Monday, February 4, 2013

A hospitalero in Najera

Mike worked as a hospitalero in Najera from October 1-15, 2012. Following are his observations and reflections. Enjoy.

Our Better Days, Our Better Selves[1]

Life behind the registration counter as a hospitalero[2] in Najera[3] runs a regular course. Doors open at 1 pm. Depending on the season, the weather, the happenstance of incident, a gaggle of pilgrims can be found lingering by the front door.  In the summer, the fear of finding the ‘Completo” sign on the door drives some pilgrims to start around 4 am, hiking in the dead of night before their laggard brothers have even dipped back into REM sleep: all to get to the front of the line at their destination albergue.

In the shoulder seasons of spring and fall the gaggle of injured pilgrims predominates. Those who have overworked their legs, say by hiking 45km their first day out, arrived by bus at 9 am. They dropped off their Muchillas (back packs) and headed out rather aimlessly to wander through town for four hours and now are first to ‘check in’. For bus pilgrims it has become a very long isolated and lonely day. Our tiny Najera managed to top up their culture tank. The bus pilgrims did it all, taking in the church, the monastery, the museum, the grocery store, a café, the market on Thursdays, and the health centre to see a medico. These hapless souls have fallen into a nether land, no longer ‘true pilgrims’ in their own minds, they will tend to mingle less in the evening and restlessly wander from dormitory to kitchen to common room. The bus bestowed on them a mild curse; their new pilgrim friends will arrive later today, but sometimes not at this albergue and sometimes not at all.   The fear of abandonment clouds their eyes.

The other 1pm pilgrims just had a light day of hiking, perhaps 15km from Navarette, or 7km from Ventosa. These happy souls decided to take a virtual rest day. After stowing their packs they quickly bounce out of the albergue in search of a café con leche, groceries and vino tinto.  They will be back, singing songs, generally carousing and inviting us to party with them: we invariably demur at first then quickly recant, bring out some treats and share in the wine. Invariably we will be cautioning these same free spirited party pilgrims later in the evening when they decide to scramble over the grass and go skinny-dipping in the Rio Najerilla under the moon.

By two pm, the grimy happy faces appear, tired, hot, but filled with a sense of accomplishment for hiking 29km from Logrono. We encourage this good cheer by celebrating their arrival and congratulating them on a job well done. Mind you, we rolled out the red carpet for the 15km pilgrims an hour ago. We even gave a full cabaret revue for the bus pilgrims, bursting into songs of praise. They need it the most. But I make a note in our logbook and scribble bus for their mode of transportation.

From two to four, we listen to a soothing mix of Snatnam Kaur and Devi Premal[4] to while away the afternoon as the pilgrims drift in. The albergue, now in full siesta vibe, goes quiet, broken only by the padding of showered and refreshed early arrivers as they gravitate to their default positions.  The prevalent default position of course is a near comatose siesta sleep. But certain sub-groups buck the norm.

The Wi-fi pilgrims, faces aglow from the blue light of their iphones, huddle in the far corner of the common room where the reception is best. Wi-fi pilgrims need to connect, not so much to a higher power, as I don’t think St. James uses face-book, yet, but to something outside their selves. Some need to update their blog. An untold burgeoning audience has been holding its collective breath waiting to find out how many café con leches were consumed, what temperature record got beat or what magical mystic revelation the Camino provided today. Others need to tell their loved ones of their safe arrival after another day on the Camino. Some just need to surf and reconnect to cyberspace and all its allures. The Wi-Fi communion has begun.

The table pilgrims, snap their elastic bands from their journals, lick their pens in a Victorian flourish and begin. Which ones will turn out the next great book on the Camino? Our bets are all on the old white bearded professorial type that had a substantial bag of books, maps and imprints delivered in expectation of his arrival. Turns out he isn’t even a pilgrim, just an elderly Italian tourist interested in monasteries and travelling on the cheap. Others spill guidebooks, maps, notes and pamphlets across the tables to relive today and plan for tomorrow’s adventure.  This latter group soon coagulates into conversational groups. The journalers remain alone, adrift in their own thoughts.

