Monday, 11 May 2009

Camino People Series – Carmen, Hospitalera

A life in the day of Carmen the hospitalera at Hospital de Bruma

"In the old days I thought something wonderful would happen to me - now I believe that the most wonderful thing is that nothing wonderful happens. We are just as we are - nothing else - are we not wonderful enough? By only hearing the wind howl in the chimney, I am filled with all the harmony of music. By eating bread I am fed with the whole goodness and fullness of the earth. And when the silent mood comes, the calmness of immense seas and eternal spaces fills me...I know now that the things of greatest value can be had for the asking - that the centre of life is always near." From 'Soliloquies of a Hermit' by Theodore Frances Powys

Before I first met Carmen I heard about her from other pilgrims. Good things.

Pilgrims arrive at the albergue at Hospital de Bruma exhausted after walking 29 kms to get there from Betanzos, including walking up the “hill”. Pilgrims describe the albergue as being among the best they have ever used. Carmen’s welcome and her efforts to make pilgrims comfortable have a lot to do with that. The albergue is situated at the bottom of the small hamlet of Hospital de Bruma which in medieval times did have a pilgrim hospital. It is 2 kms from the nearest restaurant or shops which for a lot of pilgrims would be 2 kms too far! Carmen has sorted out meal deliveries from a local restaurant and she is known to arrange for her husband the ever helpful Benino to drive pilgrims to the supermarket.

I’ve met Carmen a few times and from the start she welcomed me with warmth and friendship. She has an open face with eyes that twinkle as she makes or enjoys a joke.

I had explained to her about this blog project of mine – Camino People – and after we had packed for the day we hiked back down to Bruma from Meson do Vento to talk to Carmen.

This was just like any other day. She got up at 8am and had hot chocolate with biscuits broken it to it as she does every day. Then she made her way to the albergue where three young pilgrims from Croatia had slept the night before. They wanted to walk to Santiago in one go and had left at dawn. The numbers are increasing she said. Sometimes they come in ones or twos. Nowadays there are more groups. She pointed to a plaque on the wall commemorating the visit by 30 Irish people who had sailed to Ferrol by boat to walk to Santiago. The day after they left 40 more pilgrims arrived from Pais Vasco. They had fun fitting into the albergues 25 beds!
We were sitting at the table in the kitchen/lounge of the albergue and I asked Carmen how long she had been here. Although she knew exactly what I meant her eyes twinkled as she said “53 years”. Seeing my astonishment she explained that she and her three brothers had been born in that very building which had been home to her family for three generations. Eventually she married a local boy, Benino, from Meson do Vento and they got another larger house in Bruma and her parents moved in with her. The family abandoned the house in the mid 1970’s. They decided to donate the house to the Ayuntamiento who converted it into the albergue with Carmen appointed as first hospitalera in 1999. “Was she pleased with it?” Her pride is obvious. “I’m delighted.”
She explained that the kitchen is largely the same although there are more doors and windows now. The albergue retains the traditional Galician oven where her grandmother and mother cooked. She said that she seen a lot of changes in the Camino Inglés over the 10 years. There are more. The waymarking is better. But her experience of the pilgrims has always been good.

A big change has been the introduction of a 3 euro charge instead of the previous donation system. She said there is less income now!

Another big change is that they provide disposable sheets and pillowcases.
Even after the passage of time she remembers one pilgrim from some years before, a woman from Ferrol who was very ill. She was determined to make the pilgrimage to Santiago and walked two days of 40 kms each simply praying “let me arrive”.

The albergue is open 365 days of the year and is left unlocked. After cleaning up in the mornings Carmen goes home for lunch at 1pm. She laughed when she said this and admitted her lunchtime is most un-Spanish.

At home she makes lunch for her parents and Benino. They usually have soup or pasta to start followed by meat. Unlike most Galicians they don’t eat a lot of fish although her favourite meal reserved for wedding anniversaries and birthdays is sea food.

“Every day.” She repeated for emphasis, “ Every day, Benino goes to play cards with his friends.” But they both make sure they are around at 5pm when the pilgrims start to arrive. After they get settled in with their Credenciales stamped Carmen makes sure they have food or know how to get it.

In the evening before supper they tend to their chickens, rabbits and vegetables – all for the pot. Then she usually watches some television before going to bed early.

“Then I get up next day and do it all again” she concludes without a scintilla of discontent.

As we left I felt very privileged to have seen into her life a little. Whether or not she had ever been outside of Bruma or outside of Spain was a question I left unasked. No matter the answer, I suspect she has far more serenity than a lot of world travellers.

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