How to be a Volunteer Hospitalero
How to Be a Volunteer Hospitalero (Innkeeper) on the Camino de Santiago…Or Anywhere Else
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Do you want to volunteer as a hospitalero on the Camino de Santiago? Do you currently host guests who travel by foot, bike, or horse, staying briefly? Do you aspire to host in such a place? (Huts, hostels, ecolodges, you name it.) If so, this guide is for you.
It’s not so much a ‘how to’, but rather a collection of thoughts on hosting in liminal, rough, and/or weird places.
If you’re in another branch of hospitality, consider this: When my dad and I travel, he likes to stay in the most basic spots possible. “It all looks the same when you’re asleep.”
I offer the floor and nothing more. However, fast asleep with your eyes closed, you might catch a glimpse of Super 8. If you do, give yourself the credit.
Saugerties, NY; Allentown, PA; Pokhara, Nepal; Bethlehem, PA: 2007-2009
Making the Transition
On the Other Side
People from the Past
Who’ll Show Up?
Who Can Stay, Who Can’t?
Shopping (if you have a budget)
Shopping (if your funds are anemic)
Ownership, or Lack Thereof
Reading the Guestbook
States of Mind and Body
Avoiding Stress Carryover
Stuff that Looks Bad on a Resume
English doesn’t really have a word for hospitalero. If it did, it would probably end in “ier” and be a cousin of hotelier. Hostler exists but is outdated enough to be as arbitrary as hospitalero.
Innkeeper is close, and has the necessary weight of time and connotation of duty. “Inn” takes us back before hotel-motel-Holiday Inn. Keeper implies a protective enterprise (similar to, but in some ways opposite of a goalie, or portero, which in Spanish is also the word for doorman—one of an innkeeper’s duties). Together, they suggest large copper kettles slung over central fires, bellows, blanket distribution and grog.
Innkeeper has had a villainous sense wrapped into it at least since that infamous practitioner deposited Mary and Joseph in the stable with the Biblically syncopated, “There’s no room in the inn.” And any traveler who has ever suffered a conservative interpretation of “Continental Breakfast” can relate to the job’s reputation for shrewdness and corner cutting. Innkeepers know that everyone will be gone soon enough, and new faces and wallets will take their place. (The philosophy is best presented in Les Miserables’ “Master of the House”.)
The first inns were brothels, serving the first travelers—male merchants and soldiers. You don’t have to haunt the lobby of The Peninsula Hong Kong to know the businesses still coexist, and the No-Tell Motel is just a variation on the theme. Innkeepers have always been pimps and hustlers, and in a way, they always will be. Even on the Camino de Santiago, hospitaleros hustle traffic towards Santiago with a one-night limit.
With such a checkered background, as a volunteer hospitalero you’ll be well served to give consideration to the source of your methods. Do crooked innkeepers start out crooked? Or is there a corrupting force at work? I assure you the answer to the second question is a resounding sí. That said, these pages aim to give you a glance at what’ll come your way. If you’ve been a hospitalero before or currently are one, you might find new or forgotten vantage points for reflection.
I hope this guide doesn’t spoil any surprises. Let me rephrase that and spoil one: Serving as a hospitalero on the Camino de Santiago may spoil the Camino de Santiago. I mean what you know the Camino to be, having only experienced it from the perspective of a pilgrim.
Spoil might not be the right word. Expand, maybe. You will likely feel a deeper respect for and understanding of the Camino after having seen both sides, pilgrim and hospitalero, after having walked and served the walkers, after having been immersed in the momentum of places and the momentum of faces.
Serving as a hospitalero might be the only way to truly finish the pilgrimage. Consider entertaining the possibility that you’re completing the Camino by choosing to volunteer.
How do you become a hospitalero? In the most general sense, it’s easy—find a pilgrimage route or site and then care for those who take the trip. Um… A common start is to take the trip yourself. Spend time as a pilgrim, get to know the community. You’ll know pretty fast how much you like these folks, and if you’re willing to attempt to serve them everyday for anywhere from two weeks to the rest of your life.
Still interested? Alright, now find an inn (a k a albergue or refugio) that resonates. Hang around there as long as it takes to find out who owns it and talk to them. Explain that you’d like to come back and be a hospitalero, for however long, and throw in whatever else is necessary to express what you and the refugio have in common.
If all goes well, you can stay in touch and find your way onto the owner’s inevitable schedule of who’s going to manage his or her investment throughout the year.
Or, you can go to hospitalero training given by your national pilgrim organization (in North America, American Pilgrims on the Camino). Then, once “certified”, apply to the Federación de Amigos del Camino de Santiago, a group that maintains a list of qualified ringers for the above-mentioned owners to draw from to fill in any gaps in their schedules.
You can tell the Fed your preferences—do you want to cook, lead an evening reflection, etc.—but where you’re offered work is ultimately their decision. As is who you work with, and when you’ll work. You give the dates you’re free and how many 15-day blocks you want to work, and they (eventually) propose an assignment. If you like it, you confirm it, buy your plane ticket, and get ready to go.
(If you email me at stateofplace courtesy of gmail, I can put you in touch with living, breathing people who can help you make volunteering on the Camino a reality.)
Or, you can buy a house or cottage or old rail car, or scrap of land and bunch of bricks, or circus tent or ruin, or tarp and rope, or defunct anything along the route and set it up as your own albergue. Or find someone who’s done the same, and take over for them when they need a break.
As you arrange this, remember: The whole undertaking can be tricky to explain to family, friends and employers.
Coming straight from work, school, or even retirement, it’s not easy to become one with the Camino. It’s like tossing a barbell to a baby (and are you the barbell or the baby?). With a hospitalero assignment in hand, most of us can get to albergue from home in around 24 hours, maybe a little more. And if we do, on that next jet lagged morning we’ll be expected to provide hospitality to pilgrims who have been walking for two days, two weeks, two months, who knows. Even if you’re using vacation days, this won’t be a vacation. It’ll be 24/7, on-call work. Enjoyable and rewarding work, but work nonetheless. Therefore, if you can, build in a transition period to prepare your head and hands for giving.
