I was already convinced, long before I set off with Dalie on the chemin Saint-Jacques (the Via Turonensis variant on the GR48 for the anoraks among you) that donkeys are intelligent. When Barbara told me that Dalie understands how to undo velcro and zips, however, I took that with a pinch of salt. It was just a figure of speech. But like the pinch of salt – which I also forgot to take, and therefore suffered a salt deficiency – the literal message failed to sink in until it was too late.The initiation into walking with a donkey, as delivered by a flying instructor, can seem very technical. Bags of donkey medication, donkey food, donkey hoof implements, donkey covers, donkey buckets and bowls, donkey supplements, electric donkey fences, donkey straps and buckles, and what to do if the donkey gets swallowed by a boa constrictor, is a lot to take in all in one 20-minute introductory session. And then, all of a sudden, without even a training flight in a donkey tandem, you are walking solo down the Chemin Saint-Jacques and the donkey has control. The flying instructor can only do so much. The donkey will instruct you in the ways of walking with a donkey.
The first hazard of walking with a a donkey is that everyone will say, “Ooh look! It’s a donkey!” And they will stand in the way and bring the donkey to an immediate halt. This requires getting the donkey started again, and the donkey will be reluctant because she has lots of people gathered around her saying, “Ooh look. It’s a donkey!” So you need to whack the donkey on the behind to get her moving again. At this point you become the villain of the piece. (“Oh, the poor donkey! And she’s carrying so much weight! Lovely creature, but such a pity that monster of a rabit piligrimin is making her life a misery…”)
The simple fact is that the sweet-faced donkey will be the star of the show. When the sweet-faced donkey is also a drama queen, and puts on a splendid act of looking worn-out with her load in front of an audience, you do not stand a chance. Stopping at a town centre cafe in Montmorillon, confidently walking with my donkey drinking bucket past the crowded pavement tables into the bar, I heard English voices muttering, “Isn’t that donkey overloaded?” The woman at the bar ignored my futile bucket-waving and served twenty customers before telling me the bucket would not fit in her sink.
“Where shall I get water for the donkey, then?”
She suggests the river would be a good place. I ask if I can have a beer. A large beer. Not in the bucket but in a half litre glass. On the terrace. Suddenly, the financial benefit to the establishment becomes of value and she remembers that this size of donkey bucket does indeed fit in her sink. I am invited behind the bar to fill the donkey bucket while she pours a 50cl glass of Kronenbourg which will cost more than five Euros, ten times what you would pay for 50 cl of Kronenbourg in the supermarche. She eyes me suspiciously, as one would naturally regard a strange man in an Irish tweed fishing hat who has suddenly commandeered your sink to fill a donkey bucket. While the bucket had fitted well under the tap, in tipping it to extract it from the tap, I spill half a bucket of donkey drinking water all over the floor behind the bar. She has a dozen customers outside on the terrace waiting to be served, half a dozen at the bar watching the unexpected episode of Monsieur Hulot’s Donkey Holiday, and a man from the Mairie has just turned up with some forms to fill in regarding health and safety arrangements for pavement parasols.
So, while the donkey is perfectly good company and presents very few problems, the rabit piligrimin quickly learns that people present various donkey related obstacles. Outside the cafe a four year old pokes Dalie in the mouth and shrieks, “The donkey bit me!” An indignant mother turns around accusingly to find the owner of the beast.
“Is this donkey safe?”
“Yes. She’s tied up to the tree and out of the way of the traffic,” I reply. I go off in search of comestibles and buy a melon, some carrots for the donkey, a few potatoes, some pasta and a baguette, and a special treat for me: a packet of sausages. Later in the day after a long and hot journey, we arrive at a campsite. After putting up the tent, I go for a shower. Dalie gets into the tent by undoing the velcro, opens the zip to the shopping bag and she eats the melon, the carrots, the potatoes, the pasta and the baguette. My special treat of sausages remains uneaten: chewed and spat into the dust with disdain, an unwanted present.
Of course, it is difficult to be cross with a clever donkey when her owner has already warned you she is a clever donkey and understands velcro tent openings and how to open zipped up bags. It is enough to be grateful that you have some half-chewed but intact sausages that will serve for a supper of some kind before you collapse, exhausted, and dream of flying donkeys surfing through a landscape of zips, velcro and sausages.
More donkey adventures to follow…