The smoking pilgrims head for the benches outside the albergue rain or shine. The albergue has some fashionable brollies for the rainy days. We sport at least ten benches. But half seem filled from dawn til dead of night by the jubilados: the jubilant ones, Najera’s retirees. The jubilados enjoy the never ending flow of pilgrims to chat with or as is the case for us, to sing to the pilgrims each night one of the great traditional songs of Spain. But this is around 9 pm. I am getting ahead of myself.

The 3-5pm pilgrims continue to trickle in. They have had a hard time of it today.  Truly exhausted, they suffer acute pains from foot blisters, shin splints, sore backs, aching shoulders, scrapes from falls and heat exhaustion, or mild hypothermia, depending on the weather. A few mutter that this is all she wrote and ask for directions to the bus depot to go home. But this is all bluster so we tell them it gets easier from here and we know of a short cut to Santiago. They blink in disbelief and hope, hungry for details on the short cut. Things will look better in the morning. Only one in a thousand will actually pack it in so early into their walk.

At the stroke of five, siesta ceases. A faint rattle from the metal anti-crime screens drifts through the old town as shopkeepers re-open their storefronts for the evening.  Meanwhile, in the albergue, an unorganized exodus ensues. A jam of pilgrims hover over the town maps taped to the counter. Clipped questions for directions to the grocery stores and bank machines get their answers. Time for some soothing Miles Davis: Kind of Blue.

On Sundays and Holidays the grocery stores stay shuttered and the long wait till 7:30 pm for the restaurant openings begins. Cards come out, maps get perused. The friendly pilgrims come to the counter to tell us their stories, share an episode on the Camino, rail against the movie pilgrims. Movie pilgrims, it seems, have seen the movie The Way, and expect to replicate the dramatic arc and adventure of this fictional account.  Invariably disappointed, they sit in cafés and kvetch about not meeting Martin Sheen or how long and hot it really is out there.

The stories are great. A serial pilgrim, done it six times back and forth, thank you very much, from the great green Irish country regales us with the time a local Spanish woman caught him walking back from Santiago. Unable to help him to turn around and head to Compostela with a few Spanish words, she proceeded to prod him with her broom handle.
“I barely escaped. You should have seen my bruises,” he winks.

A very few of the friendlies are intrigued about being a hospitalero/a and we go into a soft sales pitch on the endless rewards we get from volunteering. We are careful to leave out our five-day battle with the cinchas (bed bugs), the significant amount of waste that pilgrims create each day and that we have to haul to commercial garbage bins each morning, and the time-agnostic pilgrims that bang on the albergue doors and windows at 11pm, an hour after curfew, drunkenly demanding to be let in and waking us and the light sleepers in the process.

The friendlies give us inspiration each day, especially the young couples. Camping couples that have been cajoled to stay with us, relate their joy of wild camping under the stars and away from even the most rudimentary services.  A few couples are in restart mode.  Perhaps only three years into their marriage, work had taken over their lives and they had become strangers and they foresaw potential doom. So, having sold everything, they have been travelling for a year around the world and threw in the pilgrimage for good measure.  What embers they salvaged have been fanned into a fantastic blaze.  They are ready to reboot.

Of course our favorite pair were the Dutch mother-child couple. The husband-child, benched to being a sporadic bus pilgrim: suffered from blistered, aching feet. The missus, after making him the mandatory spaghetti dinner, consoled and cajoled him through the evening to put his pack back on for the following morning for just 6km and then a bus. He was game. She was set and match for tomorrow. For her twenty six kilometers would be a mere bagatelle.

From five to seven the truly exhausted schlep in. Bedraggled, often in pain, they take some coaxing, often an impromptu song or welcome ditty to bring a smile to their eyes. Perhaps 29km is too far I suggest, cautioning the Charlie Brown ‘Dust Bin’ look-a-likes that the guide book’s sections can never reflect an individual’s appropriate length of walking. Sometimes the sections seem too short, sometimes too long. Some times it is raining and the pilgrims are exhausted, who knows. Listen to your body, I advise, in a kindly fatherly fashion, in setting out the distance for the next day’s hike .

