On the Pilgrim Road

Hospitality on the ‘Camino'

It was the last day of September. My husband and I climbed into a taxi in Astorga, Spain, and traveled twenty kilometers west to the mountain village of Rabanal del Camino, (population less than fifty). Rabanal’s cobblestne main street, the Calle Real, climbs a steep hill past unpainted stone houses, three ancient churches, and two tiny seasonal food shops. The taxi dropped us at the door of Refugio Gaucelmo. Along with the small Benedictine Monastery of Monte Irago and a twelfth-century church built by the Knights Templar, it faces the town’s central plaza.

Since the days when King Alfonso VI (1030-1109) granted a charter for a hostel to a local hermit named Gaucelmo, the villagers of Rabanal have provided continuous hospitality on one of the world’s best-known pilgrimage routes, the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. For centuries, pilgrims from all over the world have walked across northern Spain to reach the legendary relics of St. James in the city of Santiago. The pilgrims’ motives have run the gamut, from medieval efforts to maintain a Christian presence in Moorish-dominated Spain, to piety, to adventure and escape from other difficulties, even to preying on other pilgrims. Today, Rabanal remains a modest but essential link on that storied camino.

During the spring, summer, and fall months, travelers arriving in Rabanal can choose among three basic refugios, two other small hotels, and the Monastery of Monte Irago. In the fall, the season my husband and I served as attendants at Refugio Gaucelmo, chestnut, apple, pear, and walnut trees drop their bounty in the town’s courtyards and along its streets. Church bells sound every hour. A short distance beyond the village, heather-covered mountains take over and only the sound of sheep bells interrupts the silence.

My husband and I volunteered to serve as wardens at Gaucelmo for two and a half weeks in the fall of 2004. The refugio’s old stone building, now refurbished, and its barn and orchard, were once a priest’s home. Today they are managed by the British Confraternity of St. James in the time-honored spirit of the Camino. Pilgrims bunk in one room, are provided a simple breakfast, and hit the trail by 8 a.m. Hot showers are available. Guests can cook their own evening meal or go to one of several nearby restaurants. There is no charge for staying, but each pilgrim must present her credencial, an official record stamped with the seals or cellos of other stations along the Camino, which certifies she is a genuine pilgrim. Gaucelmo does not offer a bed to anyone arriving by car or bus (but those on horseback are welcome). Cyclists must wait until all of the day’s walkers have been accommodated. Operating expenses (for food, propane, and incidentals) are funded by donations. Rabanal is roughly two-thirds of the way to Compostela for those pilgrims crossing northern Spain from the Pyrenees. By this point, they are usually seasoned hikers, although their destination is still 238 kilometers to the west.

The couple we came to relieve wasted no time showing us the routine: how to register pilgrims speaking half a dozen different languages; clean the place from top to bottom every morning; set out breakfast, change propane tanks, cultivate friendly relations with the villagers; and handle emergencies. Our work began at 6 a.m. and ended at 11 p.m.

“What have we gotten ourselves into?” my husband asked in his usual mild manner after we finally found a moment alone. I groused, “Next time, why don’t we go crab fishing in the Bering Sea?” and started counting the hours until the day we’d be sprung. I felt like an impostor. My husband, a former Peace Corps volunteer, is adventurous, steady, and generous by nature. I am ever alert for my own comfort and privacy. What was I doing here? Looking for the spiritual challenge I resisted back home?

We had walked the Camino ourselves, so we knew what the pilgrims would be going through. In 2002, with an eleven-year-old son, we walked five hundred miles from St. Jean Pied-a-Port in France to Santiago, sleeping in crowded refugios, including this one. As a hiker, I had prepared myself to experience The Canterbury Tales-a boisterous, profane parade filled with comical, self-serving creatures out of Chaucer. To my surprise, and delight, the physical hike itself turned out to be the paramount experience: the walk was so demanding it dictated events. As we pounded along, the days proved often solitary, dreamy, and contemplative. For me, the greatest social challenge was in learning to make mutual decisions and to accept our dependence on one another.

This time, working as a hospitalera, I had expected my stubborn spirit to be challenged. I recognized that I was going to have to give more of myself, and I wasn’t sure I could do it. In the taxi to Rabanal, we caught sight of a few lone pilgrims whenever the highway came near the Camino route. Seeing them with their packs and staffs, I was relieved to discover inside my own sense of tenderness.

After two days, the couple who trained us were packing and ready to go. “What do you think of it?” the wife asked me.

“It’s not like I thought it would be,” I responded. “I don’t know how to explain.”

“You thought it would be spiritual,” she said, smiling.

“That’s it!”

“Always remember to let them talk,” were her final words of advice. “They need to talk, to make their own discoveries. It’s their pilgrimage.”

