Being out of practice

We alight the train at Vila Franca de Xira, leaving behind the Lisbon commuters to their remaining stops. The prospect of a first days walk of 32km, a good chunk of it through a semi-industrial wilderness made for an easy choice.

After the up and down of the city, we now had a weeks walk along the flats besides the river Tagus. Bodies sent signals indicating…unusual activity? Some automated call-centre in my hippocampus demanded to know if I had authorised such muscular transactions. I pressed on through the autonomic bureaucracy.

On the one side eight kilometres of logistics vernacular, on the other floodplains, rice fields, wetlands. Flat dry and warm, a benevolent day. The characters in our troupe began to settle into roles, however, some rubbing along needed to be endured. Principally the various ligatures, which formed the bonds between my bag and me, required adjusting, my upper body needed remodelling, my scant knowledge of Alexander technique, acquired in good faith from a friend one evening, in a pub, brought to bear. Question marks were raised against the carefully weighed cargo in my hold. What was I carrying?

Entering towns and villages along the way, in search of second breakfast, sitting down to a cafe grande and a cheese and ham roll, consulting the map on the app, logging distances covered, nodding greetings to fellow travellers, the first days quickly merged into an indistinct blur.

I had developed a crush on Portuguese door furniture whilst in Lisbon, an early sign of the joy I was feeling at being abroad. All manner of Portuguese ordinariness made my heart sing with the love of life, but also, the spring flowers – poppies, lavender, daisies, mallow – and the birds and frogs with their songs of seduction.

Our first albergue proper was hosted by the lovely Carlos. His wife’s maiden name was the same as Tash’s and he’d researched some family history. Possibly linked to the arrival of sephardic jews following the expulsion from Spain in 1496. My understanding of Portuguese history began to unravel.

Fourteen bunks, a couple of showers, a microwave and a kettle. Plus the random constellation of people making their way north. Amongst them, in a group of four french, a couple of 84 year olds, one, Jean, with a great friendly smile. A family of americans made themselves known. I was reminded of those moments sitting at a cafe on the route, when as another pilgrim approaches, it feels like being in a kennel for both cats and dogs. Gazing into the distance, a minor flick of my tail. Or wagging openness. Their energy or mine, I see myself in others.

One booking we made for the four of us, yes yes, we have an outdoor room for two, it just needs a clean, kept us much entertained as we walked through the day. A barn, a chicken coop, stables, all sounded great. Although perhaps not for me.

We were met by Hilde, I don’t know, I am a volunteer, this is my second day, Nuno is back later, one lively bounding lurcher, a horse, and an ancient quivering whippet. The outdoor accommodation had indeed once been a chicken coop (they had been annexed next door) but really in the same way that London had once been a village.

I became fascinated by the black miilipedes that traced their way across paths. They seemed like Dickensian clerks hurrying across a giant quadrangle, urgent and intent. Occasionally a snail venturing from where to where, tilting back slightly like a sloop with wind in its sails. Why are they going that way? Perhaps they ask the same of me.

We passed kilometres of vines, bundles of spent irrigation pipes, and two work forces. The first, a group of four men stripping the new growth on the trunks of the vines, their progress seemed to be impossibly small, but they were cheery – bom dia! The second group of three hand hoeing between the vines.

Finally a hill confronts us, and we power up to Santarem, to a very swish hostel, all polished cement walls, it makes me think of a Bond villain’s lair, our own balcony and a recommendation for a good dinner. The americans make themselves known.

We feel strong.

The next day our bags take a taxi.