I wanna walk my Camino!
The push is on to re-open our economies, to get the tourism ball rolling again, even as the Covid-19 virus death toll continues to add up all over Spain. All the noise about the Camino de Santiago being the heart and soul of the local economy is being put to the test. It’s been a mild winter and a good, rainy spring, and gas is cheap, so the farmers are happy at least. But the bakers, the launderette, the shoe-repair shop, the bars, the hostels? No one can say. No one is allowed outside to talk about it. All the bars and beauty shops — the places where these things are hashed-out and decided-upon — are closed up tight
The trail is fast asleep. Quails walk down the median stripe of the N120 on the way to Sahagun. I go to town once a week for vegetables, dog food, the sight of other humans. On Tuesday I saw Father Dani from the Padres Maristas. All work has ceased at their Albergue Santa Cruz, but it’s not so stressful now that work has ceased everywhere else, too. In the little diocesan apartment house next to the supermercado, Daniel is an enclosed monastic now, with three of his fellow Marists and a couple of local priests. They have a Mass there every afternoon. No one but monks and nuns have seen a Mass since the edict came down a month ago. The churches are shut down. It makes us ache, the rest of us. We ache, we wait. Grace is sufficient, we tell ourselves. It will not always be like this.
After all this time we are talking to one another, we Camino people, mostly online, on WhatsApp, on Zoom, Skype and Messenger. What will it be like in June? Should we close down everything, call off all the volunteers, just let this year go? If the borders are closed through September, this stubby Camino season will be a Spanish-only affair. Fifty percent of the usual crowd, and only if the virus is overcome enough to ensure safety.
Albergues will need to spread people out, keep them from breathing the same air. That will cut down capacity. Spanish pilgrims are often an ornery bunch… would they cooperate with the rules? And how can we keep our volunteers safe? How will we staff the albergue, as 60 percent of our volunteers are from other nations? Our strength has become a weakness. It’s not looking so good for Albergue Villa de Grado this year, my friends. Nothing official has been decided, but it’s not looking good.Even as we look into the future, we see the lights going out in flagship albergues that have been around for 30 years or more. Donativo places, bunkhouses, scruffy old schools… their day is past, some say. Pilgrims want more. Last week on the online Camino Forum, a wannabe albergue owner asked everyone to pitch in What They Want in A Great Albergue. The answers were individual bunks out of the view of everyone else, with their own electrical supply, lights, and linens. They want spotless showers, strong wifi signals, and rock-bottom prices. Oh, and jolly shared meals, served by smiling hosts who speak proper English.
The picture quickly came clear. Pilgrims don’t want albergues anymore. They want pilgrim-only hotels.
It looks like new health regulations want hotels, too — places where people occupy discrete spaces. The old bunkhouses, crowded dining rooms and kitchens, shower stalls and shared dormitories may soon be legislated away. Prices will go up. The poor will be shut out again.
Alfredo at the Siervas de Maria albergue in Astorga this week posted photos of the place, sparkling clean, mowed, weeded, polished, and completely empty. I have never seen it without dozens of people moving into and out of its many rooms. It is spooky.
Our beloved non-profit business model may be doomed. When the familiar infrastructure is deemed unworthy, what will become of the volunteers, the shared meals, the hospitality that grew up with them, that made the Camino de Santiago trail unique in the world?
Change is inevitable. We have to evolve, or we will die. When we are gone, will the pilgrims miss us? Or will the Camino die with us? How do we continue to offer traditional hospitality on this new Way of St. James We ache, we wait. Grace is sufficient, we tell ourselves. We will know in time.