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Tuesday, December 29, 2015


Part of the Hospitaleros Voluntarios (HOSVOL) training course is a session on INTER-HOSPITALERO RELATIONS - getting on with your fellow hospitalero. 
The exercise we do is to make trainees aware of a growing problem of hospitaleros not getting on and sometimes leaving their post because of continued strife.
Trainees are taught to set a few ground rules before their shift even starts.  They can ask their co-worker these questions:
  • Are we going to be flexible on opening times - if yes, how flexible? 
  • Are we going to be flexible on the curfew - ditto? 
  • What time will we admit cyclists? 
  • Are you a morning person or a night bird?  Let’s come to some agreement about who does the morning shift and who locks up at night – or can we alternate?
  • Will we share the cooking?
  • One day you do the bedrooms and bathrooms  -  I’ll do the kitchen and living rooms.  Then we can swap.
  • What things put your back up or push your buttons. 
One lady told me that she doesn't like it when people prepare food using bare hands and would prefer it if they used gloves.  Another said that she doesn't like it when someone tries to be the boss and treats her like a subordinate.  By knowing what can irritate your co-worker, you can try to avoid those issues.
Those sorts of things seem small but they can become a big hassle, especially if you are locked in for 15 days with a grumpy, moaning, bossy, controlling, fault-finding co-hospitalero.  
The most frequent complaints received are about bossy hospitaleros who take over the albergue and rule the roost. 

Oh my goodness,  since midday yesterday I have asked myself, a 1,000 times - what are you doing here?  Ferran does not like his routines or methods challenged - my suggestions, of music in the morning to send pilgrims off, bleach to clean the dishcloths and perhaps new mats to place in front of the kitchen sink and one or two others all for the pilgrims comfort, was squashed or rejected.  Thankfully he left yesterday and the two new hospitaleros are far more amiable.


I arrived at the Albergue just when the last pilgrims left and introduced myself as the new hospitalera from S.A.  "Hola, hola! come estas! Soy Anna Kapp" I said.
Well, that made them think this one could speak Spanish and off they go with Gara-Gara-Gara, (my version of their fast speaking Spanish), I was shocked out of my tiredness. 
"No entiendo"  I said.
"Mama Mia!!" Mariano (old guy) threw up his arms.
All 4 hospitaleros (Mariano, Antonia, Vladimer and Maria) looked disgusted turned around and left me standing there.  From then on they ignored me . No problem, I was there to do a job.
Maria came back, took me to our cubicle with just a double bunk bed, cramped with her stuff all over the place, said I sleep on top and that she keeps the key around her neck till she leaves in 4 days.
It was fine for the first two days but then 'HE' arrived - the anointed one - and immediately took over and started moving things around and changing things.  He is an experienced hospitalero who has served at Bercianos many times and considers it to be HIS domain.  He was extremely rude to me because I wasn't fluent in Spanish (Madeleine's course didn't prepare me sufficiently for the Camino!) even though I told him I could speak French, understand German and Dutch - which he couldn't.  Whenever a non-Spanish speaker arrived he would have to call me to register them.  One of the other hospitaleros asked him why he couldn't speak English but he was just rude back at her. 
If anyone wants to know what its like to be treated like a 2nd class citizen or skivvy, then go and work at the Santo Domingo albergue.  I was bossed around, ran up and down stairs all day, was sent out to do shopping and was supposed to be a tour guide for the cathedral and the town. 
Even experienced hospitaleros like Rebekah Scott can have an unlucky pairing, as she wrote on her blog:   Hell is Other People
A year later, when another hospitalera was having similar problems at the same albergue, she wrote on her blog:
"I was paired with The Queen of Passive Aggression, and spent two weeks in misery and desolation, shivering through damp, gray days with wet firewood, a sinus infection, and a perfect bitch from London.  (Paddy says it´s a syndrome: Person of a Certain Age outlives the spouse, who´s been bossed around for decades (or said spouse finds a more gentle partner). POACA is a righteous churchgoer, does the Camino. And as Hospitalera s/he finds a new niche: Lording it over a pilgrim hostel for two weeks per year, fixing everything that´s wrong with the Camino de Santiago.)"
"I can see both sides of this issue. Even though most volunteer teams get along just fine, the Coordinators (themselves unpaid) are probably full-up with personality conflicts. Volunteers must know there´s a mixed bag of people out there, and some strangers just don´t gel with others. They have to just scrape along somehow, tolerate, smile on through. Unless, of course, someone gets abusive."
How to deal with a bossy co-worker: 
Smile, stick to your guns, say 'No' if you know that you are right and the other person is wrong.  Smile again.  
You could say, “In this case, I don’t agree with you” or “No, I don’t think that’s the best way to do it.”

