Today we reached peak Camino madness. After a quiet community church service next to a monastery we arrived back at the albergue to find well over 40 people looking for accommodation in an albergue that only accommodates 25. Places were found for some in other places but we still had to find places for another 12 or so. People were desperate for a bed. The team was amazing by swinging into action and keeping pilgrims calm and taking people to a variety of other places in other towns. They also started looking for ways to use rooms usually set aside for other purposes. The room normally used for pilgrims to relax in was changed into a 3 bed dorm. A terrace used for drying washing was given a tarp and pilgrims were invited to make a bed in the open. Another room, not used due council requirements, was also pressed into service.
After weeks of relative quiet this week has been busy, but today was exceptional – but so was the team. What impressed me most was how the team rallied to the cause with each person working to do their best. It was inspirational! Extra hands helped at enrolment, with the meal, placing beds and mattresses and even finding extra blankets for the people on the terrace who happened to be there on what is predicted to be the coldest night in ages.
Speaking to pilgrims they were genuinely pleased and surprised by the level of support. Many had been turned away on previous occasions with no idea what to do next.
I saw a real expression of Christlike behaviour and was privileged to be part of it.
Tags: Camino, Spain
In this post modern, post Christendom, society the amazing truth that comes from being placed in an albergue on the Camino is that people are 1. Spiritual and 2. Searching. The spirituality comes in all shapes and sizes: karma, self improvement, a vague search for the meaning of life (and 42 isn’t the answer!) remnants of Christian faith and combination of all of the above. There are some, but not many, who come with a real living conviction of the Christian faith. The searching usually comes in the form of the idea, that by walking and being alone, we can find some meaning -usually a forlorn hope. Apart from blisters and sunburn, there is a certain level of physical fitness and weight loss that may occur, but without an encounter with truth, not much else.
The aim at our albergue is to introduce people to the love of Christ in a practical way (ie foot baths, drinks, meals bed and etc.) but also to be open and gentle to their spiritual needs by listening, guiding and challenging them with the love and truth of Jesus Christ. This is done through casual conversations (often initiated by the pilgrims themselves because we don’t hide our faith) and through a “Jesus meditation” after which people can stay, ask questions and respond.
In a cynical age I have been astounded how willing people have been to ask questions about faith and belief and how open they are to the person of Jesus. The group that gets the most negative reaction from the pilgrims is the institutional church and not any particular brand either. In our brief moment with the pilgrims we focus on Jesus and community and then hope and trust that the Holy Spirit has other people and circumstances to guide them as they continue on their journey of life.
Villamayor in the early morning
The task of the hospitalero is, as the name suggests, to show hospitality. The history of the word is long. In medieval times monks and nuns showed kindness to travellers and others in need of care and accommodation. These institutions, in time, became hospitals.
When it is our turn to do the task of being a hospitalero, we need to register the person – state laws makes this more onerous than in the past, help them cool off their feet if they desire, help them to their bed/bunk and feed them if that is what they want.
We have already cleaned the rooms and bathrooms before they arrive.
Every night sees a new group of travellers. At this time of year the albergue is about three quarters full, when it cools down the numbers increase and then taper off towards the end of October. The buzz is always great as pilgrims greet and get to know each other. Even in their tiredness there is a joy in sharing stories.
After the evening meal at 8:30 there is a Jesus meditation time led by one of the team to assist people to reflect on their journey and to gently point them to Jesus – as the title indicates.
By 10pm most pilgrims are in the land of nod or close to it. We check necessities like toilet paper and then close the albergue to the outside world. Through the wall in our little room room we can usually hear a symphony, a symphony or snores.
One of the joys of volunteering at an albergue is meeting people from all walks of life and so many different countries. Tonight’s meal table had people from Belgium, France, Brazil, Spain and Ireland. There were teachers, lab techs, a man who called himself an impresario, a person recovering from a stroke assisted by his wife and daughter, and more. I think we had about 18 pilgrims altogether.
There is one constant, every story is unique. Every person comes with their own unique history and set of experiences. For some the walk is about exercise, for others a search for meaning and others still have no idea why they are doing it but they have found themselves here.
Our aim at the albergue is to show love to these people for the short time they are passing through and if they wish to speak about the deeper issues of life we are here to listen and give guidance. On the whole I have found the pilgrims amazingly open which is in large part due to the nature of the Camino but also because it is clear that the albergue is run by Christians. My main handicap is my limited language ability although most people have a ‘leetle eenglish’ which is usually quite impressive and far outstrips any knowledge I have of their language.
There are two albergues in our small village and ours requires a bit more walking and is not easily seen from the pilgrimage route. But we have a secret weapon – Secundo. Secundo was born in this village and is in his 70s. Moreover, he has taken a liking to the family that runs the albergue I am volunteering in. So he has made it his task to greet pilgrims as they come into Villamayor and direct them to, what he considers to be, the better albergue.
