Our little albergue (hostel) at the top of the hill in Grado, Spain had it’s windows flung open and a welcoming geranium on the sill. Those that made the short climb would find our open door, our smiling faces and, sadly, The Sign–the one that every pilgrim along the Camino de Santiago dreads seeing on the door:
Normally this albergue houses sixteen pilgrims in bunk beds. But health regulations now force us to limit it to eight. Maybe a couple more if they are from the same family.
In previous years, depending on the albergue and the whims of the current hospitaleros (in this case me and a Californian named John) a few more pilgrims could be fit in on mats on the floor–in the kitchen, dining area, or, in some towns, in the local church. But health regulations limit our ability to do even that these days.
So when we saw a tall pilgrim lumbering up the hill at 5pm, I dreaded having to see his reaction to The Sign.
“Completo,” he stated when he stopped in front of the open door, a round disk of fabric spreading out around his backpack behind him.
“Si. Lo siento,” I said. I turned to John, “Should we see if the albergue down the street. . . “
“You speak English!” the pilgrim said.
“Yes! Where are you from?” I asked.
“Oh–then you have a friend here,” I said, pointing to Ronan — a five-time Camino veteran whom I had checked in to the albergue just after 2pm, who also lives in the Netherlands.
The pilgrim peeked in and gave a nod to Ronan. “It’s okay,” the pilgrim said to me. “I don’t need a bed. I want to do some night walking tonight anyway, but I was just hoping to get a shower. And maybe to sit and rest before I continue.”
“Oh! We can do that!” I said. “Come in, sit down. Would you like some water?” I pointed to the pitcher on the table, sliced lemons floating at the top.
“That would be great,” he said, putting his bag down just inside the door. “And can I charge my phone?” We found a working outlet for him.
“Is that a tent?” Ronan asked upon seeing the circle of fabric on Ned’s pack.
“Yes. I sleep outside a lot.” Oh, good, I thought. I didn’t have to feel so bad that we didn’t have a bed.
Ned handed me his credential (Camino passport) so I could give him our stamp, signifying to the rest of the world that he had walked in our door on his way to Santiago de Compostela. I opened the credential to see its sixty spaces for stamps nearly filled.
“Where did you start?” I asked him.
“At my house,” he said. He had already been walking for three months.
No matter how many of them I meet, I will never stop being awed by these pilgrims who don a pack and walk out their door one day, determined to reach Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Ronan and I looked over Ned’s passport. “You went to Lourdes,” Ronan said, recognizing the stamp from his own time spent there years before.
After showing Ned to the showers, I went into town for some nourishment. Upon my return, Ned sat on a bench just outside the albergue, his quick-dry towel draped behind him. I learned that after Santiago de Compostela, he will walk to Fatima (in Portugal), across southern Spain, France, and then to Rome. Seeing the thick crucifix hanging from a chain around his neck, I knew this was certainly a religious pilgrimage for him. I wish I had asked him more about that.
At 8:30pm, with dusk descending, Ned said his goodbyes. It was then that I remembered a package of digestive biscuits a couple form Slovakia gave us when they arrived saying, “We are gluten free and can’t eat them.”
“Do you want some cookies?” I asked Ned. He pulled his head back, his eyes wide with surprise. “Yes, okay.”
John went into the kitchen and grabbed a few muffins as well. And with that, we wished Ned a Buen Camino. He thanked us for our hospitality and strolled down the hill.
Hospitality, I thought to myself. That’s the word I was looking for. When people ask what it is I do as a volunteer here along the Camino de Santiago, my laundry list of tasks doesn’t tell the whole story. Checking pilgrims in, stamping their passports, showing them where to wash their clothes and bodies, where to rest their weary souls–yes, I do that. But that’s a small part of my day.
They call us hospitaleros for a reason. We are here to be hospitable. Whether it’s offering a shower to a road-weary pilgrim, making a phone call to another albergue to help a pilgrim find a place to sleep when our albergue is full, listening to their stories, giving directions. We’re problem solvers, counselors, motivators.
On my first Camino, I saw many ruins whose signs said they were pilgrim hospitals from hundreds of years ago (pilgrims have walked to Santiago for over 1000 years). People must have gotten really sick along this route! I thought.
It was only years later I read that hospitals, in those days, were not only for the sick. They were places of hospitality. For the sick, for the well, and for everyone in between.
Today the very sick pilgrims still go to hospitals. But the rest of them? They go to a hospitalero.