They don’t pay attention, but I persist as I tarry over giving them their sello (stamp). I tell the story of the young man, fit as a fiddle, who did 45km the first day out of St. Jean. He has been riding buses for the past 5 days. He can barely walk. It matters not. Dust Bin has collapsed under the weight of his Muchilla, a good forty pounder.  They need to be told to take off their backpacks. Too exhausted to entertain any gay repartee the five to sevens invariably head for the showers. We had hot water till about four pm.

By 7 pm the kitchen crowd has crammed into the 2x3 metre space. The South Koreans, who had been shopping before the stores closed for siesta and seem to always carry supplies for Sundays and Holidays, are first in. For them, cooking up a nutritious storm hits full stride in a matter of minutes. We bless them. Who else can we count on to invariably clean the kitchen to hospital operating room sanitary standards?  One night a Hungarian peregrina stayed up after lights out to clean all the counter tops and put away the dishes.  But that is rare, most pilgrims, enthralled by their own reverie or pain keep a narrow focus on their particular plans, needs and new found friends.

After seven, twilight has set in: the hour of the wolf. Now the outliers trickle in. This is the hour we hospitaleros wait for: the lone pilgrims that truly need succor. A cyclist from after a 100+km ride, coasts in. Serge has a unique look, gaunt, but self-satisfied. He has come overland from the del Norte (the Northern coastal route). At first I think I must be misunderstanding. I don’t know the town he says he started from and I thought I knew them all, and then when I figure out his starting point I realize there is no marked route over the mountains from the north coast to Najera, no guides and he is map and GPS-free.

“Oh,” Serge, assures me, “I know all these roads in Spain, I have biked them all.”

I believe it. He exits to get his gear. He is packed like a permanent pilgrim, with full camping equipment. I slide out from behind the registration counter to take a gander at his bike.  It’s a solid beater, good gearing and customized by duct tape and foam on the seat and handle bar grips: impromptu padding where it counts. No need for a lock, really. Who would want it?  But underneath the patchwork repairs, dust and dirt breathes a reliable touring bike.

Next comes a Sherpa that just polished off 30km, half of it carrying a fellow pilgrim’s pack in addition his own because. Well because, the Sherpa just found this poor sod sitting on the side of the trail, crying, wailing, praying and now hobbling behind their good Samaritan.

Finally, a twenty-something daughter, whose father and his age-old friends had sauntered in at two, tearfully reunites with the clan. They in turn raise a cheer as their Melanie falters across the threshold to the dorm.

While this menagerie of off the bell curve pilgrims settle in and search for their long lost friends a growing ruckus erupts in the kitchen.

The kitchen, designed for an absolute maximum of four cooks at a time sets the Guinness record with nine gourmet chefs scrambling over eight burners and a microwave. As one culinary masterpiece of spaghetti and sauce exit another spaghetti chef crams into the cubicle.

On most nights the wine flows freely, on the rare magic evenings a musician (sometimes two) graces us with the songs of the angels. Though most afternoons and evenings a budding guitarist obsessively bends over the guitar to pluck away, challenging us to find a song or melody in their exploration.

By eight dinners are in full swing. Tonight we are all invited to share in some chicken curry, a rare treat. The chef, a young British lad, just past acne, and his two adopted pilgrim moms plus another young lad guide us to the wine and the best chicken curry this side of London.  The two Scottish moms, lifelong friends and in their fifties, exude an aura of great cheer and harmony, glad to have formed this impromptu family. The boys are just as happy to look after their elderly charges and keep them fed.

By 10 pm we, as hospitaleros, need to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Lights out, doors locked, stragglers encouraged to leave the common room. I threaten to search for the broom.

We even have to share sleep on the Camino, is how one pilgrim put life in the albergue. The dormitory holds 90 pilgrims but tonight, given it is a week into October we average 60 to 70. Earplugs in let the snoring begin.  The Spanish pilgrims invariably close all the windows, don’t ask why, and by morning the dorm takes on the rankness of a gym locker room.

Our day is almost over. Six am I am up, Joni Mitchell sings Tune Me In I Am A Radio, then CSN&Y carry on with Woodstock. Our children of God grab a coffee. The Koreans are cooking breakfast and making rice balls for lunch and then bringing the kitchen back to operating room cleanliness. We make a point of shaking each pilgrim’s hand and wishing them a Buen Camino, pointing them to the short cut out of town or over to the restaurants that have been open since six am, waiting. This goes on till 8 am and then we have only a few stragglers left. One or two will stay another night due to injuries. Others just could not get started. We invite them for coffee.

