A Day in the Life of a Hospitalera

The view on the first day, in St. Jean Pied de Port.

The view on the first day, in St. Jean Pied de Port.

From the first day I spent walking on the Camino de Santiago, I knew I would want to return and give back in some way. My first albergue experience in St. Jean Pied de Port was at Esprit du Chemin, an albergue ran by a Dutch couple.  The warm welcome, the shared meal, and the restful night before beginning my Camino were integral to the positive experience I had on my walk.  From that very first experience on the Camino, I knew I would return and serve pilgrims as a hospitalera.

Hospitaleros (or hospitaleras if female) are the glue that hold albergues together. Without them, the albergues along the Camino would be dirty, unfriendly, inhospitable buildings with beds in them.  Hospitaleros are responsible for the general running of albergues. They make sure pilgrims get up in the morning (and leave by 8a!), sometimes they serve meals (breakfast and dinner), they clean up after the pilgrims leave, and they check pilgrims in, welcoming them to the albergue. Hospitaleros have a great influence on the experience pilgrims have while on the Camino. Those places I had the best experiences were where the hospitaleros were friendly, warm, welcoming, and seemed like they wanted the pilgrims there. Those places I had negative experiences were where the hospitaleros were indifferent, didn’t seem like they were having a good time and where the cleanliness of the albergue was in question. I had very few negative experiences while walking and to be honest, I don’t have strong memories of those times. I do remember the places I felt the most welcome and could rattle off those names quickly to anyone who asks. Of course, the thing with hospitaleros and albergues is they change quite frequently, so where I may have had a great experience, you might not.

The average pilgrim probably doesn’t realize the work that goes into running an albergue. I know I didn’t. I knew I was up for the task though. So, I set out to find a training in the US and was sadly disappointed to find out the hospitalero training offered by American Pilgrims on the Camino was going to cost a few hundred dollars plus a plane ticket to California (plus a rental car, fuel, etc). I figured out the total costs and it was going to run around $900 for everything. In other words, the same cost as a plane ticket to Spain! I found out the Canadian Company of Pilgrims was going to be conducting a training in Victoria, British Columbia which is a three hour drive and a ninety minute ferry ride from my home in Oregon. The cost was $120 CDN and included materials, housing and food.  I figured gas and ferry fees were going to run another $150.  For a little over $300, I was able to do my training in another country with some of the most experienced hospitaleros you can find in North America.  This was a bargain compared to staying in my own country!  I had the most amazing training experience with the Canadians and am proud to say I was trained by them.  If you live near British Columbia or Ontario, I strongly suggest attending a Canadian Company of Pilgrims Hospitalero training.  You won't be disappointed. 

This is one of the group activities we did, creating our "perfect" albergue.  When I am Queen of the World, I will create an albergue like none you have ever seen!  Until then, I will gladly do the best I can with what I am given.

This is one of the group activities we did, creating our "perfect" albergue.  When I am Queen of the World, I will create an albergue like none you have ever seen!  Until then, I will gladly do the best I can with what I am given.

So, where did I end up serving? As a pilgrim, I had a really memorable experience in Santo Domingo de la Calzada so they were first on my list. North American volunteer hospitaleros are given some leeway with being able to choose where we are going to serve. They understand the intense amount of time, money and travel it takes for those of us across the “pond” to get to Europe, so we get to have choices about where we serve. Most Europeans are not given the option to choose. The group I volunteered with handles hospitalero assignments for the donativo albergues. Of course, you are welcome to volunteer anywhere that will take you but I strongly recommend going through training and spending your first two weeks in a dontativo albergue. The volunteer hospitalero schedule runs for a two week time period, starting on either the 1st or the 16th of each month, and ending on either the 15th or 30th/31st of each month. I was accepted at Santo Domingo de la Calzada, as was my sister. We served together for two weeks in October of 2011.

The view from the tower in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, Spain.  On a clear day, you could see for miles in either direction, all along the Camino.

The view from the tower in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, Spain.  On a clear day, you could see for miles in either direction, all along the Camino.

