In yesterday’s blog (Discomforting Conversations)there was one person I didn’t mention. Accompanying the ex solder was a young lady. She was quiet, calm and occasionally acted as his translator when his words weren’t forthcoming. From where I was sitting she was everything he needed – support, encouragement and most of all, a comforting presence.
It made me think that we all need people like that in our lives with their words of comfort, support, challenge and even those words that cause self reflection.
For those with a Christian faith this can have an even greater dimension as the words and encouragement don’t need come from ourselves but can come from the very presence of God Himself.
On most evenings conversations around the dinner table at the albergue are light and breezy: where do you live, work, are you enjoying the walk, what do you do, how do you enjoy your retirement… and whatever.
But now again when when you ask, “Why are you doing the Camino?” You are given an answer that knocks you for six. I had learned that the relatively young man across the table was a blacksmith who wasn’t sure if his body could cope with this job for many more years. I told him how I would love to see him teach his skills to young people in this technological age. Then I asked him the dangerous question: why are you doing the Camino? The answer was not one I expected.
This man was a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. He had been indoctrinated to see enemies everywhere and not trust anyone. In war his life depended on a high degree of paranoia. He was on the Camino to reestablish contact with people, overcome his paranoia of enemies around every corner preparing to shoot him and to also overcome, unsurprisingly, his anxiety attacks. After he had described his struggles in detail I was in tears. I did not have the words to respond. Desperately I was asking God for words but nothing came to mind. All I could say was that I would pray for him for his journey and hoped he could achieve the peace he so desperately sought.
There were so many other things racing through my mind that I wish I had the words to speak but the meal ended, the tables had to be cleared and other duties performed. I felt so, so, inadequate in the face of such pain.
After the 8:30 Jesus meditation that occurs every evening at the albergue I asked him how it went. He told me he was blessed by this time of reflection. He then picked up the guitar and spent some time making gentle music. … and I was still lost for words.
Currently it is very warm at night. The one metre thick stone walls take a long time to cool down. In the morning they still contain a lot of heat. Sleeping through the night can be tough with the small open window letting in little air and lots of noise from the local bar and the neighbourhood dog chorus.
The bar plays lots of awful music through to the early hours of the morning making falling asleep a mite difficult. This represents the contradictions in this village: Old houses, old church, lots of old people but touches of modernity. There are traditions that go back centuries accompanied by young people on quad bikes. There are crosses on houses next to the satellite dish.
Stirred into this whole mix is the daily conga line of pilgrims coming through.
Over the years, where ever we have travelled, I have made it my business to pray for the congregations and leaders of the various church buildings we have encountered. Large or small, magnificent or modest they have all had the Pieter prayer treatment. From my window in the albergue I can see 3 church buildings – all many hundreds of years old, and down the path just over the hill is another. This morning I went to visit that last one and pray for the people who come in and the priest that leads it. But there are many more close by that I haven’t been too. The small village of Luquin actually has a Basilica and a church. I haven’t discovered the history of that yet.
Travelling the Camino can be very cheap. The accommodation is inexpensive, restaurants offer cheaper meals and there are no transport costs apart from a little shoe leather. All you need is a ‘credential’ – a camino passport and these benefits are available to the walkers
But not everybody is a walker, some do it on bikes or with donkeys and horses. Perfectly ok. However there are others who do it by car. They get a credential, have it stamped regularly but use the Camino as, essentially, a means for a cheap holiday.
It is a sad reminder that even the simple pleasures and experiences of life can be spoiled by some. The albergue I am in has a policy that if it is ‘Completo’ – full and someone comes along who has been walking all day and also discover someone, who has driven to the albergue, has registered, then the driver will be asked to leave to make space for the walker.
On the Camino you are often impressed with human nature and endurance but then, occasionally, the opposite occurs.
This morning around the breakfast table we had a lively discussion around cultures and how we perceive them. How come, in Spain, the fiestas are the same every year and children’s birthday parties always have the same cake and the same ritual?