We have heard pilgrims say, as they enter our albergue, that an old man told them to come here. Secundo enjoys talking with the pilgrims, in fact, anyone at the albergue. I am learning the art of ‘Google Translate’ on the run when conversing with Secundo.
The Church Bell
The church bell in Villamayor sounds like small boys throwing rocks at a 44 gallon drum. It still strikes the number of bells for the hour and one every half hour – 24 hours a day. Being hot, the windows are open, so just when you have fallen asleep at night one is unceremoniously awakened by, what seems like, a gang of small boys throwing rocks at a drum. The locals must be used to it but I am still learning to adjust.
After a long walk …
One of the small things that the volunteers do at the Oasis Trails Albergue is to give arriving pilgrims a footbath with Epsom salts. This small act, which only requires us to walk down to the tap(faucet) with a blue bucket, sprinkle in some salt and give pilgrims a towel, is hugely appreciated. If they want us to we will even help them to take their shoes off.
It is a small act of mercy – of simple love, but it makes me think of all the small acts of mercy that I don’t show, which, with open eyes I could have shown.
“You mean, you can do the camino on a bike?”
Nobody would accuse me of having a servant heart. I am more likely to tell people to do something than do it. However, being in an albergue requires me to have a totally different mindset. I am here to serve, to care and to be supportive. No longer can I say, “If you want a friend, get a dog.”
Washing and hanging up sheets, sweeping, mopping, serving meals, being welcoming, ensuring that no one has introduced unwelcome guests (bed bugs – otherwise known as ‘bunnies’, so named so as not to scare anyone. Although being known as bunny killers is not good for the image either) is all in a day’s work.
It has also meant being ordered around by my wife who has been an expert in these duties for a long time. It is very humbling to think that people (primarily my wife) have been doing these things for me for a long time and I have, far too rarely, been appreciative of this.
So currently I am in the process of being humbled. Many who know me too well are probably saying under their breath, “About time!”
Stairs to mop
Hetty and I are volunteering in an albergue – a hostel on the Camino to Santiago in Spain. I hope, in time, to give readers an idea of what that involves. At the moment I am still learning about all the expectations myself.
Currently the helpers in the albergue come from the US, Germany, Holland and Australia. They may stay for a few weeks or some, months. The tasks include cleaning rooms, washing sheets, feeding pilgrims and the team, registering arrivals and catering to the pilgrims needs as best we can.
Last night around the dining table we had people from France, Ireland and Italy. I am told many nations of the world pass through this little hostel. Most take part in the home cooked meal and enjoy the community atmosphere. If last night was representative, the conversation is lively.
Pilgrims are also invited to a meditation time to reflect on the journey they are taking. Most avail themselves of this as walking gives people a lot of time to think.
The hostel we are in is in a small village just outside Estella. There are about 50 people in this village with very few amenities so our albergue has to cater for quite a few needs the pilgrims may have, most of whom are very far from home.
I have included a few photos to give you an impression of the environs:
The albergue with the castle in the background
A medieval bath just before pilgrims arrive in the village
The local church
The medieval bath
One of the discussions we have while walking is, would we do it again. When the the joints are aching and the feet are sore we answer in the negative but when reflecting in calmer moments we realise the achievements we have made.
I would still love to walk the whole Camino from France but have come to the conclusion that I would do it without a 14 kg backpack.
We went from Villamajor to Torres del Rio. The walk was uneventful. We passed many vines and olive groves. The albergue was fancy but not good for the independent pilgrim. No kitchen or communal facilities. From Torres del Rio we went into Logrono. There were some steep climbs and steep descents. The descents are tougher on the knees than the ascents.
We ended our walk at Logrono and took the bus back to Pamplona. 120 kms of walking was undone in a two hour bus trip.
It was great to meet some fantastic people and to pray intently for certain people and circumstances.
We are back in our tent and looking forward to more of Spain and Portugal.
Day 4 & 5 Camino Continued
Last night we went for a walk before dinner (which in Spain is about 8 pm). Earlier in the day I went to the John the Baptist church and encountered a priest teaching a group of about 30-40 children. Both he and they were enthusiastic. When we returned in the evening a youth choir was practising a series of songs with choreography. They stood in front of the altar and sounded sublime. I said to Hetty, “I want the album!” Seeing children and young people in cathedral like churches is encouraging because far too often all one finds in curious tourists.
Today we decided to have an easy walk of 9 kms to Villmayor de Monjardin.
We ended up at a Christian albergue run by a Dutch evangelical group. It was a nice change from some the big impersonal albergues. We had a meal together and a meditation before bed.