Well, the time had come. We packed our bags for two weeks, took a delightful detour, and we – just like the GPS lady says – arrived at our destination. Ponferrada.
First a little about Ponferrada. It’s in the province of El Bierzo (hello deeeelisssshhhh wine…yumyumyum…I feel like I say that a lot, woops) in Castilla y Leon, and has a population of around 70,000. It’s actually a nice little town – it has a pretty old quarter with some big plazas, lots of restaurants and bars (sounds like Anywheresville, Spain so far, no?) and some noteworthy tourist attractions such as the Castillo de los Templarios, among several others.
Being that it was our first time as hospitaleros, and our first time in the albergue there (we didn’t stay in Ponferrada on the Camino), we didn’t really know exactly what to expect! The albergue itself is very large, and really very nice. (I can say this especially because I have seen a little bit of everything.) There are bunk beds for 148 people split among rooms of 4, 6, and 8, and two very large rooms of 30+. There were six big bathrooms, a really large and fairly well stocked (pots, pans, fridge, etc.) kitchen with two stovetops, two big open patio areas, a library (where we’d also put people on mats on the floor after we filled the beds), and a chapel on the property. To give you an idea…
We were lucky here to have, among the five hospitaleros who were with us, really awesome people. A girl from Italy, another from Columbia who was living in Australia, and another from Spain. We got along great, and worked together – for the most part – remarkably well. AND the hospitaleros here have their own own rooms (C and I in the “couples” room), a bathroom only for our use, and our own kitchen as well. It makes a huge difference to be able to have your own space among so many people!!
SO. We had to find our own rhythm, a schedule and division of labor that worked for us (like every new group of hospitaleros has to do amongst themselves). The first days we were sort of walking in circles, like a bee colony with no queen bee or something. But after like 3 days we had it down. It went sort of like this:
5:20am – C and I – voluntarily (I am a morning person anyway) would get up to unlock the doors. The albergue is locked from 10:00pm until 5:30am – no one in or out. We had some very hot days (in the 90’s) when we were there and there were almost always 3 or 4 people up and waiting by the door to get an early start, beat the heat, ensure they have a place to sleep whenever they wanted to stop (July is a SUPER busy month, good heavens…and yes, there are albergues that can fill up). One morning someone told me that a guy had jumped the wall at 5:20 because he wanted to get out. Hellloooo….that’s a serious wall-scaling with a 20 pound backpack, and for 10 minutes? But to each his own.
5:30am – 7:30am – We would mull around, send people off and wish them a buen camino, answer questions, etc. From what we heard, we were the first hospitaleros to do this (the others woke up, unlocked the door, and went right back to bed), but we both really enjoyed it. I especially loved seeing everyone’s faces as they got going, watching their morning foot-preparation rituals, that wince as they put their backpacks back on. Plus it’s a really pretty time of day, cool, crisp, you can watch the sun come up…
7:00ish – The other hospitaleros would be up and about. Many of the pilgrims were gone by then, on average I’d say they left around 6:30. BUT we always had a few stragglers, a few folks who just couldn’t pull themselves out of bed, or who miraculously slept through the morning bustle of everyone ELSE packing their bags – everyone HAD to be out by 7:30, so between 7 and 7:30, we’d be wrangling folks out the door, starting to organize the morning cleaning, and if it was especially quiet, making a dent in the day’s chores.
7:30am – 8:15amish – We started the cleaning process. And what a process it was. We had to divide and conquer the work…scrubbing all the bathrooms (toilets, showers, urinals…and mind you, after walking 20 or 30 kilometers, you do NOT show up clean and shiny, so these bathrooms got a beating), the kitchen (including all that food people left and the dishes they didn’t do and the messes they left), the patios, the big bedrooms downstairs (wiping down all the beds, washing the floors), the library, the trash and separating all the recycling…
8:15amish – Normally we were at a good breaking point to sit down and have breakfast together, which we always, always did. At about that time, the two fabulous ladies who came to help clean showed up, and – because it was our lucky two weeks – we had a team of five SUPER awesome visiting Franciscan brothers who showed up around this time and ALSO helped us clean. Lord only knows how long it would have taken us without them. Poor guys had no idea when they signed up to come to Spain that they’d be scrubbing toilets every day. But they were such good sports.
8:30amish – 10:30 – Massive, aerobic, intensive, thorough cleaning. It’s good for what ails ya. No seriously. Aside from some barf-worthy stuff, I don’t mind it at all. I got seriously schooled in cleaning products. So there’s that. When we got back home, I had to buy a new mop because ours suddenly looked wimpy.
