Hola amigos, I’m finally unpacking my 2019 journey of volunteering as Hospitalera in the Albergue de Peregrinos Siervas de Maria, in beautiful Astorga. Some things are best understood with the distance of time, according to philosopher, (Søren Kierkegaard, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forward”).
So here is the backwards and forward look. When I walked down the street from the Astorga Train Station, October 2019, I was excited that I would be spending two weeks volunteering in an albergue that I had stayed in the last year, and working with others in this complex who shared my passion for volunteerism and the Camino. I stopped on the road, to look at the giant murals, a landmark for peregrinos. There was Napoleon. And a rendition of chocolate factory workers, as this is the Chocolate Capital. Bittersweet.
A hint now, this was prophetic. I would meet my Waterloo. This Waterloo isn’t a person, but a language! And we have a victory: in the end we would be friends and I understood that the respect for communicating in the language of the country I walked and worked in is part of our journey. Buen Camino, amigos.
The real surprise as I finally unpack my volunteering experience as a hospitalera is that I was so surprised by everything: the working requirements, somewhat different from the training, and living conditions (very good), my reactions and emotions, the way I feel now after writing this “memory. “
Walking on the Camino has a way of refocusing, reframing, rebuilding us. Check out my previous blogs for my 2019 journey before I arrived in Astorga. And the commitment of volunteering as hospitalero/a is also filled with the ups and downs of our Caminos.
Information and thoughts on working as a hospitalero/a in the Albergue de Peregrinos Siervas de Maria in Astorga.
As you may have discovered if you have walked on the Camino, hospitaleros are often the main players in the daily management of the albergue. Not so here. This building, a former medieval hospital, then a convent, is now a multistory albergue with 140+ beds. A Spanish husband and wife team are employed as full-time managers/hospitaleros and a few people from the community are hired for some of the morning cleaning for at least six or more of the busiest months of the year. And there are usually four or more trained volunteers and hospitaleros, some staying for a month or longer. My commitment was for two weeks. The oversight is by Association de Amigos del Camino y Comarca, in Astorga headed by a president, Juan Carlos, who has an office here and comes by periodically.
A priest comes several evenings each week to the chapel for a short mass. This is a beautiful facility with kitchens, dining areas, rooms with different numbers of bunks, laundry facilities, meeting areas with computers, outdoor terrace, and patios. And lots of stairs. All this for only 5 euro per night. And they take phone reservations.
I stayed here in 2018 with my Camino amiga, Marylee. A little backstory how and why I volunteered at this albergue. The Hospitalero training manual described assigned working duties as one afternoon shift daily that could include welcoming, registering and accompanying pilgrims to rooms, assigning beds, and explaining rules and the map of facilities. Add showing the map of the town and answering any questions. Usually two hospitaleros worked at the desk, so one would always be there to welcome and register pilgrims. There’s a drinking fountain in the registration area and limited seating, plus space to leave packs while pilgrims are paying for rooms. No other chores. I liked that idea, especially after already staying in this albergue and meeting two American English -speaking-only older pilgrims at the desk and knowing this would be a job I would love. They were escorting pilgrims to rooms, as well as registering. And I really wanted to work directly with pilgrims. I love the social part of meeting and listening and helping.
My friend, Marcella, from our 2018 Hospitalero training in Marin Headlands, had applied and been accepted at this albergue and asked if I wanted to join her. I applied and when I was accepted and translated the acceptance letter, I was welcomed and given the list of benefits, requirements and job description. Mostly what we had learned in the training manual, except in addition we would help out with cleaning in the morning, a surprise, since I was looking for lighter physical work. We would work a shift in the afternoon with registration duties. Stay with me, because as challenging as the cleaning and communicating were for me, there are wonderful opportunities in the albergue on off-work hours and in town, too, as you have many hours of free time.
The first week of October, 2019, we walked into the albergue and met the managers who speak Spanish only, and two English/Spanish speaking Scandinavian volunteers, returnees and veteran hospitaleros, who had been working for two weeks or longer. We were shown our individual accommodations, grateful for private rooms, most with big windows for light, air and view and mine the last one, almost windowless. Later, I tried to change rooms when one of the hospitaleros left, asking the managers, first P., but she told me I had to ask Alfredo. And I did. But he wouldn’t allow me to take that vacant room. I asked in Spanish, and his answer I could understand, but definitely not question or negotiate his reasoning. Oh, had I only been fluent in Spanish! This view was from a vacant room! But just like on the Camino, it’s onward. Except I admit I complained, but not to anyone who could change the answer! But, still I felt grateful and lucky to have the private room to keep my possessions and spend private time.
Next we were given a guided tour and learned about our responsibilities and jobs. Here’s my advice and opinion: if you volunteer as hospitalero/a in this albergue and possibly, at many other albergues: you absolutely MUST SPEAK SPANISH, although it’s not required. Not just basic, but have a good mastery and fluency, so you can ask questions and understand the rapid answers. Besides showing respect for the country and people of Spain, by communicating in their language, if there are problems and you need to complain or ask for help you must be able to listen and understand the Spanish speaker and they must understand you. When Juan Carlos came to the albergue after the first week and asked how things were going, I told him we were having a communication problem. He laughed and held up his phone. A phone translator app is not adequate to communicate in situations that call for rapid decisions and actions and comprehension. It does work, though, for less pressing circumstances.
