As a Catholic, I’m not entirely sure what I’m supposed to believe in nor acknowledge without offending the Almighty, His angels and saints, and my many good Catholic friends. Do forgive me, for I’m just a mere (im)mortal with his sporadic outbursts of piety coupled with extreme heathenism. For you see, dear reader, I do firmly believe in Fate and that things happen for a reason: whether we realize the reason or not is irrelevant. Free will, to me, is an expressed illusion, for our Fate has already been woven – we simply follow the thread through our own labyrinth.
For reference, view the first 25 seconds or so.
Forgive me, Catholic friends, for citing Odin as a skald to live by.
So, enough heathen outbursts; meat and potatoes, eh?
As you know, I have been volunteering as a hospitalero here in El Burgo Ranero since Sunday past. My initial stint was to only serve until yesterday morning; however, Fate, that insensitive bitch, decided to rob me of my American companion. Following a family emergency, he departed yesterday afternoon, leaving me alone to run the albergue during the bulk of the day. I have the assistance of a local sapo (that is, a local hospitalero who can show up as needed) to help clean the place and register pilgrims, but by the time the completo sign goes up, I am on my lonesome caring for the joint. And per the arrangement I made with my departing comrade, I will serve out the remainder of the month as the token American hospitalero here in El Burgo Ranero before the cavalry arrive.
Not quite how I expected this Camino to go, but I am incredibly grateful it took the turn it did.
Over a communal dinner, an American lass asked me what it takes to become a hospitalero. Varying country to country, the American Pilgrims on Camino (APOC) requirements stipulate that one must accomplish three things: successfully complete the Camino itself, participate in an accredited training workshop, and choose a two-week period you don’t mind volunteering. I successfully completed my first Jakobsweg back in 2014, a 10-week sojourn from Fribourg, Switzerland, to the fabled Finisterra, and ever since then have been itching to just give back to the Way. Last month, I attended the national gathering of APOC and there completed the required training to satisfy the second requirement. Now all I needed was to decide upon some dates, but me being me (Chaotic Good), I allowed things to grow as they go.
And how fortunate was that (in)decision making for I soon found myself the opportunity to prove my worth. And I must say, comrades, being a hospitalero is the most enlightening and charming thing about this Camino experience. What use is there of a fabled city with a dead saint when the real treasure walks through my door every day? Here is truly the international experience I seek for I nightly share my table with all continents, cultures, and beliefs; the entire world around one table.
The albergue itself is a modest faux-dobe building with a complete kitchen, dining area, fireplace, dedicated washer and mercurial dryer, plenty of hot water, and 30 beds. Every morning, Sapo and I clean the entire thing: beds, sheets, floors, windows, tables, chairs, kitchen, bathroom, the whole shebang. Fresh flowers dot the interior, bringing some nice color to the wood and tile decor, and, should weather permit, pilgrims might get themselves a roaring fire. As a municipal, many pilgrims are leery of settling for the night, but I do declare that Sapo and I alleviate any concerns through the expression of our job title: hospitality.
That’s the entire key to this volunteer gig – to be a hospitable person. We must check ourselves at the door and instead only offer kindness, patience, and understanding to a new group of tired, disgruntled pilgrims day after day. As I write this, a Frenchman and Italian are arguing over who gets to buy me the first beer because I opened the completo albergue, allowing them to rest upon the floor, along with 10 other pilgrims.
Every day brings new challenges and problems to be overcome, and meeting them with ill-temperament, short-handedness, or mere apathy will rankle anyone. One must remember that the pilgrims have been walking the bulk of their day – they are tired, hungry, dehydrated, and eager to rest – and being met at the door by an uncaring bureaucrat who sees little beyond a CV booster does much harm to their Camino experience. Hospitality; hell, it’s in the job title.
This volunteer opportunity isn’t all rainbow sunshine and unicorn farts, however, for pilgrims are still people, and God love ’em, people can be shitheads. The irritable ones who decry what the Camino has become (back in my day, types), the curt types who meet your smile with a shrug and see little more than a bed than an experience, and the sneaky types who wander about the albergue as if it were their own home, disregarding privacy of others or posted signs (hey, hospitaleros are human too; get out of my quarters!), and the list goes on. People, bless their hearts, people.
But the benefits far outweigh and overshadow any shortcomings one might find as a volunteer. Rather than letting an older Frenchman sleep on the floor (we being completo and all), I showed him my private quarters and lent him the spare bed for the night. A distraught Korean woman took the spare mattress in my hallway, whilst a slew of pilgrims will share the floor tonight – those with sleeping bags generously donated their blankets to their comrades on the ground. I have been reunited with many folks I had passed in previous days as a walking pilgrim – impromptu gatherings of this sort are fantastic. Offering food and drink to those who have none, greeting everyone with a smile, and carrying bags up and down the stairs – the little things, folks – they all add up. Pilgrims will remember their stay at an enjoyable albergue, and it’s our duty to make sure we’re part of those memories. Sure, we might not have WiFi, but we do our best to offer a genuine Camino experience to those seeking one.
And here at El Burgo Ranero, I hope you enjoy your experience.
After my chance reunion with my Icelandic comrade in the town of Bercianos del Camino, we walked ran the next 8km to El Burgo Ranero in short order, arriving before the local municipal, Domenico Laffi, had officially opened to pilgrims for the day.
As the two of us sat outside in the wind and sun, I took the opportunity to reflect upon how far I had come already this Camino. Sunday marked two weeks walking, non-stop, from St. Jean. Some days were brutal and long; some were relatively quiet and short. But each was a blessing unto itself, with trials and afflictions sharing the same path as alleviation and respite. Every day you wake up, comrades, is a day to appreciate.