A solid approach is to walk with the pilgrims—as a pilgrim—for a few days. Make their needs your needs and you’ll remember what you need to give.
I walked from Pamplona to Viana before starting there as a hospitalero in summer 2007. On my first day as a second-time pilgrim, I’d forgotten how pilgrims consider everything from motivation to foot health to stomach contents as a public concern. When the Italian couple asked me, “Are you going all the way to Santiago?” I said probably. I knew that after the last of my hospitalero assignments, I’d have only a couple days to make it back to Madrid for my flight home. Still, I gave them the answer they wanted to hear from a pilgrim.
Why couldn’t I just say I was walking to Viana to be a hospitalero? Why insist on keeping up the appearance of a pilgrim? Because I didn’t want to be treated differently. I even thought I wouldn’t be fully welcomed into the community. Someone from the other side. A professor sitting at the bar. Not in it for the long haul. And I didn’t want to hear the follow-up question—So you’ve walked the Camino before? Yes. Which again would put something between us, I thought. I’ve looked behind the curtain. I’ve been to the end and now I’m back. Why? What didn’t work out? What are you looking for? What was missing the first time? Are you saying there’s a chance it might not work out for me? No. He must be weird. Maybe I didn’t want them to think I’m weird.
So I said probably, but that felt awful. I’m sitting here eating the tomato they gave me, and this Italian couple on a pilgrimage is listening to me like no one does, giving that rare, full open ear, and I’m grossly understating the probability that I won’t make it to Santiago because I’m guessing at what their reaction to the truth will be.
Isn’t this route supposed to be a home for all types, a refuge anyone can enter at anytime, for any reason? I have a story here! A solid reason, a role. I’m on a pilgrimage as much as everyone else. I’m walking with a destination. a hospitalero on his way to work. Good, that’s what I’ll tell people (if they ask). And wow, how everything got easier.
I still felt like a semi-outsider, but I accepted it as a small price to pay for a reprieve from life undercover. I’d leave later in the morning and walk behind the crowd, sure of where I could stop. When pilgrims and townspeople started buying me drinks, I knew I’d walked out of the shadow of work and car repairs and credit scores and being the competitor I didn’t want to bring to the refuge. I needed the days of walking so I could try to become a fugitive from the ego, if only for long enough to be able to give the amount I’d be expected to every day over the next six weeks.
The atmosphere you encounter when you arrive at the albergue isn’t the way things will be when you take over.
A sour Spanish couple who stencils signs to don’t do this and don’t touch that will take their sourness with them tomorrow morning. The Basque woman with her militant stamp routine, morning jogs and five languages won’t be here to smother you with snappiness for the next two weeks. The French friends with their calamari, champagne, muscatel and quiche will take their comforting kitchen scents away in their Renault Mégane, so you better learn to cook for 20, quickly.
Let these people show you how they work, then sift. Recognize and keep what can’t be changed: how to deposit money at the bank, the trick to light the oven, where to spray the pesticide at night. Nod and smile as they explain their way of doing the things you know you’ll do yours. You don’t have to sit behind the desk in that exact chair to welcome the pilgrims, and you don’t have to open the door at 2:30 or 2 or 1:30 or 11. You can take down their signs, maybe put yours up. Just make sure you record the basics, like where to find the plunger.
I had the privilege to work as a hospitalero in Santo Domingo, in the Casa del Santo, owned by the Confradía de Santo Domingo, the oldest brotherhood to offer assistance to pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. They’ve been at it since forever. Naturally, I hated the place as soon as I walked in. A big cold drafty building operating at less than its full capacity, Shining-esque. An enormous room towards the back with nothing but cold tile. Everything set in its way.
They have an office for recieving pilgrims. If I’d wanted that, I’d still be working on the 17th floor in Chicago. The office echoed with the chatter of Las Doncellas, four 16 year-old girls from town, sent to “help out” for a few hours each day and show the pilgrims to the dorms. They spent most of their time laughing at standard Spanish teenage volume between text messages, sharing headphone ear buds so two could sing along, taking up seats reserved for tired pilgrims yet to arrive, and making those who had want to seek refuge from this so-called refuge. And in the corner of the Santo Domingo office, a gift display. Assorted knick-knacks that it was my duty to guard, lest anyone steal a €2 pin. I have to be chained here, inside, under fluorescent lights for the next two weeks? This is not what I came for, I thought.
Scattered throughout these notes are bits and pieces of how Santo Domingo became tolerable, and eventually, bliss. Suffice to say no matter how bad it seems at first, you’ll make it work.
You are officially devirginized as soon as you see the inside of the donation box, and hands (yours or someone else’s) grabbing bills by the fistful and stuffing them into a plastic bag. Welcome to the world of Innkeeping. Pilgrims don’t keep a couple grand in Euros inside a Cola-Cao tub under their bed.
As a hospitalero, you deal with everyone and everything. You’re the go-to. The bags might look bigger this time around. No worries, you only need to carry those who carry them. You’ll likely need to make time or find ways to reflect—insight isn’t mainlined like it is when you spend your days walking.
You’ll have to tell people no.
You’ll have a room with a lock. You’ll have keys—and the position, secrets and ownership they imply. It might feel like a refusal to share, but remember, this is where you live. You can’t keep your coffee and olive oil in the communal kitchen, because you’ll need them tomorrow. (The exception, of course, being when the food for hospitaleros and pilgrims alike is bought from pilgrim contributions.)
Prepare for people taken hostage by anger due to exhaustion, dehydration, or something else. For lost iPods, wallets, friends or bags or phones. For dish soap in the washer, boots in the dryer.
If you’ve walked before, you have the choice to put your insights or previous behaviors in the past tense (“When I walked…”) or the present (“In the mornings I eat…” or “I usually walk…”). Suggestions masked with the present tense have a greater chance of not causing frustration. Of being tolerated, considered and maybe even welcomed, because such statements place you in the chain of present pilgrims versus some little world that existed however long ago. (I will now continue to flagrantly violate this suggestion.)
