So, what is it like to volunteer on the Camino de Santiago in Spain? I thought it might be helpful if I gave you some quick background and an idea of what a day is like – then, you might say, “That’s neat. I could so do that, too!”
I have walked the Camino on several occasions, the most recent being in May 2016, walking from Burgos to Leon. I have covered most of the Camino Frances, as the most famous route is called, and I have rather unusual experience doing it, walking mostly in December instead of the summer months. I can tell you where to stay, what not to pack, how to negotiate the emotional highs and lows, and I can tell you what it’s like to finish, ending up in the wonderful medieval town, Santiago de Compostela. It is in the cathedral there that the earthly remains of the apostle James are laid to rest.
Is it really him? That’s hard to say. I did read once, that in the late 19th century, they opened the silver casket and found the remains of three individuals and a piece of masonry, presumed to be a fragment of the original church in that location. Does it matter if it’s really him? No, of course not – but, for over 1,000 years, pilgrims from every country on this planet have walked this route, and others, to find themselves in the presence of this small, silver casket.
Walking the Camino is one of those famous bucket list items. People I know say routinely, “Gee, I’d love to be able to do that some day,” but only two of my friends have actually done it. Once you do complete your “Camino,” it’s fair to say you are pretty expert in a whole host of tasks; including how to walk with blisters on both feet, how to dry clothes quickly to avoid having to pack wet things, what to pack, what NOT to pack, how to stay warm when it’s cold and dry when it’s wet. And that simple background, coupled with experience walking, is the basis for what makes a great volunteer.
I’ve been fortunate to have volunteered on 4 separate occasions – once, in 2014, in the Pilgrim’s Welcome Office in Santiago de Compostela; twice at The Abbey located on the way into Pamplona in Navarra; and now, in a municipal albergue in the tiny town of Ribadiso, roughly 40 kilometers outside Santiago, next to the Iso River.
The Pilgrim’s Office had a program, sponsored by the English-speaking Cathedral Chaplaincy with teams of four English speakers at a time would be housed in a furnished apartment and work for 4 hours each day greeting pilgrims, managing the line into the office, and selling the mailing tubes that would house your newly minted paperwork showing you have completed your Camino. It’s called a Compostela. You bring a pilgrim’s passport on the way with you and in each place you stop, you collect a stamp that shows you were walking that day. A minimum of 100 km will net you a Compostela if you collect at least 2 stamps each day you walk.
The Abbey required similar skills – which was a good thing! I had read about the project where a South African pilgrim and his English partner were walking the Camino together when they saw a property that was in near total disrepair. So, over the course of many months, they bought it from the Catholic Church and began renovating it. The goal is simple – to return it to use by pilgrims who pass by the property each year by the thousands. I was there, greeting pilgrims, talking about the project, and encouraging pilgrims to consider volunteering there themselves, for one week in 2015 and one day in 2016. The project is ongoing and each week it gets closer to being operational.
In Ribadiso – I also get to talk with pilgrims. Today, we brought plates of fresh cut fruit to the edge of the property and offered small cups of water to entering pilgrims. The albergues, as Camino hostels are called, typically do not open for the day until 1 o’clock, so pilgrims who arrive early have to sit outside. It was the perfect thing! We could hear their stories, learn where they were from, try to see what they needed, and share some fruit.
This work is not for everyone – today, the hospitalera (the lady who runs the albergue) said to me, you need to be a Psychologist to be good at her job. Which is partly true. People who have walked over 20 kilometers each day for over a month – something too that is typical – will need different things to feel safe and comfortable staying overnight in rooms filled with both familiar faces and strangers. Today, we are housing 62 pilgrims in bunk beds and another 20 or so campers in the back field.
Accommodations for volunteers vary, I’ve been told, but the places I have stayed have been plush. Hot showers, warm beds, fully stocked kitchens and a place to wash your clothes. And endless pilgrims to look after.
That’s the thing. The expression I have heard is not that we house pilgrims but we “protect” them. It’s important. It’s necessary. And I will probably do it again. Well, after the current 15-day stint is finished!