Being a hospitalero is a lot like doing a Camino – it is a challenge and a joy all at the same time.
I did not realise just how physically tiring it would be. We started at 6am and finished at 10.30pm, although by the end of our stint we were giving each other alternate early nights to bed. My duties consisted of looking after the kitchen cleaning (I got a sore hip from all that sweeping and mopping!); buying the bread (there was no shop in town but the bread van came every day except Sunday, announcing his presence by a long blast on his horn); keeping the finances balanced (I was relieved as a hospitalero by the Confraternity treasurer!); lighting the slow combustion heater each night (loved by the peregrinos not just because a wood fire looks so good, but because we put clothes horses in front of it after everyone had gone to bed and dried every- one’s wet clothes); and various other cleaning jobs if I finished before my colleague. My partner and I could not have been more unlike each other, but we bit our tongues when we had to, and I like to think that we made a halfway decent team. When I arrived at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela after completing my stint at Miraz, I was told by the people in the Pilgrims Office that they had had good reports about our stewardship of the albergue.
Miraz itself has a very small population. There is no shop or restaurant, but there is a bar which carries a limited range of basic supplies. The peregrinos can buy these and cook them in the albergue kitchen, which has got to be about the best kitchen on any Camino. A 7-burner gas top, a big gas oven, plenty of room, and any number of pots, pans, plates and utensils. It was always a pleasure to watch the walkers talking together in so many different languages as they prepared their meals together. We would wait until everyone else was fed before we prepared our own meal. In the morning we offered brewed coffee, bread/toast, butter/jam, hot milk/drinking chocolate (and vegemite, but not one Australian came through while I was there). As Miraz is run on the lines of a traditional albergue, there is not a set fee. Rather, we ask for a donation, and breakfast is included. I read in a CSJ bulletin that the average donation is around 4€, but while we were there, the average was above 5€, so we must have done something right.
Once a week we would visit a nearby town to purchase supplies for the albergue and some food supplies for ourselves. This gave us the opportunity to pig out a menu del dia at a local bar, much tastier than what we would normally have back at the albergue.
Being a traditional albergue, our mission is to support the individual pilgrim on his way to Compostela. Accordingly we do not admit pilgrims who use support vehicles such as buses, or those who had their luggage sent forward by taxi. We also did not accept anyone who was not carrying a credential. We refused entry to two walkers for just this reason and, to say they were angry is putting it mildly. We checked with Head Office later and received their whole-hearted support of this decision. I am still puzzled how they managed to get so far along the Camino without a credential. One pilgrim turned up without a normal credential but he had a letter from his parish asking people to help him on his journey and we reckoned that was more than okay. Groups also are not admitted but this can be tricky to judge, as it is difficult to tell the difference between a group that started as such (not welcome] or people who formed a group as they travelled the Camino and made friends on the way.
My fellow hospitalero was Welsh by birth, but had lived in England for many years. To say that his accent was difficult is not straining the truth. Dave was the booking-in man – he took details of nationality, where pilgrims started, passport details etc while I put the stamps in the credential. Then Dave would give the walkers details of where the kitchen was, the laundry, dormitory etc. Where possible, and it was many many times, he would give this information in English. Quite often the pilgrims would turn to me and ask for a translation – they could understand my English much better than Dave’s. Dave was a great mentor in my first effort in being a hospitalero, and showed much patience in helping me. I will always be grateful to him for his efforts in getting me through two weeks of living and working in a strange environment with a total stranger. Muchos gracias Dave!
The highlight of my two weeks at Miraz was when my wife rang to tell me that we had become grandparents for the first time. There were about 18 pilgrims staying with us that night, and everyone drank a toast to baby Jonah with some Morris’s Muscat I had taken for the occasion. One sweet French lady declared that “I am thinking you are drinking on the baby’s head” Quite so, Claudette, quite so.
One night we had a group of Polish men who spoke no English at all. One of them had a horrendous open wound on the base of his foot, where he had developed a blister but tried to keep walking. At Miraz he finally admitted that he could not go on, and asked us if we could get him some medical attention. With the help of a Polish lady, unconnected with the group and who spoke some English, Dave found out that the man had a European Health Card which would enable him to get free treatment; also that he was willing to pay for a taxi to a nearby village which had a 24 hour emergency health centre. Dave called the taxi and the driver, Jose Manuel, took Dave and the injured man to the centre. This was a very big call by Dave, as it left me in sole charge! Jose Manuel was a tower of strength at the medical centre and did most of the talking. Eventually they all returned, and Dave relayed the doctor’s instructions to the Pole via the Polish lady on future care and treatment. Next morning we gave him a hug and sent him off in a taxi to meet up with his compatriots in the next village. Many days later as I walked into Compostela, I was greeted near the cathedral by the same Polish pilgrim. His English had not improved, but his foot certainly had, and his gratitude for the care and concern that Dave had shown him was obvious. A lovely moment and one that won’t be forgotten. Well done, Dave and Jose Manuel.
Would I work at Miraz again? Absolutely! Or at Rabanal, the other CSJ albergue, which is on the Camino Francés. I hope to attend a ‘Spanish for Hospitaleros’ course at Compostela University (established 1122) sometime next year and then look for work at Miraz or Rabanal.
Remember, if you walk the Camino del Norte and stay at Miraz, have a look for the vegemite in amongst the jams.