Sunday, 6 December 2009

Putting something back

Is there one of us who has walked to Santiago who hasn’t dreamed of running an albergue? Or working forever as a hospitalero receiving pilgrims in various locations along the many routes to Santiago? The urge to “put something back” seems almost universal. It is as if the experience of pilgrimage gives so much to us that we want in some small way to return the favour. For me I think the root of it was that feeling that on the routes we walk in the footsteps of millions who have gone before. Take the arch at Caparra which has stood since Roman times.

Think of the countless pilgrims who have marched onwards under that great stone edifice or made the journey over the Route Napoleon (below) from France into Spain to walk in procession along the Camino Francés or who were cared for or died of illness and injury in pilgrim hospitals some of which are still remembered in the names of places like Hospital de Bruma on the Camino Inglés.
As we go along drinking in the scenery, the company of others or walking in splendid solitude, the benefits of pilgrimage become manifest. This is a simpler way of life with all we need carried on our backs. The walking is balm to the soul and every step seems to erase the cares of regular life at home. There are few decisions to be made. We follow the arrows which have been painted by other pilgrims, we sleep in albergues for small charge or donation, staffed by other volunteer pilgrims, we use guide books written by pilgrims and occasionally we come across people like Rebekah and Paddy or Carmen and many others who have dedicated their lives to developing a ministry of hospitality for pilgrims.

Because of all that is given by the routes and the people along them many pilgrims do give something back. They work as hospitaleros or become active in local Confraternities or Amigos groups. In Spain they walk the route re-painting arrows or plan re-routing when road or house building disrupts the Way. Some people fundraise to help support the albergues run by voluntary Confraternities of many nations such as the two provided by the Confraternity of St James in Rabanal and Miraz. For the albergue in Miraz the members of the Confraternity have raised £100,000 so far and in preparation for the vastly increased numbers in the Holy Year next year they wish to extend it to provide extra facilities. The Spanish authorities have come up with a grant but the members have to raise an additional £25,000 very quickly. Everyone can do something…walked a sponsored walk, have people round to dinner and charge them, just send some cash!

No matter what route is travelled everyone arrives at Santiago and to the Cathedral and the Pilgrims’ Office. I’ve written before about what goes on behind the green door at No 1 Rua de Vilar. This year about 125,000 or so pilgrims will arrive at this Office to have their pilgrims passports stamped for the last time and if they have walked at least 100 kms or cycled at least 200 kms they will be issued with a Compostela with their name written in Latin or a Certificate of Welcome.

In the Holy Year next year a conservative estimate is that at least 250,000 pilgrims will arrive in the Pilgrims’ Office – and they are asking for volunteers to help them. What is it like to do this? Well, I’ve worked there as a volunteer for a few weeks on and off and it is all remarkably simple.

The Office is open from 9 am to 9 pm – maybe more next year. During these 12 hours at peak more than 1500 pilgrims per day are received. It is relentless. In season pilgrims start queuing from 7 am and the wait can be 3 hours when the line is at its longest. (below)
So what do volunteers do? When a new volunteer starts there is some orientation – the layout of the office, introduction to the other staff and volunteers. Meet Eduardo and Mari the two coordinators – they work two shifts. Generally Eduardo works in the morning and Mari in the afternoon and evening.

The three main functions of the office are to: Issue compostelas, run the left luggage facility where pilgrims can leave rucksacks for 1 euro per day, provide general advice such as maps of Santiago and details of albergues etc.

Volunteers are allocated a mentor, a more experienced member of staff. There is a short introduction to the IT system and everyone has a terminal which is part of the office net work. At 9 am the doors open and the pilgrims arrive.

“Siguente” is a familiar word…”next please” and the pilgrims come forward to whoever is free along the line of the counter. Over half of the pilgrims speak Spanish and everyone knows how to say hello so the routine is very simple. Either in Spanish or in sign language the pilgrim is asked for their credencial or pilgrim record – most simply hand it over automatically. Some also offer their identity cards or national passports too. Whilst not necessary I find these really helpful in reading what can be complex names to British eyes.
The pilgrim is asked to fill in a form…name, age, gender, nationality, for the Spanish which Autonomia or local authority area in which they live, their point of departure and whether they have travelled for spiritual reasons, spiritual or others reasons or not spiritual reasons. What they write has to be recorded on the computer but after a little practice it is possible to fill in the computer file as they write. This is not as difficult as it sounds. It is helpful to know how to ask where they are from: De donde eres? With a supplementary Que autonomia? So too is it important to identify the route. Often the Credencial states the starting point. Quickly you will begin to recognise the sellos and also the order in which they should be for the last 100 kms of all of the routes. It is a great help that the majority of pilgrims have walked the 5 days from Sarria.