I have served with 7 hospitaleros and am happy to say that I got on well with all of them, even though one of them was a bossy, controlling woman!   But I guessed she would be on the first day we met.  There is a saying that 'the apple doesn't fall far from the tree' and this could be true of your co-worker if she tells you that her mother was a bossy, controlling and domineering woman.  Listen to the alarm bells going off in your head and be prepared to stand your ground!

My bossy co-worker  told us (Robert, Kevin and me) on her first day that she'd been alone for 27 years, had raised her children on her own and was an occupational health nurse so was independent and able to take care of herself.  When Robert and Kevin left, they both looked at me with some pity and said, "Good luck with  this one, Syl.  She is going to be trouble." 

But, I don't like strife.  I have a dogged personality, have been told that I have the patience of Job.  I am able to stoically fend off bossy people, so when she tried to be domineering, I just brushed it aside.  We never had words or disagreements but the potential for them was there in the relentless fault-finding and criticisms:  

"I always do it this way...."   
"That's interesting.  I do it this way."  Smiling. 

"I don't think we should admit cyclists," 
 "Of course we can - all pilgrims are welcome here," smiling.

"I don't think you should have given that pilgrim our water. You must keep the water for our pilgrims.""All the pilgrims are our pilgrims. We give water to any pilgrim who arrives here thirsty," smiling.

"Don't you think you've cut too much bread already?"
"No problem - if there is any left over we can toast it at breakfast tomorrow," smiling.

"Don't boil anymore milk, there was some left over yesterday"
"No problem - I'll use it in my Cola Cao," smiling.

"Its too early to set the table.  The flies will settle on the plates."
"No problem, we can turn the plates over and I'll cover the table with a cloth" smiling.

"You or I could've had that apple, you didn't have to use it in the salad."
"Actually, it is my apple and I wanted to share it with all the pilgrims," smiling.

And so on, and so on ..... incessant bossy quips and suggestions on how she liked to do things that could have lead to full scale confrontation if not handled properly.

My advice: 
Don't retaliate but don't become a doormat by giving in and then sulking about it.   If someone is bossy that is their problem, not yours, so don't make it yours.  Continue doing your work, sing or whistle whilst doing it, and don't give them the satisfaction of buckling or rising to their bait.  Whatever you do don't argue in front of the pilgrims.  This is their Camino (not yours) and they don't want a lasting memory of squabbling hospitaleros.
Concede small things.  If she prefers to say grace at the table, let her.  If she prefers large lettuce leaves in the salad to your broken up leaves, take it in turns to make the salad.  If she doesn't like onions, lentils, chickpeas or beans, or any other products that you think are staples,  find a way around that and serve them separately. 

Hospitalero-ing is hard, physically, mentally and spiritually.  When you are tired from lack of sleep, long hours of physical work, listening to heart-breaking pilgrim's stories and feeling homesick, you can be vulnerable to criticisms and unkindness.  Go for a long walk when your chores are done, meditate, find a quiet place and read inspirational quotes, anything to restore your soul and your body. 
And remember, your co-worker is going through the same thing, so unless she has been a real bitch to you or the pilgrims, or has been intolerable, don't report her to the supervisor beyond a suggestion to warn the next hospitalero who will serve with her that she is inclined to be bossy.

Thursday, October 29, 2015


Humbling email from my fellow, Spanish hospitalera, Angela:

Dear Silvia,
I'm glad to have met you, thanks so considerate and kind you were with me. I want you to know that I would love to have you as hospitalera partner because you're the hardest-working, dedicated, kind and loving I have met in the 13 years I've been in hospitalera.
Querida Silvia
Me alegro mucho de haberte conocido,gracias por lo considerada y amable que fuiste conmigo.
Quiero que sepas que me encantaría volver a tenerte como compañera hospitalera porque eres la más trabajadora,entregada,amable y amorosa que he conocido en los 13 años que llevo de hospitalera.


