La Parroquia San Juan Bautista. Granon, Rioja Spain
September 1-15, 2014
I made a commitment to find a way to serve other pilgrims on the very day I completed my first pilgrimage to Santiago in November of 2012.
Returning to the states I began putting together the pieces to make a service commitment a reality. I was put in touch with several pilgrims’ organizations and finally found hospitalera training to take place over a weekend last fall. The facilitators and other trainees in attendance were incredible. This was the final push I needed to put the wheels in motion. Once all the logistics came together, the rest just evolved organically.
I really had no idea what to expect when I arrived at the albergue to take up my post as a volunteer. I decided to walk from San Jean Pied de Port in order to put myself in the proper mindset. I allowed myself plenty of time because I didn’t want to rush through any of this experience. It was about 11 days of walking through the late summer sun.
Upon my arrival which was 3 days early, I had a bad cold and had some serious pain in my right foot. The three women from the Spanish city of Valencia who were the hospitaleras when I arrived gave me a warm welcome and allowed me to rest up. All the hospitaleros at the other parochial albergues, donativos and municipal shelters I met along the way set fine examples as to how to welcome a pilgrim. I speak Spanish fairly well and had found some of them to be quite funny with a great sense of humor. But it was Pepe in Zabaldiki who, when he found out I was on my way to my volunteer position in Granon clapped his hands together in a show of exuberance and began to explain the inner journey of the Camino. That would become very clear much later.
The village of Granon is lovely. It has an agricultural based economy with a typical communal lavadura, fuentes, and a plaza hosting a café bar, church and town hall. Located in one of the verdant valleys of the province and autonomous community of La Rioja, Spain. The albergue in Granon is very special. I did not encounter anything like it anywhere on my own walk to Santiago. It is open 24/7 365 days a year and never turned anyone away. When I first met Father Jesus, I was a little intimidated by his presence. He held a pilgrim’s mass every night of the week except for Sundays when he performed a morning mass. Of course he turned out to be one of the gentlest souls on the planet. His commitment to pilgrims was awe inspiring and his lack of judgment toward others is what really struck me. I felt a little awkward at times speaking with him because my Spanish seemed to ebb and flow but he never wavered, he never laughed at me or poked fun of my Spanish. Neither did the other two2 hospitaleros I worked with. Sergio was a young man from Madrid and Antonio was a retired professor from Mexico. They spoke no English but we communicated well laughed and laughed for two solid weeks. It was the most fun you can have while scrubbing toilets and washing down shower stalls.
We also offered a communal meal every evening. We occasionally fed folks who were not staying at the albergue itself. The kitchen was tiny. Our job was to supervise the pilgrim’s while they prepared the evening cena. When I tell people this they are incredulous, as they should be. BUT, it worked. As I said Granon is exceptional. Remember the story of the fishes and the loaves? That sums it up. There was always enough. However, when I first arrived the three current hospitaleras were doing all the cooking. And a fine job they did. I thought that’s how it worked. Then I discovered that neither Sergio nor Antonio knew anything about kitchens and cooking. I have many years of experience in commercial kitchens and thought I could handle cooking every night for 45+ pilgrims. By day 4 I was cooked myself. Enter Marina, the volunteer supervisor from Burgos. She straightened us out on a few things. She is the one who taught us to “trust the process because it works”. I did not believe her but there was no alternative, I could not continue cooking every night. She was so right. Pilgrims were more than happy to offer to help. We even had a few professional chefs who stepped up to direct the kitchen for the evening. After that we all fell into a pleasant but rigorous routine. That routine included relaxing, exploring Granon and even a few field trips with Father Jesus. Did I mention cleaning the albergue every day from top to bottom? Here is what a typical day looked like:
We rotated a shift of two to prepare the breakfast at 6:00 AM. The other hospitalero would sleep in. And once the last pilgrims were out the door, we went back to sleep for an hour or two and soaked up the quiet. The three of us upon awakening ate a quick breakfast with some coffee and set to the task of cleaning the albergue. There were no bunks or actual beds in Granon. Pilgrims slept on mats on the floor of either the main sleeping room or in the overflow which also happened to be the newer chapel of the church. This chapel doubled as the winter quarters for the masses. Father Jesus said if and when those two spaces were full, pilgrims could sleep inside the church. I never saw that but we did sometimes have 60+ pilgrims.
