On the Road

Meeting Madness on the Road

A look at when travelers send postcards from the edge and never quite come back.

I’ve seen a lot of crazy people in my time on the road. People convinced that they were a new incarnation of Jesus Christ, King Arthur or Buddha others were sure that the aliens were coming to get them or that the world would end in a matter of days. But a while back in Remedio, a hippy village in Spain, I saw someone who surpassed them all.

I was climbing up the hill to the main communal area and i saw a man with his leg in plaster lying face down on the path. At first I thought that maybe he’d collapsed from the heat and I rushed forwards to help. But then I saw that he was actually hard at work. With a spoon in on hand he was patiently carving away at the earth to build a step on the path.

“Excuse me,” He asked in German, French and finally Spanish, “Could you please carry up a bag of cement that is at the bottom of the hill?” I brought him the bag and he took out a small plastic bowl and began to mix the cement.

“Where are you from?” I asked him, intrigued. He looked up at me as if I’d just broken a rule.

“I come from where the sun is shining and the waves are rolling and where the trees talk to the wind and say the world is a symphony as it vibrates, shaking… and it spirals like clouds-” And he continued talking like this even after I walked away.

He passed by my teepee later that day to beg for some bread while I was taking a cup of tea with a friend who’d been living here a long time. I gave him an avocado sandwich and he put it into his bag, the contents falling out as he did so. As we watched him hobble away again on his crutches, my friend told me the story.

“That’s Igor. He’s a Russian who took datura (a dangerous psychotropic plant) a few years ago and has never been the same since. But don’t imagine he’s stupid – he studied medicine for five years and he speaks at least eight languages.”

“But what’s the story with his leg?”

“Ah, he broke it in the same accident about two years ago. But after he came back from the hospital with the leg in plaster he decided not to eat anything for three weeks. The bones never grew back in place. He hasn’t left the valley in three years. He spent all of last summer building that nice, stepped path up the hill. When there was no one around he dragged up those big rocks all by himself.

Over the next few weeks I watched Igor closely. He could be coherent for a few minutes when he wanted to. But the temptation to break into a never-ending monologue was too strong and he’d soon be off in his own world again. Yet as wild as his ramblings could be, he sometimes seemed almost telepathic. He’d pick up on your thoughts and start speaking about them in the same crazy way, burbling like a random antenna.

Someone like Igor could not have found a better place to be than Remedio. In the rest of the world he would have been ignored, ridiculed or even locked away. Here there were people who gave him attention, listened to what he had to say, and fed him when he passed by their places. To me this was a testament to the compassion and heart of such small communities who refuse to give someone up as a lost cause.

Western society has spent tremendous amounts of time and money in developing the science of psychology in a gargantuan attempt to classify and marginalise madness. Those with mental ailments are generally sedated or secluded from society. Out of sight, out of mind.

Of course no one wants to be attacked by a disturbed and violent schizophrenic. There clearly needs to be some control. But the emphasis seems to always be on the symptoms rather than the cause. We react instead of trying to understand. It’s swept under the carpet.

Countries like India offer a vast contrast. There everything is on display and out in the open. No one is even quite sure what ‘madness’ means. What of the man revered as a saint who traveled by making forward rolls for ten thousand kilometers? Or the man who stands on one leg for ten years at a time. drawing huge crowds to the temple? These men are loved and respected in India yet a Western psychiatrist would probably attempt to administer antidepressants.

In fact the word for ‘insanity’ in India is sometimes translated as ‘God-intoxicated’. People whose heads are so full of the stuff of the next world that they are barely able to function in this one. Accordingly there has always been a place in society for the madmen in India, provided they’re not too dangerous and are of at least some entertainment value.

The tradition in Europe of the village fool has long since died but in the old days the lunatic and the clown fitted in just fine. No palace was complete without a jester and he had licence to make fun of everything and everyone, even the king himself. His humor and crazy antics were seen as a kind of social safety valve. If the values of every culture are seen to be ultimately subjective, then the fool provides a valuable reflection that enables the possibility of change.

But whilst the eccentric certainly borders on the crazy there is yet a distinct difference. Those who have stepped over the line of sanity are more or less condemned to wander their strange paths in a world of their own. So whenever I come across anyone who has ‘lost the plot’, I try to take the time to listen and maybe learn from what they have to say. To give them the opportunity to make human contact.

On the other hand there are limits as to how much one can stand. One morning in Remedio someone came into the food circle complaining that his collection of crystals had gone missing. No one had seen anyone suspicious around lately but upon further investigation it was found that Igor had been hard at work. He’d taken it upon himself to cement the crystals into the ceiling of an old abandoned house where he’s made his camp.

Like coming across a magpie’s nest we discovered many other things that had gone missing in recent weeks. People’s favorite jackets and shawls had been cut to ribbons and sewn into Igor’s cushions. To their credit, some of the people who’d lost their stuff managed to see the funny side.

“Igor,” I asked him, “why did you decorate your ceiling with someone else’s crystals?”

He looked me in the eye and made as though he was about to reveal to me a great secret. “The ceiling… the ceiling is the sky and the bird flying where the wind blew and there are songs calling, falling like leaves-” And of course that explained everything.

  • Jamie Mitchell

    Such a brilliant story! And very well written, thanks.