“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” —The Overquoted Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Surely you’ll put something in. Saint-Exupéry’s statement best applies to your list of things you’d like to put in. For non-essential items, in Viana we limited it to wildflowers and candles. We never skimped on food (a different topic altogether) and bought no-name for everything else. Erik made one capital investment—a toaster—which I wouldn’t have shelled out for, but didn’t feel a need to argue over.
When considering modifications to the ambiance of the albergue, ask yourself: Does this make the place more of a refuge? If not, scrap it.
At one point or another, you’re going to have to enforce a rule, maybe rules.
Ex-pilgrims may return, playing tour guide to their families. They may claim to be pilgrims, to have stayed here before and therefore to have the right to visit the dorm. If I got this question when the dorm was full of pilgrims (in the early afternoon, for example, an hour or two after we’d opened up), I’d always refuse entry. The what-about-the-pilgrim-in-her-underwear? line of reasoning usually worked. But I’m a pilgrim! Not right now you’re not. Pilgrims don’t look at pilgrims like zoo animals.
Tourists may need to be reined in. Most inquiries by tourists to see pilgrim-relaxing zones are easily defused with, “Sorry, this is a refuge.” Sometimes we’d let them check out the common room (depending on the floor plan) but would again remind them: This is a refuge. As long as they got on board with that, it all went smoothly. (Of course, we bent the rules for kids.)
In Santo Domingo, a major tourist stop, the guides knew our policy. Groups could receive lectures in the massive stone foyer and enter the office—want to buy some gifts?—but nothing more. If we weren’t in the foyer or office, though, groups would roll right through and out back into the garden. If we caught them, there’d be no hesitation to tell the guide to get a move on.
Sometimes while a group listened to their guide’s lecture in the foyer, I’d grab the gift shop cash box and post up behind them, next to the door. When they turned to leave (and turned into my immediate audience), I’d deliver a brief and smiley appeal, reminding them that the refuge survives by donations and anything they can give will be much appreciated. That—plus standing with a dignified posture, box open, and cash inside clearly visible—often pulled in some sort of response, a number of clinks and maybe some bills.
You can feel good about pulling stunts like this: The money will go directly to support the albergue, the pilgrims and, overall, the route.
Santo Domingo—Every day I’m here I’m less sure why I’m here. When pilgrims and townsfolk ask why, I’ll sometimes make something up. Anything. I got a severance package from a downsizing accounting firm. I’ve been in Sweden doing concert lighting for the past 18 months. I sold stock at the right time. There has to be a story, right?
Some pilgrims are put off by “I don’t know.” They’re asking for a reason, but this whole enterprise is beyond reason. If it weren’t, the hospitalero would be paid.
I’m careful to mask my confusion, to avoid pulling back the Oz-curtain for pilgrims in the midst of their journey. Sometimes I’ll give an all-purpose answer—I had the time and a little money. I can speak Spanish. The furthest I’ll go is saying something about doing this to finish the Camino, to see both sides. If the truth gets shaded, it’s for the peace of mind of the pilgrims.
But if I had to hammer down a Why, I’d say it’s for the people and the lifestyle. Maybe the answer should be “you” and “this”. What are you doing here? This. Why? This.
And for every why, there’s a who. For whom? You, me, us. Who got you started? Doesn’t matter.
You have your own list of meaningful hospitaleros. Channel them.
Nájera—A woman stood outside our front door with her arms folded across her chest, wearing clothes too clean for all-day walking. “Can I help you?” She said no. A couple minutes later, she entered the albergue and I asked again. She said something about not needing help, not needing to give an explanation to walk in and look. She took the guestbook and sat down at the end of one of our long tables.
After she left, I read her message: A full-page letter to the owners which began “Dear family,” and proceeded to lambaste my inquiries for the first three paragraphs. Why didn’t she just introduce herself as a former hospitalera?
I found out later that she’d fallen in love here and the love had recently fallen out. Strong feelings will bring people back—tread lightly. For all I knew, she may have been dispatched for gross misconduct, negligence, or letting a pilgrim die on her watch, and this may have been a first attempt at reconciliation. Shrug. And I was just about to conclude that some people won’t like you because they’ve pre-decided they’re not going to like you, or simply because they don’t like themselves.
On the other extreme, we had a radiant and chuckling former hospitalero show up with his wife and another couple, car-fresh but starting to walk in the morning. I gave them the best beds in the house. In exchange, he gave solid advice: You’re the boss. Remember that.
Volunteering as a hospitalero might be the perfect mix of relaxation and responsibility.
It’s your job to deal with everyone. Everyone. You may be surprised how much you self-segregated as a pilgrim, and how much that may have fueled your positive experience. Try not to be disappointed by having to spend time with people you’re not instinctively drawn to.
Much of of your relationship to responsibility comes down to how you answer your own questions.
When is it ok to wake a napping pilgrim? When they or their stuff is on someone else’s bed, or if the albergue is burning down. What time will you start accepting bikers? What about the elderly Dutch couple riding antique Amsterdam specials? If four strong men arrive when you only have four beds left, will you try to convince them to sleep in the overflow space? Will you say that’s all you have? Do you accept pilgrims who don’t carry their own packs? Can you really sort pilgrims by guessing how much energy they’ve expended today? How do you decide who’s a pilgrim and who isn’t? When do you open up for the night? What’s the best way to get morning stragglers back on the road? What about when they want to stay another day? Who can? When do you turn out the lights? Do you grant concessions for pilgrims who want to stay up late and do something quiet? How much will you help to reunite pilgrims with their lost or left stuff? What if they left their medicine? When can you assume ownership of the left-behind MP3 player? Should you try to kiss this person? Did that person just get out of jail? If so, should you be concerned? Should you say something to the kids throwing midnight pebbles at the dormitory windows? Or will that make things worse?
