”Today you begin to enter the mountains in earnest,” said the guide book. “What else have you been doing the past three days?” I asked myself. The elevation maps in the book gave me a jolt of reality. All the struggle had got me up an elevation of at the most two hundred meters. I had been following the path of ‘Naaraanathu Bhraandan’. Up, down, up, down, repeat. And I thought it was just up. Even thoughts could be deceptive, I realized. Today It would be a straight up of five hundred meters in the first seven kilometers then short climbs up and down again for the remaining thirteen.
None of these facts could dampen my spirit in that morning. Must have been the cognac in the coffee. The hotel had not woken up at seven. A few meters down the road, a cafe on the left looked welcoming with a golden glow. I pushed the door open, and was stopped in my track for a few minutes. Mother Mary was sitting at a table in blue jeans and a red jacket. A slightly older version, albeit. The face was a perfect heart with a sharp chin and broad forehead. Exquisite eyebrows crowned a pair of brown eyes that had just a hint of sadness and kindness exuded from within. A warm mysterious smile completed the picture.
“Mariella, from Mexico,” said she, extending her hands.
”Beautiful name,” I said, as if in a trance.
A gruff voice interrupted the vision, “Yes, beautiful.”
A slightly older man with a thick, graying mustache smiled at me from the opposite end of the table. He kept nodding, again saying, “yes, yes.” It took me a few moments to realize he meant not the name, but the woman. He did not know any other English. They owned a mango orchard somewhere near the border between Mexico and Guatemala. It was her third camino, she said. And his first. That look of absolute adoration and tender care for his woman is something I am not going to forget in a very long time. It takes years, maybe a lifetime for your eyes to speak like that I guess. Or, does it? Who knows? Maybe they do.
Ane and Sonya were peeping from outside. I waved at them to come in. Piping hot coffee and a piece of toast later, I was ready. The orange juice that the cafe owner offered was very politely refused. Not another bout of morning sickness, I had decided. River Nonaya on the right sang tenderly and provided the background music for a meditative walk. Others starting passing me by, one after another, nothing new. I was content, and this was no competition. Will walk till I fall, was the mantra for the day.
I was reminded of John Kaag’s words in ‘Hiking With Nietzsche’
“The dull ache of lactic acid building in your quads and calves slowly reminds you that flesh—your flesh—is still alive. The control that one has over the pain is strangely affirming: Can you make it to the next rise, to the next outcropping of rocks? Life is often painful or bothersome, but the hiker, at the very least, gets to determine how he or she is meant to suffer.”
The cognac seemed to have opened my eyes too to the wonder around. The past three days, the focus was inward. The rumbling in my tummy, the pain on my feet, the aching shins, the weight that bent my back, there was hardly anything else I could think of, in spite of catching a few glimpses of the beautiful views around now and then. Today, my world was being turned inside out.
Or was it the magic of the mountains? The air was definitely cooler, there was a gentle breeze to caress me, the paths were lined by trees on both sides and the tarred roads seemed to be something of the past.
It started drizzling slightly. The few pilgrims that I could see ahead had all stopped and were pulling their rain ponchos out. A tall hefty girl in a black turtleneck walked past in a hurry. She stopped, looked back and said, “raise your hiking poles a bit, your walk will be easier.” Her voice was so authoritative and that tone was something I was most definitely not used to. I couldn’t do anything but obey.
It was the turn of a gypsy girl next. She walked by as though floating in air. Light brown hair, half of which was gathered in a knot on top of her head and the other half dancing in the wind, she introduced herself with a disarming smile that reached the depths of her warm brown eyes,
”Sada, Madrid. Little English.”
”Bindu, India. Very very little Spanish,” I replied.
“Degree, sociology. Now, work with mental people,” she said drawing a circle above her head.
”Buen Camino,” and she was gone.
The sun chased the rain clouds away and shined down in triumph. I stopped by a fence, looked down at the meadow in front and a took a deep breath. And plonked myself down on the grass.
‘Hi,” said a male voice. Mark Ruffalo turned slightly plump. “From Holland,” he continued. An old man was coming up the path as we were exchanging pleasantries. Ruffalo introduces him to me, “Pierre, from Canada.” He had the most glorious smile and when he laughed, the earth and everything around echoed his laughter. I mean, the old man, not the Dutch guy. His smile was charming too. Pure joy lighted up the old man’s face and you could not but smile back at him. A lifetime of laughter had left a million crinkles at the corners of his eyes. Another old man and two young boys followed Pierre.
“The boys are catching a bus back tomorrow morning, “ said Mr. Holland.
”Why?” I asked them in surprise.
”We have a life, unlike these crazy old men” their love for the men was so evident in that light hearted banter. They had no inclination to stop and chat. Holland stayed on. And the bells on my inbuilt radar were ringing wildly. “Beware of this charmer,” they seemed to warn my heart. And its logical partner, the brain scoffed, “at this age?” “Shut up,” I shouted at both of them, silently.
”I need a break, you carry on,” I told him. Did his steps carry a sound of reluctance? I would like to believe so. Someone paying attention, anyone paying attention for that matter, at an age when you thought you were invisible was a bloody good feeling, now that I think of it.
Another water fountain…
….a couple of villages with a few houses in between, yet another stone church…
…anothsteep climb and a sharp bend in the road, the most charming little cafe welcomed my tired feet and carefree soul.
“Agua fria ,” I told the girl at the counter very confidently. Her smile betrayed the fact that she knew me for the fraud señorita that I was trying to be.
“Ensalada mixta,” I added. That lovingly condescending smile could not dampen the spirit of this budding Spaniard.
When it came to asking for directions, I had to concede defeat. Out came Google translator. “Go down, turn right at the junction, then again right, and then on the left,” she gestured with her hands and eyes.
It was past five by then. A part of the town of Tineo lay in the valley on the left. Layer after layer of blue and green mountains stretched for an eternity beyond the box-like houses in the distance.
The old men and their young ones greeted me at the entrance of the same hotel. After a long day on the road, it felt like reaching home. How much ever far you run, it is home that beckons you at the end of the day. A hot bath, a warm bed, a few smiling faces, something to fill your stomach, you are home.
Agua fria – cold water
Ensalada Mixta – Mixed salad