Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Without fear

I’m afraid of the dentist. Big time. I used to do anything to avoid going. Then I found a wonderful dentist who believed in pain free dentistry. The only thing that was painful was his bill. I had to leave him behind when I left the UK and as luck would have it in two successive days here in Santiago I got toothache and broke my glasses. Anxiety levels rose. I phoned a friend who made an appointment for me not only with his dentist but with his optician. That made things worse. Now I had a deadline. At 12.30 on Monday I had to meet a new dentist, explain what was wrong and hope they didn’t hurt me too much. Fear grows fear. The anxiety spiralled. I thought, “you still have to learn a lot of Spanish...how do you say “ this pain is dull, deep, gnawing and at times it throbs?” But off to the dentist I went. As if accompanying a child to their first day at school my Gallego friend came with me. We sat in the waiting room and minutes ticked by. "I read your last blog," he said, “do you have more stories of the people you met on the way?” And so I found myself telling him about a few of them. I started with the funniest.

One day we walked into a little town in Castilla La Mancha called La Roda. With 16,000 inhabitants it boasts a selection of large mansion houses with armorials and is famed for little custard and cream pastries called Miguelitos. Why they have that name I do not know but I reckon if there ever was a man called Miguel after whom they were named he was probably enormous. These little pastries are deadly and must weigh in at 1000 calories apiece. We had booked into the Hostal Molino and we duly arrived to be greeted by the landlord Don Antonio who holds court in his bar in the same style as one of the Spanish aristocracy of the middle ages. He told us he had been the host of the establishment for 39 years as he plied us with cold beers and tapas which were very welcome at the end of a hot day’s walking. Antonio also pointed out a group of other pilgrims who were there. These were 8 Belgians walking the Camino Sureste which crosses the Camino Levante at points. They were a group of older people walking with a support vehicle and reducing the daily etapas to fit their level of comfort and fitness. They were sitting at a table in the bar which looked just like every other Spanish bar...older men were playing cards, a couple chatted at the bar, someone was playing the fruit machine, customers went outside to smoke unaware of the stench their smoke was causing as it blew back in through the open door. All the while with fatherly pride Antonio regaled us with stories about his family. “I have two boys, both with two doctorates each and BMWs. BMWs are much better than Mercedes, don’t you think?”
After a rest and walk in the town we arrived back at the bar for dinner. It was Friday night around 9pm. The Belgians were already at table. The old men still played cards. Money rattled into the fruit machine and the smokers smoked outside. A couple were scoffing fried sardines at the bar. The television droned from a shelf high on the wall. And amongst this traditional scene were about 30 or so young men dressed to the nines, holding hands, kissing, hugging and chatting. The Belgians were agog. They nudged and winked and stared. The old men continued with their card game. Then to a loud chorus of greetings a chap arrived dressed in a frock, with pearls, hair held up and a ring on every finger. Cheeks were duly kissed all round and the new arrival took a seat in the corner. I thought the Belgians would need physiotherapy on their necks at some point. Then in scenes more redolent of parts of London or New York it was obvious The Dealer had arrived. Money was palmed from one to the other. The smell of marijuana blew in from the terazza and at one point a girl with pupils like pin pricks and a complexion as white as snow staggered from one end of the room to the other. The old men continued playing cards except one of them who turned his chair round to gaze with undisguised curiosity at the scene before him. Then a bus arrived. The boys all got on and 8 pairs of Belgian eyes followed exit of the chap with the backless dress and high heels. Antonio rather nervously approached. “Can I get you anything?” he enquired. “Antonio,” I said, “isn’t it a shame how communities like this have problems with drug abuse among the young people?” His eyes theatrically widened , “drugs? drugs? What drugs? We have no drugs in La Roda... come with me tomorrow and we will see some very nice houses and have some Miguelitos.” He said with complete seriousness. The Big Man kicked me under the table, his message was clear, "in the face of this level of denial ...don’t you dare mention the transvestite in the corner."
Next morning there was a special programme on La Roda TV as the Mayor launched their Anti Drugs strategy.
The next person I want to tell you about is Señora Hilda who with her husband has run the Hotel Rio in Ponte Ulla at the end of the Via de la Plata for 30 years. I remembered her from 2006 when I walked from Seville. At that time we had a long conversation about the challenges of bringing up children in an increasingly material society. This time we had a chat about how pilgrims have changed over the 30 years Hilda has been serving them. Her comments were interesting. “Pilgrims nowadays get angry more easily, they are more impatient. But,” she paused for reflection, ”perhaps pilgrims 30 years ago expected less? Maybe we all did?” Hilda is still very happy to serve and help pilgrims. The last time I was there she had allowed a pilgrim with a little donkey to sleep in her garden. Hilda sees the growth in the popularity of the pilgrimage as entirely a good thing. “Pilgrims aren’t always what they seem” she said, “often they are better.”
At this point the dentist’s receptionist appeared and apologised for keeping me waiting. Only a few more minutes. In that time I recounted some of the kindnesses we had received on the camino. The gruff farmer who gave us oranges, the restaurant who didn’t have a Menu of Day but gave us three courses including bread and wine for 9 euros, the woman who gave us the wrong directions and then got in her car and drove after us to lead us the correct way, the woman who opened her dining room and kitchen on a Sunday night just to feed the two of us with a mountain of food. The many strangers along the way who touched us and asked us to hug the Saint for them. All of their kindnesses are embodied in the anonymous farmer who stopped us on the path through his village. “It is hot,” he said, “would you like some cherries?” At that he reached up and picked the most delicious ripe cherries from the tree. As he handed them to us he took in the height of the Big Man and said, “go on pick those up there, as much as you want, pick them sin miedo.” Without fear.

As these words left my lips the receptionist appeared. “John, the dentist will see you now.” Her name is Dr Eva. She has little English. But with that pilgrim combination of words, gestures, drawings and a dictionary we understood each other just fine. We both learned new words from each other. She diagnosed the problem and applied the treatment. I got the message she also believes in pain free dentistry. I was relieved and at last sin miedo.


  1. Oh you know how to tell a good tale! Last year when I broke my arm, a friend came to see me in A&E and stayed with me through X-rays and the first meeting with the Dr. Then I had to wait outside while the medics discussed whether to operate or not, and my friend went off to the dentist. The Dr was surprised to find she wasn't still with me, and seemed to have far more sympathy for her than me when he heard she was off to a dentist appointment. This is despite the fact I was about to have a Bier's Block and some major manipulation etc!!! I would far rather have had the easier option of the dentist!!!!

  2. Fantastic to see that face from La Roda again. I had a far less exciting time than you though, just a fantastic welcome and good food.

    It's good to remember things like this in difficult times - hope the teeth continue well,


  3. Love the stories...and especially appreciate the cherries. That is one of my favorite memories, being handed beautiful cherries from someones garden! I've never had better or appreciated any food more. As always thanks for sharing your road, Karin

  4. The Miguelitos look divine. Love the pics in the last post. My mum was a dental nurse, so imagine living with the constant anxiety she would say "Come by the clinic tomorrow after class." The anxiety about dentist visits seems universal. Think perhaps its the sound effect ? I shudder even when I think of it! Thank you for sharing your stories. Love them. Rebecca