Thanksgiving: Genuine Gratitude in Awful Times.
The Land of Mud
Having spent two nights in the luxury of the Hostels in Fuente de Cantos and Pueblo de Sancho Perez, I lost all sense of comfort very rapidly as I set off into constant rain. The Camino passes through Zafra, which also has its excellent hostel (still open) of San Francisco.
I left Zafra without exploring this historic town because of the torrential rain. Indeed I usually had a reason for not exploring historic towns. However my stay in Zafra was prolonged by losing sight of the yellow arrows marking the Camino. I ended up on the outskirts, soaking wet, faced with a defensive fence running along the railway line and no way across. In the misty distance I made out a bridge and headed for it along an abandoned path. Once across the bridge, I guessed my way and with sheer delight discovered a yellow arrow. My spirits soared and I gave thanks for being back on my Camino which rose steeply over a ridge which separates Zafra from Los Santos de Maimones. Genuine gratitude flowed from my relief. I’m not sure whom I was grateful to, but that didn’t matter. Thanksgiving.
Once again, I had not met any other pilgrims. When I had stayed in the village before Zafra they had all opted for the famous Convent Hostel in Zafra for the night and had several hours start on me. I could see that they had passed where I was walking because the Camino after Los Santos was turning muddy. Their footsteps had erased the few footholds that there might have been earlier on. This is La Tierra de Barros. “Barro” is the Spanish for “clay”.
With the rain, my rucksack had become heavier as I learned the limitations of wet-weather protective clothing and bag covers. With every step I sank into the mud and risked slipping. Often I skidded and only stayed upright thanks to my walking pole. The path had no stones, just clay and puddles. My sandals began to pick up clumps of clay on the soles and lifting my foot was difficult. Every few steps I had to scrape huge chunks of mud off my sandals. It was exhausting and I was making very slow progress so I sat down on a mojon – the cubic, metal sign posts which mark the Camino in Extremadura.
How good a bit of bread with an apple tasted!! How good not to be skating in mud!!! What a relief I felt in my leg muscles! Once again my spirits soared and I was full of gratitude for all the wonderful joys we have in this life. Thanksgiving.
The physical conditions did not improve much but I was managing better after this and arrived in good form in Villafranco de los Barros, a town in the middle of a huge plain covered in vineyards. I was tired and wet and it was nightfall. After a search I found the Hostel, which had no room being full with the pilgrims who had stayed in Zafra the night before. Nobody could suggest an alternative. I had no desire to sleep out this night. Then I asked in a bar and one person suggested that he knew someone who put up pilgrims. This turned out to be a frail elderly woman in her dressing gown and slippers who asked me for 15 euros which she said included breakfast. She pointed to a door in the first floor of her patio which must once have been pretty but was now decrepit with rainwater gushing from above and below wherever I walked. The door to the room didn’t shut leaving a good gap for rain to enter. I lay on the bed elated to be horizontal. The rain sounded a melody in my resting muscles. I was so happy with this squeaky bed and the bare room, the shower with a drip of hot water. My gratitude stayed with me as I left the next morning thanking the old woman for the room and saying, no, it didn’t matter at all that she had not prepared the promised breakfast. More thanksgiving.
I set off among the vineyards in a day without rain, finding the path offering parts without mud. Another little bit of thanksgiving was in order.
As I relaxed into a steady pace I began to notice a tightening in my calf muscles. The Camino stretched ahead over the plain bypassing the important town of Almendralejo, heading for Merida, a VERY historic city with superb Roman remains. My plan was to stop just before Merida. My legs, though, were becoming more and more painful. As an inexperienced walker, I did not know what was wrong. They had worked well for a week and I wondered if this tightening of the muscles would halt my Camino. The big muscles in my calf were solid and aching. I decided to divert to Almendralejo where I found a room in a Pension. It was as far as I could go. Having rested an hour, the pain in my legs was just as bad but I began to walk to the hospital for some advice. At least I had shed my rucksack. People I asked directed me accurately but I didn’t ever seem to arrive. I looked for taxis or buses but there were none. Indeed, the hospital was four kilometres away and when I arrived I was hobbling in agony.
Thanksgiving for the doctor who lay on the floor.
Very quickly I was seen by a doctor who explained that it is a common problem for Pilgrims who, gaining confidence after a week on the Camino, walk further and faster. He saw them regularly. “What you need to do is this, “he said. He then lay on the floor with his feet raised up, pressed against the wall. He then wiggled them loosely, the feet staying firmly in place: the movement sending ripples through his calf muscles. The position was quite undignified. We both laughed and he told me to take a hospital bus back to town and practice the “ripple”. This man would have been enough, I imagine, to cure me, without any advice or demonstration on the floor. Without knowing if the exercise would work, I was filled, once again, with gratitude. I was grateful to this doctor and felt complicit with him in the joy of just being who we are. And I was grateful in a bigger less precise way. (Grateful to whom?).
But the advice was excellent (it works and is preventative,too) and many times since this, I have been grateful to this doctor. The next day my legs were much better and I walked more slowly and a shorter distance. Bliss!! I felt very grateful to this doctor.
My mother-in-law’s thanksgiving
As the route became more undulating and the little Sierra Grande came into view, the sun came out. In my well-being I thought of the past two days and recalled a visit from my mother-in-law many years ago. We lived in Hartlepool and she in Coventry. Although over 70 the desire to see her grandchildren led her to take a bus to visit them in mid-winter. Changing buses in Leeds she slipped in the ice. When I picked her up in Darlington in the dark she was in obvious pain, with her wrist swollen. As soon as I got her home, I gave her a cup of tea and a glass of sherry. She said she felt better but she seemed very white. My wife agreed she should have her wrist examined, so I drove her off to A&E where they diagnosed a broken wrist and decided to operate at once. But it was not possible because of the sherry. Margaret did not once complain as she was told to come back for re-setting and pinning at 9am the next day.
What I recalled above all was that en route to the hospital the next morning, the sun came out. Margaret immediately said, “Glory be to God. Now isn’t that bit of sunshine just a gift!” At the time I wondered how, in her circumstances, she could be grateful or joyful about anything. Now, at last, I understood. We can be grateful even in awful circumstances. Thanksgiving is within us like a breath waiting to be relesed. That began my prayers of thanksgiving while walking – but that is another post.