The life of a hospitalero is not an easy one and at times it can be quite difficult. If I were to use one word to describe my experience, though, it would be this: rewarding.  The experience was challenging and tiring, however it was also one of the most rewarding experiences I have had on the Camino.

Here’s a sample of what our average day was like in Santo Domingo de la Calzada. Please keep in mind every albergue is unique and your experience very likely will be different.  We were fortunate to have a crew of cleaning ladies.  This is not normal for most albergues.  Another thing to keep in mind is we were there towards the end of busy season.  So we moved pilgrims into the "old" albergue which sleeps fewer pilgrims and is much more cozy than the "new" albergue most people stay at during the busy season.  If you were to volunteer during the busy season, you would have more hospitaleros working with you and you would be in the main "new" albergue instead.  This is our experience.

5:30a: Wake up and shower. Our room had a small bathroom with a very small hot water tank, so we traded off taking showers each day. We also traded off with who would get things opened each day, so whoever got the shower was usually the one opening up the albergue in the morning for pilgrims to leave. The other person got to sleep in a bit. A fair trade off, I think!

6:00a: Open the reception area on the main floor of the albergue.  Turn on some gentle tunes for pilgrims to listen to as they were leaving.  Print out the daily weather report and post it where pilgrims could see it.

6:30a:  Head upstairs to the albergue to make sure pilgrims were awake and getting ready for the day.  Our albergue had a very strict 8:00a departure time for pilgrims so we had to make sure everyone was out the door by then, or we would get the evil eye by the cleaning ladies.  Trust me, you don’t want to get the evil eye from the cleaning ladies.

7:00a: Give the one hour notice.  Assist pilgrims if they needed it.

7:45a: Give the fifteen minute notice.  Offer assistance to anyone who was really struggling.

8:00a: Final call. Pilgrims need to be out of the dorm area at minimum, and out the door shortly after, otherwise the cleaning women were shooting death glares at us. This was not pleasant. If we seemed a little short with you, it’s because we were getting pressured to get you out the door. When I am queen of the world and have my own albergue, you can leave whenever you want. But since I am not, I had to follow the rules!

8:00-9:00a: Empty the garbage in the reception area, the bathrooms downstairs, and the albergue.  This took a minimum of fifteen minutes.  Then we would stick around and wait for the luggage transfer service to pick up backpacks or drop off backpacks.

9:00-11:30a: Breakfast at a local bar, grocery shopping if we needed food, and general wandering time.  This was usually our only free time.  Sometimes we would go back to sleep for a short nap.  Or we would journal or try to email home.

Tapas at a local bar.  Occasionally we would grab one or two to eat with our cafe con leche.

Tapas at a local bar.  Occasionally we would grab one or two to eat with our cafe con leche.

11:30a-Noon: Get the reception area ready for opening the door to the albergue. We would fill the water jug with water and stock the drinking cups. We would make sure the date stamp for the sello was correct. We would get the book we recorded everyone’s names in and put it out next to the albergue sello and ink pad. We would make sure we had enough change for credentials or other needs. At this point, a member of the Cofradia, the organization that runs the albergue would show up. They were always there if we had questions or needed help.  Google Translate on the computer became our friend for when we needed to communicate.

Noon-10:00p:  Open the albergue at Noon.  Start greeting pilgrims as they enter.  Offer water to the pilgrims.  Ask for their pilgrim credential.  Stamp and date it.  Record their information in the log book.  Answer questions.  Then, depending on what language the pilgrim speaks, use the cheat sheet you’ve created in the top five languages to tell them what they need to know (where is the laundry area, where is the chapel, where is their bed, where is the bathroom, where is the kitchen, what time the albergue closes at night and what time they need to leave in the morning), all while taking them up the two flights of stairs to the albergue (this is the old albergue, not the newer one some of you may have stayed at).  Repeat for as many pilgrims walk through the door.  Our lowest night was around 12 pilgrims and our biggest night was over 70 pilgrims, including putting about 20 in the overflow area.  Most nights we averaged between 30-40 pilgrims.

