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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


Along 550-mile Camino de Santiago, volunteers maintain a hostel for those who make the journey

A refuge for pilgrims

Sunday, July 25, 2004

By Rebekah Scott, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

RABANAL DEL CAMINO, Spain -- I met him in April, deep in the mountains of northern Spain.
Through our long mornings together he cut through my crusty exterior and showed me the limits of my do-gooder dedication. He brought me to my knees, down to where the base of the constantly clogging Toilet No. 2 met the dormitory floor.
He always smelled good. He always got the job done.
His name was Don Limpio.
In English we call him "Mr. Clean."
Three weeks of scrubbing and cleaning as a volunteer caretaker at a Spanish pilgrim refuge is not what most people would call a vacation.
But we were dedicated to a cause, three strangers in a land we all loved. And April 13, 2004, found us in charge of the daily running of Refugio Gaucelmo.
By April 30, when we turned the place over to the next three volunteers, we found it hard to leave.
We'd found the agreeable medieval rhythm of Rabanal del Camino, a tiny village in the mountains of Spain's Leon Province. Refugio Gaucelmo, a nonprofit, no-frills overnight accommodation for hikers making a historic east-to-west hike across Spain, is run by a cooperative of English and Spanish Catholics. It's part of a loose-knit network of hostels strung across the Camino, most of them 8 to 20 miles apart. A day's walk.
Only one of the three of us -- a Scotsman named Frank Farrell -- was a practicing Catholic. But he, this American journalist and Paddy, the cranky English retiree, had one thing in common: We had all walked the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrim pathway that stretches 550 miles across northern Spain. Like most volunteers, we felt we'd done our time as Camino consumers. It was our time to be producers, to enable others to feel the magic that had captivated us in years past.
For a thousand years, popes, saints, the committed, convicts and curiosity-seekers have walked this westward path to venerate the supposed remains of the apostle James. These days the six-week hike from the French frontier to the shrine city of Santiago de Compostela has become a trek for the spiritually trendy. Travel magazines tout it as a destination for lovers of Romanesque architecture, rural cuisine, fine wine and New Age spirituality.
Since the mid-1980s the Camino has seen a massive resurgence as today's adventure travelers lace on hiking boots or bike shorts and discover its many charms.
Rabanal is about three-fourths of the way down the trail, and Gaucelmo was the first of three pilgrim hostels now serving visitors to the village. "Our" dormitory accommodated 24 people in steel bunk beds; A converted barn holds 14 more. One outstanding feature at Gaucelmo is that its bunks boast real inner-spring mattresses rather than the moldy foam pads found in many municipal accommodations. And we kept a set of fitted sheets on each bed -- laundered and line-dried sheets -- as well as a woolly blanket.
We were isolated there, 300 feet up a mountain. Rabanal is still barely past medieval in many ways. About 30 people live there year-round. Three decades ago the village was mostly ruins, all but abandoned. Today it has electricity and a few telephones, but still no Internet access or cable TV, and only sporadic cell phone service. Three bar/restaurants provide for the thirsty and hungry. In late summer the town often runs out of water.
Even though a stream of international visitors flows through nine months each year, Rabanal keeps its ancient rhythms. Its hours are sounded out by church bells and honking horns.
The bread man arrives each morning and blares his horn outside the tiny general store down Calle Real. Our Refuge has a standing order of three loaves, supplies for the next morning's simple breakfast. The bread is wonderful, throw-pillow-size loaves with leathery crusts and fluffy centers.
Maribel, the woman who runs the little store in the village, is a delight. After 13 years here, she is still somewhat of an outsider working her way into the community. On those days we missed the bread man, Maribel kept back a couple of loaves for us.