In five Camino experiences I have spoken basic Spanish and have been safe and not had problems. (But in two different medical facility experiences on the Camino, I was grateful they provided a translator, besides amazing health care). My level of Spanish was fine for working at this albergue registration desk, as many pilgrims from different countries speak English and even my basic Spanish was okay, but not in communicating with the managers. If I had spoken fluent Spanish with the staff, we all would have worked together more successfully. In the case of special needs or problems, (and there are always several) I could have spoken up for myself. Instead almost every day was a challenge during the morning working hours. In my journal I found an entry that read, if I finish the next ten days, it will be a Camino Miracle. Yes, miracles do happen, but here in Spain, it would be better if they were in Spanish.
Work started after we ate breakfast, from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. Before breakfast my work partner, Marcella, and I walked in the still and dark town, often stopping for café con leche and tortilla or a surprise donut. The air was cool and the city at dawn is stunning.
Almost immediately upon arrival, we were to choose jobs and during this work time there were many communication challenges. No pre-training, just OJT. Two hours of cleaning was a lot of physical work for me, and finally we settled on three jobs that were more physically demanding than I thought they would be. Still, I don’t think I met the hopes of the management. One: Sweeping, then hauling heavy pails of water and mopping a huge downstairs outside patio, washing tables, chairs, and stairs; two: completely cleaning the laundry room; three: cleaning the hospitalero kitchen. One job would have been enough. Just reading this now, I’m confirming how physically taxing this much heavy work was for my mind and body. The second week, my work partner would often come in and help me finish. I don’t think I was inflexible, just that the work was too physically demanding for me. Perhaps they were short handed the second week, when one of the hospitaleros left. The managers work very hard all day long and it seemed they needed and maybe expected more help.
When I finished my chores, I took a shower and left for much of the day, exploring the city, the wonderful sites, Cathedral and churches, Palacia de Gaudi, museums and a modern library, the archaeological dig sites, endless shopping, not just for tourists, plazas and alleyways and ancient cobble streets. Sometimes I walked on the Camino either towards Rabanal or back towards the bridge. I figured out how to order café con leche and be served a free tortilla, instead of ordering desayuno separately. And learned how to ask for organic turkey and vegetables, in Spanish of course, in the supermarket sections. I usually practiced my Spanish, shopping in town. Everyday I bought the best bread I have ever tasted. And the bakers always had it saved and ready for me. Storekeepers remembered and embraced me with warmth. I talked to many local residents and to pilgrims staying or passing through. In Spanish. Sometimes I brought my food back to the hospitalero kitchen, shared the bread, and ate with Pilar, our manager, or Marcella, if they happened to be in there. And we had lots of philosophical and political conversations with our Scandinavian amigos. A favorite part of my day was time I spent in the downstairs pilgrim kitchen, dining or terrace area introducing myself and talking to pilgrims and listening to their stories. I was free to spend time that wasn’t on the schedule.
Then I would return and usually work the last shift, 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at the desk with the manager, Alfredo, who created the schedules. This was more OJT and critical in filling out records accurately. There are specific ways to register pilgrims and record all data from passports or ID cards, answer questions, escort pilgrims to their rooms, assign beds, collect fees and and maintain the money drawer and books. You need to know the map of the city and where to find markets and places of interest on the map. Working directly with the pilgrims like this is what I had hoped I would be doing when I signed up. Our phones sat on the tables during this often very quiet time and my English came in handy for reservation calls or the many pilgrims who didn’t speak Spanish. We sat next to each other at the desk, mostly in silence. Now, that’s a challenge for me! With phones on the table or in hand. One day I shared pictures of my grandchildren and also my Caminos. I asked A. if he had pictures and he also shared. We communicated with my limited Spanish and body language, and the universal language of the phone.
Each night we would go to one of the squares or somewhere else in this awesome town of 11,000 plus people, and share meals or meet later for café con leche or drinks. I was so grateful for this part of the day. I loved being with these new friends, listening to their stories, sharing socio-political discussions and exploring this awesome city. One night we celebrated a birthday at a little bar in town and it was wonderful to eat the specialties of Astorga. But every night was a night out!
Here’s more on why being able to communicate with the management is critical: Walking on the Camino is different than working as a hospitalero. If you don’t feel comfortable or like where you are, you have many choices to leave, walk on, take a taxi or bus or train or even stop. You can complain or not. You can share or not.
Like life, the Camino is a learning situation and that is the same for volunteering as hospitaleros. Except the leaving part is not as simple. If you are like me, you will have trained and looked forward to working to give back to the Camino. And made a commitment. Albergues need us to work for our intended commitment if they are expecting us.
I understand now that we needed more help. One hospitalero finished and left after he had been working for several weeks, but the replacement didn’t show up any time we were there. This added to the stress of the managers trying to coordinate and complete all the work of the albergue and the stress in managing. As a hospitalera/o you will provide your own time and transport to get there, but have a place to sleep and perhaps a stipend for food. In some Albergues you and another volunteer will work together and have all the daily work of cleaning, shopping, cooking, registering, and being solely in charge. You either work alone, with someone you may know or with a new person you are meeting for the first time.
In hospitalero training you practice how to get along and what to do if you have problems. It’s only two weeks, but it’s been a long journey of your own Caminos, your training, your transporting yourself there and your dreaming. This is one time when planning ahead is a good idea. Still, like the Camino, volunteering is filled with surprises and challenges, so be ready! I am grateful I finally wrote this backwards look of my experience as a hospitalera. I gained a new perspective. Buen Camino, amigos.
If you are thinking of volunteering here, feel free to contact me for additional information or if you have any questions before you apply.