Sometime around 1:00p, one of the members of the Cofradia would relieve one of us to go to lunch. The other would stay and continue checking in pilgrims. At 2:00p, we would switch and the other would go to lunch. We went grocery shopping, so we made our own meals each day. Usually it was a veggie/meat stirfry with rice and a glass of vino tinto. Not all albergues provide food for hospitaleros, this is one that does not.

When we were both finished with our lunches, the Cofradia member would leave to go to lunch. They would return again around 7:30p. There would usually be many members of the Cofradia congregating in the albergue. This is the time the village would be out and about, walking around, having tapas, drinks and socializing. It was my favorite part of the day! Usually around 8:30p, we were often relieved of our duties so we could go to dinner. We were usually so exhausted we would go to bed immediately. We did go out for dinner a couple times, but often we just went back to our room, read for a bit, and then were soundly asleep before too long.

The next day we would wake up and do it all over again! 

Here's one of our Cofradia friends.  That's me on the left and my sister Lisa on the right.

Here's one of our Cofradia friends.  That's me on the left and my sister Lisa on the right.

Here's a video we recorded the first day we served in Santo Domingo de la Calzada.  Unfortunately, this is the only one we did.  We were too busy and too tired to do more!  This video features Deborah from iPilgrim podcast.  Check out her podcasts.  I'm featured on a few of them.

(Sidenote: The albergue in Santo Domingo de la Calzada is no longer donativo.  Pilgrim donations were so low, they had to start charging a set rate to cover their expenses.)

Have you served in an albergue as a hospitalero/a?  Do you want to serve?  Please share your thoughts here.

Camino Portuguese: An Unexpected Solitary Experience

One of many waymarks you may or may not find along the Camino de Santiago.  This one is in Santo Domingo de la Calzada along the Camino Frances.

One of many waymarks you may or may not find along the Camino de Santiago.  This one is in Santo Domingo de la Calzada along the Camino Frances.

Pilgrims who have walked the Camino usually end up in one of two groups at the end of their walk.  The first group of pilgrims are satisfied with their accomplishment of walking across Spain and have no desire to ever walk again.  The second group of pilgrims are satisfied with their accomplishment of walking across Spain and are already starting to plan their next walk before they even finish their first one.  There is a term for this addiction, it’s called “Camino-itis” and it can be highly contagious.  I’ll give you one guess which group I belong to.

Shortly after finishing my first Camino walk in 2010, I was already plotting a return.  I had walked the Camino Frances, the most popular of all the routes, and for good reason.  There are towns every 5 to 10 km, cafe con leches are just around the corner, and the people are used to seeing pilgrims along the Way.

I spent quite a bit of time researching the other routes.  There are many ways to get to Santiago and I wanted to pick one that would allow me to take my time but still give me time before and afterwards to explore.  I chose the Camino Portuguese, but instead of starting from Lisbon, I decided to begin in Porto.  This would allow me a solid two weeks of walking, and a cushion on either end to sightsee in Portugal and Spain.  I like to be different (this is not quite the shocker to friends and family who know me well!) and make things a bit difficult and challenging for myself.  Instead of doing the “Caminho Central”, I chose to do the “Orla Litoral” and the “Caminho da Costa”.  This route isn’t in any of the guidebooks and I was using a series of PDF files I found online that were in Portuguese with a mish-mash of Google Maps showing the route.  I chose to walk in October because I like the moderate temperatures and there’s less pilgrim traffic so there isn’t a run for beds.

For those of us who have walked the Camino Frances, I think we can agree it is a communal experience.  You are walking with hundreds of people every day.  You sleep in albergues with thirty, forty, fifty or more pilgrims all snoring in a sweet symphony.  You eat together at the albergue or a local bar in the evening, sharing your thoughts on the days walk.  Yes, you can have a solitary experience if you choose to be antisocial and not talk to anyone or stay in hotels the entire way.  For me, I enjoy the daily interactions with pilgrims from around the globe.  Even if we don’t share a common language or culture, we are all headed in the same direction with the same goal in mind. Many of us are contemplating the same questions.  What am I doing with my life?  How do I be a better person?  What’s the next step?  What am I supposed to learn while walking 800 kilometers?  How do I stop getting blisters?  Why do cafe con leches taste so good?  You get the idea.

