Meithal in Malafia…

North of Porto, on the Caminho da Costa, the boardwalk creaks and sways to the slap of September feet as we gather each other up like strays into the community of the Road. Gerry from Dublin, ‘Just had to get back.’ His Camino Frances, two years ago, ‘was full of special people and places.’
He finds it strange that, as a member of the Irish Humanist Society, he’s drawn to the Camino. ‘I suppose religion is still lodged in us somewhere.’
He walks with Marie from Galloway, across the Irish Sea from me. Last year, within three months, she lost her mother, grandmother, and best friend, then numb walked to Santiago. ‘It was only on the coast, at Finisterre, that all the emotion came. ‘It took the sea. I wasn’t ready until then.’

It seems our fragile bodies of water often draw comfort from other immense and durable ones – of sea and river.

‘But there’s still work in the walking,’ she says with a wry smile, ‘an opportunity to shed excess baggage.’

This year, she’ll keep the Atlantic in sight.

Set for Viana do Castelo, we climb inland through cone-thick pines leaving behind the hush of grey sea far below. Outside a sawmill, the scent of woodsmoke drifts marijuana-sweet. Past blue-tiled images of an artisan Jesus carrying an armful of logs he has just sawn to his workshop, then transformed into tables and chairs.

The village of San Marinhas, with its cobblestone streets, displays lavish gardens with Marian figurines set amidst a riot of roses. I’d read earlier that one should look for the extraordinary in the ordinary.

‘So much beauty here,’ Gerry says. ‘Perhaps we notice it more in Autumn when it’s starting to fade. Scarcity value, someone said.’

I stop at a coffee shop sign 300 metres off the track.
‘Scarce enough,’ I say. ‘Shall we?’
We follow a group, passing a vivid young sandstone St James striding forward. To where, at the Quinta da Malafaia, the tables are out, but the shutters are closed.

Shoulders sag, but we join others and sit there anyway, everyone soon rustling through packs in search of remaining snacks. A Norwegian family passes around a large packet of biscuits; an American couple offers sweet cakes. Marie has Pastels de Nata, Gerry has some chocolate, and I have Naranja. The mood lightens.

‘This is why I love the Camino,’ Gerry announces, ‘the sense of community, with no one in command. It reminds me of an Irish word: Meitheal, meaning a gathering or assembly. Like when neighbours rallied to save a crop or repair a barn – some sense of Oneness.’

Marie says, ‘We have a similar word in Scotland: Neighbouring.’

I tell them I’ve read this in an article by the Camino Society of Ireland’s Turlough O’Donnell, who sees how the Camino can be a cooperative endeavour – with each of us part of something bigger.

Perhaps a certain ‘MeithalOneness echoes along every Camino path, with our pooled stories becoming somehow greater than the sum of them all. I’ve often wondered what it felt like to be part of a wholly mobilised society drawn together for a single purpose…

Such reflections flutter away as the cafe’s door opens and the owner emerges. We look up sheepishly, expecting to be told off, and shooed along.

Instead, he greets us and apologises for their holiday closure. ‘But – I will make coffee for you.’

Broad smiles. Never have Cafe Con Leches and Espressos tasted so good. We get our wallets out, but he refuses.

‘No, no. It’s an offering. For your Camino.’
The extraordinary in the ordinary again!
We walk on, and I mention the fascination the Camino has for a friend back home. ‘He advises that we should try to pause each day and reflect; see where the meaning’s been; where something Other was active in the little things.’

Gerry nods and tells of a framed photo he has of Charlie Brown sitting with Snoopy, toasting marshmallows in front of a roaring fire. Its caption says, ‘Someday you’ll look back and realise the little things were the big things.’

He’s right. Like a garden in early Autumn. A forest path by a river. Or a coffee in Quinta da Malafaia.

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