My second day on the road tested my trust issues; and my distrust of those that seem like trickster personalities. The actual Rutas de Peregrino starts today and sets the precedent for the rest of the journey! Read on for more.
I woke up to the sound of roosters and many pilgrims and horses clip-clopping on the cobblestones heading west, away from the morning sun. I packed up camp, put my shoes on and attempted to head out....
The gate was tied with green string! I fumbled with it a bit until the mother of the farmers' household came out and pointed out that was the wrong gate - blind moment of the day!
Take 2 on heading out proved to be successful and I was on the road again with the sun warming my backpack. The road curved back and forth in semi-circles - north, south, west over and over again, while going uphill and downhill.
I was getting quite a sweaty workout this morning. My balance was getting overworked this morning. I had to watch for the telltale sounds of clip-clops as horses passed me by; and the balance test was being enhanced by dodging a near continual arrangement of horse droppings of all sorts of colors, and some with grass growing. So many horses this morning!
The sun was approaching the 10am mark and I was drenched in sweat, my left knee was beginning to swell from being worked hard; and back becoming sore. I seemed to be playing the leapfrog game with the same set of horse and men.
Let's call them the Horse Rancher Gang - think motorcycle gang, except horses and ranchers. After about the seventh leapfrog, one of them stops and offers to take on my burden. I looked at him through painful salty eyes and saw altruistic intent in his; and pantomimed a heavy burden crushing souls. He chuckled and patted the mane of his horse and basically said it was not a problem for him and horse.
With a bit of struggle and shaking legs, I hauled up the backpack to him and with a large, meaty fist, he effortlessly places it in front of him on the horse and canters off. I took a step and almost fell over because I was prepared to put some significant effort into the step and it was not necessary. I took more steps as surprise registered and realized I was going much faster. One of the other horse-gangers stops and hands me his iPhone - a brand new, current model and said (in Spanish) "We will meet you at the next town ahead, to eat and rest. Take this as collateral." They thought I was sprinting after them to watch over my backpack, when I was just overjoyed at the extra spring in my step. I wrap his phone in my handkerchief and placed it in my pocket.
Actually, they were partially right. I did sprint a bit because unconsciously, I did not trust them, despite the rational thought that as affluent as they are, they would have no interest in my heavy pack nor its contents. Thing is, fear defies all rationality. They indicated that I should enjoy the walk. They cantered on and I slowed my pace and walked with arms swinging freely, allowing the still cold and crisp air to ventilate through.
Some time later, I arrived at the next town. I think it was only half an hour, as the sun barely moved from the 10am position I noted earlier. I had completely mis-imagined it because I thought the horsemen talked about a town by the river, and I imagined them resting while their horses drank their fill from the water. What I saw instead was the line of all seventeen horses, single file like cars parked diagonally in a lot.
Gee, no mistake on where they are at!
I sauntered past the parked horses, up the steps, noted my backpack sitting on corner at the entrance, and towards the horsemen seated at an improvised set of Coca-Cola tables arranged into a long rectangle replete with matching metal chairs surrounding. There was one empty spot. They indicated the spot and I sat down. Food was ordered - they ordered it for me, presumably because of my lack of Spanish, and we Chowed Down like there was no tomorrow. I indicated towards placing my share of the tab, and they waved me off - its on them. I guess what a friend said about Mexican invites is a cultural norm here.
They had to rush off, and I hung around for a few more minutes and savor the jug of freshly squeezed country style orange juice; and my temporary freedom from the Burden. More pilgrims were streaming in all the time like ants and I got up and left quickly with the backpack. I saw the path ahead, lined with fluorescent cardboard signs advertising food, drink, bathrooms and followed the path on-wards.
The path splits off and there was yet another fluorescent sign, this time indicating Rutas del Peregrino to the left - and seeing this daunting uphill path littered with different sized rocks going off into the infinite horizon.
I blinked, three times. Thank that Virgin that I had such a powerhouse breakfast!
Deliberately slowing my pace, I put one leaden foot in front of the other, feeling for dirt and avoiding rocks by angling my ankles as necessary. As usual other pilgrims passed me by, and I reassured myself that the tortoise wins the day. I see trash everywhere and others pass me by in yellow uniforms and I realized they were walking the path, picking up whatever trash they could.