After the mats were stacked up we cleaned the floors with a solution of both water and vinegar or a solution of bleach and water. We also wiped down the mats about every 3 days with a solution of vinegar and water. The floors were tile and did not allow for bugs to hide. Although we also had a pressurized steam cleaner in the event of bed bugs showing up. Because of this problem in the past, Granon did NOT have blankets or sheets to offer pilgrims. We cleaned the bathrooms, washed all the kitchen towels, straightened the place up, separated the trash and cleaned the kitchen. After a short time, it became clear that some of us had preferences. By unspoken agreement, Antonio took it up to deep clean the kitchen every day and wash all the kitchen towels and cleaning rags; I was particular about the ladies bathroom and the auxiliary WC on the first floor and Sergio liked keeping the choir in order. It worked very well this way…
After the place was together, we all went to the local bar and had a coffee or a croissant and just relaxed in the morning sun. After our little break of coffee and chats with locals (of which there were about 200 in residence in Granon), we went back and waited. When pilgrims came in up the narrow winding staircase of the bell tower, we had them sign in, oriented them to showers, sleeping and laundry (most of what pilgrims do after walking) and pointed to the donativo box on the table in the entry. Again, here is where Granon was truly special. This albergue was 100 % dependent on pilgrim donations. Our donativo box was a little wooden chest that was open and on the inside of the lid was printed in several languages: Donativo-Put in what you have, Take out what you need. We never lacked for funds to buy groceries and wine and keep the place stocked.
The main floor was both a living room and a dining room. Pilgrims could sit by the open windows, eat their lunch, play our guitar, chat with each other and us and just relax. The albergue opened on to a little public plaza or garden with plenty of shade and benches, all in all a very pleasant place to while away the afternoon. I often sat there for an hour or so myself playing my ukulele during the hot Spanish siesta.
At about 6:00 in the evening we would begin to facilitate the pilgrims organizing themselves into a food prep team. More often than not, one pilgrim would step up to delegate to others what needed to be prepped and so on. We were able to use the big wood heated bread oven at the local bakery down the street from roasting large pans of vegetables or what have you. The catch was, pilgrims had to sing or Susanna to owner in order to claim the night’s dinner from the oven. This led to much hilarity and general mayhem in the street around the time dinner was to be served.
After the supper was cleared and the dining room put back in order, we held a candlelight meditation in the choir. Pilgrims were invited to offer up prayers, thanksgivings, and petitions or just speak their hearts and minds. It was a great honor to be a witness to all the pilgrims who shared their fears, their pain, joys, sorrows, regrets, gratitude and prayers. In my time as hospitalera I met no fewer than 400 pilgrims. I began keeping a list of the countries that were represented. By the time I left Granon I had about 35 countries on that list. By the time I had reached Santiago, Muxia and Finisterre, it had grown to 53.
After the pilgrim’s mediation, it was basically lights out for the pilgrims. Of course they were free to sit outside in the cool of the evening or venture into the town plaza to the bar. As hospitaleros, we set to the task of preparing for breakfast. We set the tables and made sure we had everything necessary to serve a typical Spanish breakfast, coffee, tea, bread, butter and jam. And then we retired for the evening.
The albergue was set up in such a way that it practically ran itself. On several occasions, were able to walk out to the nearby hermitage of Carrasquedo. A little church about 2 kilometers out of town located in what was known as the Bosque Celtico or Celtic Wood. It was a nice walk and there was a park, restaurant and youth hostel there. On 2 occasions Father Jesus took the 3 of us on field trips to museum in Canas, a retired Cistercian Monastery and to Valvonera, a living Benedictine Monastery in the mountains outside Logrono.
Aside from keeping track of donations, cleaning and keeping the albergue clean, much of what we did was to welcome pilgrims and help them feel safe and protected. This is where that inner journey starts to show up. In retrospect, I think that pilgrims need more than shelter and a hot meal. And being a pilgrim myself I found this to be true at times. I think pilgrims (although we may not be consciously aware of it) also need to know that we will be OK. That our needs will be met and we will not experience some life threatening incident. Even by today’s standards in civilized society and a world mostly free of highway robbers and bandits for some people breaking from the routine they have held for years is absolutely terrifying. My experience has taught that the “not knowing”, the unpredictability of weather and conditions, the dynamic nature of our own human experience can lead to insecurity. Serving as hospitalera was as challenging as being a pilgrim. For me personally, I needed to lean into the spirituality I was hoping to deepen. I needed to stretch and dig deep to uphold pilgrims when they were coming apart. The inner journey of service put me as in touch with my God as walking into the unknown every day. I am grateful for having had the privilege of serving in this way.