The benefit of the pilgrims is a good yardstick. It leads to an odd combination of altruism and Machiavellian action: I took the alarm clock from the hospitalero’s room in Nájera and brought it to Santo Domingo. I needed one and didn’t have one. It’s not stealing because the hospitalero’s alarm clock serves the pilgrims, and I left it in Santo Domingo. Net assets of the overall route: unchanged.
The pilgrim on the doorstep could become your spouse, break up your marriage, break up your marriage and become your spouse, be a parent to your child or be at your bedside when you die. Could be your ex, your old teacher, or your next teacher. Could be a celebrity or carrying a movie camera, Guardia Civil or carrying a gun. Could have meningitis, the flu, or basic hunger. Could be Swedish twins who love pancakes and hate clothes. Could be a fugitive, blind and deaf, on a dare, and on and on.
They could want silverware, art, food, first aid, privilege, revenge, the donation box, a bed, a floor, a place for their animal, a shower, water, bike parts, a whore, use of the church, the whole roll, a hideout, silence.
The show must go on. Remember that whenever you’re not 100% excited to open the door for the day. It’s a show. Theater? A charade? Nah. But creation of an atmosphere, at least. Not false. Deliberate. Built from decisions you’ve weighed and balanced.
Pilgrims walk in with 0 to 8 hours of bed worries. Many will be thinking, “Do I have a bed?” It’s your job to make a split-second assessment of their anxiety level and adapt your welcoming style accordingly.
Water, a chair, a bit of personal attention. We encouraged pack removal and sitting to those who didn’t relax on their own (the pilgrims who hadn’t yet registered they’d actually arrived).
Hospitaleros and pilgrims seated, we’d start the welcome. In a way, the welcome presents an oral contract with a candle as witness. It’s a summary of what’s given and what’s expected, an offer that’s taken up when pilgrims accept your plan for a harmonious environment. It’s delineated at least as much by tone as by information. Not everyone who gets a welcome stays, but everyone who stays must get a welcome.
Pilgrims will never become ‘real’ pilgrims (whatever that means) if you don’t treat them as ‘real’ pilgrims.
I believe pilgrims walking with car support are always welcome. They put on sunblock like everyone else. The driver can stay too, as long as we have a quick one on one and make sure the vibe is understood. Drivers can be advised to lay low as to not stir possible conflict within the walking community. The group will probably take their children to dinner and slip in right before bedtime. No big deal. (And no need to worry about pilgrims traveling exclusively by car. They most likely aren’t interested in cozying up with reeking walkers.)
People starting to walk tomorrow are welcome to stay tonight. I never understood the reports of starting-tomorrow pilgrims turned away from albergues because they didn’t spend the day walking. Falling asleep in a pilgrim bunk and spending a day on the pilgrim trail equally confer the status of pilgrim.
Another test sometimes used by hospitaleros to qualify their guests as worthy of shelter is whether or not the sweating person on the step has carried (versus car-sent) their bag. This person is sweating and hungry—isn’t that enough?
Nájera—An overweight woman waddled in one day and pulled a credential from her leather purse. She asked me for a stamp. I looked out the front door and saw a car idling, waiting. “Is that your car? Because we don’t give stamps to people in cars.” “Yes, it’s my car, and my husband is driving me along the Camino. I can’t walk because I have polio.” Oops. After that, I gave stamps to anyone who put a credential in front of me. If you have a credential, you believe you’re a pilgrim. If you believe you’re a pilgrim, I will too.
When welcoming groups for the night, we considered the group size-to-capacity ratio and the strain on our infrastructure. In Viana, with only 13 beds, we didn’t accept groups of six or more. The spontaneity would have evaporated if half of the crowd knew each other.
On the other hand, in Nájera with 91 beds, we accepted 15-person groups a couple times. “The only thing we ask is that you don’t use the kitchen. Can you get your dinner in town or make sandwiches?” No group argued, and thus didn’t disrupt the normal dinnertime get-to-know-you.
If someone seeks an extra night, you can urge them to stay at another albergue or hostel in the same town. The reasoning here is to maintain momentum in their individual experience. Are you saying you know what’s best for me? “No, but I know what I think is best for you.”
Having someone stay an extra night will also change the atmosphere in your albergue to some degree. Spontaneity will decrease a bit, especially if any of your routine involves a communal dinner, presentation, or group reflection. I found repetition of routine much easier when the faces were new (not counting the other hospitalero/fellow illusionist).
Santo Domingo—The glass of wine was en route to my lips when the Australian tapped me on the shoulder. Just want you to know there’s a lot of people out there and it’s 20 after four. Hm. Joe Angel and I had made it another long, standard Spanish lunch. Buzzing a bit, I got up and went to check out the Aussie’s report. Sure enough, sweated-up folks filled the entryway, each here for the 4 p.m. bed that the sign on the office door promised.
I walked into the crowd with keys jangling in hand, pink lanyard swinging. Pilgrims, or maybe people in general, have a remarkable tendency to focus on key bearers, and as I put a foot on the door’s stone step, the crowd crushed in behind me. I opened the door, brought my other foot up, paused and turned around. Sensing information about to escape, they held their breath for a second. Hoping the right words would appear, I did the same.
“We have beds for everybody.” Repeated in English with a Rioja smile, this cleared the uncertainty, answered everyone’s top question, and let them know they hadn’t waited in vain. No more need for a special spot in line, no (oft-subliminal) suspecting the person ahead of you is destined for the last bed. Beds for everyone means a bed for me. The crowd queued up and went back to their farrago of languages, no problem.
As each pilgrim sat down, I attempted semi-boozed banter to show them that even though we’d allowed a crowd to pile up over the course of our lunch, we had no plans to treat the crowd like a crowd.
At a minimum, information from their credentials gave me a rope to grab for—a tongue-twister in German, two words of French, something about their region of Spain. Everyone got their own version of the welcome at a volume that wouldn’t make the last in line die of repetition. And with the English speaking ones, well, simply speaking English was a treat for both of us.
