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
Written a few days ago.
You may be wondering to yourself, is walking the Camino and staying in Albergues something for me? Let me relate two in incidents.
Last night as I was lying in bed, awake, but with my eyes closed, Hetty witnessed the young woman in the bed next to me getting changed. Her back was facing me but I was oblivious. She then changed for bed, undressing to her g-string briefs. Hetty said the next morning that if my eyes had been open she would have leapt across me to protect my eyes.
The next day, as pilgrims were coming in from their day’s walk, a group of middle aged, portly Frenchmen came into our dorm. They insisted in walking around in their jocks with bellies spilling over. Or as one brother-in-law oft repeated, “there was a large veranda over the tool shed.” The two young women in the beds across from mine didn’t know where to look. Hetty was ready to throw up. One man didn’t get back into pants for ages. The young women fled well before that to save their eyesight.
The accomodation is cheap and there are great moments when you meet people and chat with them but there are also times when one’s sensitivities are pushed to the limit. For me, I would do it again even if my wife has to hurl herself over me to protect me.
Seminario Menor in Santiago but without the g-strings and bellies.
The Yo Yo day:
From two Spanish ladies wrecking my sleep to a beautiful meal with my birthday wife.
The day started very early. Two Spanish ladies addicted to their cell phones were communicating with others and each other in the early hours of the morning as I was trying to sleep in a bunk only half a metre away. Then at 5 am with headlights attached they started packing up and leaving the Albergue. It was like trying to sleep in a disco as their lights strobed around the room. That was a downward plunge of the yo yo. Then at 7 am when all the civilised pilgrims decided to rise and shine I told them it was Hetty’s birthday when Hetty was out of the dorm. When she returned they all sang happy birthday to her. The yo yo was on the way up.
We started walking at 8 am and entered the next village a few kms away and there was a beautifully kept bar with a friendly host who served croissants, coffee and fresh orange juice. We reconnected with some of our fellow pilgrims. The yo yo was still going up. However we needed to catch the bus as Hetty’s knee was hurting badly. We walked 4 kms to the bus stop only to find out the timetable was out of date and the next one wasn’t coming for hours. Yo yo going down again. After a frustrating time trying to work out what to do a lady stopped at the bus stop and insisted we get in her car and she drove us to Burgos. All she asked was that we pray for her. Monty was her name. Yo yo flying up.
My head was still pounding from spending a night in an airless disco dorm and when we got to the Pensión I wasn’t in a mood for making decisions but we had to and a domestic situation ensued. Yo yo plunging.
After a big deep breath Hetty went to the doctor who said she had to rest the leg. Good to know. Contacts in Madrid said they would be happy to see us next week. Yo yo up.
After a nice rest we entered the bustling crowds of Burgos at 8:30 and went to a pizza restaurant for a birthday dinner. Yo yo very up.
To mix the metaphors “Some days are diamonds and some are coal”. Today we had them both but the diamonds shone more brightly. My wife tells me she is the diamond.
Sadly there was no Palm Sunday church service in Villafranca Montes de Oca today. Many villages in Spain are without priests and the church is mainly frequented by the elderly. So we started walking. Today’s experience was walking through falling snow but the wind had, thankfully, died down.
Our destination was San Juan de Ortega. Due to knee issues we are walking shorter distances. Today was only 12kms. All up we have covered 98 kms but we have cheated for 15-20 of these. This morning the early sections were quite hilly winding through pine plantations and the road was muddy due to frequent use by log trucks.
In San Juan we found a warm bar and had a coffee and tea with a piece of cake and then another coffee.
Now all we have to do is wait for the Albergue to open and hope that the backpack is there. Yesterday I slipped on a drain grate and my backpack took me for a ride. 20 kilos is hard to stop in mid flight! All that was hurt was my sprained wrist and my pride.
We took a short walk today. Only 11 kms. We have some aches and niggles in our legs so we thought we would be nice to them. We have stopped in Redecilla del Camino. It is a small town made up of a street of vey old stone buildings and C12th church. Over the busy road are some more modern buildings. But like many small Spanish towns it seems in decline. There are deserted Spanish villages for sale if you are so inclined.
Our devotion this morning was on Eph 2:10. “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Physically, at present, the handiwork is feeling a little run down and worn. Yet the idea that our eyes and hearts always need to be open and ready for service is very heartening and life enhancing.
Strange observation: as we were walking along the other day there was a cross. Now many Spanish towns and roads have Christian crosses. But this seemed rather simple and not ornate. I asked Hetty if it was a cross or a power pole. She opted for cross. We got closer and there were three of them. On closer inspection they turned to to be redundant power poles. There is a sermon illustration in there somewhere.
We are currently staying in the town (Santo Domingo de la Calzada) that permanently keeps chickens in the Cathedral because of ‘miracles’ that occurred in the Middle Ages. These involved the returning to life of a German pilgrim and the returning to life of two chickens on the bishop’s plate when he refused to believe the original miracle. Added to this I found a in a local church a sign proudly selling plenary indulgences. If I am right last year was the 500th anniversary of the nailing of the 95 theses against indulgences, by Martin Luther.
The returning thought that comes to me is that for most people the Camino to Santiago is a secular trek. The hostels are handy and cheap for accommodation … and it is handy for meeting the opposite sex.
There are however opportunities to explore one’s spirituality. Some hostels take the Christian discipleship dimension seriously. One such Albergue is in Villamayor de Monjardin where the volunteers at the Albergue Hogar Monjardín see hospitality as a crucial part of their discipleship role. They are planning bigger and better ideas for the future.
I need to see these bright lights as otherwise I would become despondent because the Camino would be just another expression of our slide into secularity. It is wonderful to see Christians take opportunities, like the Camino, and step up to the opportunities.