"Wilderness inside me, wildness, unlocked on the Camino. What does that mean? In touch with your raw self. Symptoms: not caring about make-up, hair or clothes anymore, peeing by the side of the road; not thinking about anything to do with life back home, careers, bank accounts, bother, bother. And: truly connect to nature. Connect to people. Peeling the onion's layers of culture, taboos and busy-ness, to see your real self, to see the world around you, so you can think about your purpose on earth."
I wrote this about a year ago, not long after I had finished the Camino. Recently I re-entered what feels like an "alternate universe". It felt like walking through the wall at platform 9 3/4 in Harry Potter. I was back on the Camino, but this time as hospitalera in one of the famous Spanish albergues, the monastery at Roncesvalles. Pilgrims - sometimes literally - tumble off the Pyrenees, after their first stage of 27 kilometres, into this ancient small community, that has housed pilgrims since the 11th century. People behave differently on the Camino, they talk with anyone, in any language, are helpful, interested in anyone, whether it's a Korean who only uses Google Translate to communicate, or an old American woman with two pink suitcases and her knitting sticking out of her rucksack. I for one, turn into a devout Catholic in this universe. Every night we brought a notice to the priest, Don Valentin, listing all the nationalities that had arrived that day, it was always more than 20, from Iceland to Indonesia, to Costa Rica to Latvia and Slovakia. All countries are called out in the pilgrims blessing at the end of the evening mass.
Roncesvalles is not big, it has one giant albergue (217 beds), 2 hotels, 2 restaurants, a conference centre in the old stone albergue that was used in the movie The Way, and that's it. The monastery consists of a church, a chapel, a bone house (hundreds of skulls and bones of pilgrims who died here through the ages), an antique Library, and the living quarters of the 4 priests that still reside here. The church bells ring the hours and for mass and life seems simple and beautiful, high up in the foothills of the Pyrenees at 960m.
Don Valentin is keen to connect with the hospitaleros and treated us to a tour of the bell tower, the old Library and the ancient albergue building. He insisted on pouring us a glass of Patxaran, the local alcoholic elixir, and made us drink two, so we arrived quite tipsy at lunch, where wine was waiting and then back to work! Or perhaps he made us drink more so we wouldn't notice the mouldy blue muffins he offered to go with it....
But there is another side to this coin: the reality of the lives of pilgrims and hospitaleros.... I embarked on this two-week stint of 'helping out', because I wanted to try out what it was like to be in the albergue and not on the move every day. I have learnt a lot! First of all, I don't think I have ever worked a job with such long hours and no days off for two weeks in a row! Early morning duty starts at 5.30am! At 6am all the doors need to be unlocked, and the pilgrims aroused from their slumber (Cat Stevens' Morning has broken went down well and produced sleepy smiles). 8am, the last pair of boots has finally been strapped on, rucksacks checked, jackets zipped up. Last questions answered. My favourite LOL questions were "Where should I go from here?" answered with "Well, where do you want to go?" or "Can I buy a map to show me how to get to Zubiri?" Just follow the yellow arrows, Buen Camino! A quick look at the table of items left behind, in other words the weight that has been shed is always fun. Jars of peanut butter, bags of coffee (there is coffee in Spain!), the knitting (yes, she left it behind!), make-up, neck cushions, lots of clothes, shoes, umbrellas, books, shampoo, tins of sardines (I would never leave that!), marijuana, you name it, they shed it. It's all part of liberating yourself from 'stuff' and get back to basics. After breakfast we clean 217 beds on 3 floors plus an annexe. Then coffee and some free time until 1pm, when it's time for lunch, and at 2pm the circus starts again, greeting new pilgrims. In two weeks our team of 8 have greeted and said farewell to 3083 pilgrims.
Our shift, in September, was super hard. Every day around 4pm we ran out of beds. And the pilgrims keep tumbling down the hill! We gently sit them down, let them take a breath and then break the bad news: there is no bed for you. But we'll call a taxi. Most of them comply willingly, accepting their fate, and the taxi drivers take them to a bed in the next villages. Sometimes there is real drama. No more beds, no more taxis, it's dark, and I am ashamed to say, that once we sent a couple from Slovakia out into the rain, when they had no idea where they were going to sleep. I still regret my lack of civil disobedience that night. Bad karma.
But there are so many stories, it's as if the good and the bad and the amazing are just vying for attention all the time. The story of Fabio and Julia! Julia left her wallet with everything in it, including her phone, on the wrong side of the Pyrenees. Fabio found it, phoned Julia's mother on her phone, and so we found Fabio in our albergue. I captured the reunion on film.
The sad story of Roberto.... Twenty years ago, when he was 18, he went on a cycling trip with his Dad in Argentina, his home country. His Dad became unwell, and had a heart attack. Roberto carried his Dad, slung on his back, for 3 kilometres to the nearest house, where they discovered he had died. Twenty years later Roberto decided to cycle the Camino. On his first day, the famous crossing of the Pyrenees, he encounters an emergency: a man walking with his son, has become unwell, and has lost consciousness. Roberto tries to apply CPR, but it's too late, by the time the emergency services arrived, the man has died. Roberto continues on to the albergue, where I met him to hear his story and cry with him about this terrible coincidence. After that, he cheered up, and continued on his bike, because the albergue was full by the time he got there.
Beautiful things! I taught a yoga class every day, designed for tired pilgrims. It was about stretching, but I tried to keep it light, make them laugh, let them relax, and just enjoy being there. It gave me huge joy to give back with yoga classes.
There was stress in the team too. The long hours and days tired us out, the draughty corridors gave us all a cold, and simply the fact that eight strangers were suddenly together practically 24 hours a day was a challenge. Some people fell out, and I have come away, not always impressed with the Dutch way of dealing with matters. Being direct and open is one thing, but that is not an excuse to be just plain blunt and rude, accuse people without offering solutions, or blame people when some self-soul-searching is in order.
Afterwards I decided to walk the Camino for 2 days. It was good to be on the road again, I met loads of lovely people, but it was not the same as the first time I walked this road. I had been there, done that, bought the t-shirt. I knew I could do it, although the walk from Zubiri to Pamplona totally exhausted me, due to the heat and me walking too fast. The Camino is no joke! Still, I feel I need a new horizon to walk into. The Via de la Plata is beckoning. Next year. And a renewed longing is kindled in me to run my own albergue. I don't ever again want to have to send a pilgrim away. "The Camino will provide" is the famous adagio and I will adhere to that.
PS. Hurray! I have just had confirmation that in October 2019 I will be living in Santiago de Compostela for 2 weeks, to work in the "Living room of the Low Lands" (Huiskamer der Lage Landen), welcoming pilgrims and listening to their stories. Inshallah.