On the 8th May 2015, between delayed flights due to the Yemen war, Emirates landed in Madrid 8:25pm.  My night bus ride left for Logrono at 1:15am and arrived at 5:00am in darkness with me being very car sick from the various bends  on the road. At 6:45 I left for Najera.  My walk from the bus terminal to the Albergue de la Asociasion de Amigos del Camino de Najera ( being a donativo albergue), was such a pleasant surprise all along the river and surrounding hills of this beautiful little town.
I arrived at the Albergue just when the last pilgrims left and introduced myself as the new hospitalera from S.A:- "hola, hola! Coma esta! Soy Anna Kapp" I said. Well, that made them think this one could speak Spanish and off they go with Gara-Gara-Gara, (my version of their fast speaking Spanish), I was shocked out of my tiredness. 
"No entiendo Mama Mia!! Mariano (old guy) through up his arms. All 4 hospitalero's (Mariano, Antonia, Vladimer and Maria) looked disgusted turned around and left me standing there.  Maria came back, took me to our cubicle with just a double bunk bed, cramped with her stuff all over the place, said I sleep on top and that she keeps the key around her neck till she leaves in 4 days. No problem, I was there to do a job. 
I volunteered to clean the kitchen which was in a mess.  The pilgrims cook their own meals and have to clean up afterwards, but yes, that obviously was not a priority. We then had the standard breakfast of toast fresh pulped tomato with garlic, olive oil, fresh orange juice and boiled milk coffee.

I just started with my duties straight away and they did their part. Valdimer was in charge of the washing of the bed covers/pillowslips and everything else  to go in and he tidied the beds, swept the dormitory.
I also mopped the dining room floors. The rest was Mariano, Antonia & Maria's job.  By +/- 11:00 am we were finished.  They went on outings, I stayed and did my own thing. It was difficult if they did not speak English. Vladimer was polished and could speak a little English.
They took me sight seeing the first day and lunch was free at one of the restaurants  allocated by the owner, but the men made their own lunch and by that time it was 2:00pm, intake of pilgrims (usually +/- 90), the kitchen was a mess because I had to clean up before we start the admin side. I had to let the pilgrims in, made them feel welcome, try and get order out of the chaos because space was limited.

Mariano, Antonio, Maria did the booking in and Vladimer got to allocate and show pilgrims their beds. Believe me,  not an easy task with so many, and all 45 double bunks in one big dormitory.
Mariano slept in the corner on a bottom bunk in the dormitory and Antonio & Vladimer had the laundry room with a double bunk.
When Maria left, Theo a Mexican who could speak English / Spanish took over from her, he was nice.
Mariano and Antonio left on the 14th May and Robin Pardy (Canadian) arrived , she also spoke English/ Spanish and we clicked straight away. She took over Vladimers duties. Then Nunsie, the elderly Italian lady came. She could not speak English and very little Spanish, only Italian. She smoked and did not want to do it outside.  We had a rough time with her. We could never figure out what she was up to. She and Robin really went at each other.  She also had to share Theo's room, no other way.  Theo did not mind, and it worked out okay.
The weather was up and down, quite cold and some rain too. I had to dig in the pilgrims basket for a man's fleece jacket, because I did not take warm clothes. a pair of walking poles were left behind and I borrowed them as well, because I could not fit mine into my backpack.
The washing was done on a rotating system, where 3 pairs of bedcover/pillow slips per day had to be washed within a 15 day period and then start all over again. Space and washing machines were just not enough, but it worked out okay.
Many pilgrims were Taiwanese and Korean.  One evening we were woken by a drunk Korean guy who had not booked in, but we could not turn him away, so we made a bed on the floor, just in case he fell out of the bunk.
Another night, Robin got up, just to find 2 pilgrims having sex on one of the dining room tables, stark naked.  She was furious and they were upset because she chased them to their beds.
There were 4 gypsy's with their dogs. We allowed them to shower, gave them food and the police took them to the campsite to sleep the night, we could not accommodate the dogs.
Every scenario that was discussed and role played during the hospitalero course, had been thrown at us.  The owner Antonio, his wife and other family members came every night to collect the donations and leave money in the kitty box. They were very supportive/ generous and kind.
On Saturday/Sunday, we had a cleaning lady and we could go and do our own thing until 2:00pm.  One day Robin and I walked to Asofra, +/- 13km and back to have coffee (next town on our Camin trip). I loved to go for long hikes around Najera.  There was a little coffee shop in the Square by the church, where I got free wifi and also sent my Whatsapps. We had great fun in the evenings, with music and singing, the pilgrims loved that.
On the 21st May, Vladimer left and Manual arrived, he played the guitar and there was an American girl who did the singing that night.  It was a great party and at 10:00pm I could finally close the kitchen door, but it was not any easy task, as with the cooking and cleaning, I had the responsibility of letting it flow smoothly.
A Taiwanese mother cooked up a feast, but used the kitchen for 2 hours, I had to ask her to please hurry, as pilgrims were queuing already. Shame she gave me a packet of oranges afterwards.