Pilgrimage has two aspects-one seen from the inside, when you are actually making the walk; it is often a sober affair. And the second is from the outside, from the point of view of the caregiver, who remains in one place and watches the stream of humanity pass by. What we found on this other side of the pilgrimage was humanity at its most entertaining and profane. It turned out to be truly Chaucerian, with a fair dose of additional tenderness, forgiveness, and gratitude.

Over time, many pilgrims learn to be grateful for what comes their way-the hospitality of villagers, their fellow pilgrims, even the road. A German woman who had been walking for two weeks with a broken arm in a cast arrived late one night. I expressed amazement. “There’s nothing wrong with my legs,” she countered. When I told her that the only remaining bed was an upper bunk, she said simply and promptly, “I’m grateful for it.”

After rising at six and serving a breakfast of sliced regional bread (hogaza) and café con leche to roughly thirty hikers, we waved them off and started cleaning. Mopping floors and swabbing toilets never got to be pleasant, so our response became to do the work more quickly. We were thorough-but fast. Cleaning up after others is a job that keeps households going and food on the table the world over, but it would be wrong to glorify it unduly. And it’s a sin to mistreat those who perform it for others. I never got through those chores without feeling that no one should be forced to do such work for years without an adequate income and the hope of saving for a better life.

Like Americans, Spaniards seem to love powerful and specialized cleaning products. In a few hours, the bunkroom, bathroom, and kitchen reeked like a chemistry lab. We threw everything back into the broom closet and got on with the fun stuff.

It was often around 2 p.m. before we finished the cleaning, shopping, accounts, and chatting with the patient villagers in a language we’d been studying for only two years. If we were lucky, maybe we’d have an hour to take a siesta, enjoy the quiet orchard, or explore nearby sights before the new crowd arrived.

Because pilgrims usually start early and walk without taking long breaks, a queue formed outside our gate before opening time at 3 p.m. Most of our guests hiked from Astorga, twenty kilometers away, or Hospital de Orbigo, a distance of thirty-five kilometers. Each one who tottered into our courtyard was tired. There’s a look to the dehydrated human face-shadows under the eyes, a slight madness in the stare-that comes from a need to throw down the backpack, get some refreshment and a shower, drop into a horizontal position, and contemplate the miles. Each of these needs presses forward in the psyche, crying “Me first!” Quite often, that haunted look comes from personal troubles too.

These pilgrims knew that they had finished the easy part of the day and that now they had to become social creatures again. They had to wash bodies and clothes, find an evening meal (and possibly share it), tend aches and pains, and organize themselves for the next day in a noisy, crowded bunkroom.

Each afternoon we greeted a new stream of people coming to terms with exhaustion and learning the limits of their resiliency. By that point, no one was still at the top of his game. Some were all but flattened by the Camino experience, their self-confidence shaken. But others were warming to it. On each person’s face, the lines of a different story were being traced.

In addition to cleaning supplies, our broom closet became a repository for jettisoned boots, discarded tents, and sleeping pads. One afternoon, a young Californian came into the courtyard lugging a heavy tome. It looked like an embossed wedding album. She sat down near us and began to chat.

“I’m like totally high maintenance, materialistic,” she said, “I mean, I wear makeup every day, but I felt the Camino was something I really wanted to do.” She pondered the book in her lap. “I’m really, really attached to this journal,” she confessed, as if beginning to understand a part of herself, and even to question the wisdom of hauling the book. I remembered a day years before when I had cached my own heavy journal after the first day of a trek on Vancouver Island. But I reminded myself: “Don’t say anything. It’s her pilgrimage.”

Every afternoon and evening we settled ourselves in the courtyard-or on cold rainy days, in the foyer-to be available to latecomers and to those with questions, or simply to enjoy our guests. We loved it. I came to count on a rich feeling of engagement with the new pilgrims as I listened to my husband explain the routines while referring to his Spanish crib sheet, or as the guests wandered in and out all evening with their questions, complaints, and a desire to talk.

Even the most difficult pilgrims-of the roughly four hundred fifty we cared for, only three stood out as being filled with anger-were responding to inner demons, not really to us. With a look that suggested they were taking commands from an inner dictator, they fretted and complained. It was clear these souls served two masters-the pilgrimage route and the inner slave driver-and they were not doing well by either.

We also observed the interactions of the pilgrims with one another-the flirting, the manipulation, the come-ons, the genuine interest and care. They worried about someone they had just met, then pondered the compulsion to worry. They formed into groups, then broke apart, choosing solitude and contemplation over the safety of the crowd. They emptied ten bottles of wine, or none at all. They took down the guitars that decorated the salon walls and sang popular tunes in a variety of languages. They cooked up kettles of macaroni, and invited others to share. And they followed one another’s lead: if the first person tidied up, others followed suit. Multilingual pilgrims stepped forward to translate whenever we or others needed help. It was just as Czeslaw Milosz had written in his poem “Report,” about the stream of poets, living and dead, who formed his spiritual community: “Fraternally, we help each other, forgetting our / grievances, translating each other into other / tongues, members, indeed, of a wandering crew.”

