As I boarded a plane for Orlando, Florida one day, and again as I got off the plane, I spoke to a man who resides in Orlando and works in Montreal. Our first conversation was typical chitchat. Our second was dynamic, far-reaching, and quite extraordinary. This is the thing about solo travel. If I had not been alone, I would never have had such a conversation.
During our talk, Rick told me about cycling El Camino de Santiago in Spain in 2009. He then told a followup story about going back to volunteer on the Camino – a great solo travel activity. He has kindly agreed to share a missive he sent back home with us here.
Closing Field Report of Rick Baldwin from Rabanal del Camino, Spain
To refresh, I have served for the past 15 days as a volunteer hospitalero in Albergue Guacelmo located along El Camino de Santiago, at Rabanal del Camino, Spain. The job of the four volunteer hospitaleros (Bob, Rowena, Chard, & Rick) stationed here is to man the albergue 24/7 during their duty weeks – attending to whatever comes up. Pilgrims of El Camino de Santiago have been walking this trail, for multiple personal reasons, since about 920AD and they continue today.
Because our duty ends tonight at midnight, we are departing the first thing in the morning and all heading back home. I find myself sad to leave but feeling fulfilled.
Volunteering on El Camino
Albergue Guacelmo is a ‘donativo’ facility, where pilgrims give what they can to cover the cost of their stay. It contains 44 beds, and is occupied exclusively each evening by ‘pilgrims’ walking El Camino de Santiago the 600ish miles from Roncesvalles (in far north-eastern Spain) to Santiago de Compostela (in far north-western Spain). Staffing the place means getting up each morning at 6:00 am, serving breakfast from 6:30 to 7:30, and then swabbing, sweeping, mopping, and otherwise cleaning the whole place out.
Next, because pilgrims may stay for only one night, a new crop of them arrives by foot each afternoon at 2:00 pm and the work begins again. In the afternoons and evenings, we checked them in, doctored their feet, conducted a group stretching class, served afternoon tea, helped them prepare their dinners, listened to their stories – and then herded them to bed by no later than 10:30 pm.
Most pilgrims are carrying what are named ‘sorrow stones.’ Those stones, usually small and carried from back home have been carried by pilgrims since time and memoriam. The stones generally represent a great and irreconcilable burden (or sorrow) in a person’s life – that needs to be ‘laid down,’ and not picked back up.
The practice of laying down one’s sorrows in the form of sorrow stones is especially important here at Rabanal del Camino because they will be laid down at Cruz de Ferro, the highest place along El Camino – and about two hours’ walk from our front door.
While I heard many stories about the origin of people’s stones, the most poignant came from a woman from Hamburg. She told me that she was 45 years old, married with a good husband and a good job, but finds herself, to her great sorrow, childless. It also seems that she has finally accepted that she will never bear her own child – and will therefore at long last release, tomorrow at the Cruz de Ferro, the extreme personal melancholy she has carried because she is barren. In the place of her sorrow she will, upon her arrival back home, begin tutoring young children who are struggling to learn to read – as a volunteer – and those students will become her own.
She wept in silence when telling me her story. I held her hand. My judgment that night was that she was ready to at last lay her heavy yoke aside. I was pleased for her.
Conversations like this, and personal stories like these, are what have made this a rich experience for us.
We had one near emergency: after four days on the job, my supply of clean clothes was exhausted – and I thought I was going to have to do my own laundry. But thankfully, Rowena tired of my whining, agreed to throw them into the washer for me – and disaster was averted.
I came here because my sister told me I needed to scrub more toilets in my life, and in the process, become more humble. I have surely scrubbed toilets for the last two weeks. I will hope to have become more humble.