Parents who bring their kids want their kids to see something. There’s no need to change anything about what that thing is or appears to be.
Be cautious with your questioning. People who want to share will share. If two people want their bunks closer together, they’ll let you know. Don’t assume anything when a male and a female show up as a couple.
He could be chasing her. She could be chasing him. They might never have spoken. They might have had a stand last night and not discussed it at all today. They may have just met and will eventually marry, so long as nothing ruptures in these first fragile days. “Are you two together?” Um…I don’t know…are we?
In Viana during the long afternoons, it often seemed we had nothing better to do than cook. We would start at 5 or 6 for an 8:30 p.m. meal. Salad or entremés, first plate, second plate, a baked dessert or two. Erik and Nüria cooked whatever was more complicated than frying, dumping and stirring. I specialized in bean-based stews made in the largest pot we had, a bright red cauldron. Trail food. And that’s how we judged what was worth eating—does it get you ready to walk?
For drinks, we’d funnel wine from Don Casellón 5L plastic jugs into plain green glass bottles and no one knew the difference. And no, M. Thenardie, we never watered it down. It was the soily local stuff, up near 14%, the juice that gets you talking to your neighbor. And like a stew, I’d often fix a pot of dirty sangria. Granada street style: half wine, half orange Fanta, some sliced up oranges and apples. The sangria would hang out on the welcoming table all afternoon, better than a bowl of mints. You can throw in a Tupperware-molded ice block and top it off from time to time, Fanta bottle in one hand, wine jug in the other.
About every other night a pilgrim would buy a bottle of wine or two for the table, which we’d have them ceremonially open and then place alongside the three standard bottles of Don Cassellón. The pilgrims’ alcohol consumption was a roll of the dice—sometimes everyone got loud, and sometimes I felt like a lush by pouring a second glass. We’d take the bottles out of sight for refilling whenever they got three-fingers low.
Whether or not you serve a communal dinner, you’re likely to have someone from town who believes the albergue is their social club. In Viana, we had Eugenio, a friend of the parish. He’d usually show up around 7:15 or 7:30, sharply dressed and ready to get in the way. We eventually discovered that he’d been banned from the kitchen for the first half of August by the previous hospitaleros, Nathalie and Alain, and we should have guessed as much when he showed up on our first night.
Pushing 30, Eugenio still didn’t know to rinse soap off of scrubbed dishes. He’d set the table for 16 when we’d ask for 19, plopping his thumb and its print into the shovel of every spoon. We begrudgingly entrusted him with the tuna. “Just break it up on top of the salad.” Vale. He managed it, and then sucked each of his ten dainty fingers, mouthing it up to the third knuckle, slicking it out with a smack. Immediately after hearing the pops, we’d too often turn and find him holding another part of the meal, for whatever mysterious reason, and we’d snap and demand like parents that he wash his hands.
I sat next to Eugenio on our first night and got steamrolled by stories. He has a chalet in the countryside just out of town, he says, and I can visit whenever I’d like to download music, play his saxophone, or get marimba lessons. He tells me this, and everything else, with the pity-inducing smiles and glances of clumsy seduction.
Starting the next night, we asked Eugenio to sit in the armpit of the L-shaped table so he’d only have a pilgrim on one side. We explained to him that it’s near the center of the table, and from there he can deliver grace as if in a pulpit. Whenever César (the hip priest with a slim phone on his belt) was late or absent, Eugenio would say grace. And for that the three of us gave thanks for his presence, as none wanted to take the plunge into spiritual leadership—at least on the putting-it-into-sentences level. We would, however, bang a knife against a water pitcher to give him the stage.
Eugenio would start with his voice dropped an octave, speeding and slowing his words like waltz footwork. He made sure to ask for special blessings for each hospitalero by name, Erik, Nüria, and Brett, our great friend from South America. After two days of this, I asked him to please leave us out and reminded him I’m from New York. Finally, he’d trace a cross in the air above the table and we’d begin the dinner with (hopefully) minimal damage to the ambiance.
I could go on and on, but I’ve been harsh enough already. We accommodated Eugenio over our two weeks, but he never became an asset to the team. Eventually, his freeloading (and our resistance) pushed the friction between us to the point where I asked him to leave and come back two days later—after we’d left. Whether or not that was the right move, I know we expended too much energy trying to alternately bring him in and push him off. If you suspect someone from town is thinning your resources to the point where it’s hard to do your job, decide what you’re going to do about it, then do it.
In our welcome, we aimed for ambiguity when stating the lights out time. (This is a weird Camino thing, and might not apply to your situation.) “Ten o’clock, más o menos.” We didn’t want to create any expectations of precision. Each night we’d also try to soften the landing by giving friendly warnings to pilgrims lounging in the cool air out front. A ten minute warning works wonders for conflict avoidance.
With a big bunkroom, you can shut out the lights in stages, dimming to one or two lamps around your stated lights-out time. We avoided the slammer-esque bright-to-black. Where pilgrims had their own smallish rooms, we never shut out the lights. We trusted someone to hit the switch, and of course, someone always did.
Strange things happen around bedtime, as people realize that closed eyes are all that stands between them and another day of walking. Be ready—this is when the favors start getting called in. Can I have one last cigarette? Can we finish our ice cream? Can I sit up and read a book? Can we keep playing our game if we whisper? Can I borrow the key and go to the bar? Can you turn the lights off? (Rarely put so nicely…) Can you turn the lights back on? Just for a second? Can we sleep outside? Can you look at this rash? Can I have a blanket? Can I have a tampon? Can I have another for the morning? Can we do Reiki by the river? Can I bring my sheet outside? (More likely done without asking.) Can I take a shower? Can we have more toilet paper? Can you fix the toilet?
It seems a miracle each night when everybody finally is in bed. Or stretched flat on the dining table, straightening the spine. It’s rarely the whole house down, though, especially if you have a few dozen pilgrims. Someone’s always in the bathroom, or en route. Or getting a glass of water, or reading with a mini headlamp.