But make no mistake; we want them all out. We have to clean the place, and pilgrims are a messy bunch. Many of the women seem to suffer from a rare and highly communicable form of spatial dyslexia, routinely missing the four wastebaskets we put in their washroom. Puss-soaked bandaids have a life of their own and seek shelter on the floor, under the bunk beds.

Stefan, our German hospitalero commands the kitchen and garbage detail. Only a true German could bring cleanliness and order to our kitchen. Louis, our retired Spanish banker, cleans the dorm, searches for cinchas, gets out the sprays, calls in the troops for the recurring battle and washes the sheets. I get the latrines, showers, common room and laundry room. What can one say about cleaning? We get it done, peel off our hazmat suits by ten, then make our breakfast.

From ten to eleven, it is fiesta-time, our simple meal of coffee, tea in my case, bread, jams, meats, fruits and cheeses never varies, though our conversations range far and wide. Stories of our lives get interspersed with reflections on the day before and anticipation of what our next crop of pilgrims will bring. We touch on philosophy, religion, the weather and what each of us will do in our time off till we start again at 1 pm.

Some mornings bring miracles. We never see the pilgrims after they leave. But today an iphone has brought back two magical singers, one Irish, one Swedish, and their entourage. One of the boys left his iphone at an albergue in Logrono and it had finally made its way to us, a few days after this band of gypsies had departed.  The iphone, batteries now dead, could go no further, so our intrepid travelers, rented a car and came back. While we brewed some more coffee the two lasses blessed us with a song: the voices of angels.

Other mornings bring the military. An American Colonel, he wasn’t even staying with us, dropped off his muchilla for transport to the next town.  Just before he arrived, over breakfast I had given a prayer of gratitude that he had not stayed with us the night before. We had already spent a good hour listening to Charlie Company, helping him book transport for his backpack. The American military is not what it used to be. This is normally a 1-minute phone call: too intense. But this morning, he showed up, and talked straight for an hour, at the end of which, with a soulful stare and straight face, declared, ”I don’t really talk much, normally. “

I laughed until my sides ached.

“You can take your foot off the gas once in a while,” I gasped.
“My eldest daughter says to me, dad, you know cars have a special gear, its called neutral, you should try it some time,” he laughed.  He gives me his email and heads out.

By 11 am we are ready to head out as well. I invariably go for a bike ride. Usually I go climbing to Camprovin[5] and beyond. Stephan and Louis head into town. We rendezvous back at the albergue by 12:30, change and shower. Some days I bring back wild flowers and put them in the vases on the common room tables the remind me of Barbara.[6]

Life behind the registration desk runs a regular course. Doors open at 1 pm.

[1] Copyright, Mike Gurski, 2013
[2] Hospitalero/a in Spanish refers to the person, often a volunteer, that  ‘mans’ the albergue (a hostel for pilgrims). He/she is a pilgrim who has completed the Camino, received the official document of pilgrims from the church in Santiago, taken the requisite hospitalero training, which does not focus on cleaning toilets as much as one might expect, and ministers to pilgrims for a half-month stretch, or stretches at an albergue.
[3] Najera, named by the Muslims as Naxara (meaning town between the rocks) sported settlements along the Najerilla River even farther back in Roman times and, according to the local museum already, had that lived in look in bronze age and even Neolithic times.
[4] Snatnam Kaur and Devi Premal are two recording artists that specialize in recording Indian, Hindi chants cherished by yoga teachers, new age enthusiasts and students of meditation.
[5] Camprovin is a tiny hill town 10km south of Najera where the paved road ends and mountain trail beckons me further each day until I see the tracks of wild boar. Having a healthy phobia of a savage pig take out most of the spokes of my front wheel. I turn back to Camprovin.
[6] Barbara is the author’s wife of many years and cycling partner on the Camino Frances in 2009.


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  2. Thanks Mike for your story. Like you, we will be hospitalero this year at the same time ( 1-15 october).
    We know a little bit what we can expect.
    thanks from Peter and Jannie from Holland