An early morning stillness sweeps the streets of Gontan as the albergue empties of its occupants, including the cyclists who arrived later in the day yesterday. Soon they have sped away in a brightly array of designer cycle jerseys and a motley group of pilgrims meander towards the first shell sign of the day.
The streets are deserted.There is no one to be seen and I am reminded of those apocalyptic films about the last people on Earth. I look out for zombies but the bears protest and we go back to marching along.
The roads are mixed, starting on tarmac and then moving into wooded paths and back to tarmac again.
The Way today is gloriously interspersed with rows of vibrant bright yellow flowering bushes, a type of Broom, I think. They are radiant, luminous and mesmerizing.
Perhaps it is the hypnotic effect of the yellow bright flowers or the seductive scent of the honeysuckle in the hedgerow, but I miss the Waymarking shell and find myself off the beaten track and lost. It is not at first apparant but after some considerable time I am aware the shells have disappeared and I don't know where I am. I think I am ahead of the others but there is no one in sight. I come to a fork in the forest and see a farmhouse in the distance.
Earlier in the day while taking to another peregrinos, admiring the view and thinking not about where I am but where I am to be that afternoon, I went over on my right ankle. In normal circumstances, this would produce a stumble and grumble but with a 11 k backpack and another 14 K to walk that day it is a slightly throbbing concern. In the lost wood, Dheas is now distressed. After stretching and rotating it and with some massage I shift and transfer as much weight off it as possible,. It is not comfortable but manageable.
The farmer comes out to greet me as I approach. While I don't have the Spanish for I am lost and where's the Camino gone ?, I think it looks blatantly obvious whats happened. " Estoy perdido. Donde esta el Camino?"
He helpfully and adamantly gives me instructions, most of which I understand, mainly because he is pointing vigorously in that direction.That direction being uphill again. I follow the road and eventually come to a crossroad. I am sure he has said to continue onwards but, onwards is into more heavily wooded countryside and I am even more conscious of getting even more lost. The skies darken and there are drops of rain. I also realise I am out of water.
Always carry enough water. Lesson 5
Always follow the signs carefully. Lesson 6
Always have a good map. Lesson 7
Always keep breathing Lesson 8
While I gather my raincoat , I find a snack bar that Nysha had given me yesterday. It helps and as I munch, an elderly farm woman appears in the fields in the distance. As I make my way towards her, I think she would not look out of place in Connemara. She has grey hair tied back in a bun, a long dark farm dress wrapped over with a pinny, wellington boots and a pail in one hand. I almost expect her to greet me in Gaelic. She doesn't and proceeds with directions. I feel like an intruder from Western civilization into another era and wonder how often there are backpacked travelers wandering around like lost sheep. She gives me options, I think. either into the woods or follow the road to the shell. I thank her profusely. "De nada" she says "you're welcome" just like they would in Connemara.
I am now nearly an hour off track. I think that must be near 5 k extra walking. It has however, decided not to rain but in the distance there are dogs. I can already hear them snarling.....
There is a long straight stretch of road ahead that eventually moves into an elongated sloping curve, before rising upwards over a small ridge. Just before the bend, the two dogs move frantically back and forth, barking loudly, incessantly and interspersed with snarling venom. One is big, long backed and a hybrid of Alsatian, sheep dog and the collection of mongrels that were around the night he was conceived. He has a long snout, which when he opens his mouth displays a long row of rough teeth and much foamy saliva. The other is shorter and wide, with stumpy legs and a face that probably, once suggested a boxer/terrier mix but now resembles a canine face reconstructed from a car crash. His teeth rise and fall with each bark as if they were expecting to clamp on something any minute. They are meandering mongrels of mean and they are not in a good mood.
There is no one in sight and it is very obvious I am the source of their attentions. There also is no way round them. The thoughts “where’s their owner?” and “this would never happen in “England”, swiftly become redundant and irrelevant as the nearer I get the more vicious the snarling becomes.
As the larger mongrel starts at a full gallop, fur and muscle billowing with the force of velocity, his head jerking, back and forth, allowing his jaws to widen and his teeth to become more pronounced, I stand transfixed. I breathe, slowly releasing my pack off my shoulder and placing it in front of me at chest level and crouch at waist height. As he leaps, I move forward, positioning the pack under his chest and abdomen and stretch back, pushing the pack upwards and behind. The effect is to lift the flying force upwards and overhead and at an approximate height of six foot, the dog soars into the air. He lands awkwardly and stunned some distance away. In the time I see he is now breathless, his carnivorous companion is gathering speed and chomping vigorously at the air. He is heavier than I realised and the ground beneath my feet is already reverberating from the impact of the approaching ferocity. I stand behind the rucksack and as he lunges forward move to one side, with the elegance of a master matador. As he passes, I grab the nearest hind leg and with the force of his own body weight in motion, turn him on his side and with an arch movement lift him into the air , twisting him into a circle. Two circles, three circles, I feel his resistance falter and his body weight sag. As we spin together, I notice my first assailant has recovered to mount another attack. He is less assured and with a slower trajectory he comes bounding towards where I am now in full whirling mode. He enters our orbit on the fifth spin and as he raises his head to snap, I bring the now flaccid flying canine down to meet him. In that instant two heads are better than one, as the expression goes .Both heads collide with a vibrating intensity, sparks and saliva fly and in an instant both bodies are lying, side by side, panting for breath. Sore heads in the morning I think as I pick my rucksack up and whistle up the hill.
Well, this was the image and scenario that passed though my comic book mind as I started down the road towards the two frenzied beasts in front of me. Having been brought up on Superman, Batman, The Wolverine, Kung Fu, Jackie Chan and Jet Li , comic book fantasy is always the first port of call in situations like this. The capacity to turn it into any form of reality diminished fairly rapidly as I moved closer to my now loud baying and ferocious checkpoint.
