days of their summer vacation in the south of Spain and there seems to be little talk of anything else.  The chosen town, Marbella (this time it really is Andalusia), was a hotspot for the semi-jetset during the 80s and 90s, but in the last decade it has seen its image tarnished by a series of real estate and political scandals, seriously affecting its tourism economy.  It just wasn’t cool to be there anymore.  But the Obama’s arrival may just turn things around there, and the locals are delighted.  

      The first day has not come without certain controversy.  Apparently the State Department had to remove a sentence on its website stating “racist prejudice could lead to the arrest of Afro-Americans who travel to Spain”. Can you believe it?  Aside from being a crock of you know what, what a lot of nerve those people have.  As if law enforcers back in the States have never been accused of that. Just ask the good Hispanic people in the state of Arizona.

      Anyway, the First Lady and her daughter have chosen a top-notch new hotel inland called the Villa Padierna as their home base.  It’s said to be one of the 30 best hotels in the world, but from what I have read, it sounds a little tacky and far removed from something with a real Spanish flavour to it.  Otherwise I guess it’s all right.

      Regardless, the Obamas don’t seem to have a reclusive agenda alongside the pool lined up. Today they spent the morning strolling around the downtown of Marbella looking at shops. The media here reported on every single item of clothing Michelle found interesting.  I think they even interviewed a few dresses.  And this afternoon, they presidential family is hoping to visit the Alhambra in Granada without having reserved their tickets, which I assume is supposed to mean they are doing what they can to be just like everyone else.  So far, so good.

      ¡Dios mío!  Now that I think of it, I’ve just written a brief article on their stay here too.  Mr. Berlanga would be laughing his ass off right now if he read this.  I have become just as Spanish as the rest of the country!

O Camiño. Diario de un peregrino sin rumbo 2

Ya estoy en Galicia.  Me he establecido en Lalín, Pontevedra, como base de operaciones para realizar los últimos preparativos antes del gran asalto.

     Advierto que no es la primera vez que hago el Camino de Santiago.  Lo estrené el año pasado cuando acompañé a mi amigo Aitor durante las tres últimas etapas del camino francés.  En realidad eran dos, porque el último día estábamos a 5 kms de Santiago, con lo cual se puede decir que hice 64 kms en dos días.  Caminar tanta distancia con una mochila y sin mucha preparación previa, y con unas botas practicamente nuevas era una invitación al sufrimiento, y sufrir es lo que hice.    Todo empezó bien, como siempre, hasta que se puso a llover, como suele pasar en la primavera.  Era divertido durante un rato, pero muy pronto la novedad meteorólogica dejó de tener su encanto.  Además, a los pocos kilómetros, pisé mal y me hice daño en una rodilla hasta tal punto que apenas la podía doblar.    Acabé un fragmento, una mera sombra, del hombre que había sido dos días antes.  El Camino me había comido, masticado y luego escupido. Me había enseñado a un ser un ser humilde.

     También me había enseñado a soltar tacos como nunca había hecho en mi vida.  Es irónico, ¿verdad?, que en una aventura tan espiritual como es el Camino haya podido afinar mis destrezas en el lenguaje soez.   Pues efectivamente. 

     Por ejemplo, en vez de comentar en un momento de cierta dificultad y estrés: “¡Qué linda es la gente del campo.  Esa mujer mayor tan simpática nos dijo que el pueblo que buscábamos estaba a un kilómetro y llevamos tres y nos encontramos en pleno bosque bajo una lluvia intensa.   Debe de ser que tiene una perspectiva de distancia algo diferente a la mía.  ¡Vaya desgracia!  Pero aunque estoy algo cansado y mi rodilla me duele bastante, el campo está precioso y las vacas una maravilla, y sé que esto debe ser parte de la bella y dura experiencia jacobea.”

     …Me encontraba diciendo algo parecido a, “Me cago en la puñatera vieja esa que no tiene ni puta idea de lo que es un puto kilómetro.  Pero ni puta idea, ¡eh!  ¡Qué maja es!  Y ahora estoy jodido en este maldito monte, calado hasta los putos huesos.  Mi rodilla está hecha una mierda y estoy hasta los cojones de este paseíto.   ¿Que si me estoy divertiendo? Y una leche.  Esto es una mierda.  Una mieeerda, te digo.  Ese pino es una mierda.  Esa pradera también.  Y tú, vaca, también eres una mierda. ¿Me oyes? ¿Por qué me miras con esa cara de gilipollas? Aún no sabes andar con dos patas, retrasada de la evolución.  Que te doy dos leches para espabilarte como me sigas mirando así.  ¡Cuidadito! Estoy de mala hostia porque estoy pasandolo de puta pena.  ¿Vale?”

     Que fue cuando mi amigo Aitor me dijo con tranquilidad,  “¿Has terminado?”

     “Sí. De hecho, me encuentro mucho mejor gracias.  No sé qué me ha pasado.”

     “Nada hombre.  Tú tranquilo.”

     A pesar de llegar al Santiago de Compostela como un hombre que había sido pillado por una estampeda, acabé enviciado por el Camino.  Me había apasionado y solo pensaba en recuperarme cuanto antes y volver a los senderos.  Y así fue.  En dos ocasiones diferentes complí dos etapas más y llegué a superar los 100 kms, pero eran tramos dispares, sueltos y casi iba al revés.  Para entonces, mi libreta de credencial estaba perdida en algún lugar de mi mesa en casa, en la zona de cosas que mistriosamente desaperece todo.  Y total, no es lo mismo como llegar a la ciudad santa con los deberes hechos.  Me puedo imaginar a mi amigo (anterior funcionario) del Ministerio de Asuntos Celestiales mirándome con cierto desprecio mientras intentaba explicar mi situación y diciéndome, “¡Anda ya! Váyase al final de la cola y vuelva con tenga todo en orden. ¡El siguiente!”