The next day, the 22nd May, Robin and I were both feeling down and tearful. I hated the idea of leaving my good friend behind for another week in Nunsie's company. I did went back and said hello when our group stayed over in Najera the 24th May on our "Complete your Camino" walk.
I do want to stress that learning to speak Spanish will help a lot with communication. I was thrown into the deep end on my first hospitalero assignment and would definitely try again.
I learned a lot about myself, how to handle difficult situations and to cope with it.
Najera was a great experience and I enjoyed being a small part of it.
The reason for the weekly overlap and change of the hospitalero's was that I started on the 8th of the month and not on the 1st or the 15th, which is the normal way.
Anna Kapp

Thursday, February 12, 2015


Training will take place in Durban on 21/22nd February.

In Johannesburg on 2/3 May.

Please contact us if you would like to do the course.

Sunday, March 23, 2014


Recently, on a Camino forum, someone asked the question:
“Why should I have to do a training course to volunteer as a hospitalero?  I know how to scrub toilets and make beds, so what is the big deal about training?”

‘Serving’ in a traditional Spanish pilgrim shelter is not the same as ‘working’ in a B&B or hostel, or running your own home. The physical labour involved might be the same, sweeping, mopping, scrubbing toilets and making beds but when you work in a B&B you don’t have to welcome the guests as though you are welcoming the Lord Jesus Christ himself!   

 Hospitaleros have always followed the Rule of Benedict (53rd Chapter) which is dedicated to the reception of guests:

“Let all guests that come be received like Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you took me in.  And let fitting honour be shown to all, especially to churchmen and pilgrims. … All humility should be shown in addressing a guest on arrival or departure.”

In Benedict’s time and down through the centuries it was common, particularly in Europe, for pilgrims to use monasteries as places of rest and shelter while travelling. Monasteries were seen as safe havens where a person would be welcomed regardless of his religion or his ability to pay.  The hospitaliers and hospitaleros of the 12th century confirmed this tradition of welcome in the Latin hymn, the La Pretiosa, which is read out in Roncesvalles:

Its doors are open to the sick and well to Catholics as well as to pagans,
Jews, Heretics, beggars and the indigent, and it embraces all like brothers.

Whatever their religion or spirituality, hospitaleros are trained to act with compassion, acceptance and caring towards all pilgrims so that they may be beacons of light, comfort and hope for all pilgrims. 

Before starting the training course, the trainee is asked the question: 

“Why do you want to be a hospitalero?”

The majority reply that they want to ‘give back’ to the Camino the hospitality and care they received in the albergues when they walked the Camino.   Some say that they want to be on the Camino again but not necessarily to walk.  Others say that they want to learn to speak Spanish.  One’s motive is important.  If you are looking for free lodging on the Camino in return for a bit of housework, you should not be a hospitalero.  HOSVOL is not looking for mere domestic help!

 Running an albergue looks like a breeze to the pilgrim who’s there on a good night. The food is prepared communally, maybe a short prayer or song is offered, and then everyone cleans up and goes to bed. When the pilgrims leave in the morning, the hospitalera stays put. She seems to get all the benefits of the Camino – great company, scenery, food, and Camino vibes – without the worries of wet weather, blisters, and “the bed race.” All she’s got to do is put out a fresh toilet roll, chop up the vegetable for dinner, and stamp everyone’s credential. What could be easier?

Whilst serving as a hospitalero isn’t rocket science, there are a few things that you need to learn before you can take charge of an albergue and run it for two weeks – probably on your own.  Can you read the indicator on a Calor gas cylinder used in most albergues?  Do you know how to check the levels of the fire extinguishers?  What are the insurance regulations – can you have extra pilgrims lying on the floor? If the electricity fails or plumbing clogs up, would you know what to do or who to call?  Who would you call in case of a medical emergency?  Will you be comfortable asking all those seemingly unnecessary questions about age, profession, country of origin in 10 different languages?  Can you shop to cook for 20, 30 or 40 people?  Are you happy to conduct a blessing?  Can you do basic first aid?  These are some of the skills you’ll need to run an albergue.

