No day is ever wasted; however we do have the ability to squander them. That is, days lost from a calendar. So it was surprising that she remembered her own birthday. The trigger this year was registration at a campground a few days earlier,. El Patron had given her a dated receipt, a novelty in itself. So having established that it’s a special day, I need to recognise it. She turned down my offer of a trip to the jewellers, on the grounds that the nearest was several days away - or did I just imagine that promise? A night in a five star hotel? None within miles. Slap up meal? Haven’t brought a tie. A visit to a spa, a full body make over? I’m running out of excuses. Maybe that’s why my cycling benefactor stepped in.
There at the side of the road is a sign that says ’Termales’ and Camping. The latter will keep the cost down, I suppose I can cover the latter; it can’t be that expensive surely? We head down a gravel track, a route that gets narrower and rougher, but the hand painted signs keep us going in the right direction. Eventually we’re deposited in a baked earth yard of a very small farm. I call it that, for want of any better term. There’s a cockerel herding a harem of hens, two geese padding about, a young dog tries on his hard man act, fails, then presents us with his stuffed monkey toy. There’s adobe bricked out buildings that are part thatched in scrub brash, part reverting back to their original mud. Factors that suggest agriculture, yet there’s none of the supporting infrastructure: a tethered horse, a patch of maze, a discard of implements. Several children are running around in varying states of undress, the eldest greets us, yes we can camp here, come this way. We’re shown around a thick wall of trees, to a very sheltered patch of beaten earth, where the rest of the family are eating al-fresco. It feels like we are intruding on a private space, on private time. I feel alien, my perceptions challenged. They see nothing unusual; the cold, reticent north meets the gregarious south. Never has my lack of language been so noticeable, so lamentable, for we find ourselves in a very Latino situation, where a period of hospitable conversation is required. Pitching the tent creates a focus and a diversion, the fact that I chose a spot right under the chickens night roost, engenders an amusement. Playing the clown, a mimed substitution for a tongue.
The rising wind, the progenitor of the storm falling out from the massive bulk of the volcano to our south, confirms just how sheltered we are. The ripe apples being shed from above, exploding on the ground, only verifies our decision to stop at a ’spa’. The term’s mine, the family call them ’baños’, the dictionary definition being ’bath’. The dictionary is accurate, the photographs don’t lie, and if you can see the goose bumps on the birthday lady’s arms you can jalouse the temperature of the water.
It comes bubbling up from the nether world, a spring full of brimstone, cold and sulphurous. The map says ’thermales’; thermals don’t necessarily have to be hot, or even warm, so that didn’t lie either. To be honest, we hadn’t expected anything different, hadn’t expected white marble halls and masseuses in cotton robes, palm courts and Turkish baths. We’d hunted down these mapping icons, inscriptions taken as gospel from our trusted road atlas, only to discover a smelly swamp and a scatter of roofless, thatchless shacks.