An Evening In The Life of a Hospitalera

After twenty uninterrupted minutes reading my book, I looked around the empty room. The pilgrims who’d arrived earlier in the afternoon had finished their laundry and showers and were either resting upstairs or in town eating or grocery shopping. I peeked out the window. No backpack laden pilgrims were traipsing up the hill toward our albergue (hostel) here on the Camino de Santiago. So I went back to my book amazed to have some quiet time to sit and read.

Then 5:30 came.

Two smiling pilgrims peeked in the door. “Bienvenidos!” I exclaimed, quickly leaving my book facedown on a nearby chair and greeting them at the door. As they searched for their mascarillas (masks), I reassured them saying, “Hay dos camas.” We have two beds. They breathed out great sighs of relief. I invited them in asking, “Tienes agua?” Do you want water? I pointed to our glass pitcher, sliced lemons floating in it.

After downing their first glass, I poured more, encouraging them to take off their packs and sit. I took a moment to post our “completo” sign on the door only to see two more pilgrims approach.

I explained to them that we didn’t have any beds left, that we are only operating at 50% capacity. “But I can help you find a bed,” I said. They accepted my offer of water and then asked, “Do you have beer?”

Si,” I said, dashing into the kitchen to grab two from John’s stash. (At .40 Euros a can, he keeps them on hand and gives them out freely.)

“Cuánto cuesta?” they asked.

Es donativo,” I said. We don’t suggest prices for anything in this donativo (by donation) albergue. And technically beers are not even part of our offering. I should have just told them to take it, but was only thinking about getting back to the map to show them their housing options for the night. They took one can and left a Euro on the table, assuring me they knew where the other hostel was and they would just go there.

After depositing the coin into our donations jar, I checked in the two pilgrims who had managed to get our last two beds. I gave them the tour and barely sat down before a long-haired young man with a large backpack arrived. After going through the do-you-want-water/I-can-help-you-find-a-bed routine, he asked about camping. I showed him our tiny brick patio over which hung clotheslines filled with the freshly-cleaned, damp clothes of the pilgrims staying here. He mimicked that his tent required stakes.

Se que Albergue la Quintana tiene. . . ” I didn’t know the word for lawn, but I pointed to the park outside our door and he understood, at which point he spoke some English and I was relieved. “They charge six Euros to camp at Albergue La Quintana,” I told him. “Would you like to call them or would you like me to do that?” I was grateful when he chose the former as he clearly knew more Spanish than I did.

After securing his place, I chatted a bit with him and invited him to come back in the morning for breakfast if he so desired. As this would require him to backtrack from where he would be spending the night, I doubted I would see him, but John and I have started making this offer as conversation permits. I’m sure it’s partly to make ourselves feel better for turning them away.

Two of my pilgrims-in-residence (for that night, at least!) came down asking if it was okay to park their car in the lot outside the albergue. They had attempted to explain to me why it is they have said car. From what I could gather, they walk the day’s route and then one of them takes a bus or train back to the previous town to pick up the car.

I honestly had no idea about parking in the lot outside our albergue. I recalled John saying, “Every day, you get a different question we have to figure out.” John (my co-volunteer) was not feeling well this afternoon and had retired to bed. So I did the best I could, explaining that the other buildings that face the lot are government offices which are not open on the weekends (this being Saturday), so “creo que sí.” I think so.

Two more pilgrims arrived. Water. Map. Showed them the options. I called their first selection, the Hotel Auto Bar. “Completo,” I was told. Oh, no, I thought, hoping there were still beds elsewhere. I called Albergue La Quintana. “Sí.”

With their beds for the night secured, the two pilgrims sitting in our reception/dining area were now in no rush and so it was that I learned their story. They were not, as I’d assumed, together. He, a Frenchman, was biking the Camino del Norte. He met his German friend in an albergue in Oviedo last night. Today she set out on foot, he on his bike, probably thinking they’d never see other again. But just before arriving here, the biker had a problem with his bike. Since there is no bike shop in this town, he had to hop a train back to Oviedo and got there just 10 minutes before the shop closed for the weekend. Bike fixed, he started his day all over again, meeting his German friend not too far outside town. Tonight, they will be in the same room again. I will probably never know how their story continues.

Some minutes later, a couple dressed for a casual night on the town stopped by. “Una cerveza en el patio en esto albergue?” I knew immediately they were in the wrong place.

Aqui, no. Albergue La Quintana tiene un patio.” John and I had visited the privately-owned Albergue La Quintana a few days earlier. It is a recently remodeled Indianos house. Hundreds of thousands of people from this region of Spain went to the Americas in the late 1800s. Some became quite wealthy, returned to their homeland, and built these magnificent homes. Today, some are historic sites or hotels. Others are in ruins or privately owned. Albergue La Quintana is the latter–its owners finished remodeling three years ago. The first level has a reception area and bar with a patio out back. I sent our revelers down the road.

At 8pm, I roused John. Did I mention I took at 9 kilometer (5.4 mile) walk this morning? And had yet to shower. Plus, we needed supplies for breakfast in the morning. Upon my return from the market, John had finished getting things set up for breakfast. I retired to my room having enjoyed my day but very much looking forward to getting back to reading my book.

No pilgrims trailing up our hill . . .

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