The sun gradually intensifies and the sweat begins to build up again. Every couple of kilometers I encounter a food / drink / bathroom hut and I stop to rest a bit and partake of whatever I needed - for a few pesos, of course! I start playing games with myself to see if I could increase the amount of huts I can skip. That game did not last very long - I was only at 2, when I happened one where a loud young guy in reflective sunglasses and a green shirt greets me in English, and asks what the hell I was doing.
I gave him a weary, salty, sweaty eye and said that I was doing the manda thing hoping to self flagellate myself with the backpack. That set the tone and his three friends joined in the banter while offering me beer all the while. I refused beer, making up a bad Spanish sentence "Alcol es mi Fantasma!" (Alcohol is my ghost!). We did the pilgrim small talk and they asked if I would like to join them. Their demeanor put me on edge immediately as their vibe seemed like tricksters - they were loud, brash, immature - and I normally do not mesh well with young people; and they were very forward and friendly with no discernible reason. My mental daggers were out; I was scanning them for weak points to strike.
Despite all that, I went along with them anyway, while they called me "compal" and "primo" (terms of endearment and close companionship) and explained what this means for Mexicans.
Not exactly a great way to gain my trust. My mental daggers were ever sharpening, muscles tensed in case I needed to strike a weak point. I noted three of them - one of them was walking with an injured leg; and two others had some imbalances in their gait. I knew the weight distribution of my backpack in case I needed to use it. I was ready to set my intent to kill at a moment's notice. I continued on with them as we started a rather steep, curvy, and rocky ascent. I was slowing down significantly due to this, and the green guy stops and helps me up a few times, eventually offering to carry my backpack.
After this morning, I knew this was a test and I decided that despite my misgivings about these guys, I was going to Trust, and handed my backpack to him. We progressed together, one of the others helping me navigate as we continued the climb up in the afternoon sun.
At one point, we had to pause as the one with the broken leg was in a lot of pain. Grateful for earlier gesture to carry my backpack, I decided to see if I could perform some Pranic Healing on his leg; He accepted and relaxed while I did some energy cleansing on his leg. I warned him that I was a novice and the most I could do is relieve his pain. To my surprise, it worked and he felt significantly better. They had no idea what I did nor how my "art" worked. It did not diminish their Gratitude. While I was doing this, it was revealed that one of the others, Lalo was on a manda following his grand-father's death; and he asked if he could offer his form of sacrifice by taking on my backpack *and* one of the others' backpack! I accepted, as nothing would change his mind.
After what seemed like a couple of hours, the ascent leveled off and we came to a especially large hut with all sorts of food cooking, and across the path was a breathtaking view of the countryside below, glinting in the reddish, golden glow - it was now late afternoon and a bit over an hour away from dusk. We stopped and got ready to eat and drink.
There was a lot of cheeriness and celebration going on. Lots of verbally messing around too. I was not used to this and my mental daggers were still out and sharpened like shivs hungry for their fleshy marks. At one point they were encouraging a young woman to come meet me - she was cooking; and I became uncomfortable. I do not like hitting on women, and so you can imagine how it felt to have *others* hit on women *for you*!
All I could do is laugh it off and go along with it, realizing it was all in jest. The woman was doing the same. To diffuse our mutual discomfort, she asked me what I will eat, and I obliged.
A paragraph about the food. Back in the United States, I had grown accustomed to "road food" being the worst kind of food to get - convenience store fare, fast food, greasy spoon diners, etc. Boy, was I in for a surprise when I bit into the plate I ordered! Everything was home-cooked style, freshly prepared with quality and real ingredients, and prepared the traditional Mexican way. The tortillas were made from scratched from when you request it. I watched the young woman pat a ball of flour into a patty and toss it onto the cooking surface; and watched as she laid a few of them into a towel and laid them down in front of me, covered. My eyes rolled backward in food heaven - nutritional content was very high; use of spices were at their peak. Tortillas were the best I ever had, and she kept them coming until I had to tell her to stop!
