As I walked into the town of Reliegos on the Camino de Santiago, I was looking for an albergue called Albergue de Prada. I didn’t see any signs for that one immediately, but I did see indications for Albergue de Ada, which hadn’t show up on my comprehensive albergue list. Thinking that perhaps the one I was looking for had been misspelled, I followed the signs to Albergue de Ada.
A childishly hand-painted sign hung outside an enormous and heavy wooden door. It was closed, but I could see that it wasn’t latched, so I gently pushed and found myself in a dark in-between-doors space. I nudged the next door open and called out “Hola?”
A slender woman with a tired face appeared in front of me. When I asked if they were open, she shook her head sympathetically and told me they’d closed last week and gave me the names of a few other places in town that were open. I thanked her and headed out.
A few moments later, I heard “Peregrina! Peregrina!” She was running down the street toward me. “I just wanted to tell you that if the other ones weren’t open, you could stay with us, but I can’t feed you.” Somehow that little conversation turned into her offering to take me home with her, which I accepted. (Im practicing saying yes to all kinds of non-dangerous things. Offers of chocolate, housing, sharing of laundry services…it’s been lovely.)
We walked back together and she showed me upstairs, which I would have all to myself. They had just opened in August and the albergue, an old farmer’s home, had been completely re-done. The upstairs was flooded with late-afternoon light that warmed the golden hardwood floors and the bathrooms were impeccable. The hayloft had been turned into a meditation and yoga room. I didn’t use it, but still. The sturdy bunk beds were dressed with freshly-laundered cotton sheets and the crinkle of plastic underneath was noticeably absent when I sat down on one. This is a big deal. Lots of places have plastic covers on the mattresses to avoid bed bugs and I wake up sweating in the middle of the night because my skin can’t breathe. It’s horrible. I mean…horrible in a first-world-problem sort of way, of course.
After a shower, I went downstairs and found Maite and Pedro (the hospitaleros) seated at a table on the patio, visiting with a friend and his grown-up wheel-chair bound daughter, Clara. I greeted her gently, taking one of her hands, whose fingers played spastically, trying to figure out which dark brown eye to focus on. Her dad, an aging, balding professor type with a curly white hair, gnarled yellow teeth and wire-rimmed spectacles told me “Clara es muy, muy inteligente. Pero no habla.” She’s very, very intelligent, but she doesn’t speak. After 10 minutes in the doorway chatting with everyone while standing by Clara, she took my hand and placed it on her head, wanting me to stroke it. So of course, I did.
I was invited to sit down and have a beer. At this point, Maite and Pedro’s daughter, Ada, for whom the albergue is named, joined us. Ada is 28 and has Down’s Syndrome. She gave me a warm hug, two Spanish kisses – one on each cheek – and twinkled her eyes at me. I complimented her on her albergue and she spread her arms expansively, appreciating my appreciation. I gestured to her father. “And is this guy the cook? Are you pleased with his work?” Yes, came the answer. She’ll keep him on. Pedro smiled self-deprecatingly and cupped her cheek for a moment. She leaned into his touch, gazed at him and batted her eyelashes playfully.
Then, Ada held out her hand and I took it. It was fully half the size of mine and sturdy, with warm, dry fingers. She squeezed my hand and glowed at me. I glowed back.
Pedro go up from the table and winced, rubbing his back and complaining about his kidneys. When he was halfway across the room, Ada turned to me matter-of-factly and said “My kidneys don’t hurt, but sometimes my vagina does. That happens to ladies once in awhile.” I gravely agreed, trying to keep a straight face.
Turns out that for sure in France (where the family lived for a while), and to a similar degree in Spain, there is virtually no support for families with children with Down’s. The standard operating procedure is to convince new parents that the best thing for their child and for their family is to leave them in an institution.Evidently these institutions are funded by the state and, for a day program, make around 200 Euro per child per day. Residential programs earn even more.
Pedro and Maite have been vehemently against this from the beginning and have kept Ada with them the whole time. For eight full years, Maite dedicated herself to helping Ada learn all the basic things kids need to know, as well as home-schooling her in reading and writing. As it turns out, Ada has a gift for art and has been working on developing that skill. The albergue is filled with her framed pieces.
Now, Pedro and Maite are a mentor couple and work with families who want to keep their children at home instead of sending them off to be institutionalized. The parents bring their child to the albergue and spend a couple of days getting their “homework” for the next six months, after which point they return and get more encouragement and tasks to focus on for the subsequent period of time. Quiet, everyday heroes, all of them.
I feel like each of these people are an evangelist for the beauty that special needs children bring to a family and to the world. I can imagine passing through this albergue, experiencing Ada, and, at some future moment, upon being told that I’m carrying a child with Down’s syndrome, being less afraid or not afraid at all. It’s the same feeling I had after reading Expecting Adam by Martha Beck, a book about a Harvard family’s experience with carrying and loving a child with Down’s. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/349504.Expecting_Adam
Joy. Curiosity. Hope.