Monday, 18 August 2008

Ponchos in the mist

The mountain village of O Cebreiro had twelve hours ago been a sunny tourist
honeypot. Now it was eerie as a ghost town. A dense white mist hung in the
air, making the roughly cobbles wet and slippery. The mountains were
obscured, the piped music turned off, the postcards put away and the shops
firmly shut. We set off up the hill, our waterproofs smelling damp from
their weeks of storage, and our helmets on, ready for the descent; hoping it
might come soon. As we crawled up the steep mountain road, all ambient sound
dampened by the white out, it seemed we might be the only living creatures
in the world. But then, out of the mist, they came. Gradually at first, in
ones or two's, heads down, trudging, trudging; tired feet kicking rubble,
stones dislodging under their feet. The green and grey of their vests and
shorts had been swapped for gaudy poncho's; massive wraps covering
themselves and their backpacks; nylon covered hunchbacks. From time to time
they glanced out from hoods and damp hair; their enthusiastic 'olas' of
previous days dampened to a nod. As we all moved up the mountain, they began
to appear in groups of eight and ten. Bunches of colour in the monochrome
white. As the path dipped in and out of the roadside they moved away and
back again; appearing from the mist when we least expected to see them. At
every village they increased their speed; perhaps taking cheer from the
signs of bar life; or the thought of emergency pilgrim shelter in a church

In a bar at the hamlet of Hospital we took a break to watch the Olympics and
grab some coffee. There we encountered encountered pilgrim Feliz, who we had
seen a few times before along the route. In Villafranca he was busking in
the street, plucking away on his guitar, his case stretched out in the hope
of a few euros to buy dinner. He obviously got lucky as that evening he held
court in our restaurant over a strange mix of pilgrims who were hanging on
his every word. The next morning we passed him singing loudly as he plodded
along the camino; intent that everyone should appreciate his fine mood.
Today he was instantly recognisable by his well developed goatee beard and
intense manner, but this time he was sporting a green poncho. He religiously
stirred away at an espresso, and advised a depressed travelling companion
how he should cope with the journey he was obviously struggling to complete.
"Take the bus. Go back to O Cebreiro and take the bus. There are many ways
to travel the camino. You can go back. For the bus. But Feliz can't go back
with you. Feliz never goes back." He explained his mission. "The name Feliz
means 'happy' in latin. That is my journey to make people happy." His fellow
pilgrim wasn't looking all that happy, and as we got on our bikes Feliz was
going through maps with him, his guitar strategically placed in a corner
with his rucksack; should anyone ask for a cheering up song. We pedalled
off, into a silent mist, punctuated only by poncho's.