On Tuesdays we caught the market-day bus into Astorga, the nearest little city. The bus makes stops at two other nearby villages, and the 20-minute ride into Astorga is a high-speed, high-volume reunion as cousins, in-laws and old friends share a week's worth of news, gossip, spite and good humor. No one on the bus is younger than 60, but as the bus rocks down the two-lane road, they roam the aisle, kissing and patting and trading store coupons and snapshots. When they passed around candy, they made sure we got some, too.
We were los hospitaleros, special guests, coddled like clever children. Refugio Gaucelmo was integral in bringing Rabanal back to life, and it has the blessing of the local bishop. The ladies and gentlemen on the bus are ever aware of that. They kept a quiet eye on us and made sure we never did without.
Their interest was not just economic. Villagers along the Way have known for centuries that aiding pilgrims -- or the volunteers who host them -- may give them a leg up on their own eternal salvation.
The Camino is why Refugio Gaucelmo exists. Before 1991 there was no stopping place for travelers on the 30-mile mountain-pass pathway that links Astorga with Ponferrada, the next major pilgrim stop. Several new refuges have cropped up since then, and moribund villages have found new life from the pilgrims and tourists and their euros.
Refugio Gaucelmo is considered luxurious by Camino standards. It's a restored stone rectory, probably 200 years old, built in the classic Spanish style around a central courtyard. The hikers who arrived each afternoon gloried in our hot showers, concrete washtubs, fireplace, green lawn, clotheslines and clean sheets.
Gaucelmo also has a sterling reputation. Perhaps because they serve only short shifts at a time, Gaucelmo volunteers are consistently friendly and helpful. Accommodations and breakfast are free. Pilgrims pay only what they choose. Donations are collected in the box by the door. And after everyone was shooed away and we locked the gate at 8 a.m., we counted up the donativos.
Some groups we blessed for their generosity -- one day brought in 128 euros (today about $160), or about 6.50 per pilgrim. Other pilgrims, usually the ones most flowery in their thank-yous, we damned as lowdown cheapskates. Our worst day, which admittedly included a power outage at breakfast and an ill-timed hot water shortage, yielded a measly 4 euros per pilgrim.
The pilgrims we served were mostly middle-class and European, with a few Americans, Australians and the odd Japanese thrown in. Most of them spoke at least a few words of English, but we tried to greet most in their native tongue, just to see their eyes light up. We played CDs of Chopin or Duke Ellington, and sometimes they danced a few steps with us 'round the boom box. (We used Scottish jigs and reels to rouse them out of bed each morning.) Pilgrims are, mostly, good people -- strong, smart and fun-loving.
Some were clearly taxing their strength and endurance on the walk and were in physical pain. They welcomed a healing touch or an offer of aspirin or bandages.
Some found their long days of solitude and silence overwhelming and needed to talk. Others were using their walk to face down personal demons and wanted to be left alone.
Good hospitaleros catch on fast, and when time and traffic allow, they circulate, listen and watch their pilgrims. Not maitre d's, concierges or mother hens, they succeed by meeting people's needs.
That's why the Confraternity of St. James, the English group that runs Gaucelmo, insists that its volunteer hosts must first finish the Camino themselves. They must be in good physical shape, have some first-aid training and have a working grasp of Spanish. Other languages are considered helpful.
And so it happened that I provided translations in present-tense German. Paddy the Englishman did Spanish duty, while Frank the kilt-wearing Scotsman did a fine French.
Familiarity with basic bookkeeping, plumbing, muscle massage and international diplomacy proved more vital than language as the daily tide of pilgrims came and went, a blizzard raged, spring arrived, and occasional groups of cheapskate tourists tried to weasel a free night's lodging.
Gaucelmo accepts only "legitimate" pilgrims traveling on foot; bicyclists are admitted only after most of the hikers have arrived. Organized, for-profit tour groups and those hiking with backup baggage-hauling vehicles are barred. We dealt with both types of groups, and not always with the utmost diplomacy.
The walled garden also lets Gaucelmo play host to pack and companion animals: we looked after dogs, donkeys, horses and a miniature goat named Zazu who had accompanied her hostess on the walk all the way from Brittany and still had the spunk to butt heads.