I had high hopes for my walk from Porto along this lesser known route following the coast of Portugal (literally, in some places, I was walking on the beach!).  I was looking for a challenge and this route did not disappoint.  I will be sharing my daily reflections in upcoming posts, but I do want to touch on one aspect of this route I was not expecting: it was a solitary experience.

From the first steps I took across the bridge near Matosinhos, I became aware of the fact there would not be a lot of pilgrims this time of year walking this particular route.  I got a few odd looks here and there from people out for their daily stroll.  I kept walking, hopeful I might run into a pilgrim or two along the way.  I didn’t see a single pilgrim for the next four days.  

Don’t get me wrong.  I enjoy solitude.  I backpack by myself a few times a year, either out of necessity or choice.  I go hiking by myself occasionally too.  During those instances of solitude, I am able to prepare myself mentally and physically for the experience because I know I will be by myself.  With the Camino, I had prepared myself to see other pilgrims along the way, or at the very least, at albergues.  This was not the case on the route I chose for the Camino Portuguese.  The first four days I spent walking by myself, staying in youth hostels or hotels by myself, and eating by myself.  I barely spoke at all.  This was not what I had prepared for.  I was miserable.  I didn’t know what to do and finally on that fourth day, I made a difficult decision.

I was in the small coastal town of Ancora.  There wasn’t a pilgrim hostel (or a youth hostel for that matter) in town, but I did find a reasonably priced hotel. I decided to splurge on my own room to see if it would lift my spirits a bit.  It did.  I took a luxurious hot shower and a nice nap.  I found a grocery store and stocked up on food for breakfast and lunch the next day.  I ate one of the most memorable meals of my trip at a small restaurant where I was the only customer due to my early eating habits (which by the way, I don’t think 8p is early!).  I had a very attentive waitress who made sure I was well taken care of.

I went back to the hotel and continued a conversation with my Portuguese Camino Angel who had been guiding me along the way from afar in Lisbon.  I told him about all of my struggles and asked what the rest of the coastal route was like.  It was made clear to me if I continued along the coast into Spain, I would not encounter pilgrims for a while, if at all, along with uncertainty about the waymarking, which was already causing me tons of problems.  I decided to take the train the next morning to Valenca, then continue walking on the central route everyone walks.  I hate taking transportation when I am capable of walking but I knew I couldn’t do another day of walking with no one else to share the experience with.

The next day, I took the train to Valenca, walked into Tui, found the Cathedral and almost attacked the first pilgrims I saw, I was so happy to see them.  I stayed in an albergue that night with six German pilgrims and four French pilgrims.  I had a grin on my face as I slept, I am sure of it.  My solitary experience was over.  I was ready for the community of pilgrims.

Stay tuned for my Camino Portuguese journal over the coming days….

Have you ever experienced something differently than you prepared for?  What changes, if any did you make?

Funding My Travels: February 2014 Update

Apologies for the lateness of my February 2014 update.  I had a crazy busy month with work, housesitting and a trip to Montana (I'm sitting in a coffee shop in Big Sky, MT writing this blog post), so I am a wee bit behind in some posts I'll be sharing soon.

This month's update is another easy one. 

Long Term Travel Account Activity

Previous Long Term Travel Account Balance (January 2014):  $1,671.18

Current Long Term Travel Account Balance (February 2014):  $2,146.95

Total Deposit Towards Goal: $475.77 (A little under goal, but I was way over last month, so we are on track)

Short Term Travel Account Activity

My short term travel account is going to take a huge hit in the next month as I use my tax return to purchase my flight for the October Nepal trip.  I've used a small amount for my trip to Montana too.  More details on that in March's financial report.  This month, I received my Federal and State tax returns so I had a huge deposit.   For some reason my starting account balance is off a few dollars.  I need to go and figure that one out.  Either way, I have enough money to buy my Nepal plane ticket in the next week or so.

