We slept to the sound of pouring rain on the second night. We were in the attic and we could hear it loud and clear, whispering to us, “Maybe stay home tomorrow, huh? Who wants to go hiking in the rain?” Morning came and it was clear that some of the brothers were succumbing to that venomous drizzle. There were a few stalwart men who couldn’t be stopped. I’d like to say I was foremost among them, but as a monk I’m not allowed to brag. Actually I was also feeling pretty icky about the whole situation, and I was only partially comforted by the budget poncho that Phap Luu had bought for me.
Flash back to one week before the trip. Phap Luu and I were wandering around InterSport, weighing the rainwear options and doing some serious philosophizing.
“You see, the problem is that our society is facing an epidemic of consumerism.” he said.
“Mmm, you got that right,” I responded, nodding sagely.
“So what do you think about the poncho situation?”
“Well,” I said, “the ones on the rack are more breathable, but more expensive. There’s only about eight of the cheap ones left, and the green ones are child-sized, they’ll only fit the Vietnamese brothers.”
Phap Luu directed his meditative concentration to the problem at hand, and after a solemn pause said, “Ok, let’s just buy all of them.”
So we emptied the rack of ponchos, made a quick stop to survey the underwear section and veered toward checkout, discussing the recent trend of hiking umbrellas with many a “You don’t say!” and “Well, I never.”
So anyway, it was rainy and I was reluctant at best, but luckily for me I’m surrounded by greatness here, and the collective enthusiasm of the other hiking fans was enough to convince me to join the excursion. I was also intrigued by the prospect of today’s hike. Phap Luu was going to take us up to the village he used to live in. Once populated by over two-thousand people, it’s been abandoned for almost a hundred years; Franco forced people out of the mountains during the Spanish Civil War and into urban areas to work at factories. Now the Spanish Pyrenees are peppered with these little abandoned villages, and they’ve become a popular refuge for rural squatters.
We managed to get out the door, nine of us. Concerned that we didn’t already think he was awesome, Phap Luu told us he knew a super-sweet waterfall on the way, and it was right next to an organic coop run by a few of his numberless friends. I was already cold. The waterfall was raging and we were getting blasted in the face by some really wet winds before we even got close. I fell back, while the bravest of our number went in for the obligatory photo op.
Within roaring distance of the waterfall was the cooperative. After a warm welcome and firm insistence that all nine of us pile into the tiny living room, it was decided that we’d gather in the workshop for some herbal tea. We warmed up to the music of a Spanish conversation as introductions were spread around. Phap Luu had his work cut out for him, being our chief Spanish speaker. I can understand it pretty well but my speech is halting. Like, it comes to a complete halt. We admired their wood-fire bread oven, solar cooker, drying herbs and salt-cured tomatoes. The place is run by a group of passionate farmers who also happen to be serious rock climbers. They have a good chunk of veggies in their outdoor beds and greenhouses, plus the goats and chickens, which provide them with happy happy dairy. A sampling of goat cheese was offered, and this time my Spanish was ready for the job. “Por supuesto!” (Of course!
Two cheeses were brought out along with freshly toasted bread and our herbal tisane. One of the cheeses was a harder, aged chèvre, and the other was a fresh chèvre, stored in olive oil with the wild thyme that grows all over the valley. I did my best to position my body between the jar of cheese and our hosts each time I went back for more, vainly hoping that they wouldn’t notice what great quantities I was consuming. It was good stuff. After we were all sated, we wandered around for a bit of a tour. We met the goats, the chickens, and checked out their “meditation hall”, which was a really elaborate home climbing gym. We left with hearts full of gratitude or at the very least with tummies full of cheese. It’s pretty hard for me to distinguish between these two states.
By now it was almost noon, and we hadn’t even started hiking. We made a quick stop in town for goodies, and Man Trung showed his stuff by fearlessly wandering off in search of a bathroom. As his quest led him toward a nearby pub I hollered, “Bano!” to him. Next we spent a few minutes trying to sort out the confusion, because all non-Vietnamese sounds are the same to him. Phap Thang came to the rescue with a quick translation, something I could have done myself if I’d remembered that “Toilet” is the same word in Vietnamese. He went into the pub armed with the sword of knowledge, and came out victorious. The rain stopped, the clouds lifted, and on high we saw that the mountains were draped with the first snow of the year.
Honestly I kinda checked out for the hike up to the village. I saw what was happening as we walked: I had gotten myself all stoked up for this abandoned village and all the sweet pictures I was gonna take, and that’s where my mind was. We past lots of donkey-droppings on the trail, which suggested that there were still people living up there. Phap Luu said that, at least when he was there, they could only get supplies in by donkey. He had heard that most of the people he knew had moved on, so we were curious to see whether there was anyone around. The path bent around a low stone wall and revealed the village. The sound of an old terrier barking like mad told us that it wasn’t empty.
Meet Pepe, effectively the mayor of this beautiful old town. He invited us in for a cup of something soothing and a good sit. We crammed into his one room house and marveled at the warmth radiating from the wood stove. Naturally there was some catching up between Pepe and Thay Phap Luu, and my attempts to understand were earnest and futile. Apparently almost everyone had left the village, but Pepe and a few others remained. Pepe was the only one we saw over the course of the day. We got ready to offer our cheese and bread, but Pepe beat us to the punch with picnic supplies of his own. The house was filled with bags of nuts, drying herbs, and jars of homemade pickles. He seemed to be living a life of plenty and before we knew it our tea party had turned into a feast. The village has orchards that once provided for thousands. That’s a lot of food for the three or four remaining residents to eat. He was an enthusiastic host and we quit his company only when curiosity to see the rest of the village overcame us (or at least me).
The village delivered what it promised. Beautiful, old stone buildings in various states of disrepair, wildly overgrown gardens and orchards, a well-worn settlement slowly being reclaimed by the forest. Thay Phap Luu gave a guided tour, but I lost the group. I spent a little extra time taking photos from the old church steeple, and when I came down my friends were nowhere to be found. Thanks to the fresh rain, the ground was soft and made tracking my companions easy fare for an experienced woodsman such as myself. I followed their tracks, which were easy to distinguish because Thay Phap Luu was wearing those toe shoes. Passing a particularly muddy spot I was startled to see the eight distinct tracks merge into one set of hiking boots. As I wandered further and further from the village, the tracks became fainter, eventually disappearing altogether. Taking stock of the situation, there was only one conclusion. I had fallen victim to mischievous forest magic. If only I had eaten those berries Dai Tue had recommended! I returned to the town center and retired my woods-lore for the day. Now I relied on an even more ancient and mysteriously reliable tactic often taught to children in case they get lost in the airport: go to the last place you were all together and wait.
About fifteen minutes later I heard the group returning. They were coming from the opposite direction that my forensic inquiries led me, confirming my suspicion that there had been some kind of foul-play. We reunited happily and headed toward home. Pepe wouldn’t let us leave without giving a tour of his garden and yet more herbal infusion, our third of the day! This time it was a homemade blend of dried hibiscus, pear, apple, and raspberry. Again, good stuff. He also gifted us with a few gourds, prized items that caused division and envy in our normally harmonious group. We survived though, and thank goodness because the fourth day would be our most epic.
So next time, the magnum opus of our hiking expedition: The Breach of Roland.