After the pilgrim fills in the form the details are finalised on the computer and you look up their name in Latin – there is a computer programme to help with this and lists on each desk with the most common names. A little conversation helps as you do all of this. I usually ask “where did you start” “how many days did you walk?” “ how was your Camino?” Pilgrims aren’t used to doing things in a hurry. They want to linger and to talk. Let them talk – it is their moment. Our own pilgrimages are irrelevant! Spanish names can be complicated and often I have to ask “how do you spell it please” or ask them to write their name on a piece of paper in block capitals. Having filled in the Compostela or Certificate, offer congratulations, provide them with a map of the city or whatever else they wish.

Finally on a piece of paper you will record: Roncesvalles – 1 from Canada, 1 from Japan, 2 from Burgos etc. These lists are compiled to form the master list read out at the beginning of each Pilgrims’ Mass. Then…”Siguente”. And you do the same thing again. And again.
Often pilgrims ask complex questions or have problems. The permanent staff of the pilgrims such as Pilar and Rosa (above) office speak Spanish and Gallego and often at least one or two other languages or enough of them to communicate. They will always be ready and willing to help you.

A very few pilgrims are difficult. Some are tired and impatient after waiting for a long time. Others tick the box for “non spiritual reasons” and still want a Compostela. Some have stopped before Santiago: “I walked 300 kms to Leon, why can’t get a Compostela?” It needs to be patiently explained that the pilgrimage is to Santiago – not to Leon!

The there are the “trampas”, the cheats. It surprised me to find there are some. Credenciales with impossibly long distances allegedly walked between places or sellos from different routes amalgamated into one. Bus tourists often chance their luck to see if they can get a Compostela. The staff of the Pilgrims’ Office take their guardianship of the Compostela very seriously. I must admit to being a little more philosophical and try to find a reason to issue the Compostela than reason not to!

Then there is work in the background – preparing the Tubos – the tubes which people buy to hold their Compostela as an alternative to having them laminated in the shop downstairs. Often people ask about accommodation or for information on the route to Finisterre. They are referred to the two Tourist Office further down the street.

There is great camaraderie in the office. This can be monotonous work. But the staff support each other and have great fun. You will be joining a good team.

Working in the office is amongst the most rewarding things I have every done. There are very poignant moments as the last stamp is applied – “ Mira, el ultimo sello” “Look the last stamp” I frequently say often to be met with a tear or far-away look.

There is a downside. You have to find and pay for your own accommodation in Santiago. It is still possible to get a single room with a shared bathroom for around 15 euros per night and there are now one or two private albergues which charge 12 euros for dorm accommodation. Add to that food and regular living expenses and long term volunteering could be quite expensive. But the Pilgrims’ Office welcomes people working for a few days. As yet they have not set a minimum number but I would have thought pilgrims prepared to spend at least 4 or 5 days in Santiago would be most welcome and would make a good contribution.

I’m going to try to be there quite a lot next year. See you there?


  1. Johnnie - the latest stats we've had (CSJ of SA) is that from 1stJanuary to the 30th of November this year the Pilgrims' Office issued 144,812 Compostelas and Certificatesm About 20,800 more than for the same period last year (124,055).

  2. Very tempting, Johnnie. We have been hospitaleros in Conques. In Santiago, wow...

  3. Yes, having my attention drawn to that last stamp was a special thing- it was a 'saying goodbye'- a recognition that all the weeks of walking were finished, and re-entry to 'ordinary life' was happening. I don't think my stamps from Sarria were even glanced at really.... the amount of time I had taken to walk from Le Puy- I was a slow dude- seemed to be enough. (Though there was the 12km on the Meseta I never walked, when Reb and Paddy picked me up- that bit of 'cheating' serves to stop me being a 'purist'!!!)

    I never realised you could help in the Pilgrim Office for just a short time- and I must say my lack of Spanish kind of holds me back. But in the 'five year plan' I hope to visit Santiago as a tourist- so maybe I can contact them at the Pilgrim Office to see if they need anyone then....