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.
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 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.
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 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.