I send a short article to all prospective trainees, which was sent to me by the Canadian hospitalero trainers, called ‘A Rock in the Stream’.  The first paragraph reads:

 Many walkers on the Camino carry a strong sense of being part of a stream, a stream of humanity or even a flow of history, moving ever westward.  As a hospitalero you become a rock in that stream. The rock stays in place and a drop of water hesitates briefly and then moves on, leaving the rock to interact with the next drop and the next and the next. You provide the resting place where fellow pilgrims can stop and renew themselves in body, mind and spirit before they move on.”

The hospitaleros training course has been compiled by HOSVOL - Hospitaleros Voluntarios - of the Spanish Federation of Friends of the Camino which was formed in 1987.  It is important for them that all trainees are taught their way of welcoming pilgrim, treating pilgrims and running the albergues they send you to.  They only serve the ‘donativo’ (donation only) albergues. 

The first session is devoted to the transition of the pilgrim to hospitalero. When you’re a hospitalero, many pilgrims you’ll meet are bursting with all the new experiences and insights they’re gaining on the trail. They are in the midst of what may be a life-changing hike. They’ve spent the day walking or biking or riding, and now they want to talk (or cry, or complain, or be left alone)!    And here’s where you first feel the shift from pilgrim to Hospitalero.
The pilgrim talks - the hospitalero listens.

The pilgrims arrive, and the hospitalero receives - and tries to meet their immediate needs.


You may be back on the Camino, but your role has changed. And now it’s no longer your role to rehash your own experiences, but to accept the pilgrim as she is, exactly as he or she walks through the door.

Acting out a series of over 30 role-play scenarios as pilgrim and/or hospitalero, trainees have to solve problems that are faced in albergues every day.  You learn about communication – with pilgrims, with the community and with fellow hospitaleros.  Inter-hospitaleros relations are so important that it takes up a whole session.  You learn how to deal with the drunk pilgrim, the tourist looking for a cheap bed, couples having sex in the dormitory, bed-bugs, theft, an irate local café-bar owner or a pilgrim who has collapsed.  You might feel like evicting an arrogant pilgrim, being rude to the café-bar owner, or throwing a bucket of water over the copulating pilgrims but this is not the HOSVOL way!   

The albergue may well be supported by the locals´ tax payments or church contributions.  The hospitalero must be seen outdoors, sweeping the sidewalk or tidying the greenery.  Trainee hospitaleros are taught the importance of “spreading the wealth” which means that they do not shop at the same stores or lunch at the same cafés every day.  They do not recommend one shop over the other even if one is superior.  The whole village should be benefitting from having the albergue there.  (This is not something that private albergue owners need to be concerned about).

In a donativo albergue everyone is welcomed and nobody is turned away (unless there are insurance regulations about the numbers that can be accommodated). As hospitalero you can’t pick and choose who to interact with. You have to deal with everyone.  Everyone - every day! Even those you might not take to right away.  (You can take comfort in the knowledge that they will all move on the next day!)

Private albergue owners charge a fixed amount for a bed and for a meal.  They are entitled to do this and the pilgrim is happy to pay.  Donativo albergues are not in competition with the private albergues, all are providing a service to the pilgrims. In a donativo albergue the hospitalero will unobtrusively show where the donation box is and mention that the albergue is able to offer a service through the donations given by pilgrims. 

In some albergues an ‘oracion’ or blessing is offered by the hospitalero.  Occasionally a priest may arrive and ask to hold a mass. They have this right to offer the religious service. The pilgrims have the right to accept or refuse it.  If you are uncomfortable providing a religious blessing, consider a secular blessing.  In some albergues the names of pilgrims who have stayed at the albergue previously and are still on the road are read out. It is also possible to form a circle and turn to the next pilgrim and give them your wishes for them in your own language.   In others, like in Tosantos, pilgrims take a prayer request from a box which is read out by a pilgrim who reads that language and everyone present says a silent prayer for the pilgrim.  In Hospital San Nicolas, the hospitaleros wash the pilgrim’s feet during the blessing. 

Hospitaleros are taught not to equate the amount of money in the donation box with the quality of the service they provide!  This is a very hard lesson to learn, especially if you work really hard,  go the extra mile, put flowers on the table, offer refreshments as the pilgrims arrive, cook a fabulous meal which everyone raves about and then find a few measly euro in the donation box.  If this makes you feel irritated or disappointed, reassess your motives for serving.  The donation box is not your business.   

When you are a hospitalero at the local pilgrim hostel you are more than a foreign volunteer, you are the living representation of your country, or even your continent. You are also seen as part of the Federation or Confraternity, and part of the pilgrimage itself. 