A small, modest Frenchman, who spoke no English, came to life when he took up a guitar. He led a crowd of twenty in song, from Elvis hits (“Doan be cruuel!”) to Spanish and French folk songs. But when the church bells rang for compline in the nearby Templar church at 9:30, he set down the guitar and, without a word, everyone rose to file out for the Gregorian chanting and the monks’ benediction.

Another night, as I was working in the kitchen, I heard the voices of Spanish, Portuguese, and English pilgrims in our orchard, relaxing with a bottle of wine. They were singing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and I was struck that this American antiwar song was being conveyed back to me by Europeans during a war they all opposed. Yet they were honoring something beautiful in America and American culture.

One bitterly cold rainy morning, when my husband opened the gate at 6:30, he found a disheveled Spaniard sleeping next to it. We had noticed the man and his dog the day before, camped near the church. The pilgrimage attracts a number of troubled people. The man had looked at no one, had asked for nothing. Now he entered the courtyard and murmured a polite request for coffee. When I reached for a cup in the kitchen, a voice in my head said: “Oh come on.” So I found him a deep bowl, filled it with hot milk and coffee, and buttered him two slabs of bread. He thanked me, returned the bowl when it was finished, and disappeared.

In contrast, a well-outfitted but self-described “poor peregrino” burst in on us one morning, claiming that he had walked all night in the rain after a confrontation with the hospitalero in Astorga. He asked for coffee. When my husband brought him a cup, he insisted on sugar too. Later, the monks next door reported he had accosted them, demanding breakfast. After we had returned home, a friend who had just completed the trek reported she had run into the same man. “He was on his way back,” she noted, “but he was still that way.”

This man had not yet been able to surrender his spirit to the trail. He remained determined to do things a certain way, as a “poor peregrino.” I thought he might need to repeat the pilgrimage for some time, like another tormented pilgrim who had walked away from his home in Bremen, Germany, when his wife asked for a divorce. He had walked to Santiago, back to France, and back to Santiago again. We me him in Rabanal, on his second return trip. He was still fuming.

Experienced hospitaleros warned us that the most difficult people we would meet would be our fellow hosts. Be fair to one another and expect differences, we were cautioned. When our replacements arrived, they immediately wanted to do things differently. They drank wine with the pilgrims in the afternoon, rearranged the breakfast service, were impatient to take charge. I felt petulant, and as we packed, my inner taskmaster-a moral absolutist, resistant to change-returned in full gear. When we crossed the plaza to take our last meal at a local restaurant, a Swiss hospitalera from a refugio six kilometers up the mountains suddenly appeared with her recorder. In the crowded restaurant, she piped a tune in our honor and recited a poem. She mentioned some of the pilgrims we had met “whose lives we touched,” and whose lives had touched us: the peregrino with the sweet tooth; the homeless Spaniard; a New Zealander for whom we summoned an ambulance at 4 a.m. It was exactly the sacrament of farewell, the benediction, we needed. And it dissolved all my ill humor.

What touched me most in Rabanal were the tired, urgent pilgrim faces. El Greco’s monks and Goya’s patriots come to mind, not the pale, sentimental faces in so much religious art. In an El Greco, you sense the artist looking at his fellow creatures, telling their stories of suffering or joy, fatigue or fright. Perhaps the sacred and the profane are, to Catholics, what yin and yang are to Taoists. We are a church not of the saved, but of sinners and pilgrims, constantly visiting the sacred and returning to the profane transformed, and vice versa. Life on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela is a daily exposure to this provocative interplay.

Some pilgrims, having reached Santiago, continue for three more days (ninety more kilometers) to reach the Atlantic coast at Finisterre. When our work was over, we set off to Santiago and rejoined the pilgrimage. On the final stretch to Finisterre, we fell in with many of the pilgrims we had cared for. Now they looked after us. The German woman, her arm still in a cast, slept next to me in one refugio, and we rode together on the return bus. She kissed us goodbye with a sudden rush of emotion. “It’s been so wonderful knowing what to do each day,” she said. “Now the hard part begins.” She had just walked 560 miles with a broken arm.

Published in the 2006-06-02 issue: 

Marjorie Kowalski Cole writes fiction, poetry, and essays at her home near Fairbanks, Alaska. Her novel Correcting the Landscape (HarperCollins, 2006) received the 2004 Bellwether Prize.

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