The daily chores divided themselves equally among the three of us: bathrooms, beds, fireplace, floors, laundry and bookkeeping. The place was usually sparkling clean by 10:30 a.m., and we sometimes locked up and took our own hikes over the shepherds' paths that crisscross the mountain.
Wildflowers bloomed in our second week. We hiked up to Foncebadon, the next stop on the Camino. There we found Helma, an untrained volunteer from Stuttgart who was working the refugio alone and struggling mightily with languages.
We persuaded her to lock up and come to the bar for a coffee. While we were there, Patrick translated the barman's excited Spanish news into English, which I put into German. Helma had become a first-time grandmother that morning, to a little girl named Elena!
Atop the mountain in three languages we cried joyful tears with her, toasted her grandchild's good health with the barman's most champagne-like vintage, and snapped photos for posterity.
Paddy and Frank soon went back to open Gaucelmo, but I stayed behind to help Helma rebook her airline tickets and find a midnight train to Madrid, using a scratchy satellite telephone connection and a champagne-fueled gift of tongues.
Through the afternoon the pair of us ran the tiny Foncebadon hostel, checking in pilgrims and stirring up soup for their dinners. Helma chattered away in German, periodically bursting into tears. I understood only snippets, but we hugged like sisters in the tiny kitchen.
When the afternoon ended and Helma's replacement arrived, we said goodbye and headed down opposite sides of the mountain. I sang as I strode down the path to Rabanal, frightening lizards off the rocks.
I was not able to remember the last time I'd sung just for happiness.
Aside from the CDs we had brought from home, there was little music to be heard in Gaucelmo. But four years ago, a group of three young Benedictine priests came to town. Each had heard God's call while walking the Camino, and their German motherhouse decided to take a chance on outreach along the growing Way of St. James.
Today, the brothers live in a fine little monastery next door to Gaucelmo. They've restored the abandoned parish church, and hired Vladimir, the silent man who provides the town with fresh poultry and eggs, to keep the clock in the belfry wound. Now two sets of bells toll each hour: first the monastery, then the church, in case you didn't count the peals the first time.
Most beloved of the pilgrims is the four-times-daily worship these priests provide. Like generations of monks before them, they sing each service in Gregorian chant, passing the Psalm books back and forth to each other across the altar. In time for each Evensong we'd find a pilgrim from each language present -- usually German, French, Spanish, or English, and one day Norwegian -- to read the day's Scripture passages to the packed house.
Guests at the refugio often loved to be helpful. An Austrian carpenter turned over a kitchen table and fixed its wobbly base, then sat in the garden and reconnected each un-sprung clothespin. The following morning he spent an hour helping a handicapped Brazilian repair a worn-out wheel on his homemade, drag-behind luggage cart.
Accomplished cooks created delicious camp cuisines in our simple kitchen and shared with all comers. Other pilgrims were just "neatniks." I was often asked for a mop so some volunteer could clear the flooded showers. Dominic, an Italian youth with a sick stomach, insisted on swabbing down a toilet stall with disinfectant. "Only so no other one might catch my bacterias," he said.
I introduced him to Mr. Clean.
They were appreciative, our pilgrims -- at least most were.
As the only female host, I received most of the compliments for our collective housekeeping, as if I'd done it all myself. Frank, the Scottish charmer, won kisses from the ladies for his hearty hospitality. Paddy, eventually nicknamed "Iron Man," was furtively handed money, or stood a brandy at Antonio's bar. When the propane vendor phoned, he asked for "Patricio, the only one who knows what he's doing up there."
Our three weeks flew past, just like a "real" vacation.
When I caught the bus out of town the final time, Frank stood on the platform with our replacements, a friendly Welsh couple. They blew kisses. I tried not to shed my tears.
I kissed my fingers to wave back, and smelled that familiar, clean scent: Don Limpio.
He hadn't broken my heart, but he did strip the skin from my fingers.
When time allows, I'll take up with him again -- maybe long-term.
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