As a former pilgrim, you know those times when everyone is out cold and nobody’s snoring come through like comets. Sometimes I’d walk through the bunkroom at this moment, the space pulled tight like the spring on a garage door closed for the night, and I’d check out the sleeping positions of the pilgrims through the corners of my eyes. Some looked to have been dropped from 40 stories. Some looked mummified. Some had kicked their way out of their bedding and lay, legs splayed, in their undies.
I made this nightly commute through the bunks in Nájera where my room waited at the far end of the dormitory, sealed with the world’s loudest and most high-strung lock, and everywhere I had the urge to stop and stare at some sort of nocturnal contortion or other intrigue. I never did (I think).
In each of those bunks, though, is a story ready to be read. The look on the face, the placement of the watch, the arrangement of the sandals, the clothes hung from the bunkslats, the attire or lack there of, the volume and pace of the breath or snore, the hold of the hands. We’d find artifacts in the morning: a leftover electronic device, excessive food waste, or maybe a soaked mattress.
One night we hosted a Bulgarian flamenco dancer at or aiming to reach the apex of her craft, as inferred from her Sevilla address. Her skin was close to G.I. Joe green, and her black hair shot straight down her back in a braid you could hang a cathedral bell on.
She arrived with everything between her hiking socks and the hem of her shorts rippling, muscular but topographically distinct from an athlete, shaped to wield her body the way a drummer’s forearms are tuned to speed the sticks. As we went over the basics, her posture remained perfect, with lips leveled and eyes that churned your gut when you looked over the edge of the irises, which, as anyone who’s been on a skyscraper roof knows, was something you couldn’t do without looking death in the face.
She carried herself pulled taught from one end to the other all afternoon, then surprised me as I walked between the bunks that night. On a top bunk without a single blanket, she lay on her side in the center of the mattress, curled into an egg, hands locked together across the middle of her shins. Her chin may have been resting on her knees. I don’t know. The rest my glance caught was her face like a rock found on the bottom of a river, with just the slightest smile.
You’ll see this, too—just don’t stop walking.
If your albergue doesn’t serve a communal meal and doesn’t have an overflow space, I beg you to offer the floor to anyone willing to sleep on it. Even if that last spot is in front of the coffee machine—there are a lot of people willing to get stepped on at 5 a.m. to avoid sleeping on a bench in the rain.
(I know, this sounds like common sense, but on my first (stormy) night in Burgos, finished with my gigs, a number of latecomers and I had to negotiate a Middle East peace treaty just to get the first-day hospitalero to let us throw down our bedrolls in the empty common room.)
The archetypal floor customer has been slowed to 6 p.m. arrivals by an overused knee that would heal with a day’s rest.
Or it might be a multi-country group in their early 20’s with cutoff t-shirts, scarves and home-chopped hair. Maybe they drank big last night and/or through the day today, or took a lot of breaks for whatever reason, to look at stuff, roll joints, slurp views, shoot pool.
Or maybe it’ll be two brothers or another all-male family group, father and son, cousins, one or both or all of whom are grossly underprepared. The youngest guy walking in sweatpants, Adidas low-tops, packstraps chafing his shirtless skin, dehydrated. In a word, fried.
If your albergue fills up early in the day, some pilgrims will accept the overflow space—the town-owned polideportivo gym or casa de cultura, or some other dusty spot with a hard floor—and some will march out, possibly with temper flaring.
Don’t take it personally. And don’t feel like the overflow space has to be up to your standards of cleanliness. Most of all, don’t regret sending pilgrims there to sleep. Every innkeeper has to be able to say, “There’s no room in the inn.” Let it go—sometimes that’s how someone’s best story gets its start.
For example, if a man seems to have to go the doctor and is traveling with a woman, tell the woman, “He really should see a doctor about that foot.” If you suggest it to him, chances are he won’t listen to you. Too great a risk of appearing weak. If you tell her, though, he’ll be there in a second. She’s looking out for him, and knows how to convince him a lot better than you do.
You’re on call 24/7. If the place catches fire, they’re going to ask you why.
There’s a certain level of transcendental bliss, some might go so far as to say enlightenment, that comes with cleaning a bathroom daily, especially a bathroom depended on by (only) 50 pilgrims for 18 hours. Fifty pilgrims who each know they’ll most likely never see that bathroom again.
I never found much joy in the scrub job, though, and mostly spent it choking on bleach fumes and other chemical aromas, wearing junk shoes, a pair of nylon shorts and rubber gloves. Sometimes the sinks shine up fast, no stray alpine roads of hair curling around the porcelain. Sometimes every swipe of the sponge leaves a new piece of nastiness in its wake.
The highlight was fingering the shower drain one morning and pulling out a hair snake, pinch over pinch, gritting my teeth until I had it all. It provided a thrill I might one day reencounter through oral extraction of a starved tapeworm.
Rarely would I clean anything above the level of “would a pilgrim think it’s clean?” It’s not like the place is on the market. You’re only trying to sell the atmosphere, and in an albergue, it only needs to be clean enough for pilgrims.
Anything beyond risks breaking down the fourth wall, shattering the suspension of disbelief that they’ve been able to step outside of ordinary, to escape the fetish chamber of modernity. No need to take your cleaning to the industrial level. They don’t want to be reminded of the office.
Still, it’s important to keep the front stoop swept and the windowbox flowers booming. You want to impress the mayor, if the mayor ever strolls by, as well as the top priests in town. The first impression of the establishment should be tight, no matter how many bottles of Rioja are in the recycling bin. The pilgrims coming around the corner should think, “Yes. This is where I’m staying tonight.”
Two words: Don Cassellón. (Five liters for under 5€!)
In Viana, we broke our shopping down into these categories: The German shop for cleaning supplies, the old lady for produce, one market for all other food but meat, and another for meat. Despite my best intentions to be diplomatic with our spending, I preferred anyone who threw in something extra.
