Near Coimbra, Portugal – April 21, 2017
I hear Daya behind me somewhere in the village. I don’t hear her footsteps, or her poles clicking on pavement, but I hear dogs barking. The intensity of each bark builds into a fury as she passes, then trickles away as the next dog takes up the call. House by house, dog by dog, she moves.
Big dogs, little dogs, ugly dogs, cute dogs, fat or thin, they all bark. I shrug off the noise as a puffy little dog hops along a fence yapping at me. The distant barking gets closer. She’s closer.
I stop to wait. The sun no longer feels like an oven. The western sky is starting to light up with colors. I hold my hand out and count fingers between the sun and the horizon. Night is a half hour away.
“We’ve got to sneak off the Camino,” I say when she arrives.
She nods. It’s not easy to stray. We already get questioned a few times a day about going the wrong way. Cars stop to point. People shout out windows at us. Fingers wave in the air.
“Santiago?” people say as we shake our heads.
We pass a yard with a giant, floppy-eared dog barking at the gate. A smallish dog, almost just a puff of brown fur, looks up from across the way and barks a few token barks. His heart isn’t into it. Maybe the heat has taken it out of him under all that fur. His eyes follow us as we walk past.
I don’t worry about dogs. They are only the alarm system. The real threat to our chance of escape is in the sophisticated network of eyes and ears monitoring the village, the abuelas watching all things, the AWAT.
From their benches outside doorways, sitting in groups of three or four, from window curtains pulled aside, from staring eyes through cracked doors, the network works. Impeccable and sharp, the network passes information from one end of town to the other with neck breaking speed, predating and outclassing the internet, phones, telegraph, and smoke signals.
We are in the thick of the AWAT, the town’s main street, and the network is in full operation. Three or four women stand guard on each town bench, their uniforms unique but unwaivering. Brown and black housecoats, sensible shoes, sometimes long, plain skirts and a shawl. Many canes. Each piece of cloth reads as the physical embodiment of stern.
Their chatter dies away as we pass, sometimes a good evening or two slip out, sometimes a nod or wave, sometimes nothing. Their eyes turn with us, then the chatter begins again. They knew we were coming. They must listen to the dogs too. They know them better than I. We pass a second and third bench within a few hundred yards.
I pause along an empty corner to talk to Daya. I want to tell her that we are under constant surveillance, to watch every word, but who knows what ears lurk behind closed shutters or just over a garden wall. I remember my training. I know better than to say anything. It’s too dangerous. She knows her training too. She has to or we are both lost.
“This is the moment,” I whisper. “We’re leaving the Camino and heading towards the forest.”
I flash a map discreetly on my phone and point to the road. I hope any eyes watching believe us to be plotting nothing more than a picture letter on the Facepage that they hear is all the rage with the youth. The abuela surveillance network is strong, but if they have a weakness it is technology.
Daya nods at the map and we turn in silence. I get a few steps ahead. In sight, but not close enough to talk. We’ve trained for this. I’m less approachable with the beard and a thousand mile stare. Together we get stopped, alone I might pass. Of course this leaves her vulnerable to interrogation, no abuela would hesitate to stop a nice young lady who is lost, to help her get on the right path again, but with me ahead, marching out of earshot, she can point and shrug helplessly and maybe they’ll let her go. At least that is the theory. At least it gives us a chance. We march on.
If we are lucky we won’t pass any more abuelas and we can walk right out of town and disappear. We aren’t lucky. I see them waiting along a bend of road. Three of them and two older men, sitting outside an open garage door.
I glance and then look at the road, at the pavement curving away toward freedom. Focus on the road. You know where you are going. You are not lost. It’s just you and the road. I feel eyes on me. Four of them, then eight, then all ten. The road. Just the road and you. Conversations trail off. The light of the garage glows in the night. Just you and the road. Remember your training. Remember you are not lost, not confused, not anything but sure. I glance up, nod, and walk past. Heads turn in the corner of my vision. A bit of sweat forms along my brow. I hear the word Camino spoken from one abuela to the other, a hint of confusion in it, a hand raised to point towards me. I never look back, I just walk ahead.
They don’t stop me.
Daya passes with a cheerful hello. They respond back in kind. I keep looking forward. I can’t hear her I tell myself. I have to keep going, to pull her out of any trap with feigned indifference. I hold my breath and walk. Stop smiling, Daya. Remember your training. My heart thumps in my chest. So many nerves. No, just a lack of oxygen. I breathe again. I keep walking.
They let her go.
At the outskirts of town we come to a small dirt track leading into a patch of woods. No lights, no houses, perfect. I slow my step and wait for Daya to close the distance between us as I glance up and down the road. Empty. Or at least that is what they want me to believe. I glance again then step off the road and race for the woods.
A dog barks in the distance, too far to matter. Another picks up the call. I smile. Not today, you kind-hearted abuelas. Not today.