What are the rituals we engage in that someone else from another culture would consider weird. I remember once at theological college a discussion about body odour occurred. One group of students had complained about the odour of another group. The other group replied that white people smelled “sour”. Even our olfactory function, it seems, has a cultural dimension!
Our world-views are shaped by so many different factors; culture, religion, experiences, family upbringing(was it ever ok to lick the bowls and plates in your family?) and numerous other factors. The first argument after my wife and I were married was who would put the rubbish out for collection. In my family my mother did it because dad’s business was very time consuming and my brother and I helped dad with it. In my wife’s family even though the mum did it, the myth was active that dad would have done it if he was still alive. And yes, I lost the argument.
So here we are in Spain with enough time to get a sense of how a small community ticks. If I transferred these people to Hamlyn Heights what would they say to each other in the privacy of their homes about these strange people in Geelong. Where is the bar? Where do they meet without a bar 100 metres from home? And no siesta! The climate is the same so why not? And, they eat so early!
The castle behind Villamayor has a long history. The Romans were here over 2000 years ago and it is believed the castle is built on Roman ruins. Then the Moors came, later the kings of Navarre and also Charles the Great (Charlemagne 742-814) spent time here. There is a story that Charles, unwilling for his men to die in battle asked Santiago (Saint James) which of his men were going to die in a forthcoming battle. Red crosses appeared on the shields of 150 men, so he left these men in the camp. He went into battle and lost no men in battle. When he returned to the camp the 150 men were dead, or so the story goes.
It is clear when you get to the top of the mountain why the castle is here. There are magnificent views in every direction. Anyone who held this point would have a magnificent advantage in battle.
Villamayor is a town with very few people. However, in the summer people come back to their family homes so there are more people around at present than usual. It also seems that some people commute from this village to larger towns for work. The village is made up of very old houses, some empty and falling down and then there are others that are ultra modern with swimming pools and all the mod cons. The old houses still show signs of the barn or stable built up against the house. The building we are in has a 400 year old stable.
I went for a stroll to the cemetery a few hundred metres out of town, Ermita del Calvario (Calvary Hermitage) on the Calle el Calvario (Calvary Street). I noted that the earliest gravestones were from the 1970s. This surprised me as the town has been settled for hundreds of years. Upon further inquiry I learned later that old graves are dug up, the bones collected and the graves reused. The cemetery never needs to get any bigger and has continued to function between the walls.
Apart from the two albergues, the only public facilities are a bar, and shop that is open for only a few hours a day, mainly to support pilgrims.
The church that serves the town is cared for a by a non Spanish priest who has quite a few other parishes to support. Young Spanish men are not interested in the priesthood. During services the men sit on one side of the church and women on the other which is an indication of how traditional it is in this village. There were no children present when my wife went to a Sunday service.
Just as you enter the village there is a large winery, Bodegas Castillo de Monjardin, which I gather has a very good reputation so, clearly, a visit is required before I leave.
There are two albergues in our small village and ours requires a bit more walking and is not easily seen from the pilgrimage route. But we have a secret weapon – Secundo. Secundo was born in this village and is in his 70s. Moreover, he has taken a liking to the family that runs the albergue I am volunteering in. So he has made it his task to greet pilgrims as they come into Villamayor and direct them to, what he considers to be, the better albergue.
We have heard pilgrims say, as they enter our albergue, that an old man told them to come here. Secundo enjoys talking with the pilgrims, in fact, anyone at the albergue. I am learning the art of ‘Google Translate’ on the run when conversing with Secundo.
The Church Bell
The church bell in Villamayor sounds like small boys throwing rocks at a 44 gallon drum. It still strikes the number of bells for the hour and one every half hour – 24 hours a day. Being hot, the windows are open, so just when you have fallen asleep at night one is unceremoniously awakened by, what seems like, a gang of small boys throwing rocks at a drum. The locals must be used to it but I am still learning to adjust.