We favored the store that rounded up the pennies in the change, cut us credit, or let us borrow the cart to walk the goods back to the albergue. It was never a question of the shop becoming a sole provider, though. More likely our preferred grocer would be the place where, if we had the choice of going to a cheaper place for a single item like a sponge or just grabbing it there, we’d pay the extra 10 cents, buy it along with our food and save a minute.
We bought our morning chapata bread from one shop and only one shop. Chapata prices being equal in the two closest bakeries, the decision was made solely on quality. There was no comparison, and for breaking the pilgrims’ fast, I had no qualms going with the best.
Despite keeping tight data like a regular American capitalist, I found no correlation between what we spent and what we received in the donation box.
We didn’t have food budgets in Nájera and Santo Domingo, so I ate anything on offer. Showing up at the dinner table with a bar of dark chocolate (or simply being in the dining room) usually got me dealt into dinner. In the mornings, I’d scavenge in the fridge for forgotten yogurts, half-used packages of deli meat, leftovers that could be lunch, whatever. Items of interest would be relocated to the hospitalero fridge.
In Nájera, I was keen to promote the restaurant that the albergue owners said would let me eat for free. Some will say this is a conflict of interest—but if I love eating there, how bad can it be? Their food was great, their prices fair, and pilgrims came back raving. I viewed myself as a sort of undercover hype man paid through top-notch corderito, bottomless wine glasses and time spent with Fabiana, the Argentine bartender. Specifically, time between 10pm and 2am—the only time I could leave the albergue for more than a quick errand.
On the spectrum of provision, refugios that serve dinner are on one end and albergues without a kitchen that make no restaurant recommendations are on the other. The situation in Nájera existed somewhere closer to the first—sure, my favorite restaurant took in more pilgrim cash than any other restaurant in town, but I suspect they kicked some of it back to our owners. I just kept my fingers (naively) crossed that it trickled down to the support of our refuge.
Viana—A guy with a badge and leather jacket shows up and asks for the guestbook. Erik answers fast questions in Spanish in the kitchen, with the door closed. A minute later, the man leaves.
Nájera—The police stop by just before lights out, looking for two male walkers, one young, one older with a beard. Have you seen anyone like this come by in the past two hours? No, sorry. They thank us and leave.
Santo Domingo—The Guardia Civil wants to see the guestbook. This is why you need to keep the guestbook.
In Nájera we had around 1400 pilgrims in 15 days, and two stolen pairs of boots. In Santo Domingo, people lost things from their bags beside their beds. Cash envelopes clipped to bags awaiting van transport got ripped off pre-dawn. Everywhere, spoons disappeared. Someone even lifted a handwritten poem off the wall.
Take a tip from animal trainers and avoid responding to any comments that divide the community. According to the trainers, unwanted behaviors disappear when ignored.
“Tourist pilgrims”, early risers, big drinkers—someone will inevitably want to explain why each group is in the wrong. Agreeing or disagreeing will reinforce the speaker’s thoughts, which will shade their interactions with other guests, breed friction, and make your job harder.
Do your job as best you can, and if a muddy Italian biker shows up in the rain asking for the bathroom one minute after you’ve cleaned it, don’t hesitate to let him walk across the shining floor to inaugurate the just-bleached bowl. He’ll leave an 8-inch ponytail strand in the sink, too, and that’s OK. You did your best, on with the day.
Try to get a good sense of who owns the real estate you’re managing. It might help you decide how much you want to invest the space. Also determine as early as possible who’s allowed to get their hands on the money. This isn’t something you want to try to guess at.
Who owns what within? What’s for pilgrims, what’s for hospitaleros? What’s public or private between the pilgrims? Can I take this guitar off the wall? Is anyone saving this flan?
Practically speaking, in Spain, Spain owns the Camino. It’s up to Spain to deal with reroutings of the route, increased buses, price gouging, etc. Follow the lead of the Spaniards and have another drink.
Some things the pilgrims just have to work out between themselves. If someone wants to get up and turn on the lights at 5 am, someone else can get up and turn them off. Snoring happens. Survival of the fittest dictates who gets their cell phone charger into the plug first.
“Gripes go up, not down. Always up. You gripe to me, I gripe to my superior officer, so on, so on, and so on. I don’t gripe to you. I don’t gripe in front of you.” –Saving Private Ryan
Shield the inner workings of the refuge. If pilgrims want to know what’s in the donation box, they can come back as hospitaleros. No one needs to know that getting a new tank of butane is turning into a headache. And if things are tight, the less you promise, the more your guests are delighted by what you give.
Understate your suggestions. “There’s a good place in Agés you might like.” Why? “I don’t know, just a thought.” What’s it called? “Casa something. You’re gonna have to look around.”
Build the suspense and you’ll intensify the experience. It’s the first rule of hazing, and sometimes it’s not bad to see pilgrims as pledges. Slightly mad individuals absorbed by an unpredictable route, slowly moving toward a distant end. (Just try not to cover anyone in condiments.)
How much energy should you devote to reuniting pilgrims with lost stuff? I tried to serve as a custodian and nothing more, unless suffering extreme boredom or if the pilgrim initiated the process. If they pay for the pay phone, I’ll call the albergue where they left the iPod. Keep in mind it’s their adventure. Still, it’s a case by case basis. When the German guy who gave me half of a watermelon left his phone, we used his contact list to text the device’s location to a friend.
Halfway through my stay in Nájera, straightening sheets one morning, I found an MP3 player under a pillow. Nothing fancy, cheap black plastic, a semi-functional LCD screen, and a crooked sticker on the back: 1GB. They’ll be back for this, I thought.
The pilgrim never called or returned, though, and a week later it was time for me to leave. I fished around the desk among all the little things we needed daily, or thought we might need, or didn’t know what to do with. Notes from pilgrims to pilgrims, schedules and business cards, a lighter, tealights, pens, scissors, tape, pellets of laundry detergent and other accumulations of an every-two-week handoff in responsibility. I found the player, held it up, and called to Pam, “I’m taking this thing.” “Fine with me.”