Year after year, a few basic, traditional albergues make it to the top 10 of the best, most spiritual albergues on the Camino.  Some have no running water, electricity or beds.  But, they have a tradition of warm welcome, caring, tolerance, camaraderie and respect.  Many offer special pilgrim blessings.  Even the most perfect, luxurious modern structure is nothing without these qualities and it is up to the hospitalero to provide these qualities.   

Some sites for further reading:  Also check out Facebook hospitalero pages.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


My short Hospitalero experience 2010 By Fiorenza
Nothing can quite prepare one for the unique experiences, challenges and rewards of being a volunteer hospitalero. Each placement and refugio is different. The experience is as multifaceted as a carefully cut diamond, each facet of the experience being an opportunity of learning, of sacrifice, of fellowship, leadership and compassion. These qualities and experiences are those usually sought after and shared by people in their later years, with that desire of wanting to share and enfold the wisdom gleaned through life with all whom you encounter. That sense of “ giving back” to life, to fellow pilgrims and to the Camino all that you have learnt, experienced and found worthy of passing on in life, drives the process.

After completing a two-day training course run by Sylvia Nilsen in Durban, I worked in the quaint and beautiful town of Santo Domingo de la Calzada for eight days as a hosptialera voluntaria. In my application I stated that I only had eight days available due to time constraints, and was willing to work wherever they could find a need for me. I also mentioned that I was not in any way proficient enough in Spanish to be able to work on my own. Hence I was posted to the very busy refugio of “Casa del Santo”, situated in the Calle Mayor, close by the beautiful cathedral and which is run by the Cofradia of Santo Domingo de la Calzada.
This is a very busy and modern, large refugio, which can sleep up to 200 pilgrims and needs at least four very motivated people on duty at all times. There is seldom a full complement of volunteers however, which leaves quite a strain on one if there are only two or three to carry the load. The Cofradia are very involved and are passionate about their role and have their own ideas of how things should be done, leaving little room for innovation or self-management.
Some days, when there were few of us, I worked from 5h30am until 10h45 at night with only three separate half hours available at 6 hour intervals for rest, eating and ‘time out’. No one spoke English, and although I can speak German and get by in Dutch, I found myself learning to communicate in Frespish, a strange mixture of French, Spanish and English.
Being a hospitalero is all about communication – “where are you from?”, “do your feet hurt - we have a physiotherapist on duty”  “you must place your boots and stick over here”, “please note that the doors close at 10pm”, “we operate on a donation basis”, “this is where you do your washing and hang your clothes“, “the nearest supermarket is two blocks down and the next turn on your left”, “ are those bedbug bites I can see on your arms?“ “do you know about the miracle of Santo Domingo and the cock and the hen which came to life and now reside in the cathedral and also in the garden of this refuge?”......etc, – now try saying all of this in Spanish, French and German, about 100 times a day!
In a busy refugio like this one, which houses between 130 to 150 pilgrims a night, there is no time to bond with pilgrims or spend any significant period of time with any individual. There is time to give a hug, a much needed glass of water on arrival, assurance, a knowing smile and to find a speedy solution to efficiently sort out any problem that any pilgrim may be experiencing at the time. Although pilgrims mainly see to their own needs and do their own thing, it still takes a lot of strength and courage to manage that amount of people on a daily basis.
The smaller refuges provide a completely different set of experiences, but the responsibility of cooking, cleaning and caring for the needs of your albergue, the community’s requirements and expectations as well as your small batch of pilgrims, provides a different set of challenges altogether.
Whilst pilgrims come and go, the relationships you build with your fellow hospitaleros are paramount to surviving all the challenges. You have to work in harmony, or else your experience can quickly descend into a living hell. We strove at all times to have a democratic and amiable working relationship with everyone pulling their weight equally. But like all relationships one has to constantly work at maintaining it.
One of the fellow hospitaleros said to me one day “ How will you ever be able to bring across  the vastness and complexity of all you have experienced here to people in South Africa wanting to do the same thing one day?” I think it is not possible.
Indeed, not possible at all. But my advice to any of you considering volunteering is as follows.
If you do this, go without any expectations whatsoever, there is no template and no guide book that can fully prepare you. Learn to expect and deal with the unexpected. Smile – it is the universal language. Learn to speak Spanish as best you can beforehand. Be willing to communicate, communicate, communicate – on all levels and always with love in your heart.
Like walking the Camino, it is an experience with no equal. Sometimes exhausting, often exhilarating, confusing, frustrating, yet also extremely rewarding, with the rewards lasting much longer than the duration of the actual time spent.