     Vale. Vale.  Aguarda. I’ll be back.

The Camino: Memories of a Pilgrim with no Direction 1

A week from now I’ll be embarking on an adventure that I promised myself I would never do:  The Camino de Santiago (the St. James’ Way) on a holy year, that is, when the feast of St. James falls on a Sunday, as was the case this year.  I’m not saying this because I am a cynic, at least not too much of one, but because of a simple number: 250,000.  That figure represents the estimated number of humans, young and old, planning on descending upon the city of Santiago de Compostela in the northwest of Spain for annual pilgrimage this year.  250,000!  250,000 knuckleheads clogging up the beautiful countryside of Galicia.  Every living creature is going to be there.  It is without a doubt the absolute worst time in the world to do it.  But there you go, two friends of mine and I are going to go for it.  I am such an idiot.

 On the other hand, there is something to say for all of this and that is the Compostela, the diploma that they give you for meeting the requirements of the pilgrimage, is a kind of general pardon for your sins and it is worth twice as much on a holy year, kind of like scoring an away goal in the Champion League in soccer.  You see, traditionally, during a regular year, if you made it to Santiago with everything in order, the good people at the office there could produce a paper that reduces your stay purgatory by half.  That may sound attractive, but all the sinning I have done up to this point in life and I am sure I have a near eternal life sentence waiting for me, so 50% wouldn’t quite do.  

 But if you complete the journey on a holy year, word has it they free you of all charges.  It’s like one of those “Get of jail free” cards in Monopoly.  Then I can keep the certificate for a future time like, for example, when I die and have it buried with me so that when I reach the Ministry of Celestial Affairs I can say in a cocky tone, “Here’s my card, guys.  I’m going in.  Hallelujah!”  

 There is another factor too: the next holy year won’t be for another 11 years (not seven, wise guys.  There’s a thing called leap year.”) and who knows what kind of shape and condition I’ll be in by then.  

 In order to avoid the masses of humanity, we have decided to skip the main route, known as the French route, and have opted for the Portuguese option.  In Spain, it starts in a border town called Tuy and runs some 115 kms (that’s about 70 miles) to the steps of the cathedral.  So, we’ll see with what and whom we run into on the way.  My friends tell me everything is going to be fairly open and smooth, but with a crowd the size of Woodstock invading the region, I am not entirely convinced.  Still, I’ll try to look on the positive side for once, and wait and see.  We’ll find out in just a few days.

Justo and his Cathedral

Have I got a place for you to see the next time you are in Madrid!  And you have to see it with your own eyes because  just reading about it or looking up images online won’t do.

You know there are people who build castles in the air, and then there are those who say they are going to build a cathedral and actually do it.  About 12 miles due east of the capital, there is a small town called Mejorada del Campo which might have forever remained as an overlooked dot on your Google maps had it not been for a kind of modern wonder taking place there.  A man for the past 50 years has been building his own cathedral.  I ain’t kidding. 

It is the brainchild of Justo Gallego who is 85 years old.  He was born in Mejorada and as a young man decided to become a monk, so he joined the Trappist order (those are the guys who make those great Belgian beers.  Smart lad).  Before becoming ordained he came down with tuberculosis and had to leave the monastery.  According to the story, he was crushed and promised God that if he recovered he would do something as a show of love and appreciation.  He got better and decided to build a church.  That’s what I call being thankful.

He had no training whatsoever in architecture, engineering, building or carpentry.  On paper, he couldn’t have been able to piece together a Lego home.  But five decades later he is still going at it and the results are awe-inspiring. It was almost as if God had said: If you build it, they will come.   

Despite brief moments of fame, like in 2005 when he was featured on an Aquarius commercial, Justo’s momumental endeavor is still relatively unknown.  He estimates some 2,000 people come every summer to visit and even help (in the winter it must be substantially less), but that is a trifle number all said and told because it comes to little more than twenty a day.   Of these, many if not most are foreigners, who seem to be the ones who truly appreciate the marvel of it all.  I don’t know a single madrileño who has seen it.   Not one.  Whenever I mention it to someone from here, they kind of look at me with a confused expression on their faces and say, “Oh, yeah, I think I know who you’re talking about.” 

Not so surprisingly, not everyone shares his fans’ enthusiasm.  The Catholic church doesn’t support his cause, but that doesn’t surprise me, and others consider him an egocentric madman, which I find a bit absurd for a person who gets up before dawn ever day and humbly continues  his job. 

I had heard about this place for a couple of years now but never got to seeing it; that is until yesterday when I went with my family.  I was floored by its magnitude.  It’s enormous and it’s just absolutely incredible.   I couldn’t even begin to express the emotions that run through you as you see firsthand as they take up this already bulging entry.  Justo was there, of course, the way he is most days, quietly going about his business with the two or three helpers.  He is a friendly and courteous man, and he invites you to walk around and enjoy his work.  You find yourself staring from all angles at it to take in every detail and make sense of it all.  Awesome. 

I liked it so much, I returned this morning to show some more Americans who just loved it.    Maybe I can turn this into a new business.  I’m joking of course, but I would like to help spread the word.  I spoke to a woman from Germany today who was a filmmaker.  She was preparing a film and was hoping to start a foundation to support Justo’s dream.  I’ll keep you abreast of that if it materializes, because though Justo has come a long when in fulfilling his dream, he’s still got a long way to go.  Years and years.

You don’t have to be religious to admire his work.  Take it to a broader scale.  Consider his courage, his perseverence, his faith, his desire to live out a personal dream, and his pursuit of freedom.  These are universal characteristics worthy of admiration.