The others were liquored up and were itching to take pictures of the view and each other; so we did this for a while and making immature celebratory noises. I was happy by this time and let my guard down a bit. At one point for a group photo, I yelled "ChiIiIiIillllllLLLLLLlllllleeeeEEEEEEeeeeeeeeEEEE" in lieu of "cheese" for the photos. This added to their amusement and they joined in the cheer. After what seemed another while, we needed to move on; so we paid the hosts (they paid for my meal) , and continued.
The steep uphill was no more, and we continued for a short bit - a lake appeared to our left, then another to our right. Cool winds were caressing us, cooling us down from our long ascent. Then a really nice stone structure, benches, a hut, and two lonely looking people manning the area. There were trees, plants, beautiful furnishings, and elaborate stonework everywhere. This looked like a great place to camp for the night, as there was also indications of a even more breathtaking view just beyond the area! We stopped and used the bathrooms.
The green guy, Luis-Fernando then let me know that this would be a good place for me to rest for the night, and that I would be in excellent hands. Or, if I chose to, I could go downhill with them to reach the large campsite - it was a long walk and we would arrive long after dusk. I thought about it for a few moments, torn. On one hand, the place was so beautiful and inviting - the energy was off the charts; on the other hand was a very long downhill and I would need help with this. Practicality won out and I set off again with them.
The descent was slow, steady, and rocky - and it took a few hours to get through. I was really tired and was making many footing mistakes, and almost constantly being assisted by one of the others in rotation. At one point, I completely slipped and fell on my back - on a jutting rock - pain seared through me and mixed in with my surprise. Luis-Fernando immediate helped me up and examined my back via touch. Nothing was harmed. We continued.
I fell in beside one of them, older than the others and we got into an English conversation and quickly found common ground about our views of the world. In essence, both of us did not see much point in Western ambition, as both of us tried it and found it wanting. He shared what he found on the other side, and how that influenced his current life; and I shared my similar findings, and where things have yet to go. I told him the fisherman and the businessman joke, to our mutual laughter; as the sun marched downwards to the inexorable darkness.
We eventually reached the bottom as the sun was sinking below the horizon, and we crossed the highway to a hut that signaled end of the descent. We asked how much further the big camp was, and it was still a few hours away. We continued at a slightly hurried pace, as we were getting hungry and tired. The road curved, criss-crossing the highway on many occasions; and as we went on-wards, it got very dark. My legs were letting me know that I have gone way past my walking limit; and that the only thing keeping me upright was the companionship with the three other pilgrims. I had my headlamp out, and I had mounted my flashlight on my sun-hat. One light serving as short-range but wide radius illumination; and the other as a more focused beam for a longer range. This was barely enough light for my blind eyes to negotiate the terrain a few steps at a time.
The conversation continued on for a long while we hiked. My companion, Gustavo would warn me of terrain changes and kick away rocks that would derail me. He had noted how fragile my balance was and figured to point out the best path for me, every few steps. This went on for what seemed like forever; until we kept encountering the others resting and drinking beers at every hut we encountered. They were asking if the huts were the camp we were seeking, and were being told that the camp we sought was a few minutes on-wards. At one of these huts, they bought me a strange non-alcoholic drink called Lechuguilla which is made from fermented agave - think a non-alcoholic, fermented version of tequila. My eyes popped wide open, as the effects told immediately. This is Magic Juice! My aches and pains were gone, I had a ton of energy to go on-wards, and it tasted really earthy, herb-y, healthy, and refreshing!
I was literally bouncing to go, and so, we repeated this cycle of hut to hut breaks and drinking (them with beers, me with more lechuguilla) until at around 11pm at night, we spotted the numerous red lights which indicated the camp we sought. This camp was huge - as huge as the town of Ameca!
We sprinted to the goal - we were finally here! There were hundreds of huts, bathroom facilities, and tens of thousands of pilgrims. A pilgrim camp, who would have thunk?! We stumbled into the camp, and were guided towards food where they were serving free meals - this is what a pilgrim camp is. We were allowed to have as much food as our stomachs could handle, and as much beer and drinks as we could hold without ill effect. I was pondering the whole time who was funding all this; when tiredness took me over. I was drinking water, as I needed to sleep and not have Magic Juice coursing through me!
As I would find in the morning, the camp was next to a town called La Estanzuela.
40.42 km so far, 24.02 km this day.
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