Previous Short Term Travel Account Balance (January 2014): $516.61

Current Short Term Travel Account Balance (February 2014): $1552.67

Total Deposit: $1015.04 (US & State Tax Returns plus dividend)

Overall, I am really proud of where I am at with my savings.  I have housesitting money I'll be receiving on my return from Montana which will go towards my short term travel.  I started my new side job teaching social media literacy this past month and any money I make from there will be going into my long term travel account.  I'd really like to teach some CPR classes in the next couple of months.  If you know anyone in Portland needing AHA BLS or lower, I am your woman!  Send them to me.  Thanks for checking this out.

Are you saving for a goal? What are you saving for?  What kinds of tips do you have to share about your saving strategy?


Gratitude is Contagious!

I'll be honest.  I take a lot of things for granted.  A lot.  Lately, quite a few people have been writing about what they are grateful for.  I was particularly inspired by Sally from Unbrave Girl to write my own list.  Here are the top five things I am grateful for:

  1. Coffee.  Those of you who know me well, know I love coffee.  I drink it so much, I sometimes get caffeine withdrawal headaches.  Yeah.  I need to work on that.  Living in Portland, OR I have become a coffee snob and I wear that badge with honor.  There's nothing I like more than discussing which coffees are my favorites (if you must know, I prefer the chocolate undertones of East African coffees like kochere and yirgacheffe) and sharing my favorite methods of brewing coffee (either pour-over or Aeropress).  When traveling, I enjoy a good cafe con leche or espresso in places like Spain and Italy.  Let it be known, I am not one of those coffee snobs who avoids Starbucks.  Currently, I live in an area of town that doesn't have any local, independent coffee shops that are open late, so I do frequent the local Starbucks when I am heading to work.  Other times of day, I am sure to support the few local, independent coffee shops near me.  My goal is to learn how to roast my own beans.
  2. A Job I Love.  While I really wish I could make a bazillion dollars running this website, sadly that is not going to happen anytime soon.  In the meantime, I have a job I love, work with great people I consider my work family, and enjoy taking care of people.  I work in healthcare, in a fast paced, intense environment.  I think the biggest reason I love my job is it allows me to save money for my travels.  In the current economy in Oregon, I do not take my employment for granted.  I am very grateful I have a job, and even more so, one that pays well enough for me to save for future travels.
  3. Hiking Buddies.  Since I returned from my big RTW trip in 2010, I have completely immersed myself in hiking and backpacking.  I have the greatest group of women in a Meetup group I belong to who plan the most awesome expeditions and adventures.  Anytime I want to go and do something there is either an event already planned, or I put one together and a few of my favorite people join me on a new adventure.
  4. Food.  Yes, yes, I know.  Everyone should be grateful for food.  Remember how I mentioned I live in Portland, OR?  Yeah.  We have really, really good food here.  I'm sure you've probably seen that famous Portlandia sketch about a chicken named Colin.  If not, go watch it.  I'll wait.  Good.  Got it?  Portland is the land of milk and honey when it comes to food options.  Do you have a gluten or lactose allergy?  No problem.  Vegan or vegetarian?  Definitely not a problem.  Are you a carnivore with a voracious appetite?  Also not a problem.  There is a restaurant to appeal to whatever cuisine you are craving.  If you can't find it at a restaurant, then I bet one of the hundreds of local food carts will have it.  I've found great Thai food that reminds me of being in Thailand (no, I'm not talking about Pok Pok).  I've found Iraqi food, and there's also a food cart featuring Georgian (the country, not the state) food.  The possibilities are endless and for that I am very grateful. 
  5. A Roof Over My Head. I got really lucky with my current housemate.  Her and I have different work schedules, but we do see each other in the evenings before I go to work and on the weekends when we are both around.  She's old enough to be my mom, but we get along like good friends.  I think it's because she's young at heart!  I feel pretty fortunate to be in a good housing situation, close to work, and in a suburban area close enough to the city.  Portland has a huge homeless population, some of which are out on the streets due to mental illness or drug abuse and many who have been deeply affected by the horrible economy here.  Having a safe place to lay my head each night is something many people around the world do not have.  I have been made painfully aware of this in my travels, as well as locally near my house and I remember this when I find myself complaining about where I live.