10:30am – A mandatory break. We would have coffee – all of us with the ladies – and the priest would show up every day to catch us up on anything, to pay anyone who had gone grocery shopping (we shopped as a group, and always got reimbursed), and just to chit chat. At first, I was like “ugh, I’m in my rhythm, I just wanna get this DONE” but then I realized it was a daily bonding moment, and I really enjoyed it. We had a lot of laughs.
11:00am – Back to work to finish up whatever we needed to…after a few days, we had gotten into a pretty good rhythm and were usually not working much past this. So then you had time for a quick nap, or a run to the store, or a shower – all really depended on your schedule for the day.
1:00pm – Doors to the albergue open, and C would always play his bagpipe to announce it. There were usually at least 20 people waiting, sometimes more. We created a daily rotating schedule and worked in two hour shifts – always two people at the door at a time, 3 in the first two hours which were usually the busiest of the day. Checking people in means writing down their name, ID#, where they are from, where they started the Camino, and stamping their Camino passports. One person would do that (everything was documented in books) while the other person figured out how to distribute the beds/rooms and where to put everyone…it would change if someone was by themselves, or in a group who wanted to stay together, (and occasionally accommodating requests for the lower bunk…which EVERYone wanted because EVERYone on the Camino has some kind of “tendonitis” or what have you…for the record, I always took the upper bunk, and thank heavens, so did some other people), etc. etc. The crowds would vary from day to day, sometimes it was steady all day long, sometimes people showed up in big massive spurts. But always, always, always a lot of people. From 1:00 until 10:00 when we closed the doors, two of us were always at the desk. And the others? Resting, running errands, chatting with and helping the pilgrims (the questions…never ending! Ranging from “where’s the nearest store/bank/restaurant?” to “Help, I lost my wallet…” to “I need a doctor…” to “I have a million questions about the next towns along the Camino” to “Whats the bus/train schedule…” You name it.).
During this time, we would also be giving credentials to anyone who was starting the Camino in Ponferrada – every pilgrim needs credentials to stay in the albergues. Basically, this is documentation that says you are actually a pilgrim walking the Camino. In 2012, almost 7000 people started their Camino there. (By the way this links to some really interesting statistics if you’re interested!) Those folks always had a ton of question too, especially if it was their first time! People would show up all day long – folks who were staying or weren’t staying at the albergue – didn’t matter. One morning I had an 83 year old woman waiting outside the door to pick up her credentials at 5:30am – she was starting that day and told me it was her 8th time doing the Camino. WOW.
9:30pm – We would begin to rally everyone inside. Our rule was 10:00, in bed, lights out. Most people are tired and ready to hit the sack. Others? Well, notsomuch. It IS hard sometimes, by 10 it was just a lovely time of day and people have had a few drinks and are relaxing and having a great time with their Camino friends…who wants to go to bed?? We never really had a huge problem – one night a bunch of 20-somethings wanted to go out later than the albergue was open, so they took their sleeping bags and came back at 5:30 in the morning. Ah to be young. It was really fine with us…the rules we had were to help allow people get the rest they need to get going the next day, as long as we did that, we’re doing our jobs.
Once we got everyone in bed, lights out, all the talkers and stragglers and smokers and wanna-be-escapees in bed…we all retreated to the kitchen for dinner, a few glasses of wine, and general daily recap.
I loved it. I loved the routine, being so busy that the days flew by, falling into bed exhausted at night…plus the people, talking to them helping them, learning from them, laughing with them. People from all over the world, all sizes and shapes and ages, every day something different, every day never knowing what kind of group it would be. It was awesome.
Like I’ve told everyone I’ve talked to about this…being a hospitalero is a lot of work. You are go-go-go all day long, for us, from 5:30am until usually after midnight. You feel a strong sense of responsibility to take care of all 150+ people sleeping under your roof, and to make sure they have a really good experience staying with you. On top of that, it is a lesson in how to work with other people, in being a team, in group problem solving, a test of patience, kindness, of your ability to put all judgment aside and treat everyone with warmth and respect. And it is incredibly rewarding – pilgrims were so kind with their words and their gratitude, by being there for them, or helping or listening, or whatever it is they might have needed, you have literally changed their Camino in some way.
I’d do it again in a heartbeat. We WILL do it again. I’m already looking forward to it.