As I approached, both dogs moved to the centre of the road to block my path. I noticed that, as the road moved round the corner in a long sweeping arch, it also sloped at a sharp camber from left to right, not unlike a small velodrome . At its base on the right hand edge, the road dropped sharply into a wide ditch with a stone wall beyond. The drop to the ditch and the distance to the gap in the stone wall make it difficult to run in that direction and impossible without losing the rucksack. I find myself thinking “what would I sleep in and besides I like my rucksack”. I have become attached to it as it has become attached to me over the last few days, which would have amused me greatly were it not for the circumstance I am now encountering.
At this point, with contact imminent, for some reason stored in the annals of memory, I recall my Aikido and Hapkido training and the principle of the best defense is no offence.I retract my walking poles and hold them to my side so they are concealed.
I am now in a Mexican stand off with two baying antagonistic hounds. I contain myself and make myself smaller and non threatening. By moving into the centre of the road, there is now a gap to my right, taking me to the edge of the tarmac. As it gives me more space I move slowly in this direction.
The dogs take it in turns to snap forward but the space allows me to move forward and sideways, one leg at a time. My ankle doesn't like this but as it doesn't like the idea of being bitten off either ,it handles the complaint and the gradient very well. As I move, I don’t turn my back and keep the dogs in front and to the left side of me. I make myself smaller and as less threatening as possible. I avoid eye contact but keep them and their movements in view. I stay calm. I surprise myself.
There is obviously a hierarchy between them, little dog , big dog, each taking a turn to snap. Little dog makes a furtive snap at my ankle but I step away and to the side. The camber to the road and the thick rolling edge to the tarmac make it difficult for his short legs to maintain an even balance and he slows to steady himself, losing momentum. Big dog being somewhat deferential has waited his snarling turn and bounds forward. I can see he has not been to the dentist for some time and that his breath smells. He, by waiting his turn is now slightly above me and by nature of the camber is heavy and ungainly on his fore paws.He too is off balance and as he approaches, I move to the right and by the weight of his hinds , he slips off the tarmac and onto the ditch. This allows me to take some more steps along the corner and onto the foot of the hill.
Our positions are now reversed and I am above them and they are no longer on a flat surface but at an angle left to right. While still barking and snarling they bump into each other on the slope. I continue to contain my shape and retract. I breathe in, I relax, I breathe out, I am calm. I make myself smaller and step back up the hill facing them behind me.
I am surprised that, as I do this, they mirror the same movement, albeit with loud vicious intent. I move back, they snarl and bay but move back also. By the time I am at the brow of the hill there is a noisy but healthy distance between us.
When I reach the top, I look down to see them, still barking in my direction but distant. I imagine little dog saying “Well, He was weird, wasn’t he ! we showed him tho’, didn’t we? We’s the top dogs here” “Yeh,we sure did” says big dog “ but there weren’t enough meat on ‘im, to really bother, were there.”
Over the hill, I reflect that there are people like big dog and little dog. Endlessly, protecting the little they have or what little they imagine they have, with a snarling ferocity. Always in contention with someone or something and defined by association with the fellow contentious. And always limited and Life restricted by their antagonistic belligerence. There is often no other way for them and it becomes a lesser Life limited to that corner of disagreeable discord.
Like my recent encounter, where possible, they are often best avoided.
Like big dog and little dog I feel sorry for them but like big dog and little dog, they are best left to the restrictions of their own dissident dilemmas and a Life unfulfilled.
Over the hill, there is a house with shells and in the distant hedgerow, I see the way shell and I am back on track.
There were also many cute and playful animals along the path.
Someone left their spare boot.
After my detour, I looked more carefully for the shells. Unfortunately, at certain sections of the Camino, there is a tendency to take a circumventive route. This is usually to pass or visit an old church or historical feature like this cross.
As I came out of the woods, I could clearly see the shell on the other side of the dual carriageway. While I was sure the route to Vilalba was downhill to the right, the shell on the other side of the road said differently. Certainly, there was a church and cemetery and the road beside it looked more Camino like than the highway so off I set. After 30 minutes, there was no sign of any more shells and once again I found myself by an old stone farmhouse, asking directions. A very kindly farmer and his even friendlier dog came out to meet me. We immediately struck up a conversation, me in stumbled Spanish and he with all the ease and patience of someone who has all the time in the world to understand. It was easy to comprehend I had to go back up the hill and down the highway. We talked weather and it felt like being down the country in Ireland, I thanked him, pattted the dog ( partially to reassure myself they were not all ferocious) and left with my Spanish phrase for the day........" no esta bien indicado" or it's not very well indicated /signposted !
The road thereafter was long . By the time I reached Vialba, the Sun was high and I had added at least an extra 8 K to a 21 K journey, My ankle was sore and smarting in the heat but it had got me there.
We decided to stay at an Albergue Tuiristica which is a bit more upmarket and private version of the traditional one. It was more expensive, of course, 10 euros instead of 6 euros but it was in the centre of town. This allowed us to visit the Church of Santa Maria in the piazza nearby, where in tradition we lit a candle for a safe journey and found the statue below, which had an enigmatic poignancy and reminded me of the dispossessed emigrants of the Famine.
The piazza also had a bar so while Nysha shopped for dinner,I sat with a glass of ice, massaging my ankle and a glass of cervesa massaging the bruised ego of my misplaced directions. Later there would be acupuncture for tired soles.
The albergue in Vilalba was fairly new and as a measure of hospitality and good marketing the friendly owner produced some good wine and excellent local cheese on the house for us in the evening. the Camino was turning out to be not quite as austere as I imagined.