How about you?  What are you grateful for?

Safety on the Camino de Santiago

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In the presentations I give on the Camino, I field many questions from women specifically, about safety on the Camino. While most of this advice is for women, I think men can benefit from it as well.  Let’s begin, shall we? 

**PLEASE NOTE: Trigger warning.  I will be sharing a couple of my experiences and while they are not overly traumatic for me, they may be considered sexually explicit for some.**

Is the Camino safe?

Yes. Absolutely. The Camino is as safe as any large American city, if not safer.

I’ve heard of some unsavory characters along the way.  Is this true?

Yes. Absolutely.  If you follow any of the Camino forums or other groups, you will hear stories of flashers, theft and sometimes assaults.  The Camino is not immune to criminal activity.  In some ways, it attracts it because these unsavory characters know pilgrims are more open while walking.

Have you ever felt unsafe on the Camino?

Yes and no.  On my first Camino, just outside of Cacabelos, I was sitting on a park bench when a young man sat down beside me and proceeded to play “pocket pool”.  While it weirded me out quite a bit, I casually finished my apple, ignored him, and continued walking with my trekking poles at the ready if he decided to follow me.  If I had had a cell phone with me, I would have called the Guarda Civil and had them deal with it. 

On my second Camino, just outside of Porto, I was walking along a boardwalk on the coast when I rounded a corner to see an older man with his pants at his ankles publicly masturbating next to a rather phallic monument, ironically.  It caught me off guard, but I actually just laughed, shook my head and continued walking.  Again, with my trekking poles at the ready if he decided to follow me.

Both places this happened, I was alone and not near anyone.  Of course, with the second instance, this could have happened to anyone walking the boardwalk that day.  I never felt I was at risk, but my “spidey senses” were definitely on high alert.

Aside from these two instances, I have always felt quite safe while walking on the Camino.  In 2012, I spent three days walking pretty much by myself in some really remote areas along the coast of Portugal.  I never felt like I was at risk for anything bad happening to me.  People were quite friendly when I encountered them.

What tips to you have for the solo female pilgrim?

  • Listen to your gut. If you feel like something is not right, it probably isn’t.  I’d rather be wrong than right in these instances.  In the first situation I encountered, my gut was telling me something was not right.  I looked over at the guy and sure enough, it was not right.  Never apologize for listening to your gut.
  • As you walk on the Camino you will be meeting some really cool people from all over the place.  You'll form your Camino "family" and start letting your guard down.  This is great!  Open yourself up and enjoy the experience.  By all means, share meals together and walk together.  Try not to let your guard down when it concerns your personal safety or the safety of your belongings.  Just be cautious about loaning money or letting someone watch your pack if it has your valuables in it. 
  • Theft and other types of small crime are on the rise in Spain, and especially on the Camino. The economy in Spain is really bad. They have a high unemployment rate and there has been an increase in reports of low-level crime from pilgrims walking the Camino Frances.  Figure out what your strategy is to keep your valuables from disappearing.  Mine was pretty simple.  I had a dry bag from Sea To Summit that was large enough for my money, passport, pilgrim credential, camera and any other stuff I didn’t want to disappear.  It worked great for me.
  • Before you leave, take a self-defense class.  Many local police departments offer them for free or for a very reasonable cost.  I took a short one before I left for my first Camino.  I really appreciated the experience and learning some ways to protect myself.  They spent a lot of time talking about listening to your gut, being aware of your surroundings, in addition to how to defend yourself against attacks.

I hope this post has helped you prepare for your walk on the Camino.  If you have walked the Camino before, what other advice do you have for female pilgrims?  If you are planning to walk the Camino, what other questions do you have about safety?