You can read Heather's blog about serving at Santo Domingo.

Note:  HOSVOL (Hospitaleros Voluntarios) stopped sending volunteers to this albergue when they started charging pilgrims to stay there.

Thursday, March 13, 2014



After I attended the Hospitalero course run by Sylvia Nilsen in Durban in 2010, I immediately applied to be a Hospitalero.

I was lucky enough to be given Najera as the Albergue is positioned right on the banks of the River Najera which runs through the Town. Well kept lawns are on each side of the River with street cafe's dotted alongside. There are three bridges connecting the old part of town, over to the new part. The Albergue used to be in the Monastery before the Municipality built this new Albergue which sleeps 90 people.

I arrived a day early and was fortunate enough to meet a wonderful gentleman Pedro who had been a Hospitalero at this Albergue last year. He filled me in with lots of information as the three boy Hospitaleros did not speak much English and were very laid back about the duties. Next day was a Saturday and a cleaner comes in and so I was taken out for the morning to be introduced to shops that we had accounts with, and a lovely family run restaurant, owned by one of the Albergue Committee Members, who said we could have a free three course meal there each day.
The cleaner also comes on a Sunday, so again I was taken out to breakfast by the Albergue Manager, Jose Luis, his wife and brother. Afterwards they took me for a drive in the countryside to visit another brother who has a vineyard and makes his own wine, the cellar being cut out of a mountainside. Very interesting. Got back to the Albergue at 1.30 to find 90 people queuing up.    

Next day my fellow Hospitaleros arrived. Piera and Carla from Italy and Yolanda a Spanish girl.  All three could speak good English and we all got on very well. I volunteered to do the early morning shift and was woken by the Pilgrims at 5 am each morning. It was very hot  in August when I was there and lots of Pilgrims wanted to be up and off  before the heat of  the day.  We had a coffee machine and at breakfast, just put out bread and jam and biscuits for the Pilgrims to help themselves to.     

Piera was next up about 6.30 and Carla at 7.30, so when all the Pilgrims had left by 8 am we started our chores.    I chose to do the kitchen and main room, Piera chose to do the dormitory and Carla the laundry.   We washed 10 sheets and pillow cases every day, so all bedding had been washed during our time there. Yolanda was not an early riser, so when she did wake up and ask what she could do, we said “the toilets”  so she never slept in after that and mostly this job  was undertaken by  Piera, but she must have anticipated this as she brought her rubber  gloves. This took us up to 10 am when we all showered and changed and went off for breakfast together before going to the local supermarket to buy provisions as Sylvia suggested on the course that we all try to make our Albergue unique and welcoming, so apart from jugs of ice cold water to greet our Pilgrims, we bought the big red water melon, crisps and olives to welcome the Pilgrims and they really appreciated this.  Then we were free to do our own thing until 1.30 opening time, and most days there was a huge queue and in fact we were usually full by 3 pm and had to turn people away which was heartbreaking.  
I've had a lifelong phobia about dogs (even tiny ones) and can't even bear to touch them.  In the training course back home we did role-play and just my luck I drew the scenario where a pilgrim comes to me (as a hospitalero) with a dog.  My first response was a loud 'No!  No dogs here!'  Sylvia then told us that we could try to accommodate the dog in an outhouse or laundry area if possible.  When a pilgrim arrived with a dog nobody really knew what to say.  "I know what to do!' I said, and proceeded to tell the grateful pilgrim that she could stay in the dorm and her dog in the washing area.  I was even brave enough to stroke the dog!

So on the days when we were full early, we took it in turns to have a few hours break and I went to the most wonderful swimming baths which had an Olympic size pool, and so I did a few lengths and then lay on the grass watching all the families enjoying themselves. Our neighbor Vecino had a vineyard and made his own wine and asked us if we would sell bottles for only E1.50 which we agreed to do and in return he brought us large amounts of wonderful vegetables he grew.  

Yolanda was vegetarian and so cooked up huge amounts of these lovely vegetables and then we left them in the kitchen for the Pilgrims to help themselves to which the young people really appreciated. The Pilgrims cooked their own suppers and it was wonderful to see them all working together and pooling ingredients to make a wonderful meal and with the wine, enjoying a very festive evening.   We actually had a few Chefs doing the Camino who loved to show their skills.  My favorite visitor was Father Luis a Franciscan Monk who held Pilgrim Prayers in the Church round the corner and we mentioned this fact to the Pilgrims and I was surprised how many attended the service.   Father Luis took us four girls on a private tour of the Monastery and it was so informative.   One evening there was the most glorious Concert in the Church with a Spanish Orchestra, guitars and castanet’s with male and female opera singers.  A magical performance.