Never give them out. Just don’t. OK—you can give them out once: back to the person who gave them to you, or forward to the next hospitalero.
The guestbook presents a dilemma: it holds tips on what to improve, but might inflate your ego as you hunt them down.
Be aware of the variations between where you are and where pilgrims are coming from:
Last day hospitalero and first day pilgrim at the end of a 30km walk First day hospitalero and pilgrim walking for the first day tomorrow First day hospitalero and twelfth day rain-drenched pilgrim arriving to a full house at 9:30 p.m. Second day hospitalero and second month pilgrim
Most pilgrims will have a religious motivation, sincere or tangential. Some will be atheists. Some don’t understand their vaguely spiritual motivation. Some have absurd deadlines. Some just want to get in shape. Others just want sex. Some have issues; others see everyone else with issues. Some are here to be on the edge, others are on edge by being here.
For most, the albergue is half of the daily experience, often more. The entire pilgrimage is a deliberate removal of the self from the usual (despite the cell phone in the pocket).
While you stay in one place, the pilgrims are witnessing daily the dynamics of development. They pass through towns and cities at an ancient pace, swept from fields and nothing, past the central church and commercial heart, and back to empty. Remember and respect the effects of these repeated doses—sometimes you’ll have to be no less than a shaman.
Even as the new infiltrates the Camino—bag trafficking, albergues with hot tubs, cell phones, golf courses absorbing the route’s shade trees, ads and promotion—classic characters like Fernando walking from Roma with a little toy horn around his neck, Miro and his African harp, and every mortgage paying, child-raising 38 year-old who just needs a break from the grind must continue to have a place to exist as marginally as they like.
You’re the one with answers, but you don’t need an answer to every question. Just try not to laugh when someone doesn’t know which is the washer and which is the dryer.
Questions will be repeated. Often. For material requests, I’d ask pilgrims if they asked any other pilgrims first. By sending them back into their community, you’ll build community (and help your bottom line).
One of the assumptions throughout has been the benefit of fostering community. By community, I mean a group that agrees to commune in a temporary commune, who can peacefully share a common space. A shared existence between tonight’s guests, with consideration given to those who’ll share the space tomorrow.
A community will give you fewer disputes and less cleaning. Overall, less stress.
Santo Domingo—I finally decided to make a list. Some pilgrims agitate me through their impatience upon arrival. Or their refusal to accept an offer of a welcoming seat (bikers I can understand). I get upset when just-arrived pilgrims crowd over the guestbook as if that will ensure a bed. When someone shows up at 11:30 a.m. or even 2 p.m. and asks if there’s still room—and we have 80 beds available. When someone arrives and the first thing they say is completo, stating, not asking. When people ask me if the hospitalero is around.
Bikers who start cooking breakfast at 8:30 a.m. Undone dishes. Pilgrims who only speak French asking questions in French and making no effort to understand my gestures or hand-picked, close-to-your-shared-Latin-roots Spanish words. People who expect me to arrange their bag transport. People who ask for something that’s in every other pilgrim’s pack without first asking any other pilgrim if they could borrow the item. People who expect me to check them in while they talk on their phone. People who call and try to make a reservation. People who show up and try to reserve beds for friends still on the road. People who show up, unpack their bag onto an adjacent bed, and fall asleep.
What tests your patience? Know your enemy.
The pilgrims you meet today shouldn’t have to meet a condensed version of you because you haven’t gotten over yesterday. And it’s not just day to day; it’s person to person and interaction to interaction.
The hardest thing can be trying to start over with every new face. For some you’ll do better than others, but a goal can be to elevate each person you interact with, for just a minute, to a level of importance that eclipses your other concerns. This is the most important person in the world. The customer is #1? The pilgrim is #1.
Viana—Yesterday the refugio’s water got cut off around dinnertime with ten Italian guys and three Spaniards here. We had no water from 8 p.m. until today’s lunch. For the toilets, the dishes and the morning cleaning, everyone had to lug up jugs, buckets and bottles filled from our neighbor’s garage spigot.
Today we opened at 2 p.m. just to keep our heads. We weren’t going to open at all, but we found out at half past noon that our water was cut because workers had left the garden’s control box open and some kid came by and switched off the main valve.
It helped to think of the refugio as our own little tree fort. You can’t get stressed out in a tree fort.
Journals work. Write until you’re out of breath, until ‘like your life depended on it’ isn’t a cliché.
Make a list of what you like and what you don’t about where you are and what you’re doing. It’ll make it easier to embrace the good and ignore the bad.
Wine—love it. The rest of the country spends the day with a light buzz, why can’t you?
Again, you might find it useful to do some walking after your volunteering is over. I grabbed a ride with a local friend from Santo Domingo to Agés, to spend the night at that Casa Something, the first spot that made me want to keep a refuge.
I went back partly for the place, but mostly for the mentorship of the hospitalera. It was a quick stay, just a glass of French wine before bed and a leisurely breakfast, but it reinforced my choice to volunteer and gave me renewed questions and motivation. A reunion with the sensei.
I thought things over while walking the river route to Burgos, spending a night in the municipal albergue, and another in a surrogate refuge (Hostel Hidalgo, creaky stairs, the cheapest spot in town). By the time my bus pulled into Madrid, I was ready to be there.
Keep your ear to your gut as your time as a hospitalero winds down. If you feel you have to go somewhere, anywhere, go.
And one last thing: They sell Chorizo Ibérico in Madrid Barajas, but that doesn’t make it legal to bring into the States. If your chorizo doesn’t wind up like mine did–on a Customs Officer’s dinner table–give me a call. I pay top dollar.
Viana, Refugio Parroquial,13 beds, with Erik and Nüria de Barcelona.
Nájera, Albergue de la Asociación de Amigos del Camino de Nájera, 93 beds, with Pam from Hawaii.
Santo Domingo de la Calzada, Casa del Santo, ~115 beds (under construction), with José Ángel (Joe Angel) de Madrid.