One day a Pilgrim arrived with a newspaper proudly showing he had been the 10 000 Pilgrim at Logrono and he had been showered with gifts from the Municipality.

Not enough room to describe all the wonderful, interesting and lovable Pilgrims who we met each day and how quickly we became friends.    The highlight for me was the day Nina from Cape Town arrived as she was my first South African Pilgrim.   Then the same evening Father Stephen Tulley also arrived and so we had the most fantastic evening together, as Andreijz a Polish guy was playing an accordion and we all sang “Glory Glory Hallelujah”.    

A few evenings a week a lovely lady called Christina came to the Albergue to give massages and she was in great demand. So, on our first Saturday off she collected us in her car to take us to the Hotel where she worked.  The magnificent Marques de Riscal in El Ciego, in the La Rioja region. Followed by a visit to La Guardia  to see the famous Clock with dancers on who come out at the stoke of noon.  We had wine and tapas in the Square.     

We were so lucky that Yolanda had a car and so on the Sunday she took us all out in the beautiful countryside and a visit to the Monastery.  On the way back she insisted we visit a town called Tricio, and we pretended it was my Village. Here they have a very interesting National Monument which we enjoyed visiting.    
One day we were told to expect Antoine Carrillo and Emmanuel Chabod who, because it was the Holy Year, had walked from Rome carrying sticks with coloured ribbons adorned with pins hanging down which they had received from all the Albergues they had stopped at along the way.    Not only they arrived but a huge contingency, and about  12 sticks,  as at each Albergue they visit they request two Hospitaleros to accompany them to the next Albergue, and also ask Pilgrims if they would like to join in.
The Representatives from our Municipality were there to great them with snacks and wine, and we had quite a party, singing Ultreia. They also carry two books and each Albergue is asked to complete a page with photographs and information about their town and as Yolanda is an Artist, she did the most lovely page for our contribution.   

Yolanda and I volunteered to accompany them the next morning and we set off at 6.30 am in the dark, but with a lovely full moon. The first village we got to was Azofra and half the town turned out to greet us with coffee and cake, then they joined us in the Walk.   We then got to the Village of Ciruena with another big turnout to greet us with wine, bread, meat and fruit.     More people from this town also joined in the walk.    

The biggest reception we received was at Santo Domingo, with a huge photo shoot, with all their dignitaries with chains of office round their necks.  There were three trestle tables laden with food and wine and we were given a tour of the new Albergue Do Santo.   Apparently these wonderful receptions will greet Antoine and Emmanuel at each town and village they pass through until they reach Santiago. They then walk all the way back to Rome.       

It was 21 kms to Santo Domingo, and Yolanda and I did not fancy walking back, so Jose Luis came and fetched us in his car.  I had so enjoyed my walk, but knew I would be on my Camino in three days time.

But before then it was another glorious weekend when we had a cleaner and we could all go off in Yolanda's car. We set off to visit the Monastery at San Milan de la Cogolla, which is a world heritage site because of the fact that the first book ever written was by a Monk here.    We joined an organised tour which took a lot longer than planned and so Yolanda had to drive very fast for us to be back at the Albergue by 1.30 pm     

Sunday we visited the Monastery at Santa Maria de la Estrella at San Ascensio which is now a School, Retirement Home and Retreat, and we were lucky enough to be shown all around by a retired Monk who took us to places that tourists don’t usually see, as he was thrilled to meet 4 Hospitaleros.       

Next day was our last day and the three new Hospitaleros arrived, Alanna from Canada, George from France and Frans from Germany.    They were only having three as now the busiest month of August is over the numbers will not be so great.     

The whole of the Municipality Committee arrived, Christina, Father Luis and Vecino, and we had prepared tapas and it was a glorious send off.  We were all given a presentation box of 3 vintage Le Rioja Wines (can you imagine me carrying that in my backpack?) and a magnificent pottery Peregrino which I adore and posted off and am glad to say arrived safely.  We also received a key ring, book mark, and cards, so felt really spoilt.

Next morning I left at 8 am and felt bad about leaving the three Hospitaleros to fend for themselves but like us, they will adapt in no time. 
Yolanda took me on to Santo Domingo as I did not want to do the 21 kms again.